Ephesians 5:1-2 | Two Commands, Two Reasons
1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians has two major sections. Chapters 1-3 presents gospel doctrine—right thinking about God. Chapters 4-6 presents gospel culture—right living before God. Right thinking leads to right living; gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture.
To maintain gospel culture, we need a constant dose of gospel doctrine. Somehow, we continually forget the best news in the world. That’s why the Reformer Martin Luther said we need to beat the gospel into our heads continually. If we don’t drink constantly from the fountain of God’s love in the gospel, we will not experience a gospel culture because culture is a manifestation of what we think. Thinking and doing go together. We need constant continuing education in Christ’s school.
So, Paul takes us to school.
The “therefore” in verse 1 indicates Paul is continuing a thought. That thought is what Pastor Dustin wonderfully preached last week from 4:25-32. Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. Christianity doesn’t look like a cleaner version of our regular life. Christianity is a whole new life. Christianity is imitating God and walking in love, as Jesus did. Christianity is following the footsteps of Jesus out of the horror of the cross into the glory of the new life. And we have not only the perfect model, we have the perfect power who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
So in Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul gives two commands and two reasons for the Christian life: two commands to live by and two reasons to live by them. So let’s look at the commands first, then the reasons, because that’s how Paul wrote it.
Command #1: Be imitators of God
Look at the beginning of verse 1: “Therefore be imitators of God.”
The goal of the Christian life is perfect imitation of God. The apostle John said that one day, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” So, really, the whole of the Christian life is summed up right here: be imitators of God.
What are we doing when we imitate God? We’re trying to become the greatest good in existence. God is the perfect person. He’s full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And God made us to imitate. Go back to the very beginning. When God created us, he said, “Let us make man in our image.” In the law he said, “Be holy as I am holy.” Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” So when we imitate God, we’re doing what we’re designed to do, we’re imaging God, being holy as he is holy, pursuing perfection. The fact that we have and will continue to fail is no excuse out of this command. It’s all the more reason we need it. God continually calls us to himself, showing and giving the holiness we need.
At the most basic level, to imitate God means to mimic him. How do we mimic someone? We watch them. We pay close attention to them. And then we do what they do.
As I was watching the NBA Finals the other night, I thought of Kobe Bryant. He was an all-time great basketball player. But he wasn’t the best ever. Michael Jordan was (sorry LeBron fans). When Kobe came into the league, it was obvious that he was imitating Jordan. His mannerisms, the way he carried himself on the court, even the way he celebrated. Kobe imitated the details because we imitate in specifics, not in generalities. To be great, Kobe watched specific greatness. He knew he could imitate Jordan, so he did. And he won championships and is a sure Hall of Famer.
I know it sounds crazy, but you can imitate God. Not everyone has the skills to imitate Michael Jordan, but every Christian has the ability to imitate God. Kobe wanted to be like Mike, but he was on his own. Jordan never sat down to show him how to play the game. All Kobe had to go on was tape. We were made to be like God, and God came down in Christ to show us the way. He gave and preserved the Bible where we see his work and wisdom. He sent his Spirit to dwell within. Your Divine Coach gives everything you need to live the full Christian life. You can imitate God.
But let’s understand our place. We are children of God. We are not God. We’re called to imitate God, not to be God. Kobe Bryant could never walk onto the court at United Center in Chicago and expect the applause reserved for Jordan. He could imitate him, but he couldn’t be him. God has certain attributes—all-powerful, all-knowing, self-existent—that we can’t imitate. He has others—holiness, kindness, love—that we can imitate.
When we try to put ourselves in the position of God, trying to be God instead of imitating him, we fail, we sin. We imitate what we face, and it’s hard to look at God when you think you are God. But when you know you’re his child? Well….we’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s consider the other command.
Command #2: Walk in love
Look at the beginning of verse 2: “And walk in love.”
Pastor Tim Keller points out that Paul doesn’t say sprint in love, he says walk in love. I bet you could sprint in love if you had to. It’d take some effort, but you could do it. But it’d be short lived. The point Paul’s making is love shouldn’t be something short lived and occasional, like sprinting. It should be natural and consistent, like walking. Anyone can love once, but can you love constantly? That’s the question.
