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Titus is a short book that packs a punch. A quick reading reveals three concentrated chapters filled with authoritative language and blunt commands. Paul wasn’t messing around when he wrote this letter to Titus, a Greek follower of Jesus who helped Paul navigate tight situations (see Galatians 2:1-3 and 2 Corinthians 7-8). The book has an apologetic and urgent tone, even by Pauline standards. So what was going on in Crete--specifically in the churches established by Paul--that demanded a letter like this?

To answer that we have to dive deep into the historical and cultural backdrop of Crete, a large island off the coast of Greece, which underlies Paul’s entire letter. But hang tight––this journey into the ancient world is going to pay off with pretty powerful implications for modern day life.

Battle of the Gods: the Cretan Zeus Versus the Christian God

Let’s start with the Greek mythology that shaped Cretan culture as it deviates from the well-known Olympian “seat of the transcendent gods” theology (featured in movies and Marvel/DC comics). Cretans believed Greek gods were mere men and women elevated to deities through benevolent service and gifts to mankind. It was a theology from below rather than above. They held that the majority of the gods were born on their island, including the chief “man-become-god,” Zeus, who was allegedly buried there. In their minds, Crete was the central place of the worship of the gods.

The mythology was so entrenched in Cretan culture that the churches in Paul’s day were integrating their understanding of the Christian God with the prevailing views about the Greek gods, mainly Zeus. This was bad news, especially in light of the kind of “man-become-god” Zeus was. It’s recorded that he loved to seduce women by any means necessary, even by assuming godlike characteristics to get what he wanted. Once, he assumed the form of a husband to get a woman into bed and then resorted to lying when seduction didn’t work. In a nutshell, Zeus was a liar and a womanizer, and the Cretans immortalized him for this. They took pride in his shady character and underhanded ways. (Now you’re starting to get a taste of what Paul was dealing with!)

Aware of the context, Paul set out to refute the idea that the Christian God was cast in the image of Zeus, or any lowercase “g” gods for that matter. He wanted to make it crystal clear that the God revealed in Jesus is totally different from Zeus, and he brilliantly conveyed that by contrasting the character of the three-in-one God to Zeus the liar. I’ll show you two examples of this.

First, right out of the gate, Paul goes after the idea that a true God could be a lying God. In Titus 1:1-4, he announces the hope of eternal life promised by a God who does not lie (literally he is an “unlying” God). Zeus may be a liar, but God cannot and will not lie because his essential nature is that of an “unlying” God. Unlike Zeus, this God can be trusted to carry out his redemptive promises for the good of his people. It’s a sure bet!

Second, Paul subverts the Cretan “man-become-god” theology by offering a profound “God-become-man” Christology (a fancy word for the study of Jesus). He intentionally collides with this cultural myth by insisting that Jesus appeared among humans from above not below. It’s a top-down Christology (much like the Gospel of John) insisting on Jesus’ deity. In Titus 1:3, 2:10, and 3:4, he speaks of God (that is, the Father) as “God our Savior” while simultaneously speaking of Jesus (that is, the incarnate Son of God) in Titus 1:4, 2:13, and 3:6 as “Christ Jesus our Savior” and the “great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” If you compare 1:3 with 1:4, 2:10 with 2:13, and 3:4 with 3:6, you’ll notice how closely Paul puts references to both Jesus and God as “Savior.” The point is, if God the Father and Jesus the Son are both the same God and Savior of the Cretans, then Jesus is God. And unlike Zeus, he doesn’t assume deity for his own gain. Rather, though he is God, he sets aside his divine privileges and condescends to humanity for our gain.

These examples alone amount to a convincing case—the Christian God revealed in the coming of Jesus is not like Zeus. Good news, right? Well, we still have a big problem in Crete.

As Goes the God, So Goes the People

God wasn’t cast in the image of Zeus, but the Cretans certainly were! The people were such a lying, self-indulgent, sexually promiscuous bunch that Crete became proverbial for immorality in the ancient world. To be a “kretizo,” a Cretan, was to be a liar. (So the next time someone’s lying to you, just tell them to stop “cretanizing”). On top of that, their men, known for violence, often served as mercenary soldiers to the highest bidder while their women epitomized something called “the new Roman woman.” These wealthy “emancipated” women enjoyed a greater deal of privileges than their Greek counterparts. As a woman, I (Whitney) would be thrilled for women to enjoy greater liberties in society were it not for the fact that they exploited their freedoms to shirk off marriage and household responsibilities in lieu of casual sex and worldly appetites. Doesn’t it all sound crazy similar to Zeus?

