The sheep in the churches on the island of Crete were surrounded by dangerous animals. One of Crete’s poet-prophets, Epimenides, once joked that the absence of wild beasts on the island could be explained by the presence of humans. Cretans were known for being lovers of money, viciously greedy, liars and ruthless cheaters. The Greeks considered Cretans to be among the three most brutish people on the face of the planet. It is understandable then that the Christians on the island were attracted to false teachers with their insistence that one had to separate from this evil world in order to be saved. The problem is that while the unbelievers on the island of Crete could rob or maim someone in a dark alley, the false teachers were a danger to people’s souls. The false teachers in the book of Titus are the kind of ravenous wolves that the Scripture warns against. And they still roam our churches today.
This is why Paul calls Titus to appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5): that is, qualified under-shepherds of Christ who are able to refute and rebuke false teachers who deny the gospel (1.9). * In our passage (1.10-16), Paul describes what these teachers are like and how Titus should deal with them. The false teachers show by their works that they are corrupt and that they reject the truth of God’s Word. Therefore, Titus is to silence them with a sharp reprimand in order to preserve the health of the church. In our passage, the Holy Spirit teaches us about freedom of the gospel, which the church must guard and upon which our very spiritual life depends. *
The character of the false teachers
Paul’s concern for the churches in Crete under the care of Titus is that there are “many” – note many – so-called teachers who are the opposite of the elder-types described in vv5-9. They are “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers”. Now remember that the false teachers have gained a hearing in the churches, so evidently their lives are not so obviously scandalous that they have lost influence altogether. The subtlety of the false teachers is that they had an outward kind of spirituality that was impressive. They also taught a kind of gospel that appeals to sinful human nature. However, according to Paul, on closer inspection it is evident that they are fakes. For one, they are unwilling to submit to church authority, which is derived from the Word of God. Recall that Paul introduced his letter by defending his Apostolic authority against the false teachers. In fact, the false teachers had no authority from God or from the church to teach. Paul is also clear in Chapter 1 that the false teachers deny the gospel (v14), and therefore their teaching is empty. Instead of teaching the way of eternal life offered by Jesus they are deceiving people with the lies of man-made religion.
Apparently there were a variety of false teachers on the island of Crete. But Paul’s special concern is for those of the “circumcision party”. The circumcision party, or otherwise known as Judaizers, were a minority Jewish group that had much in common with the Pharisees that Jesus had to deal with in his day. They feature prominently in other books by Paul as well, like the letter to the Galatians. Basically, they believed that by keeping various laws that separated them from the defilement of the world, they could earn their salvation before God. The false teachers, like the Pharisees and the Judaizers in Galatia, were known for putting on a show of outward holiness. But inside they were corrupt and spiritually dead: like whitewashed tombs.
Perhaps a helpful way to appreciate the attraction of the false teachers is to think of them as celebrities. The magnetism of famous people, especially TV or movie stars, is often the result of very outward and superficial things: like the way they look, talk and act on the screen or in public. And yet, how often do we hear about the complete mess they make of their private lives, especially when it comes to money and sex. The false teachers were impressive showmen in the churches, and yet they suffered from a fatal and infectious spiritual disease – which they could not ultimately hide.
The false teachers must be silenced
The teaching of these false teachers is not a passing fad or a superficial infection that will heal on its own, but is rather a serious sickness that requires swift remedial action. Therefore, Paul admonishes Titus to cut out the growth of deadly false teaching within the churches by “silencing” the false teachers (v11). Their mouths must be shut up before they spew forth any further poison. For according to Paul, whole families are being upset by these self-appointed teachers who are more concerned about advancing their own interests than the spiritual wellbeing of God’s people. We are told that they were driven by “shameful gain”: which likely means they were motivated by the rewards of money and status, rather than the truth and honour of God’s Word.
According to Paul, what the false teachers need, as well as those blindly following them, is a sharp injection of reality into their spiritually sick world. And this is what Paul delivers in vv12-13. He begins by lumping together the holier-then-thou false teachers with a dirty pagan poet, most likely Epimenides. He then endorses a claim about the moral condition of all the people on the island of Crete, including the false teachers. Paul writes, v12: “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” And then in v13, he states: “This testimony is true.” Do you see what Paul is doing here? With a clever piece of cutting sarcasm, he shows that despite their reputation for being super-spiritual and super-holy, the false teachers are no different from an unbelieving poet and they are as morally bankrupt as any citizen living on the island of Crete!
