Over six hundred years ago, a boy by the name of Thomas Hammerlein was born in the Prussian town of Kempen on the Rhine, some forty miles north of Köln. At the age of twenty, he entered the Monastery of St. Agnes, and for the next seventy years lived the quiet life of a monk. His family name was forgotten and he was called by the town from which he came: "Thomas from Kempen". We know him today as Thomas á Kempis, and the only reason we remember him is that he wrote a book. It is small, as books go, containing only 170 pages in the Harvard Classics, but it ranks with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the Confessions of Augustine as one of the three most popular writings on Christian devotion. The name of this little book is The Imitation of Christ. Thomas á Kempis says in his book that every Christian should be engaged in the business of being an imitator of Jesus Christ. Very simply, he says that we can read our Bibles and recite our creeds and attend our services, but all these are beside the point if they do not lead us to emulate the life of our Lord Jesus.
That we are to imitate the Lord Jesus Christ is taught over and over in Scripture:
Ephesians 5:1-2 (NKJV) Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.
1 Peter 2:21 (NKJV) For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps:
1 Corinthians 11:1 (NKJV) Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.
Merely to say, however, that the main business of the Christian is to imitate Christ does not settle the matter. It is too vague.
It would be more helpful if we went further and examined the life of Christ to see what positive suggestions it offers. In the Gospels we have a series of vignettes, little pictures of our Lord. Emil Ludwig says somewhere that "the anecdote best defines the personality." If you take a look at the anecdotes about Christ in the Gospels, you will discover certain guiding principles. Take these principles and list them--one, two, three--and you have virtues that are ours to imitate.
Fortunately, scholars and students of the Scriptures have taken the trouble to reconstruct from the life and teaching of Christ, four standards of conduct from which he never once allowed himself to deviate.
When we discover the results of their studies, we have a practical guide to the imitation of Christ, and the words of Peter take on a definite meaning: "For Christ left you an example, and you must follow in his footsteps."
What, then, is that example?
1. PRACTICE PURITY AT ALL TIMES
You can appreciate the absoluteness of this test when you apply it to Christ in the form of a question: Was Jesus ever impure? From what the Scriptures teach us of Him, you cannot imagine that he would ever entertain an unclean thought or consider an impure act.
Isaiah 53:9 (NKJV) And they made His grave with the wicked; But with the rich at His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth.
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NKJV) For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Hebrews 7:26 (NKJV) For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens;
1 Peter 2:22-23 (NKJV) "Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth"; 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously;
1 John 3:5 (NKJV) And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin.
Jesus Christ lived an absolutely pure life, he was sinless. This is the point that has caused the furor over The Last Temptation of Christ. Most people are not willing to entertain the possibility that Christ would have had any unclean thoughts. Here is a man who said "Which of you convicts Me of sin?" Here is a man who said "If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out!"
In short, purity of thought, speech, and action is a sure test of the imitation of Christ. He has left you an example and you must follow in his steps. His example was one of absolute purity.
Are we following His example? As believers we tend to adopt the attitude of our culture, we tend to accept the things that our culture accepts. How do we feel about sexual immorality?
"It's a private issue -- just don't let it interfere with your work," said Brandi Mashaw, a human resources administrator at iTRiBE, a 16-employee Internet software firm based in Norfolk.
Is it really a private issue? Are we to speak out against the sin of sexual immorality in our society?
At the Christian Broadcasting Network, if employees are caught having affairs, they are sent to counseling, spokeswoman Patty Silverman said.
By calling the sin of adultery an affair, we are lessening its heinousness. The Bible tells us that it is God's will that we live in sexual purity:
1 Thessalonians 4:1-7 (NKJV) Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; 2 for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. 7 For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness.
Illicit sex has a unique effect on a person's psyche. Dr. Max Leven, who is a urologist and psychiatrist in New York city, said, "I am among those who regard pre-marital chastity as the desirable ideal to hold up to our young people. As a physician I speak strictly from the standpoint of mental health." And he goes on to talk about the psychological stresses and the emotional disturbances that come from sustained sexual relationships outside marriage.
