with Tony W. Cartledge

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Titus 3:3-8a

He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” – Titus 3:5

Why Christmas Matters

When Sunday falls on Christmas Day, it creates a conundrum for church leaders. On the one hand, we’d like to go full force with every service, thinking “What better day than Sunday to celebrate Christmas?” On the other hand, we are aware that Christmas in America has strong cultural as well as religious dimensions. Church leaders know that many parishioners will be traveling or hosting family celebrations at home, and church attendance is likely to be skimpy at best.

Would it be more charitable to take the pressure off of families and have an abbreviated service, or focus on a Christmas Eve service and cancel Sunday worship altogether? It can be a tough and sometimes unpopular call, but most churches will take the approach that if there are people who want to worship on Christmas, they should have the opportunity.

Even churches that choose to hold worship services may forgo the Sunday School hour, which raises the likelihood that far fewer people than usual will be reading this lesson – but that’s no good reason not to provide it.

While one might expect a lesson designated for Christmas Day to follow one of the Gospels’ infancy narratives, we’ve chosen the lectionary option from the epistles. Why? The text we’re considering doesn’t tell the Christmas story, but it tells why the Christmas story matters.

A sinful people(v. 3)

In our text, Paul writes words of advice and encouragement to a colleague and “child in the faith we share” named Titus (1:4). Paul indicates that he had left Titus on the island of Crete to bring order to the churches and appoint elders to guide them (1:5). This is curious, since Luke’s description of Paul’s journeys in Acts does not include a sojourn in Crete other than a port call as he was being shipped to Rome as a prisoner.

Paul cited a self-ascribed reputation of Cretans for lying, violence, and gluttony (1:12). Even today, “Cretan,” like “Philistine,” is sometimes used as a pejorative term. As a result, Paul wanted Titus to be especially careful in teaching sound doctrine while vetting and choosing good leaders for the churches.

After an extended self-introduction in which Paul stressed various aspects of his identity as an apostle (1:1-5), he gets quickly down to business. Paul begins with a list of requirements that Titus should follow in selecting church leaders (1:6-9), then offers advice for older men and women (2:1-5), for younger men (2:6-8) and for slaves (2:9-10). He encourages all believers to be obedient to God, respectful of governing authorities, and courteous to one another, avoiding the evil behaviors they had once practiced (2:11-3:3).

This is where we begin, with a reminder that none of us are free from sin. All of us know what it is to hold misguided beliefs and to make bad choices. “For we ourselves were once foolish,” Paul wrote, “disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another” (v. 3).

That’s quite a depressing portrait. The catalog of sins seems to follow an intentional progression from dis-obedience to deception to desires so dishonorable that they cause alienation from others. When we become sufficiently disconnected from others, we begin to operate from a position of malice and even hate. Some of us may feel that we never went all the way down that path, but we all have spent time on the road to ruin.

The word “foolish” means exactly that, but in this context it may also suggest ignorance with regard to the gospel. “Disobedience” points to those who have heard the message and know what is right, but choose not to follow, “led astray” by faulty teachings or enslaved by their own “various passions and pleasures.” Such self-focus can lead to a life dominated by evil (a better translation than “malice”) and envy, which might make one seem “despicable” to others. People who feel despised have a tendency to hate in return.

A loving God(vv. 4-5)

Such a sorry state to be in! But Paul rejoiced that God had other, better plans for us. He expressed this good news through a succinct recital of the what, how, and why of the gospel.

Verses 4-7, though broken up in English translations, constitute one long sentence in the Greek text. Critical editions of the Greek New Testament typically set the text in verse, as poetry. There is a certain rhythm to it when read in Greek, leading some scholars to propose that it might have been an early hymn. Whether sung as a hymn or not, the text’s dense doctrinal content suggests that it was almost certainly recited in worship as an early creed or statement of basic beliefs.

