Ephesians 4:20-22, “But that is not the way you learned Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.”
Think of someone who has taught you something. Maybe a person teaching you a new skill when you were young or someone at work instructing you on how to do a project. When they were telling you how to do something, and you saw the success of how you were doing it, did you suddenly decide to turn and do it a different way? Did you boast to others that you had a world renown teacher, but he didn’t really know what was best for you, so you aren’t going to follow his life giving advice after all?
We would call someone like that a fool and prideful, maybe even arrogant. Yet that is what we see in these few verses in Ephesians as Paul tells the church they have stopped walking in the ways of their Teacher — Jesus — and are pursuing a life the opposite of what God would want. Paul tells us that we have been taught how to live by Jesus and when we decide to live like the world, we are turning from what he wants us to do.
The previous verses give us some background as to what the Ephesians Christians were doing that they hadn’t learned from Christ’s example. Apparently, some of them were seeking things of the world instead of following Christ (Ephesians 4:17-19). And then he says in a strong rebuke that they were not acting how Christ had taught (Ephesians 4:20). The specific sins that are mentioned are callousness, sensuality, and greedy to practice impurity (Ephesians 4:19). In the ‘Explore the Bible’ teaching series on Ephesians, it says, “Believers in Christ have experienced a radical transformation that has consequences for every dimension of life. Fundamentally, the new life in Christ is diametrically opposed to what the believer was in his/her sin.”[i]
Sin in any form is counter to God, but a self-seeking life is the opposite of what Jesus exemplified. In three of the four Gospels, we have it mentioned that Jesus was in the business of self-denial rather than self-service. The wording is slightly different, but all three accounts are along the lines of, “If anyone would come after me [Jesus], let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 6:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Luke even has the word ‘daily’ as emphasis that following Christ is not a one then done decision. It is a lifestyle that we need to practice in every aspect of our lives.
Ligon Duncan said, “The whole of the Christian life is integrally and inseparably connected to Jesus Christ.”[ii] Everything we do is to be centered and grounded on what we have been taught in Christ. And the Ephesians weren’t doing it.
Paul reminds his readers that the reason they can follow Christ’s example and teaching is because the truth is in Jesus alone (Ephesians 4:21). If they really heard his teaching and were following him, they would not be walking like the Gentiles (Ephesians 4:17), but would be living now as to how Jesus taught them.
Paul elaborates in the next verse that following Christ and having him as the focus of everything we do in our lives means we are to put off the way we previously were (Ephesians 4:22). Before we knew the truth about God and ourselves, we did certain things, we lived a certain way. But after coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus and being taught by him how we are to live, we are told to get rid of those things. Stop doing the things that used to be second nature according to the flesh. Paul describes them as “corrupt through deceitful desires.” And in Colossians 3, we are given a list of things — though not exhaustive — to put off and another list to put on as Christians (Colossians 3:8-10, 12-14).
When we are proud of having a certain person as our teacher, we do him or her a great disservice to live like those lessons didn’t matter or don’t apply to us. In the same way, when we claim to be followers of Christ yet continue to put on the things of our former life, we throw back in the face of our Teacher (God the Holy Spirit) all he has given and prescribed for us to do in the authoritative Word of God.