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Jon Ruthven

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Jon Ruthven is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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Articles > Charismatic Theology > The "Imitation of Christ" in Christian Tradition

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    Jesus is frequently described in the Gospels as "rabbi"-a term ranging in meanings from respect ("Sir") to a more formal term of "teacher/role model."[23] It is clear, however, from a variety of statements that the relationship of Jesus to his disciples rested upon the latter notion. For example, in Lk 6:40 Jesus affirms the traditional rabbinic notion that "a pupil [talmid?] is not above his teacher [rabbi?], but everyone [each, in every case, without exception], after he has been fully trained [katertismenos], will be like his teacher" [emphasis mine]. The expression "not above," in view of the contrasting parallel in the second part of the verse, here suggests that the pupil normatively does not deviate from anything the teacher does. In the Gospel of John this pattern of rigidity in replicating Jesus' life is repeated in 13:34; 17:18,23; and 20:21, using the conceptual formula, "As I . . . so you." In 13:15 Jesus states, "For I gave you an example that you also should do as [kathos] I did" [italics mine]. The continuation and replication of Jesus' mission in his disciples is explicit in Jn 20:21, "As [kathos] the Father has sent me, I also send you." The English translation, "as," for kathos, implies a sense of rough equivalence, expressing similarity, but necessarily not being the same, as in its synonym, "like." By contrast, the Greek, kathos is a word that carries the stronger sense of "exactly as," or, "to the exact same degree and extent."[24]   Hence, in both these verses, the specific, exact duplication of Jesus' mission is intended. The significance of all this is that, in Palestinian Jewish tradition contemporary with Jesus, as well as in the NT itself, no detail of a teacher's life is to be either ignored or left unreplicated.

    One could argue, however, that the disciples' relationship with Jesus was unique and not to be replicated in further generations of Christians. Indeed, this is explicit in the cessationist tradition when it comes to replicating Jesus' ministry of signs and wonders. If we put aside the miracle aspect of discipleship, however, it is generally understood in Christendom that the Gospels and Acts seem to present the disciples of Jesus as surrogates for the reader.[25]   In fact this is explicit throughout the New Testament: subsequent generations of Christians are normatively to be disciples of the disciples even as Christians are followers of Christ.

    When we move into the epistles, the discipleship theme is every bit as strong as in the Gospels and Acts: only the vocabulary has changed. Outside the narrative documents it appears that the terms "disciple" and "follower" are replaced with specific exhortations to live out the Christian life: to "walk" in the "way" of Christ, or "put on" or be "in Christ" in some sense. There is a consciousness of the presence of the promised Spirit, who is virtually equated with the presence of Jesus, e.g., 2 Cor 3:17, cf. Jn 14:17-18, 28; 16:16. In this, discipleship is advanced toward an even more intimate awareness of the rabbi, Jesus, who will empower them and guide them into all truth.

    Discipleship, however, moves to a third, fourth and even a fifth generation in the NT. Paul can require of his readers, for example, "Imitate me even as [kathos-to the same degree and extent that] I imitate Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). Four other times he exhorts churches to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17; 2 Th 3:7,9, cf. Gal 4:12 and Phil 4:9).

    In 1 Cor 4:15-17 Paul says that he became the Corinthians' "'father' through the Gospel." This obviously means something more than progenitor, or "father" of a new religion, but rather retains the more technical meaning of "rabbi/teacher." Proof of this is the remainder of the verse: "I exhort you to become imitators of me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my son [talmid] whom I love [an echo of Jesus' baptism?] . . . who will remind you of my ways [hodous=derakim]." The term "ways" is a Semitism that refers to the whole characteristic pattern of life.[26]   Here, then, we implicitly have three generations of imitators described: Jesus, Paul, Timothy/the Corinthians.

    Similarly, 1 Th 1:5-6 displays the pattern of imitation, not only to the third generation, but also to the fourth! Not only could the believers observe the type of people Paul and his companions were as they presented the Gospel, but the Thessalonians "became imitators of us and of the Lord . . . so as (hoste-"for this reason") to become a pattern to all those in Macedonia and in Achaia." In other words the explicit reason the Thessalonians became imitators of Paul, was that they, themselves, become exemplars for others to imitate in exactly the same way.

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