Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. ~Ephesians 5:1
When God first created mankind, he created us in his image, which means that our primary reason for existing is to reflect what he is like- to be mirrors of his glory, showing off his attributes to a watching universe. That image was shattered and distorted in the fall, when we decided that we would rather be our own gods and point to our own greatness rather than to God’s. The result of this terrible exchange of God’s glory for our own is seen all around us: broken hearts, broken relationships, a broken world.
More tragic than the brokenness we see all around us, however, is the brokenness that has occurred in our relationship with God. We were created for intimate fellowship with him- to know him and be known by him, to find our joy, peace, and delight in pleasing him and fulfilling our purpose of reflecting his beauty and glory to the world. But sin- the rebellion that started with Adam and Eve and continues in every human heart- severed this relationship.
This relationship has been broken in both directions; on one hand, we have turned our backs on our Creator and rebelled against our King. Every time we love something more than we love God, every time we choose our ways over his, we are exhibiting the brokenness of this relationship and breaking it all over again, a thousand times a day. The Bible goes even further in describing our brokenness; we don’t just do bad things- we are, fundamentally, bad. Jeremiah says that the human heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Ephesians 2 says that every person is “dead in their transgressions and sins in which they walk”– that means unresponsive to the beauty and life of God and completely unable to help ourselves. Even if we wanted to change– which we don’t– we can’t.
But even more serious than our response to God is God’s response to us. Sinful mankind cannot exist in relationship with a perfect, holy God. God is holy, which means that he is completely set apart, unique, and perfect. The prophet Habakkuk tells us that God is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong.” Psalm 5:4 says “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.” It is true that human beings are opposed to God; but the much more fearful fact is that God is opposed to us. God is “the Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25), and will not tolerate the high crime of treason that every human soul is guilty of. There will be no sweeping sin under the rug of the universe. The just verdict from the Judge of the universe is: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). That means that the all-powerful, all-knowing God of the universe has pronounced a death sentence over us. That is a fearful thing indeed.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “What’s all this talk about sin and judgment? I thought this chapter was about God’s love for us and our love for others.” It is. But it’s crucial that we start here, because nothing that the Bible says about God’s love will make sense apart from the backdrop of sin and judgment. Even our specific Cross Connection text, Ephesians 5:1, will not land on our hearts with its intended impact unless we grasp the truly desperate nature of our broken relationship with God. As we begin to unpack this verse, always remember to keep redemption against the background of sin, so that it will shine all the more brightly.
BE IMITATORS OF GOD
The central call in the in the Christian life is to be an “imitator of God,” to start fulfilling the purpose for which we were created- to be a mirror reflecting God’s character. Knowing that God is holy, it’s interesting that the verse doesn’t say, “Be imitators of God and walk in holiness.” While it’s certainly true that God wants us to reflect his holiness (“Be holy, for I am holy,” 1 Peter 1:16), apparently the central attribute that God wants us to reflect is his love: “Be imitators of God and walk in love.”
So if we are going to talk about what it looks like for us to love, we need to start with asking the question, “What does it look like for God to love? What does his love look like?” While there are a thousand good and biblical ways to answer that question, Ephesians 5:1 points us to two particular ways that God loves, in order to shape what our love looks like. “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Those two ways God loves us- as a father loves his children and as as Christ sacrificially gave himself up for us- are to form the foundation and shape of our love for others.
AS BELOVED CHILDREN
When Paul says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children,” he means “Imitate God in the way that beloved children do, since you really are beloved children.” That’s what that little word “as” means. He didn’t say, “Be imitators of God so that you can be beloved children.” No, he said, “You really are beloved children– God has adopted you into his family and made you his own. Make that the basis on which you imitate him.”
Before you gloss over this precious phrase too quickly, however, consider where we started this chapter: all that we deserve from God is wrath and judgment. But now Ephesians 5 says, “You are children of God loved by your Heavenly Father.” Against the backdrop of everything we deserve, this is breathtaking good news. If we are counted as children of God and a part of his family, it must be because of grace in him, not good in us.
You see, there is a particularly pernicious lie that is all too common even among Christians, which undermines the power this verse is intended to have. The lie is this: everyone is a child of God. While there might be some truth that God is a Father in a general sense, as universal Creator and Sustainer, the title “child of God” is a precious gift of grace for those who trust in Jesus. Consider these verses:
To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. ~John 1:12
You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. ~Romans 8:15-17
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. ~1 John 3:1
John 1 tells us that the only ones who have the right to become children of God are those who receive Jesus, who put their trust in him. Romans 8 tells us that the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of adoption,” who unites us to Jesus and secures our future inheritance as God’s children. And 1 John 3 simply celebrates this: “Look at this extravagant love- God has called us his children!”
