Even a cursory read of Paul’s letter to Titus reveals that the circumstances and issues being addressed are very familiar to the brotherhood in these last days – travelling near and far to spread the Gospel of salvation; establishing administrative arrangements and procedures in new ecclesias; ensuring a proper doctrinal foundation for ecclesial growth and godly behaviour; making clear distinctions between the ecclesia and the world; handling controversies with antagonists of the Gospel; and more besides. To put the point in contemporary language, it’s as though the great apostle was writing an ACBM handbook, or an ecclesial guide or manual for the ecclesial elders, and indeed for all of us, to have within easy reach – inspired guidelines, not only for Titus the great preacher and ecclesial administrator, but for us too in these far off days. The timelessness of Scripture is revealed yet again. We are, or should be, the modern Tituses being guided on how we should handle our great tasks in the Master’s service.

Who, then, was Titus? Well, it’s perhaps puzzling to find that the name of one so respected by the Apostle Paul does not appear in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s possible that he was the person recorded as Justus in Acts 18:7, a name prefixed by Titus in some early manuscripts. But such surmising is not especially fruitful. Much more important to note that Titus appears many times in Paul’s correspondence, especially in his letters to the Corinthian and Galatian ecclesias, reflecting the important role played by Titus in that early preaching to the Gentiles.

Paul’s pastoral epistles (the two letters to Timothy and the one to Titus) were written rather late in his remarkable ministry, very likely following his release from imprisonment in around AD 63. The epistle to Titus was almost certainly penned before 2 Timothy, which is clearly a farewell message sent soon before his impending martyrdom. By that time, Paul had written his great expositions of the Christian faith (including his letters to the Romans and the Galatians). These letters were doubtless circulating widely in the ecclesial world as the definitive statements of what was to be believed, and how such beliefs needed to be translated into personal and collective behaviour. The pastoral letters were therefore rather like follow-up correspondence. They assumed doctrines earlier expounded as a ‘given’. The aim now was to re-emphasize that preaching of these doctrines ought to be undertaken with commitment and integrity, that viable and godly administrative arrangements should be established and maintained, and that personal and ecclesial behaviour must be consistent with the moral core of the Gospel.

Scripture reveals that Titus was a Gentile disciple (Gal 2:3). He was very likely a native of Antioch in Syria, the great centre of early Gentile Christianity. It was also likely that he met Paul there, and was taught the Truth by him, becoming his “true child in the common faith” (Titus 1:4). He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the journey to Jerusalem for the council meeting on the “Gentile controversy” (Gal 2:1). Being a Gentile, Titus “was not compelled to be circumcised” (Gal 2:3). Subsequently, Titus probably accompanied Paul on some of his missionary travels into the Gentile world, including to Galatia. He played an especially important role at the time of the crisis in the Corinthian ecclesia. Titus is reported in 2 Corinthians 7:6 as bringing reassuring news to Paul in Macedonia that the troubles within the Corinthian ecclesia were being resolved. Titus, clearly a fine ambassador and diplomat in the Lord’s service, with a concern and affection for the Corinthian ecclesia (2 Cor 8:16), was delighted to bring Paul such comforting news (2 Cor 7:13–16). Titus later returned to Corinth, commissioned by Paul to complete organization of the welfare collection system there (2 Cor 8:6). In appreciation, Paul describes Titus to the Corinthians as “my partner and fellow worker in your service” (v23). He especially commends Titus for not “taking advantage” of the Corinthians in any way (2 Cor 12:18).

Several years later, Paul, following his release from imprisonment, took Titus with him to Crete (Titus 1:5). He apparently left him there to assist with the growth and organization of the Cretan ecclesia. This ecclesia was finding itself in a very difficult and generally hostile social environment (1:10), in which Titus needed the greatest support. It appears that Titus received Paul’s letter in Crete soon after the great apostle had left the island. Subsequently, Paul encouraged Titus (3:12) to join him at Nicopolis, on the west coast of the Aegean Peninsula, when relieved in Crete by either Artemas or Tychicus. Later still, 2 Timothy 4:10 refers to a visit by Titus to Dalmatia (modern Croatia). Nonbiblical sources (Eusebius) assume his later return to Crete, describing him as a bishop or elder until his old age.

Paul, therefore, knew Titus well. Although he was not a constant and close companion, as were Timothy, Luke, and Silas, he clearly relied on him greatly, including for sensitive and difficult assignments. Paul appreciated fully his fellowship and assistance – especially in dealing with the turmoil in the Corinthian ecclesia, and now with the difficult social and ethical environment in Crete – and was anxious to encourage him to the fullest extent possible. Paul had no need to remind Titus of basic doctrinal truths which he and Timothy, the recipients of the pastoral epistles, knew well. The letter to Titus needed to be primarily about the task at hand – how to establish, organize, and motivate an ecclesia in godly ways, and ensure that the influence of the world intruded as little as possible.

