A sermon preached last week at the Austin Stone Residents and Interns Chapel.
Good morning. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Travis Whitehead, and I serve at the West Campus. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, I’ve already seen this guy preach,” you are correct. I’m filling in for one of the other residents this morning, and I’m looking forward to walking through this text with you today.
When I preached on the first week of this chapel, giving an introduction to the book of Titus and some of the major themes, there’s some information I forgot to include as means of historical setting of this book. Scholars place the writing of Paul’s letter to Titus sometime between 61 and 67 AD, during a period of the Roman empire known as the Pax Romana, The Roman Peace. This is a period of about 206 years when Rome has reached its pinnacle. It isn’t conquering any more new lands, it’s not really fighting against much rebellion, and it’s said to be the first time in human history where there is a sustained period of time with no war. So what Rome focuses on during this time is making the conquered countries and peoples more Roman. It has expanded militarily, now it is expanding culturally. And it’s a great time to be a Roman, but if you are not a Roman, it’s a time when you’re facing a good deal of oppression by the Roman empire.
During this period, the Roman emperor Nero comes into power, and it’s a reign marked by brutality. He has his mother executed, he poisons his brother. In 64 AD, a section of Rome catches fire and burns for 9 days. Many people blame Nero for having the fire lit to clear land for some of his artistic endeavors, so Nero shifts the focus to the Christians. He doesn’t come out and say they lit the fire, but what he does do is say, “Look, they might not have struck the match, but isn’t this kind of all their fault? Don’t they seem to hate our gods, and despise our culture? Wouldn’t it be better if we just got rid of them all?” So begins an intense period of persecution of the Christians. Some are sewed into animal skins and thrown to the dogs, others are dipped in wax and lit ablaze in Nero’s garden, others are crucified and lined along the entrance into Rome.
It is in this historical setting that Paul writes to Titus in Titus 3:1-7. To this point, Paul’s instruction to Titus has been about how to disciple the church, how the church should behave within itself, but now he is going to transition to teaching on how the church should live in relation to the world, and specifically how it should live in a world that is hostile to the gospel and hostile to Christians. And the instruction that he gives is this: “Live as people of grace by remembering your past, present, and future reality.” Read Titus 3:1-7 with me.
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Paul starts off chapter 3 by instructing Titus to remind the people of how they should interact with the world around them. The language here in instructing to “remind them” is such that this is a continuous thing. Continue to remind them, do it over and over again. And what he is to remind the church is what they already know. These are the same instructions found in 2 Timothy 2:14; 2 Peter 1:12, 3:1-2; Jude v 5; 1 Timothy 1:9; Romans 13:1. And the instructions are pretty simple: Submit to authority, be obedient, be ready for good works.
We don’t like the word “submit” as a culture. Even now, most of you are reading this instruction, and you’re thinking of ways it might not apply to you. You’re scouring the recesses of your mind to figure out just when exactly is it ok for me not to submit. And I want to remind you, again, of the fact that Paul is writing this letter during Nero’s reign, a time of intense persecution of Christians. Christians are being used as torches for Nero’s garden parties and Paul is saying, “Submit to ruling authority.” So we need to know how this works because even though Jesus says to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar,” he follows that up with “render unto God what is God’s.” So I think we can find a few different examples of what this looks like. Paul himself provides an example of submitting to authority in Acts 25:11. He’s brought to trial for “spreading myths” in preaching the gospel, and he says, “If you want to kill me, you have that right, but I’m not going to stop.” In Hebrews 10:34 Christians are exhorted to endure persecution, and it cites their joyful acceptance of the plundering of their property. Acts 5:41 describes the apostles rejoicing after being beaten for preaching the gospel. What we are seeing is that the Christians are submitting to the authority of the culture to punish, to tax, to kill. The early church actually viewed martyrdom as a high calling. So the early church submits to this authority like lambs led to the slaughter, but it does not forsake its witness to the gospel.
Paul is going to continue on in verse 2 and give some clarification for what it looks like to live graceful lives in the midst of this type of world. He says, “In this culture that wants you gone, go beyond submission and do good works, be gentle, don’t quarrel, show perfect courtesy to everyone.” If we stop here, we’re hopeless. If we stop right now with this text, we’re all in trouble because each and every one of us has failed miserably at this. Some of you failed at it this morning and you’ve only been awake for 30 minutes.
So the question is how in the world can this happen? How can we be obedient to this instruction?
We live as people of grace in the world by remembering our past, present, and future reality.
