Titus was a Greek follower of Jesus and, for years, a trusted coworker and travel companion to Paul. Titus had also helped Paul with crisis situations in the past (Gal. 2:1-3; 2 Cor. 7-8). In this letter, we discover that Paul had assigned Titus the task of going to Crete, a large island off the coast of Greece, so that he could restore order to a network of house churches.
Cretan culture was notorious in the ancient world. One of the Greek words for being a liar was kretizo, or “to be a Cretan.” These people were infamous for their treachery and greed. Most men served as mercenary soldiers to the highest bidder, while the island’s cities were known to be unsafe and plagued by violence and sexual corruption.
But the island also had many strategic harbors that serviced cities from all over the Mediterranean Sea. From Paul’s point of view, it was the perfect place to start a network of churches. While we don’t know the exact details, we do learn within this letter that these churches had come under the destructive influence of corrupt Cretan leaders who claimed to be Christians. Paul asked Titus to set things straight and offered instructions in his letter.
This letter has a pretty straightforward design. After a brief introduction in Titus 1:1-4, Paul gives Titus clear instructions about his tasks in the church (Titus 1:5-16). Paul then offers guidance about the new kind of household (Titus 2:1-15) and humanity (Titus 3:1-11) that the Gospel can create in Cretan communities. He closes the letter with some final greetings in Titus 3:12-15.
Christian tradition holds that the Apostle Paul wrote the letter to Titus.
The events described in Titus take place on the island of Crete. Titus was likely composed between 64 and 68 C.E.
The book of Titus is a letter written in prose discourse to a pastor named Titus.
Jesus as eternal hope
The power of the Gospel in public life
The upside-down value of generosity
Titus can be divided into three parts. Chapter 1 instructs Titus with his responsibilities in the church. Chapter 2 focuses on guidance in public life for followers of Jesus. Chapter 3 is a reminder that Jesus provided a way for new creation.
Titus 1: Instructions for Church Leadership
Paul opens by reminding Titus that his message is about the hope of eternal life, that is, the life of the new creation that’s available now through Jesus the Messiah. This hope was promised long ago by “God, who does not lie” (Titus 1:3). This little opening comment introduces an important underlying theme in this letter. One of the problems in the Cretan churches is that they had assimilated their ideas about the Christian God with ideas about the Greek gods that they had grown up with, particularly Zeus, the chief god.
Cretans claimed that Zeus was born on their island and loved to tell stories of his underhanded character, seducing women and lying to get his way. Paul wants to make it crystal clear that the God revealed in Jesus is totally different from Zeus. Jesus’ basic character traits are faithfulness and truth, which means that the Christian way of life will be about truth as well. This will be a huge culture shift for Cretans who want to follow Jesus.
Paul then addresses Titus with a two-fold task in1:5-16. First, he was to appoint new leaders in each church community (Titus 1:5-9) with a team of elders. These were to be mature husbands and fathers, whose way of life was the opposite of Cretan culture. They were to be known for their integrity and total devotion to Jesus and for self-control and generosity in their families and communities. These new leaders would need to teach the good news about Jesus and replace the corrupt leaders.
Confronting these leaders is Titus’ second task (Titus 1:10-16). Paul identifies these teachers as “those of the circumcision” (Titus 1:10). In other words, they were ethnically Jewish Cretans who said they followed Jesus. However, these teachers demanded that non-Jewish Christians be circumcised and follow the laws of the Torah to become followers of the Jewish Messiah. They’re obsessed with “Jewish myths and human commands” (Titus 1:14). And to top it all off, they’re in the church leadership business to make money.
To undermine them, Paul brilliantly quotes an ancient Cretan poet, Epimenides, who was frank and honest about the character of his people: “Cretans are always liars, vicious beasts, and lazy gluttons.” They blur the lines between true and false, good and evil, and they’re only in this work for the money. While these leaders may claim to know God, their Cretan way of life denies him.
Titus 2: Instruction for Christian Households and Public Life
Because of these corrupt leaders, the personal lives and homes of many in these churches were a total wreck. Three times Paul highlights the result of the corrupt teachers’ bad leadership. The message about Jesus “is discredited,” their non-Christian neighbors have good cause to make “evil accusations,” and this all makes “the teaching about God our Savior” totally unattractive and uncompelling (Titus 2:5; 8; 10).
Paul paints a picture of what the ideal Cretan household devoted to Jesus would look like. Elderly men and women are to be full of integrity and self-control, acting as models of character to the young. Young women shouldn’t be sleeping around and avoiding marriage, as was fashionable at the time. Rather they should look for faithful partners, so they can raise stable families. The young men are to do the same and be known as productive, healthy citizens.
Enslaved Christians were in a unique position. We know that they were treated as social equals in Paul’s churches, but there was a danger that they could use that equality as license to disrespect their masters. This could lead to association with slave rebellions, which would further discredit the Christian message, so Paul urges them to respect and serve their masters.
Paul is negotiating a fine line here. He believes that the Gospel about Jesus must prove its redemptive power in the public square if it’s going to transform Cretan culture, but that won’t happen through social upheaval or Christians cloistering away from urban life. The Christian message will be compelling to Cretans only when Christians fully participate in public life and when their lives and homes look similar on the surface. After a closer look, their neighbors will discover that these Christians live by a totally different value system, devoted to a very different God.
It’s that difference in value system that Paul beautifully summarizes in Titus 2:11-15. The Christian way of life is based on God’s generous grace, which was demonstrated when Jesus gave up his honor to die a shameful death on behalf of his enemies. It’s that same grace that calls God’s people to reject corrupt ways of life that are inconsistent with the generous love of God.
In chapter 3, Paul shifts the focus from the Christian household to a vision of Christians living like new humans in Cretan society. Of all people, Christians should be ideal citizens that are peaceable, generous, obedient to authorities, and known for pursuing the common good.
But if Cretans were born into this destructive way of life, how are these Christians supposed to sustain this counterculture? Paul believes they will be able to do so only through the power of God’s transforming love. He explores this in a poem in 3:4-7, writing that God’s kindness and love saved us despite ourselves. Through the Holy Spirit, God has washed, rebirthed, and renewed his people. Through Jesus, God has provided a way for people to be declared just before him, opening up eternal life—the new future in the new creation.
This story is powerful enough that it can produce new kinds of people. Paul’s convinced that Spirit-empowered faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus will declare God’s grace all over the island of Crete and the world. With these thoughts in mind, Paul concludes in 3:12-15 by promising to send backup for Titus with either Artemas or Tychicus. Paul also asks for him to say hello to their common friends.
The letter to Titus shows us Paul’s missionary strategy for how these churches could become agents of transformation within their communities. Change cannot be won by waging a culture war or by simply assimilating to the Cretan way of life. He calls on these Christians to wisely participate in Cretan culture, rejecting what’s corrupt while embracing what’s good. If they can live peaceably and devote themselves to Jesus and the common good, they will, in his words, “show the beauty of the message about our saving God” (Titus 2:10).