Question: "To what extent should we strive to be like Jesus?"
Answer: Several years ago, there was a popular trend among Christians that encouraged them to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” Merchandise featuring the WWJD logo was ubiquitous. What many people did not know is that the question came from the 1896 novel In His Steps by Charles M. Sheldon. The book’s storyline follows a group of people who vowed to live for a year making no decision without first asking themselves, “What would Jesus do?” To be a follower—a disciple—of Christ is the essence of the Christian life; we want to be like Him. We can never share in Jesus’ deity, but we can share in His holiness. One day we will be perfected in holiness, but, until then, we should do our best to follow His example of obedience. The following passages help to make this clear:
Romans 8:28–30: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 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. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Regardless of one’s view of election or predestination, one of the key points in this passage is that God desires His people to be “conformed to the image of his Son.” God’s goal for the believer is to be like Jesus.
First John 3:2: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Again, the goal is for the believer to be like Christ, and this will happen in perfection when He returns—when we see Him. In the next verse, John continues, “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (verse 3). In other words, if perfection in holiness is the anticipated goal, then we should be working toward that now. We should strive to be like Jesus, and we do this by obeying the things that God has told us to do. What would Jesus do? Anything God commands.
There are many things that Jesus did that were culturally specific and do not have to be imitated. We do not have to wear sandals, for example, become carpenters, or carry on itinerant ministries. However, other things are clearly important for us to emulate. The Gospels tell us that Jesus frequently spent time in prayer, sometimes all night long (Luke 6:12). We would do well to pray more. When met with temptation in the desert, Jesus countered the devil with Scripture (Matthew 4:1–11), giving evidence that He knew the Scriptures well. We should get to know them well, too. There are many other specifics about the way Jesus conducted Himself that we might do well to imitate.
Guiding us in our endeavor to be like Jesus are several passages that specify actions of Christ to follow. We should pay special attention to these:
John 13:12–17 says, “When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’”
Matthew 25:25–28 gives another way we can be like Jesus: “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
And Philippians 2:3–8 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.”
In the three passages above, we are specifically told to follow Jesus’ example of selfless service. Jesus is the ultimate servant—from washing the feet of His disciples to giving His life to save His people. Perhaps nothing marks a person as being Christlike more than selfless service.
The title of Sheldon’s book comes from 1 Peter 2:21, which tells us that believers should follow “in His steps.” While this is good general advice, in context, Peter refers to a specific situation. The larger passage reads, “If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:20–23). A person who does good and is unjustly punished for it, and who then accepts the mistreatment without retaliation, is following in Jesus’ steps.
Asking “What would Jesus do?” is not a bad idea. However, there are some branches of liberal Christianity that see the primary purpose of Jesus’ life as providing an example to follow. (Unfortunately, this seems to have been the theology behind Sheldon’s book, although the novel is still profitable and thought-provoking.) Jesus did give us an example to follow, but rather than asking “What would Jesus do?” it would be better to ask “What does Jesus want me to do?” because He is more than our example; He is our Lord and God.