The dangers and harm of sexual sin are nowhere presented more vividly and forcefully than in the Proverbs. When we live an impure life, it costs us:
Proverbs 6:23-32 (NKJV) For the commandment is a lamp, And the law a light; Reproofs of instruction are the way of life, 24 To keep you from the evil woman, From the flattering tongue of a seductress. 25 Do not lust after her beauty in your heart, Nor let her allure you with her eyelids. 26 For by means of a harlot A man is reduced to a crust of bread; And an adulteress will prey upon his precious life. 27 Can a man take fire to his bosom, And his clothes not be burned? 28 Can one walk on hot coals, And his feet not be seared? 29 So is he who goes in to his neighbor's wife; Whoever touches her shall not be innocent. 30 People do not despise a thief If he steals to satisfy himself when he is starving. 31 Yet when he is found, he must restore sevenfold; He may have to give up all the substance of his house. 32 Whoever commits adultery with a woman lacks understanding; He who does so destroys his own soul (life).
Sexual immorality is a destructive sin that must be avoided. Jesus Christ lived a pure life and we are called to do the same. If we are going to imitate Christ, we must live a pure life no matter what our society is doing.
2. PRACTICE HONESTY AT ALL TIMES
Peter said of Christ: "Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth." Here, then, is an absolute standard. You can also test its absoluteness by expressing it in the form of a question: Was Christ ever dishonest? No, says Peter, he was not. And you bear witness to your recognition of that fact when you feel guilty for lying, or cheating, or stealing.
Romans 12:17 (KJV) Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
Honesty, then, in intention, in speech, and in action, is a sure test of the imitation of Christ.
A hotel manager in New York City provided this information: within a year's time his hotel lost ten thousand towels, sixteen hundred sheets, one hundred wool blankets, twelve hundred bath-mats, and two hundred pillow cases. No wonder it costs $180 a night to stay in a hotel room!
At the age of twenty-four, Abraham Lincoln served as the postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, for which he was paid an annual salary of $55.70.
Even then, twenty-four years before he entered the White House, the rail splitter was showing the character that earned him the title of "Honest Abe."
The New Salem post office was closed in 1836, but it was several years before an agent arrived from Washington to settle accounts with ex-postmaster Lincoln, who was a struggling lawyer not doing very well.
The agent informed him that $17 was due the government. Lincoln crossed the room, opened an old trunk, and took out a yellow cotton rag, bound with a string. Untying it, he spread out the cloth and there was the $17. He had been holding it untouched for all these years. "I never use any man's money but my own," he said.
As believers, we are to live honestly:
1 Timothy 2:2 (KJV) For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
Romans 13:13 (KJV) Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.
There are also subtle ways we fall short of this virtue of honesty. Taking credit for achievements or ideas that do not belong to us, letting someone else suffer for our wrong doings, and quoting someone's words out of context for the purpose of criticism are all forms of dishonesty.
A minister told his congregation, "Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. To help you understand my sermon, I want you all to read Mark 17." The following Sunday, as he prepared to deliver his sermon, the minister asked "How many of you took the time to read Mark 17 this week?" Every hand went up. The minister smiled and said, "Mark has only sixteen chapters. I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying."
Paul Harvey tells this story, "Four high school boys were late to their morning classes one day. They entered the classroom and solemnly told their teacher they were detained due to a flat tire. The sympathetic teacher smiled and told them it was too bad they were late because they had missed a test that morning. But she was willing to let them make it up. She gave them each a piece of paper and a pencil and sent them to four corners of the room. Then she told them they would pass if they could answer just one question: Which tire was flat???"
