Living in God’s two kingdoms

Over the last few weeks we have heard God speak to us through Paul’s letter to Titus.  In this letter we have learned many things about our lives inside and outside of the church.  Central among these truths is that God has saved us by his grace and not by works of the law.  This good news of the gospel comes to us through ordained preachers.  We have learned that baptism signifies and seals our entrance into Christ’s church, and our participation in the benefits of the covenant of grace.  God has chosen to govern his people in the church through elders, who must meet certain requirements.  We deal with false teachers in the church.  In our lives outside the church, we are part of marriages and families.  We have vocations.  Some people are slaves.  We are all called to submit to civil government.  We share with the broader society a common moral standard that obligates us toward God and our neighbour, and gives shape to our lives in this world.  God wants us to be ready for every good work in order to preserve the witness of the church and the gospel.

What I would like to do this morning is to provide a biblical framework that helps us fit these truths together to give us a holistic picture of the Christian life.  This framework emerges from two covenants that God has instituted with humankind: God’s covenant with Noah and his covenant of grace with Abraham.  These covenants form the basis for God establishing two kingdoms in which you and I live.  What we shall see is that just like the Christians on the island of Crete, we too are simultaneously members of Gods two kingdoms.  On the one hand, we are citizens of God’s redemptive kingdom, which is expressed in the church only.  And on the other, we are citizens of his common kingdom, which is expressed in various other institutions in this world, like marriage and the state.

The redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace

Paul’s ultimate burden in his letter to Titus is with the redemptive kingdom of Christ.  The redemptive kingdom according to the NT, especially from a place like the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), is given earthly expression in the church only.  It is through the church that the good news of Christ’s redemptive kingdom has been revealed by God’s ordained preachers throughout the ages: from the OT priests and prophets, to Jesus, to the Apostles, and pastors in the church today.  It is through the ordained ministry of the church that sinners enter into Christ’s kingdom and are fed and nurtured in grace.  Therefore, Paul’s chief concern in the book of Titus is for the redemptive kingdom to expand and flourish according to God’s churchly means.  This is why he wants qualified ministers and elders to be elected.  Between them, they preach the Word of God and rule over us for our good.  The ordained officers alone are the ones who have been given the keys to open and close the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19; 18:15-20).

According to Paul, it is our membership in God’s redemptive kingdom – the church – that ultimately defines our existence in this world.  In the beginning of Chapter 3, Paul writes that we were “once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures.”  We were once God-haters and people-haters.  But, Titus 3:4-5, when the “goodness and loving kindness of Jesus appeared, he saved us.”  God saved us from our sins and turned us into Saints because Jesus fulfilled the covenant of grace that he made with Abraham.  Therefore, to have faith in Jesus is to be in a covenant of grace relationship with God, and enjoy all of its benefits.  By faith we have been freed, in Christ, from the demands of the law for our justification.  By faith in Christ we have become citizens of heaven.  By faith we have received the power and comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, children and friends, the way of life in Christ’s kingdom is radically different from life in any other institution or community in this world.  How so?  As we have seen, life in Christ’s kingdom – in the church – is defined by forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.  Even when church discipline is exercised, it is always done in mercy and toward reconciliation.  It is the one place where the claims of justice are not enforced against sinners; where the consequences for breaking the law are transcended.  The church is a place of peace; a place where we turn the other cheek when wronged; where we don’t give another his due when he sins against us.  It is the one community in the world where the slave goes free, debts are forgiven and criminal records are thrown away.

As people of faith, our way of life is profoundly different from the rest of the world when it comes to matters of eternal significance.  When it comes to the God we worship and serve, and our eternal destiny, there is no overlap between members of the redemptive kingdom and non-Christians in the civil kingdom.  Christians and non-Christians have nothing in common when it comes to salvation.

But this does not mean that there is no overlap or commonality between the two kingdoms whatsoever.  This does not mean our lives have no meaning outside of the church.

