Brian Tabb is academic dean and associate professor of biblical studies at Bethlehem College and Seminary, general editor for Themelios, and author of 1–2 Timothy and Titus: A 12-Week Study in Crossway’s Knowing the Bible series. In our conversation, Tabb answers “what is the book of Titus about?” in several ways, including “Titus is about the gospel at work,” “It’s about being saved for good,” and “Titus is about the organic connection between what is taught and caught.”
Over the course of our conversation Tabb helps Bible teachers understand the unique setting of Titus’s ministry—the island of Crete and Cretans who have been saved by grace—as well as the role of good works in the life of a Christian. We also talk about what it looks like to “adorn the gospel” in the way we live it out.
Resources recommended by Brian Tabb:
- The Letters to Timothy and Titus (The Pillar New Testament Commentary) by Robert W. Yarbrough
- 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary) by Robert L. Thomas and Andreas J. Köstenberger
- Commentary on 1–2 Timothy and Titus (Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation) by Andreas J. Köstenberger
Recommended audio resources:
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach The Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach The Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks. Learn more at crossway.org. Today, I am in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I get to sit across from Dr. Brian Tabb who is academic dean and associate professor of biblical studies at Bethlehem College and Seminary. Tabb, thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
Brian Tabb: Good morning, Nancy. It’s great to be here.
Guthrie: Now, you do a lot of things besides teaching at the college and seminary. You’re also editor of Themelios correct?
Tabb: That’s right.
Guthrie: Yeah. So, a lot of our listeners may not be familiar with what that is and some of them may even think, “Okay, a theological journal? That would be too challenging for me or that’s not for me.” I wonder if you might be able to tell us how would reading “Themelios” help us and could you think even maybe of two or three articles that if we were going to try to dip our toe into it and find something that would be helpful, something that might be helpful to us?
Tabb: “Themelios” is a theological journal that started in England. There’s a version of it in the early ’60s and then it merged with another journal in the mid-’70s and The Gospel Coalition took it over in the mid-2000s and put it online, which meant that it was read not by a few hundred people but by a few hundred thousand people every issue. And it’s a journal that’s not really aimed at the academic ivory tower. It’s meant to be read by theological students, pastors, that’s kind of the sweet spot and then lay leaders in the church, I think it would be accessible to them and it would be informative for theologians and scholars as well. I think some of the highlights over the years have been a lot of D. A. Carson’s editorials. Those are typically some of the most read ones. The other column by the late Mike Ovey has some really wonderful pieces in it. He had a way of just engaging culture and thinking Christianly about our world. And then Dan Strange, who teaches at Oak Hill College, has picked that up, his column “Strange Times.” There are always a load of book reviews from academic sorts of books to really practical books on a wide range of subjects, you know, spiritual disciplines, preaching, parenting, and all the rest.
Guthrie: And how does someone find Themelios?
Tabb:You could probably just Google “Themelios.” The web address is themelios.thegospelcoalition.org.
Guthrie: Thanks so much.
Guthrie: We’re going to talk about the book of Titus and one reason we’re talking about it is because you authored the volume in Crossway’s fabulous Bible study guide series on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus in their 12-Week (Knowing the Bible) study guide series. But before we get there, I wonder if you might just tell us a little bit about how you came to love God’s word and study it and decide you wanted to be someone who teaches God’s word and even teaches teachers about God’s word.
Tabb: Yeah. That’s a great question. For me, that happened when I was a junior at Wheaton College and had gotten connected to a wonderful local church that faithfully expounded God’s word and learned what meaningful membership was and so forth. Had some great professors that made the Bible come alive for me. Read some really great books like Jim Elliot’s biography, and read a book by John Piper on preaching and just the combination of some of those factors led me to decide, “I want to give my life to studying this book. I don’t want to do anything else. I really don’t want to do anything else.” And then I’ve just tried to keep going with that kind of whatever opportunity was opened, which for me, was to teach at Bethlehem College and Seminary, a school that I attended myself and had been shaped by the ministry of John Piper. And now, I get to teach college and seminary students about this book that I love.
Guthrie: That’s great. All right. Well, let’s dive into Titus a little bit. It’s a short little book. I’ve got it open in my Bible and actually I can see the whole book on a two-page spread. So, maybe you could finish this sentence. The book of Titus is about… Could you sum up the message of Titus that succinctly? Maybe that’s a good place to start.
