Question: "What does it mean to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1)?"
Answer: In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructs the believers, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1). We are to imitate Christ and model our lives after Him.
This word translated as “imitators” or “followers” in English versions of the Bible is mimētai in the Greek, the root of our word mimic. It has the positive connotation of emulating a pattern set by an admired mentor, and it is used seven times in the New Testament to advocate following or emulating certain early church leaders, Christ, and, ultimately, God.
A child imitating his or her parent is the most natural thing in the world. It’s how children learn everything from brushing their teeth to putting away toys to treating others with respect. Young children want to grow up to be like their parents, and they will often pretend to be their parents—trying on their parents’ shoes, wearing their hats, etc. It’s an important part of childhood play as they imitate what they see in their parents. This is the type of mimicry that Paul alludes to in Ephesians 5.
In Ephesians 5:1–21, Paul discusses what behavior is and is not a worthy imitation of God and befitting of God’s children. “For at one time you were darkness,” he says, “but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8).
When Paul instructed the believers to be imitators of God, he did not indicate that this meant they should act as if they were also divine, omniscient, or possessed of any God-like powers. Instead, he specified “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1, emphasis added). Perhaps this is why some translations use the word followers instead, to emphasize that Christians must imitate God in such a way that follows His example. Beloved children do not presume to become their parents; however, children may be seen imitating the behaviors and actions of their parents.
To properly imitate God, we must first be His children. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). If we receive Christ and believe in His name, we become God’s beloved children.
We must also know God’s ways so we might know what to imitate. Ephesians 5:1–21 gives several examples. “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. . . . And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:3–4, 18–21). We can learn of the Lord and His ways through prayerful study of biblical passages like this one.
God gave us the ultimate example to follow in Christ. Discerning how to live based on our God who supersedes the universe can be difficult, but, in the life of Christ, we see a practical example of how a person should live on this earth. “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). As we look to Christ, we learn we are to walk in love, giving sacrificially to others and offering ourselves fully as a sacrifice to God.
Imitators of God will be imitators of Christ, striving to walk in love and submission to God as beloved children walk in obedience to and imitation of a father.