We’re continuing our series in the letter of Paul to Titus. Thus far, there’s been a lot of instruction about the character of the people Titus appoints to be elders, and the kind of behaviour he should teach and model to various groupings within the church. Today, we change gear and talk about the reason for the moral teaching we’ve read thus far:
Titus 2:11-15 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. 15 These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.
The right behaviour being urged throughout this letter should flow out of the grace God has given us. Paul says that God’s grace teaches/trains us to renounce the values of the world and live according to God’s values.
So how does God’s grace train us?
This is where we need some cultural background, as “grace” (Greek: charis) was a word drawn from the world of patronage and benefactors. Because patronage was the way things got done in the ancient world. For the basics of life, you either grew it yourself, made it yourself, or bought it from the marketplace. But for other things – like luxury goods, imported building materials, credit, advice, political appointments, you name it – it was all about whether you knew someone who could get it for you as a favour (charis). And in return, you’d owe them. If this arrangement was ongoing, they’d become your “benefactor” or “patron” (from the Latin word for “father”). And you’d be their “client,” who was expected to show your gratitude (charis) by publicly honouring them, proclaiming loudly their generosity, performing small acts of service for them, and being loyal to them.
This didn’t just exist at the individual level. The wealthy became benefactors to entire towns by funding public buildings or supplying the food and wine for public festivals. In return, they were honoured by the town. (Jesus refers to this in Luke 22:25.) As long as everyone did their bit – benefactors kept doing favours (charis) and clients kept being appropriately grateful in return (charis) – this “dance of grace” worked.
The Stoic philosophers even wrote about how a persistent flow of favour would have a “training” effect with initially ungrateful recipients, provoking them (eventually) to gratitude. (Seneca, On Benefits, 7.31.1: “Persistent goodness wins over bad men.”)
Paul uses this image here in Titus, saying that God’s charis (his favour in offering salvation to everyone) trains us in an appropriate response of gratitude (obedience). The overwhelming abundance of favour that continues to flow from God – despite the fact that we don’t deserve it and frequently abuse it – should provoke in us, over time, grateful obedience as we come to wonder at his generosity.
That’s the first significant point from this passage: God’s favour (not fear, guilt, or sense of obligation) moves us to an obedient response.
The second point also requires some background, again of a patronage flavour. You see, in the ancient world the emperor was seen as the supreme human benefactor. He was hailed as “saviour” for a range of things: for “saving” the empire from the threat of foreign armies, for giving Roman citizenship to whole city, and for giving peace to the empire. Benefactors were also highly praised for acts that benefited others, but at great cost or risk to themselves (e.g. financial or military risk), as we see from surviving inscriptions on the ruins of buildings and statues throughout the empire.
Here in Titus, we have the language of emperor-benefactor being used for God, and nowhere more so in this passage, set up by the word appearing (Greek: epiphaneia) which was used for an official visit by an important person, such as the emperor:
Titus 2:13-14 we wait for the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness…
Christians aren’t waiting for a royal visit from a human emperor who gives temporary peace – at relatively little cost to himself. No, we wait for a far greater epiphany of a divine Saviour, who has brought us eternal peace at the cost of his own life. How’s that for a subversive statement?
Dragging this one by its feet into the twenty-first century takes a bit of work, but we can replace “emperor” with any contemporary saviour figure in which our world might put its hope. Because as Christians:
- We wait for the Presidential visit of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who will make all of creation great again.
- We wait for our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, to #OccupyTheWorld and bring justice to the 99%.
- We wait for the unilateral action of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, to make the whole created order renewable, and calm the rising seas he once walked upon.
I could go on, but you get the point – the second significant one from this passage: it’s God who’s the true saviour, not a human leader, nor humanity itself.
To think about
How has God’s grace (the salvation we have and look forward to in Christ, and his constant flow of generosity) trained you in obedience?
How are we, as Christians, sometimes tempted to forget that ultimately it’s God who saves?