Tabb: Yeah. I think I would try to say it one of a couple ways. I’ll give a couple answers to that and maybe one of those will stick for listeners. So, the book of Titus is about the gospel at work. Or we could say Titus is about being saved for good. Or we could say the book of Titus is about the organic connection between what is taught and caught, or it’s about the connection between sound doctrine and godly living, faith and practice. They go together. That is, I think, you know, say it a couple of ways, but that’s the essential thrust of these 46 verses.
Guthrie: And isn’t that the gap that most of us as teachers are trying to help bring together for those we’re teaching. That there wouldn’t be a disconnect between when they’re sitting in our Bible study or in the pew at church and the way that they live the rest of the week, that somehow we’re helping them over the course of a lifetime to close that gap.
Tabb: Absolutely. I think we’re not only trying to help others do that, we’re on a journey ourselves. He says, “Teach what accords with sound doctrine” at the beginning in Chapter 2. But he also talks about Titus setting the believers an example and living out himself what he’s calling them to.
Guthrie: Oh, that’s hard for us as teachers sometimes, isn’t it? I sometimes will find myself working on something I’m going to teach and I realize, okay, here is an implication of this, an application of this, something that clearly from the passage I need to call those I’m teaching to. And I realize, “Wow, is that going to be hypocritical?” Because this is something I really need to hear in a way I really need to change. But maybe that’s one of the best things about teaching the Bible is that we’re getting into the word in that way, in such a way it is always calling us to close that gap in our own lives.
Tabb: Yeah. I think so. And one of the jarring passages for teachers here comes in the opening chapter where Paul says, “This is what an elder looks like.” And the first word he uses is “above reproach” or “blameless,” like, which of us is blameless? And Paul knows that. And he, I mean, in the book of 1 Timothy describes himself as a blasphemer, a persecutor, an insolent opponent, the chief of sinners. So, he’s not dealing with that kind of perfectionism here but more of a pattern of following Jesus where what you believe and how you live have a correspondence.
Guthrie: An integrity of life.
Tabb: That’s right.
Guthrie: That lines up. Maybe we should begin by talking about kind of the unique setting in person. Introduce us to Titus and we read in Chapter 1:5, “This is why I left you in Crete.” So, maybe we need a little geography too and I guess I would ask when we’re getting ready to teach Titus, is there something in Acts or elsewhere in the Bible that is foundational for us to kind of set the scene for what’s happening here in terms of in Crete or Titus as a person?
Tabb: So, Crete is an island in the Mediterranean Sea, kind of south of Greece. Be a nice place to go on vacation.
Guthrie: I think we…I want to go there.
Tabb: Especially, if you’re in Minneapolis in February, just for example, Crete sounds pretty good. For Titus, this was a little bit more of a challenging assignment I think. Now, with some letters of the New Testament, you have a really nice link between the Book of Acts and the letter like Thessalonians, for example. You see it right there in Acts 17 and then Paul explains how he was there in 1 Thessalonians 2 and so forth. But we don’t have that quite as neat and tidy of a connection between Acts and the book of Titus. We don’t know a lot of details about the planting of this church in Crete, but we know evidently that Paul left Titus there for a reason. There’s a fledgling little church there. We do know though from the Book of Acts, now that I’m thinking about it, in Acts 2, there are a bunch of people gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.
Guthrie: Yeah. Pentecost?
Tabb: And they’re from all over the place including I think at least around the area of Crete. Yeah. There it is. In verse 11, Cretans and Arabians.
Guthrie: So there would have been Cretans on the day of Pentecost. Maybe they would have been among those 3000 who came to Christ?
Tabb: I think so. And so, we don’t have their names listed there, but that’s probably the most likely connection is that after Pentecost, after they heard Peter preach, were baptized, maybe spent some time with that church hearing the apostle’s teaching. They had a burden for their friends and family and decided to get on a boat and head home and start sharing.
Guthrie: Now, he uses the terms, “This is why I left you in Crete.” So, it makes me think that originally Paul and Titus were there together. Is that true?
Tabb: I think that’s likely. We just don’t have the full details about all that Paul did and all that his associates did. The Book of Acts is selective in what it records as the gospel goes out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and then finally, to the ends of the earth. And somewhere in there, the gospel spread to Crete.
Guthrie: Well, as we get into the book, we’re going to find out a little bit more about what Crete and Cretans are like. But why don’t we begin, go back to the very beginning of this book because it has a pretty clear statement at the beginning that we would want to take note of? “Paul, a servant of God and apostle of Jesus Christ for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness in hope of eternal life, which God who never lies promised before the ages began 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.” That is a very long sentence.
Tabb: And it’s only halfway done.
Guthrie: “To Titus, my true child in a common faith, grace, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our savior.” So, as we’re beginning to teach Titus, how does this set the scene for the book?
