CDPCKL · The Roof Over the Church (Titus 3:1-8)

The Roof Over the Church (Titus 3:1-8)

All right! Paul’s reconstruction of the Cretan churches is almost complete. 

He started with the foundations, of course. If the foundation is not carefully laid, the structure will have problems later on. And for Paul, the foundation of every church is the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus Christ, which was written down in detail by God’s apostles and prophets. 

The second step was setting up pillars on that foundation: wise elders, men who will be able to model and maintain a Christ-like culture within the Church. 

But the pillars — the elders — are just the framework that guide the walls, that give the walls shape, they are not the walls themselves. That is why Paul’s third step was instructions on how to build up the walls of the Church. 

First, he taught Titus how to sort through the living stones — the people of the community — to find the ones that are sound in the faith, solid all the way through. 

For instance: there are always going to be people in church who think Christianity is all about what we eat or drink or who we should be friends with. These people often look really smooth and shiny and “Christian” on the outside — but they are actually hollow on the inside. 

On the other hand, there are always going to be people who look quite rough and unreligious on the outside, who think Christianity is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit — these are the people who are actually solid in the faith. 

And Paul made it clear that Titus needs to use the rough but solid stones. If he tries to use the shiny but hollow people, the church might look good for a little while — and then collapse. 

But working with very rough stones means a lot of hard work shaping them so they can fit properly into the walls of Jesus’ Church. And that is why Paul spent the whole middle section of his letter focused on the details of how to shape the different kinds of people Titus has to work with there in Crete: older men, older women, younger women, young men, and slaves. 

And all the way through that section, Paul made it clear that all the different kinds of people are essentially equal and equally essential to the structure of a Christian community. 

At the same time, Paul also made it clear that different kinds of people are…different. Which means that each kind of stone is meant to play a distinct role in the structure of a Christian community, and they need to be discipled with those roles in mind. 

And as we went through that section on wall building, we found that the living stones of Crete are a very rough set of people! They need a lot of shaping. They are Christians, but they are young Christians: they have a lot of bad pagan habits to unlearn. 

But as we discovered last week, the fact that Paul believes these rough Cretan Christians can unlearn their bad habits is actually one of the most radical ideas Christianity has introduced to the world! 

The Roman empire had locked people into position based on ethnicity, age, sex, and social status. They had arranged things so it was very hard to become a legally recognized “person” unless you were born into certain categories. And even if someone did manage to become a “person”, they lived in contant fear of losing that status. Basically, freedom of choice was not a thing in the Roman world: even the freest “persons” at the very top of society were balanced there like elephants on a pyramid, their movements severely restricted. 

But Christianity restored human dignity to people by restoring their freedom to choose. When you accept Jesus as your Head, Paul has been saying, his Personhood is passed on to you, along with all his rights and privileges — including his ability to say “No” to ungodliness and “Yes” to godliness. Do not believe any lie that locks you into any kind of man-made categories. People can change! You can be shaped. As a living stone, you can be fitted securely into the walls of Jesus’ Church, in such a way that you will live a rich, fulfilling life in harmony with the Truth. 

So, by this point in Paul’s letter, Titus — and everyone else in the church — knows how to establish the foundations, the pillars, and the walls of a Christian community. What is the next phase of construction? 

Titus, who has been reading this letter out loud to his congregation on the first Sunday after it arrived, looks back down and continues reading: 

[1] Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good. 

Okay. This seems like a change of subject. And it is. But just like Paul’s instructions at the end of the wall-building section, these instructions assume that these Cretan Christians have the power to act. They are Persons, made in God’s image, restored by God’s grace, therefore they have the ability to practice voluntary submission to rulers and authorities, just like Jesus did during his lifetime on earth. 

And we can tell from these instructions that Paul thought these instructions were necessary. As we noticed earlier in this series, the Cretan-background Christians had been raised in a pagan culture that was notoriously deceptive, rebellious, and greedy. And the Jewish-background Christians had been raised in a religious culture with a long tradition of rebellion against Greek and Roman overlords. 

