Should You Preach Moral Lessons from Biblical Stories?
Twenty years ago I was driving with a friend when he asked me a Bible trivia question that shook my theological paradigms: “What does Paul explicitly say that he teaches ‘everywhere in every church’?” I didn’t know the answer. I knew that “first importance” topics certainly would have been taught by Paul “everywhere in every church”: Jesus’ death for sinners according to the Scriptures, his resurrection from the dead, and his status as Davidic king (1 Cor. 15:3–4; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rom. 1:3–4). On the basis of 1 Corinthians 2:2, I thought that “the cross of Christ” might be the answer.
But none of these answers were correct.
“IMITATE ME AS I IMITATE CHRIST”
Instead, we find the answer in 1 Corinthians 4:8–17. In that passage Paul reminds the Corinthians that he teaches his “ways in Christ . . . everywhere in every church.” This passage carries enormous import for our preaching, teaching, and pastoring. It reflects Paul’s consistent pattern of holding out his own dramatic résumé as a model for others (2 Cor. 4:7–10; 11:21–12:10). “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1) is the mic-drop moment in the lengthy idol meat discussion (1 Cor. 8:1–11:1). This call to imitate is the summation of Paul’s ethical reasoning. We can let go of what is rightfully ours for the sake of others, just as Jesus did, just as Paul did.
Paul regularly offers himself and Jesus as countercultural blueprints for congregations tempted to construct their lives according to the pattern of the world. Paul crucifies his comfort; they must crucify sin. God in Christ welcomed you; they can welcome other brothers and sisters across ethnic or theological lines. Paul takes on the yoke of travel, prison, diligent prayer, and angst for his congregations; his congregations must suffer through the hard work of spiritual discipline.
Paul also holds out others as examples. Paul is sending them Timothy, his “faithful son.” Translated from ancient discipleship language, this nomenclature means that he is a true copy of his teacher. He will not only teach Paul’s ways; he can live them. Later in the Corinthian correspondence he holds up the generosity of the Macedonians as an example for them (2 Cor. 8:1–5). He wants the Philippians to imitate others who walk as Paul walks, not claiming their own righteousness but looking to the Messiah. The Thessalonians are commended as “imitators of us and of the Lord,” and they have become models for other believers (1 Thess. 1:6–7).
WRONG WAYS TO THINK ABOUT IMITATION
My friend’s pop quiz triggered my inner Berean and spurred me to revisit the Scriptures in the years that followed to explore the role imitation plays in Christian discipleship and proclamation. I’ve often asked Robby’s question of my students, and they’ve had no more success than I. “Stump the seminarian” might seem like a rather banal game to play, but thankfully my students often had their curiosity stoked like mine. As I’ve asked them this question over the years, even those steeped in the Scriptures don’t know the answer, in part because imitation has been downplayed or altogether ignored by conservative expositors who recoil at its misuse.
Indeed, many people view Jesus and other biblical characters merely as examples. As a young Christian, I attended a liberal arts college where Jesus was, at most, an exemplar of love and tolerance. I recently had the privilege of getting to know a pastor who has worked in his city for more than two decades. This brother has toiled in counsel, preaching, evangelism, and discipleship for many decades. But as we discussed his typical preaching strategies, it became clear that we have very different strategies for our sermons, and that his need to deliver practical instruction dominates his approach to proclamation. Under such pressure, “Jesus as a model” can squeeze “Jesus as Savior” to the margins.
On the other hand, in response to such approaches I sometimes hear pastors downplay or even denigrate imitation. One popular pastor formerly in my denomination argued that “Jesus and Jesus alone is the Good Samaritan,” and we are not given the parable to imitate the character or be instructed in behavior that Jesus wants. There’s at least one problem with this: Jesus disagrees (Luke 10:37). Surely if Paul, the apostle of grace, thinks this highly of imitation, our preaching and teaching are sub-Pauline if imitation is not a prominent feature. The solution is not to jettison imitation but to look again at Scripture, letting Scripture’s own interpretation guide our proclamation.
GUARDRAILS FOR PREACHING IMITATION
As we look to Scripture, we can discern a few hermeneutical handrails.
First, a theology of imitation should begin not with Jesus and other characters but with the imitation of God, who made humans to look like him.
The imitation of God’s holiness and care bridges the ethics of the Old and New Testaments (Lev. 11, Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:16; 1 Jn. 2:29; 3:3). If we anchor the imitation of Jesus and other biblical characters in the imitation of Israel’s God, we’re better positioned to move beyond the dead-end of merely being nice like a liberal Jesus, or taking an overly literal, rote approach to imitation. We can and should emphasize the beautiful “loving-kindness” (chesed) of Ruth and Boaz as characters worthy of imitation, but not without pointing to the God whose “loving-kindness (chesed) they were imitating.
Just as God designed humanity to be like him, he saves humanity for the same end. As Calvin writes, “The goal of our regeneration is that we may be like God, and that his glory may shine forth in us” (Calvin Commentaries Col. 3:9–10).
