Ephesians 5:1 “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.”

“Be imitators of God!” What an extraordinary exhortation that the great Exemplar to every Christian is the living God. We live as he lives. This commandment is not found only in Ephesians 5 but in several other places in Scripture, such as in the Sermon on the Mount. There the Lord Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). It is not, “Be perfect like your own parents, or like the apostles, or like your church leaders,” but like God himself! Or you think of John’s exhortation, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (I Jn. 4:11). Or consider Peter’s exhortation, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'” (I Pet. 1:15&16).


The late Dan DeHaan taught the Metro Bible Study of students and young people in Atlanta in the 1970s. He had a wonderful gift of communicating with them and inspiring them to love the Word of God themselves. Killed in a plane crash in 1982 he has left us one slim book entitled, The God You Can Know which I enjoy reading. He opens this window on his early pilgrimage and I love reading these paragraphs. I’m sure I must have read them to you before today: “I grew up in Michigan. It was there that I met the Lord one lonely evening in my home at the age of fourteen. I remember listening to great sermons in church when I was a boy and going away wondering what God wanted of my life. In the wintertime Lake Michigan would often freeze and I would spend Sunday afternoons out on that frozen ice. I would run out onto the lake, possibly half a mile, and sit all bundled up on a huge snowdrift that had been hardened from the wind. As I would sit there, I would contemplate what God was like.

“I would ask questions out loud, often shouting them out. No one could hear except God. Alone with Him, I would ask, ‘Lord, would you make me like the saints of old? Lord, I want to be like the apostle Paul. How are you going to do that in me?’ I would also ask Him about other things like, ‘Why is there such a large gap between Christians? Why are some committed, while others are not? Why do some love to talk of Your dealings with them and others could care less?’ I would often cry out, ‘O God, don’t let me join the ranks of the spiritual dropouts. Don’t let me become careless and bored in my walk with You!’ As I would spend hours at a time talking to God, I was able to see my desire transformed into determination.

“Soon after my sixteenth birthday, a man told me to do a study on the character of God. Not knowing where to begin, I went to a Bible bookstore to read chapter after chapter from books on theology. Most of the time I did not even understand what was being said. It was not long before I discovered a book called Systematic Theology, by Louis Berkhof. It caused me to wrestle with some issues, and, as a result, that carried me out of a mundane Christian life. I found myself hungering to know God. I would carry my newfound knowledge out to the ice and ‘pray it through.’ I had more questions than answers, but I was willing to wait. As God would reveal Himself to me, I found His will more of a delight and His Word the enjoyment of my life. Psalm 40:8 became my favorite verse for some time. ‘I delight to do thy will, O my God; Thy law is within my heart.’

“I say all of that to make this point: the deepest thought a person can ever have is his conception of God’s character. As you begin to see how men like Abraham and Joseph grabbed hold of God for their needs and depended on Him, you begin to realize that you are no different from them. They knew God well and desired to know Him better” (Dan DeHaan, “The God You Can Know”, Moody Press, Chicago, 1982, pp. 37&38). There is no reason why you shouldn’t go somewhere quiet with a book about knowing God on a Sunday afternoon and cry to God to expand your vision and understanding of him. Make sure you come back refreshed for the evening service – no one has a hunger to know God who doesn’t attend church twice on Sundays.


[Much of this sermon I heard Stephen Rees of Stockport preach a decade ago at a Carey Family Conference, and I haven’t forgotten it, and I have taken it from him and with his permission am using it. I had plenty of time to prepare this sermon. I thought what Stephen said was particularly stimulating for me as well as you.]

Look at the context in which our text is found, the last words of the fourth chapter of Ephesians: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God” (Ephs. 4:32 & Ephs 5:1). God forgave us our sins; he was kind and compassionate towards us. Let us imitate him in our dealings with others. Or consider some of those verses I mentioned at the beginning, first in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Jesus is dealing with the question of how we treat our enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy'” (v.43). That was the teaching of the rabbis. “Yes . . . it’s good to love. But . . . of course . . . nobody expects you to love your enemies do they? There’s a limit to what can be expected of you . . .” And then Jesus speaks: “But I tell you . . . that you may be sons of your Father in heaven . . . Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44&45). If we are Christians we show love even towards our enemies – towards those who hate us and ill-treat us. Why? In order that we may be sons of our Father. In other words, in order that we may be like him – in order that we may display a family likeness to our Father. God cares. He treats his enemies with kindness, forbearance, generosity. So if we are his children, we must imitate him in that.