So: yeah, Paul says, remind the people that dodging taxes and murdering government officials was all good fun back when they were pagans or Jews — but they are Christians now! 

But, more than this, Paul goes on, remind the people [2] to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. 

So he is expanding his instructions from “how to interact with the government“ to ”how to interact with everyone”. 

He is saying, Look: before you became Christians, the way you got ahead in this world was through lies, quarrelsomeness, selfishness, and forcefulness. But you are Christians now! Which means you are now called to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. 

Now, these are a lot of bad habits to overcome, of course. And no doubt it will take a while to put off your old self; to be made new the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self. But now that I have reminded you what Jesus wants from us all, please commit yourselves to the process! 

But as Titus pauses now and looks up at the congregation, he sees a lot of skeptical faces. 

And it is clear what the people are thinking: this is the Roman government you are talking about here, Paul! The same one that continues to deny most of us true “personhood” status! But you want us to be obedient, ready to do whatever is good for this government? 

And these are our pagan Cretan neighbors you are talking about, Paul! Perhaps you have forgotten what it was like when you were here, but these people are rough! They are mean! Like one of our own prophets has said: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons!” But you want us to speak truthfully, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone? 

Why? Look: if we actually commit ourselves to being subject to these rulers and authorities, and being always gentle toward everyone of our neighbors, we will find ourselves at a terrible disadvantage! 

Paul, how can we succeed if we do not assert ourselves, protect ourselves? Do you want Christianity to fail? 

…Titus has no answers to these questions. So he decides to just keep reading: [3] At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. [4] But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, [5] he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. 

Oh. Good! Paul is answering these unspoken objections. And his answer comes in two parts: 

First, he is saying: remember that — before you Cretans were Christians — you were all liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons. And this is also true of me and all my Jewish friends that I grew up with. Our Jewish cultural sins are a bit different from your Cretan cultural sins, but before we Jews were Christians we were just as committed to passions and pleasures, malice and envy. So do not be so quick to despise your rulers or your neighbors. Remember: you used to be just like them! 

Second, Paul is saying: remember what saved you from your foolishness, disobedience, deception and slavery! Jesus did not show up and assert himself or protect himself, he made himself subject to rulers and authorities, peaceable and considerate and gentle, even when it killed him. And it was that astonishing kindness and love that first caught your attention, isn’t it? 

So: trust me, Paul is saying, Christianity is not going to fail because we were not assertive or protective enough. Really, the opposite is true: if Christianity were going to fail, it would be because we were not submissive enough, truthful enough, kind enough, gentle enough. 

But we do not need to worry about Christianity failing. Why not? Because God saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. In other words: we were all foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved — we did not deserve to be saved at all! — but God saved us anyway. Which means we can trust him to keep on saving our foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved rulers and neighbors. Listen: Jesus’ Church is going to keep on growing, even if Christians are not submissive enough, truthful enough, kind enough, gentle enough! 

But now the congregation has another objection: if Jesus’ Church is going to grow anyway, why should we take this huge risk of being submissive, truthful, kind and gentle? 

And Paul’s answer is really quite simple: because it is the right thing to do. God treated all of us like Persons made in his image, even when we were still acting like animals, non-persons. So now that we are truly restored Persons in Christ, we also have the freedom to treat our rulers and neighbors like Persons made in God’s image, even though they are still acting like non-persons. 

Basically, Paul is just repeating what Jesus said during his time on earth: you have been forgiven much, so forgive much! You have been loved much, so love much. You were treated like Persons before you were Persons, so treat other people like Persons even if they are not yet Persons. 

But as Titus looks around at the congregation, and as the congregation looks back at him, he can see that they are still not completely convinced. They have known, from the very beginning of this letter, that Paul was going to be challenging some of their most deeply held cultural values, and they have been braced for impact this whole time. And, on the whole, they have been able to accept Paul’s instructions for how to put their households back together: it is fairly obvious that self-indulgence is bad for families, that self-control is the solution. 