Secondly, many uses of imitation in Scripture are less than explicit.
Because the mimetic purpose of literature is no longer as obvious as it was in previous generations, faithful expositors must help their audiences draw appropriate inferences from the text. Paul’s frequent autobiographical comments are intended to have mimetic impact. The four references to his suffering and imprisonment in Ephesians, for instance, seem to say: “I’m in prison, and you likewise should be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel.” Matthew’s Gospel repeatedly shows Jesus modeling obedience to his own commands, but the distance between the commands and his obedience means that such connections won’t be clear unless interpreters link them.
Third, imitation must be properly defined.
At a popular level, imitation is sometimes understood as rote copying: wearing sandals, growing a beard, having twelve disciples. Perhaps this is why imitation often falls by the wayside. We fail to see Phineas as a zealous believer to imitate because we know that we cannot run anyone through with a spear (Num. 25:6–11; cf Ps. 106:29–31). But when we define imitation as the replication of patterns and directions rather than precise duplication, zeal for purity and holiness can be imitated even if our weapons are spiritual rather than physical (Rom. 12:8; Rev. 3:19). As Kevin Vanhoozer surmises, “Mimēsis is not about making exact copies. Jesus’ person and work are singular, unique, and thus unrepeatable. The Christian vocation is rather that of creative imitation, a nonidentical participation in the missions of the Son and Spirit” (The Drama of Doctrine, 401, emphasis his).
In the spirit of creative imitation, Mark famously records three passion predictions. What is rarely recognized by interpreters is that the paragraph or pericope following each of those predictions sheds light on the cross-shaped path of Christian discipleship:
Jesus’ cross and sacrifice: 8:31–33 9:30–32 10:32–34
Disciples’ cross-shaped response: 8:34–38 9:32–35 10:35–45
For the Gospel writers, imitation is not about Peter walking on water in imitation of Jesus so much as living after the pattern of Jesus’s life of trust, obedience, and sacrificial love. Augustine came to a similar conclusion: “What is walking as Jesus walked? Walking upon the sea? No, it is walking in the way of righteousness . . . the way of charity.” (Augustine, First Homily on I John).
An objection sometimes raised is that the biblical characters are a mix of good and bad and are therefore not really heroes. But failure and ambiguity don’t prevent characters from functioning as examples. Abraham was a profound sinner, but he still illustrates faith that justifies (Rom. 4), inherits and sojourns (Heb. 11), and works (Jas. 2). The books of 1 and 2 Kings focus on the errors that lead to the exile, while 1 and 2 Chronicles acknowledge sin and judgment but place the accent on the success of God’s people in worship, repentance, and prayer. The same character can be both a model to follow and an example of what befalls us in unbelief and disobedience. Don’t be like Manasseh (2 Kgs. 21:1–18). Be like Manasseh (2 Chron. 33:1–20).
Another common objection is that emphasizing imitation obscures the gospel. To be sure, we don’t want to become legalists who major on instruction and minor on grace. But to the extent our congregations are regenerate, we’re not speaking to those who have no power to trust, love, and obey God. Moreover, finding Jesus or the gospel in an Old Testament text makes it more likely to be used for imitation, not less. Second Timothy 3:15–16 and 1 Corinthians 10:1–11 illustrate the way in which gospel-centered interpretation facilitates moral interpretation and imitation rather than eliminating it. Luther wisely lays out the right course of action in A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels (1521):
The chief article and foundation of the Gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you. . . . Now when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you. See, there faith and love move forward, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and a person is happy and fearless to do and to suffer all things.
Luther rightly believes that imitation flows from the gospel; it doesn’t compete with it. In Exodus, God compels Israel to reflect his loving-kindness and holiness only after he has first shown them his own loving-kindness by saving them from Egypt. The Bible keeps a right order to the relationship between gospel and imitation, and so must we.
IMITATION AND PREACHING
For preachers, the imitation of Jesus has value not merely for our interpretation but also for our sanctification and ministry. Consider the words of John Stott:
The place of suffering in service and of passion in mission is hardly ever taught today. But the greatest single secret of evangelistic or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die. It may be a death to popularity (by faithfully preaching the unpopular biblical gospel), or to pride (by the use of modest methods in reliance on the Holy Spirit), or to racial or national prejudice (by identification with another culture), or to material comfort (by adopting a simple lifestyle). But the servant must suffer if he is to bring light to the nations, and the seed must die if it is to multiply. (The Cross of Christ [20th Anniversary ed.; IVP, 2006], 313)
Ministry in the 21st century no less than the first century will require suffering and sacrifice.
Imitation should frequently garnish the homiletical plates we set before our congregations. Virtually every biblical book deploys Jesus or other characters as examples. Even tiny 3 John and Jude use positive and negative examples (3 John 11, Jude 7–10). God inspired his Word so that every nook and cranny would be useful for moral instruction: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” We should use Scripture accordingly.