The following story was printed in "The Search Light:" Joe the butcher was closing the store one Saturday night when his best customer Mrs. Brown came in and asked for a nice roasting chicken. Joe put the last one he had on the scales. "It's 2 pounds 4 ounces - that will be $1.35." "That's too small," she answered, "do you have a larger one?" He went to the cooler and then returned with the same chicken. Weighing it, he said, "Just 3 pounds. That will be $1.80." Still not satisfied, his customer said, "I think I'll take them both!" Joe was speechless. He had been caught in a lie.
Dishonesty in any form is destructive. Honesty is more than the best policy. It is an absolute standard as part of the imitation of Christ.
Our design for living does not stop with purity and honesty. It proceeds to virtues that are more demanding.
3. PRACTICE KINDNESS AT ALL TIMES
Once more, you can test this standard by applying it to Christ in the form of a question: Was Christ ever unkind? That question answers itself. Here once again is something that is ultimate.
The word Jesus used most often was "love": "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love is going out of your way to help somebody. It is the Good Samaritan lending a helping hand to the needy traveler, visiting a sick friend in the hospital, writing a letter to a lonely person, or sending food to someone who is house-bound.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says, "Love is kind." Someone has said that you can take the word "Christ" and substitute it for the word "love" in this chapter and it will fit perfectly. "Love is kind," says Paul, and Christ is kind. They do fit exactly. If you translate love as kindness, you see how well the equal sign fits between love = Christ. They equal each other. So true is that fact that Peter wrote a biography of our Lord in five little words, he summed up the life of Jesus in this way: "He went about doing good." Once again, here is a word for us to take to heart.
I rather like the thing that was said about Sir Bartle Frere. He was a British nobleman who was expected for a speaking engagement in Surry. The chairman of the reception committee, wanting to know how he might recognize his guest at the railway station, was told, "If you see a tall gentleman helping somebody, he will be Sir Bartle."
What would it mean if it could always be said in truth: "If you see a man, or a woman, or a boy, or a girl helping somebody, they will be a Christian"?
It was a very busy night at a theater in Stockholm, and the hat-check girl was having a very trying time. There was a never-ending line of hands holding out wraps and hats which had to be tagged and put away. She worked steadily, automatically, without even bothering to look up at the faces. She had to hurry. It was nearly curtain time. A tall, elderly man put his hat and coat on the counter. Without even looking up she said, "That will be 25 øer" (It was a small amount, a few pennies). "I'm sorry, I haven't any money," the man replied gently. The girl was annoyed. What did he expect? "Well," she said shortly, "the price is the same, money or no." The man turned around and borrowed a coin from someone behind him. The girl looked up, only to recognize her customer as the King of Sweden! She was upset with herself, but equally impressed by his kindness and gentle manner, which inspired her confidence.
As believers, we are to be kind to all.
Ephesians 4:32 (NKJV) And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.
Colossians 3:12 (NKJV) Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering;
Galatians 5:22 (NKJV) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
We are to be kind to one another, we are to be good to each other, we are to be gracious to each other. Kindness is another virtue that exemplifies the Christian character. There is one more virtue:
4. PRACTICE FORGIVENESS AT ALL TIMES
I saved it for last because it seems to be the most difficult duty of all, and yet, it is the one most like Christ. This is the thing the apostle Peter seems to have in mind above all others when he tells us that Christ has left us an example and we should follow him. He says that if you do wrong and suffer for it and take it patiently, you do not deserve any credit; but if you do what is right and suffer for it and show patience, then you have God's approval. He proceeds to speak of the example left us by Christ, who, "when he was reviled . . . did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten...."
Here, then, is a final factor which is also ultimate, and which can be tested by the question: Was Christ ever unforgiving? Once again the question answers itself. In his teaching, Jesus told Peter that he was to forgive his enemies, not seven times, but seventy times seven.
Matthew 18:21 (NKJV) Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?"
