In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
In the first few weeks of the New Year, we’ve been taking a look at Paul’s epistle to Titus. And we’ve been looking at it from the perspective of what it means to be a people of God, a community, a church, in the midst of a place that doesn’t recognize the Lordship of Jesus. And the main point that we’ve been drawing out is the call to live the kingdom-life as a way to demonstrate the truth of the kingdom.
We’re going to wrap up Titus today. And though it might seem counter-intuitive, we’re going to return all the way to the beginning of this letter and take a look at the first few verses – Paul’s salutation, his greeting to Titus and, by extension, to the church in Crete.
As you probably know, following a typical structure, Paul begins his letters with a pretty standard greeting – what’s known as the salutation. Usually, this includes Paul’s self-identification (this sometimes includes a statement of his authority as an apostle which is grounded in calling/appointment by God), an acknowledgement of the addressee, and the wish or prayer for “grace and peace.”
Sometimes, these salutations are brief, including only the bare elements. Sometimes, however, as in the case of Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and the epistle to Titus, Paul includes in this greeting a substantial elaboration. These elaborations may simply be Paul feeling a little more effusive, a little more verbose. But it may also give us some understanding of the thinking that’s going on, and the revelation that’s intended, to the community to whom Paul is writing.
Looking at our passage, it’s worthwhile to note that vv. 1-4 is one long sentence in Greek. Depending on which English version you read, this is shown to various extents (the NLT, for example, renders it as 5 separate sentences). And how the passage is translated can have a significant impact on how we read, understand, and apply it. Usually these things are minor. I think that’s the case here, but it may have an impact on how we emphasize certain elements of the passage.
The passage begins with:
“1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness—”
Here is one of those translational issues that we talked about. Because the different English versions of the bible translate this in different ways. Essentially, the difference amounts to:
- Is Paul giving the purpose for which he is a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ?
- Or is he giving us the basis upon which he is a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ?
There isn’t space to explore this further here. And so, we are trusting the translation given to us by the NIV – i.e. “purpose.” I am also relying on several biblical commentators (for example, Philip Towner (NICNT), John Stott, and George McKnight (NIGTC)). Further, this seems to make sense based on the content of the letter as a whole. It makes sense based on what Paul says to the church in Crete.
The second thing to consider is the beginning of verse 2:
2 in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time,…
Again, there’s some ambiguity in this phrase. Some of the English translations retain this ambiguity. The NLT, in particular, makes an interpretive choice which you can see here.
2 This truth gives them confidence that they have eternal life, which God—who does not lie—promised them before the world began.
So the NLT makes the assumption that “the hope of eternal life,” modifies or explains “the truth which leads to godliness.”
However, as I said, most of the English translations don’t seem to make this definitive (they may have something in mind, but it’s still ambiguous in the English). The alternative, which the NIV seems to favour (by virtue of the dash) is that “in the hope of eternal life” is a secondary clause sharing the subject, “Paul, a servant of God…”
In other words, the sentence would look something like this:
- Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ [AND]
- to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness—
- 2 in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time…
This makes a lot of sense to me. Again, to a certain extent I’m relying on commentators here (though there is less agreement than in the previous example). However, this makes sense to me based on what seems to follow, what we’ve discussed already, in the body of the letter to Titus.
So why does any of this matter? Why do we care? Essentially, what we have is Paul, speaking to the church in Crete, giving us 1) the reason for his writing, and 2) the basis on which he is writing.
Remember that what we’ve seen in the letter to Titus is that Paul seems to be writing to a young church that is still finding their identity in the midst of a society that doesn’t know God. In that context, Paul is encouraging the church to be grounded in right teaching, reminding them of their salvation by grace found only in Jesus Christ, through which they live out the new life, the kingdom-life, which has been made possible for them. This is essentially the same thing that we’re seeing in the salutation. It’s precisely the thing that Paul, the servant of God and apostle of Christ Jesus, is called to instruct and encourage the church towards.
The reason for Paul’s writing to Titus, for the sake of the church in Crete, is “to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.” Paul’s desire is that this new church, this group of young Christians, continue to grow in faith and grow in their knowledge of God. That they wouldn’t think that they have “finally arrived,” or that they have “achieved” something, but that they would continue to seek God and continue to grow in what it means to live out the kingdom-life and grow in what it means to be the people of God.
And the basis of Paul’s writing is “the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, 3 and which now at his appointed season he has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior…”
In other words, Paul is able to say these things – it matters that Paul is appointed as an apostle, and it matters that he says these things to the church in Crete – because eternal life is made possible, and made real and present, for the church because of what Christ has done. Because Jesus Christ, because of his death and resurrection, has defeated the powers of death and made real life possible and available, it matters what kind of life we, as the church, actually live. It’s this life of which Paul is preaching, that has been entrusted to him by God our saviour. And it’s this life that Paul exhorts us to take hold of.
So I think that’s what’s going on in this introduction, this salutation of Paul. And again, I think this is important, or it’s at least enlightening, in light of what Paul says to Titus and the church in Crete. But what does this have to do with us?
So What Now…?
We began this series, walking through the letter to Titus, by talking about new beginnings in light of the New Year. And my hope is that, looking at Titus, we’ve been able to hear some of what God is speaking to us, as a church, as a community of Christ, in light of who we are called to be in the world, for Jesus’ name’s sake.
I don’t know where God is leading us in the next year (and beyond). Maybe I should have a better idea, but the truth is I don’t. We make many plans and try to be faithful in them. But we don’t really know what any of that will necessarily look like or where we’ll end up.
What we know is that, in all of it, in the midst of the here and now we find ourselves, we must strive to grow in faith and knowledge, relying on the grace of God. And we will continue to be a people of hope and promise; that the new life that is our eternal destiny can be lived out even today, because of grace, no matter how imperfectly.
We don’t know all the details and we don’t know any of the outcomes; but this at least is what we are called to as a church of God. As we approach 2019, I hope you’ll join me in praying for this community, that we can be a church that grows in, lives out, and shares the love and grace of God in whom we have found life.