Though the human condition is uniformly sinful (v. 3), God desired a better outcome for us, so “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (vv. 4-5). This is the “what” of salvation.

Paul speaks of God’s character in terms familiar to the Hebrews, who thought of Yahweh as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6, reflected in Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15, 103:8, 108:4; Jonah 4:2). Paul speaks of God’s “goodness and loving kindness” that led to the appearing of Christ as Savior, one whose saving grace is not dependent on our works or worthiness, but on God’s merciful love alone.

In v. 6, the creed turns to the “how” of salvation. We experience God’s mercy “through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” Paul said. This expression has given rise to multiple interpretations. The word translated as “water” (loutron) more typically refers to the act or place of washing (as in NET, NIV11, and KJV), usually for ceremonial purposes. Some readers see this as a reference to baptism, though Paul may have simply used “washing” as a metaphor for the work of the Holy Spirit, who God “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (v. 6).

Some interpreters see “rebirth” and “renewal” as two different aspects of our salvation experience, with baptism marking our rebirth into a new relationship with God the Spirit bringing renewal through the change in our lives. Others argue that the two terms should be read as synonyms, with “renewal” added to clarify the meaning of rebirth (or “regeneration”), rather than to suggest a separate stage of experience. A different angle sees washing as the negative removal of sin, and rebirth/renewal as the positive influx of the Holy Spirit. (For more on this, see “The Hardest Question” online.)

A blessed hope(vv. 6-7)

However one wishes to parse the terms of relationship in v. 5, the obvious agent of change is the Holy Spirit, “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” God is not stingy with grace: the word translated “richly” could also be rendered “generously” (NIV11) or “in full measure” (NET). The Holy Spirit is available – fully available – to all who repent and trust in Christ for salvation.

Note the Trinitarian feel of v. 6. A clear doctrine of the Trinity did not develop until well beyond the New Testament period, but Paul’s language here speaks of God in three ways: God poured out the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. Texts such as this led to the later development of the belief that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit exist in a triune reality as one God.

The rebirth and renewal we receive through God’s grace working in Christ and empowering us with the Spirit has a purpose that includes our transformed lives on this earth, but also extends beyond it. Here is the “why” of salvation: “so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (v. 7). The presence of the Spirit, as Paul told the Ephesians, is the present guarantee of our future life with God (Eph. 1:13-14).

To be “justified” is to be made right with God. W. Hulitt Gloer describes it as being “right-wised,” taking lives that sin had turned upside down and turning them right side up: “… in Christ we have caught a glimpse of what right-side up really looks like and, reborn and continually being renewed by the Spirit, we can begin to live ‘right-wised’ lives” (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentaries [Smyth & Helwys, 2010], pp. 84-85).

Those who have become right with God become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Here Paul speaks of an inheritance that is not just “pie in the sky by and by,” for it has both present and future dimensions. We experience the comforting and inspiring presence of God in our lives now, empowering us to live different and “renewed” lives. We also live with the assurance of a coming day when we will know God’s amazing grace even more fully, and for eternity.

“The saying is sure,” Paul concluded (v. 8a). You can believe it.

And that’s why Christmas matters. NFJ

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for December 25, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Titus 3:4-7



Parent Prep

The meaning of Christmas story has become lost in the commercialization of Christmas. Christmas decorations seemed to go on sale after the back-to-school sales ended and there will be post-Christmas sales until Valentine’s Day. The pinnacle of Christmas no longer seems to be Christmas Day, but when the shopping and wrapping for Christmas is over. The meaning behind Christmas Day seems to be as pushed back and away as Joseph and Mary were when they were sent to be with the animals. So how can we recapture the meaning of Christmas? Maybe it is as simple as going to worship before opening your gifts on Christmas morning so that you can receive the greatest gift before you exchange your own. Whatever the way, live out the meaning of Christmas past this Christmas morning into every morning of your life.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“Elf Delivery” from Arthur Christmas via www.youtube.com

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Titus 3:4-7