As Goes the God, So Goes the People
God wasn’t cast in the image of Zeus, but the Cretans certainly were! The people were such a lying, self-indulgent, sexually promiscuous bunch that Crete became proverbial for immorality in the ancient world. To be a “kretizo,” a Cretan, was to be a liar. (So the next time someone’s lying to you, just tell them to stop “cretanizing”). On top of that, their men, known for violence, often served as mercenary soldiers to the highest bidder while their women epitomized something called “the new Roman woman.” These wealthy “emancipated” women enjoyed a greater deal of privileges than their Greek counterparts. As a woman, I (Whitney) would be thrilled for women to enjoy greater liberties in society were it not for the fact that they exploited their freedoms to shirk off marriage and household responsibilities in lieu of casual sex and worldly appetites. Doesn’t it all sound crazy similar to Zeus?
The problem is, being a follower of Jesus means progressively transforming into his image, not the image of the “deity of the day.” But Paul gets a report that Cretan Christians were looking more like Zeus than Jesus. To make matters worse, the young churches had come under the destructive teaching of some so-called Christian leaders. They were ethnically Jewish Cretans who said they followed Jesus, but they were demanding that non-Jewish Christians be circumcised and follow the Torah, and they were themselves immersed in Cretan culture, thus endorsing the ethical values of Crete. Paul indicts these leaders by hijacking the saying of an ancient Cretan poet Epimenides, “Cretans are always liars, vicious beasts, and lazy gluttons” (see Titus 1:12). In verse 13 he says, “this testimony is true!” And it was their lying, bestial, gluttonous behavior that was trickling down into the DNA of Christian households and churches and making a total wreck of things.
The gospel was looking pretty unattractive by this point. It was giving the watching world opportunity to insult the word of God, make evil accusations about the faith, and reject the good news about Jesus. Belief in Jesus was totally divorced from behavior both in private and in public life, so unbelievers were turned off to the gospel, and rightly so. Why would people reject Zeus in favor of Jesus if there was no compelling evidence of transformation in the lives of Jesus-followers?
So we get the urgent letter from Paul to Titus instructing him to straight-up clean house. He was to appoint shepherd-like men (elders) who would serve and protect the young churches. They were to teach believers about the good news of Jesus and model the kind of integrity and “gospel ethic” which ran contrary to the Cretan value system. Titus was also to rebuke and kick out those false leaders who were in it for personal gain, thus purging the churches of their evil.
Finally, Titus needed to straighten out the Christians who were giving the gospel a bad reputation. Paul says gospel belief should result in a new kind of household where older men and women are models of integrity and self-control for the younger. The women should reject the alluring pull of the “new Roman woman” in favor of godly faithfulness and sobriety. The men should turn aside from greed, injustice, and violence and be productive, helpful citizens in society. Even the slaves (as part of the household) should honor their masters and refuse to participate in slave rebellions to prevent any bad-mouthing of the gospel. They were to live in a way that made Jesus compelling to the watching world.
This, in turn, would result in a new kind of humanity proclaiming the goodness of the saving God and offer an alternative to the Cretan way of life. Paul uses a fascinating juxtaposition of Cretans versus Christians in Titus 1:12 and 2:12 to make his point: The Cretans are perpetual liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons, but Christians are to live in the world soberly (not as out of control gluttons), justly (not as violent beasts), and piously (not as unrighteous liars). Do you get it? Christians should live the exact opposite of Cretans. They should be the ideal citizens—peaceable, just, generous, and obedient to authorities.
But how, you might ask, could they live this way and be agents of change in such a corrupt culture?! Ah, therein lies the beauty of the gospel.