But this idea that Christians should treat rulers and outsiders like persons even if those rulers and outsiders refuse to treat Christians as persons…this is maybe a step too far! In Cretan culture in particular, liberty from intrusive government was their most precious cultural value, and liberty from intrusive neighbors was their second most precious cultural value. And now Paul is asking them to give up those values? 

In exchange for what? 

…again, Titus just goes back to reading: God our Savior saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, [6] whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, [7] so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. 

Ah. Okay. If the Cretans are wondering what they get in exchange for giving up their precious cultural values, Paul’s answer is this: you get everything in exhange! You used to be Cretans who had to spend all your time fighting for scraps of liberty and personhood. Now you are children of God who have been given all the liberty and Personhood you could ever hope for! 

So what is the confusion, here? If someone offered you 100,000,000 dollars for your left shoe, would you say, “Well…I don’t know. If I give up my left shoe then I’ll walk unevenly and that would be very uncomfortable!” Come on! Of course you would make the exchange. 

But, actually, Paul is saying even more than that: he is pointing out that the Cretans have already gotten everything, even before the exchange has taken place. Jesus Christ did not wait for them to make a deal with him. He knew they wanted to become Persons, that is the longing of every human heart. Through Paul’s preaching, Jesus offered them the chance to become Persons. They responded by asking to become Persons. So Jesus poured out the Person of the Holy Spirit upon them, and the Person of the Holy Spirit washed away their old Cretan spirit, their old Cretan ”personhood” — that was not even a true personhood in the first place — and has given them a new birth into a new Spirit of Personhood, transforming them with one stroke of the spiritual pen into God’s children, heirs having the hope of eternal life. 

[8] This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. 

Basically, God did not wait for the Cretans to agree to the deal. They wanted 100,000,000 dollars. They asked for 100,000,000 dollars. So he just gave them the 100,000,000 dollars. And now he is gently suggesting that they could conceivably give him both of their shoes and they would still be okay! 

Paul is saying: you know, friends, now that the Holy Spirit has been poured out generously upon us, now that we are the children of God, now that our names have been written into his eternal will, really we should devote ourselves to doing what is good as our Saviour has defined what is good. 

And what is our Saviour’s definition of what is good? Here it is: now that you are Persons, act like Persons. 

And what does it mean to act like Persons? This is what it means: treat everyone like Persons, whether they deserve it or not. Even if they hate and despise us as non-persons, even if they hate and despise themselves as non-persons, treat them like Persons. 


Last week, Paul finished the wall-building phase of church construction by setting fire to the foundations of the Roman world: he suggested that, since it is possible for even slaves to become Persons, it must also be possible for all kinds of people to become Persons. And this gave us all tremendous hope for ourselves, because it means that nobody is beyond God’s reach. 

Today, Paul revealed the further implications of that radical idea. He pointed out that, since — by God’s grace — every human being is a potential Person in Christ, it must be our Christian duty to treat every human being as a potential Person in Christ. 

Last week we discovered that God’s grace has offered Personhood to everyone. Today, we have discovered that the way we extend God’s offer is by treating everyone as potential Persons. Jesus used his freedom to love us while we were still stubbornly digging ourselves deeper and deeper into non-personhood. And so now, if we want to be like Jesus, we are going to use our freedom to love those who are stubbornly digging themselves deeper and deeper into non-personhood. Jesus loved us like this not because we were Persons, but because he is. And so we love others not because they are Persons, but because we are. 

And it is interesting, you know, to realize that here, in these few sentences, Paul has mentioned all three Persons of the Trinity: God our Savior in verse 4, the Holy Spirit in verse 5, and Jesus our Savior in verse 6. These three Persons of the Trinity, and the Gospel that flows from them, are the roof over the Church. And it is our calling — all of us working together — to hold up that roof. The Gospel foundation of the apostles and the prophets holds up the pillars and the walls. The pillars — which are the elders — reinforce and guide the formation of the walls. And the walls — which are made up of older men, older women, younger women, young men and slaves — stand alongside the pillars to help support the Gospel roof. 