Tabb: This is one of the longest openings in all of Paul’s letters. Often, these opening verses in a New Testament letter or really any book give you a clue for what it’s about. The way that Paul introduces himself in this letter and he expresses the context for writing, even the theological context, like the references to faith and the truth and godliness and hope, God our savior. All these huge rich theological concepts throw in the elect in there. I mean, you could almost do a Systematic Theology 101 just with these first four verses. And what he’s doing there, like most good writers, when they introduce something, it’s preparing for what comes later. Maybe if we even just focused on the connection between the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness. That’s what I was getting at when you asked me the book of Titus is about what. This is… If David Helm was sitting in front of you, he’d probably talk about how this is introducing the melodic line, right? That’s the way that the Simeon Trust folks like to talk, which is helpful. It’s sounding a note here that’s gonna you know, and you’re gonna hear that note or that chord again and maybe it is helpful to think about that like a chord. Notes that go together, faith, truth, godliness. That’s a major chord in the book of Titus and we’re going to hear that chord several times.
Guthrie: Yeah. Other notes that I think of in this book, they’re godliness because that’s gonna come up again as is self-controlled. That’s gonna come up at least three, four, five times. And then the opposite of godliness, we’re gonna talk about ungodliness. And then the other note probably for this book would be good works.
Tabb: That’s right.
Guthrie: We hear those notes over and over again through this book. So, maybe it’s helpful for us to define some of those terms. We, as modern-day readers, read these books and so, our immediate thought is what we think of as what godliness means, what we think of as what a good work would mean. So, when Paul wrote this to Titus, what we want to get at for those we’re teaching is what Paul meant by those terms when he wrote this book to Titus. Can you help us with that?
Tabb: So, with godliness, depending on what our background is in the church, that will probably affect pretty significantly the sort of associations we have with that. It might be a list of things that you don’t do. For Paul, this is a word that…he uses, you know, a version of that word twice in this letter. He uses it more elsewhere. It shows up quite a bit in the books to Timothy. Godliness is true Christian living. It’s a way of life that pleases God. What he is not talking about is just changing your behavior. This is not behavior modification. This is true spirituality. You could translate it piety, if that’s more helpful, maybe that sounds more Puritanish or something. It’s true Christian living that pleases God. That’s what he’s getting at with this word godliness. And there’s a connection with good works there. Godliness doesn’t necessarily equal good works. I think it’s maybe the bigger category of but, true Christian living that pleases God includes good works.
Now, when believers, especially in good solid reform churches here works or good works, it’s like there’s you know, our heart starts beating a little faster. Like, wait a second, you know, is this man-centered or is this works righteousness? Or you know, is this changing the doctrine of justification or anything like that? And the answer’s no. But at the same time, this book and other books throughout the New Testament say that there’s an essential connection between your profession of faith and your expression of that faith in how you live. And Paul’s going to say that that’s true of all Christians. It should be particularly true for Christian leaders. That’s why he gives this profile of elders beginning in verse 5.
Guthrie: Why don’t we go there?
Guthrie: Because in many ways, as theological as this book has begun with these very rich ideas that you were talking about, elect, godliness, faith, immediately in this book, he dives into something pretty practical that’s very specific to Titus. I’m reading in verse 5, “This is why I left you in Crete so that you might put what remained into order and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” So, he’s assigning Titus a task. Now, we might read this and think, “Wow, what am I gonna do with this when I teach this? Because maybe this is really just about something that was happening there that doesn’t have anything to do with the people I’m teaching today.” So, help us with that.
Tabb: Yeah. So, whenever you read something like, “this is why,” or words like, “so that,” that’s indicating a purpose. This is the situation, occasion, the purpose of Paul’s writing. And so, we need to pay careful attention to this. “This is why I left you in Crete so that you might put what remained in order.” That word “put in order” really intrigues me. It’s the only time this word shows up in the Greek New Testament and it’s related to the kind of word group that we use, like orthopedics or orthotics. It means to set something right, to, you know, take something crooked and straighten it out. As I was reflecting on what Paul calls Titus to do, I thought about last night was the Super Bowl. It won’t be the Super Bowl last night when people listen to this probably, but it’s at least what millions of people around the world were thinking about last night.
And the star of the Super Bowl was the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was the MVP, heroically won the game, etc., etc. Well, in the middle of the season, he had a horrific injury. He was running the ball and his kneecap popped out of place. One of the other players said it didn’t even look like a knee and it was like the funeral march started for their team. Like, “Our MVP quarterback now doesn’t have a knee anymore.” And what I read is that the medical staff very quickly and skillfully popped the knee back into place and the writers about that said that their skillful and speedy action probably saved his season. It meant that he could march down the field at the end of the Super Bowl and win the game for the Chiefs because his crooked knee had been set straight. No quarterback can win the Super Bowl with a knee that is dislocated.
