Setting an example

You’ve probably seen it. A man walks along a beach, leaving deep footprints in the sand. Behind him walks a son or daughter, hopping from print to print, trying to match Dad’s stride. They can’t quite do it, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Children are born imitators. That’s how they learn about the world. Nervous parents may try to tell them, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” They might even try to back it up with punishment. But in the long run, it doesn’t work. If there’s a mismatch between what parents say and what they do, guess which one their children will follow? The example parents set will teach the more lasting lesson.

From the very start, parents should strive to set a good example for their children to imitate. Later, when the children are old enough and verbal enough, that lived example can be reinforced by honest conversations about the whys of behavior.

But I’ll be honest: when it comes to the Bible, I get a little squeamish about Paul telling other Christians to imitate him like a child imitates a father (1 Cor 4:14-16; cf. also Phil 3:17). Isn’t that just a tad unseemly? Can’t he just let his actions speak for him? 

I mean, come on, that’s what John Wayne and Clint Eastwood would have done. (And if you don’t know who they are, we need to talk.)

Paul has called the elders of the Ephesian church to join him in the city of Miletus, so that he might encourage them and bid them farewell without having to set foot in the city. Here’s how he begins his long goodbye:

You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. (Acts 20:18-21, CEB)

There’s no disputing the facts that the Ephesians already know so well: Paul has indeed been severely tested by his Jewish opponents, including the ones who not long before had forced him to abandon his plans to sail for Syria (Acts 20:3). And Paul had indeed preached the gospel boldly, in all places, to all people.

But how can he say, “You know how I lived the whole time…I served the Lord with great humility”? Doesn’t that sound…well, less than humble?

Yes — if what we mean by humility is a form of posturing, of being outwardly self-effacing but inwardly proud (including being proud of one’s humility). But here, Paul’s humility goes hand in hand with his tears: it’s the humility of being humiliated, beaten down, cast into despair (2 Cor 1:8). Here, “I served the Lord with great humility” means something like, “I had every ounce of pride and self-importance beaten out of me” — even before he had ever reached Ephesus.

And the Ephesians knew it.

He continues, telling them that they will never see him again (Acts 20:25), essentially because God is calling him elsewhere and the responsibility for the ministry in Ephesus is now in their hands. He tells them that he is innocent of anyone’s blood, because he has warned everyone of the need to repent by clearly proclaiming the gospel to them (vss. 26-27, 31). He reminds them that he never preached the gospel for his own gain, and indeed, did hard manual labor to support himself and even some of his co-workers (vss. 33-34). And in and through all of this, he gave them an example to follow as Christian leaders (vs. 35). 

There’s an urgency to his words. He sees trouble ahead for the church, and knows that it will take leaders with the deepest integrity to shepherd the congregation through the coming crises. That’s why he points to the example he’s already set for them.

They’re going to need it.

We’ll see why in an upcoming post.

One thought on “Setting an example

  1. Good explanation of Paul’s actions and attitude. The idea of what Godly humility looks like can be confusing in today’s context.

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