Today, we begin a new series in the short epistle of Paul to Titus. (Why? I’m teaching Titus this semester, so it’ll be helpful to me in refreshing my memory. And, since it’s inspired Scripture, I know it’ll be helpful to you as well – most obviously in its reminder about godly living in a world that is anything but godly.)
We’ll find out why Paul writes to Titus tomorrow, since he gives an explanation in verse 5. Today, we’ll look at the first four verses. They form what are traditionally called the ”epistolary greeting” – the sender and addressee – but also function as a bit of a preview of what the letter will be about. Let’s read:
Titus 1:1-4 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— 2 in 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 Saviour, 4 To Titus, my true son in our common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Saviour.
I’ve put some words in bold, because they’ll be significant for the rest of the letter*:
Paul is a servant of God. Now the Greek word is doulos, meaning “slave,” but since our contemporary idea of slavery is strongly linked with demeaning and abusive treatment, the NIV has gone for “servant.” Yet the image Paul want’s to call to mind is different from what we tend to associate with either word. In Paul’s day, slavery was a fact of life for many throughout the empire, and a major source of employment. Treatment of slaves ranged from abuse at one end of the scale, right up to trusted second-in-command of the household (like Joseph in Potiphar’s household, Gen 39). When Paul calls himself a doulos of God he’s probably wanting us to think closer to the Joseph end of the scale. He’s not condoning slavery, but using a metaphor from everyday experience to describe his calling into God’s service. Yes, he’s given up his freedom – not to an abusive master, but one who loves him; one who trusts him enough to give him access to all his riches and responsibility to put them to work. He’s not just a doulos, but (as he goes on to say) also an apostolos – one who’s sent to represent his master. The whole letter is about what makes a faithful slave of God – metaphorically (for Titus) or even literally (for those who are slaves, addressed later in the letter in 2:9-10).
Faith is mentioned twice. This is another word for which we often miss the nuances. The Greek pistis (sorry for all the Greek today; unavoidable) covers a range of ideas for which we have different words in English: belief, trust, and loyalty. It comes from the language of patronage: pistis is what you showed toward your benefactor because of what he’s done for you, and if you want him to remain your benefactor. So when Paul talks about “the faith of God’s elect” and “our common faith,” he’s not just meaning a set of beliefs about which we all agree. He’s primarily referring to the trust-loyalty relationship we have with God, and share with our brothers and sisters in Christ. This idea of trust and loyalty features throughout the letter (e.g. 1:13; 2:2, 10; 3:15), and is its main theme.
Godliness is closely associated with this. The word (eusebia) was used in pagan religion to refer to religious devotion to the gods: having appropriate awe and respect, and performing your duty to them. These duties involved offering the proper sacrifices as well as appropriate behaviour in society. Displaying eusebia was what marked you out as a responsible member of society who “fits in”; failure to do so called into question your loyalty to your community and the wider empire. Christians were often seen as a threat to the social order because they refused to participate in pagan religious practices and emperor worship. Paul uses this word here in Titus (as well as 1 and 2 Timothy) with a Christian twist: display eusebia toward God. The rest of the letter could be seen as a description of what this eusebia looks like.
The hope of eternal life is the main reason Paul gives in the letter for being a slave/apostle who is faithful/godly. It turns up again in chapter three.
The God who never lies contrasts with the community in which Titus ministers (since Cretans are known liars, as we’ll look at in a few days in 1:12) and the false teachers he has to deal with (1:10-16).
Although we’re used to calling Jesus our saviour, in the first century it was a term frequently applied to the Roman Emperor – for “saving” the people of the empire from their enemies and bringing them peace. (OK, it was peace on Rome’s terms, at the point of their swords, but, hey, at least it meant you weren’t getting invaded every spring by hordes of barbarians.) Here, Paul uses the term for our true saviour, who brings lasting peace and security. This theme will also turn up later in the letter (2:11-14; 3:4-5), so we’ll look at it in more detail then.
So putting all this together, we can read the greeting again with a little more insight:
Paul, a trusted slave of the kindest master one could ever have, sent with great responsibility to represent Jesus Christ to God’s chosen ones, to increase their bond of trust in and loyalty to God, and giving them the teaching they need in order to fulfil their true duty towards God and others (rather than burning incense to lifeless idols or deluded human beings). This is in light of the great and certain hope that we have of a future with God, who doesn’t lie (unlike the false teachers that are trying to derail you, not to mention the wider society in which you live). This future was promised before the beginning of time, and now – at the time God had planned long ago – it has been revealed through the preaching to which I was commissioned by God our true saviour (not some toga-wearing, fiddle-playing, spoiled rich kid with mummy issues, <*cough*> Nero <*cough*>)…
To think about
There’s a lot packed in there, right? We’ll get to the next part tomorrow. But for now, notice how Paul has taken some key images from his world (slavery, loyalty toward benefactors, expectations of what it means to “fit in” with society, and the peace offered by human saviour figures) and recast them in order to express a different, greater, even subversive reality.
What would Paul use from our world? How might he recast Australian images of mateship, a “fair go,” and being “true blue,” in ways that point to the greater citizenship we have offered to, and also subvert some of the less-than-Christian aspects of those values? Or think about other “saviour figures” across our political spectrum, whether they be populist politicians, market forces, particular social policies, or collective action on climate change: how do these, in some way, point to our longing for a true saviour, but also threaten to distract us from finding him?
* The identification of how elements in the prescript play out in the rest of the letter is from Luke Timothy Johnson, Letters to Paul’s Delgates, p.217.