We rightly think of our Lord Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, the unique Son of God. But do we also think of Him as our example?
There are good reasons why we might be a little shy about this. The primary emphasis in the gospels is not on His example, but on His unique identity as Son of God and Messiah, and His saving work. He is a unique figure, who does unique things; and the big story is not about what we do in imitation of Him, but what only He has done for us.
So it is that traditions of Christianity which have focussed primarily on His example have actually obscured the gospel. If the cross is presented first and foremost as an example of love, we can lose sight of the wonderful fact that it was in fact a propitiation for us.
An “example” reading of the gospel also gets us into trouble with Jesus’ miracles. We see Him heal the sick and raise the dead and think the message must be “Go and do likewise” – though no-one I’ve met has walked on water, fed five thousand or calmed a storm! With that kind of misinterpretation, we miss the message of the miracles, which is to point to Jesus as God’s unique Son (only He could do this), who saves (every single miracle starts with a bad situation and leads to one which is better).
But we should not let these false readings of Jesus’ example put us off heeding it, for the New Testament encourages us to do so. The verse above, from 1 John, puts it very plainly – we ought to walk as He walked.
But how can we follow His example, given that none of us can turn up at a wedding reception and turn water into wine, or interrupt a funeral by resuscitating a corpse?
It seems that if there is one big aspect of Jesus’ example that the New Testament flags most, it is in His humble suffering for us. In Philippians 2, Paul points to that as a model for our relationships for others – humbling ourselves, counting others better than ourselves. In 1 Peter 2, Peter calls us to accept some harsh treatment, including persecution, without retaliation, for this was Christ’s way. In Hebrews 12 we are to take courage in the face of difficulties from His own heaven-focussed perseverance.
But there is more to explore. As we read the gospels, our first question must be “Who is Jesus?”, and our second, “why did He come?” But trailing along, as we meet Him being tempted, or in His interactions with people, or heading for the cross, it’s still good to ask, “What can I, as His follower, learn from His example?”
We continue our series in 1 John this Sunday at 5:00pm.