Do you ever feel like your life belongs to a bigger story? Perhaps you get that sense when looking at your family tree. Or when you read about the history of your country. Or maybe when your favourite sporting team wins the championship match.
How about the grand story of God’s acts of salvation in history recorded in the Bible?
The Apostle Paul was aware that God had made him into an actor in a drama greater than himself. Despite being a raging persecutor of the church, God converted Paul and made him a servant of the church of Jesus Christ. We know from the NT that Paul is responsible for playing a central role in laying the foundation for the NT church. The letter to Titus is one of Paul’s many epistles in which he provides pastoral comfort and direction to the young churches in the first-century Ancient Near Eastern world. More specifically, in the book of Titus, Paul writes to his child in the faith, Titus, with instructions on how to fulfill his ministry of the gospel to the church plants on the island of Crete.
Crete was one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean Sea with a thriving population and prosperous economy. It was also notorious for its vices. In Acts 27 we are told that Paul’s journeys included time on the island, but we don’t know when. It is likely that Paul wrote this letter from Nicopolis, a city in the Roman Empire, toward the end of his ministry, and probably during one of his Roman imprisonments.
In the first four verses of the book of Titus, Paul introduces his words of instruction to Titus by setting forth his authority as an Apostle. Paul writes to Christians in Crete that are struggling with false teachers who are dismissing Paul’s authority, and also to those who are having difficulty with relating their faith to pagan society. * In our passage, Paul magnifies his Apostleship as a preacher of the gospel for the sake of Christ’s church. As we shall see, the nature of Paul’s calling teaches us about God’s ordained ministers who preach the Word in the church today. Like Paul and Titus, ordained ministers today are the official mouthpieces of Christ. *
Paul as the extraordinary mouthpiece of God (v1a)
One of the major challenges facing Titus is that some people in the churches that he is overseeing could care less about what Paul has to say. You can just hear it in the church parking lot… Who does Paul think he is? What right does he have to tell Titus and us what to do with the church and our lives as Christians? Paul is aware of these accusations. So in one sense Titus 1.1-3 is a defence of his office as an Apostle and a preacher. At the same time, these verses are a positive affirmation of Paul’s calling to the ministry of the gospel.
Paul opens the letter by drawing attention to his special and unique calling in the history of the church. In v1, Paul refers to himself as “a servant of God and an Apostle of Jesus Christ.” Now, Scripture describes all Christians as servants of God. However, when Paul combines the title “servant” with Apostle, he has a particular office and calling in mind. Just like the OT prophets and the final prophet Jesus were called servants of God, God gave Paul a special role in revealing the gospel to the world. As an Apostle, God had made Paul a special messenger of the good news of Jesus to the early church. Part of his peculiar qualification as an Apostle is that he received his marching orders from the incarnate Son of God. There on the dusty Damascus Road, Paul was turned from a blasphemer of God into a servant of the gospel. Along with the rest of the Apostles, Paul was divinely commissioned to lay the foundation for the NT Testament church through his writing and preaching ministry.
It is very important for us to understand that God gave Paul an extraordinary role in the life of the early church. Think about it for a moment. Paul came face to face with the risen Lord Jesus. He lived at a time when the NT Scriptures had not yet been completed. In fact, Paul helped write the NT! He also lived at a time when God performed miraculous healings, Christians prophesied and spoke in tongues. During this extraordinary time, Paul was given special authorisation by Jesus to shape and regulate the early life of the church through his ministry of God’s Word by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Therefore, we can say that Paul’s missionary journeys and his letters to the churches, to Timothy, and to Titus, are part of the unrepeatable acts of God in building his church. Paul says in Eph 2:20 that the church is built on, “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone…” Paul joins the company of Abraham, the law, the prophets, and Jesus, in completing the canon of Scripture that we have today: which is all about Jesus! Through the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul’s ministry confirmed and gave authority to the Word of Christ and his church.
Paul’s preaching for the sake of the church (vv1b-2)
Hopefully it is clear, then, that the Apostolic foundation and therefore Paul’s ministry as an Apostle, is for the church of God. In Titus 1.1b, Paul describes his Apostolic calling as “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth.” God commissioned Paul to build up the faith of those whom God had chosen before the foundation of world. This calling according to Paul is fundamentally concerned with preaching and teaching the knowledge of the truth of gospel. Paul testifies throughout his writings that eternal life comes through believing in doctrinal truth. Faith comes through hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).
Paul sees his all-consuming life’s calling as a minister of the truth of God’s Word, “which accords with godliness.” But what exactly does Paul mean by “godliness” here? Generally speaking, Paul is referring to Christian living that is marked by faith in Jesus and thankful obedience to God’s law. However, in the context of Titus, I think Paul gets even more specific with his application. In the churches on the Island of Crete, there were new (Gentile) Christians who had been converted out of pagan backgrounds. One of the challenges that they were facing was how to relate their newfound faith to the unbelieving world they had come out of.
