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Learning Christ (Ephesians 4:20–21)

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Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

If you were asked who the most influential people are in your life, chances are your list would include a teacher or two. Good teachers make a huge impact on their students. While the profession of teaching is often undervalued, it’s incredibly important. It’s also really hard work. I have three kids at school, and I see the effort and long hours that their teachers put in, both inside and outside the classroom. My wife and I can vouch for the immensely positive effect this is having on our children. Why does good teaching take so much effort? Because it’s not just about transmitting information. It’s about forming lives. It’s about intentionally seeking to help grow individuals to develop their knowledge, their skills, their attitudes, and their values. To do this well takes time, energy, and genuine care. I thank God for those teachers committed to that task.

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Teaching, of a slightly different kind, is also part of my own job. I’m involved in theological education. At our theological college, Moore College, we’re seeking to form and equip ministers of the gospel. In theological education, it’s particularly important for us to remember that we’re not just transmitting information. Of course, we are seeking to transmit information: we’re wanting to ground people in the truths of God’s word. But we’re not just doing that. We’re also seeking to help people shape their entire lives by the gospel. It’s why our core program is face-to-face, and it’s why we emphasise living together in community. Those rich multidimensional interactions of life are a fundamental component of learning. They are the arena in which people are formed as ministers of the gospel, with the heart as well as the knowledge that makes them able to teach others.

But learning and teaching isn’t just the territory of school kids or theological college students. As Paul says here in Ephesians 4:20–21, learning and teaching is fundamental to the lives of all Christians. Churches—Christian communities—are places of learning and teaching.[1] And again, it’s not just about transmitting information. Christians aren’t just people who learn facts. Christians are, says Paul here, people who “learn Christ”.

But you didn’t learn Christ that way—assuming that you heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.

Ephesians 4:20–21
Ducks following a teacher

Learning Christ

Paul starts verse 20 by saying: “But you didn’t learn Christ that way”. This is quite a strange expression, isn’t it? The word “learn” is normally used for things like skills, attitudes, facts, and ideas. It’s not normal to talk about learning a person. So what does Paul mean by the expression “learn Christ?”

To understand what Paul means here, we need to look at what he has just said in the previous verses. Paul has just been spelling out the opposite of learning Christ. He’s been talking about the way people in the world live their lives. The opposite of learning Christ is futility, dark thinking, separation from the life of God, ignorance, hard hearts, callousness, unrestrained sensuality, and insatiable appetites for impure actions (see verses 17–19). If we flip this around, we can see that learning Christ is about the opposite: having purpose and hope, thinking rightly, being connected to the life of God, knowing the truth, having soft hearts open to God’s correction, restraining our wrong desires, being shaped with new godly desires, and living pure lives. Learning Christ, in other words, is about the way we live our lives for the sake of Christ. It’s about learning who Christ is and what he has done for us, and it’s about having our heads, hearts, and hands shaped by these realities.

Ducks learning in a circle

Learning Christ is something we need to do together. That’s why gathering together as God’s people is so important. In church, we grow together in Christ. It’s where we have our understanding, our attitudes, our values, our longings, and our hope formed by the gospel of Christ, in personal interactions. It’s much, much harder to learn Christ online. Online sources and forums only offer a pale shadow of this learning process. Sure, you can learn a lot of facts. And you can have a level of interaction. But the rich, multidimensional interactions of relationships and life which are a key part of learning Christ just don’t happen in the same way. That’s why it’s a bad idea to deliberately choose online forums as the main way to learn Christ. Sometimes, of course, because of life circumstances or physical or mental illness, you might have to restrict your Christian fellowship to online interactions. If that’s you, thank God that the online methods are there for you to make use of, and that they do provide some measure of learning and fellowship. But if you do have an opportunity for face-to-face church, don’t deliberately ignore it—don’t stay away and settle for online interactions when you don’t have to! (By the way, this all applies in the same way to decisions about formal theological education too).

Teaching Christ

The flipside of learning Christ is teaching Christ. Paul says: “assuming you heard about him and were taught in him”. Paul assumes that the gentile believers he is writing to have experienced some level of teaching. The reason he needs to assume this is because he doesn’t know the precise situation of all the people he’s writing to. Paul isn’t writing this letter just for one particular church. He’s writing to a wider group of believers, probably in and around Ephesus, in the Roman Province of Asia (i.e. modern day Turkey). In some of his other letters, where Paul is writing to particular churches, he can refer to specific instructions and formal traditions they have received about how to live for Christ (e.g. Colossians 2:6; 1 Thessalonians 4:1–2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6). But here in Ephesians, he can’t assume this. That’s why in this letter he never uses that kind of “traditioning” language that appears in the examples above. Still, Paul does know that his readers have believed in Christ. So he can assume that they have heard about Christ and know something of what it means to live for him. They must have learned Christ in some way. And that means they must have been taught.