You must do exactly as God does, says Jesus. Your aim must be to imitate him perfectly. You cannot lower that standard. You cannot appeal to what it’s reasonable to expect. You look at God and the way he acts, and you take that as your model. He shows this extraordinary, over-the-top, absurd generosity to his enemies. Then that’s the standard which applies to you too. You can’t whittle it away and say, “Well, I’ll try to be like that most of the time. I’ll aim for that as far as it’s practical in a fallen world.” No, says Jesus, you are to imitate God’s generosity without reservation, without compromise, without any opt-out clauses. The benchmark for you is God’s own character. “Be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Then in the 1st letter of Peter, you have the same total demand. Again, the context is our position as children of God; “As obedient children . . .” (I Peter 1:14). Before you were converted, you followed the norms of the world, but now you have been called to be children of God, and you imitate him. Here is the most glorious and perfect and beautiful of all beings, the one living and true God, the one whose power and majesty are reflected in the creation that we live in, the one in whose image we are made, the one who spoke to our fathers by the prophets – we can read of his self-disclosure in the Old Testament Scriptures themselves and there we can discover what God is like, but best of all we see the nature of the mighty God in his blessed Son Jesus Christ. “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” the Lord said.

Our high calling as children of our heavenly Father is to imitate God, obviously the goodness of God leaps to our minds, the love of God, the mercy, grace and patience of God, the holiness of God, the peace of God, the righteousness and justice of God, the godly jealousy of God, the wrath of God against sin. All these moral attributes of God we are called upon to display in our own lives. We daren’t be selective and pick and mix some aspects of divinity we admire and ignore others. Be imitators of God! How comprehensively? Peter tells us, “be holy in all you do” (I Pet. 1:15) Peter is emphasising that the holiness to which believers are called is something evident, it is in our daily doings. The Authorised Version has “in all manner of conversation.” Nowadays that would mean our talking, but in the 17th century it meant outward behaviour. So Peter is saying that in all your behaviour, in your outward actions, in your lifestyle, you are to imitate the holy attributes of God.


Peter is emphasising that this applies to every sphere of life, our whole lifestyle, in all our behaviour patterns, every choice we make is to be governed by the attributes of God. The way you work, the way you rest, the way you eat, the way you sleep, the way you dress – in every area of your life you must be aiming to imitate the character and the attributes of God.

Peter is, of course, echoing the Old Testament here. He’s quoting specifically from the book of Leviticus where this exhortation, “Be holy as I am holy” is often found. Christians have always struggled to understand the book of Leviticus and especially the complex system of laws that you get in that book – laws about clean and unclean animals, laws about ritual washings, laws about leprosy and mildew, laws about the fibres to be used in garments, and Christians have debated what the purpose was for so many of these laws. Surely the one thing that comes over plainly was this, that the Israelites were being taught that holiness extends to every area of life. God says, “Be holy as I am holy,” and then he spells out the implications in every area of life. The Israelites were being taught to see God as a God of absolute perfection, a God of beauty, a God of purity, a God of order. They were being taught to imitate those qualities in every area of life. The holiness of God was to be stamped on his people – not just in the way they worshipped, but in the way they ate and drank and dressed – in fact, in all they do. When Peter uses those words “in all you do” he’s picking up that theme from Leviticus, that our imitation of God is to be worked out in every sphere of life.

In the end, it all comes down to what the Lord Jesus called the greatest commandment. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. Loving God involves admiring God – and when you admire somebody, you want to imitate them. If you love God with all your heart you will want to be like him in every aspect of your character and behaviour.

