When Paul wrote his letter to Titus, the church in Crete was marked by moral and doctrinal confusion. Paul charged Titus to set things in order by teaching sound doctrine and instructing his congregation in appropriate Christian character and behavior. Introducing us to this pastoral epistle, Alistair Begg demonstrates that Paul’s encouragement to cultivate discernment and godly living is as relevant now as it was in the first century.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to Paul’s letter to Titus, which is near the end of the New Testament. We’ll just read the opening four verses of Titus chapter 1:
“Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I[’ve] been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;
“To Titus, my true child in a common faith:
“Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.”
Father, we pray now for your help. It’s so obvious that we need help. Our minds range through all kinds of things, even and particularly often when we set to study the Bible. And we want to be taught by you today; we want to grow in our understanding of truth, and we might be better enabled to live for you. So help us to this end. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Titus, the letter of Titus, was probably written in the 60s. “Oh,” says one of our young people, “I didn’t realize it was as old as that.” No, not those ’60s. The 60s. It was written probably in the sixth decade of the first century. And there is no way that you can read the Acts of the Apostles and make a determination as to where the letter of Titus fits into that chronology.
And the best estimate is that Titus was written in between Paul’s first and second imprisonments. His first imprisonment, which is referenced in Acts chapter 28, ended in his being released. His second imprisonment, from which he writes, for example, 2 Timothy, ended in his death. And in that interim period between being reimprisoned and finally dying, Paul did what he always did—that is, he moved around telling people this glorious good news of the gospel: that Jesus Christ, the risen Jesus, had met him, had changed him, that he is alive, and that the reason for his death is because he had made an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all who would come to trust in him. And in the course of that evangelism explosion, if you like, people were then turning to Jesus, and having done so, they were then established in congregations. And so that is why there were congregations scattered throughout the island of Crete.
Now, Crete will be known to some of you because you will have visited it in the Mediterranean. You will know that it is the largest of the Greek islands, the most populous of the Greek islands. It is the fifth-largest island of all the islands settled in the Mediterranean. And it is to that geographical location that Paul had gone and in that historical context. It may be common knowledge to many of us, but I think it’s always good to point out that when we turn to the New Testament, we’re not dealing with a mythology or some kind of narrative that has been contrived by a man, but we’re actually dealing with material that is grounded in real time, in real history, and that the history of what God is doing in the world is intersecting with that which is described for us when we turn to the Bible.
And so, these churches were established, and Paul is now writing to Titus, his coworker, in order that he might encourage him to give the kind of oversight to these believers that will be beneficial for them to be able to withstand the peculiar challenges that are part and parcel of their everyday lives.
And in that respect, it’s no different. Their circumstances are no different: separated by two thousand years, you have congregations all around the city of Cleveland naming the name of Christ, declaring their allegiance to him, seeking to be his followers, and then going back out into a culture, into an environment, that is markedly different from the context of, for example, praise and study here this morning. And so it is that within a relatively short period of time these believers in Crete were confronted by people who were springing up and teaching false doctrine.
And because of this, it was imperative that Titus was not only alert to it but he knew what to do about it. So, for example… And I’ll just give you an overview here for a while. For those of you who are worried about the progress of things, this is really the introduction to the introduction. And we won’t get much beyond introductions this morning. I say that so you won’t be disappointed or encouraged, whichever way you choose to look at it.
But 1:16, here are these individuals that are disrupting the fellowship, potentially, in Crete: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” “Unfit for any good work.” Now, you might read that and say, “Well, I wonder why you don’t just tell us exactly how you feel about these characters, Paul?” But you will see that he’s not about to play footsie, as it were, with this difficult and devilish activity.
And so he tells Titus, as the pastor of these congregations, what it is that he must stress, what it is that he must insist upon, so as to establish in the hearts and minds of the congregation the link that exists between, if you like, Christian doctrine—the truth of the Bible, the truth about God, the truth about man, the truth about salvation, just the truth of God—so that they might understand that there is a direct link between that belief, if you like, and the behavior which is then to be an emblem of that belief, so that people have a legitimate right to say, “Well, if that is what you believe, surely isn’t this how you ought to behave?”
