A Pastoral Letter


This morning we begin a new series of sermons, this one devoted to Paul’s short letter to Titus. I was loath to start anything too lengthy so soon after completing Matthew, a series that took more than two years of Sunday mornings. Titus will take us just a few months. Titus himself, you may remember, was a Greek – as Paul tells us in Galatians 2:3 – who had been converted under Paul’s preaching and subsequently had become one of his assistants. Remember it was Titus – both of whose parents were Gentiles – who was left uncircumcised as a test case for the acceptance of Gentiles into the church as Gentiles. It was Titus who delivered Paul’s stern first letter to the Corinthians and later met Paul in Macedonia to report on how the letter had been received (2 Cor. 7:5-16). Titus then carried Paul’s second letter back to the Corinthian church. In connection with that history Paul called Titus “my partner and my fellow helper” (2 Cor. 8:23). His role in that difficult Corinthian affair, and Paul’s entrusting him with that responsibility, indicates that Titus must have been a man of unusual tact and with exceptional qualities as a leader. [Guthrie, 183] No wonder that the Apostle would have entrusted him to handle alone a difficult assignment on the island of Crete.

Since the early 18th century 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus have been known as the Pastoral Epistles. That title reflects the fact that all three letters are addressed to ministers and concern the ordering of the life of the church. All of the rest of Paul’s letters, except for that to Philemon, were written to churches. There is more in these letters than matters having to do with church order, but the name has stuck because these three letters are quite distinct among the other letters of the New Testament as having been written to Paul’s fellow-workers to give instruction regarding their pastoral duties.

Though these letters were written to these individual men and through them to the churches they were overseeing at the time, very quickly they became important to the entire church. They are already cited by the apostolic fathers, the Christian writers of the early second century, the earliest literary products of Christianity after the New Testament itself.

Luther says of Titus,

“This is a short epistle, but yet such a quintessence of Christian doctrine, and composed in such a masterly manner, that it contains all that is needful for Christian knowledge and life.” [Cited in Farrar, St. Paul, 660]

Text Comment

v.1

Like the other letters of Paul, this one begins by identifying the author, the recipient, and with the greetings of the former to the latter. That is the way letters were written in Paul’s day. He is following the sort of conventions we follow when we put “Dear So and So,” at the top of our letters and “Sincerely” or “Cordially” at the bottom and sign our name just below. But, Paul fills out this conventional form in a distinctly Christian way, here and in all his letters.

Paul first identifies himself as an apostle. We are inclined to take that word for granted, but it will serve us to remind ourselves who and what the apostles were. Here is a famous definition by Charles Hodge:

“What then were the apostles? It is plain from the divine record that they were men immediately commissioned by Christ to make a full and authoritative revelation of his religion; to organize the church; to furnish it with officers and laws, and to start it on its career of conquest through the world.”

“The apostles…stand out just as conspicuous as an isolated body in the history of the church, without predecessors and without successors, as Christ himself does. They disappear from history. The title, the thing itself, the gifts, the functions, all ceased when the last [apostle died].” [What is Presbyterianism? 53, 50]

The Apostles, Christ said and the rest of the NT confirms, laid the foundation of the Christian church both by calling it into being in that first generation by their evangelism and church planting and by providing the New Testament, the final part of the Bible. That is who and what Paul was and that is what makes him and his life and his writings – every one of his writings – of such incalculable importance to the world, the church, and everyone of us!

v.3

You see it all here in just a few words: our faith rests on the sovereign election of God and the work of Jesus Christ; it takes the form of a living knowledge of the gospel, the good news, that produces a new kind of life, a life that begins here in this world but lasts forever in the next. Our faith is a confidence in God’s Word, a conviction concerning the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – that is what Paul means by God bringing “his Word to light” – and an answer to the summons God has addressed to us to believe in his Son. It behooves us, every now and then, to sum up our faith in a few choice words and to recommit ourselves to it. It is this great salvation – born in the eternal love of God, purchased by the death of Jesus Christ, and brought into the experience of men by the proclamation of the gospel – that Paul has spent his life to bring to the Gentile world.

By the way, Paul says here that God “cannot lie.” There are other things the Bible says that God cannot do: he cannot deny himself; he cannot look upon evil; he cannot give his glory to another; and he cannot dwell with the wicked.

v.4

For Paul to describe Titus as his true son in the faith almost certainly indicates that Titus became a Christian through the ministry of Paul. Perhaps he was one of Paul’s converts on that first missionary journey described in Acts 13 and 14.