How seriously the pioneer missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, took this biblical principle. In one place he asks this question: “Should not the little things of our daily life be as relatively perfect in the case of each Christian as the lesser creations of God – like a butterfly’s wing – are absolutely perfect. Ought we not to glorify God in the formation of each letter we write, and as Christians to write a more legible hand than unconverted people can be expected to do? Ought we not to be more thorough in our service, not simply doing well that which will be seen and noticed, but as our Father makes many a flower to bloom unseen in the lonely desert, so to do all that we can do, as under His eye, though no other eye ever take note of it. It is our privilege to take our rest and recreation for the purpose of pleasing Him; to lay aside our garments at night neatly (for He is in the room and watches over us while we sleep), to wash, to dress, to smooth the hair, with his eye in view; and in short, in all that we are, and in all that we do, to use the full measure of ability which God has given us to the glory of His holy name.”

Do you see what Hudson Taylor is saying? He’s thinking about the character of God, the fact that God is so utterly careful and exact and perfect in all his ways. When God makes a butterfly’s wing, he crafts it so carefully. The structure, the shape, the colouring, everything about that tiny thing is perfect. Now, argues Hudson Taylor, if God is like that, if that’s his character, then we must imitate it. If we are going to be Godlike, then we must be careful about the tiny little things, even our handwriting, he says. We are to glorify God in the formation of every letter.

What has handwriting to do with holiness? Everything, says Hudson Taylor. Because holiness means being like God, and so we are to give the same care to forming each letter as God gives to forming the butterfly’s wing. Now of course, not every Christian has equally good eyesight or muscular control, not everyone is going to write a perfect hand. We would love to get a letter written by a dear grandmother whose sight is poor and whose hand trembles. We are not going to award her 4 out of 10 for penmanship. We won’t even think like that, and we’ll keep that letter for ever. But every Christian should be aiming to become more like the Lord in everything. God is never slovenly; God is never careless or shoddy in his work. A slovenly man is an unholy man. Every time you do a sluggardly thing you become more of a sluggard and less like God, while every time you discipline yourself and take care over your handwriting for the glory of God, you are becoming more like God.

Do you see how this perspective gives importance to every area of life? Hudson Taylor talks here about the invisible things. He says God makes many a flower to bloom unseen in the lonely desert. No human eye will ever see it and yet God makes it beautiful, every leaf, every petal is perfectly formed. So what does that say about my study desk top? Is it important whether it’s orderly and neat? Few look at it besides me, but if I want to be Godlike, if I am called to imitate God, then that means keeping my desk top in order, and as I do that, day by day, I am becoming more like God.

Think about what Paul calls ‘managing the home’ (I Tim. 5:14) or what we call housekeeping, and then remember the character of God, the way he’s revealed himself in creation. Consider the orderliness, the beauty, the care with which God orders his world – from the great super-galaxies down to the tiniest particles. “He brings out the host of stars one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength not one of them is missing.” He keeps all his billions of stars in perfect order; he knows where every one of them is. He plots the trajectory of every comet. He doesn’t mislay any of them through carelessness. They’re in their precise and predictable orbit at this moment because God has planned it so. I am asking doesn’t that say something about housekeeping? What does holiness means in your home? It is part of the beauty of God that he’s so orderly, and your goal must be to reproduce that beauty in the way you run your home. Of course we’ll never do anything perfectly as God does everything perfectly, but that is our aim, to be imitators of God. We don’t have perfect memories or infinite strength, but our goal must be to be like God, and you can’t be satisfied with less than that. A woman whose home is chaotic and disorganized is a not a holy woman. She may read religious magazines and go to meetings but she is not taking seriously the command, “Be imitators of God.”

