Commentary on Titus 2:11-14
Although the organizers of the lectionary have selected this passage from The Letter of Paul to Titus (the formal title for this writing) for use on Christmas Eve, in order to appreciate the text effectively, we must take account of the verses in their literary context before we can appreciate how they are being used in the lectionary in relation to Christmas Eve.
In the context of The Letter to Titus, Titus 2:11-14 is both preceded (2:1-10) and followed (2:15-3:2) by instruction regarding exhortation of various groups in the life of early Christian congregations.
Titus 2:1-10 offers a series of admonitions concerning “sound instruction” or “healthy teaching.” The exhortations are aimed at older men, older women, young women, younger men, Titus himself, and slaves. Verse 11 begins with the Greek word gar, which is usually translated “for”–indicating the explanation of the cause (“for” could be understood as “because”) of such instructions as are delineated in verses 1-10 of Titus 2.
In other words, verses 11-14 explain why the exhortations that are given in verses 1-10 are valid. Thus, Titus 2:11-14 itself is explanatory in nature and didactic in tone. Finally, the following verses, Titus 2:15-3:2, present Paul admonishing Titus to declare, exhort, reprove, and remind the congregants of both the substance of 2:11-14 and further moral obligations for which they are responsible.
All of this material is presented as coming from Paul, who is at Nicopolis or about to be there. Paul seems to be able to move about freely, so that he is not in jail. In this letter he is seen writing to Titus whom he left behind earlier on Crete for the purpose of continued evangelization of the inhabitants of Crete. Paul’s purpose is clear: He writes to inform and direct Titus in his work. Paul also bids Titus to come to him at Nicopolis should that be possible. Unfortunately we know nothing about this time in Paul’s life, nor do we know anything about the original work of the apostle and his colleagues on Crete.
Before looking at the passage in general, there is one interpretive detail that demands attention. In verse 13, the Greek text may be translated/interpreted in two distinct ways. Literally, the last phrase of the verse says (in a completely wooden translation), “the appearance of the glory of the great God and savior of us Jesus Christ.” The text may be rendered into sensible English as either (1) “the glory of the great God and our savior Jesus Christ” or (2) “the glory of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ.” Simply stated, does the text refer to Jesus Christ as God? (Actually, still other renderings and understandings of the text are possible, but they are not very likely.) Interpreters are divided on this matter. Because of the ambiguity of the Greek grammar, one cannot simply depend on the syntax to give an answer to this vexing question. Consultation of two or three full-blown critical commentaries is essentially necessary for full comprehension and resolution of this matter.
However one resolves the matter of whether verse 13 refers to Jesus Christ as God, there are other elements in the passage that are relevant for the use of the verses on Christmas Eve. First, this passage tells us that God’s grace appeared (in Jesus Christ) for the salvation of all humanity. This statement is not meant to give information about matters like whether or not we should conclude that the New Testament teaches universalism. Rather, the text tells us of the general purpose of the appearance of God’s grace in Jesus Christ: God acted in Jesus Christ for the salvation of humankind. This work has already been done, though on Christmas Eve we celebrated with great anticipation the realization of God’s work.
The text also tells us that the appearance of God’s grace has observable effects on human life. Verse 12 informs us of the focus of God’s saving grace:
- We renounce impiety. These days that purpose may strike some as suspicious, for piety has come to have a bad name (“Don’t be so pious”). Nevertheless, true piety is nothing more than reverence for God; so that renouncing impiety is but ridding ourselves of an irreverent attitude (or even no attitude) toward God.
- We are to renounce worldly lusts. Craving after persons or things is surely a way to focus on something in such a way that we disregard God as the one to whom we are to relate above all others.
In turn, our text tells us that we renounce “impiety and worldly lust” in order that “we might live moderately, uprightly, and devoutly” at the present time. Those who experience God’s grace in their lives experience a moral transformation. Indeed, these manners of living are the positive dimensions of God’s grace touching our lives. Some commentators refer to these characteristics of Christian life as “cardinal virtues.” It is also helpful to notice that these virtues go against the negative qualities that were to be renounced by believers.
We learn that believers now await a “blessed hope”–namely, the appearance (the further appearance, or more plainly, the coming) of Jesus Christ in God’s glory. In this respect, Jesus Christ is referred to as “savior.” The words “savior” and “salvation” are related in Greek. Thus, to call Jesus Christ the “savior” of believers is to recognize that he achieved salvation, that is, deliverance or liberation from the powers and effects of sin. As such, it is the work of God in Jesus Christ that makes possible the renunciation of that which is bad and the embracing of that which is good. Believers “await” this liberation in its full form, though we already experience deliverance in many ways.
Finally, Jesus Christ is remembered as the one “who gave himself in our behalf, in order that he might redeem us from all wickedness and purify for himself a people of his own, enthusiasts for good works/deeds.” Seeing who he was informs us of who he will be when believers encounter him at his awaited appearance–the one coming is the one who has already come!