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7 July 2024


Transforming Grace

Heavenly Father, your word is so powerful. Please be at work in our hearts, minds and lives by that powerful word this morning. In the name of our risen Lord and Saviour Jesus, Amen.

Transforming Grace is what we’ve called this new series, as we learn together from the little gem of a letter that is the apostle Paul’s letter to Titus. I’m going to take us through the first half, and then Gareth’s going to take me off at half time, and bring on super-sub Matt for the second half. We’ll see how that goes. We’re looking at the opening section of the letter – Titus 1.1-4. In the Bibles you’ll see the letter is on just one-and-a-bit pages, from page 998 – so you can see the whole letter at a glance.

This is a leadership letter, from the apostle Paul to his ministry team-mate Titus. And it’s a privileged insight into what was going on at the heart of the key church-planting team in the early church. It’s a kind of snapshot of the action at a really extraordinary period when the gospel was spreading rapidly across the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire, despite often fierce hostility from outside the church, and serious problems from poisonous teaching that was being spread by some from inside the church. Paul is battling against both pressures. This is our story too, if we are believers in the Lord Jesus. There’s direct continuity from that time to us and all the joys and challenges that we face. We just come on the scene in a later chapter in the story. But what we’ve got here is a moving insight into the mind, heart and life of the apostle Paul.

Sometimes we do get an unexpected glimpse into the inner workings of a leadership team. I’m showing my age here, I know, but I remember when the White House tapes of President Nixon and his meetings with his inner circle around the time of the Watergate scandal became public. Even I was fairly young then, and it was a real shock and disillusioning to hear about the reality of what went on behind the scenes of that exalted leadership team, with all its self-serving, foul language and corruption. What a contrast is this insight into a Godly team, and what an example it is to us. That contrast between Godly and ungodly leadership is one that’s going to run through the letter, as we’ll see. But just in these introductory verses, I want us to pick up on three insights into the mind, heart and life of Paul. So:

1. The depth of the Apostle Paul’s partnerships in the gospel

These first four verses are really just the opening greeting, but Paul uses it as a kind of trailer of what’s to come, and we can immediately see, as it were, the main relationships in the drama that’s unfolding. There’s the relationship between Paul and God. He begins (Titus 1.1):

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ…

And we’ll come back to that. But if you were to sum up the whole greeting in three words it would have to be Paul…To Titus. So this is a very personal, one-on-one letter. It’s not to a church – just to Titus. We’re listening in. And Paul’s description of Titus here in Titus 1.4 movingly opens up to us in a phrase a whole world of deep friendship and partnership. Paul says:

To Titus, my true child in a common faith...

Calling him his child, his son in the faith, implies that Titus came to faith directly through Paul’s evangelism. And that in itself created a deep spiritual bond between them, despite the social and ethnic gulf between them, because Titus was a gentile and not a Jew like Paul. But that’s what the gospel does, isn’t it? It creates deep bonds between us, despite our differences. It binds us together in ways that could never conceivably happen apart from our shared faith. And despite the spiritual father-son nature of this relationship, let’s not miss the way that Paul puts himself on the same level as Titus – dependent on the grace of God, through faith in the same gospel. They have what he calls a common faith.

We can see more of how this relationship plays out if we widen our search to take in other letters from Paul. We won’t look at all the references now – though I recommend doing on your own, but let me mention one or two by way of example. It’s helpful to see something of the back-story behind this letter. There are multiple references to Titus in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians 2.13 Paul calls Titus my brother. So my child to his face, and my brother in talking about him to others. That brotherly love in Christ is clear in 2 Corinthians 7.5-6, where Paul describes how he was going through a particularly hard time. He says:

…we were afflicted at every turn – fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus…

So there’s the family love. And there’s also the bond of shared ministry projects and concerns. Later in 2 Corinthians, in 2 Corinthians 9.23, Paul says of Titus:

…he is my partner and fellow worker for your benefit.

Child, brother, partner, fellow worker. This is the deep bond of love, common faith, and shared ministry experience through hard times that lies behind Paul’s Letter to Titus.

