Titus 3:1-5

We move to the third and final chapter of Paul’s letter to Titus. Again, we find Paul giving some instruction to Titus about the kind of behaviour he was to teach, followed by a theological reason/motivation for it. The “behaviour” section is straightforward enough, and it focuses on how believers relate to the wider world:

Titus 3:1-2 Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.

This might have been worded a bit differently a decade or so later, when emperor worship became compulsory. But for now, the default for a follower of Jesus was to obey human authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7), and be an exemplary member of society. It’s a more expansive restatement of the principle we saw last week: be the most virtuous man/woman/slave you can be, according to how society defines it, but do so for different reasons which flow from the character of God and what he’s done for us. In doing so, they would send the message that Christianity wasn’t a subversive threat to the empire – at least, not in the ways they were suspected of being. As Towner puts it:

‘In the civic arena Christians are to be as responsible as the best citizens. Where believers, more generally, come into contact with other people, they are to embody the highest ideals of human virtue as they imitate the pattern of behaviour embodied by Christ himself.’ (Philip Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, p.773).

There is also the instruction to be peaceable, considerate, and gentle to the rest of society. Not only is that good practice if we’re to win people over, but it should also flow out of a recognition that we were, not so long ago, just like them:

Titus 3:3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

Paul reminds us that it’s literally by the grace of God that this description no longer describes us:

Titus 3:4-5a But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

(Fun fact: the phrase “kindness and love” – with subtle variations – is frequently used on inscriptions honouring benefactors in the ancient world. Yet another use of benefactor language for God, the true Saviour. Yes, we submit to the ruling authorities (v.1) but not for the same reasons the rest of the world does, because we have a far greater ruler! See yesterday’s post if you missed it.)

Our attitude to the wider world should be considerate and gentle because we’ve been rescued from it through no merit of our own, but purely as an act of mercy by God.

Paul then goes on to describe a bit more of the process by which God has saved us:

Titus 3:5b He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit…

This can get complex, so strap in.

Rebirth seems to refer to spiritual regeneration of believers at conversion, spoken of in “resurrection” terms. The washing of rebirth doesn’t necessarily mean water baptism, particularly as the Greek word isn’t the usual one for baptism (baptizo) but one associated with e.g. the Roman baths (loutros) in which people went to get clean on the outside but also be revived on the inside.

Renewal by the Holy Spirit brings the prophecies of Ezekiel to mind: the promise of renewal, which involves being given a new, obedient heart – and links to the sprinkling of water:

Ezekiel 36:25-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

So far so good. But then we’re left with the question: are we saved by two separate actions – through (1) the washing of rebirth and (2) renewal by the Holy Spirit – or are they two ways of describing the one action? Many Pentecostals would argue that they are separate, although New Testament scholar Gordon Fee, himself from a Pentecostal tradition, argues against this, saying that “rebirth” and “renewal” are used here as synonyms, and a second “through” would be needed if Paul were referring to separate actions (Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, p.204).

And then we’re left with the question of whether the washing of rebirth is the washing which consists of rebirth, or which leads to / produces rebirth.

In my view, the most likely meaning of the verse is: God saves us… through the inner cleansing that happens at rebirth (which then the outward cleansing of baptism symbolises) in which we are spiritually reborn and renewed by the agency of the Holy Spirit. 

To be continued…

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