We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).
1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.
2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.
3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another
This is the second post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.
In the last post we looked at love as central to Paul’s mission to see communities of believers ‘shining like stars’ within an immoral world as they lived according to the cruciform way of Jesus. Exhortations and encouragement to live such a life worthy of the gospel abound in Paul’s letters.
The Purpose of the Christian Life: being formed into the image of Jesus
In this post we look at how love for Paul the Jewish rabbi is reconfigured Christologically. In other words, the Christ-event leads him to a new understanding of what a life pleasing to God looks like. It is not Torah observance, but a life in whom Christ is formed.
Let’s look at some texts to illustrate that claim:
Galatians 4:19 “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”
Take a moment to read that verse again. See how it reveals how Paul understands the ultimate purpose of his mission – that Christ is formed in the lives of believers. [How well I wonder do we keep this ultimate goal front and centre of all church life and ministry?]
This isn’t an isolated example – other texts speak similarly of transformation into the image of Christ:
Rom 8:29, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
1 Cor 15:49 “And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”
2 Cor 3:18 “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
Col 3:9-10 “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
It’s easy after 2000 years of church history to miss just how extraordinary this is. Paul the Jewish monotheist sees his God-given mission as preaching the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s son so that all who have faith in him are transformed into his likeness.
But what does being formed into the likeness of Jesus mean? Quite simply the answer is love.
Love Reimagined: imitating the way of Jesus
Imitate me as I imitate Jesus
In these days of (justified) scepticism about the integrity of too many high-profile church leaders, I guess many would hesitate to say what Paul sometimes does – namely to ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’
1 Thes 1:6 “You became imitators of us and of the Lord ..”
1 Cor 4:16; “Therefore I urge you to imitate me.”
2 Thes 3:7, 9; “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example … We did this … in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.”
Phil 4:9. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
1 Cor 11:1 “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
Phil 3:17 “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.”
The last text is significant. Paul outlines his own narrative of giving up previous status and identity for the sake of the Philippians (Phil 3:2-16), an example he calls them to imitate (3:17).
Similarly in 1 Corinthians 9:14-15 (giving up of rights) is based on how Paul has given up his own apostolic rights.
Other examples of imitating Jesus are peppered through the apostle’s letters.
- Sometimes the imitation is to copy God’s self-giving love as demonstrated by Christ’s sacrificial death (Eph 5:1-2).
- Or of churches to imitate the willingness of Christ to endure suffering (1 Thes 2:14-15).
- In Romans 15:1-3 pleasing one’s neighbour is based on Christ’s refusal to please himself.
- In Romans 15:7 acceptance of one another is grounded in the imitation of Christ’s acceptance of believers
- Within marriage, husbands are to love their wives ‘just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Eph.5:25; cf Col.3:19).
- Most important of all is Philippians 2:5-11 where Paul’s encouragement to humble other-regard is rooted in the story of Christ’s voluntary self-giving death and giving up his own rights and glory
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:Phil 2:3-5
1 Corinthians 13 as the Imitation of Jesus
Paul’s famous description of love does not specifically mention the imitation of Jesus but it describes perfectly the way of Jesus.
- verse 3 – giving all of one self at great cost for the good of others
- the description of love that follows clearly describes a life imitating that of Jesus. He is the one who demonstrates such love in action. The Gospels give story after story of what such a life of love looks like
- such love is unlimited and without end.
This is what Christianity is all about
This is God’s ‘end game’. Love is greater than faith and hope because it characterises the new creation to come.
The purpose of justification is to be transformed into the image of Christ.
Being transformed into the image of Christ means living a Jesus-like life.
Living a Jesus-like life means loving others.
Loving others is difficult, costly and will be at times deeply self-sacrificial.
But that is the way of cruciform love.
No-one said being a Christian is easy.
But it is life-affirming and joyful.
For it is in losing our lives that we find them.