What does it mean to be a human being?
Or, another way of asking that question is this: when does a human being cease to be a human being?
Now, these questions sound very philosophical. Most of us do not go through our daily lives wondering, “Am I truly human, or not?” But the truth is, the way we answer these questions actually affects our daily lives in powerful and very practical ways, depending on how our societies define what “being human” means.
For instance, in the ancient Roman world, not everyone who walked around in a human body was considered fully human. The Romans had a special term for people who were fully human: they called them “persona” — persons. A “person” was a legal category: a human body that was entitled to every legal human right available. And for a very long time, the only true “persons” in Roman society were men. But not even all men; only those who were citizens who owned property. In other words: persons were Roman men who were heads of households. And the older they got, the more their options expanded and the more powerful they became.
This is how the system worked: a “person” in the Roman world had the most freedom of choice; he stood at the top of society’s pyramid. He was known as the Head of the Household.
Next in rank were those related to a “person” by rights of inheritance: sons, wives, daughters. If you were related to a “person” in that way, then legally you had a “Head”. Now, on one hand your choices were restricted by that Head — you were never as free as your Head — but on the other hand your Head’s personal rights and protections were legally extended to you. So sons, wives, and daughters were a bit like “persons by proxy”: they were persons only because they were legally connected to a person.
Which meant that if they lost their “Head” — if he became legally and socially disgraced in some way, or if he divorced or disowned them — then they lost their personhood, they lost all their legal rights and protections, and fell down into the lowest ranks of society: among the Headless, the faceless, those without family. They became non-persons with no legal power of choice at all.
So if we asked an ancient Roman, “What does it mean to be a human being?” he would answer, “To be human means to possess the right to make choices.” And if we asked, “When does a human being cease to be a human being?” he would say, “When he screws up, and loses his right to make choices.”
Now…here’s the thing: the Romans were actually right to connect “personhood” with “freedom of choice”.
In the beginning, when God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and then put him in the garden, the very first words God spoke to the man were, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
According to our scriptures, God created human beings with the power to choose, and he gave them a real choice to make. Without both of those elements, freedom of choice is an illusion. If we have the power of choice, but no options, then we do not have freedom of choice. If we have unlimited options, but no power, then, again, we do not have freedom of choice. So God gave us both the power to choose and a choice to make in order that we might be persons, made in God’s image.
So the Romans were right to connect freedom of choice with the definition of true personhood.
Where they went wrong was in restricting the power to choose to certain kinds of people, and then also redefining the available options.
See, the options God gave the man in the garden were whether to submit to God’s Law, or not. If the man chose to submit, he would continue to enjoy maximal power of choice, including the ability to choose life again and again forever. If the man chose to rebel, his power and his options would become increasingly constricted until there was no life left — he became a non-person.
By contrast, the options the Romans gave mankind were whether to submit to Rome’s law, or not. If people chose to submit, their power and options would expand; if they chose to rebel, their power and options would become increasingly constricted.
Those sound like very similar systems, and they do share the same basic structure. But one of those systems was an inverted counterfeit of the other.
In God’s system, every human being begins as a person. And even when a person chooses the path leading to slavery, death, non-personhood, God made it clear from the beginning that he would provide mankind with a way of escape from slavery, a way to regain our lost personhood.
By contrast, in the Roman system, only certain human beings could become “persons” in the first place, based on their ethnicity, their age, their sex, their social status. And they made sure it was very easy for ”persons” to become non-persons if they did not perform correctly. And they made sure it was very very difficult — impossible, in some cases — to ever regain personhood once it was lost.
We could say it like this: God created mankind with the right of voluntary submission. That is, quite literally, the definition of freedom! Voluntary submission is the definition of personhood.
But we gave up that right of voluntary submission. We exchanged it for the law of mandatory submission. Which is, quite literally, the definition of slavery. Mandatory submission is the definition of non-personhood.
Well, ancient Rome had perfected the system of mandatory submission. In Rome, everyone was a slave to the system. Even those “persons” who enjoyed the greatest freedom of choice at the very top of society were slaves to the fear that, at any moment — at the whim of the gods! — they could become non-persons, slaves at the very bottom of society.
Now, the reason we have done this deep dive into how ancient Rome answered the question, “What is a human being?” is so we can understand better what Titus was facing as a church planter there on the island of Crete. Cretan culture — Roman culture — had been deliberately broken up into very strict classes: persons, persons-by-proxy, non-persons, defined by ethnicity, age, sex, and social status.
And so, when the new Cretan-background Christians first joined Jesus’ Church, they would have assumed that Christian society is the same as Roman society: that some people are more equal than others, that some people are more precious to God than others.
So, from the very beginning, Paul — and now Titus — have been working to break those cultural definitions of what it means to be a “person”, fully human.
