In 1 Corinthians 11:1, we read that we are to imitate Paul, just as he imitated Christ. Could you elaborate further on this?


In the Q&A in Update 234 of March 10, 2006, the question of the first two verses in 1 Corinthians was discussed, and the conclusion was that “1 Corinthians 11:1 can, and must be taken at face value: We are to follow Paul or any other servant of God ONLY to the extent that he follows Christ.”

In this Q&A, let us look specifically at the meaning of “imitate”. “Mimetes” (pronounced mim-ay-tace) is the Greek noun to be translated as “imitator” (see Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries). The Greek verb, which means “to mimic” or “to imitate”, is “mimeomai” (see Young’s Analytical Concordance).

Note the different translations of 1 Corinthians 11:1:

The Authorized Version (old King James Bible) says “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.”

The New King James states: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”

Moffatt says: “…copy me.”

The Living Bible says: “…and you shall follow my example, just as I follow Christ’s.”

The 20th Century New Testament says: “Imitate me, as I myself imitate Christ.”

The New English Bible says: “Follow my example as I follow Christ’s.”

Also, 1 Corinthians 4:16 states: “Therefore I urge you, imitate me”.   The word for “imitate” is again a translation of the Greek noun “mimetes”,  which is used altogether seven times in the New Testament. The Greek verb “mimeomai” is used four times.

And so, judging based on the different translations, the words “follow” and “imitate”, as well as “follower” and “imitator,” seem to be interchangeable – but are they?

The Dictionary definitions are as follows:

“Follow” is defined as, “go after as an admirer; strive after; aim at”.

“Imitate” is defined as, “mimic: try and get as close to the real thing as possible; impersonators”.

In 2 Timothy 2:14, we read; “Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers”.  Even though we are not to strive about words, translating words correctly with their full intent and meaning is important.

Therefore an imitator, by definition, gets as close to the original as possible.  And that must include fruits.

There are many so-called followers of Jesus Christ, but they want to do their own thing. They twist and turn when it comes to imitating Christ – as one UK celebrity once said that “he gave his heart to the Lord and he didn’t have to change anything!”   He would have considered himself to be a follower of Christ. But he certainly didn’t imitate Christ because he kept doing what he was doing before, and that certainly wasn’t keeping the Sabbath, the Holy Days and God’s Law.  However, we have to imitate Christ – we must get as close to Christ’s actions and Way of Life as we possibly can.

In Luke 4:16 we read of the time when, as the sub-heading states ”Jesus was rejected at Nazareth”:  “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.”                   

Now if the world’s Christianity was mimicking Paul (who was himself a Sabbath keeper), they would be mimicking Christ who kept the Sabbath. Paul said to “imitate me as I imitate Christ”. However, most of Christ’s followers keep Sunday today and are therefore not mimicking or imitating His (and Paul’s) actions. They follow as they see it, but they don’t see the need to do precisely as Christ did.

Likewise, in John 7:37-38 we read of Jesus keeping the last day, that great day of the feast, speaking of the Last Great Day or the Eighth Day, immediately following the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles: “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”  

If we imitate Christ, we will keep the annual Feast Days, as He did—and as Paul did as well (For more information, please read our free booklet, “God’s Commanded Holy Days”). As we know, many “followers” ignore this and do what is right in their own sight. But imitators can’t.

It also precludes us from imitating a man – or men – whose fruits are not good. We should not ever follow such a man.  

Today, people, modern icons, personalities, politicians, pop stars, sportsmen and women and even church leaders can and do have a following—and many times, people even try to imitate their conduct and behavior–but breaking the first and second commandments can loom large in their lives if they are not careful.

But why did Paul say to imitate him as he imitated Christ? It is easier to imitate a physical example than just reading about it; examples are seen and then imitated.   A good impersonator will be difficult to tell from the real person if the imitation is very good.   And that’s how we should be in relation to the way we imitate Jesus Christ.   Examples are important and they can be good or bad.   So it was perhaps easier for the disciples of Paul’s day to imitate a physical example (Paul) than just reading or hearing about the great example of Jesus Christ, and that is probably why Paul said to imitate him as he imitated Christ.

But if any leader says, “follow me as I follow Christ”, and he is very deficient in some areas, it can be distracting and some can get mixed up.   Conduct – the fruits of a person’s life – is all part of doctrine.

We read in 1 Timothy 1:8-10:  “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.”           

Here it describes actions, the way we behave, what we do, and it says, “if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine”.   So conduct or behaviour is part of doctrine, and if therefore any person’s conduct or behaviour is unacceptable (like lying, stealing, committing adultery, being a drunkard, etc.), then he is going contrary to sound doctrine, and we shouldn’t try to imitate him. We should not even follow him. The true imitation of Christ can be lost in the poor example of a human being, with other human beings not being able to discern as they should.

So we need to know – and be sure – what Scripture says and imitate any leader only according to revealed Scriptural instruction and not even follow him, when he adds on any unbiblical unnecessary, unwanted, unwarranted or personal additions or baggage.

The Christian life, as revealed in the Bible, is one of overcoming and growing spiritually toward the goal of being spiritually mature like Christ. God expects us, as Spirit-begotten Christians, to be developing more and more of the very character of Christ as we learn to imitate His Way of Life.

To imitate means to get as close to the original as possible. It indicates being skin-tight. To follow is a much looser term and whilst it can be correct and necessary in many ways (compare Matthew 4:19; Mark 8:34; 1 Peter 2:21), the word “imitate” includes “following” Christ, but it is much more all-encompassing. To imitate is to do everything Christ did and wants us to do according to His perfect example. So this is not striving after words but making sure that we fully understand the difference and take to heart that the original meaning of the Greek word “mimetes” is to be an imitator of Christ. And that is much more critical than just being a “follower”.

That is why imitator is the correct translation of “mimites,” and this is vital. Otherwise, it could slightly lead us off track. We are not just to follow, but also to imitate–always with Christ and the written Word of God as our focus.

Lead Writers: Brian Gale (United Kingdom) and Norbert Link

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