In this way a church becomes the Church. 

Paul’s reconstruction program is now complete. All that is remains now is the final cleansing and dedication of the whole building to God. Which Paul will cover next week. 

But in the meantime: what is our application for this week? 

Well, just like the culture of ancient Crete, our modern, global, urban culture holds “liberty” as one of its highest values. Here in Asia our enthusiasm for ”individual human rights” is not quite at the level it is in some western cultures, but if we are being honest we have to admit that Asia is not very far behind. Certainly the generations present here today are far more individualistic than the generations that preceded us, and the trend is not likely to change. 

But it’s funny, you know: this radical Christian idea that every human being ought to be a legally recognized “person” was written into the United Nations’ ”Universal Declaration of Human Rights” way back in 1948, and from there the idea has spread into almost every government on earth — at least: every government on earth is aware of this idea. As a result, more people in more countries today enjoy more freedoms and more personal human rights than in any previous age. This radical idea that Paul and the other apostles planted in the Roman empire 2000 years ago has finally come to bear global fruit in just the last seventy years! 

And you would think that, in response, we would be the most grateful and submissive people to have ever lived. We should all be looking at each other, going, “Wow! Our government has very generously declared that we are all human beings! I can’t think of any reason why we should not be totally obedient and ready to do whatever is good for such amazing rulers and authorities. Can you?” 

But we don’t say this to each other, do we? Instead, we are quite possibly the most discontent people who have ever lived. And the more modern we are, the more urbanized and sophisticated we become, the more we complain! We are like kids going, “But dad! I wanted a red Lamborghini, not a white one!” 

And all this tells us that Paul’s instructions for the ancient Cretan Christians are just as difficult for us to accept as they were for them. The details have changed, but the people remain the same. Human beings today are just as foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved. Even after all this time, even after all this amazing grace from God, we still live in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 

In fact, it could be argued that we have used all this amazing freedom to enslave ourselves still further with all kinds of passions and pleasures. 

What is wrong with us? 

Well, we are human beings, made in the image of God. We were made to be Persons. Now, did Adam ruin that for us: he got us kicked out of the garden into the wilderness, he put us all on a path where we consistently choose to give away our eternal Personhood in exchange for temporary passions and pleasures. But still, we all carry with us that distant ancestral memory of the garden. And because of that memory, no matter how good things get in this wilderness of a world, we all have an intuitive sense that this is still not good enough. Even if every government in the world decided to sign the UN declaration tomorrow, so that everyone has exactly the same set of human rights all the time, this would not solve our human discontent. We would say, “Thank you very much!” and then demand more. Because we all know that all this freedom and power we enjoy today is still nothing more than a pale shadow of the reality. Being declared “persons” by an earthly government is truly wonderful! — ask anybody who has lived under a totalitarian government, and they will tell you just how good we have it. But that is nothing in comparison with being declared a Person by the heavenly government of Christ! 

It’s like this: the human race is a cell full of prisoners starving to death. When a person has gone without food for a week or more, the digestive system shuts down and they actually stop feeling hungry. So, for a long time, a starving person really feels quite content, even while their body is slowly dying. But now the smell of cooking food has been wafting through the bars of our prison, growing stronger and stronger with every generation, and our collective spiritual digestive system has woken up hungrier than ever. We can smell the feast, we can see it, we feel like we can almost reach it…and so we are more discontent than ever the closer it comes to us. 

So, in a way, we could say this: there is nothing wrong with us! Our increasing global discontent is actually a sign that our spiritual digestive systems are working properly. We know that the smell of the food is not as good as the food itself! 

Where we go wrong is in how we try to deal with our hunger: we start collecting the dirt on the floor, scratching mildew out of the corners, we stand by eagerly waiting for another prisoner to use the toilet…! We tell ourselves that this filth we are eating is the true source of the delicious smell…but deep inside we know we are lying to ourselves, and we begin to suspect that the prisoner beside us has discovered the true source of nourishment, we all start biting and devouring our neighbors. And so we all starve to death foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved, living in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another until the bitter end. 