Unfortunately, as we found out right at the beginning of this series, Titus’ job got much harder when some Jewish-background teachers from the Church in Jerusalem arrived. These teachers claimed to be Christians. But instead of helping Titus tear down the social barriers between people in church, they began breaking up the congregations again by ethnicity, age, sex, and social status! — teaching that Jewish people are more equal than non-Jewish people, men are more equal than women, and slaves really have no chance at all to follow God’s Law, since they have to eat what their masters eat, worship the way their masters worship, and will never be allowed to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the required feasts.
And this false teaching has proven terribly infectious, because it is simply reinforcing what Roman culture has already trained everyone to believe in the first place. Many Jewish-background Christians in the congregations have begun treating Cretans and women and slaves as second-class citizens, just like they were trained to do when they lived under Jewish law. And many Cretan-background Christians are figuring, “Oh. Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. I wasn’t a person when we lived under Roman law, why should I assume I could become a person under Christian law?”
And so, as Paul pointed out earlier in his letter, these false teachings have been disrupting whole households: whole families and whole churches are being torn apart. Families that had been broken, first, by divisive Roman culture — but healed by Jesus Christ — were now being broken a second time by this divisive false teaching.
That is why, over the last several weeks, Paul has been focused on teaching Titus how to put these broken families back together. He has been taking the time to demonstrate how everyone in the Christian community has an essential role to play in the Christian community, no matter what their ethnicity, age, sex, or status. So far he has outlined a discipleship track for everyone in the church — older men, older women, younger women, young men — and now there is only one category left:
 Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them,  and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.
And for Paul to write to slaves like this — as if they are persons who have freedom of choice — is actually very unusual.
Remember, slaves were at the very bottom of Roman society, which meant that, in the Roman mind, they had no personhood, they had no freedom of choice at all.
Really, they were like biological robots. And, as we have discovered in our own time, there are only two kinds of robots: the kind that do what we want, and the kind that malfunction. Good robots, and bad robots. Iphones, and every other kind of phone.
Now, we do spend time training our robots — programming our computers — to do what we want, but we do not treat them as if they have any moral or ethical choice in the matter: they work properly, or we reinstall the operating system. If they still refuse to work properly, we throw them away! or we sell them to some sucker on mudah.com.
Well, the Romans treated their biological computers in the exact same way. In essence, Roman slaves lived under the very starkest version of the law of mandatory submission, just like our computers do today. Roman slaves malfunctioned all the time: they rebelled, they talked back, they stole from their masters, all very human manfunctions. But because the Romans thought of their slaves as machines, their solutions were machine-based solutions: slaves could be reprogrammed, discarded, destroyed, or sold. But no ordinary Roman spent time reasoning with their slaves or pleading with them, any more than we spend time reasoning with our phones when they misbehave.
But because Paul is convinced by God’s Word that slaves are human beings, persons made in God’s image, his solution to these malfunctions is not a machine-based solution. Instead, he treats these “malfunctions” as products of human choice. The Romans are saying, “Some robots are good, some are bad. Keep the good ones, fix the bad ones or get rid of them.” But Paul is saying, “No! Slaves, listen: you actually have the power to choose whether you will be a good robot or a bad one.”
And here is the subtle, world-changing twist Paul has just introduced to the entire Roman system: by assuming that these “robots” have the capacity to choose, Paul is actually declaring that they are not robots. They may have a very limited set of options to choose from — obey, or disobey — but they do have options, and they do have the power to choose. Which means that they are, in fact, persons according to God’s original definition of personhood.
This is such a small change, but so profound! Because, by speaking to these slaves as persons, Paul has just redeemed these slaves from the law of mandatory submission, and restored to them their God-given human right of voluntary submission. With these words, Paul has just lifted them up out of the Roman empire, carried them all the way back to the garden and set them down there again, back in the place where mankind first enjoyed that same simplicity of choice: obey, or disobey. But now it is no longer Roman law that defines them, now they are defined by God’s law.
In other words, these Roman slaves have just been removed from the cruel, unjust, unforgiving Roman system, and restored to the system of the God who is the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
And, by the way, you should know that when Paul wrote these words, he actually set fire to the foundations of the entire Roman world. Because, look: if even slaves at the very bottom of society can become fully realized persons, then obviously everyone else in society must also have the option to become a fully realized person, no matter what their ethnicity, age, sex, or status. And history shows us that this small spark of a Christian idea eventually caught fire and grew up into a righteous inferno that consumed the empire from the inside out: less than five hundred years later slavery had been abolished in the western Roman empire, and it remained illegal until the rise of secular European super-corporations only five hundred years ago.
So this small but profound change did not just redeem slaves, it actually opened the door to the redemption of every kind of people.
And Paul knew this. He knew he was setting fire to the Roman world. He did it on purpose. And we know this because that is what he says next:
 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.
