In our day, we take it as a sure sign of arrogance when someone says, “Follow my example” — spiritually speaking, anyway.
We think that we walk humbly by refraining from telling others to follow our example: “I’m sinful and selfish and couldn’t ask anyone to follow my example,” we say.
Doesn’t that look humble?
But humility is to walk in submission to our Savior, turning aside neither to the right nor to the left. And He has taught us how to behave regarding examples: how to follow a good one, how to be a good one — and how to learn from a bad one.
Let’s examine the doctrine of example as taught by the Holy Spirit.
1. How to follow a good example
Let us look at how Paul (by the Holy Spirit) teaches us to follow him:
For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example.
– 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 NASB
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
– 1 Corinthians 11:1
Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.
– Philippians 3:17
We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; … for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
– 1 Thessalonians 1:2, 5-7
“You knew what kind of men we proved to be… be imitators of me… join in following my example…”
Is it not our inclination to think Paul arrogant for speaking this way? As if he were sinning in saying such things.
But this is not sin — it’s the instruction of the Holy Spirit! Blessed is the man who humbles himself and learns from the Lord.
The farmer, prophets, Job
The Holy Spirit through James lifts up others who are good examples:
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. … As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.
– James 5:7-8, 10-11
Jehoshaphat followed the example of his father:
The LORD was with Jehoshaphat because he followed the example of his father David’s earlier days and did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father, followed His commandments, and did not act as Israel did.
– 2 Chronicles 17:3-4
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.
– Hebrews 13:7
What is good
Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.
– 3 John 1:11
2. How to be a good example
Not only did the Holy Spirit through Paul instruct the believers to follow Paul’s personal example — He teaches explicitly that we too are to be examples:
Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.
– 1 Timothy 4:12
But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine. … in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach, so that the opponent will be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us.
– Titus 2:1, 7-8
But what about our sin?
Being an example for others to follow does not mean we say we have no sin. Paul knew his sin:
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.
– 1 Timothy 1:15
How is it that God can make a good example of a sinful man? Yet He does…
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves…
– 2 Corinthians 4:7
He does the impossible, doesn’t He — praise His Name!
3. How to recognize and avoid a bad example
The Lord also provides plenty of bad examples in the Scriptures, that we may be warned and avoid destruction.
To avoid a bad example, though, we need two things: we need to learn to recognize one when we see it, and we need to be diligent to avoid following it.
In our sluggishness though, we do not notice the application to ourselves when we read the examples the Holy Spirit provides in the Scriptures — and we certainly aren’t accustomed to keeping our minds sharpened to diligence in these matters.
In His patience then, the Lord, having already given us such bad examples, takes care through the apostolic teaching to point out some of these and show how we must take care to avoid falling into the same punishment:
Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe. … just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.
– Jude 1:5, 7
For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. … Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.
– 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 11-12
(See also Heb. 4:1-11; 2 Peter 2:4-9)
What kindness of the Lord, to teach us so!
4. Resisting God in the name of humility
When we consider our responsibility to be an example for others to follow, we must be wary of dwelling on our unworthiness, on our inability — in short, on ourselves. This seems humble, but it quickly becomes resistance to the Holy Spirit.
Consider these exchanges between the Lord and Jeremiah, Gideon and Moses:
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
And before you were born I consecrated you;
I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Alas, Lord GOD!
Behold, I do not know how to speak,
Because I am a youth.”
But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’
Because everywhere I send you, you shall go,
And all that I command you, you shall speak.
– Jeremiah 1:4-7
The LORD looked at [Gideon] and said, “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?” He said to Him, “O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house.” But the LORD said to him, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man.”
– Judges 6:14-16
The LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. … “Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”
… Then Moses said to the LORD, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” The LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? “Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.” But he said, “Please, Lord, now send the message by whomever You will.” Then the anger of the LORD burned against Moses, and He said, “Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently. And moreover, behold, he is coming out to meet you; when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.
— Exodus 3:7,10-11; 4:10-14
When each of these men protests his unworthiness, the Lord quickly corrects him: it is not about the man’s worthiness, but the Lord’s power. When Moses persists, it is not humility — it is disobedient resistance, and it draws the Lord’s anger!
Brothers and sisters, let us learn that this is not a matter of indifference. Let us fear God — not with the servile, skulking, hating fear of the ungodly, but with the reverential, loving fear of the sons of God. The God we serve is holy!
We love because He first loved us
We know His voice, and where He leads we follow
We take His yoke upon us and learn from Him, for He is gentle and humble in heart, and we find rest for our souls
We follow the example of Christ
Knowing our unworthiness, knowing our sin, we call others to follow our example
On our own we never would have dared
It’s humiliating to the flesh
The mockers will mock
But such is the instruction we have received from our Lord
And trusting in Him
Despairing of any hope in our flesh
We turn our eyes to our Savior — and by faith we obey
And dance in His goodness!
O brothers and sisters, be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.