The problem is, being a follower of Jesus means progressively transforming into his image, not the image of the “deity of the day.” But Paul gets a report that Cretan Christians were looking more like Zeus than Jesus. To make matters worse, the young churches had come under the destructive teaching of some so-called Christian leaders--ethnically Jewish Cretans who said they followed Jesus, but they were demanding that non-Jewish Christians be circumcised and follow the Torah. These leaders were themselves also immersed in Cretan culture, thus endorsing the ethical values of Crete. Paul indicts these leaders by hijacking the saying of an ancient Cretan poet Epimenides, “Cretans are always liars, vicious beasts, and lazy gluttons” (see Titus 1:12). In verse 13 he says, “this testimony is true!” And it was their lying, bestial, gluttonous behavior that was trickling down into the DNA of Christian households and churches and making a total wreck of things.

The gospel was looking pretty unattractive by this point. It was giving the watching world the opportunity to insult the word of God, make evil accusations about the faith, and reject the good news about Jesus. Belief in Jesus was totally divorced from behavior both in private and in public life, so unbelievers were turned off to the gospel, and rightly so. Why would people reject Zeus in favor of Jesus if there was no compelling evidence of transformation in the lives of Jesus-followers?

So we get the urgent letter from Paul to Titus instructing him to straight-up clean house. He was to appoint shepherd-like men (elders) who would serve and protect the young churches. They were to teach believers about the good news of Jesus and model the kind of integrity and “gospel ethic” which ran contrary to the Cretan value system. Titus was also to rebuke and kick out those false leaders who were in it for personal gain, thus purging the churches of their evil.

Finally, Titus needed to straighten out the Christians who were giving the gospel a bad reputation. Paul says gospel belief should result in a new kind of household where older men and women are models of integrity and self-control for the younger. The women should reject the alluring pull of the “new Roman woman” in favor of godly faithfulness and sobriety. The men should turn aside from greed, injustice, and violence and be productive, helpful citizens in society. Even the slaves (as part of the household) should honor their masters and refuse to participate in slave rebellions to prevent any bad-mouthing of the gospel. They were to live in a way that made Jesus compelling to the watching world.

This, in turn, would result in a new kind of humanity proclaiming the goodness of the saving God and offer an alternative to the Cretan way of life. Paul uses a fascinating juxtaposition of Cretans versus Christians in Titus 1:12 and 2:12 to make his point: The Cretans are perpetual liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons, but Christians are to live in the world soberly (not as out of control gluttons), justly (not as violent beasts), and piously (not as unrighteous liars). Do you get it? Christians should live as the exact opposite of Cretans. They should be the ideal citizens—peaceable, just, generous, and obedient to authorities.

But how, you might ask, could they live this way and be agents of change in such a corrupt culture?! Ah, therein lies the beauty of the gospel.

Grace Trains Us To Participate Not Assimilate

The ethic that Paul is calling the Cretan Christians to would be impossible were it not for the appearance (or “epiphany”) of the grace and loving kindness of God in the person and work of Jesus. Two texts highlight this game-changing event in history—Titus 2:11-14 and 3:4-7. You’ll want to meditate on these during your reading for sure. They tell us that the only source powerful enough to change people like Cretans, or people like you and me, is the transforming love of the one true God. You see, God hatched a plan in eternity past to send his Son into the world to save sinners. And when Jesus came, he lived a perfect life and then died our death that all who trust in him might be declared righteous and put into right relationship with God, self, and fellow man. This was an ideal prevalent in Greek philosophy, but impossible to attain.

The implication of this good news is that through the saving work of Jesus and the empowerment of the Spirit, people really can change. The Cretans could change then, and you can change today. You don’t have to remain stuck in the image of the false gods of the day, nor conform to the culture around you. Paul says the gospel is powerful enough to transform someone into a new creation who then becomes an agent of change within culture, whether you live on the island of Crete or in urban Portland, Oregon.

You don’t need to retreat from culture or wage a culture war to do this. In fact, don’t do that, nor should you assimilate the worldly values of our day, which look a whole lot like the Cretan’s. Rather, the grace of God can train (literally, “educate”) you on how to live out Spirit-empowered faithfulness to the teachings and ethics of Jesus within the world. And as you live out this counter-cultural gospel in reliance on the Spirit, you’ll declare God’s goodness and grace to your family, neighbors, co-workers, friends, communities, and the whole world! You’ll be doing redemptive theology for the outsider, showing them the beauty of the message about our saving God. Isn’t that exciting?

And so that’s how this little book packs a powerful punch.