This statement stands in direct opposition to the Roman system, and in direct opposition to the system the false teachers are trying to set up.
And that sounds wonderful, of course. But it also sounds a bit philosophical. So let’s get practical: what does this grace of God look like? What does this salvation look like? People want to know how God’s grace really changes their lives, right here, right now, as non-persons living under the brutal Roman empire.
Well, Paul says,  it teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.
In other words, God’s grace saves people by restoring their freedom to choose. God has offered everyone the potential power to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to say “Yes” to self-control, uprightness, and godliness.
And, if you have been with us over the last three weeks, then you must have noticed already that these qualities of self-control, uprightness and godliness are the same basic Christian qualities Paul has been calling everyone to develop: older men, older women, younger women, young men, and now slaves. Which means that — once again — Paul is showing us that he is all about equality. Slaves are just as essentially equal and equally essential as everyone else in the Church; slaves also have a real role to play.
But what is that role? How can they serve their congregations when they have no freedom to do anything except serve their pagan masters?
Well, Paul already told us: by choosing to try to please their masters, choosing not to talk back to them, choosing not to steal from them, but choosing to show that they can be fully trusted…in every way slaves will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.
Three weeks ago, through Paul’s instructions for older men, we learned that healthy Christian households are the key to healthy Christian churches.
Two weeks ago, through Paul’s instructions for women, we learned that healthy Christian households are also the key to healthy Christian evangelism.
Last week, through Paul’s instructions for young men, we learned that healthy Christian households are also the key to refuting false teachers.
Now, through Paul’s instructions for slaves, we have learned that healthy Christian households are the key to demonstrating Christian freedom before the watching world — and Christian slaves especially are the key to this work.
So this is the practical, daily difference God’s grace has made in the lives of slaves and all people living under the brutal Roman empire: he has declared them persons with an essential role in the larger mission of Jesus’ Church. Now they belong. Now their lives have meaning.
It is ironic, isn’t it, that God has ordained those who are non-persons in the eyes of the world to be the ones who point back most clearly to the voluntary submission of the garden?
But really this makes sense. Because how can Christians who live at the top of society, who already enjoy immense freedom of choice as the world measures it, ever demonstrate clearly that Christ’s freedom is more important to them than Rome’s freedom? The only way they could prove this would be by clinging to Christ even when their earthly freedoms are threatened, by continuing to practice voluntary submission even when the world imposes mandatory submission upon them because of their faithfulness to Christ.
God’s understanding of human value is completely inverted from our modern Christian understanding. We think that the best way to make the teaching about God our Savior attractive is by making sure Christians have maximal freedom of choice in society — and so we spend a lot of time these days fighting for freedom, fighting for our human rights.
But again and again in God’s Word we are told that the opposite is true: true Gospel freedom is actually most clearly demonstrated in the lives of faithful Christians who have been stripped of their personhood. Which suggests that, if we are truly committed to making the teaching about God our Savior attractive, we ought to be delighted when we are despised and degraded by the societies around us!
But, as Paul goes on to say here, as we deliberately and publically practice our Christian freedom to say “No” to ungodliness and “Yes” to godliness, we are not just pointing backward to the freedom of the original garden, we are also pointing forward to the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
The end is guaranteed. Jesus died to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own. He died to earn the right to become the Head of his Household, the Head over his people. Those who do truly belong to him will become ever more eager to do what is good as they grow in faith and maturity; they will exercise their right of voluntary submission ever more fully; they will learn to act like the persons Jesus has made them to be.
And when Jesus returns to clear away the smoking ruins of Rome and every other human empire so he can start again with a new creation, he will find his people here waiting for him, a people who have stubbornly and quietly lived as Christian persons in the face of all resistance.
 These, then, Paul tells Titus, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.
And as Titus — who has been reading this letter out loud to the church — pauses at this point and looks up, he sees hope restored to the faces of congregation.
From top to bottom, from beginning to end, these people have been taught to live in constant slavery to fear, knowing that at any moment, after any failure to feed the system properly, the system might turn against them, reprogram them, discard them, “cancel” them, or kill them.
But when Paul and Titus first preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to these people, their fears were lifted. They joined the Jewish-background churches that were already in progress. They began to learn, with regard to their former way of life, how to put off their old, pagan, cultural habits, and put on new, Christian qualities, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
But then the false teachers from the Circumcision Group came along and told them that Paul and Titus are wrong: if you want to become a Christian ”person”, you have to become a Jew. And — so sorry! — the only way to become a Jew is by being circumcised. And only men can be circumcised. So the only true “persons” in the Christian churches are the men. If you are a woman, you can be a person-by-proxy by marrying a Jewish man, or by being born to a Jewish family. And if you are a slave…well, it is going to be very, very hard for you to ever really become a person. If you want to be a Christian, you had better get to work!