What would such teaching have involved? We don’t know about the exact nature of the formal teaching structures among early believers. But we know what the topics were. How do we know? We can read the New Testament, including letters like this one! From what we read in Ephesians, we can see that teaching Christ is about helping people to know the truth of the gospel, to think rightly, to have purpose and hope through the gospel, to be connected to the life of God, to have soft hearts open to God’s correction, to restrain their wrong desires, to be shaped with new godly desires, to live pure lives, and more. In the following verses, Paul goes on to talk about what he assumes his readers were taught, which is all about how to live for Christ in their daily lives.

This is important to remember if you have any responsibility as a Bible teacher, too. Bible teachers don’t simply “teach the Bible” to thin air; Bible teachers teach the Bible to people. That’s why being a “faithful” Bible teacher means being faithful to the Bible and faithful to the people we’re teaching. It’s why as Bible teachers we need to know the people we’re teaching and be involved in their lives. We certainly need to work hard at understanding the truths of the Bible, but we also need to work hard at considering what impact these truths will have on the people we’re teaching. It’s why we need to pray fervently for God’s Spirit to help us in this task! There are some extremely gifted Bible teachers who are able to make a deep impact on people’s lives while (seemingly) just going through what the Bible says, verse by verse, and not including much explicit “application”, because the application is so obvious from what they are saying. I thank God for people with that gift. But for most of us, we need to work hard at our application. We need to ensure it’s concrete rather than vague, relevant rather than impossible, and speaks to different aspects of a person: their knowledge, their will, their affections, and their conscience. If our application ends up being abbreviated, absent, irrelevant, impossible, assumed, disconnected from the passage, clichéd, hobbyhorsish, impersonal, or hypocritical, then no matter how accurate we are in exegesis, we will not actually be teaching the Bible to people.

Martin Luther: A sermon that children should stay at school
Martin Luther, “A sermon that children should stay at school”, Wittenberg, 1530. Luther, a key Reformer of the European church, saw the value of education for children and actively promoted it.

The truth is in Jesus

Yet in all of this, we must never let go of the fundamental principle which Paul states here: “the truth is in Jesus”. In the end, Christian learning and teaching isn’t just about the process or just about the people. It’s fundamentally about “the truth”. What truth is Paul talking about here?

Earlier in Ephesians, Paul spoke about the “word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians 1:13). “The truth” in Ephesians is the gospel message about salvation through Christ. So as we learn Christ, we are leaning certain facts and objective realities about God and how he has brought salvation to us. That is, we learn “doctrines” (in fact, the word “doctrine” means “teaching”). But these doctrines aren’t just generalised facts about the universe. They are truths about a person: Jesus. Paul is not talking here about a general concept of “the Christ.” He is talking about the actual person of Jesus: the Son of God, who came to earth and lived among us, who taught certain things about who he is and what he came to do and how to live for him, who died on a cross in our place to take God’s wrath that we deserve on himself, who rose from the dead, and who promised to return to judge the world and take his people to eternal glory with him. The truth is in this person: Jesus. This is how we come to know the truth: by coming to know Jesus. It’s why Christian learning and teaching is directly from the Bible. We are to learn and teach the Old Testament, which speaks of the richness of God’s truths and the promises that point us to Jesus. We are to learn and teach the Gospels, in which we come face to face with Jesus. And we are to learn and teach from Acts and the letters that follow, that ground us in the truths about salvation and life and ministry that flow from Jesus.

Being a Christian is, simply, learning to know and live for Jesus Christ: learning who he is and what he has done for us, and learning to have everything about our lives shaped around him. This involves learning truths, and it involves learning to live. Moreover, this is something we do together: as we learn Christ and teach him to one another.

For reflection

What opportunities do you have to learn Christ? How could you make more of those opportunities?

Do you have any opportunities to teach Christ to others? How might you make more of those opportunities?


[1] An expert on this topic is Claire Smith, from whom I’ve learnt a huge amount. For her scholarly work, see her book Pauline Communities as ‘Scholastic Communities’: A Study of the Vocabulary of ‘Teaching’ in 1 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (WUNT 2.335; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012). For an application of her insights to 1 Timothy 2:12, see her essay ‘Unchanged “teaching”: The meaning of didaskō in 1 Timothy 2:12’, in Women, Sermons and the Bible: Essays Interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice (Edited by P. G. Bolt and T. Payne; Matthias Media, 2014).

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This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.

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