Background of Titus
Author, Date, and Recipient
The apostle Paul wrote this letter to his coworker Titus. The letter was probably written in the mid-60s AD between Paul’s first imprisonment (Acts 28) and his second imprisonment, which is not mentioned in Acts.
The letter’s theme is the unbreakable link between faith and practice, belief and behavior. This truth is the basis for Paul’s criticism of false teaching, his instruction in Christian living, and standards he sets for church leaders.
Paul had recently completed a journey to Crete. He had left Titus there to teach the new church (see Acts 14:21–23).
False teachers were already a problem in the church (Titus 1:10–16), and the letter focuses primarily on that issue. The description of elders (Titus 1:5–9) and of proper Christian living (Titus 2:1–10; 3:1–3) appear to be worded for intentional contrast with these false teachers. The content of the false teaching is not fully explained (as in 1 Timothy). There appears to be a significant Jewish element to the teaching. The opponents come from “the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10). They are interested in “Jewish myths” (Titus 1:14) and perhaps ritual purity (Titus 1:15). Paul’s primary concern, however, is with the practical effect of the false teaching. They taught ritual purity, but they lived in a way that proved they did not know God (Titus 1:16).
This false teaching would have been welcome in Crete, which was known in the ancient world for immorality. But Paul expected the gospel to produce real godliness in everyday life, even in Crete.
In dealing with the false teaching, Paul also provides Titus with a portrait of a healthy church. He describes proper leadership (Titus 1:5–9), proper handling of error (Titus 1:10–16; 3:9–11), proper Christian living (especially important for new believers in an immoral setting; Titus 2:1–10; 3:1–2), and the gospel as the source of godliness (Titus 2:11–14; 3:3–7).
1. The gospel produces godliness in the lives of believers. There is no legitimate separation between belief and behavior (Titus 1:1; 2:1, 11–14; 3:4–7).
2. One’s deeds will either prove or disprove one’s claim to know God (Titus 1:16).
3. It is vitally important to have godly men serving as elders/pastors (Titus 1:5–9).
4. True Christian living will draw others to the gospel (Titus 2:5, 8, 10).
5. Good works have an important place in the lives of believers (Titus 2:1–10, 14; 3:1–2, 8, 14).
6. It is important to deal clearly and firmly with doctrinal and moral error in the church (Titus 1:10–16; 3:9–11).
7. The gospel is the basis for Christian ethics (Titus 2:11–14; 3:3–7).
I. Opening (1:1–4)
II. The Occasion: The Need for Proper Leadership (1:5–9)
III. The Problem: False Teachers (1:10–16)
IV. Christian Living in Contrast to the False Teachers (2:1–3:8)
V. The Problem Restated: False Teachers (3:9–11)
VI. Closing Encouragement (3:12–15)
The Setting of Titus
The Global Message of Titus
The message of Titus is that sound teaching leads to godliness. As authentic apostolic doctrine is received and loved, all kinds of people will learn to live in ways that are pleasing to God—from those currently enmeshed in false teaching to those who are elders and overseers of the church.
Titus and Redemptive History
In Titus as in 1 and 2 Timothy, Paul speaks of Christian salvation as “appearing” (Titus 2:11, 13; 3:4; 1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 1:10; 4:1, 8). This is one way Paul speaks of the coming of Jesus into this world as the Savior of God’s people.
Yet Paul speaks of Christ’s coming not as some kind of isolated event but as the climactic moment of all of human history. In the opening verses of Titus, Paul says that God promised eternal life “before the ages began” (Titus 1:2; literally, “before times eternal”). Then he speaks of the grace of God appearing and “bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). Here we see a reference to Christ’s first coming. We also see once more that the gospel is a message “for all people.”
Paul then goes on to say that, while Christ’s first coming trains us to live in godliness in the present, we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Here Paul speaks of Christ’s “appearing” as still being in one sense a future event, that is, a second coming.
In Titus, then, Paul addresses a specific historical context against the broad background of a history of redemption that stretches from eternity past all the way forward to Christ’s second coming. Of particular importance to the apostle is that the salvation that has appeared in Christ is for all people.
Universal Themes in Titus
Doctrine Fuels Godliness
Right at the start of his letter, in the greeting, Paul underscores that doctrinal truth leads to godly living. He says he is an apostle for the sake of believers’ “knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1). Throughout the letter Paul comes back to this theme. It is especially striking when Paul exhorts Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), for Paul does not then launch into a series of teachings about theology; rather, he speaks of godly behavior: “Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love . . .” (Titus 2:2). The church today is reminded that orthodox doctrine is crucial, yet orthodoxy is not an end in itself but is for the sake of making us more godly.
Qualifications for Church Leadership
In the first chapter of his letter to Titus, Paul carefully lays out the qualifications for church leadership. He lists the virtues that must be present in those who are elders (or overseers) of the church. As Christians from all around the world hear these instructions today, we should note that none of the virtues Paul lists are culturally conditioned and none relate only to specific ethnic groups: these character traits are marks of godliness to be cultivated in the lives of all God’s people. And, says Paul, they should be most clearly on display among church leaders.
Grace and Obedience
The letter to Titus contains two of the Bible’s most magnificent statements concerning the salvation God has accomplished through Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11–14; 3:4–7). Indeed, Titus 3:4–7 may be the most effective summary of salvation in the entire New Testament. At the same time, while affirming that believers are saved “not because of works done by us” (3:5), few New Testament letters contain such frequent exhortations to good works (2:7, 14; 3:8, 14; see also 1:16). The fact that we have been saved by grace alone through faith alone does not cancel out the need to work hard at showing God’s love in our lives. Rather, it is the grace of the gospel that makes possible, and motivates, such lives of sincere love.
Titus 3:4–7 may be the most effective summary of salvation in the entire New Testament.
The Global Message of Titus for Today
The letter to Titus gives the church a rich theology of the gospel of grace for all people, connecting this gospel with the good works that must shine forth in the lives of Christians.
While it is utterly apart from moral goodness that we are saved—we are sinful, and Jesus Christ alone has fully redeemed us from the curse of sin and death—this salvation is not meant to be a blessing that terminates with us. Salvation is meant to result in beautiful, sacrificial living. Paul closes his letter by remarking, “And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need” (Titus 3:14).
As the church seeks to be true disciples of Christ in the various corners of the world in which God has placed us, we will find many opportunities to help those in “urgent need.” The unborn and others not able to defend themselves must be defended by Christians, who understand that all humans are made in God’s image and that human life therefore has intrinsic worth and dignity. The scarcity in some parts of the world of such basic needs as clean water prompts those who have been saved by God’s matchless compassion to extend compassion to others, by laboring to supply these needs. As Christians come into contact with others who are mired in sin, our response cannot be one of judgment and condemnation, for we too are sinners who have been saved by grace rather than being judged and condemned.
In these ways and a thousand more, we are freed to serve those around us with the mercy we ourselves have been shown. Paul’s letter to Titus summons us to a life of self-giving love as we walk with Jesus, “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” (Titus 2:14).