And so it is that Titus, 2:1, is then to “teach what accords with sound doctrine.” What is the pastor to do? He’s not to entertain. He’s not to build a crowd. He is to teach. He’s first of all and primarily a pastor-teacher—that he really has no raison d’être apart from the provision of God’s Word granted to him, which he then is responsible to pass on so that faithful men will teach others and that those who are edified will then do the works of ministry.
It’s really quite straightforward when you read the New Testament. It’s amazing how easy it is for us to get it wrong. They are to be told what kind of character is going to emerge from sound teaching.
Now, you see, what makes it, again, quite dramatic is the fact that—and you’ll get this when you read the letter through on your own and think about it—is that they are living in a culture in Crete which was marked by immoral excess. The Cretans, you will see, were described by one of their own poets in a not very flattering way—1:12: “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’”
Now, imagine that on the front of the Plain Dealer tomorrow morning: “We’ve just done a recent research of the greater Cleveland area, and we decided that pretty well the culture is marked by people who are just always telling lies, they’re absolutely evil, and they’re just feeding their faces at an unbelievably furious rate.” Now, that’s not a very attractive picture, is it? No!
And here is all these little congregations set in there, and the people that are in the congregations are Cretans. This doesn’t describe them all; these are just characteristics. And many of them would have been looking at one another when this is read out and said, “Yeah, yes.” Because they had emerged out of this background. Their lives were formerly like this, but now their lives were being ordered by an entirely different manual. They were being directed by an entirely different power. They were now moving according to an entirely different strategy and agenda. Because they were now in Christ.
It was not that they had simply exchanged one outward set of circumstances for another or that they had chosen to believe something intellectually which tickled their fancy and gave them something to chew over on a rainy Tuesday, but they were actually invaded by the Spirit of God, by the power of God, and as they went back out into the culture from which they’d come—a culture that was marked by immorality and by excess—they were now going to make an impact on that culture on the basis of the fact that they were not immoral and that they were self-controlled. That the women of the culture may have been full of booze and full of gossip, but they weren’t. The young men may have been pursuing every passionate influence, but the young men in these congregations weren’t. The younger women, tempted to live according to the lifestyle of an immoral culture that would seek to suck them in, were actually totally weird, being taught by older women how to love their husbands and love their children, how to love being at home, how to love serving in the home. It’s quite a radical thought, isn’t it? No less radical this morning, separated by twenty centuries.
This is no comment on who political what, but it is a comment on the fact that it was a staggering statement, but not surprising, to say that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life, having raised five boys in her home. You mothers tell me that that’s not work in there. Tell me that that’s the hardest job in the entire universe in there. No, that’s where we are today. And as we’re going to see when we work through this, young women are going to be faced with a challenge: What does this really mean?
It doesn’t mean you can’t work outside your home. But it puts the priority where the priority lies, whatever the culture says. I’m not supposed to be talking about that yet; that’s to come some weeks later. But anyway…
So, the framework is moral and doctrinal confusion. That’s really what it is. And into that moral turpitude they are to live lives of self-control, and into this doctrinal morass they are to come with absolute clarity in their understanding of Christian doctrine. Now, that is not just gonna happen by hanging around for one sermon a Sunday. Nobody is ever going to get ahold of this on that basis. It’s gonna take far more than that. And that’s why Titus must labor, and they’re going to have to labor as well, in order that they might understand these things. And at the very heart of it you find that goodness is to prevail. Goodness is to prevail.
Let me just show this to you, and I hope I’m not being tedious. Let me just point it out to you, give you a flavor of it. Verse 16, we’ve already seen it. The reason that these false teachers are such a “detestable” nuisance is, in part, because they’re “unfit for any good work.” Why are they “unfit for any good work”? Because it is the good news which provides the basis for the good deeds. They don’t understand or believe the good news, and therefore, they are unable to live out the good news.