The main topics of the letter correspond broadly with the chapter sub-divisions, with the scope and content similar in many respects to Paul’s first epistle to Timothy. In chapter 1, Paul sets out the qualities expected of ecclesial elders against a background of various false teachers and leadership deficiencies. The chapter begins with a paragraph (v1–3) conveying earnest greetings and salutations, and a reminder to Titus that his high calling brings major responsibilities. Paul makes clear that he must be listened to as a point of authority, “being a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ” – a servant, yet nonetheless an apostle. He is conveying, not private thoughts and preferences, but commands received from God our Saviour.

Titus 1

Paul proceeds in Chapter 1 to speak of Titus’ duties, especially in upholding high codes for bishops or elders (v5–9), contrasting starkly with the abysmal qualities of the Cretan false teachers (v10–16). Paul insists on the highest moral standards for the elders, requiring no less that they be “blameless”. Uprightness, holiness, and self-control must be among their critical Christian virtues. Paul especially singles out the “empty talk and deception” of the circumcision party, an issue about which Titus would have been fully informed given his attendance with Paul at the Jerusalem conference. Paul cites a harsh judgment of one of their own Cretan prophets: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (esv). Perhaps in so quoting such stark language, Paul was reminding Titus, with his proven diplomatic skills in Corinth, that the errors of false teachers needed to be very directly addressed. Yet this reproof of the Cretans still must be done in a godly spirit. Paul concludes the first chapter with a crucial point he often addresses elsewhere, indeed a cornerstone of Bible teaching. Mere profession of knowing God is not good enough. Such profession means nothing if not supported by good deeds and consistent godly behavior.

For the modern disciple, this first chapter brings many basic challenges. For example, when hearing confessions of faith for baptism, do we or the elders give a disproportionate attention to doctrine, and not enough to its application in daily life? This is not to say doctrine is unimportant; in fact it’s crucial. That said, do we spend adequate time explaining to baptismal applicants the essential need for doctrine to be reflected in right behaviour? Even a glance at some of our first principles booklets can make one uneasy at times that we might not have got this balance right. This first chapter is also a reminder that the contrast between the world and the ways of God cannot be redefined in a way that reduces the sharpness of the distinction. Our witness will have very limited impact if there is a significant disconnect between what we say and what we do. By their fruits you will know them. These are a few of the many challenging points emerging from this first chapter.

Titus 2

In the second chapter, Paul deals with issues of discipline and behaviour, with particular regard to specific social groups within the ecclesia. The older brothers should show soundness in faith and steadfastness of purpose in a loving and patient spirit; the older sisters should demonstrate reverence in behaviour, submission to their husbands, and good guidance of younger sisters; younger brothers must exercise self control, show full integrity, and use sound speech; and slaves are enjoined to be honest and faithful. The relevance of all this to our contemporary world is striking. This applies even for the latter category where, if not now slaves, we are “bond servants” to our employers, needing to discharge our duties with honesty and in a good spirit. The modern norms of self-assertion, insistence on rights, and seriously diminished understandings about what commitment to the Lord involves would doubtless shock Paul if he were with us now. His writings bearing on these and other issues thankfully remain with us, and are as applicable and challenging now as they were so long ago.

Titus 3

Chapter 3 expands on a range of ethical issues, both in terms of qualities to be developed – including meekness, gentleness, obedience, and courtesy – and those to be avoided – including hatred, disputations, and ill will. He discusses the believers’ duties and responsibilities towards superiors and fellow men (v1–3). He encourages an appreciation of the extent of God’s mercy towards us and of His regenerating spirit working on us. These underpin and motivate our whole service for Him (v4–8). He speaks of errors of false teachers that must be combated, yet stressing that entanglement in arguments and controversies can be unprofitable and futile, seriously sapping our energies and distracting us from our service for the Lord (v9–11). Once again, these various issues could hardly be of more relevance for our contemporary ecclesias. Beset by a world outside with deficient teachings and morals, and sadly also beset by internal problems needing attention in a godly spirit, all ecclesial members must hear again Paul’s matchless and inspired instruction on how to go about our task.

As Paul closes this short, but great epistle, he is surely saying to each of us personally across all these centuries: “All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all” (3:15 esv). We respond: “Paul, we are so grateful for your instruction. We greet you too, and do indeed love you in the faith. We will do our very best to put all this into practice, especially as we come ever closer to that great day of the world’s redemption.”