And similarly, might wonder where’s this going? Similarly, no church can do what it’s called to do if things are just fundamentally out of place in it. And so, Paul is reflecting on the situation at Crete and he says, “things need to be set in order.” There are some bones that are just all crooked in every which way and I’m calling you to be an orthopedic specialist. Because if those, if those bones are put straight, if that kneecap is put back where it needs to be, then this church can start to get strong. And it’s not gonna grow up crooked where it’s always gonna need a crutch. And part of what the church at Crete and what every healthy church needs is godly leaders. The church is more than its elders, but it can’t grow up straight without a few people like this who can teach sound doctrine and model what it looks like in practice. That’s Paul’s charge to Titus to set things in order.
Nancy: At the end of that first paragraph, well, first of all, he talks about what the elder needs to be like, those kinds of things you mentioned above reproach, husband of one wife, not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination, overseer, not arrogant, quick tempered, not a drunkard, not violent, self-controlled, upright, holy, disciplined. The way that ends is, yes, he’s going to hold a sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. And then we go immediately into another paragraph that we find out part of maybe what the disorder is or the injury is that has to be set right and put into order.
Tabb: Yeah. That’s right. In verse 10, it starts with the word “for”, which usually introduces a reason or explanation for what you just read.
Guthrie: Here’s why you’ve got to get things in order and have godly leaders in charge.
Tabb: Exactly. So, I take verses 10 through 16 with that word, for, as telling us why it’s so important to set things in order in this way and appoint godly leaders.
Guthrie: It says, “For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party, they must be silenced since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” That sounds like a messy church situation, which some of us have been in that kind of situation.
Tabb:: Very messy.
Guthrie: But what is it like there? Describe for us the problem that Titus is going to have to address.
Tabb: Well, the first word, the first description that he uses for them is insubordinate. They’re out of line. They don’t want to listen to others. They want to go their own way. And that’s expressed both in what they teach and how they live. And it’s quite different than the way that Paul describes himself in Chapter 1 verse 1. He calls himself a servant of God, or you could even translate it, a slave. And a good servant is obedient to the directions that he receives. And that’s how Paul is presenting himself. The great apostle to the Gentiles. First word, I’m a slave. And here we have in verse 10, many people, it says…
Guthrie: Yeah, many.
Tabb: …who are insubordinate, who are just out of line, who don’t want to live under authority. I think this is one of those verses that helps to connect Titus with our day. As I read this book, I think, “Wow, this is a letter for our time.” Isn’t it? The way that it talks about authority, the way that it talks about self-control, the way we use our words, the way we keep sinful desires in check. This is so countercultural for 21st-century western culture where we find ourselves in, this was very countercultural for Crete lest we think that our culture is maybe more or less sinful than the situations that the New Testament writers faced. Often, idolatry just has a new name and a little bit of a facelift, but there are still the usual suspects underneath.
Guthrie: Yeah. He’s about to tell us what Crete is like in verse 12 of Chapter 1. He writes, “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said…” So, he’s quoting some well-known statement, I suppose about Cretans and he says, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” And then he says, “Their testimony is true, therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.” So, this is kind of interesting I think. In some ways it makes, I think about teaching this feeling a little bit uncomfortable because here’s this very insulting statement he’s pulled out that talks about Cretans and he goes, that’s pretty much true, pretty much the way they are
Tabb: Apart from the grace of God. And here, I’ll just dip back for a minute into the book of 1 Timothy. We know a little bit more about Ephesus than we do about Crete. And Paul also says a little bit more there about some of the situation, the problem that Timothy faces. The way that he describes the opponents in Ephesus, it’s very similar to how he describes himself before Christ. He was a blasphemer, a persecutor, an insolent opponent. He was proud, he was doing things for the wrong reason. He was opposing Jesus and his people just like people that he’s, you know, just like in the church in Ephesus, there are people that are opposing sound doctrine and you know, beautiful truths of the savior. I think that experience that Paul had and remembering what he was like before Christ helps to flavor even some tough words that he gives, some salty words, you see, he’s talking about Crete or talking about opponents.
