Paul’s vision for the church of Crete was not narrow in scope. He was’t just trying to get them to have more polite manners at the dinner table. This letter is an instruction manual for a culture war. Titus is tasked with laying the groundwork for conquering the globe with the Gospel. Crete may be a mess, but if the wind of God blows, the dry bones will live and move once more.
Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men. For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost […] Titus 3:1ff
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Paul’s movement of thought has gone from elders & their households specifically (1:6-9), to Christian households in general (2:1-10). He now broadens the circle a third time to encompass all Christians’ duties as citizens (3:1-3). Crete was the home of many mercenaries, as well as many busy harbors, which brought in all manner of riff-raff; the population of Crete was notorious for villainy. Christians were to live in stark contrast. They should live in mindful submission to the magistrate, eager in good works (v1), refusing to join the course banter & brawling of the unbelieving, and instead should be marked by gentleness coupled with harnessed strength (v2).
The dissolute life they (and Paul) once lived (v3), has been washed away by the kindness of God appearing (v4, Cf. 2:11-14). This salvation is “not by works” but by mercy, the two-fold mercy of regenerative washing & the renewing work of the Holy Ghost (v5). This mercy comes to us, in abundance, through Jesus Christ our Savior (v6). All the exhortations to good works throughout this epistle should be couched in this high-octane Gospel: justified by His grace (v7a). But this justification makes us heirs of God the Father & the eternal life which is found in His Son Jesus Christ (v7b, Cf. 1 Jn. 5:12, Heb. 7:16). The glory of the Gospel should cause those who believe it to maintain good works (vv8, 14); this point is clearly important because Paul repeats it once more in verse 14: “maintain good works, do not be unfruitful.” Believing in God, and being careful to maintain good works, is good and profitable unto mankind. This is how the church will subvert the ungodly world (v8b).
Paul then gives instructions as to what to do about the false teachers and division specialists who were bothering the church. Were he writing to us, he might says something like: “Don’t spend much, if any, time arguing in YouTube comment threads.” All these squabbles ––about Zeus’ birthplace (and if perhaps you were descended from him), or what specific angels did, or how thin you could slice the plain law of Moses––are all unprofitable (v9). Verse 10-11 gives us the only reference in the NT to a “heretick” and what to do about him: rebuke him a time or two, and then let him fall headlong into his self-deception (vv10-11).
Paul closes his letters with some final practical details, and final blessings of true Christian love and prayers for grace (vv12-15). One detail in this closing we shouldn’t overlook is that Paul expects Titus to get all this in place in enough time to be able to join him in Nicopolis by winter. Other men will take over what Titus’ began. An encouraging thought is found here, a true reformation doesn’t need a long time to get started, even while it will take generational faithfulness to sustain it.
Some Greek mythology is actually at play in the background of this epistle. As the legend went, a cave on Crete was believed to be the place where Zeus’ mother hid him from his father, Cronus. Cronus had devoured all his previous children. But Zeus had been hid away on Crete, to be raised in secret. Once Zeus was strong enough, he overthrew his father, delivered his siblings from his father’s stomach, and then, by casting lots, the rule of Mt. Olympus was given over to Zeus.
Many on Crete believed that they were possible descendants of this Titan. Thus, the fables of lineage captured the social imagination. But along comes a rival story, a rival myth, and one that just so happened to be true. God the Father sent His Son. The Christ died in our stead, washed us with covenantal waters, and renews us by His indwelling Spirit. All of this means that those who trusted in Christ were made true heirs of the eternal life of God.
The divine life is yours; not by fables, but by faith. This Gospel is a potent story which upends dominant cultural narrative of their day. This divine life is yours because you have received a new paternity. In regeneration, God becomes Your Father. This takes place when you are washed in Christ & renewed by His Spirit. None of this is by your doing. It isn’t obtained your striving to get it from your Father. Rather, it comes to you by His grace & favor alone. Your Father is not a devourer like Cronus. Your Father gives you Himself, by giving you His Son (Cf. 2:14).
GRACE IN THE HARBORS
We might ask, why did Paul single out this island of scoundrels and scallawags as worth devoting some his best resources? The harbors of Crete were one of the main crossroads of the Mediterranean. Paul identified correctly that if these “lymph nodes” of commerce were conquered, it would have a disproportionate impact on the Gospel effort to take over the world.
But like the hymn puts it: not with swords loud clashing, or roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes. This overthrow will come by the Christian church being vibrantly alive. The gracious gift of the Gospel is followed by the good works of the Spirit. As A.A. Hodge put it, “Grace in the heart cannot exist without good works
as their consequent.” We should also lay stress upon the fact that Paul’s vision is not an escapist mentality. He insists that these good works are to be done publicly, in the civil sphere, with an aim to bring about the total reformation of the culture of Crete.
God’s favor has been described & depicted in some wonderful terms throughout this letter: the kindness & love of God (3:4), the blessed hope (2:13), the hope of eternal life manifested in the preaching of Christ (1:2-3). Once this grace takes root in the harbors, it will overthrow empires. Paul’s strategy works at every level, from the individual to the empire. Where is the mess? That’s where God’s grace will appear, not to leave the mess as it is. Through Christ, abundance of grace is shed upon you. The Holy Spirit brings renewal. To use one example, the dead frost of winter gives way to the fresh life of spring.
WASHED & RENEWED
Dead men have dead works. The wicked men were subverting others’ households (1:11) because they themselves were subverted (3:11). Sin is self-delusion. Paul includes himself, “For we ourselves were once” this way. Every time you sin, you, in effect are the fool saying in his heart, “There is no God.” Jesus told the Pharisees that by rejecting him as Messiah (the anointed Prince), they were showing that their father was the devil. Sin is unfruitful. Sin is dead works. Sin is the result of being a descendant of Adam, and his capitulation to Satan. The Spirit comes, and brings life. He brings a second generation. A new paternity. Pentecost wasn’t followed by the idleness of corpses, but with the activity of New Birth.
Your baptism tells you two things. First, you once were dead in Adam; and so none of your righteousness will suffice. Secondly, it tells you that God is your Father. You are an heir. Regeneration is not a matter of subjective feelings, but of the objective work of the Spirit, which renews you. Christ washes you, the Spirit renews you, and the Father calls you child. You are washed in wave after wave of the free grace of God through Christ, and then the Spirit renews you day by day, week by week, to bear the fruit of God’s life in you. Baptized in Christ you can know that God is your Father. Renewed by the Spirit, you are told to get to work taking over the world with Christ’s abundant life.