What kind of love, you might ask. Well, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s a famous passage at weddings, but Paul didn’t write it for weddings. He wrote it for the church.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
That’s the kind of love Paul’s talking about. So, how are you doing? Does love define your life? Paul says it should. And he doesn’t say only super-Christians should live this way. He presents this as ordinary Christianity. The unmistakable sign of Christianity is a life of walking in love. This is not optional for the Christian. Jesus himself said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
For most of us, walking is a natural part of life. But it wasn’t always so. When you were a baby, you couldn’t roll off the couch and walk around the block. You had to be picked up, placed in a stroller, and pushed around by someone else. But now you can walk. And you learned by imitating others. You held the hand of your parents. You were picked up when you fell down.
So what do you need if love isn’t the way you walk? You need to realize you’re a baby who needs help. You need Christ. You need him to come and pick you up, put you in his stroller, and take you for a walk. He’ll show you what love looks like. He’ll take away your excuses and give you reasons.
And that’s why Paul includes two reasons at the end of each command. He’s showing the gospel doctrine upholding the gospel culture.
Reason #1: We are beloved children
Look again at verse 1: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.”
Children imitate their parents. You don’t have to tell them to do it. It just happens. Why? Because they’re the biggest influence in their life. They’re their hero. They’re perfect in their eyes.
But earthly parents fail to live up to the test of time. They disappoint. So we distance ourselves. We orphan ourselves to avoid pain. Many of us even transfer parental disappointment onto God. But that’s not fair. Your father may not have been all he should, but God will never let you down. In fact, if you view God like a more distant version of your earthly parents, you will never imitate him. Why would you? To imitate God, you need to be like a child caught up in the wonder of your Father. And unlike some of our earthly parents, God constantly tells us of his love for us.
Don’t orphan yourself. Accept your childhood. So many of your problems result from forgetting that you are a child of God.
Jack Miller, the Presbyterian pastor, thought a lot about this. He put together a chart to diagnose how we view ourselves in relation to God.
On the left, is the mindset of the orphan. On the right, is the mindset of the child of God.
Which describes you?
The Bible calls all Christians “beloved children.” Romans 8:15 says God has given us the Spirit of sonship and by him we cry, “Abba, Father!” When Jesus taught us to pray, he taught us to say, “Our Father.” Paul says in Galatians 4 we are children of the promise. John says Jesus gave us the right to be called children of God.
If you’re in Christ, God relates to you not like a king to a servant or a boss to an employee but as a father to a child, with warmth and depth, tenderness and care, attention and intention. You’re not an orphan! You’re a child of God! So, Paul says, be like your Father!
This wasn’t any easier for the apostles than it was for us. So on his way to the cross, Jesus made a promise: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” He knew his leaving would trouble his followers. So he assured them they wouldn’t be alone. God would send the Holy Spirit to be and abide with them, to confirm what he taught them, to tell them they were children of God.
What’s true of them is true of us. You, Christian, are a child of God. He’s not just the Father. He’s your Father. And he wants you to understand his massive heart of love for you. He sent Jesus to show it, and he gives his Spirit to seal it. The triune God is at work right now to communicate his love to you!
The Puritan Thomas Goodwin understood this so well. In his book The Heart of Christ, he talked about what Jesus meant in John 16 when he said that whatever the Spirit hears he will speak.
“All his speech in your hearts will be to advance me, and to greaten my worth and love unto you, and it will be his delight to do it. And he can come from heaven in an instant when he will, and bring you fresh tidings of my mind, and tell you the thoughts I last had of you, even at that very minute when I am thinking of them…So that you shall have my heart as surely and as speedily as if I were with you.”
In other words, those moments when you believe the word of God, when you feel loved by him, those moments are not just coincidental, they are not merely emotional. Those moments when you think, “my Father loves me,” are the precise moments when your Father is thinking of you, and he’s communicating his love to your heart by his Spirit who dwells within you.
So if you believe God’s love for you right now it’s not because I’m telling you it’s true, it’s because he’s telling you it’s true!
And when you listen and believe, you then have a responsibility to those of us who feel like orphans. You must imitate God and walk in love toward us, showing us what it’s like to be a child of God, reminding us of the honor, helping us see our Father in new ways, with new eyes. That’s what Paul means in 4:29 when he says we must speak so as to build one another up, that it may give grace to those who hear. We’re family, and we need one other’s faith to build faith.
Be imitators of God, as beloved children.
But there’s more.
Reason #2: Christ loved us and gave himself up for us
Look again at verse 2: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
The Bible says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus is not only the model of perfect love, he’s the reason for all Christian love. That’s why Paul, when discussing right living, includes right thinking. Right living flows from right thinking. Christ’s death on the cross reconciled us to God. It’s the supreme act of love. And if we’re ever going to have a chance at walking in love, it’s going to be in response to God’s love.