At some point late in his ministry, probably in the few years that separated his two imprisonments in Rome – the first described at the end of Acts and the second, which Paul did not survive, described in 2 Tim. 4 – Paul had conducted ministry on the Aegean island of Crete. Titus had accompanied him. Apparently their ministry had brought numbers of people to faith in Christ. It is unlikely that these were the very first Christians on Crete. Some Jews from Crete, we learn in Acts 2, were among those who heard Peter’s electrifying sermon on the Day of Pentecost and became believers in Christ then. They would have returned home bearing in their hearts and, no doubt, on their lips the glorious things they had seen and heard in Jerusalem. What is more, there was a great deal of commercial movement in the imperial world of that day and no doubt Christians came and went on business to Crete and Cretans, in turn, traveled to other cities and met Christians there. This is how, by the way, the church in Nepal sprang to life over the past generation. Nepalese people making business trips across the border into India heard the gospel from Indian merchants and evangelists and took the good news in their hearts back to their homeland. And now, a few years later, there are hundreds of thousands of Nepalese Christians and, interestingly and understandably, as there had been on Crete, a great need to get that infant church established on a firm foundation.

In any case, after a period of evangelistic activity, Paul moved on – pure evangelist that he was, looking for new places to plant the gospel flag – but he left Titus behind because the budding Christian community on Crete had not yet been adequately organized. The churches had not been furnished with officers and the congregations had not yet been given explicit marching orders. This was Titus’ task and Paul obviously trusted him implicitly to carry out his assignment wisely and well. We learn all of this immediately in 1:5. He could hardly have left matters in better hands. A man who had shown himself capable of dealing with the problems of the church in sophisticated Corinth, who knew how to navigate among the conceited saints who made up that turbulent congregation, would know as well how to deal with the rude, simple, and unsophisticated Christians just getting their feet under them on Crete.

But now Paul is writing some further instructions. Perhaps he wouldn’t have bothered, as, no doubt, Titus must have understood quite well what his assignment was and how to carry it out – after all he was himself an experienced and proven churchman – except for the fact that some friends were traveling Titus’ way and provided an opportunity for Paul to write a few lines and send Titus his next assignment. By such providences was the Word of God given to the world!

A lawyer by the name of Zenas and Paul’s friend, the gifted evangelist Apollos, were traveling by Crete on their way somewhere else. They either had planned to stop by to see Titus and to take the measure of the work there or were asked by Paul to do so and take a letter to Titus. In any case, we read in 3:13 Paul asking Titus to do all he can to assist his friends on their way. But, just before that, in v. 12, he tells Titus what his plans are and how they affect him. Paul is clearly in charge of the ministry of a group of men and he disposes their work as he feels best. Obviously they accept that Paul has the authority to assign them to whatever task he chooses. It is Paul’s to command, theirs to obey.

It is, perhaps, to v. 12 of chapter 3 that we owe the existence of this letter and the biblical book, Titus. Paul needed to tell Titus that he was sending another man – either Artemas or Tychicus – to replace him and that Titus should meet Paul in Nicopolis, a city on the Adriatic Sea on the west coast of Greece. They would spend the winter there together, doing ministry and laying plans for the next year’s campaign. It is interesting that in 2 Tim. 4:10 – 2 Timothy was written after Titus – Titus is preaching in Dalmatia, which is north of Nicopolis on the same Adriatic coast. So, sometime after wintering with Paul in Nicopolis, Titus was sent north. When Titus was written it must be later summer or early Autumn because there is still time for Titus to make the sea voyage to the mainland and make his way across Greece to Nicopolis. Once winter came sea travel came to a halt.

But, if a trip by Crete by Zenas and Apollos was the occasion for the letter and these specific instructions were the primary reason for the letter, Paul was not one to fail to make the most of such an opportunity. So he added some words that were to prove of help not only to Titus but to the Christian church forever. There was some false teaching abroad and Paul had something to say about the need to quell it. The Cretans themselves had a poor reputation for moral living and Paul thought it useful to emphasize again to Titus how important it would be to insist on thorough-going sanctification in individual, family, and public life. And so this short letter written by one great minister to another concerning the life of the church of God in the world.

Now, as we think about this letter as a whole, before descending into its particulars in subsequent Lord’s Day sermons, I want us to notice how it speaks to our own day and our own situation. In some ways it is uncanny how like that situation is our own today. Sending letters is surely an easier business now than it was then. We don’t have to find a friend or acquaintance who happens to be going that way. We can put a letter in the mail and count on it being delivered a few days later. And, nowadays, as of a few years ago, we can push a button on our computer and send a letter instantaneously. But communications like that are as vital to the ongoing work of the church in our day as they were in the time of Paul and Titus. And such letters today may well concern themselves with the same issues that occupy this ancient letter. You might be surprised how many letters I send and receive that are in some significant way like this letter to Titus.