In the same way, you will notice in verse 7 that the pastor himself… How challenging is this? “[Titus,] show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works.” “A model of good works.” The people are supposed to be able to look at Titus and say, “Well, if we didn’t know what good works looked like, at least we can find it out if we just see what Titus is doing.”
Verse 14: that God has transformed the lives of these individuals, redeeming them, 2:14, “from … lawlessness,” you notice, out of the context from which they’ve come—insubordination and lawlessness, anarchy, chaos—and he’s “purify[ing] for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Verse 1 of chapter 3: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.” Verse 8: “devote[d] … to good works.” Verse 14: “[Remind them, make sure that you] let our people learn”—notice—“learn to devote themselves to good works.”
In other words, there is a learning process in this. The congregations in Crete are gonna have to learn this, and I think we’ve gotta learn it too. We’ve gotta learn it. You see, because, if we don’t learn it, then the only reason it will happen is one of two things, primarily: either as a result of emotion or emotionalism, engendered from the front, so you have a surge of emotion (“Oh, that is so…,” you understand emotion), or on the other hand, by guilt. So people either make you feel guilty that you’re not doing anything, so you do it, not because of the transforming power of the gospel but just to get Mr. Jenkins off your back. Because, “How many times can the fellow phone me up and ask me? I’m gonna have to do something now.”
But it’s not what Paul’s talking about here. “No,” he says, “these people are going to have to learn.” Learn it. In the same way that the wives are going to have to learn how to love their husbands. “You mean that you’re gonna have a class for loving your husbands?” No, not a class. But if you find a lady who’s loved her husband for thirty, forty, fifty years, just go and spend time with her. That’s your class. She’ll teach you how to love that rascal, because she’s been doing it for fifty years—not your rascal, her rascal. But you gotta learn it.
You have to learn how to love your children. “Oh, but don’t you just love your children, just with a surge of emotion?” Emotion can only last you for a little while. But emotion won’t keep you in the middle of the night. Emotion won’t keep you when the chips hit it. No, you have to learn it.
And these good deeds. It is learned behavior. Learned behavior.
Now, interestingly—and this is just becoming the entire sermon, so we’ll just stay here while we’re here—but interestingly, Paul also points out—and this is, of course, of vital importance—that they have been brought to God, they have come to know God, not as a result, he says, of “works” or deeds “done … in righteousness.” You haven’t come to know God because of things that you have done. That has not been the case. That’s 3:4, if you’re looking for it. I’m looking for it myself. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us”—now here’s the phrase—“not because of works done by us in righteousness.”
“Well,” you say, “well, wait a minute. You’ve just showed us all these things that say ‘Good works, do good works, do good works, do good works.’” Yes, but here’s the distinction: Religion says, “Do good works and God will accept you.” The Christian gospel says, “You are accepted through the one securing work of Jesus. Therefore, because you’re accepted, do these things.” So we are not accepted by these good things, but we are accepted in order that we might be doing these good things.
So Ephesians… Paul puts it in a pithy way, doesn’t he, in Ephesians 2? Everybody knows 8 and 9, often forgets verse 10: “For by grace you[’ve] been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it[’s] the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one [can] boast.” And then he immediately goes on: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared [in advance for us to do].”
So there we have it. That’s the introduction to the introduction. Now let’s come to the introduction, and notice that Paul introduces himself. Isn’t that a little strange? No, of course it’s not strange. He needs to know, when he opens up the letter, who it’s from, so he puts it there at the beginning—unlike us; we put our names at the end. Or I don’t know what we really do anymore in communicating by way of all the other social mechanisms to communicate. But in a normal letter, we say, “Dear George,” and at the end we say, “Your friend, Alistair.” In these letters, it starts off, “Hi, this is Alistair. I’m writing to you, my dear friend George.” There’s nothing really surprising in that.
What is surprising is the length to which he goes by way of introduction. Does Titus really need to… Does Titus not know all this stuff—this “apostle of Jesus Christ, a servant of God” and so on? No, Titus knew this. Well, what’s the answer?