And so the hope of Christian personhood was stolen from these new believers, lost in a flurry of complicated new religious rules. And all their old fears came flooding back, along with all their old, pagan, cultural sins, motivated by the desperation to get ahead, to somehow earn the personhood they have all been longing for.
But now, as Titus reads Paul’s letter to them on this first Sunday after it arrived, now the hope of Christian personhood is being restored to them. From top to bottom, from beginning to end, they have all been reminded that they are a people that are Jesus’ very own. They are persons! All of them! Old and young, male and female, citizen and slave: they are all vital living stones, each one essential to the structure of the Christian family and the Christian community that is the Church.
Through Paul’s words here, they have been reminded that they have a Head of household that cannot be lost, a Head who will never again be disgraced, a Head who will never divorce or disown them. This Head is one of the three original Persons of God, he has always been a Person and he will always be: the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ. He is the very essence of perfected human Personhood, he is the perfected essence of voluntary submission to God’s law, and through his perfection these Cretan-background Christians have all become persons-by-proxy, destined for an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, that will one day make them fully realized persons for all eternity.
What more could they want?
And what more could we want? See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
So now, as we do every week, we have to ask: what can we do in grateful response to all this?
Well, as Paul has been telling us all the way through this section of his letter: our Saviour is calling us to self-control in every area of our lives. He has restored to us the power to start saying “No” to ungodliness, “Yes” to godliness, and he want us to use it.
But this is where many of us get a little catch in our gut. We love the Good News that we can be children of God, fully realized persons, human beings. But then, when we are told that our freedom from submission to man-made laws is supposed to result in a kind of voluntary submission to God’s law, many of us are inclined to say, “Yeah, but isn’t that legalism? Isn’t that just slavery by another name?”
And the reason we raise this objection is because we are simply repeating what our modern, global, urban culture has trained us all to believe. Our minds and our communities have not yet been fully purified from the lies we have been taught by the world outside. Just like ancient Roman society, modern society wants us to believe that true personhood comes through maximal freedom of choice — and that self-indulgence is the purest expression of that freedom. At the same time, our modern world — just like ancient Rome — is also engaged in aggressively locking people into particular expressions of self-indulgence, all centered around questions of ethnicity, age, sex, status. But of course all this is not advertised as self-indulgence, now it is disguised as ”identity”, all carefully wrapped up in conversations about human rights. And everyone is doing this, by the way: left, right, conservative, progressive, religious, atheist…just as in ancient Rome, we are all very busy trying to redefine true personhood to suit ourselves.
In short, our age is perfecting the art of making mandatory submission look like freedom. But this is a lie. Freedom lies in voluntary submission to the one who redeemed us from mandatory submission.
So when Jesus adopts us, making himself our Head and we his heirs — his persons-by-proxy — and when we ask Jesus what we can do for him in response, and when Jesus answers by asking us to turn from self-indulgence and self-definition to self-control…he is not calling us back into the slavery of mandatory submission, he is calling us to activate the freedom we already enjoy. He is simply calling us to act like the persons he has already made us to be, and there is surely no greater freedom than that!
So, let’s get practical now:
If you are here today, and you are not a Christian, and if you are frustrated by the way your society has defined you and enslaved you, if you are frustrated by the way your society has set you free to enslave yourself to your own desires, your own self-definition, then this is how you should respond today: ask Jesus Christ to be your Head. Ask him to become the source of your personhood. Because — listen! — Jesus is the only source of true personhood and freedom in this present age.
This is how that happened: Adam was the first man to enjoy full personhood, and he was the last for a long time. Because he gave his freedom away! He exchanged his right of voluntary submission for the law of mandatory submission. He did this because he thought he was going to be the one doing the mandating. He found out too late that the law of mandatory submission would apply to him first of all. And ever since then, we his children have been born into slavery under the law.
But when God sent his Son, Jesus, to be born of a woman, born under the law just like us, and when Jesus practiced perfect voluntary submission all the way to death, he became the second man in all of history to enjoy full personhood. And he earned the right to purify for himself a people that are his very own. He earned the right to pass on his personhood to anyone who asks.
So ask! And receive the personhood you have been looking for all your life.
Now, if you are here today, and you have already accepted Jesus as your Head, then this is our application: let us continue to submit to the reprogramming work of God’s Word and Spirit. Let us commit and recommit ourselves week by week and day by day to learning together how to be truly free persons, how to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and “Yes” to self-controlled, upright and godly lives. We have been lifted out of slavery to this world. We have been carried backward to the garden, and forward to the great garden city on the mountain that is already growing to fill the whole earth.
So let’s live like it! Let us live like the free and purified people Jesus made us to be, while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, when we will be finally, fully human in every possible way.