Think of the cleaning mechanisms God has built into his creation. You picture South Beach after a summer bank holiday – covered in litter and junk. Then the tide comes in and the beach is swept clean. You walk along the promenade the following morning and there’s a freshness, a renewed beauty about it all. That’s on the grand scale, but God is at work in every part of his creation, constantly renewing, cleansing his world. Do you realise that every cell in your body has its own built-in vacuum cleaning system – the mitochondria and various vacuoles. We once had a member who has long since left Aberystwyth and Iola and I would visit his home and it was like a pig sty. There were curtains of cobwebs everywhere and scores of empty milk bottles covering the floors of several rooms. There was a little path through all this to the chair in which he sat and to the sink and cooker. It was terribly sad to see such disintegration in a youngish man. He was falling away from God and that was the message of his home. Let me say again that a man whose home is like that, a man whose car is never cleaned, is a man unlike God. I’m giving you these simple examples to make it clear how pervasive this principle is, how it stretches into every area of life.


How are we organising and spending our time? I am dealing now with this matter of our routines in daily life. What does it mean to imitate God in this area of life? Our God is a God who plans ahead; the buzz words are ‘predestination’ and ‘foreordination’ and ‘decrees.’ These concepts are at the centre of our faith in the Sovereignty of God, aren’t they? Psalm 33 verse 11: “The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations,” Isaiah 46 verse 10: “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say ‘My purpose will stand and I will do all that I please.'” God plans. God planned eternally everything he was going to do before he did anything. God planned the whole course of history down to the last detail, and what God planned, God performs, precisely and punctually. God knows exactly what he is going to be doing a year from now, a month from now, a week from now, five minutes from now. God drew up his plans for this service before he made the universe. God has his schedule, his programme, and it is prepared down to the last detail, and God keeps to it.

That is a fundamental part of God’s trustworthiness. Think about prophecy. God spoke to the prophets. Jehovah told them something of his plans. He told them what he was planning to do, and in many cases, when he was going to do it. “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and they will be enslaved and ill-treated 400 years. But I will punish the nation they serve and afterwards they will come out with great possessions.” “When 70 years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” God could make such promises because he had planned ahead. When their heavenly Father made such promises, men knew they could rely on them. They knew whatever God had planned, God would also perform.

Now of course we cannot plan ahead with the same certainty as God. We are not omniscient nor infallible. That is why James warns us not to say, “Today, tomorrow, I’m going to go to such a city, spend a year there, make so much money.” Instead you say, “If it’s the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” All our planning can be disrupted and overruled by God. Notice however that James assumes that we will indeed be making plans; “If it’s the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that”. Why? Because it’s fundamental to holiness. It’s part of imitating God. We draw up plans and schedules. We make appointments, and we aim to keep them.

Do you remember how Paul defends himself when the Corinthian Christians accuse him of breaking his word? He had planned to visit Corinth and then it didn’t work out, and his opponents sneered at him. They said, “He says yes one moment and no the next. In the same breath he says ‘yes, yes’ and ‘no, no'” (2 Corinthians 1:15ff.). Paul says, “It’s not true – as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not Yes and No.” Do you see what Paul is saying? “God is faithful and he governs my life.” Paul’s mind automatically, and almost without thought, and yet with constant thought, turns to God’s character, particularly his faithfulness. God makes plans and he can be trusted to stand by what he’s said. “No matter how many promises God has made, they are Yes in Christ.” “And,” says Paul, “I aim to imitate God in that. As surely as he’s faithful, I aim to be faithful. I never make plans lightly; I never make promises and then casually break them. If I didn’t come to Corinth when I planned, it wasn’t for lack of trying. My aim is to imitate God’s reliability.”

That’s got to be our aim too. It is a serious thing when a minister breaks a promise he has made to preach in a certain church. Maybe he has suddenly been invited to speak in a prestigious conference, perhaps it is overseas and they will pay his expenses, but a village Bethel chapel has asked him to speak on that Sunday, and he has promised that he will. It is in his diary. Is his yes yes? I myself have not been blameless in this regard, I say to my shame. Let me say this that a Christian who waits for a holy impulse before he does anything evangelical is living an unholy life. God never does anything on impulse. A Christian goes to the Prayer Meeting and prays because of holy duty and love for his brothers and sisters, not because he feels like going. Let me say this, that a Christian who is late for everything isn’t just a laughing stock and a source of anger to his fellow believers, he is an unholy Christian. God is never late for anything.

