Access to formal education in antiquity was limited primarily to the upper classes. Literacy was not widespread. Skills necessary for particular trades were taught through apprenticeship models. Religious knowledge similarly circulated among a small circle of priests. People learned what was necessary to survive. Within Judaism the synagogues would provide basic education for male children. Females had little access to any education.
Paul surprises us then when in Ephesians 4:20-23 he incorporates the metaphor of school as a way to communicate the essence of Christian conversion and discipleship. He describes this as “learning the Messiah” (emathete ton Christon), “being taught in him” (en autoi edidachthete) and grasping “the truth in Jesus” (aletheia en toi Iesou) (vs. 20-21). Through this messianic education people receive from God the motivation and power “to strip away the old human being” and “to put on the new human being” (vs. 22-23).
Generally the verb “learn” (manthanō) is completed by an object such as skills, songs, or lessons of some sort. We find no occurrence in Greek literature prior to Ephesians 4:20 where a person is used as the object of this verb. Paul is being intentionally provocative in his language here. What did he want to communicate by this unusual language?
Paul’s use of this metaphor follows a description of humanity’s terrible situation. He focuses upon the debilitated condition of the human mind. The language is powerful and shocking. Human wisdom is “futile” (v. 17), people are living in a perpetual intellectual black out (v. 18), ignorance fills their lives (v. 18), and their hearts, i.e. the centre of human will, “are hardened” (v. 18). All of this generates a way of living that is totally at odds with the divine will. The focus on the mental condition is quite extraordinary. For people who have no connection with God the situation must be alarming, even though they may not fully realize its extent and implications. Later in v. 22 Paul says that this life outside of God is “rotting away”, decomposing as life proceeds. It stinks morally. Like any putrid thing, it must be stripped away and jettisoned. The only solution Paul offers requires people to “learn the Messiah”.
Three things (v. 20) must happen in this educational process. People must “hear him”, i.e. listen to the Messiah. This is the same emphasis that Jesus had during his ministry. The parable of the sower, seed and soils defines the critical importance of properly hearing the Messiah’s message. True, genuine hearing will always result in change marked by repentance. Hearing becomes the initial step of faith.
Secondly, people must be “taught in him”. Christ is not the agent here, but rather the life context within which this teaching occurs. We are familiar with Paul’s use of “in Christ” as a phrase to describe Christian existence. We can only “learn the Messiah” if we are “in him”, i.e. we have transferred from the domain of Satan into the family of God. Such learning begins with the Gospel, but also builds upon the Gospel foundation. It is in this place that we begin to discern the extent of God’s love for us, the joy that God’s Spirit gives to us, and the power for goodness with which God’s Spirit energizes us. Several times in the following chapters Paul notes that we love “as Jesus Christ loved”. We have been “taught in him” and so our ability to incarnate God’s will becomes apparent in surprising ways. Today God vests in pastor/teachers within our churches the responsibility to “restoratively equip” through such teaching.
Thirdly, Paul summarizes the message we hear and the principles we are taught as “truth in Jesus”. Rarely does Paul use the personal name of Jesus by itself. When he does, the emphasis usually rests upon Jesus’ incarnation experience. As Paul describes it in Galatians 4:5ff, Jesus was “born of woman, born under law.” Jesus experienced temptation, suffering, and death, yet he remained fully submissive to God’s will, no matter what the personal cost might be to him. This “truth in Jesus” gathers up all that Jesus taught about the presence of the Kingdom and its future development. It includes his role as Son of God, Son of Man, and Messiah.
Enrolling in the Messiah’s school enables us to experience God’s most gracious work – becoming a new human being (v. 24). Using language of dressing, Paul states that “learning the Messiah” enables us to “strip away” the old human being and “put on” the new human being. Such language describes a most radical change. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul says that followers of Jesus become “new creations” and here in Ephesians 4:24 we discover that this new human being “is being created in full harmony with God.” Whether we should understand this as being fully made in God’s image, or that our new creation is fully correspondent with God’s will, is open to debate. However we finally decide the interpretation, God is significantly involved in this personal revolution. He remakes us so that we can be good, right, and devoted to Him in every way. The outcome is measured in behavioral terms. We cannot claim to be Christian if we do not live like the Messiah, embodying the “truth in Jesus”.
Lest we be tempted to think that this change is something external only, Paul inserts in v. 23 the essence of this change – being continually renewed in spirit and in mind. Our attitude and mental perspective gain a whole new shape because we “have learnt the Messiah”. We can forgive one another, we can love one another, we can control our anger, and we can submit to one another, because we are made new so completely.
Within the larger frame of Ephesians this section is pivotal. In the preceding section Paul has urged Christians “to walk worthily of their calling” (4:1). He describes how the Lord Jesus provides gifts of people and leadership to the church to support Christians to live obediently. Following 4:17-24 Paul enlarges on various aspects of what such a worthy walk looks like in daily living. He concludes by reminding believers of the divine armor they can appropriate to resist evil. Ephesians 4:17-24 is a kind of flashback, in which Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians of the wondrous change the Gospel has created within them. They can only walk worthily of their calling because they have “learned the Messiah” and embraced “the truth in Jesus”. Similarly, the ethical responses Paul requires in 4:25-6:20 can only happen because God has created them as “new human beings”.
Christianity is all about God-drenched ways of thinking and ways of being. Each day in the school of Christ we learn this divine wisdom and receive power and encouragement to incarnate it.
- Christian conversion involves the whole person, but particularly changes the way we think and act.
- Learning the Messiah” requires a deliberate action on the part of people. God has provided the means – His Spirit, His Word, His community.
- While we marvel at the blessings of becoming “new human beings” through the Gospel, we must also accept the implied warning that those who ignore the “truth in Jesus” continue to ‘perish’.
- Being made new in spirit and in mind is a constant and continuing pursuit – it is never finished within our earthly life.
- 1. In Acts 19 Paul has traveled to Ephesus. He shared the Gospel for three months in the Synagogue there, but then had to leave. Luke tells us that for two years "he had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus" (19:9). Through this process "all Jews and Greeks who live in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord" (19:10).