To say that everyone is equally a child of God strips away what should be one of the central joys and comforts of the Christian: that God has called you son or daughter. The Judge of all the earth has done far more than declare you “not guilty” (although that alone would be cause for wonder and praise!); the King of the universe has done far more than pardon rebels (as significant as that would be). No, the Judge and King has paid your debt so that you could be a part of his family. The King is your Father, your “Abba,” your Daddy. In Christ, you are his precious child, his joy and prize, and all of the omnipotence of his almighty love is now directed at you. He has adopted you, and those whom he has brought into his family will never be cast out. He will not change his mind about you, believer; in Christ you are loved with everlasting love. Every promise he has ever made to his people is true for you. Everything he owns- the entire universe!- will one day be yours as a co-heir with Jesus. He is for you, and with you, and in you, and will one day bring you to himself to reign as Prince and Princess in the new heavens and new earth– all the fairy tales are true.
Stop and consider for a moment: do you really believe this? I mean really. It’s one thing to acknowledge, “God is my Father.” It’s another, far different thing to be rest secure and joyful in the confidence of everything that means. Could it really be true that, in Christ, this promise is describing you:
The Lord your God is with you; he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. ~Zephaniah 3:17, NIV
In Christ, this is how your Heavenly Father deals with you: he takes great delight in you. In love he gently disciplines and purifies his children, but all his anger and rebuke of your sin is gone, paid in full at Calvary. And now all that is left in the heart of God towards you is loud, exultant rejoicing over his children. The God of all the universe sings over you, believer.
It is out of the security of this restored relationship, from the foundation of God’s unshakeable fatherly love towards us in Christ, that we go about obeying Ephesians 5:1 and imitating him. Imitating God and walking in love starts by coming to grips with the lavishness of love that has been poured out on you. He isn’t calling you to earn his love or affection; he is calling you to be a “chip off the block” and become more and more like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, who ran to his wayward son and embraced him– like the Heavenly Father who first ran to and embraced you.
AS CHRIST LOVED US AND GAVE HIMSELF UP FOR US
God’s fatherly love toward us is the foundation of the command to imitate him in love. But now Ephesians 5:1 continues, and gives us the shape of what our love should look like: “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”
In this case, the word “as” means “just as,” or “in the same way as.” Walk in love, in the same way as Christ loved you: by giving himself up for you. The primary place where the love of Jesus is put on display was not in his healings (as compassionate as they were) or in his teachings (as wise as they were); the love of Jesus is seen most clearly in the cross, where he gave himself up for us.
It was his love for you that took him to the cross to stand in your place and pay the punishment for your sin. It was his love that caused him to say, “I will take the punishment, Father, so that the rebel can be in your family.” It was his love that traded places with you and took everything you deserve, so that you could be the recipient of everything he deserves. “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation (a word which means ‘a sacrifice that absorbs wrath’) for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This is the central act of love in the universe: the infinitely worthy, sinless Son of God giving himself up for utterly undeserving sinners, forgiving them and making them new.
WALK IN LOVE
The command “Be imitators of God” is lived out primarily in the second command: “Walk in love.” That phrase, of course, doesn’t have anything to do how we move around and take steps, or the shoes we wear. “Walk in love” means “Let this attribute define everything in your daily life.” The NIV translates it, “Live a life of love,” which captures Paul’s meaning well. Live a life of love, let love define everything in your daily life– what you say, where you go, what you do– in the same way that Jesus loved himself and gave himself for you.
As we contemplate the death of Jesus on our behalf, Ephesians 5:1 tells us something very important about the shape of his love, and how our love should be shaped in response. Look again at our verse: “Walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” That phrase, “gave himself” is crucially important. It actually occurs several times in the New Testament to describe Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
This phrase “gave himself” displays the multi-faceted nature of what Jesus Christ died and rose to accomplish: he gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age; he loved me and gave himself for me; he gave himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God; he gave himself for his church to sanctify us and make us holy; he gave himself as a ransom for all; he gave himself to redeem us from lawlessness.
From those six verses, I take away three primary which will help shape our own love:
Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. ~Galatians 1:3-5
The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. ~Galatians 2:20
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. ~Ephesians 5:1
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her. ~Ephesians 5:25-26
Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. ~1 Timothy 2:6
Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. ~Titus 2:14
LOVE GIVES ITSELF AWAY
The first thing we can learn from Jesus’ love is that love gives itself away. This sounds obvious, but it is deeper than you might think at first. Jesus’ love isn’t primarily defined as him giving us good things; it’s defined as him giving himself. Applying this practically to ourselves, this means that it’s impossible to love at a distance. You can be concerned or be empathetic for a distant person or cause, but love is different; love gets down in the dirt and gets messy and gives itself away. This is exactly what Jesus did for us; he left heaven, took on our weakness and frailty, lived a life of sacrificial giving, and ultimately surrendered his life for his enemies. And Paul says, “Let that be the shape of your love- a sacrificial giving of yourself.”
