This excerpt from my doctoral thesis looks at how Paul tried to embody Christ and invited others to imitate him.
Christ’s Presence and Authority in Paul
Paul had a weightiness to his personal presence that certainly rivaled that of the Greco-Roman moral philosophers. However, unlike the philosophers who were esteemed and exercised authority by virtue of their superior wisdom and persuasive presentation, Paul’s authority and high esteem was “given by the Lord” (2 Cor 10:8) and derivative of his status as “Christ’s apostle” (1 Thess 2:6).
The focus here is on the nature and significance of Paul’s personal presence and authority as he provided spiritual direction to his churches. We find that both his authority and approach are essentially Christ-generated and Christoform. That is, they emphasize the reality of Christ’s own presence, authority and wisdom operative within Paul and his ministry.
Again, recalling last chapter, Jesus exemplified an “embodied pedagogy” insofar as he embodied the heart and goal of the Torah. Jesus then passed on to his disciples the task of re-embodying that message to future generations in their own formational contexts. Now we see Paul doing just that: embodying in his own life and teachings the presence and pattern of Jesus himself for his own disciples to imitate.
Paul taught and ministered with a deep sense of Christ’s own presence and power operative within him through the Holy Spirit. To the Colossians he speaks about “the energy that [Christ] powerfully inspires within me” (Col 1:29). To the Romans he declared, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Rom 15:18–19).
To the Thessalonians he could say “our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit” (1 Thes 1:5). Paul’s teaching was not merely the human wisdom of just another philosopher: “You accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe” (1 Thes 2:13). Paul claimed to be a steward of divine truths and “Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit” (1 Thes 4:8).
Thus, Paul’s personal presence and teaching authority were weighty for sure—not due to his own superior wisdom or human capabilities, but by virtue of his claim to carry around in his body and ministry the indwelling presence, power and message of Christ by the Spirit. Paul would resonate with John the Baptizer’s life-verse: “I must decrease, he must increase” (John 3:30). However, for Paul, this does not mean “I must disappear, so Christ can appear and do his ministry without me in the way.” The incarnation forever eliminated this option. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful prose:
By choosing Christ to flesh out the word, God made a lasting decision in favor of incarnation. Those of us who are his body in the world need not shy away from the fact that our own flesh and blood continue to be where the word of God is made known. We are living libraries of God’s word. Our stories are God’s stories. Sometimes they are comedies and sometimes they are tragedies; sometimes faith shines through them and other times they end in darkness, but every one of them bears witness to the truth of God’s word. Preachers cannot “stay out of” their sermons any more than singers can stay out of their songs. Our words are embodied, which means we bring all that we are to their expression.
If we are indeed “living libraries of God’s word” then Paul would urge us to fill our pages with poems and panegyrics that put Christ on display for all who read our lives. Let us now look at Paul’s Christoform re-appropriation of the ancient art of mimesis.
Imitating Christ in Paul
As jolting as it first sounds to contemporary ears, Paul repeatedly urged others to imitate himself in their attempts to grow in Christian maturity. Rodney Reeves describes the scene we can all imagine:
If someone in our churches were to present themselves as the model Christian, making the claim that following them would be the same as following Jesus, most of us would dismiss them as ridiculous. Can you imagine? “Okay, everyone, listen to me. Do you want to know how to live the Christian life? Want to know what it takes to follow Jesus? Looking for a model of discipleship? Here I am. Imitate me.” I can hear the catcalls now: “Ah, sit down and shut up. Who do you think you are?
Yet, we cannot escape all the black ink in our Bibles that points in this direction. To the Galatians: “I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong” (Gal 4:12). To the Thessalonians: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thes 1:6). To the Corinthians: “Therefore I urge you to imitate me” (1 Cor 4:16). Further more, “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” (1 Cor 7:7). Or again, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). To the Philippians: “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil 3:17) and “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:9).
While each of these instances has its own unique context to consider, the overall message in Paul can be summed up by: Live a cruciform life. Yet, S. E. Fowl rightly emphasizes, “Paul seems to have grasped that it was only through imitating one who already had sought to embody—with some degree of success—the cruciform life of a disciple that new disciples could hope to embody the cross in the various contexts in which they found themselves.”
Paul happily assumes the ancient wisdom and practice of mimesis. His encounter with the resurrected Christ on the Damascus Road did not result in his shrinking as a person into insignificance—“getting out of the way”—so that Christ could be all in all. Rather, Christ commissioned him to be front and center as God’s “chosen instrument” (Acts 9:15).
Pastors and teachers today, like Paul then, are chosen instruments in God’s hands with the divine purpose of—borrowing a phrase from McKnight—“nurturing cultures of Christoformity” in their churches. While many today would foster a self-deprecating dualistic view of the teacher as one who points people “away from self and toward Christ,” Paul calls us back to the ancient incarnational view. For Paul, the teacher points people to Christ by embodying and mediating Christ to others in and through their own being and life. Eugene Peterson says it well:
When God chose to reveal himself to us completely, he didn’t do it in words or ideas. He became flesh and lived in the neighborhood with us. Which means that our bodies are capable of receiving God and participating in God, not just with our minds or our emotions or our “hearts” as we sometimes say, but with these actual flesh-and-blood, skin-and-muscle bodies.
Note, however, the important Christoform twist that separates Paul’s letters to his churches from, say, Seneca’s letters to Lucilius. Paul urges his students not to choose an extraordinary human teacher to model one’s life and character after—a Cato or Laelius. Nor does he typically tell believers to imitate the divine Son of God in some ultimate, unmediated way—a morally daunting task to say the least. Instead, Paul admonishes believers to a third way: choose a less-than-extraordinary human teacher (like himself) who nevertheless embodies the character of Christ (however imperfectly) in their own unique and yet quite ordinary ways and imitate him.