The common kingdom and the Noahic covenant

One of the things that Paul assumes in his letter to Titus is that Christians have legitimate and significant lives in broader society, which is also under Christ’s sovereign rule.  For example, Paul’s list of elder requirements is such that it describes a man who has a good moral reputation both inside and outside the church.  In fact, he uses a list of moral traits common to the first-century Greco-Roman world to describe many of the traits expected of an elder within the church.  You will also notice that Paul does not call Christians to abandon their lives in the broader communities and institutions of this world.  Rather, he calls us to “upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12): as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children; as slaves; as lawyers and accountants; as housewives, etc.  And then in Titus 3:1, Paul calls all Christians to be submissive to the governing authorities of the land, that is the state.

So what does this all mean?  It is a sampling of the evidence found throughout Scripture that God has made us members not only of the church – the redemptive kingdom – but also members of broader society as well – that is the common or civil kingdom.  As members of the church, God governs our lives according to the redemptive terms of the covenant of grace made with Abraham, found in Genesis 15-17.  In contrast, God governs our lives as members of the common kingdom according to the non-redemptive terms of the Noahic covenant, found in Genesis 9.

God’s covenant with Noah was distinctly different from the one that he made with Abraham in that the Noahic covenant is temporary while the Abrahamic covenant is eternal.  The recipients of the Abrahamic covenant are God’s people only, while God has made the Noahic covenant with everyone.  In the Abrahamic covenant, God promises eternal life, while in the Noahic covenant he promises to uphold and sustain humanity in this life only.

In his covenant with Noah, God promises to stay his hand of judgment against a fallen world and enable all people to enjoy a measure of peace and flourishing in this world.  But in order for this to take place, God has instituted the state to punish those who break the law and threaten the dignity of human life.  In Genesis 9:6, Moses writes: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”  The state has been ordained by God to rule over and protect us in the civil kingdom, by using the threat of force.  It’s mandate it to provide a relatively peaceful space in which Christians can join with their non-Christian neighbours in enjoying God’s creation, making culture and doing good to each other.  Most importantly, God’s forbearance toward humanity in extending his common grace to all people gives sinners opportunity to repent and believe in Jesus.

So, it we can sum up at this point, when it comes to the distinct way of life that defines our existence in God’s common kingdom, the institution of the state highlights things most sharply.  Unlike the church, the state can never offer us benefits that extend beyond this life.  Unlike the church, the state judges us according to the demands of the law.  As a general rule: we cannot escape the penalties imposed on us by the state for breaking its laws.  The consequences for our bad behaviour normally follow us.  We cannot erase our criminal record.

In striking contrast to the church, the state ensures that a defining feature of the common kingdom is the relatively strict enforcement of law and justice.  This reality in itself teaches us that the common kingdom can never become the redemptive kingdom.  For, remember, the church operates according to the gospel ethic of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.  It is the only community in this world in which the demands of justice have been met.

How?  Through Jesus: the one who is took upon himself God’s curse for our law breaking.  The gospel is the stupendous message that instead of judging us for our sin against him, God turned his other cheek by crucifying his only begotten Son so that we might have life!

Living as dual citizens under Christ’s rule

Beloved, the theology of the two kingdoms is of immense help to us as we try to make sense of our lives in this present evil age.  For, we are those who exist in the midst of the tension of being in the world, but not of it.  We are those who are called to heavenly-mindedness, but at the same time have lives filled with earthly responsibilities.  Understanding our lives as citizens of God’s two kingdoms gives us a holistic perspective of the Christian life under the Lordship of Christ.  For it enables us to affirm both the church and the state as legitimate institutions ordained by God and to which we owe God-glorifying obedience by faith.  At the same time, by understanding that God governs our lives differently depending on which kingdom is in view, we are taught to keep the nature and the purpose of the church free of dangerous confusion with other institutions, like the state.

