Grace and Peace, Oh How Can This Be?
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
This morning we are beginning a new sermon series. We are going to spend five weeks in the letter called Titus. We are calling the series, “Gospel-centered Church” because of the way the letter continually connects belief and behavior, gospel doctrine and gospel living.
In May, after we finish Titus, we are going to spend all summer in the book of 1 Samuel. I’m very excited about that.
In just a moment, I’m going to read and then pray and then we’ll talk about the opening to the letter. Let me say something, though, as we start. I don’t want this “introduction” to the sermon series to be like an introduction to a fitness center. You’ve done this, right? You show up and to talk a manager wearing a shirt with their matching logo on it. And then the manager walks you around saying, “Here are some weights; here’s a barbell; here’s a bench. Over there’s the dressing room. And here is where you sign so that we can take money from your account each month.” Then she says, “We’ll see you next time.”
That’s all fine, but don’t just show me the weights. I came here to lift some weights, to work up a sweat. Tomorrow, I want to feel like did more than just get a tour of the gym.
So, in this introduction, I’m going to walk around Titus (and a few other parts of the New Testament) and point out some things. For some of us, it will all be very new. For others, you already know what a squat rack is and how to use it. But I think for all of us, by the end, if you’ll listening closely with a view to being changed by the message of Jesus, then you’ll get out of this introduction more than just a little tour.
If you have a Bible, please follow along with me as I read Titus 1:1-5a (page 1144).
1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began 3 and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior; 4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. 5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order . . .
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. Pray with me that he would be our teacher. “Heavenly Father, this letter, as with the whole Bible, is a message about how lawbreakers and thieves receive grace and peace. Fill us, not with entitlement, but wonder: grace and peace, oh how can this be? In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray.”
Since moving here, I’ve been to Gettysburg a couple of times. Not so much up close, but I’ve seen some of the monuments. I’m intrigued by them. My wife went once with a friend and they listened to a CD and learned far more about the battle.
But I’ve heard several times that the best way to experience Gettysburg is with your own personal guide, someone who has lingered over the details of the Civil War. Someone who can, as you walk by a hilltop, point out how, “If ‘such and such’ a charge hadn’t happened the way it did, the battle might have been different.” Someone who can say, “Oh by the way, it’s a small detail, but there was one soldier wrote this in his diary about this and it matters because . . .” And so on.
Sometimes it’s in these little details—in the details of those who in particular gave “the last full measure of devotion” for a cause greater than themselves—that a story emerges. It’s in pointing out some of the details that principles and passions, become embodied. In the little details, people from the past come to life. And they continue to speak.
That’s what I want to do for you in this sermon, at least in miniature. I want to tell you more about who sent this message and who received it this message. Finally, we’ll talk some about the message itself. (Again, the sender, the receiver, and the message.)
1. “The Sender”: Paul, Servant and Apostle
Let’s look at this first point: The sender. Let me read v. 1 again.
1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness . . .
There’s part of me that doesn’t mind telling you about Paul, the author of this letter, even if some of you already know several thing about Paul. I say that because even the person in here who knows the most about Paul—and I have no idea who that would be—he or she still doesn’t know Paul as well as Titus did or the church in Crete (cf. 1:5; 3:15). And yet, Paul in this letter to Titus and the church, opens with some reminders about himself. I think he does this because it’s not a mere knowledge of some facts from the past that are helpful. Rather, it’s a vibrant knowledge, a knowledge at the front of our minds, that will make the difference as we read the instructions in this letter.
Paul writes that he is two things: “a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ.” You need to realize how crazy it is that Paul would put those two things together. I don’t mean that they were crazy to him at the time he wrote to Titus. No, what I mean is that “servant of God and apostle of Jesus Christ” would have been two crazy things for Paul to have put together if we had asked Paul thirty years before he wrote this letter. Thirty years ago, Paul could not have imagined ever saying that about Jesus.
And maybe in this way, he’s like some of you. I had no intentions of being a pastor. But it’s happened. The message of Jesus changed things for me. Maybe when you left Christianity as a young man or women, you had no intention of coming—but here you are. There’s something about Jesus, when we really know him, that calls forth an unexpected obedience and love. And it’s crazy, but it happens.
In Acts, we read a historical account of the early church, from roughly 33 AD to 62 AD. At the start of the book of Acts, Paul is an expert in Judaism and a persecutor of Christians. At the end of the book, he’s a devoted follower, even a Christian leader—and, as he writes here, an Apostle, someone formally commissioned to speak for Jesus. What a change!