But there’s a saying around these parts called Minnesota nice where you just kinda, you don’t necessarily say it straight, you kinda talk in pleasantries and so forth. But deep down you’re really, you know, might not think very highly of someone. And Paul is not giving the Minnesota nice here when he talks about Crete and he talks about the opponents. He knows Titus and he also knows the sober task that is before him here. It’s time to take the gloves off. It’s time to not mess around because people are being harmed. He says that they are upsetting whole families. They are upsetting people’s faith. They are deceiving people. People’s lives are at stake when there’s false teaching, if there’s no intervention. And so, Paul is trying to signal to Titus and by extension to us that false teaching is serious and how you live is serious.
Guthrie: Help us understand what he means in verse 14 because when he talks about these false teachers that he’s supposed to rebuke sharply, that they devote themselves to Jewish myths. Do we know what that is?
Tabb: Well, we don’t know exactly what it is and sometimes it’s helpful that we don’t know exactly what a particular false teaching was. We’re able to maybe apply it, like it’s not just limited to this one particular error, but it’s related to other things. It likely has to do with some sort of false teaching that was perpetuated by Jewish people. So, there are a couple of possibilities there. It could be dealing with food laws, it could relate to the practice of circumcision.
Guthrie: It does say earlier, “They’re insubordinate, empty talkers, especially those of the circumcision party.”
Tabb: Right. And so, that was a huge issue in the early church. We read about that a lot in the Book of Acts. And even in the letter to the Galatians, he mentions Titus there in Chapter 2 and he says that Titus was a Greek. He says that some people were trying to compel Titus a Greek to be circumcised. And Paul says, “No, that’s not the true mark of those that belong to Abraham’s family anymore. The true mark of membership in the people of God is faith in the promised one, Jesus Christ,” which is then pictured by baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper anymore. So, I think there might be something similar here. Could also be maybe something to do with genealogies.
Guthrie: We see that in other books.
Tabb: Yeah. But whatever it is you know, they’re in the shadows, not the substance.
Guthrie: It’s missing the heart of the gospel message that Paul wants the church to be built around. This is one of the places then at the end in verse 16, that works begins to come up in the book. And he says about these people, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works.” So, my first thought is, what work are they doing that denies, that would be opposed to, that’d be inconsistent with a profession of knowing God? And it says, “they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” That’s an interesting sentence. Help us.
Tabb: This reminds me of something that Jesus taught. A tree is known by its fruit. A good tree bears good fruit, a bad tree bears bad fruit. I mean, he’s trying to diagnose here, should we believe them? Should people follow them? No, it’s not, as he’s going to say in at the end of Chapter 2, transformative like the grace of God.
Guthrie: When we get to Chapter 2 been helpful to me as you’ve been showing as the sections change, there are little phrases that help us follow his argument. And that’s the case certainly here at the beginning of Chapter 2. “But as for you…” So, we see a turn here, we’ve been talking about these false teachers and the people who are not focused on the gospel, but then he’s going to talk directly to Titus about the kind of teaching he wants him to have. “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” And then there’s this long section, Brian, that if we were teaching it, we would probably have to organize it around who he’s speaking to because first, he speaks to older men, then he speaks to older women then he will speak to younger women and then to younger men and then he speaks particularly to bondservants. So, if you were teaching Titus 2, is that how you would organize it? Would your teaching be organized around who he’s speaking to or what would be your approach to this?
Tabb: Well, you could do it several different ways. He does here give some particular tidbits for different groups of people in the church. And one of the things that’s helpful with that is we see, it’s more than just about the elders.
Guthrie: Yeah. I was gonna say, how do we relate this to the elders? Is he continuing to show what’s going to bring order to the church?
Tabb: He’s not thinking about the church just as a bunch of individuals. It is the household of God as he says in the book of Timothy. This is how the household should operate in a healthy good way that suggests a sort of order and orientation toward the things of God. If some individuals or some groups of the household are going off and doing their own thing, it throws everything out of balance as we know from raising children or just dealing with the regular stuff of life. If one individual even or one group of people are off, it requires attention so that things can be restored to normal working order. And he begins as he would typically do with the older men. Now, maybe some of these people could be those elders in Chapter 1, it’s a similar word in Greek, but many of the things that he says about these different groups of people are things that he’s already touched on, like dignified, self-controlled, you know, sound in the faith, sober-minded. There’s nothing in there that’s like, “Oh, well, only old guys need those things.” You know, only the seniors need to be self-controlled. Well, no, because he’s going to say to the young men that they need to be self-controlled, that they probably need to be more than that.