Should a Christian man ever go to bed without first mapping out his schedule for the following day? Yes, of course he may have to adapt it, he knows that. There may be phone calls and the doorbell will ring and they will change his routine, but he’s still aiming to plan ahead. Why? Because he’s determined to be like God. He has a list of duties to be done, letters to be answered, deadlines to make. He sits down, say on Friday nights, and plans out his programme for the coming week, the people he needs to see, the household repairs waiting to be done, when are they going to be fitted in, what appointments he’s got and so on. How is he going to make sure he gets to them on time? Planning ahead is part of being godlike.

Sometimes people tell us that organising our time and being punctual is something cultural. People in the west have lives run by calendars and clocks. Then they say, “People in Africa or Brazil or Turkey can’t be expected to be punctual, it’s not part of their culture.” Well that is nonsense, isn’t it? They don’t turn up to school or to work or at court whenever they feel like. Being punctual isn’t a matter of culture, it’s a matter of god-likeness, and if a particular culture says it’s OK to be casual about keeping appointments, then at that point, that culture is ungodly, and that culture needs to be reformed. If Christians have absorbed the idea from their culture that it doesn’t matter if they turn up for church an hour late, then they need to be taught that one of God’s attributes is punctuality, and that they are called to imitate God.

Of course in some cultures you can be more precise about time-keeping than in others. You can only be as precise, I suppose, as the available clocks, and of course, it’s true that some people are always going to find it harder than others to keep precise times because of the circumstances they’re in. I asked John Murray if he had ever met Arthur Pink. He told me, “No, Geoff, I did not meet him,” but told me how he once stayed with a pastor friend of his. His wife had told him that lunch would be at 12, and so Mr. Pink was there waiting at the table for lunch at noon exactly, but this pastor’s wife had had troubles with her children that morning and so dinner was delayed. Mr. Pink displayed his irritation at being kept waiting. ” . . . but she was a mother,” Mr. Murray said to me plaintively. I understand that we cannot be slaves of schedules which we ourselves have devised but every Christian must have some routine, and aiming to imitate God in his concern to plan ahead and to perform what he has planned.


I have said that God is a God who plans ahead, and now I want to say that God is consistent in all his works. There is a regularity and a consistency about the way God acts. God does the same things over and over again. He does them in the same way and at the same time. “The moon marks off the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night and all the beasts of the forest prowl.” God steers the whole vast cycle of nature with a beautiful regularity. God has set the earth spinning on its axis and he ensures that it always does so at exactly the same speed; it takes 24 hours to revolve. God steers the earth in its orbit round the sun, and he ensures that it always takes the same length of time to do it, 365 and a quarter days less a few minutes. God has his routine and it carries on day after day, week after week, year after year, century after century. It’s so consistent and regular, if he varies it we speak of a miracle. The whole basis of science is that God is consistent, that gravity is consistent and pi is consistent and the laws by which everything works are consistent century after century. God does the same things day after day in the same way. Light measured under the same conditions will continue to move at the same speed; the same element will react the same way next week as it did this week.

Do you see that once again this is part of God’s trustworthiness, the fact that God is consistent in his ways? Once again we have to say that living as a Christian means imitating God in this consistency. Man was created in the image of God to reflect God; man was intended to have regularity and consistency in his life to have fixed routines. A man without a regular routine is an ungodly man. We will retire to bed and then awake and dress in the mornings at basically the same time. But there will be times when we are delayed and then we will take that in our stride and get back into our routine. A woman whose family never knows if the meal is going to be ready at four o’clock, six o’clock or nine o’clock is an unholy woman. Godliness means imitating the regularity of God’s routines.

You know that evangelicals in the 18th century were given the nickname “Methodists.” It was meant to be an insult. “Oh these evangelicals, stuck in their ruts, plodding on, methodical about their work and about their home-life, about prison visiting and fasting, about their praying, their Bible-reading. Methodists! They’ve got a method for everything!”