Let’s look at this change closer. In Acts 8 we read that Paul (who was then called Saul) was “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (v. 3). In Acts 9 we read that while he was “still breathing threats and murder against the [Christians]” (v. 1), and while he was traveling to a city called Damascus, Jesus showed up to have a conversation with him. Picking up in v. 3.
3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Jesus knocked him off his horse, pinned him to the ground, and said, “You think you are doing God a favor, but you’re not.”
Then God tells a Christian guy named Ananias to go tell Paul “part two” of God’s message to Paul. And Ananias is like, “What—me? Paul? Really?” And God says to Ananias in vv. 15b-16,
15b Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
I’m leaving out a few things, but Ananias goes to Paul and vv. 19b-20, we read,
19b For some days [Paul] was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
That’s crazy! That was roughly 34 AD. And for the next 25 years that is narrated in the book of Acts, this is what happens. Paul is suffering; Paul is preaching Jesus. Paul gets beaten and imprisoned; Paul preaches Jesus. He went on three full missionary journeys.
And at the end of the book, he’s arrested and on his way to Rome by ship. In chapter 27, they pass by the shore of an island in the Mediterranean called Crete—which is where Titus is at when Paul writes this letter to him. One commentator speculated that while on that ship, Paul may have already begun to dream of planting a church on Crete.1 It’s speculation of course, but it’s consistent with how Paul thought. “Look, there’s some people over there! I wonder if they know Jesus. Who’s gonna tell them the message of Jesus, the message of grace and peace?”
When the book of Acts ends, however, Paul hadn’t been to Crete yet. From the letter to Titus, we can tell that he planted the church there in Crete. Look at v. 5a,
5a This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order . . .
Therefore, Paul’s church planting in Crete must have happened just after the ending in Act, on what some call his “fourth missionary journey.”
So that’s an overview of Paul. A man who has been changed by the hope of eternal life. I know some of you are making hard decisions about whether to follow Jesus or not. You realize, that just like for Paul, if you begin to follow Jesus, it’s going to change things. It’s going to be hard. For others, as you continue to follow Jesus, it’s going to be costly. It always was for Paul. But I can tell you this, 1 million years for today, in the future unending kingdom with God, Paul won’t regret one thing he did for Jesus, no matter how hard. And neither will you. Take the long view towards joy.
So that’s Paul, now let’s talk about Titus and this island called Crete.
2. “The Receivers”: Titus and the Church
As I said, Crete is an island in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a long and skinny island: about 300 miles long and no more than 35 miles wide.
One of the more famous verses in Titus makes much of the poor moral character of those the Crete. I think this is one of the reasons that Paul stressed in v. 2 that our God “never lies.” Look at vv. 12-13a,
12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true . . .
Thus, many of those who got saved in Crete had wild background. Their story was not clean; it was messy. You might not realize it, but as one of your pastors, I can tell you this is like our church.
And think about this also—the additional contrast between the God of the Bible, who never lies, and the gods of Greek mythology (which was prominent in Crete)2, who were constantly deceiving. And we think of our own national political landscape. Don’t you long to know this God who speaks with absolute truthfulness? I do.
And now, who was Titus? In v. 4 we read, “To Titus, my true child in a common faith.” This indicated that Paul was likely involved in sharing the gospel message with Titus. And if Titus was not converted by Paul, then as least this phrase still indicates that Paul was Titus’s mentor and co-laborer in ministry.
From the rest of the Bible, we know that over at least 15 years (if not longer), Paul and Titus worked closely together. This is especially interesting because Titus was a Greek, a Gentile. He was not Jewish as Paul was. Galatians is one of the earliest letters in the New Testament. In Galatians 2, as Paul is defending the gospel of free grace, he says this about Titus:
3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.
He became a Christian but didn’t become Jewish. This was the beginning of Paul’s ministry.
In the middle of Paul’s ministry, we read in 2 Corinthians 8 (which I won’t put on the screen) that Titus had a very significant role to play in taking up a collection of money for Christians who were struggling and seeing that it was delivered to them faithfully.
To complete the picture (the beginning, the middle, and now the end), let me just give you two more quick verses where Titus is mentioned. I have on a slide both Titus 3:12 and 2 Timothy 4:10.
12 When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there.
10 For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia.
I’ll give some context. As I said earlier, likely Paul planted the church in Crete around 62 AD. Likely Paul is writing to Titus around 64 AD. Likely the letter to Titus was Paul’s second to last letter. Paul’s last letter is 2 Timothy, which is written around 65-67 AD. (Again: 62, plant the church in Crete; 64, write to Titus; 66, write 2 Timothy.)