But he chooses to just focus on that when he gets to the young men. He also though says maybe more here than he does elsewhere about the relationship of older women to younger women. And that’s why many churches including probably the churches that you and I are members of have Titus 2 ministries or…that comes from this section of older women teaching and training younger women so there’s a pattern of discipleship. And Paul talks about this in 2 Timothy, how he has a good deposit of the gospel that he’s entrusting to other men who are going to entrust it to faithful men who are going to entrust it to faithful men. And you see something similar with the women as well. This isn’t just a book for the guys because the whole church needs to be working well.
Guthrie: And it seems to be for a purpose, which I see the idea of the purpose for which it’s supposed to work this way in several phrases at the end of verse 5, “That the word of God may not be reviled.” Or in verse 8, “So that an opponent may be put to shame having nothing evil to say about us.” And then at the end of this section in verse 10, “So that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our savior.” So, it seems to me like one reason Paul is telling Titus this, he wants the church to be operating in a way that would make the Cretans around them who haven’t been changed by Christ but are watching the church that they would say about them, “There’s something different about them.” Rather than saying, you know, “They might go to church but they live just the same way we do.” But instead, they look at them and I love that phrase, “May adorn the doctrine.” I mean, think about that adorning to make it look more beautiful. That they would be living in such a way it makes the gospel at work in their lives look beautiful, look attractive like something that they want to be a part of.
Tabb: Yeah. The image that comes to my mind there is a priceless masterpiece in a gallery that was painted by somebody you know, generations ago. What would be a fitting frame for that? What would be a fitting display for that? You don’t put that in a laundry room, in a dimly lit basement with a cheap cardboard frame. Does that adorn the Rembrandt? No. Like, it’s lit just right. It’s framed just right. Positioned just right. When you look at a masterpiece in a gallery, you don’t think, “That frame, wow, that lighting.” You think, “Wow, that masterpiece.” And the master painter in that illustration is God. That’s the grace of God and our works or our godliness that’s not the foundation or the cause of our salvation, but that’s in a sense like the frame around it and the lighting that casts just you know, helps you to see more clearly how beautiful it is.
Guthrie: I think Brian one of the challenges though when we’re teaching this section in Chapter 2, maybe verses 1 through 10. So we’ve worked through these older men younger men, older women, younger women, but then in verse 9, we come to bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything. They are to be well-pleasing, non-argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith. So you’ve talked about, okay, it’s this picture of the church as this family and this body. But in our modern-day, we hardly know what to do with him telling bondservants to be good bondservants. There’s a part of us that wants him to say, “And release anyone that you have as a bondservant to you.” So how do we handle this?
Tabb: That’s a challenging question. And it’s not just here in Titus.
Guthrie: Right. Exactly.
Tabb: He probably addresses it the most interesting way in Philemon you know, kind of winsomely, calling his friend Philemon to do the right thing with Onesimus, who is now your brother, who can now be truly useful to you and to Christ. I think when we get to verse 9, though, and he says, bondservants or some translations will say servants, or you could say, slaves. It is helpful to remember that this is the same word that Paul used for himself in the opening verse. He is a slave or a servant. The Greek word is doulos of God.
Guthrie: Is it the same word here?
Tabb: It’s the same word just in the plural more than one. Paul writes as one who is under authority. He also you know, we remember the problem that he’s facing, there are people that are insubordinate or unruly who refused to submit. It’s the opposite of the word he says here, how is it translated? Be submissive. The antithesis of that is what you see on the false teachers. And in Chapter 3, verse 1, he uses the same language and he says, “Be submissive to rulers and authorities.” And he doesn’t there say, just the ones that you agree with, just the ones who you think are qualified to be leaders who have good policies. Tradition has it that Paul was executed by one of those such Roman rulers, the maniac Nero, how could he possibly say, “Be submissive to them?”
So in telling slaves to be submissive to their masters in everything, I do not see Paul saying, “I’m so glad that slavery exists in our world. I’m voting for that at the ballot box every time. We need to hold up slavery at all costs.” Absolutely not. And I think that we get a sense for his wider views on that when we read the book of Philemon. What he is getting at is that in the church, in the church, you have men and women, you have slaves, and some masters. And they’re in the same church and they’re hearing the same gospel, and they’re trying to live it out faithfully. It’s also helpful to just step back for a moment and realize that slave in first-century Roman society does not equal antebellum slavery in America.
Guthrie: Didn’t necessarily begin by kidnapping someone or forcing them into slavery, it’s someone who perhaps…
Tabb: There’s a voluntary kind of slavery. It was temporary and so for… But even slaves, even bondservants, Paul wants them to adorn the gospel with their conduct. Wow, what would that look like? What would that look like for people that aren’t in authority, that aren’t the most influential to live in such a way as to make Jesus look beautiful?
Tabb: How countercultural is that in the first century and today?