For when we understand that it is the church alone that makes manifest the kingdom of heaven on earth through its ordained ministry, then the church assumes its proper place as the most important institution in our lives.  When we appreciate that the church alone is that gathering where God promises to redeem his people and where we offer our public praises to him, then our common cultural activities assume their appropriate level of importance: that is God-glorifying, but not holy or redemptive.  By seeing our common cultural labours as indeed God-honoring ways of showing love to our neighbour, but not strictly-speaking “holy” acts or “ministry” or “kingdom work”, we protect and affirm the church alone as God’s ordained means by which the kingdom of heaven grows here on earth.

Paul’s central burden in his letter to Titus is for the church, and this should be our central burden in this life as well.  Therefore, let us heed Paul’s instructions here to serve God in his two kingdoms – with our good works – in such a way that Christ’s gospel and his church continue to thrive in this world that is soon to pass away.  Let us do so out of gratitude for our redemption and in the hope that God will one day replace this world with a new and better one: the New Jerusalem that will one day come down from heaven.  Amen.

Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, February 24, 2013

Elder requirements (Titus 1:5-9)

Two of the challenges that the minister Titus was facing as a church planter on the island of Crete centered on the Christian’s relationship to the world outside of the church.  On the one hand, there were false teachers who believed that in order to be saved one had to separate as much as possible from broader society by keeping various laws for spiritual purity and cleansing.  On the other hand, there were new converts that had come into the church who were unsure how to relate their newfound faith to their old pagan background.  The island of Crete was one of the most immoral and decadent places in the first century world.  So it is little wonder that these Christians were perplexed about how to engage it – especially if they did not have a clear understanding of the gospel.

Paul was aware of these struggles, and others, that Titus was facing.  So, early on in his letter he calls Titus to elect elders in every town.  The purpose is to provide proper spiritual government and guidance for the Christians in the churches in Crete.  Elders are God’s gifts to the church who fulfill the role of preaching and teaching God’s Word and ruling over God’s people.  They have been ordained to meet challenges like those presented by the false teachers and new converts with the wisdom of the Word of God.  They are ultimately called to safeguard the message of the gospel and promote the spiritual health of God’s people.  Since Christ is in heaven and we Christians are on earth, God in his inscrutable wisdom has chosen to build and sustain his kingdom by the power of his Holy Spirit working through church government.  It is chiefly through the means of the ordained minister preaching the Word and administering the sacraments that God is pleased to make Jesus Christ manifest to us, by his Holy Spirit, for the forgiveness of our sins and our growth in grace.

In our passage this morning, Paul sets forth the qualifications for elders.  These qualifications are not only important for those men who aspire to the office of elder, but they are also important for the entire church.  Why?  Because we all take part in the process of electing elders and we all participate in holding them accountable to their responsibilities towards the church.  We will also see that the qualifications for eldership shed crucial light on the kind of life we are to live as those who are not only members of the church but also citizens of a pagan society.

Elder qualifications: general features

At first glance, it can be tempting to read Paul’s set of elder criteria here like a shopping list in the middle of a Shakespearean sonnet.  Paul has just finished giving a highly spiritual defence of his Apostleship and a glorious benediction upon Titus in the first four verses of Titus.  Now, starting in verse 5, Paul proceeds to provide a very ordinary list of elder requirements.  What is the purpose of Paul’s list here and how does it relate to his concerns in the rest of the letter?  In order to answer these questions, I think it is helpful to begin by considering three general features of Paul’s set of elder requirements and then we can get into some of the particulars.

The first general feature deals with the obvious fact that these qualifications are given to men in the NT church.  Remember that in the OT, once Israel had been constituted as a nation in the Promised Land, God governed virtually every aspect of the lives of his people with detailed laws given to Moses in the covenant made at Mount Sinai.  According to the covenant with Moses, there was to be no separation of church and state.  Israel was to be distinctly different in her life and identity from the neighbouring pagan nations.  During her time in the Promised Land, which was type of heaven on earth, Israel was marked out as separate and holy through obedience to various external laws for cleansing and purity.  In other words, the lives of believers during this time were defined by their contrast to the unbelieving world around them.

