Following Jesus also involves following his example. In the Upper Room, after washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet, For I have given you an example, that you should also do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14–15). The lesson Jesus was teaching is the importance of serving one another in humility of heart and of becoming servant leaders. This was a critically important lesson they had been slow to learn and washing their feet was an extraordinarily effective way of making the point. Sometimes, seeing a concrete example makes a greater impact on people than yet another statement of principle. This is but one instance of his example we are to imitate. A careful reading of the Gospels will reveal others.
It could rightly be asked, what is the value of simply following an example? Can’t that lead to a kind of external, works-oriented mentality? It can, if we are doing nothing more than external imitation. The key is our motive. If we are earnestly seeking to please Jesus out of love, it can awaken a new understanding and deeper appreciation of the act we are performing. We all know that our thoughts can lead us into taking action, and our feelings can lead into action as well. But we often don’t realize that our actions can lead us into a different way of thinking or feeling. Consider, for example, the suburbanite who volunteers in an inner-city soup kitchen out of a sense of duty or maybe guilt. Through the experience of getting to know the poor and their problems, a deep and genuine compassion can emerge that changes the volunteer’s motive for serving and transforms that person into a true servant of the poor. So it is with following the example of Jesus. It can change us inwardly and help us become in our hearts what we are doing with our hands.
Following Jesus, then, entails both obeying his teachings and imitating his example. But this is not the sum of the matter. For obeying and imitating are not ends in themselves but are means to a greater end. That end or goal of discipleship is to become like Jesus himself: to think as he thought, to feel as he felt, to act as he acted, desire what he desired. As John puts it, “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). Because Jesus is the image of God in human form (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1: 3), as we become more and more like him, the image of God is increasingly restored in our lives.
A key part of this process is gaining a clearer knowledge of Jesus as he is presented to us in Scripture. And a time-honored way of doing this is to consistently and prayerfully read the Gospels and reflect on the life and teaching of Jesus. As we immerse our minds and hearts in the gospels, two major defining characteristics of his life stand out with striking clarity: faith and love. Secure in the love of God and his own sonship, Jesus lived with an unshakable trust in his heavenly Father and wholehearted love for God and others. If we want to become like Jesus, faith and love must become defining characteristics of our lives, too.
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