Well, according to Paul, we are to exercise faith and pursue godly living not only in the church but also in the rest of life as well. This was particularly difficult for the young Christians on the island of Crete and it continues to be for many of us today who have been saved out of a wicked way of life in the world. In the case of the Island of Crete, it had a reputation for being one of the most filthy and defiled places on earth. In many ways Cape Town is no different. And yet, Paul does not call us to abandon our lives in broader society and form our own Christian sub-culture. Rather, as we shall see in the remainder of the book (in the weeks to come), he wants us to love our neighbours and contribute to broader culture. He wants us to live all of life in faith and for God’s glory as we wait with hope and patience for Christ’s return. As Paul puts it in vv2-3, his Apostolic witness and our life of faith in this world is to rest upon the “hope of eternal life.”
And remember, this “hope” that God had commissioned Paul to preach to the churches is unlike the fleeting and fickle kind that we find in this world. Rather, the hope of eternal life depends on “God, who never lies”, which he “promised before the ages began” (v2). Our God is not some capricious deity who makes and retracts his promises, but one who speaks out of his eternal and unshakeable decree. Our Christian hope looks to the ancient promise that God made to Abraham, which was ultimately fulfilled in the fullness of time in the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Christ’s preaching and Paul’s preaching (v3)
Concerning this hope, promised before the ages began, Paul writes – v3 – God “at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Saviour.” The realisation of the promise that had for ages been hidden in the types and shadows of the OT law and the prophets has finally come in Jesus Christ. Just at the right time, what God had previously held back, he has now revealed through the preaching of Jesus on the stage of human history. Jesus has come as the incarnate Word of hope and truth. Jesus arrived as the gateway into a new creation and the doorway into paradise. During his earthly ministry, Jesus literally spoke new life into being. With his words, he spoke his church and his Kingdom into existence. He prophesied the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Jesus went on to fulfill his Word through his redemptive acts of suffering, death, and resurrection.
If you have not already noticed, the first three verses of Titus 1 are one long sentence. On both ends of this sentence Paul roots his Apostolic calling in Jesus Christ. Here, at the end of the sentence, in v3, Paul sets forth the heart of his commission as God’s ambassador to the churches: which is to preach God’s Word. The heartbeat and epicenter of Paul’s ministry in the New Testament was to preach the same message of salvation that Jesus did. In other words, at the end of the day, Paul had no authority or message of his own to boast of. God made him into a preacher and he preached the gospel of Christ. What we see here is that Paul stands in the same tradition of preaching that stretches back to Abraham, Moses and the prophets in the OT, and finally the preacher and the embodiment of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ.
But where does this all leave us today? As I mentioned earlier, Paul fulfilled a once-off extraordinary calling as an Apostle in helping lay the foundation of the NT church. If it is true that we don’t have Apostles today and all of the extraordinary gifts that came with their ministry, what continuity can we expect between the ministry of Paul and the church today?
Ordained ministers are the mouthpieces of God (vv3-4)
To help answer this question, we do well to consider that when we become Christians we are incorporated into God’s story of redemption that is far greater than ourselves. This story began in eternity past and has been unfolding throughout history into today. This story that centers round the gospel of Jesus Christ is what God has chosen to tell to the world through the means of ordained preachers in our churches today. In the book of Titus, the other Pastoral Epistles, and his other letters (cf. Rom. 10), Paul is clear that God has given the church ordained ministers whose calling, like that of the Apostles, is to preach the Word of God so that sinners might be converted and saints built up in their faith. Like Paul, the ordained minister proclaims the same message that Jesus preached by the same power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, when the minister preaches the Word today, it is Christ speaking to us. Like the Christians on the island of Crete, because we have faith, we too can claim Paul’s salutation in verse 4. By faith in the Word of Christ that has been preached to us, we too are “true children” of God “in a common faith”. We too are recipients of: “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Saviour.”
In addition to sharing in a common faith through the Word preached, we are also part of Christ’s kingdom that is growing amidst a hostile and wicked world. In fact, there are many parallels with Titus and his church planting efforts and the work God is doing here in the southern suburbs of Cape Town in planting one of the few English-Reformed churches in South Africa. Like the churches in Crete, we too live in a church climate in which it is not popular to assert that God has entrusted the ministry of the gospel (and the Great Commission) to his ordained ministers. We live in culture where it is not in vogue to argue that God ordinarily works though the official channels of the church to bring about salvation. We live in a time when increasingly the public preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments are being replaced by other means: like special private experiences with God, small group gatherings and an endless menu of church programs, etc.
So, therefore, let us be careful to listen to Paul’s words to Titus this evening. Let us heed the authority and direction of God’s Word, as it is faithfully preached to us, rather than the innovations of man. Yes, the preaching of God’s Word by an unspectacular and imperfect man is not impressive by the world’s standards. Yet it is nevertheless the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (cf. 1 Cor 1). Let us therefore thank God for the mouthpiece of ministers he has chosen to use to speak to his people. Let us be especially grateful for the life-giving words of Jesus, which still speak today when we gather together like this in corporate worship like this each Lord’s Day. Amen.
Simon Jooste (RCSS, evening service, December 23, 2012)