I love what John Stott said about Jesus, “What dominated his mind was not the living but the giving of his life.” Jesus knew what he was doing as he walked the road to the cross. He said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected… and be killed.” That knowledge didn’t turn him away. He walked on, bound by his love for God and for us. He let the mission of God determine the path he walked. He wasn’t surprised when it all started going down. He knew Judas would betray him. He knew his trial would go bad. He knew the cross was coming. And he accepted it in love for us. Gospel love is that bold. It’s that risky.
What’s your love like?
A character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina said, “I imagine the main spring of all our actions is self-interest.” Wow, isn’t that true? But in a gospel culture, the main spring of all our actions is the interests of others. “Let each of you,” Paul said, “look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” To walk in love is to seek the good of others even at the expense of self.
Are we really living for God, or are we pretending to live for God while we pursue all our hopes and dreams, fitting God in on the side?
Jesus really lived for God and for us. It wasn’t theoretical. Jesus did not withhold love. Are we aware that withheld love is a sin? Jesus loved us and gave himself up for us. Love gives. What do you need to give in love? You’re thinking of someone right now, someone you need to love better. What are you going to do about it?
We won’t just stumble into this kind of love. Gospel love is intentional. Gospel love walks at the pace of Jesus, imitating God with each step, no matter the circumstances. We must choose gospel love as Christ chose it. He trusted the Father’s plan, resolved to do the Father’s will, and did the Father’s work. Will we?
The Bible makes a big deal of this. Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Apparently, walking in love before God is a bigger deal than making an offering to God. Walking in love is an offering to God.
We see that in that last little phrase of verse 2: a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. That’s Old Testament language. You know that wonderful smell of meat cooking on the grill or in the kitchen? That’s what the Old Testament temple smelled like as a sacrifice burned on the altar. The aroma went up to heaven, and the Bible says God accepted it as pleasing when it came from a sincere and wholehearted worshiper. No one was ever more sincere or wholehearted than Jesus. And his offering on the cross was a pleasing smell to the Father because he walked the road there in love. Gospel love smells good to God.
In love, Jesus offered himself to God for us. What dominated his mind was the giving not the living of his life. Why? Because we blew it. We sinned. And we could never make up for our sin. Our sin required blood, and not the blood of goats and bulls. Our sin required man’s blood. So Jesus took on flesh and gave his blood on our behalf as an offering to God. And the Father accepted it. His offering reconciled us to God.
This, Paul says, is walking in love. Therefore, to imitate God means we’re going to have to die a little. We’re going to have to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus.
But please see that he’s not saying, “live this way or else.” He’s saying, “live this way because.” When we see the dying love of Christ for us, it motivates us to live the same way. If you don’t walk in love, it’s because you haven’t yet really been grasped by the gospel. You may be able to love big-time every once in a while, but only by believing in the dying love of Jesus can you ever have a consistent, routine lifestyle of love.
Jesus’ life of love smelled good to God, and his sacrifice was accepted. Does your life smell good, or is it kind of stinky?
Mine is too often stinky. But here’s the hope for all of us stinky Christians: Jesus loved you and gave himself up for you! When God makes commands of us, he always provides for us. Christ’s sacrifice was a fragrant offering. The Bible says of Christ, “you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” If we stinky Christians will just give our stinky lives to Christ, we will get his oil of gladness, his fragrance. Jesus will cover our stinkiness because that’s what love does. “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
God is not calling us to this just to be a nice person. God is calling us to this because he cannot call himself to us and not make us like him, not make us loving. To be with him is to become like him.
Let me ask this in closing: What if we took this call seriously, with no hold outs, and no limitations? What might God do in and through us?
We might just look like God and love like God. It might look like God came to town, like heaven on earth.
The Reformer John Calvin said we must embrace one another with the love with which Christ embraces us. Jesus loved us and gave himself up for us. Real love includes giving ourselves up. Real love is costly. Real love stretches. It stretched Christ out on the cross. Are you being stretched with him? Imitating God doesn’t only mean his attributes but also his sufferings. Who are you suffering for for Jesus’ sake?
The test that gospel doctrine has settled down deep is the visibility of gospel culture: marked by joyful, sacrificial living—not just your time or money, but your self. Jesus didn’t just give up his possessions. He gave up himself. The test of faithfulness is not merely the amount of your tithe or the fullness of your schedule, it’s your openness to others for Jesus’ sake. Life-giving love from the life-giving God goes through personal sacrifice.
So, that’s the call. Will we trust Christ with it?