Verse 3 tells us to remember who you were. “For we ourselves (for we once also) were foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” It says, “You were stupid, arrogant people who spent your entire lives comparing yourself to each other, constantly chasing fulfillment in things that didn’t fill you up, aimlessly wandering in search of meaning, destroying each other to feel better about yourself, and never being satisfied with any of it.” Most of the time we don’t think of our sin like that. We think, “Yeah, I was sinful, but I wasn’t that bad. I didn’t do any of the real bad sins.”
I’ve told this story to the residents before, but when I was in college I worked with kids at Buckner Child Development Center in Marshall. I see on your face that some of you are having the same response to that as the residents did. “Why would someone let you do that? Who hired you? Fire that person.” One of my responsibilities was to go pick up kids from school and bring them to the center. So one day, I’m at the school of one of my kids named Ashton. Ashton isn’t waiting to be picked up, and one of his teachers comes and tells me, “Ashton is in the bathroom. He’s been in there a while. You’ll need to go get him.” So I park the van, walk into the school, and into this bathroom where I find Ashton standing in a stall with the door open. And he is covered in crap. I mean that literally. He pooped his pants at some point, was sent to the bathroom, told to clean himself up, and instead of cleaning himself, he’s just spread this stuff everywhere. It’s on his hands, his arms, his shirt, down his legs, it’s covering the stall. It’s like someone set off some sort of terrible bomb. This is the picture of sin in your life. Covered in your own filth, helpless to do anything about it. All of your efforts are making it worse.
This is where God steps in. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God or Savior appeared, He saved us.” Paul says, “Remember what you were, and then remember that God saved you.” This image of God is juxtaposed with the picture of us: The goodness of God, as opposed to our slavery to lust; His loving kindness, where we were hateful and envious. His goodness and loving kindness appear. They become a physical reality and are seen. It takes on flesh. It leaves heaven to condescend to us, live among us, suffer like us, and die for us in the person of Jesus.
He saved you. Not according to your righteous works. Not because you walked down an aisle. Not because of how many Bible verses you memorized or how much theology you know. Not because you performed the right sequence of spiritual exercises like some salvation Contra code. But according to His mercy. Most Christians that I know believe this on the front-end. They believe they didn’t do anything to earn salvation, but they also believe that they can retroactively pay it off after having received it. We feel like Private Ryan at the end of “Saving Private Ryan”. Which, spoilers, at the end of this movie, an entire company of men has died in attempts to retrieve one soldier – Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. Matt Damon is holding Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, in his arms, as Miller bleeds out after sacrificing himself to save Private Ryan. Tom Hanks looks up at Matt Damon and says, “Earn this.” Then you see Private Ryan, 50 years later, standing beside the grave of Captain Miller, haunted by the last words Miller ever spoke to him. “I tried my best to earn it.” Tears roll down his face, and he asks his wife, standing beside him, “Tell me I was a good man. Tell me I led a good life.” Our every inclination as Christians is to believe that somehow we could possibly earn the salvation that was given to us freely, in accordance with God’s mercy. And the weight of that belief is crushing. It will wreck your world. Salvation can’t be earned and it can’t be paid for. It was given to you freely. Remember this.
And what does this salvation do? It changes your present reality and gives you a future hope. “He saved us … by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Through Christ, we are washed clean by the Holy Spirit and we are made a new creation. Regeneration is not something we are working to. It is a reality now for every person who puts their faith in Christ Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”
It is a present reality with a future hope and purpose. “So that we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” He saves us by the regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, poured out on us richly through Christ Jesus so that we might be justified and become heirs of eternity. So when Jesus appears again to set all things right, make all things new, we will inherit eternal life as sons and daughters of God the Father.
Your life in the way you treat the world is now a picture of the gospel. God showed you mercy you couldn’t earn and gave you an inheritance you could not pay for. And if this is true, we can be subject to rulers. We can rejoice at the plundering of our property. If this is true, we can endure suffering and face death because we know we have been shown mercy. We know we are heirs of the kingdom. We can show courtesy to everyone, always be ready for good works because we remember that God loved us when we were his enemies. We can love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, not because they deserve it but because Jesus saved us when we couldn’t save ourselves.
Our obedience in verses one through two is an outward display of an inward reality. It points back to the work of Christ on the cross and it points forward to His appearing again, when He will make all things new. (Rev 21:5)
So what do we do with this? Jesus himself promises we will be hated for his name. What do we do when we are despised, rejected, cast out from society? How do we engage a world that hates us?
Submit to authority. Engage the world around you. Be ready to do every good work, and show courtesy to all people.
Remember to do this by reminding yourself of the gospel every day. Remember what you were. Remember how God saved you. Preach to yourself and other believers that you are a new creation in Christ. You are an heir of eternity.
And when you fail, remind yourself again. God’s goodness and loving kindness has appeared in Jesus, who saved you not because of your righteousness, but in accordance with His mercy.