I’ve been watching the Mini-series The Pacific – a kind of sister series to Band of Brothers, about the US Marines fighting from island to island in the later stages of the Second World War. It depicts the true story of John Basilone, who won the Medal of Honour for extraordinary heroism in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Basilone was sent back to the safety of the US to raise funds for the war, but insisted on returning to the Marines to train up new cohorts. When the new recruits were ready to go to war themselves, Basilone didn’t want to abandon them, such was the bond that had grown up between them. He went back to the Pacific with them. He was killed fighting alongside them during the landings on Iwo Jima. Probably not that long after he wrote to Titus, the apostle Paul himself was killed for his faith and his testimony to Jesus. Titus and Paul were in a spiritual war together, and the bonds ran deep.

We can get a taste of that ourselves when we work hard side by side in the cause of the gospel and in the life of the church. Speaking personally, I have long known that being part of the team here at JPC is one of the great blessings of my life. And it’s something we can all share in as we get stuck into serving Christ together, through thick and thin. The spiritual warfare is real, and so is our family love in Christ, and our partnership in the gospel. The next insight into the mind, heart and life of Paul I want us to see is this. So:

2. The confidence Paul has in his apostolic calling

We’ve already seen that Paul is quite clear that as far his salvation goes, he is saved by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus for his sins. He is saved on exactly the same basis as Titus, you and me: if we are trusting in Jesus, we all have a common faith. But when it came to ministry, Paul was different. He had a unique calling. He was crystal clear about three things. First, he was a servant of God. Secondly, he was an apostle of Christ. And thirdly, he was a preacher of God’s gospel. So:

i) He was a servant of God

Look at Titus 1.1:

Paul, a servant of God…

Though we are all called to be servants even that might have a hint of Paul’s unique calling. He usually speaks of himself as a servant of Christ. Only here does he call himself a servant of God – and it’s a phrase used of some of the key leaders in Biblical history, like Moses, King David, and the prophet Jeremiah. Then:

ii) He was an apostle of Christ

Paul knew that he had been chosen to have a cosmically significant calling as the apostle to the gentiles. There was no arrogance about that. He also knew he was the worst of sinners, as he said. He had persecuted the church and sent Christians to their death. But at the root of all his ministry was his face to face, traumatic encounter with the risen Christ, who utterly transformed him by grace, and gave him his calling to be an apostle. It was a calling that brought with it terrible suffering, and in the end execution but he never wavered from it.

It’s not the same, but we can get a glimpse of this kind of unwavering service, for instance, in the ministry of our mission partners Jock and Katy Hughes. They have spent their lives translating the Bible in remote Indonesian islands for a people who, when they went, didn’t even have their language in written form. It hasn’t been easy. At one point their home was burnt to the ground by insurgents. But they have kept going and now the New Testament is complete and being prepared for publication. The same Holy Spirit has driven them as drove the apostle Paul in his different and unique calling. We need to pray for that same faithful spirit in our own discipleship.

iii) He was a preacher of God’s gospel

The heart of Paul’s unique service as an apostle was that he was given God’s gospel, and he had to preach it where it had not been heard, to his last breath. So here in Titus 1.2-3 he speaks of the:

…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 Saviour…

Paul’s authority as a God-appointed apostle has been under severe attack from the start. It still is today. It’s one of the issues at the heart of the struggle for truth and faithfulness in the Church of England, our denomination, at the moment. But despite everything, Paul was always confident in his God-given apostolic calling. Then, one more insight into Paul’s mind, heart and life. So:

3. The clarity of Paul’s purpose to strengthen faith

Back to Titus 1.1:

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect…

His whole life is given over to bringing to faith the elect – those whom God has chosen to be his people, whose eyes are opened and hard hearts softened when they hear the good news of Jesus preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. This whole letter is driven by that same purpose. He wants to equip Titus, to equip leaders, to equip yet others, to strengthen the faith of the believers. Titus’s particular field of ministry at this point, as we’ll see more of next week, is the new young churches on the island of Crete. Paul and Titus have been evangelising and planting churches there. Titus was there when Paul wrote to him. And in these opening verses, he introduces four key themes that will run through the letter, which are part of his faith-strengthening strategy. We can sum them in one word each; truth, grace, godliness, and hope. As we’ll see in the coming weeks, each of these themes is set against and in contrast to the dangerous, destructive, godless alternatives.