Now notice that when we come to the kind of lifestyle expected by Paul of a NT elder candidate, we find that it is defined not by separation but by commonalityWhy?  What happened to those intricate ceremonial laws given by God to Moses?  The answer is that the NT church is built on the foundation of the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is the fulfillment of OT law and the prophets.  Therefore, OT ceremonial laws like circumcision, sacrifices and rituals for bodily cleansing are no longer applicable.  These laws promised forgiveness, holiness and participation in God’s heavenly rest through type and shadows, but they did not secure the ultimate realities they pointed to.  Only through Jesus do God’s people – you and I – have the fulfillment of these promises.

The second general theme that characterises Paul’s catalogue of elder virtues here, which follows from the first, is that it outfits a man to gain the respect of outsiders and peacefully inhabit broader society.  Paul’s list actually bears strong resemblance to the typical moral codes of ancient Greco-Roman society.  Many of the traits here could be used to describe the moral character of, for example, a 1st century military commander.  It is likely that Paul used a list of well-accepted ancient virtues, and adapted them for his theological purposes here in the book of Titus.  This is not an uncommon practice for Paul.  For instance, he does something similar with the elder qualifications in 1 Tim 3.  And in Phil 4, he calls Christians to meditate on what moral Greek philosophers called the true, the good, and the beautiful: that is the manifestation of God’s righteousness in the world, which is accessible to all people.

The fact that the divinely inspired Apostle Paul can adapt the majority of the elder requirements from moral codes and practices in the unbelieving world is testimony to the reality that God’s grace is at work even among non-Christians, just not in a saving way.  This is instructive for us on a number of levels.  I have already noted that it signifies that we are no longer living in the time of OT theocratic Israel.  It is also gives us a window into the kind of lives we should be living as Christians who are simultaneously members of the church as well as broader pagan society.  NT elders – just like all NT Christians – are to live righteous lives in world, but are at the same time called to blend into the world in things like vocation, dress, food, family and entertainment, as long as we don’t disobey God’s Word in doing so.

Another way in which Paul’s elder checklist is significant is in its indirect argument against the false teachers in the church on the island of Crete.  An important thrust of Paul’s letter is a reaction against the false teachers.  It is likely that these false teachers, called the circumcision party (Titus 1.10), were Jews.  They were insisting that Christians needed to keep the OT ceremonial laws in order to be saved.  In other words, they were still incubating in the sterile womb of the OT, oblivious to the fact that Christ has been born, has died and has been raised to new life.  These false teachers were teaching a “super-Christian” kind of spirituality that did not mix with broader society in dress, talk and diet, but rather wanted to force separation between the godly and the ungodly at every possible opportunity.  In contrast, Paul wants Titus to appoint men who set an example of fitting in peaceably with unbelieving society.

The third and final theme that I would like to draw your attention to is that Paul’s list is not an assessment of what is private and hidden in the heart of a man.  This reminds us not to make the qualification for eldership more rigorous and introspective than the Word of God does – lest we be guilty of hypocrisy like the false teachers.  Rather, Paul presents straightforward qualities that are easily discernable by members of the church and society at large.  Imagine a visit to the new doctor in town.  What would you think if he had a tattered shirt, dirt under his fingernails, and a rough bedside manner?  He would not be in practice for long.  Similarly, elders are to adorn themselves with character that engenders respect and dignity in the eyes of a watching world.

Elder qualifications: particulars

With these three general features in mind, I think we are now in a better position to briefly consider some of the important particulars of Paul’s list of elder qualifications.  For starters, in v6, he tells Titus to be on the lookout for “anyone above reproach.  Basically, the elder type is someone who does not fail openly and flagrantly with respect the checklist of virtues in vv6-9.  He is to be a man of good reputation, with no obvious moral blind spots or blemishes, and therefore blameless in the eyes of the watching community.

