Christlike: Imitation or Embodiment?

There’s a lot of talk about being Christlike in the church. This is a good thing. We hear of Christlike mission, Christlike service, Christlike priorities, Christlike preaching, Christlike everything really.

Like I said, this is a good thing. We are meant to be striving towards Christlikeness, each day becoming more and more like Jesus.

The big question we need to work out is this: what does it mean to be Christlike?

Imitators of Christ

I think a lot of the prevailing thinking is that we should copy Jesus. We should study the example of his life and seek to adopt his practices for our own lives. It’s what we see in the whole WWJD movement (which is wonderful), always asking ourselves what Jesus would have done in a particular situation.

There is definite merit here, and I believe this to be an important part of Christlikeness, but there are inherent weaknesses. The main one is that there are all sorts of situations we face which Jesus either couldn’t have faced or just didn’t.

How am I to be a Christlike dog-owner? (This may seem a silly question, but if I am seeking genuinely to surrender my whole life to God’s ways and his kingdom, then nothing is not a part of that, including our little Ralph.) It’s a questions the Gospels cannot answer – Jesus didn’t have pets.

So this idea of copying often ends up getting qualified something like this: “Being Christlike means acting as Christ did when we are faced with the situations He faced, and in the rest we must just try to be more ‘like’ Him.”

This is easy when it comes to teaching – we uphold the Bible, but open up its life-giving message in ways that are creative, engaging and enticing. It’s easy when it comes to leadership – we love and serve those we are leading, seeking to release them into all God has for their life and ministry. It’s easy a lot of the time, but there are massive gaps. And can we better define being ‘like’ Him please?

Embodiment of Christ

I have another idea. It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for years, and I want some thoughts! (I very much doubt it is original, but I’ve never seen it expressed this way before. If you know that someone has, please point me their way.)

The fundamental flaw, I believe, in just trying to copy Jesus life during the three year ministry He had is that we can forget He wasn’t just a great guy to be more like. He is the Son of God who became human in order to live that life. He is the Son of God who willingly died in order to win His great victory over sin and death. He is the Son of God who rose again bodily, displaying great power and showing His enemies to be powerless.

The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are the things which truly define Him, not His parables or His humility. Without these three things – each totally earth-shattering in their own right – the rest of His ministry couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened. Each was necessary.

My thoughts is that it is these parts of Jesus which we should try to embody in our lives, not just his activities that we should imitate.

We must be incarnate – entering into the lives of others and coming alongside, not keeping our distance and looking down on the world that so desperately needs our help. We must be crucified – not accepting the world’s ways of working (who dies to win?), but surrendering our whole lives to God’s kingdom, dying to ourselves. We must be resurrected – that death to ourselves must lead to a new and vibrant life, one that is defined by resurrection power, enabled by the Spirit, to live within God’s plans and purposes, His will not ours, all things we can never do if ruled by our old selves instead of by Him.

And this is where it gets interesting. What if instead of saying we need to do X like Jesus, we say that in everything we do, including X, we must seek to be incarnate, crucified and resurrected. Not one in this scenario and another in another. All three, all the time, in everything. I believe that’s what Jesus was like – everything He did was marked by the humility of the incarnation, the surrender of the crucifixion and the power of the resurrection.

That way, if we’re doing something Jesus Himself did, then great – we can see how He was all those things and try to embody them too. If we are trying to own a dog or do things He never did, we can still ask the same question.

Is this a better way?

What do you think? Is this better? Worse? Actually the same, but with different words? I personally think this is more demanding, and it leaves us no excuse for not being Christlike in any situation. But it also opens up a wonderful and beautiful opportunity for us to follow Him more and more of the time.

I think a lot of this needs fleshing out – defining more clearly these three ideas of being incarnate, crucified and resurrected will be important. I plan to blog more into these ideas, but I would really value your thoughts. I sense that Christlikeness is a pretty important thing, so worth wrestling with what it means and what it looks like.

Also, anyone got any ideas about Christlike dog ownership?

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  • Graham Criddle

    Hi David
    Fascinating post – some really good insights here.
    Paul, on several occasions, calls on people to imitate him as he imitates Christ. In general, Paul’s emphasis seems to be on the crucifixion, although he does refer to the resurrection in this context as well in Philippians 3:10.
    He focuses less on teaching about the need to be incarnate but his life is a witness to it.
    Do you have access to the IVP “Dictionary of Paul and His Letter”? The section on “Imitation of Paul / of Christ” has something useful to say here (but nothing about dog ownership!)

    • Dave Criddle

      Thanks Dad! A speedy reply as ever – but I guess you only work Sundays…

      Those are some useful thoughts. This is something I’m hoping to think on and flesh out a bit more, to see if it does prove to have any value. I feel it could be a useful framework in developing decent discipleship. So your comments are useful as I try to do that.

      I do have that book (in paper format – how old fashioned…) and will definitely be looking up that article. Ralph will have to wait.

  • Mel Criddle

    Dave this is great. I have never thought of it in this way before! I would like to see what those things mean, cause I am finding it hard to apply them to more mundane every day concepts eg. taking the bus to work. Eating. I dont know. But would love to see you flesh it out!

    I think its hard when youre talking about relationships too- which is what dog ownership is really.

    • Graham Criddle

      Hi Mel

      In a group this morning (so David, not just working on Sundays!) we have just been discussing the importance of the right relationship with God and one of the things we reflected on was the way in which God graciously took the initiative to restore the relationship with Him which we had broken.

      Maybe this has something to say about the way we act towards others when they have harmed or hurt us.

      Just one example – but if we were to look at the way in which Jesus related to others as told in the Gospels that might give us some good guidance on how we should approach our relationships.

  • James

    Good post. I’ve had problems with whole WWJD thing for a while. ‘Start a traveling teaching and healing ministry while never giving a straight answer to questions’ is rarely helpful.

    On a pedantic note, how long was Jesus public ministry?

    • Dave Criddle

      Thanks James (though, out of interest, which James are you…? I have suspicions, but I know many. A surname initial would do!).

      Love your comment! Yes, to literally do what Jesus did would seem a silly idea. That said, the word ‘would’ seems to me to indicate ‘What would jesus do if He were in my situation?’ which is a good question to ask (another would be ‘Would He be in my situation to begin with?’). This post is hoping to be the beginning of a way of approaching exactly that question. I think the question is good, just the way it is often answered that’s weaker.

      Was it not roughly three years? Little less, maybe?

  • Matthew Bryant

    Boom! I bet this felt like a real inspiration moment! Great stuff mate. What this does brilliantly is give a tangible framework to ask ‘what would Jesus do’? That question can (like so much church teaching) seem impossibly abstract. What would Jesus do? How the chuff do I know?! However, using the principles you just gave we may well be able to answer it.

    • Dave Criddle

      Thank you Matt! These ideas have been floating around for ages, and it’s good to get some encouragement that they may be helpful.

      ‘How the chuff do I know?!’ – brilliant!! I may have to quote you on that one.

      I’ll be aiming to flesh out these ideas a little, so watch this space!

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