Guthrie: Absolutely. I love it when we get to verse 11 in Chapter 2 because I feel like a beautiful radiant light comes on. It reads, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age waiting for our blessed hope the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” Once again, it’s a long sentence, “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Wow, it feels to me like all that we’ve read so far has been leading up to this and like we’ve been chugging up a mountain and this is the mountain top statement.
Tabb: There are two really significant gospel summaries in this book. You just read one, and the other one’s coming, a few verses later, in Chapter 3, verses 4 through 7.
Guthrie: And you’re talking about something that if we said, “Okay, I wanna understand what is the gospel.” And you look in the scripture and you’re saying, “This is one of those go-to passages,” that you say, “This defines what the gospel is.” Is that what you mean?
Tabb: It unpacks it in a significant beautiful, profound way. Like when in 1 Timothy, Paul says, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” Here he’s talking about the grace of God. He’s talked a lot about conduct and godliness and so forth. What’s underneath that? That word “For” there, again, is saying there’s a connection with what I just said. And the big idea here is that the grace of God has appeared. That’s a way of talking about Jesus’ coming that appearing language. He has appeared, he will appear. That’s often how New Testament writers talked about Jesus’ first coming, second coming. The grace of God has appeared. It’s like, grace has a face and it’s Jesus. He’s come and he has brought salvation for all people, even cretins. And the grace that saves also changes that’s the crucial point with verse 12, training them, training us.
Guthrie: I like that word training because it’s not solely instantaneous change. I mean, we know when the gospel comes to us, we go from being spiritually dead to spiritually alive. But yet when that word training, it says to me, “This is gonna be a lifelong process of change.”
Tabb: Yeah, that’s right. The Greek word there is where we get our word pedagogy. So this is gospel pedagogy. This is a gospel education. Grace is the master teacher now. And we usually don’t think about, grace that way. We usually have, hopefully, if there’s been some good sound doctrine being taught, we know that salvation is by grace through faith and that grace trains us. God didn’t just save us from sin. He saved us for Himself. He saved us for good, for good works. We have a job to do. We have a doctrine to adorn with our pattern of life. And we get that a little bit when it talks about us as a people for God’s own possession. That’s the way that God talks about Israel in Exodus 19, “My special possession out of all the peoples of the earth.” That’s how He’s talking about the church here. And what characterizes us? Zealous for good works. That’s what grace trains us for.
Guthrie: Let’s go on to Chapter 3. The headline in my Bible over Chapter 3 says, “Be ready for every good work.” And it seems to me he’s gonna show us in this section, what that good work is gonna look like.
Tabb: Yeah, I think that’s right, that heading is basically a paraphrase of the second to last verse of the book of Titus. “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need and not be unfruitful.” That’s actually the one command that he gives that’s not directed just to Titus. There are lots of commands in the singular, “Titus do this.”
Guthrie: What Titus is supposed to do.
Tabb: But this one’s, this last one’s a, “all of you, all of these people, let all of them learn this.” He’s ending on that note of good works. And he helps to give some more theological context for that at the beginning of Chapter 3, and then some specifics at the end.
Guthrie: You were talking about in the previous little section, the grace of God appeared. And then we’re longing for the appearing of Christ when he comes a second time. When we get to verse 4, in Chapter 3 that seems to come around again, because he says, “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 this 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.”
What a concise statement that is, in terms of the center of what the gospel is all about. What an opportunity for a teacher to be really clear about who Christ is and what he’s done and what difference it makes for us.
Tabb: Absolutely. And to appreciate the wonder and beauty of that gospel statement, we should remember that that first word “But” signals a contrast and draws us back to what Paul says that we once were in Chapter 3. He does something similar in the book of Ephesians, you know, one of the most famous passages about the grace of God and it starts out “But God,” you know what we were apart from Christ, now what we are in Christ. I think that’s what…that can be an opportunity for those studying and teaching Titus to even just take a step back and reflect and remember, what has God done in my life?
Guthrie: Let’s get to the end of the book, Brian when you’re teaching through this book, all of a sudden it says, “Final instructions and greetings.” And you’re teaching through it, and you think, “Well, this just seems like a little tacked on ending.” Maybe we’re tempted to think it’s not as theologically rich or that it doesn’t present us with as much teaching opportunity as maybe some of the rest of the book. I wonder if you see it that way or what opportunities does this last little section here that begins “When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you do your best to come to me.” He’s talking about very specific people and what he wants them to do. So what could we do with this as a teacher and how does it connect to the rest of the book?
