Becoming like Jesus—not all that it’s made out to be

Read time: 7 minutes

I wrote a couple of weeks back about the close and defining connection in Paul’s thought between sonship and the specific theme of suffering and vindication. Paul appears to make a crucial distinction in Romans 8:16-17 between being ‘heirs of God’ (klēronomoi… theou) and being ‘fellow heirs of Christ’ (sunklēronomoi… Christou). A person is an heir of God or a child of God by virtue of having received the Spirit and being no longer subject to the condemnation of the Jewish Law. A person is an heir of Christ, however, by virtue of suffering with him in order to be glorified—in effect, raised and vindicated—with him.

This leads us to reconsider the widespread popular assumption that becoming like Jesus, being conformed to the image of Christ, constitutes a core and standard dynamic of Christian discipleship—and yes, it was another sermon that provoked this line of thought.

The issue is similar to the question of whether within the framework of a narrative theology it makes sense to model personal discipleship directly on the practice and self-understanding of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus formed a community of renewal within Israel that would have to make the hazardous journey from death to life—a community defined by the Beatitudes, for example—and instructed them specifically with that purpose in mind. So it is not such a ridiculous question to ask whether we should still be making disciples.

Here, however, I want to examine a number of texts in Paul that might be used to support the argument that Christian discipleship, or Christian growth and development, is normally speaking a matter of becoming increasingly like Jesus.

Conformed to the image of his Son

I have mentioned already my view that when Paul speaks in Romans 8:29 about the elect being ‘conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers’, he has in mind people who have been chosen for the specific purpose of emulating Jesus in his suffering. They have died to the pull of the flesh; they have received the Spirit of Jesus, who prayed ‘Abba, Father’ in Gethsemane before his arrest; they have the assurance that whatever they have to endure will work for good, that they will not be overcome by death but will be vindicated and glorified; they will not be separated from God by the extreme hardships of their calling; they are righteous Israel, regarded as sheep to be slaughtered for the sake of YHWH (cf. Ps. 44:17-22).

To be conformed to the image of the Son, therefore, is to reproduce in their own lives his experience of suffering and resurrection, the result being that Jesus will not be the only ‘martyr’—he will be the ‘firstborn among many brothers’ (8:29). This, in Paul’s thought, defines the scope and purpose of the predestined community. The argument gains support from Paul’s self-presentation elsewhere as one who seeks to share in Christ’s sufferings, to become like him in his death’ (Phil. 3:10-11); or as one who is filling up what is lacking in his own flesh, in his own personal experience, of Christ’s sufferings, for the sake of the church (Col. 1:24).

We have a slightly different thought in 1 Corinthians 15:49, where Paul sums up his discussion of the resurrection body by affirming, ‘Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.’ Quite how we locate this thought will depend on how we interpret the statement in verse 50 about inheriting the kingdom of God. But in any case, bearing the image of the resurrected Christ, which Paul here understands ontologically, does not constitute a practical objective for spiritual or ethical transformation. Instead it quite naturally fits the apocalyptic schema that has so far been outlined.

2 Corinthians 3:18 also needs to be considered here: ‘And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.’ We like to imagine that this is somehow happening to all of us who have received the Spirit—and perhaps it is. But it is telling, surely, that the statement occurs in a passage that speaks extensively about the suffering and glorification of Paul and the apostles: they ‘share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings’ (1:5); they suffered great affliction in Asia (1:8-10); they are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down; they carry in themselves the ‘dying’ of Jesus (4:8-12); they will be raised with Jesus (4:14); their outer selves are wasting away, but they have the hope of a resurrection body (4:16-5:5). 2 Corinthians 3:1-4:6 is precisely an account of this ministry through suffering and affliction, through which Paul and the apostles (the ‘we’ of the passage—not a reference to all believers) are transformed into the image of Christ.

The imitation of Christ

The theme of imitation has a similar thrust to it. This is particularly clear in the case of Philippians 3:17, where the call to these ‘brothers’, who have already suffered for the sake of Jesus (1:29-30), to ‘join in imitating me’ and resist the temptation to set their minds on earthly things, belongs to Paul’s account of his own ambition to suffer and be glorified with Christ. The Thessalonian believers became ‘imitators of the churches of God’ in Judea when ‘you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets’ (1 Thess. 2:14-15). The Thessalonians in their suffering are imitators of the suffering churches in Judea, which had replicated in their own experience the suffering of Jesus and the prophets. In 1 Corinthians 4:9-13 Paul describes how the apostles have become ‘like men sentenced to death, routinely mistreated and abused, and then urges the Corinthians to be ‘imitators of me’ (4:16). To be ‘imitators of God’ is to ‘walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Eph. 5:1-2).

The measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ

Ephesians is usually taken to be a rather non-apocalyptic Letter, written after the initial frenzy of end-time speculation had subsided, which facilitates a generalized reading of passages such as Paul’s account of the building up of the body of Christ in 4:11-16. But even here there are indications that Paul is thinking eschatologically, that he has in mind decisive future moments that control the development of his argument.

On the one hand, the Letter concludes with an emphatic warning to be prepared for an ‘evil day’, when they will need the full resources of the armour of God if they are to withstand the attacks of satan (6:10-18; cf. 5:15-16). On the other, the measure of maturity towards which the body is built up through the work of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, is the Christ who has been raised from the dead, seated at the right hand of God, ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come’, for the sake of the church, which is ‘his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph. 1:20-23; cf. 4:13). In other words—though we are severely short-circuiting the argument—Paul writes on the understanding that the churches will participate dynamically and significantly in the realization of Christ’s lordship in the ancient world in the course of a day of intense persecution. For the community to ‘grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’ is to be formed specifically for this challenge.

Open to suggestions

There are bound to be other passages that ought to be taken into consideration—I am open to suggestions. But for now I would venture to say that whenever Paul speaks of himself or of the apostles or of the churches being somehow conformed to the likeness of Christ or of the churches having Christ as the goal of their growth, the argument invariably has in view the participation of the saints in the suffering and vindication of Jesus.

This does not mean that the person and character of Jesus are of no significance fordiscipleship or personal spiritual development. It means that this relationship must be reconstructed narratively and corporately if we are to avoid pursuing it at the expense of our understanding of the New Testament.