Well, it’s always good to be reminded of what we know; that’s one. But the other is that these Pastoral Epistles—which is how we refer to 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus—each of these letters are personal, insofar as they’re written to an individual, but they’re not private. They’re not private. They are written in such a way not only to be read by the recipient but to be read by all who are under the care of the recipient. And when you read each of them, you realize that the impact of God’s Word would be both to Titus and then, as Paul intends, through Titus. So in writing in this way, especially by means of this introduction, he is not only reinforcing for Titus, if you like, what the central truths of the gospel are, but he is also laying out his case, a case that will then be worked through in the balance of his letter.
I think it is in some senses similar to what a lawyer does in trial proceedings, where the lawyer will have in his introductory statement the opportunity to give indication to the members of the jury and all who are in attendance the way in which he’s going to proceed with this case. And so he lays out the facts that are salient in order that he might register them in the minds of his listeners, so that then, when he returns to them, they will at least have been alerted to that which is the framework of his case.
And if you think of this introduction in that way, you realize that that would be meaningful not only to those who were believers, but it would also be significant to those who were these detestable, disobedient, insubordinate characters who were unsettling the households of faith. And they would be on the receiving end of this instruction, and they would be forced to recognize in listening to it that what Paul was saying and what he was going on to say absolutely set what they were saying back on its heels. Indeed, it contradicted it and confuted it.
Because Paul by this stage is beyond the founding of these congregations. That has happened earlier, when he’d made the visit, when people had been converted. And it is some time—not a very long time but a significant enough time—since they had been assembled, began to gather, introduced themselves to one another, and so on. The days now had long passed when Paul would have been able to identify them, many of them by name; when he thought of them, he could have thought of them in the past in terms of just little groups and clusters of people, many of whom he would perhaps be able to recall. But everything had grown beyond that now. The congregations had flourished, they’d developed, they’d spread. They were meeting in different locations and so on. And so Paul is using his coworker in order to convey the truth so that it might be multiplied.
And at the same time, we have to recognize that Paul, now, is addressing these issues at the tail end of his life rather than at even the midpoint of his life, and certainly not at the beginning of his converted life. And there is a difference, is there not? I’m certainly finding that. The way you view everything. The way you view your finances. The way you view a significant purchase. The way you secure a mortgage. Whatever it might be. Launch into an adventure or a venture that is business in its framework. There’s definitely a difference between the kind of spirit that might have attached to your early endeavors in your twenties, thirties, even your forties. But it’s different in your fifties and into your sixties and into your seventies.
I’m just reading the book of the Four Seasons Hotels, the man who established that. It’s a wonderful business story, but I reached the point just a couple of mornings ago where the transition is now taking place. It’s time for him to say, “I’ve had a wonderful adventure, but this needs to be passed on.” So the pictures are about to appear towards the end of the book—I’m sure they are—of the individuals who have now been entrusted with the responsibilities.
What is the continuing factor? The continuing factor is not the personality or the style. The continuing factor is the gospel. The continuing factor is the message of the gospel; it’s the truth. And Paul now recognizes that his time is increasingly short, and therefore, he must address these things, and Titus must address them, in such a way that the people may now be edified and they may in turn be multiplied.
It’s a significant transition, that’s what it is. Because what is about to happen here is the movement from the apostolic to the postapostolic church. We’re now approaching a point in the history of the church where the apostles, who have been the very mouthpieces of God, whose words are now becoming inscripturated, who have given to us this material, they are now being taken away by death.
And the church in Ephesus and in Crete and in Corinth and in all the places where Paul had gone on his missionary journeys, in Jerusalem itself at the very beginning—from a human perspective, the church now trembles, as it were, on the brink of annihilation. And Paul himself is exercised about the fact that when he dies, it is vital that these folks, to whom he has given himself and given his life, will actually be committed to, consumed by, convicted of the absolute necessity of bearing testimony, not only by lip but by life, of that which he has entrusted to them through his servants Titus and Timothy in relationship to these things.