Churches have special needs and face special problems depending upon their age, their maturity, and the circumstances of their culture. Paul writes very specifically regarding the Cretan church. They are facing temptation posed by a very specific kind of false teaching. It isn’t the sort of teaching that troubled the churches to which John wrote his letters or Paul wrote some of his. As we read in 1:10, it was apparently teaching more like what had so terribly troubled the Galatian churches. But, the fact is, the church has been troubled by every manner of error and each and every one must be repulsed. We certainly have our share of them in this day and age and it never ceases to amaze me how susceptible Christians and churches are to false teaching and false doctrine. One might think that the day would come when virtually all possible misunderstandings of biblical truth would have been thoroughly canvassed, refuted, and laid to rest and the church could go forward in serene confidence that it understood aright the Word of God.

But the fact is otherwise. Not only new forms of the corruption of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, but ancient ones resurrected for the umpteenth time continue to disturb the church. Over and over again time and attention must be paid to doctrinal error or, if it is not, nothing is more certain than that the church will drift away from the gospel of God.

I don’t often raise such issues in my preaching. It is not necessary for you to know every dumb idea that someone is touting as the right understanding of Holy Scripture, but, believe me, there is so much devilish thinking parading as Scripture truth in our age, that it may well be the case that there has never been as much heresy seeking to insinuate itself in the mind of the church as there is in our time. When you have so-called evangelicals telling us, for example, that the doctrine that for us and our salvation God the Father subjected Christ his Son to divine wrath on the cross amounts to a form of child abuse; when we are being told by some prominent evangelicals that God does not know the future and does not control it; when some others tell us that the second coming has already occurred; when others cast doubt on the teaching of the Bible where it conflicts with the conventional pieties of modern culture; when others assure us that one doesn’t have to be a Christian to be saved; or that there is no eternal punishment you have a situation ripe for confusion which is what we have. In this our situation is like the Cretans and Titus is for us as it was for them.

What is more, every culture has its own powerful temptations. The Cretan culture was famous in the ancient world for its sensuality, its covetousness, its dishonesty and its laziness. Paul will quote one of the Cretan’s own poets, Epimenedes, to this effect in 1:12. A Cretan should be expected to praise his fellow citizens, or at least, not to slander them. But here one of their own prophets says these hard things about the inhabitants of Crete. Their reputation for telling lies for selfish purposes was so widespread that it gave rise to the noun “Cretism” which meant “Cretan behavior” which, in turn, was a synonym for lying. And the verb “cretize” meant “to tell a lie,” just as “to Corinthianize” in the ancient world meant to live a sensually profligate life.

It was a culture corrupt in recognizable ways. But, what is new about that. Our culture is corrupt in very recognizable ways and, were it possible for the apostle Paul to address the American church, he would no doubt have very specific things to say to us about how our behavior, perhaps in ways we hardly recognize, needed to be made subject to the law of Christ. We live and have been shaped by a culture that is materialistic, relativistic, feminist, sensual, and proud of its accomplishments. All of us bear within our hearts the effects of those cultural sins. We breath them in with the air, we drink them in with the water. We may not be precisely the sort of people that Cretans were widely considered to be, but we are a people with a certain character and way of life and there is much of that in us that needs to be changed. Others around the world see that very clearly, even as we see so clearly their faults.

But here comes Paul to Titus telling him to be sure that he tailors his preaching and teaching to the moral, the spiritual, and the material culture of the Cretans. Don’t preach to them as if they sinned in the same way as the Corinthians do. Speak to them as Cretans. Address the temptations that they face because of where they live and because of the culture of which they are apart. All of this teaching will be, of course, useful for any Christian living anywhere at any time. But it also reminds us that loyalty to Christ and to his gospel, obedience to the Word of God and to God’s law, will mean for any group of Christians particular departures from the thinking and behavior common to their society, to their times, and to their culture.

This is so important for you and me. We content ourselves with those parts of Christian obedience that are the easiest for us because of the culture in which we live and hardly ever think about those important parts of Christian godliness that cut right across the grain of our way of life.

Think of the French nobleman of the 14th century, Charles de Blois. Charles was a serious “Christian” of his time. He was an ascetic. Like Thomas à Becket, he wore unwashed clothes crawling with lice; he put pebbles in his shoes, slept on straw on the floor next to his wife’s bed, and, after his death, was found to have worn a coarse shirt of horsehair under his armor, with cords wound so tightly around his body that the knots dug into his flesh. He once walked some miles to a shrine barefoot in the snow. His reputation for saintliness was such that the people covered the path to the shrine with straw and blankets to protect his feet; but then he took another path at the cost of bleeding and frozen feet. In these ways he expressed contempt for the world and sought humility before God. He confessed to a priest every night so that he would not go to sleep in a state of sin. It is said that he met the complaints of the poor with justice and mercy and refrained from imposing too heavy taxes.

