The fifth chapter of Ephesians opens with the startling, unrelenting admonition to be “imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). The word translated imitators is the same word from which we get our word “mimic.” What a command! “Be like God.” How can we take this in? Where do we even start in such a daunting pursuit as God-likeness?

Thankfully, Paul doesn’t leave us to ourselves to determine the best route to resembling God: he follows the command to “imitate” God with the concise instruction to “walk in love” (Ephesians 5:2-7). What does that mean?

Christ Is the Key

It is no accident that the directive to walk in love is immediately and inseparably coupled with the example of Christ: “walk in love, as Christ loved.” If we want to imitate and look like God, Paul says, look at Christ. Christ is not only the way to God (John 14:6); Christ is also the way to God-likeness.

To be like Christ, then, is our ultimate motivation and goal—not just to be “different.” We as Christians often forget this when we make Christianity out to be a legalistic system of prohibitions and criticisms. We are not to strive merely to be starkly contrary to the worldly people who are around us but to be strikingly like Christ who is inside us.

When you think of true love, is Jesus Christ your first thought? When you long to love more or to be loved better, is Christ the standard for which you are dreaming and striving?

As you consider your future marriage partner or attempt to improve your current relationship with another person or persons, remember that real and lasting love is only found in and through Christ.

Love Is Sacrifice For Others

How then do we walk in love as Christ did? First, Paul reminds us that Christ loved us “and gave himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2). The love of God through Christ is a selfless, sacrificial love. The specific “love” to which Paul repeatedly points us is the high-stakes, self-denying agape—the strongest love in the Greek vocabulary. It is the love that gives itself utterly for the object or person loved.

How did Christ love us? He gave himself for us. He offered up his life in order that our lives might be benefited by his.

We, as believers, at least give mental assent to the truth that we are saved because Christ’s love was selflessly poured out on our behalf. Yet that very claim, that belief, binds us with unbreakable force to a life that finds its joy in the joy of others, that gives itself for the good of others. We cannot, Paul insists, claim Christ offered himself for us and then turn around and serve ourselves as the outflow of that revelation. We are to love others as Christ loved us.

Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, Paul in this context invokes believers to a life that is fornication-free and covet-crushing. While we may prefer to think of love in terms of warm feelings or glowing affections, Paul says true love for others will inevitably impact how we treat and think about those around us. Christ-like love is the polar opposite of sensuality and selfishness.

We might blush to have such direct and unabashed commands addressed to us, but then many of us will, in the privacy of our own homes and our own thoughts, entertain—or at least be entertained by—the sinful living represented in almost every sitcom we watch, magazine we read, or joke we enjoy.

Paul’s uncompromising call to pure love informs us that walking in love will necessarily, automatically expel a life of lust. This love will look for ways to serve others, no matter the cost to ourselves, rather than hungrily devouring the affection or attention of loved ones in an effort to fulfill and satisfy ourselves.

Love Is a Sacrifice to God

In his description of Christ’s love, which we are to mimic, Paul further explains that Christ’s love was ultimately “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” In other words, the love that we are to “walk in” (make a habitual way of life) is a love that is at its core God-centered and God-pleasing, not people-centered or people-pleasing.

When Christ gave himself on the cross to pay for our sins, his primary goal was the glory of God. He himself described it in this way: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Jesus gave himself ultimately as a sacrifice to God because only this kind of sacrifice would be a sweet fragrance to God.

This teaching of Paul of course squares perfectly with Jesus’ own insistence that “the most important” of all the commandments is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30). It is only by means of the first commandment that we can ever fulfill the second command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Loving God above all, and with everything you have, is the only way to love anyone or anything else successfully.

True, biblical, Christ-imitating love spends itself utterly for the pleasure of God. It is this aspect of love that separates it from the mere friendliness or companionship in which many unbelievers engage on a daily basis.

Paul emphasizes the God-centeredness of genuine love again, with this remarkable contrast: “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). What is the opposite of filthy living and foolish talking? It is not being kind to your co-workers or faithful to your spouse: it is giving thanks to God. As Paul makes clear in verses 5 to 7, there are sinful qualities that are common to the children “of disobedience,” on whom “the wrath of God” comes; but we are to battle these tendencies in our own lives by looking to Christ, who loved others by loving God more than anything else.

“Imitate God,” Paul commands. And the first way he instructs us to do this is by being consumed by God’s own zeal for God’s pleasure and God’s glory. And when we put God first in our affection, attention, and ambition, then our love for everyone else around us will necessarily be self-denyingly and sacrificially for their good.