Because of their pride, the false teachers are out of touch with the reality about themselves as sinners. And this fact has produced a deadly counter-gospel that is spreading like the plague among the churches. Therefore, in v13, Paul calls the minister Titus to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” If Titus had any reservations about confronting the false teachers, Paul’s tongue-lashing here is intended to set an example and embolden Titus to take action. Now, I want you to notice two important things about Paul’s rebuke here. On the one hand, Paul’s language here is harsh. It is similar to his use of graphic words in the book of Galatians. Why? Because there is nothing more important to Paul than the preservation of the purity of the gospel. He is willing to resort to encouraging castration and labeling people “evil beasts” if it will rouse the church to get the gospel right.
The other thing about Paul’s rebuke here is that – though fierce – it is intended for restoration, not hopeless punishment. Like any form of church discipline, the desired outcome – vv13-14 – is that the false teachers would be “sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. ” As I mentioned earlier, Paul has special concern for a Jewish kind of false teaching that is still caught up in the OT world of laws for ceremonial cleansings and washings. What they need to understand is that since Christ has come to fulfill the OT, trusting in OT laws like circumcision and diet restrictions are now the equivalent of “mythology”. What the false teachers need to know is that their version of the gospel, whether it be of a Jewish flavour or not, is no better than man-made religion, and therefore contrary to the “truth” of the gospel.
Despite all their hard work at making themselves pure before God by human effort, the false teachers are nevertheless still inwardly polluted and displeasing to God. In vv15-16, Paul gives one final tug in pulling the mask of self-righteousness off the deformed faces of the false teachers. Paul begins here by comparing them to the Christians who have faith in Jesus. For the believer, like Paul, who has been purified by the blood of Jesus Christ, “all things are pure”. In other words, as believers we don’t have to live in perpetual fear of being stained and destroyed by the world. But rather, we have the freedom to enjoy the pleasures of creation as good gifts from God. However, in contrast, we read in v15 that “to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” Again, Paul reveals the ironic predicament of the false teachers. In their quest to find dirt and impurity everywhere – so that they can separate from it – they have missed the fact that they themselves are corrupt and defiled to the core of their beings before God.
The thing about the false teachers, and anyone who trusting in his or her works for salvation, is that their mind and their conscience has been darkened and warped by sin and unbelief, and is therefore sending the wrong signal about God. Now, the conscience is the center of our spiritual awareness as image-bearers of God, which tells us whether our behaviour is morally right or wrong before God. In the case of the false teachers their teaching of salvation by works is keeping their conscience in bondage to the power of the sin and guilt. Therefore they have a twisted view of themselves, of God and of the world. Can you perhaps relate to this?
Do you see what a combination of fear and human pride that spurns God’s truth has done to the spiritual instincts of the false teachers? It drove them to exchange the freedom of the gospel for the enslaving religion of works righteousness. They ended up calling evil what God has blessed as good and calling good what God condemns. With their tormented conscience they projected defilement onto everything and everyone around them. Despite their outward religious show they are godless hypocrites. Verse 16: “They profess to know God, but deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” At the end of the day, their works of obedience that they so loved and that they are so impressed with are the very evidence that condemns them. For their works are not done in faith unto the glory of God, and therefore God despises them.
The liberty of the gospel must be preached
Brothers and sisters, friends, your life story and mine are found in this passage from the Bible that has been preached this morning. Like every sermon that you hear each Lord’s Day, God’s Spirit is drawing us all into the world of Scripture today. We are all like the inhabitants of the island of Crete, whether it is the pagan poet, the Christian or the false teachers. For, we are all sinners. We are all by nature evil beasts. Our works of obedience – no matter how impressive – are all defiled in God’s sight. None of us can merit God’s favour.
Do you believe these truths about yourself this morning? If so, what are you doing with your guilty conscience?
Are you perhaps thinking and acting like the false teachers or at least tempted by their kind of teaching? Are you trying to separate yourself from good or indifferent things in this world in order to be right with God? Is your understanding of forgiveness perhaps entangled with all sorts of rules about food, alcohol, tobacco, recreation, entertainment, dating, sex within marriage, dress, friends, education and so on? Maybe you have been suffering under the hypocritical ministry of celebrities and showmen who insist on all sorts of super-spiritual rules for your Christian walk while denying the gospel.
Jesus said in Luke 5 that if our righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven. So how do we become righteous enough to satisfy God’s justice? By putting our faith in Jesus Christ alone. For by doing so, God promises to exchange our sin for the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. By trusting in Jesus, our sin is washed away by his sacrificial death. By believing in Jesus, his perfect obedience to the law becomes our perfect obedience before God, the Father. This is the freedom of the gospel. This is where you and I can find peace of conscience.
Brothers and sisters, let us hold fast to the good news of God’s free grace. For there are many in the churches today who deny it. Let us therefore be sure to be a part of a church that faithfully preaches the gospel and guards it from error. For your very life depends on it. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service (Roncebosch, Jan 13, 2013)