Tabb: Yeah, it’s… There are always I think, some important nuggets in these seemingly mundane instructions. And one of those nuggets is to keep in mind that Paul was not a one-man band that he ministered with other people. He was not a, you know, solo operator. He’s the well-known one. But even the way he talks about Titus at the beginning, “My true child in a common faith,” and he’s not assuming that he has to be doing all these things. He’s telling Titus to go to Crete. Paul can’t go for one reason, or he doesn’t wanna go or he can’t be in every place at every time. And so he’s multiplying his ministry by raising up others. We see that with Titus and Timothy in these letters, but he also mentioned some lesser-known folks, Artemas, Tychicus, Zenas, Apollos. Tychicus and Apollos are a bit more well known, they show up in the book of Acts and few other places. This is the only time in the New Testament where Artemas and Zenas appear. There’s a word that looks like Artemas in the book of Acts, and it refers to the pagan god that the Ephesians worship.
So, Paul’s pal Artemas may have been named after the patron god of Ephesus, which is obviously a false god. A little bit strange. Maybe similarly, Titus shares the same name as the Roman general that would conquer Jerusalem a few years after Paul wrote this. So these are Greek names or names that are common in the culture. We see that Paul has friends, he’s ministering in the community, he’s interesting these people with significant ministry responsibility. Tychicus who is from Asia Minor or Turkey, maybe even from Ephesus, is mentioned several times as one of Paul’s dear brothers, dear coworkers. Similarly, Apollos is known for his powerful preaching ministry and so forth. The Corinthians were even tempted to say, “I follow Apollos, I follow Paul.” There’s a little bit of rivalry but we don’t see that kind of rivalry here. We see Paul sending people to minister in another place. And we’re also seeing that he’s instructing Titus to speed them on their way, to help them out, which probably includes hospitality, you know, giving them meals, “Seeing that they lack nothing,” he says, which is a job not just for Titus as an individual, but for the church.
This helps to I think expand our view, of what’s involved with ministry. And I mean, most of the people in a, you know, an adult Sunday school class or in a church on Sunday aren’t going to be Apostle Paul, like missionaries crossing cultures, going from place to place planting churches. They’re gonna be the just staying in this place, trying to devote themselves to good works and not be fruitful. And one of those good works here we see is sending these ministers of the gospel on their way seeing that they lack nothing, the sending well responsibility. That’s one of the examples of good works that Paul is highlighting here that all of God’s people should be devoting ourselves to.
Guthrie: Well, Brian, why don’t we end this way? Would you speak directly to the person who might be preparing to teach the book of Titus? And would you do a couple of things, would you maybe suggest a couple of good resources, to look at? And then also just give us a word of encouragement and challenge as we work on preparing.
Tabb: The word that I would want to say first by way of encouragement is to keep the grace of God front and center. It’s another one of those easy to overlook things, but that’s the way that Paul ends all of his letters. Grace be with you. And that’s not just a Christian cliche. He starts his letter saying, “grace and peace that is coming from God the Father and Christ Jesus, our Lord.” He has magnified the glory of that grace, which saves us and transforms us. And now he says, “Grace be with you.” That grace of God continues. It’s continuing to nourish our lives, to encourage us, to train us. God isn’t finished with us. His grace is with us. That’s maybe the word that I would want to say by way of encouragement.
Of course, there are loads of good resources on all the books of the New Testament. Two of my favorite commentaries on the book of Titus would be one by Robert Yarbrough that’s in the Pillar commentary series with Eerdmans. That’s gonna be a thicker, you know, more substantial exegetical work that you know, the kind of book that I would probably use as a textbook in a seminary class. Andreas Kostenberger has a couple of commentaries on “The Pastoral Epistles” which is often how the books of Titus and Timothy are described, these letters to individuals. One of them is “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary” and then there’s another one with Broadman and Holman.
Of course, a good study Bible is gonna get you on your way. This book is short, as I mentioned, just 3 brief chapters, 46 verses, take 6 or 7 minutes to read it out loud. And so there’s no substitute for reading it over and over again, underlining keywords to discern emphases, to get the rhythm or the melody of the book. This is such a countercultural book in Paul’s emphases on virtues like self-control, and being sober-minded, and submitting to authority. That just feels so foreign to what we might see on social media or hear talked about in the hallways of our workplaces and so forth. But that reminds us that the gospel is countercultural, that this is…that God has done something radical in sending His own son, that grace has appeared and that that grace makes all the difference.
Guthrie: Thank you so much, Dr. Tabb, for helping us teach this book of Titus. You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach The Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks, including the 12-week Knowing the Bible Study Guide on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus by our guest today, Brian Tabb. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.