And that’s why he says in verse 5: “The reason I left you in Crete is so that you might put what remained into order and appoint elders in every town.” Because we’re going to see, when we come back to this, that no church can go beyond the level of its leadership.
God is a God of order. That’s why there’s order in the family. Society rejects that order. But it is God’s order, and he invented the family. Therefore, he gets to say how the family works. There is order in the church. It’s not a democracy. It’s not an autocracy. It’s a theocracy—that God mediates his rule through those entrusted with the solemn responsibility of giving leadership to the congregation under the jurisdiction of the Scriptures. And Paul says to Titus, “It’s imperative, Titus, that you grasp this and that you convey this.”
This is not an aberration on the part of Paul, because you remember when he wrote to the Corinthians and they were enjoying these amazing times—the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them, they were into all kinds of things, the good, the bad, and the ugly—and eventually, at the end of chapter 14, he says to them, “Listen, let’s just lay down a principle here: all things should be done decently and in order.”
“Decently and in order.” What does that mean? According to whatever the cultural context of the day is? I took my tie off this morning. I just… I was fed up with my tie after the first service. I thought about it for quite a long time; I thought of the implications of taking off my tie. You know, and I thought, “That’s ridiculous. That is ridiculous. That’s not in the Bible.” Ties aren’t in the Bible. I’m not… I don’t have to worry about that. Next thing I’ll be like John Shearer, taking my jacket off, but I don’t know if I can go to that length. Shearer is in no jacket with tie. I’m now jacket with no tie. So whatever it does.
But these things, these external things, are not the issue. No, “[decency] and in order” means that the order that God has established for his people is to be paid attention to. And when it isn’t paid attention to, then chaos follows. Whether it’s in a family, whether it’s in a sports team, whether it’s in a business, or whether it’s in a church, when we’re tempted to take the mentality of the prevailing culture and be so squeezed by that as to squeeze out from us the convictions necessary not only to believe but to behave, then we’re on a quick slide to uselessness.
It is a sobering thought, isn’t it, to think about where the church is in Crete today?
Well, I should stop now, ’cause it’s 10:45, and that’s when they like me to stop. And since everything should be done “decently and in order,” we shall stop. But I have sneaking suspicion that God, through a kind of back door, is bringing us to Titus, to these three chapters, for a very express purpose. I don’t say that often. I know some guys do because it’s a sort of mechanism for manipulation to make people think that the sermons are going to be better than they really are. And so I don’t recall myself saying, you know, “I believe that God really wants us to study Titus.” In fact, I can only remember saying it once, and that was when I said, “I think God wants us to really study James,” when we were studying “Count it all joy … when you [face] trials of various kinds.” But actually, I think it was that God wanted me to study about trials of various kinds, ’cause I said that on the Sunday and then got diagnosed with cancer on the Thursday.
But that’s five years ago now. But I do really believe that God has purpose for us here in these studies in Titus. Take it home, will you? Read it. I tell you what: if you read Titus every day—just read the three chapters every day—if you read it for a month, you’d virtually know it off by heart, and then you’d be able to catch me out all over the place. Which I know you love to do.
Father, here we are, two thousand years later. We’re not in Crete, but we are in Cleveland. And our culture challenges us in the realm of marriage and the home, Christian citizenship, church order and practice, entices us to indulge in that which is displeasing to you, harmful to ourselves, detrimental to others.
We want, Lord, by your help to be really committed to the good news of the gospel and then to learn what it means to be equally committed to the good works that flow from those who have embraced the good news. So as we embark upon this venture, we pray for your help, that you will save us from error, that you will keep us on track, and that we might be able to look back when our studies end and see that actually, there was such an opportunity to take seriously the instruction of these three brief chapters.
So help us, we pray. May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Titus 2:7 (ESV).
 Titus 2:14 (ESV).
 Titus 3:5 (ESV).
 Titus 1:5 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 14:40 (paraphrased).
 James 1:2 (ESV).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.