All of that was the practice of a serious Christian piety in medieval Europe. But, all of that serious piety notwithstanding, Charles slept with other women besides his wife, fathered an illegitimate son, and was ruthless in battle. He wanted a dukedom and laid claim to it by besieging the city of Nantes. To let them know his seriousness, he had the heads of 30 captured partisans of his rival, hurled by his siege engines over the walls into the city. After another successful siege he massacred without pity 2000 civilian inhabitants: men, women, and children. [H. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 76-77]

Nowadays, we would be much more likely to be scandalized by Charles’ cruelty, forgiving of his sensuality, and unimpressed by his self-denial, no matter that Paul wrote that he beat his body and made it his slave so that he might not miss the prize of eternal life. We aren’t tempted in the same way as Charles de Blois was by his culture; but we are just as surely and just as seriously tempted by ours. For years in white American evangelical Christianity there was virtually no conscience about the mistreatment – the terrible mistreatment – of blacks in our culture, a culture that prided itself on its passion for freedom, equality and fair play. There was likewise a glib and easy association of the interests of the church and the American state – an association that now seems grotesque and shameful – and which we have painfully had to unlearn. There was far too little interest in the needs of the poor and a very middle class assumption that everyone ought to do well. There was, in many evangelical homes, a lack of fatherly love and involvement, excused far too quickly by his need to provide more and more material comfort for the family. We could go on and bring the story up to date. There is no culture in the history of the world that has spent as much time entertaining itself as modern America and Christians are very much a part of that culture. We have grown used to diverting ourselves by watching and often laughing at the sins of others and have hardened our hearts thereby. Oh, yes, something could be said by a modern Epimenedes about Americans that would not be complimentary in the least but would be absolutely, impeccably true. And that is our culture as American Christians. It has shaped us. It shapes our churches. And different churches in different ways.

I visited a young PCA congregation not so long ago. It was young not only because almost all of the people in it were young adults but also because a number of the congregation were young Christians, recent converts. I found myself, frankly amazed, at what some of these young people wore to church. It was not that they were informally dressed. That would amaze no one in our culture. It was the provocative dress the young women wore. I would have thought it was dress that no Christian woman could have imagined was appropriate for the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day, but wear it they did. An older, more mature congregation would know better and young women in such a congregation, even if they did not understand at first, would have learned quickly from the older women what was appropriate and what was inappropriate dress.

In Crete virtually all the Christians were recent converts. They had a lot to learn. They did not yet understand many things. We may not many of us be recent converts, but many of us are young and needing to find our way as Christians. The Cretan converts had to shed a great deal of their cultural inheritance. Titus was there to help them do it. Well, we are in precisely the same situation. And we have the Word of God to help us. Indeed, we have Titus to help us just as they did.

For what he said to them – what Paul felt especially needed to be said to them – is what needs to be said to us as well. Much of what we will read in Paul’s letter to Titus is what needs to be said to any and every Christian all of the time; some of it is what needs to be said directly to us, in just our kind of culture – so similar is our situation to theirs -; and some of what Paul tells Titus to tell the Cretans is what can easily enough be translated from instructions for the Cretans to instructions for us in 21st century America. For example, we may not have slaves and masters, literally, in our day and our country; but we have similar relationships that must also be sanctified for the glory of God.

What I love more and more about the Bible is how perfectly timeless it is. A letter from one of Christ’s apostles can be read as if it were written to us today. A letter about what the church needs to hear and needs to do is as relevant to our situation as it was to that of the Cretan Christians in the middle of the first century. Let us hear then the Apostle Paul with the intention that we should believe and obey; that our lives should be changed; that we should be sanctified and made the more holy; that we should, as Paul says in chapter 2, more and more make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.

I love this from Amy Carmichael.

“The amazing thing is that everyone who reads the Bible has the same joyful thing to say about it. In every land, in every language, it is the same tale: where that Book is read, not with the eyes only, but with the mind and heart, the life is changed. Sorrowful people are comforted, sinful people are transformed, people who were in the dark walk in the light. Is it not wonderful to think that this Book, which is such a mighty power if it gets a chance to work in an honest heart, is in our hands today? And we can read it freely, no man making us afraid.” [Thou givest…They Gather, 7]

God grant it that the letter of Paul to Titus would have that power in us and for us for Jesus’ sake.