It was meant to be an insult, but what a compliment it is when God’s people are labeled ‘Methodists.’ We serve a methodical God. God governs his universe in the most methodical way imaginable, and we love God for being methodical don’t we? We love him for the fact that he’s so reliable and faithful, and if we love him, we imitate him. There was a film called ‘Clockwork’ which was a sustained assault on that picturing a headmaster who ran his whole life in some intolerable commitment to exact time-keeping, at a level of stupid tyranny. The man was a pathetic figure who destroyed his whole life. The film was mocking the wisdom of routine and planning. It was in that sense anti-God.


Another vital truth about God’s character is this, that there is rhythm within God’s regularity. He has his unchanging routine, but within that routine there is wonderful variety. Night follows day. Summer follows winter. Seed time follows harvest. “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” The times of day are different from one another. There are the special beauties of the morning and the special beauties of the evening. The seasons are different from one another; there are the delights of seed time and the joys of harvest. The routine never changes. The order never changes, but within the routine you have this rhythm – this cycle of change.

So God has built a pattern into creation, and it’s predictable. We know that winter will come and it will be cold. We know that summer will come and it will be warm. We can look forward to each varied experience knowing it will come in its proper turn and at the right time. There are no novelties; no change for change’s sake, but there is variety, and our lives should be like that if we are imitating God. Our homes should be like that. There should be special distinctive experiences that come round in a predictable cycle. There should be a weekly cycle, built round the institution of the Sabbath. God has commanded us to imitate him in that. “Six days you shall labour and do all your work but the seventh day is a rest day for the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” The most fundamental reason for keeping a Sabbath day is to imitate God. He worked for six days and then rested for a seventh, and it is part of imitating God that we have this rhythm in our lives, six days of labour, and then a day that is different, and a day that we mark as different in every way we can.

Every family needs its traditions, things done in the same way at the same times, week after week, year after year, in a regular predictable happy rhythm. Turkey at Christmas and family get-togethers at Easter; corn flakes for breakfast on schooldays and a cooked breakfast on Saturdays. Monopoly on Friday nights, students for lunch every Sunday. Every season of the year different from every other season; every day different from every other day, but coming round in a unchanging pattern.

I believe one of the most ungodly trends in our society is hostility to regular patterns of life – I mentioned the film ‘Clockwork.’ There’s a craving for novelty, that if you’ve been doing things the same way for the last five years . . . or five days, – if you’ve been in a marriage or a job for five years it is time to change. Seize the moment! Go with the flow! But God has been doing things the same way for thousands of years, bringing seed time then harvest, night then day, in the same order, year after year. Godliness means structuring our lives in that way, finding a pattern, a rhythm, and sticking to it.

Every Lord’s Day evening I have a group of students back to the Manse, and they know the routine. They know what to expect week by week. Discussion on some subject. What is happening this week? Who is speaking at the Christian Union in the University? How did last Friday’s go? Prayer. Finish around 9.45. I prepare popcorn and then they talk informally until 10.30 p.m. while we call the children. That’s the routine each Sunday night. It’s part of our training in godliness. This is the value of rhythm and routine.

Let me just say that our worship should be like that too. Every service is different; our four hymns are different; our prayers are different; our reading from Scripture is different; the sermon is different, but the structure of the service is the same. So we can concentrate on the words about God in Christ, and not be constantly caught by surprises and personalities. Some people seem to think that complete spontaneity is the ideal form of worship, people doing what they feel the impulse to do; every service structured in a different way, but once you start realising that we are called to imitate God you see what folly that is. Worship needs to be predictable, it needs to be structured. The different, varied elements come in a regular, familiar pattern so that our minds can address the glorious themes of creation, sin and grace in Christ. If that is the way God orders the world, then surely that is the way we should order our worship. God is not a God of disorder, says Paul.

So I have brought to you this great exhortation that we be imitators of God, and that even in such matters as our daily routines, our planning, our family schedules we should reflect what we know of the character of God. So let me just leave you with the great question. How much do we love God? How much time are we giving to studying God himself – admiring his attributes – all the qualities that make him the holy God he is, and how determined are we to live out the attributes of God in our daily lives?

8th May 2005 GEOFF THOMAS