We get a few glimpses of what this looks like in the life of the Apostle Paul himself. He testified to his love for the believers in Thessalonica when he said, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” His love for them went beyond a simple desire to give them something good– in this case, the very best gift possible, the gospel. No, he was “affectionately desirous” of them, they were “very dear” to him, and so he wanted to share more than just good news; he wanted to share himself.
This should be of great practical help to us, especially in how we should think about sharing the gospel. Preaching the good news of Jesus is important, essential. But what will truly commend the gospel to unbelievers (and to other believers) is when the good news of Jesus’ self-giving love is not only heard on our lips but seen in our own lives of self-giving love. Think about that person at the office or classroom who continually rubs you the wrong way and is hostile to your faith– how might a consistent attitude of sacrifice and generosity on your part soften their heart to hear and respond to the best news in the world?
One more example from the apostle Paul of what it means to have the same kind of self-giving love that Jesus has for you. In 2 Corinthians 12:15, he tells the church, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” Love doesn’t just spend; love does more than just write a check and wash its hands of responsibility. Love spends itself. Again, love gets down and dirty; love enters into the messy and costly work of investing in other people and pursuing the fullness of their joy in Jesus.
LOVE CARES ABOUT HOLINESS
The second way that Jesus’ self-giving love should shape our own is the observation that love cares about holiness. Three of those six verses about Jesus giving himself have to do with our holiness: Jesus gave himself “for our sins and to deliver us from the present evil age,” “that he might sanctify” his church, and “to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Jesus’ love had this end goal in mind: the joyful holiness of a redeemed people. And since our love is supposed to be lived out in the same shape as Jesus’ love, that means that our love must have that end goal in mind as well.
This doesn’t mean that our love as Christians has to have some ulterior motive of converting people. Rather, I would take it a step farther: “converting people” isn’t an ulterior motive of love, unrelated to love’s central mission; it is love. Any “love” that doesn’t have as its ultimate goal the eternal happiness of the beloved is simply not real love by biblical standards. If love cares about the happiness and wellbeing of another person and is willing to sacrifice itself to that end, then love must care about the eternal happiness and wellbeing of the other person, or it’s not really love. Love gives itself away to alleviate all suffering, especially eternal suffering.
This means that what our culture says about love is dead wrong. It’s unloving to talk about sin, we’re told. Our culture says that love means you have to accept and affirm everything about another person. This tragically unrealistic; affirming every evil impulse in others is a good way to end up at the Holocaust, not happiness.
Rather, real love patiently gives of its time, resources, energy, and talents; forgives hurts and pursues reconciliation; speaks the truth with graciousness and humility; and looks for every opportunity to bring the beloved into the joy that it enjoys– the joy of being loved by Jesus.
This will take hard work for our love to be authentic care for people. It’s easy to slip into ulterior motives of “sharing the gospel” and forget that Paul said he wanted to share himself as well. I can’t answer all the questions of how this should work itself out in your specific relationships. That’s what will take hard, intentional work and thought on your part. But the more we put Jesus’ love for us front and center– the love that pursued us while we were dead in sins and will not rest until we are perfectly conformed to his image and alive with joy forever– the clearer our path forward will be.
LOVE IS PERSONAL
Finally, love is personal. If love gives itself away to draw the beloved into a relationship with Jesus, then it can’t just a feeling you have for people in general. You can’t be a loving person without loving people as individuals.
Look at that verse from Galatians 2 again: “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and died for me.” The love of Jesus on the cross was more than just a general “God so loved the world” kind of thing; it was a love for you specifically. He died to forgive your sins, so that you, with all your sins and failings, could be part of his family forever.
God intends for our love to take this same shape as well. Just as we can say with the Apostle Paul, “Jesus loved me and gave himself for me,” so the people in our lives should be able to say, “He loves me,” “She loves me.” This requires the purposeful investment of time; we should strive to get to know people, to spend time with them, to build mutual interests, in order to build relational bridged into their lives, so that our joy in Jesus can spread to and include them.
Think about the people God has put in your life, and get creative and intentional in how you start building those relationships, remembering how intentional God has been in pursuing you.
Father, What a privilege to address you with that name! Thank you for adopting me, making me yours forever, and giving me a title beyond all compare: your child. Give me renewed and deepened confidence in your love for me, bought and secured for me by Jesus on the cross. Make his demonstrated love for me my highest joy and deepest security, and by your Holy Spirit, mold my life into the shape of the cross until my love looks like his, and I reflect you more and more to a watching world.