Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

Godliness and good works are probably not the topics that most preachers would choose for a Christmas sermon.

Ethiopian Coptic Service (1995)
"Ethiopian Coptic Service," Meseret Seyoum.  Used by permission from the artist. Image © by Meseret Seyoum.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

December 24, 2020

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

Godliness and good works are probably not the topics that most preachers would choose for a Christmas sermon.1

Yet, an exhortation to these is what the Second Lesson from Titus 2:11–14 gives us in part, while the entire letter to Titus does so more fully.

The context of Titus

Paul (or, as scholarly debate suggests, someone writing in the tradition of Paul) writes this letter to Titus, charging him with organizing and teaching a relatively new church on Crete (Titus 1:4–5; 2:1). It details how church leaders and members of Christian households are to behave: as self-controlled, moderate, honest, and especially as full of good works (Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14).

Such basic directives were necessary because of an apparent lack of human decency in the culture (for example Titus 1:12), from which church members came. The situation was complicated by false teachings that affected some Christians (Titus 1:9–16). Some of the letter’s instructions are not uniquely Christian, but rather are based on existing Greco-Roman household codes (for example Titus 2:1–10). The letter thus encourages Christian households to adhere to this accepted structure in order to contribute to the stabilization of society.2

If one were to stop reading Titus at 2:10, it might seem that the establishment of the gospel in Crete merely aimed to instill in believers basic ethics, and to conform the church to an ideal Greco-Roman social order. Is this a domestication of the gospel that should be resisted rather than preached, especially when social structures tend to deviate from the gospel of life and freedom (for example Titus 2:9)? Does the message of Christmas, when we celebrate the arrival of God’s promised Messiah, boil down to “be good,” like children hoping that Santa brings them what they ask for in return?

God’s grace has appeared: Titus 2:11–14

Titus 2:11–14 is one of two key pronouncements (along with Titus 3:3–7) that provide theological grounding for all of the letter’s practical exhortations. The “for” (gar) that begins verse 11 indicates that what follows is explanatory of all that preceded. Simply put, Christians should live in right relationship with each other and society because God’s grace, or gift (charis), has already appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, bringing salvation for all (understanding soterios, “bringing salvation,” in verse 11 as linked with soter, “Savior,” in verse 13; see also Titus 3:4). The latter is the good news commonly preached on Christmas.

But the text doesn’t stop there.

Paul tells us that the manifestation of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is both something that has already occurred (verse 11, epiphaino, past tense), and a future hope (verse 13, epiphaneia), which shapes believers’ lives in the present. Verse 12 indicates that God’s grace is actively educating or disciplining (paideuo) Christians to be who they were created and redeemed to be (see also Titus 2:14). Having renounced ungodliness or impiety (verse 12, asebeia), Christians are to journey toward godliness (verse 12, eusebos; the noun is eusebeia): a reverent devotion to God that involves both an internal conviction and behavior appropriate to such a conviction.3 Christians are to turn from worldly passions—the human tendency toward arrogance, aggression, and self-serving actions— and embrace the self-control and just treatment of others that are true expressions of the gracious and self-sacrificing God whom they profess.

Verse 14 clarifies that this is not a matter of trying to adhere to a general moral code on our own strength; Titus is not an ancient self-help manual. It instead proclaims that Jesus Christ has already given his life in order to set us free from our lawlessness (anomia), in which we opposed God’s purposes, and to purify us in a way that adherence to external commands alone cannot do (see also Titus 1:14). Christians are to be zealous for good deeds as a living, grateful expression of who they already are by divine grace: part of God’s chosen people (Titus 2:14; see also Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6).

To exhort Christians to godliness and good works is to encourage them to daily live out the good news of the Savior’s appearance in the world. The gift of God is intended—at least on one level—to make us good citizens of the world, capable of respectful, meaningful relationships with one another. This may not seem all that radical; we may prefer the drama of angelic choirs and the visible glory of the Lord that the Gospel text in Luke 2 describes.

But a look at the news on any given day reveals that basic human civility often is lacking today, just as it apparently was in ancient Crete. We tend to distance ourselves from, and even demonize, those whose political views and lifestyles are different than our own. Reports of sexual harassment and assault that were systemically tolerated continue to surface. Bullying drives people to despair. The rise of road rage suggests a tendency to see other people merely as obstacles to reaching our own goals.

In this context, the call of Christians to be good members of society is radical, and expresses the transformative nature of the gospel. God’s grace and our professed piety manifest in renouncing our self-centered ways, and in loving our families, neighbors, and even our enemies. Our lives are to reflect to all people that sound Christian teaching has taken root in our lives (Titus 2:10), and that God empowers us to live in a way that we could not on our own.

And that’s good news.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 24, 2017.
  2. Luke Timothy Johnson, Letters to Paul’s Delegates: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus; The New Testament in Context (Valley Forge, PA, 1996), 229–236.
  3. I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, ICC (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 142.