That is what is wrong with us. 

So what is the solution? What should we do with this discontent, this hunger, this longing for the garden? 

We allow it to drive us to Jesus Christ, the source of eternal life and Personhood. 

So, listen, if you are here today and you have spent a lifetime trying to suppress your hunger, your longing for love and acceptance, your longing to be recognized as a Person; if you have spent a lifetime trying to fill your soul with things that you know cannot really satisfy, then do this: stop for a moment, and really take a look at yourself. Realize that you are like a beggar, starving in the corner of a prison cell, chewing on a pair of worn-out sandals. Realize that this hunger you feel, this craving for sandals, is actually pointing to a reality just outside the prison door where there is a feast waiting for you, and an inheritance that could buy you a new pair of shoes every day for the rest of eternity! And realize that your prison door is actually already unlocked. All you have to do is call out, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” and he will come in, and carry you out into the sunlight, and wash you with the Holy Spirit, and you will wake up to find yourself reborn, dressed and in your right mind, sitting down to eat with brothers and sisters you never knew you had. 

Do this now! 

But what about the rest of us, who have already been reborn, justified by his grace: what should we do? 

Our application is pretty clear, right? Be subject to rulers and authorities. Be obedient. Be ready to do whatever is good. Slander no one. Be peaceable and considerate. Be gentle toward everyone. 

And: yes. This is a big ask. Because it is true that such naive kindness and love will put us at a serious disadvantage in our dealings with a world that runs on deception, envy, and dehumanizing hatred. And we are afraid! I am afraid. And as long as we continue in fear, we will be reluctant to obey in these areas. So what are we supposed to do with this fear? 

This: when it comes upon us, we use it to drive us back again to Jesus Christ. We allow this fear to point us back again to the reality that, through the kindness and love of God our Savior we are not citizens of this world any longer. We live under a different set of rules, we live under the perfect law that gives freedom. There is nothing this world can take from us that will not be fully restored to us in this age and in the one to come. We are Persons, the children of God, the heirs of his kingdom! Which means we can afford to treat everyone else as human beings, even if they do not do the same for us. 

And we have an advantage that the Cretan Christians did not have: we have 2000 years of history to look back on. All this talk about the transforming power of Jesus was totally unproven back then. But today, if we are paying attention, we can look around and see how the kindness and love of God our Savior has already resulted in an amazing level of earthly freedom. And if God’s grace has had this amazing effect here, in the world of shadows, then we can be confident that the reality of Jesus’ kingdom is going to be infinitely greater. 

Generations of Christians have lived faithfully under conditions far worse than ours, and they were still living by faith when they died, looking forward to an age like ours. We are reaping the benefits of their stubborn faithfulness. So how terrible would it be for our generation to be the one that falters right here at the finish line of human history, right here on the threshold of the completed Church! 

But we are confident of this, that he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Christianity is not going to fail. 

So let us press on together to hold up this sheltering roof over the temple that is Jesus’ Church: let us submit to our government, and love our neighbors. Because as we do this, we are preaching the Gospel to the watching world. 

We want people to come to us and ask: why do you Christians work so hard to be subject to rulers and authorities? This is the Malaysian government you are talking about here, you know! The same government that rules Muslims with an iron fist, and treats non-Muslims like second-class citizens! Why are you still trying to be obedient and ready to do whatever is good for this country? 

We want them to ask this so that we can answer: because we are the citizens of a better country — a heavenly one. And we are determined to live by the rules of our better country! 

And we want people to come to us and ask: why do you Christians work so hard to speak truthfully, to be peaceable and considerate, and gentle toward everyone? How is it that you don’t care about race or religion or social status? How is it that you are willing to accept everyone into your church community? 

We want them to ask this so that we can answer: because we have been reborn as Persons of God! — and we believe that you can too. 

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