What does Paul mean when he refers to learning Christ? Most of his readers would not have met Jesus bodily, so he does not mean a physical listening. But it is important to note that Paul does not say that they learned about Christ, as if he was thinking of historical details about the Saviour’s life, but that they learned Christ. What he is stressing is knowledge that comes from a relationship, in which Jesus is the subject that is taught.
Paul uses verbs connected to the instruction process when he says that his readers had heard Jesus, had been taught by Jesus, according to the truth that is in Jesus.
First, since they had not met Jesus physically, when did they hear him and when were they taught by him? The answer is that they heard him and were instructed by him through the scriptures being explained by Paul and other preachers. The same idea is expressed by Paul in Galatians when he writes that they had seen Jesus Christ crucified among them – not literally, but through the preached message. This is why it is important for believers to listen to preaching because it is Christ, as the prophet of the church, who speaks through it. This does not justify poor preaching, but it should cause us to value preaching as a very important means of grace.
Second, where did Jesus teach them? The answer Paul gives is that they were taught ‘in Jesus’. The meaning has been expressed in this way, that Jesus is the school as well as the schoolmaster and the subject. Believers are united to him, are surrounded by him, and within this atmosphere Jesus teaches believers about himself.
Third, if ‘Jesus’ is the overall curriculum that Christ teaches, are there specific subjects within that curriculum? The answer is yes, and Paul here focuses on one connected to the putting off the old man and putting on the new man. If we were to give it another title, we could call the lesson ‘Becoming like Jesus’.