Friday, December 27, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Listening to the language of the Christmas epistle readings

Paul’s letter to Titus is so brief (three short chapters) that it is surprising to find it featured prominently in the services of Christmas.  Both the One Year lectionary and the Three Year lectionary have Titus 2:11-14 as the epistle for Christmas Midnight.  Likewise, both lectionaries have Titus 3:4-7 as the epistle for Christmas Dawn, while the One Year lectionary also has this as the epistle for Christmas Day.

It soon becomes apparent that Church has been drawn to these texts because of the language about the “appearing” of God’s salvation in Christ. Titus 2:11 begins by saying, “For the grace of God has appeared (Ἐπεφάνη), bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11 ESV) while 3:4 states, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared” (ἐπεφάνη)
(Titus 3:4 ESV).  Both texts contain beautiful statements of the Gospel.

However, the picture becomes even more interesting when we look at the language of these Christmas epistles and consider how they are functioning in their context. Titus 2:11 begins with the world “for” (γὰρ).  This word links 2:11-14 to what has preceded it as the text provides the reason or support for what has just been said.  In chapter one, Paul has charged Titus with appointing “elders” (what we would call pastors) in each town (1:5).  He has provided the qualifications for these candidates (1:5-9) and described how they will need to refute false teaching on Crete (1:10-16). 

Paul then goes on to describe what Titus and the pastors he is involved in appointing are to teach the people.  He begins by saying, “But as for you, teach (literally, “speak”; λάλει ) what accords with sound doctrine (literally, “teaching”; διδασκαλίᾳ) (2:1).  The section that begins at 2:1 with its command to “speak” is then framed by 2:15 where Paul writes, “Declare (literally, “speak”; λάλει) these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”

Within the section 2:1-10, Paul then describes how different groups of Christians are to live as he provides instruction regarding older men (2:2), older woman (2:3), young women (2:4-5), young men (2:6) and slaves (2:9-10).  In this section Paul uses language that the Greco-Roman world would have recognized as being laudable conduct.[1]  Paul tells Titus, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (2:7).  Not only is Titus (and by extension the pastors he appoints) to preach and teach about living the Christian life and doing good works, but he is to teach by his own conduct.

Paul emphasizes a recurring theme about why Christians are to live in these godly ways. They are to do it because Christian conduct impacts how the Gospel is perceived and received.  Young women need to live the ways taught by Titus so “that the word of God may not be reviled [literally “blasphemed]” (2:5).  Titus is to serve as a model of this conduct “so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (2:8).  Slaves are to act in this way “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).

In a concentrated form filled with Greco-Roman vocabulary that speaks of appropriate and laudable conduct Paul tells Titus that he and the pastors are to teach the people to live in ways that reflect the Christian faith.  This is important because in that missionary setting it will be seen and evaluated by others. And then Paul proceeds to give the reason why they should do this – it is because of the Gospel.   He introduces 2:11-14 with the word “for” (γὰρ) as he explicitly introduces the reason and says: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

In the language of apocalyptic eschatology Paul describes how God’s grace has been revealed to all men (2:11).  The grace itself is described in 2:13-14 as the great God and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself on behalf of us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people of his own possession.   At the same time this grace trains Christians how to live in the present time (literally, “the now age”; ἐν τῷ νῦν αἰῶνι ) (2:12) as we await the appearing of Christ (2:13). Christians who are Christ’s own possession are to be “zealous for good works” (2:14). Even within this statement that provides the ground for 2:6-10 and its description of Christian conduct, Paul still continues to emphasize that God’s saving action in Christ prompts Christians to live in God pleasing ways. In fact the last statement in 2:11-14 is that Christians are to be “zealous for good works” (2:14).

After drawing the section 2:1-15 to a close with the inclusio at 2:15 (“speak these things”; cf. 2:1 “speak that which is fitting for sound teaching”), Paul then returns to the topic of living the Christian life in 3:1-2.  This time he frames the discussion in terms of general instructions about living as a Christian in society by referring to being submissive to rulers.  The instructions are not aimed at any one group of people such as in 2:6-10. Instead, they are more general in character (“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people,” 3:1-2).

Like 2:6-10 and 2:11-14, in 3:3-8 Paul again provides the reason that Christians are to act in manner described in 3:1-2.  The reason (introduced by “for”; γάρ ) is the Gospel, and specifically the Gospel as it has been received in baptism.  Paul says that Christians were once sinful and lost in every way (3:3).  Then he goes on to say, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:4-7). 

Just as in 2:11, Paul describes God’s salvation as something that has “appeared” (3:4).   Throughout the letter as Paul has given instructions to Titus about what he and the pastors on Crete are to teach the people he has repeatedly emphasized good works and Christian conduct (2:6-10, 12, 14; 3:1-2).  Yet now he makes clear that we have not been saved on the basis of works that we have done in righteousness (3:5).  Instead, it is on the basis of God’s mercy that he has saved us through baptism – a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (3:5).  In this action he has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us richly through Christ our Savior (note the trinitarian shape of 3:4-6) in order that being justified by God’s grace we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (3:6).

A Lutheran could not ask for a clearer expression of the Gospel!  Salvation is not the basis of works (3:5).  It is instead a matter of God’s mercy (3:5) and grace (3:6) as he works through the Holy Spirit in baptism (3:5) to justify us (3:7).  Paul highlights this teaching by adding in 3:8 “The saying is trustworthy” (literally, “The word is faithful”; Πιστὸς ὁ λόγος), a statement that refers to 3:4-7 and identifies it as being part of the common teaching of the Church.  Yet Paul then immediately adds, “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8b).  Even as Paul emphasizes the primacy of the Gospel, the corresponding good works that flow from this are never far from view.

It is significant that within this brief letter that provides instruction for pastors on Crete we have two sections that explicitly ground the life of good works in God’s saving action.  Each time Paul describes the Christian life (2:1-10; 3:1-2) and then provides the theological basis for the life of faith (both passages are introduced by “for”; γάρ) as he emphasizes God’s saving action (2:11-14a; 3:3-7).  Finally he provides a summary statement that explicitly states how Christians are to do good works (2:14b; 3:8).  What is more, in the second instance Paul grounds this theological basis in the Christian’s baptism (cf. Rom 6:1-7).

The instruction Paul provides to Titus for the pastors on Crete makes it clear that the Gospel must remain at the center of all that Church preaches, teaches and believes.  Yet it also makes clear that God’s salvation in the Gospel cannot be separated from the life the Gospel produces.  What is more, this Christian life bears witness to the faith and is important for the way the faith is perceived by the world.  Titus repeatedly provides this as a purpose of living the life of faith and good works (2:5, 8, 10).  The Christian life of good works that flows forth from God’s saving action bears witness to God’s saving action (2:10).  This was the message that the apostle Paul wanted pastors on Crete to preach and teach.  We continue to hear Paul preach it to us on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

[1] See the careful lexical work in Jerome D. Quinn, The Letter to Titus (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 128-177.

1 comment:

  1. Mark, in "God Grant It" (Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther) for today (Dec 27) he addresses Titus 2:11. That the gift given us here at Christmas is indeed Gospel - not the "strict righteousness of God [appearing]..." Walther is careful to prescribe grace coming to us verses any Law. For we're all sinners, and any Law speak would terrify hearts and minds.

    My sermon for this Sunday includes the message of this grace we have seen; as we too have "been lifted up"; and how even the shepherds flew out to tell everyone of this miracle they have seen. And, how we too are to share this message of grace which abounds in our Lord Jesus Christ! (Walther suggests Paul preached this text - Titus 2:11 - on a Christmas Day sermon in Bethlehem...) Good blog!