Why does this matter? Well, in Titus 3:12, Paul tells him, “Do all the things in this letter that I’m writing to you. It’s gonna be hard, but soon two more people will come to help you. When they get there, you leave and meet up with me in a city 300 miles north.” (That’s where Nicopolis was.)
Then just a few years later comes 2 Timothy 4. There we read that Titus is in Dalmatia, which is another 300 miles north. I know these areas don’t mean much to you. But just picture doing ministry in Florida. Then you go to South Carolina. Then New York. Wherever there is a crises, you go to help. This is why one commentator calls Titus a “crisis-intervention specialist.”3 You got a problem, you send Titus. He’s strong. He’s a peacemaker. He loves the gospel message. He has discernment. He’s dependable. You have a history with him.
Paul was there at his conversion (“true child”). Paul was there in the early days (Galatians). There in the middle years (2 Corinthians). And now in the end (Titus and 2 Timothy), Paul sends him here to there. All this while the average Jew and average Gentile hated each other. What a partnership! What a gospel message!
I’m not sure if you noticed or not, but in 2 Timothy 4:10, we read about a man named Demas who fell away from the faith. We don’t know much about him. He’s mentioned in Colossians 4:14 as one of Paul’s workers. And then at the end, sadly, because he loved the world and he loved money, Demas fell away. And there, right next to this guy, stands Titus. Ready to go, ready to help.
I can’t help but think there isn’t a subtle statement here for us. Let’s commit to be faithful over decades, not weeks. God doesn’t want us to be flakey, but steady and stable. And when we are these things, people get helped and cities are changed. Church, long to go the distance. And if your race has gotten off track somewhere, this morning I’m saying to you, start running again.
When I meet with guys for discipleship, one of the things that I often talk about is training to become elder-qualified men (which Jason will preach about next week). This doesn’t mean they every have to be an elder, let alone go into fulltime ministry. But, men, what a lofty thing to shoot for. After a decade of training, like Titus, you can get a letter that says, “We’re struggling; please help.” And you can say, “I’m on it; by the grace of God, I got this.”
3. “The Message”: Eternal Life, Grace and Peace
Now we come to the final point, the message. The message Paul is sending is a message about “eternal life” and a message about “grace and peace.”
Look at vv. 1-3,
1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began 3 and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;
Depending on how you break them up, there are probably 5-10 phrases in these verses—all of them are rich.
I think the overarching thing I want to point out is that the message was worth it. It was going to be hard for Titus to put things in order in the church. You’ll see next week in Jason’s message that there were false teachers in Crete. It wasn’t going to be easy to appoint godly elders in the context where some very vocal and ungodly people wanted the role of leader, especially when they didn’t play fair. As was pointed out, they were liars. So it would be hard.
But look what Paul says in v. 1. He’s an apostle “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect” (v. 1). And the type of faith and knowledge that he’s talking about is going to produce change, produce godly living. A gospel-centered change.
I didn’t tell you this story, but there was this one time in Acts where Paul was really having a hard time. He wanted to give up. He wanted to stop preaching. Just walk away . . . or at least stop preaching where God had him. The people were too difficult and the fruit of his work seemed too pitiful. Then God spoke to him. Acts 18:9-11,
9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
Jesus said, “I have many in this city who are my people.” What did that mean? I’m sure Paul might have asked, “Well, where are they? I’m preaching and preaching and preaching; it’s not working.”
That’s what Paul means in Titus when he says, “for faith of God’s elect.” You can’t see them; you can’t tell by looking at people who is going to get saved and who isn’t, but God knows. And God tells Paul, “You keep preaching and I’ll talk care of it.” Oh, election was a great encouragement to Paul. The message was worth it to stay in the battle.
A few weeks ago, we talked about John 10:16, where Jesus promised that he had “other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also . . .” Same idea. My people, but not yet. My sheep, but not yet. Elect, but not Christians yet. Very encouraging.
I can’t resist pointing out one final thing. Did you notice the sweep of the chronology of the gospel in these verses? Paul says that God promised “before the ages began” and the hope of “eternal life” now manifested in his preaching. What?! This is sweeping chronology! All the way from before the beginning . . . to the unending future . . . which is accessible right now through preaching the good-news story of Jesus. Amazing! What a gospel story!
In just a moment, I’m going to pray and the worship team is going to come back up. We are going to sing the same song we sang before the sermon. It’s called “Grace and Peace.” What I love about this song is the astonishment of the song. Rather than entitlement, it takes the right approach to the gospel message: wonder! As we sing, “Oh how can this be?” May God fill us with this same wonder.