Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

The second lesson for today, from Titus 3:4-7, is closely related to the second lesson appointed for Christmas Eve (Titus 2:11-14).

December 25, 2013

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 3:4-7

The second lesson for today, from Titus 3:4-7, is closely related to the second lesson appointed for Christmas Eve (Titus 2:11-14).

It is, in a sense, a continuation of that text’s reflection over the first and second “epiphanies” of Christ (the Greek verb translated as “appeared” at 2:11 and 3:4 is epiphaino from which the English cognate “epiphany” comes).

These “manifestations” or “appearances” of Christ — one hidden in the flesh in the Incarnation (i.e., discerned only by faith); one promised in glory (to be experienced by all creation) — reveal the transforming, saving power and scope of God’s grace (2:11; 3:7). It is God’s grace/favor that underlies both manifestations and provides the continuity between the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the parousia of the glorified Christ.

The formal, high poetic style of today’s text (one long sentence in Greek) is recognized by the editors of the Greek text (NA27) who have set it off as indented stanzas. Many New Testament scholars have proposed that it is a liturgical fragment from the early church, perhaps used in the context of the sacrament of baptismal regeneration. The Greek language choices are intriguing, as is the high Christology the passage assumes within an implicit Trinitarian framework.

Stunning is the characterization of the primary attributes of God revealed in Christ — “goodness” (chrestotes; “kindness” in NIV and NET), “loving kindness” (philanthropia; lit. “love of humanity”), and “mercy” (eleos). In short, God — in God’s innermost heart — is a God of tenderhearted mercy who deeply loves and cares about humanity. This is not a platonic love, but one that has been enfleshed, manifested in Jesus.

Jesus, then, is God’s very reaching out to a world exhausted by its suffering, its experience of sin and death, its primal separation from life and goodness and health (see Titus 3:3: “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another”).

The God revealed in Christ, the text tells us, is a “savior” (soter, verse 4), that is, one who continues to rescue (esosen, verse 5) the world through the eschatological “pouring out” (see Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:16-21; also Ezekiel 36:18, 25-27) of the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift that is concretely experienced through a “washing” (loutron; lit. “bath,” cf. Ephesians 5:26) that effects both “rebirth”/regeneration (palingenesia; “new birth” in NET) and “renewal” (anakainoseos).

The grace/favor (charis) of God given in and through Christ, then, is nothing short of the gift of new life — actually, eternal life (verse 7) — to those who are living in the realm of death. That is something to celebrate on Christmas!

Palingenesia, the Greek compound (palin = “again” and genesis = “birth/origin”) found in verse 5, is translated simply “rebirth” in the NRSV. It occurs only one other time in the NT canon (Matthew 19:28) where it refers to the renewal of the world experienced in the messianic age (“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal (palingenesia) of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’”).

From a NT canonical perspective, this suggests that the breaking in of the Kingdom of God into this world through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and the baptismal regeneration of individuals involve the very same saving grace of God. Those who are baptized are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, the firstfuit of the regeneration of all things (Romans 6:3-4; 8:19-23). As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The one made new by the “bath” in Christ is, then, also pulled into the ongoing work of Christ in the Kingdom of God. The two cannot be separated. The common element — the Holy Spirit — is the eschatological gift that leverages the new age by means of the incarnate Body of Christ and confirms the incorporation of the individual into that body through the waters of baptism.

Is baptism, then, the only way one enters the Kingdom of God? So as not to limit the saving activity of God, one might say that though one might encounter the Kingdom of God through a variety of means of grace (e.g., preaching; witnessing to the power of the gospel in acts of kindness; even through dialogue with the wholly “other”), one can be assured of one’s entrance through the sacramental act of baptism. Here, again, one notes the cooperative working of the triadic interrelationships of God (creator), Christ (redeemer), Holy Spirit (renewer) to restore God’s intent for humanity (eternal life) that is evident in the text.

This text also represents one of the clearest articulations in the New Testament of the early church’s understanding that one’s justification/salvation is wholly dependent upon God’s mercy and grace. The notion that “works of righteousness” (ergon, ton en dikaiosune ha epoiesamen hemeis) might somehow “save” one is dismissed out of hand. Note that the phrase in this text is “works of righteousness” not the more common Pauline “works of the law” (cf. Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16).

This seems to move the “justification/righteousness” language out of its particularly Jewish context to make a larger soteriological statement. In the matter of the salvation of all (2:11), the initiative always lies with God. As creation is totally dependent upon the creative activity of the creator, so too is “re-creation” (palingenesia). Given the need of creation for salvation (note again v. 3), its manifestation in Christ can only be an expression of God’s mercy (verse 5) experienced as grace (verse 7).

The text closes out by introducing the metaphor of “inheritance” through language that speaks of becoming “heirs (kleronomoi) according to the hope of eternal life.” Such language has deep resonances with other texts that describe the inheritance that flows to the people of God through Abraham and his heir, Christ (e.g., Galatians 3:16; Romans 4:16).

At the same time, the New Testament’s classic “already/not yet” eschatological perspective on the salvation won in Christ is given its due. An heir is assured of an inheritance that still awaits its full realization in an otherwise indeterminate future. It is the certainty of the inheritance that allows the heir to navigate that which is uncertain with some boldness and, perhaps, even with the unmeasured joy of anticipation.