i) Truth

The truth of the God-given gospel, in contrast to lies. So in Titus 1.1, he is an apostle:

…for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth…

And then in Titus 1.2 he speaks of God:

…who never lies…

ii) Grace

The grace of God that saves, in contrast to our own works. So he greets Titus in Titus 1.4 with this – which is not a mere ‘yours sincerely’ but is heavily loaded with significance:

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Saviour.

And later in the summer we’ll come to Titus 3.5-7 which spells it out:

[God our Saviour] 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 the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

iii) Godliness

The godliness and good works that flow from the gospel, in contrast to a destructive disconnect between belief and behaviour, faith and practice. Here this theme is represented just by that one little phrase at the end of Titus 1.1:

….their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.

God’s truth, and godliness, fit together. We can’t have one without the other. The attempt to have truth without godliness is a travesty, and ends up with a denial of the truth. Tragically, this is what we’re seeing in the House of Bishops of the Church England in relation to the apostolic teaching, and the teaching of Jesus, on sexual ethics. It’s exactly an attempted disconnect between doctrine and practice – between the truth of the apostolic teaching on the one hand, and a wholesale rejection of apostolic sexual ethics in practice on the other. So the bishops are saying that the God-given doctrine of marriage is not being changed, but at the same time they are wanting to see authorised behaviour and patterns of life that are in direct contradiction of that Biblical doctrine. General Synod (which is like the parliament of the Church of England) is meeting this weekend and through to Tuesday. Please pray for God’s will to be done, and for guidance for us a church as we work through what a faithful and uncompromising response should look like for us.

This vital need to hold together life and doctrine, belief and behaviour, is a theme Paul hammers away at all through this letter. Next week we’ll see how he applies it to godly and ungodly church leadership.

iv) Hope

The certainty of the eternal hope of glory promised in the gospel, in contrast to a dangerous worldly focus. Titus 1.1-2 again:

Paul, a servant of God and an 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 what is this hope? Titus 2.13 is explicit. Paul says there that we are to be:

…waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Our hope is personal; it’s Jesus. We’re to be looking forward to seeing him, in all his glory. He is coming soon. The sometimes heavy cost of being faithful to him is made worthwhile even now by his presence with us by his Spirit. We will immediately know that it was infinitely worthwhile on that day when we see him face to face. The Apostle Paul’s purpose is clear. It is to strengthen faith. Through this letter he is building up Titus so that he can play his part.

On one of the recent JPC walking group walks, we went through the hamlet of Warden in the Tyne Valley, and visited the grave of Richard Clayton, whose early death in 1856 triggered the founding of this church by the congregation he left behind. Their faith had been strengthened by his teaching and ministry. They had learned from the apostle. He had a clear purpose to strengthen the faith of others. They too had a clear purpose. They founded this church to be (in their words):

…a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound, scriptural and evangelical truth in a large and populous town.

They too wanted to strengthen faith, by the teaching of God’s gospel. We have inherited that legacy. The time is coming, again, when the strength of our faith will be tested, in order that it might be strengthened yet more. Let’s be praying that by God’s grace we will be worthy of our calling, and true to our Lord. Let’s pray:

Lord, by your Holy Spirit, through your living word, please strengthen our faith. Help us to learn from how Paul teaches Titus. Grow among us deep partnerships in the gospel and brotherly and sisterly love in Christ. Give us an unshakeable confidence in Paul’s apostolic authority, and teach us to give ourselves without wavering to the service of your kingdom, however you call us. And keep us clear in our own purpose as a church to be a centre for the teaching and living out of the gospel in this city and region where you’ve placed us. For the glory of Jesus, our crucified and risen Saviour, Amen.