A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 4:20-24. b). The Christian life.
The RSV does not adequately bring out the sharpness of the contrast, the ‘but as for you (*humeis de*) or ‘you, however, (NIV) of the beginning of verse 20:*you did not so learn Christ!* Over against heathen hardness, darkness and recklessness Paul sets a whole process of Christian moral education. He uses three parallel expressions which centre on three verbs, all in the aorist tense, meaning to ‘learn’, to ‘hear’ and to ‘be taught’, with a final reference to ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’.
First, ‘you learned Christ’ (verse 20, *emathete*)
Secondly, ‘you heard him’ (verse 21a, *ekousate)
Thirdly, ‘you were taught in him’ (verse 21b, *edidachthete*)
These are remarkable expressions. They ‘evoke the image of a school’ and refer to the catechetical instruction which Paul assumes, indeed knows, they have had. According to the first, Christ is himself the substance of Christian teaching. Just as evangelists ‘preach Christ’ (2 Cor.4:5), so their hearers ‘learn’ Christ, and ‘receive ‘ him, that is, a tradition about him (Col.2:6). But what sort of Christ do they learn? Not just the Word made flesh, the unique God-man, who died, rose and reigns. More than that. The implication of the context is that we must also preach his lordship, the kingdom or rule of righteousness he ushered in, and all the moral demands of the new life. The Christ whom the Ephesians had learned was calling them to standards and values totally at variance with their former pagan life.
Secondly, Christ who is the substance of the teaching (‘you learned Christ’) is himself also the teacher (‘you heard him’). It is a pity that RSV translated the phrase *you heard about him*, for there is no preposition. Paul assumes that through the voice of their Christian teachers, they had actually heard Christ’s voice. Thus, when sound biblical moral instruction is being given, it may be said that Christ is teaching about Christ.
Thirdly, they had been *taught in him*. That is to say, Jesus Christ, in addition to being the teacher and the teaching, was also the context, even the atmosphere within which the teaching was given. When Jesus Christ is at once the subject, the object and the environment of the moral instruction being given, we may have confidence that it is truly Christian. For *truth is in Jesus*. The change from his title ‘Christ’ to his human name ‘Jesus’ seems to be deliberate. The historical Jesus is himself the embodiment of truth, as he claimed (Jn.14:6).
But what exactly is this truth that is in Jesus? If heathen darkness leads to reckless uncleanness, what is the truth which sets Christians free and leads them to righteousness? The next verses (22-24) give the answer. To ‘learn Christ’ is to grasp the new creation which he has made possible, and the entirely new life which results from it. It is nothing less than putting off our old humanity like a rotten garment and putting on like clean clothing the new humanity created in God’s image.
When does this take place? RSV is seriously misleading in that it renders the infinite verbs as if they were imperatives, and thus represents Paul’s written instruction as fresh commands to his readers: *Put off your old nature …and put on the new nature* (verses 22,24). But this cannot be right, for two main reasons. First, in the parallel passage in Colossians (Col.3:9-10) the verbs are aorist participles, indicating what the Colossian Christians did at the time of their conversion: ‘Seeing that you have put off the old nature… and have put on the new nature.’ Secondly, if they are commands in Ephesians 4:22,24, then the command of verse 25 becomes a nonsense: *Therefore, putting away falsehood…* Surely this ‘therefore’, which builds on what has just been written, can hardly base one command upon another, as if to say: ‘Put off your old nature…and put on the new…Therefore put away falsehood’.
The Colossian parallel, on the other hand, makes perfect sense, because it builds a present command on a past fact. It reads: ‘Put all these things away – anger, malice, slander (etc.) – seeing that you have put off the old nature…and have put on the new’ (3:8-10). It is because we have already put off our old nature, in that decisive act of repentance called conversion, that we can logically be commanded to put away all practices which belong to that old and rejected life.
In Ephesians 4 as in Colossians 3, therefore, the same logic is to be found. The verbs ‘put off’ and ‘put on’ are not fresh commands which the apostle is now addressing to his readers, but old ones which he gave when he was with them and of which he now reminds them. Indeed, these commands are the very ‘truth as it is in Jesus’ which they had been taught and learned.
So we should repunctuate these sentences, and replace the full stop at the end of verse 21 with a colon or with the word ‘namely’, thus: ‘You did not so learn Christ! – assuming that you…were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, namely that you were to put off your old nature…and put on the new…’ JBP captures the sequence of thought well ‘What you learned was to fling off…and to put on…’ So does NEB: ‘Were you not…taught the truth as it is in Jesus? – that, leaving your former way of life, you must lay aside that old human nature’.