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Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children;
This may be a familiar verse to you. It is to me. Perhaps you even have it memorized in the King James Version, as I do. One of the helpful things about reading different reliable translations of God’s Word is that it can force you to stop, think, and confirm that you understand what God is communicating in His Word. I invite you to consider (as I did recently) the 1984 New International Version’s translation of this verse:
Ephesians 5:1 (New International Version 1984)
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children
To the observant reader, a couple of differences stick out. Firstly, the word that the King James Version translates “followers” is instead translated “imitators” in the NIV 1984. Secondly, the word “loved” is added in the NIV. I believe the NIV got it right on both of these points. As with all of God’s Word, the more precisely we understand it the more fully we can believe it to our own blessing and to God’s glory.
A word study on the Greek word, mimētēs, reveals that the translation “imitators” is very good, leaving no room for misunderstanding. “Followers” is also a good translation, as long as it is understood in the sense of following an example rather than simply following after someone. The command is not to be one who follows God where God goes. It is a taller order: it is to be one who follows God’s example.1 I could follow a Grammy-award winning musician around the country, attending his concerts, but it would be another thing entirely to put me on stage and ask me to sing like him! Ephesians 5:1 is commanding the latter: to become those who act like God. A tall order indeed.
Before considering how such a feat could be possible for fallen mortals, let’s clarify what we’re being commanded to do. We are not being asked to become imitators of God in all ways – for example, we are not being asked to establish ourselves as sovereigns of our own universe or create things out of nothing. But don’t sit back and relax quite yet. The context makes it clear that we are being commanded to become followers of God’s example in terms of His character traits: things like righteousness, holiness, and His kind and loving nature.2 Sure, the fact that He’s not asking us to create our own planet is comforting, but we’re still going to need some major help to pull this off. For a child of Adam to become an imitator of God in any way is not just a tall order but truly an impossible order.
Thankfully, the key to this happening in our lives is given in the previous chapter,3 and it works every time because it is based on something God has created in and for all of us. We can be imitators of God by putting off the old man with its corrupt behaviors, changing our minds, and putting on the new man. Putting on the new man is something very different than “fake it ‘til you make it” or “the power of positive thinking.” The new man is something “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”4 Who we are on our deepest level is something truly righteous and holy. In the new man, we’ve been created to be like God. Our minds just need to catch up with that reality. Being an imitator of God is as simple (and as difficult) as putting off the old and putting on the new — taking off the old clothing and putting on the new clothing. In and of myself, I am not righteous or holy, but the new man is created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness, and I can put that on. By my natural-birth instincts, I don’t tend to act as loving or as kind as God does, but God is not asking me to fix myself. He’s created the new man to be like Him. The new man mirrors His loving, forgiving nature, and when we put off the old and put on the new we are supernaturally empowered to be imitators of Him.
The rest of Ephesians 5:1, especially when translated precisely, can help us fulfill this command consistently and with the right heart. The King James Version finishes the verse saying “…as dear children,” while the New International Version says “…as dearly loved children.” This is the second major difference between the two translations. Which one should be preferred? A word search on the Greek word translated “dear” in the KJV and “dearly loved” in the NIV quickly reveals that the NIV is more precise here: the Greek word is agapētos,5 which means “loved” or “beloved.” For this reason, I believe the NIV is also better here. The word “dear,” as it is commonly used in 21st century America, isn’t able to communicate the intimacy and depth of what it means to be agapētos. According to the Gospels, on multiple occasions God spoke audibly from heaven describing Jesus Christ as, “[His] beloved (agapētos) son, in whom [He] was well-pleased.”6 God was saying much more than I might mean when starting an e‑mail with, “Dear so-and-so.” When God describes someone as agapētos, it carries all the weight, depth, and vastness of the love of God for His children, starting with his firstborn, Jesus Christ, in whom He was well-pleased. You and I are no less loved children of God than our Lord Jesus Christ.
So then, the command isn’t simply, “be imitators of God, period,” but rather, “be imitators of God as dearly loved children” (emphasis added). I hope you see that this last phrase is not insignificant. It can make all the difference between religious bondage and a fruitful, happy relationship with God. Allow me to offer four ways this little phrase “…as dearly loved children” might help a Christian’s heart to be warmed and encouraged to follow our Father’s example:
- Security: As we seek to be an imitator of God, it is not because we are afraid that we are going to get on our grumpy Father’s bad side if we don’t perform. Instead, we do it from the safety and tender shelter of His love for us. He wants us to do this knowing that however we may perform, we are ever His loved sons and daughters.
- Ability: In addition to the ability inherent within the new man, we also know that we have great ability because we are His children by birth. Being the biological child of that Grammy-award winning musician might give me a leg up in imitating him, wouldn’t you agree? Spiritually, we are born of God and therefore “carry His genes” by nature.
- Banner:7 Being children of God means (for better or for worse) our actions reflect on the family name. Remembering that I am a loved child of God can inspire my heart to bring honor to the name of the Father whose banner I live under. This is not a religious duty or onerous weight but a genuine desire for my life to beautify the reputation of the Father whose loved child I am.
- Training:8 Being a loved child means I live under the watchful and jealous eye of a Father who is actively training me in His ways. For example, I can expect if and when I sin and stray, God will be there as a loving Father to reprove me and get me back on track. Good earthly fathers do this for their children. How much more our Heavenly Father? It’s simply impossible for me to wander off unnoticed. He will always reach out to correct me and call me back.
May our hearts be full and big as we imitate our Father, bringing honor to the family name.
 Incidentally, the NIV 2011 update takes a bit of a liberty in translating the phrase “Follow God’s example” in that the Greek noun is changed into an English verb. We are not being commanded to do something but rather to be something — be imitators of God.
 Ephesians 4:24–32 gives a fuller description of the qualities and character of the new man which is “created to be like God.”
 See Ephesians 4:22–24 for the “how” of being an imitator of God.
 See Ephesians 4:24b (NIV 1984).
 The Greek word agapētos is the adjective form of the related noun agapē that is often translated as “love” and may be familiar to you.
 These words were spoken at his baptism according to Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, and Luke 3:22, and at the Mount of Transfiguration according to Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7, and Luke 9:35. Even if God spoke audibly in the Aramaic language, still the Gospel writers give us the “God-breathed,” “sub-titled” translation of the event in the Greek language.
 Moses recognized the honor it was to fly the flag of the LORD, of being on “Team Jehovah” (see Exodus 17:15, NIV 1984). How much more of an honor for a Christian who’s not only a servant but also a son of God?
 See Hebrews 12:5–10.