Peter understood the tendency of man to fail, he knew it very well. So, he asks, "How many times do I have to forgive, seven times?" Seven times might not seem like much to you, but Peter was going way beyond the Jewish requirement. Rabbi Jose Ben Hanina said, "He who begs forgiveness from his neighbor must not do so more than three times" Rabbi Jose Ben Jehuda said, "If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the forth time they do not forgive." The Jewish Talmud said that a person was to forgive three times, and that's it. The Talmud contained rules and instructions by which, in addition to the Old Testament, the conduct of the Jewish nation was regulated. The Jews set so high a value on the Talmud, as to place it generally above the inspired Scripture. Kind of like some folks do today with church constitutions and doctrinal statements.
Peter must have felt he was really being big hearted to go beyond the tradition of the Jews. Peter was like so much of the Church today, just a few steps behind the world. We need to get our standards from God's Word, not from the world, or from tradition, or each other.
Matthew 18:22 (NKJV) Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
It would be hard to keep track of that many. That's the point, you're not supposed to keep track. He is not saying that you stop forgiving at 491. His answer is not to be taken literally! Jesus confronts Peter with the truth, that the spirit of forgiveness really knows no boundaries. He is saying, "Don't keep track." Forgiveness is the mark of a loving person. In 1 Corinthians 13:5, Paul says, "Love thinks no evil." The Greek verb for thinks is logizomai, it implies: "keeping a record." It is a bookkeeping term that means: "to calculate or reckon", as when figuring an entry in a ledger. Love doesn't keep records of the wrongs done. Do you know people who are keeping a record of everything that someone has done to hurt them? Why do they keep a record of wrongs done to them? So they won't forget the wrongs, so they will be sure that person gets the justice that is due them. There are times when it pays to have a bad memory.
In Polynesia, where the natives spend much of their time in fighting and feasting, it is customary for each man to keep some reminders of his hatred. Articles are suspended from the roofs of their huts, to keep alive the memory of their wrongs-real or imaginary. In the same way, many people nurse their hurts, they brood over wrongs done to them until it is impossible to forget them. But love does not keep a record of wrongs done, it is quick to forgive.
What Jesus taught, he also lived. When his enemies arrested him unjustly, and refused him a fair trial, and nailed him to the cross, he did not shake his fist in their faces and cry out in anger that he would get even with them. He forgave them and tried to find excuses for them.
Luke 23:33-34 (NKJV) And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. 34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." And they divided His garments and cast lots.
If you are serious about the imitation of Christ, you cannot harbor a grudge or nurse an injury. You will try to love your enemies, and do good to them that hate you, and pray for those who wrongfully use you. You will remember what Paul said, "Don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
If you want to know what that means, you can remember Henry Ward Beecher. They say that when Beecher lived in Brooklyn, New York, he had a neighbor who absolutely hated him; but the famous preacher had such a forgiving spirit that the man finally said thi, "If you want a favor from Beecher, you get the best results by kicking him."
Abraham Lincoln also lived out this injunction. One of Lincoln's earliest political enemies was Edwin M. Stanton. Fosdick points out that no one treated Lincoln with more contempt than did Stanton. He called him "a low cunning clown," he nicknamed him "the original gorilla," and said that Du Chaillu was a fool to wander about Africa trying to capture a gorilla when he could have found one so easily at Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln never responded to the slander. And when, as President, he needed a secretary of war, he chose Stanton. When his friends asked, "Why?" Lincoln responded, "Because he is the best man for the job." Lincoln treated Stanton with every courtesy. The years wore on. On the night of April 14, while attending a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, Lincoln was shot by assassin John Wilkes Booth. In the little room where the President's body was taken, stood that same Stanton, and, looking down on Lincoln's silent face, he said through his tears, "There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen." His animosity was finally broken by Lincoln's forgiving spirit.
Here, then, is a design for living; be pure and honest, kind and forgiving.
These qualities are not vague; they are as practical as the coin in your pocket and as real as your neighbor next door, and they are ultimate. Beyond them, you cannot go, and short of them, you must not stop. And if you practice them, you will be imitating the Lord Jesus Christ, and following in His footsteps.