The elder candidate is to be the husband of one wife.  One might initially think that what Paul is against here is polygamy.  However, the custom of having multiple wives was not common practice in the ancient Greco-Roman world.  So what is Paul’s concern here?  If we understand that Crete was a context in which the widespread norm was for married men to enjoy sexual favors from concubines and mistresses, then I think it makes sense that what Paul requires here is sexual expression within the confines of monogamous heterosexual marriage.  In other words, an elder candidate should not be known for steamy encounters with women at the Roman baths, or be one to slink off at dinner parties for desert in the bedroom.  It should be added that this requirement does not exclude single men running for the office.  Such men should be known for their sexual purity as they wait for marriage.

The next virtue that Paul lists is found in the second half of v6.  According to the ESV, elder’s “children are to be believers and not open to debauchery and insubordination.”  Unfortunately, this translation obscures the meaning of the underlying Greek text.  A better possible translation is: elders are to have “faithful children”.  Understood this way, the sense is that Paul is not necessarily expecting the children of elders to have all have exercised faith, but rather that they are members of good standing in the church.  This interpretation of Paul’s words is in keeping with the Biblical doctrines of covenant and baptism.  They lead us to believe that God will ordinarily make good on his promise of salvation to believers and their children.  No doubt there will be instances where the children of potential elder candidates or current elders are rebellious and reject the gospel.  In such cases, the church should subject both the elder and the child to loving church discipline, with hopes of restoration.  The bottom line here is that the elder must be able to manage his household well, which is like a testing ground for ruling in the church.

In v7, Paul reiterates again that the elder must be blameless: that is not perfect and not above having private failures, but rather a man of respectable public character.  “He must not be arrogant (which is self-willed) or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but (v8) hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.”  In other words, he should be free of those vices that would disqualify any member of society from respected positions of leadership.  And, in turn, and putting it positively, he should be one who opens his house to strangers.  He should love that which is virtuous and of good repute.  He should be a man who treats his neighbour with the civility of justice and fairness.  And he must be a man who fears God.

Brothers and sisters, the men Titus was to look for, the kind of men we are to look for as elders are not those who are too holy for this world, but those who are respected in the broader community and who can peaceably fit within it.  But, just because the church is called to be in this world does not mean her message belongs to it!  This world is fallen in sin and is passing away, but the Word of God perfect and endures forever.  This is why Paul commands, in v9, that the church must elect faithful men who will hold fast to the Word of God, who are able to teach it and who can defend it against error.

Here, at the end of the list of elder qualifications, I think that Paul has in view in particular the teaching elder who is ordained to office of minister of the Word.  Remember that the designation “elder” in the NT consists of two distinct, and yet complementing, offices of ruling elder and teaching elder.  The teaching elder is the one gifted, called and equipped by God to correctly divide the Word of truth for the spiritual welfare of the church.

His ministry is not ultimately about virtuous and upright living.  For this would make his message no different from the orders of a Roman military commander or the pious platitudes of Cicero.  But rather, beloved, the ordained minister’s mandate is to proclaim the whole counsel of God, which at its heart reveals the gospel of free grace.  He is to safeguard this message from false teachers who would like to pull Christ’s heavenly message down to earth, and contaminate it with sinful human works.

Let us, therefore, hold fast to Christ’s Word that is preached to us each Lord’s Day.  For in it God promises to save us despite our moral imperfections because he is satisfied with the righteousness obedience of his Son, which is ours by faith.  It is with this assurance that we are united to Christ and our sins are forgiven that we can live in this world with wisdom, and especially without fear.  For nothing in this world, no matter how tempting or how evil, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, which has been shed abroad in our hearts by his Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service (January 6, 2013)