Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

I once heard a colleague joke about a possible slogan for his denomination: “God is nice. We should be nice too.”

December 24, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

I once heard a colleague joke about a possible slogan for his denomination: “God is nice. We should be nice too.”

His was not the only Christian group, forged in the fires of spiritual renewal and social revolution that over time became comfortable with easy platitudes for decent living. God’s word became one good source for morality among many, which seemed to command especially those morals espoused by respectable society. Charity, especially around the holidays, was great, but one didn’t need to trouble with real equity.

A significant wing of modern scholarship has charged the letter to Titus with a similar watering down of the gospel. After the passion exhibited by Jesus and Paul, the letter to Titus, so the argument goes, succumbs to the fears of persecution and, in response, tailors Christianity to match the status quo, urging slaves to “be submissive to their masters” (2:9) and the congregation “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle” (3:2). While interpreters must wrestle with ugly elements of Greco-Roman society that rear their head in the letter, this perception of Titus as a document that bends its knee to society skips over portions of the letter where the letter calls for divinely inspired zeal. Verses 11 through 14 are just such one of those portions.

Grace Appeared
Verses 11 through 14 comprise only one sentence in the original language of the letter, which in its most simple form reads, “The grace of God appeared.” Everything else hangs on this statement — a structural signpost indicating this passage emphasizes not human effort but God’s empowering grace.

Saying that the grace of God appeared highlights one of Titus’ distinguishing features. The word translated as appear (epiphanies in Greek) occurs three times in this small letter (twice in this passage), comprising almost a third of its occurrences in the entire New Testament. Greek kings utilized the language of epiphany to describe their military might (think of Antichus IV Epiphanes who subjugated Israel in 167 BC), and Israel’s Scriptures in Greek use the term to describe God’s revelatory appearances that bring aid to his people (Genesis 35:70; Deuteronomy 33:2).

Titus follows this tradition of Israel, claiming that God’s grace has appeared (2:11) and that Jesus will appear (2:13). When they do, God’s grace brings salvation, instruction (2:12), and life (2:12b) to sustain God’s people until Jesus himself appears (3:13). The revelation of God’s gracious salvation initiates, upholds, and culminates rightly ordered human existence.

What should I do?
The Presbyterian professor who patiently taught me to see the powerful work of God in Scripture probably tired of my incessant revival-tradition, free will, Baptist question, “Yes, but where is the human response?” The human response is usually there, as it is in this passage, but good interpretation involves getting the emphasis on the right syllable.

When God’s grace appears to all people, its teaching brings forth three related actions. First, those who respond to its instruction reject the godlessness and lust of the society around them. This would have been a tall order on the island of Crete, the location of Titus (1:5), and an area that had a reputation for deception, greed, and lack of morality. Hence, the letter recognizes that the morals of the kingdoms around the audience may not line up with the principles of God’s kingdom.

Second, God’s graces inspire a certain kind of living, namely wise, righteous, and godly living. The recipients of the letter should not only reject negative ways of life, but should also embody positive ones. Finally, in order to know what to reject and what to embrace, people must keep their vision focused in the right direction. They should eagerly await the return of Jesus Christ. His coming appearance provides their hope as God’s grace provides their guide.

Jesus is Great!
Having provided a brief sketch of what life might look like in the present time, once the author gets back to Jesus, he just can’t keep his quill from exploding all over the papyrus. The appearing of Jesus is the blessed hope and the revelation of glory of our great God and Savior. Interpreters debate whether the author equates Jesus Christ with the glory of God or with God himself, but in either case Jesus’ appearing will be a marvelous event. The eager anticipation of his salvific return rests in what he has already done to save humanity. He gave himself for them so that he might take them out of lawlessness and make them pure. The precise ways in which the author wants his audience to live — to reject negative habits and to embrace positive ones –have already been made possible by the self-giving of Jesus.

Be Zealous
Because Jesus redeemed us from lawlessness, the letter says, and established us as his own pure people, we can do good works. This admonition avoids an easy call to “Be nice” in a way that society would approve in two respects. First, the text says that Jesus’ redemption empowers his people to be zealous for good works. At times that zeal might take us out of our comfort zones or make others uncomfortable. The following verse urges Titus to teach these things with authority, letting no one despise him. Paul must have known that his teachings were going to cause waves in some sectors of the congregation and of society.

Second, the call to good works is not a platitude because it is not about us being good with God there only as ancillary help, but about God, through Jesus, empowering us to be zealous. The power source comes from God’s grace, not us pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Living zealously, wisely, righteously, godly, and expectantly may, in some situations, appear as gentleness and align with the general mores of the wider society. At other times, however, that way of life may manifest as boldness and challenge to the narrative of the good life the present culture embraces. Those of us who are looking forward to Jesus’ appearing need his powerful salvation and grace — and not just our own effort — to know the difference.