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What are the priorities that Christ incarnated with his life?
In the first two articles we (read first and second) considered the kind of “being” that many people pursue today: being famous and admired, being an independent and free person, being rich and powerful.
We saw how these secular gods are dead-end roads, they lead nowhere but to emptiness and frustration. This is why we need to consider the biblical response. If being is so important, what is the being that reflects God´s will for us? What are the priorities that Christ incarnated with his life?
THE GREAT PRIORITY: TO BE LIKE CHRIST
«Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart» (Mt. 11:29)
The priority for a Christian is the progressive shaping of Christ’s character in us: becoming and being like Christ. We see this principle clearly stated in the N.T., for example in Romans: «God called us …to be conformed to the image of his Son » (Romans 8:29). Our ultimate goal is to become like Christ. Any other thing in our life is secondary before this supreme objective. The formation of a moral character that may fully reflect the mind and the life of our Lord is our goal and aspiration. There is no better agenda for a believer. This way, our ultimate goal –to be like Christ- becomes our first priority. Why is it so important?
“It is what comes out of a person that defiles them”. Being comes first, it the great priority, because all our acts and attitudes, our behavior, our ethics, our lifestyle will come out from this spring of water that is our moral character. This is what Jesus emphatically taught: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23). The order of the steps, according to Jesus is very clear: first, becoming; then behaving. Our doing is always the result of our being.
“Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart». The Lord himself shows us the way. He taught his followers what they were supposed to learn from him. We certainly have many things to learn from the teaching and deeds of Jesus. His words were wise and sublime, his “signs and wonders” were powerful. All this is true. Nevertheless, the core of what we have to imitate and live out lies in the character of our Lord that is summarized in the very statement he made of himself: “I am gentle and lowly in heart». This self-concept revealed his innermost identity magnificently portrayed by the apostle Paul in Philippians 2: 5-11, a hymn where the unique character of Christ shines radiantly. It is important to notice how this passage begins: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (v.5). Paul urges us to have the same mind as our Lord. This mindset determined his reactions, the way he treated every person, his sensitivity towards the outcast and the weak, his concern for the sick and the poor, his prayer life, his courage, his obedience to the Father and total surrender to His will to the point of death.
Jesus himself describes Christlikeness in more detail at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). He uses very practical examples to illustrate how this character should be incarnated in everyday life and urges his disciples to do the same. Another key text to grasp the character of Jesus is found in Galatians 5:22–23. Paul lists the various elements of this magnificent cluster, the fruit of the Spirit. Each one of its parts is a feature of Christlikeness. A thorough meditation of these two passages will give us a fresh and deep insight of this character we are called to imitate.
Therefore the distinctive traits of Christ´s moral character are clearly manifested through his life and teaching. The person of Jesus made a tremendous impact on the lives of many people. No wonder Peter summarized it this way: “…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38). No wonder either the memorable exclamation of the centurion by the Cross: “seeing what had happened, the centurion praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man are extensively” (Lk. 23: 47).
The great priority is also for the Church. Actually this calling to be like Christ is not only for the individual Christian, but also for the church: «in Christ the whole structure (the Church) being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord» says Paul (Ephesians 2:21). I have to confess that I feel a bit puzzled when I hear someone say: “What this church needs is a good project, a clear agenda». Is there any better or higher «project» than promoting all that contributes to this amazing transformation –metamorphosis–of a believer or a church into the image of Christ?
I am afraid that too much emphasis on a «project» can reflect a subtle influence of secularism and, therefore, hinder us from our paramount priority: “…we are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Co. 3:18). Political parties or business people need programs, projects and plans because they work under merely human criteria, but we should remember that our spiritual DNA –the life of the Spirit within us- conveys totally different priorities. I do not want to dismiss the value of specific objectives or goals for a local church or an individual Christian, but the ultimate purpose is to be more like Christ every day, not to be successful by accomplishing certain objectives.
Being like Christ makes us holy and deeply human. This transforming process is part of our sanctification. Christ was holy so our longing to be like him is a desire for holiness too. This is not a popular idea today; many people believe that holiness has to do with being religious, or with monastic life, or perhaps some odd lifestyle. Far from this, true holiness makes us more human, deeply committed to the needs of our neighbor as Jesus was. Holiness is compassion in action, holiness is humility and gentleness in our relationships, holiness is responsibility and loyalty in our commitment, holiness is integrity in our behavior, holiness is perseverance and endurance in times of trial, in a word holiness is being human, in the same way that Jesus was deeply human.
Some examples in History show us that it is not impossible. Holiness has been one of the distinctive marks of the great revival movements in Church History. The influence of the Moravian Brethren in the XVIII century with Count Zinzendorf, the spreading of the Methodist awakening with John Wesley, or the great spiritual input of the puritans, they all had a very clear «project»: sanctification, to become like Christ. I wonder if part of the shallowness of the Christian faith in the West today comes from a loss of the vision of our core priority. Too often secondary goals have taken a central place in our personal and church life. We easily emphasize activities instead of attitudes, doing instead of being, human programs instead of the divine Program that is to be conformed to the image of our Lord.
Being like Christ, holiness, is a requisite for every disciple, not a voluntary option for a spiritual elite. The calling “to be holy in all our conduct» (1 P. 1:15) is a duty and a privilege of every believer and of all the churches, «since it is written, `you shall be holy, for I am holy.´» (1 P. 1:16).
Neglecting the great priority can be the first step toward spiritual shipwreck. We have to be careful with this subtle backsliding process. This was the remarkable problem of the church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7). Many things were all right in this congregation. It looked almost an exemplary church. The Lord had many reasons to commend it: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary”. But an important mistake was pointed out by the angel, something vital was missing. God has to rebuke the church: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first”. The love for Christ, the passion and longing to become like him was not anymore a mark of those well intentioned believers.
Growing into Christlikeness: “We are led by the Spirit of God”. Jesus was not only a great man from whom we can learn a lot; his influence is not limited to that of an inspiring biography that we wish to emulate. His exemplary life is necessary, but it is not enough. If we want to become like Him, we depend on something else. We certainly need his example, but we also need His power.
Becoming like Christ is not a matter of trying harder every day relying on our own efforts, but of surrendering ourselves to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Humanly speaking it is not a difficult process, it an impossible one!
Jesus is alive today and He helps us through the Holy Spirit to be transformed into His image, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6) . The transformation into His image is not, therefore, a human but a divine process. This is why our good will is not enough and we need divine resources. God makes us grow into Christlikeness through many different ways, but prayer and God´s Word under the guidance of the Holy Spirit are the cardinal ones. There is no substitute for them.
Dare to be different: «Do not be like them». Being like Christ implies being different from the average around you. At the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges his disciples: «Do not be like them» (Mt. 6:8). In the original Greek the verb “do not be like” is the same as the one in Romans 8:29, “to be conformed to His image”. As John Stott points out in “Christian Counterculture”, this great piece of teaching (the Sermon on the Mount) is summarized in just one sentence: «Do not be like them». It is primarily a matter of being and becoming. Being like Christ implies being different, “not to be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). You have to dare to be different!
I am convinced that the recovery of an earnest longing for Christlikeness is the most urgent need of the church today. What a glorious challenge: dare to be different, be like Christ, be holy.
Let the words of the song “Shine, Jesus, shine” be our prayer:
As we gaze on Your kindly brightness
So our faces display Your likeness.
Ever changing from glory to glory,
Mirrored here may our lives tell Your story.
Shine on me. Shine on me
Pablo Martínez, psychiatrist, author and international speaker.