Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. 14 And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. 15 All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.
This weekend brings our seventh and final message on the book of Titus, under the banner “Adorning Grace with Goodness.” We’ve said that the apostle Paul’s brief letter to Titus is a summons to have the gospel shape our doctrine and to extend our doctrine (about God’s amazing love for us undeserving sinners) into actions of love for others. Martin Luther said about Titus: “This is a short epistle, but a model of Christian doctrine, in which is comprehended in a masterful way all that is necessary for a Christian to know and to live.” Ray Van Neste, who wrote the notes for Titus in the ESV Study Bible, said in an article elsewhere that Paul’s letter to Titus
“summarizes the essence of the Christian life, particularly with a view to what the Christian community, the church, is to do. Indeed, I believe the letter to Titus is a tract for our times, and the church today bears the marks of having neglected its message.”
What we have found in these seven weeks is that Titus is not only relevant for the church at large, but maybe especially a “tract for our times” at Bethlehem.
Final Four Weekend
We come this weekend to the letter’s final four verses. This is Paul’s final chance to echo his main themes, and he does not disappoint. In fact, we may even say that the whole letter is summed up in these four final verses. I have in mind three main themes that resonate here.
What I would like for us to do this weekend is put these three main themes in verses 12–15 in the form of three callings on us as a church. So as we close Titus, this will be an unusually Bethlehem-specific sermon. As we look at these final four verses, let’s not think mainly about the church at large, but let’s focus specifically on us as a church and about our individual lives as together they make up the whole of our corporate body. So, the letter of Titus, this tract for our times, calls us to be three things as a church.
To Be a People on Mission
Verses 12–13: “When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing.”
Sometimes pastors and theologians label these verses “travel plans.” That’s a bad label. There is so much more going on here. Listen to this perspective from commentator Philip Towner: “Although the abruptness may give the impression that this section was dispensable, it was apparently chiefly by this means that Paul maintained the mission network and organized movements essential to its effective ministry.” In other words, in these verses are details for Paul’s mission strategy for gospel advance. Here we find the nitty-gritty. Paul writes as one on mission, to Titus on mission, leading a church to be on mission, modeling for us how to be a people on mission.
And what we mean by being “on mission” is being a people who live ordinary life with gospel intentionality. Being a people who seek to connect the particulars of life with the progress of the gospel. The mission happens in the mundane. Isn’t it amazing how ordinary Paul’s instructions sound? It’s so unglamorous. “When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing.” Here’s a couple of guys we’ve never heard of, a couple guys we have (but only barely), and a city we’re not even sure where it’s located. This is so ordinary. So seemingly unimpressive. But so powerful for world change—because God’s plan is that Christian mission happen in the everyday—among ordinary people and in ordinary places. The gospel advances in the unremarkable, or it does not advance. It seems all so normal and small, but the world is being transformed.
Let’s note a few things here about the nature of this mission, and what it means to live “on mission,” and inject ordinary everyday life with gospel intentionality. First, notice the uncertainty and need for adjustment. Paul says he will send one of two people (he hasn’t decide who yet!) to relieve Titus of his post in Crete so that Titus can come to meet Paul face to face. And Titus will be redeployed. This should be encouraging—that being on mission doesn’t mean certainty at every point about every decision, and that there is room (even the necessity) for adjustments as we go.
See also that the mission involves particular places. Not only Crete, but also a place called Nicopolis. Some speculate it is the Nicopolis about 200 miles northwest of Athens on west coast of Greek peninsula. We don’t know for sure. But wherever it is, Paul, the snowbird, has decided to winter there. These are not glamorous details. Gospel missions doesn’t seem sexy at every moment—in fact, rarely ever. Just ordinary life, but approached with intentionality about gospel advance. All of life is mission-relevant.
Note as well that the mission involves particular people. Paul says he will send either Artemas or Tychicus. Artemas is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament; not only is he not a biblical celebrity, but an unknown apart from simple the mention of his name here. Tychicus, we know from a few other super-brief mentions, was an Asian who accompanied Paul (Acts 20:4) and carried letters to Ephesians (6:21) and Colossians (4:7). And note the individual names in verse 13. Paul mentions Zenas the lawyer (like Artemas, another person lost to history) as well as Apollos, who we do know from Acts 18 and 1 Corinthians was kind of a big deal in the early church. But here it’s a seemingly menial task—apparently Zenas and Apollos delivered the letter to Titus on their way elsewhere on mission.
And in mentioning these particular names, recognize that Paul is not on mission as a lone ranger. He leads and ministers with a team. We might think that if anyone could be solo on mission, it would be the apostle Paul. But in Acts and in his letters, we find that he’s always traveling with guys, sending them here and there on coordinated assignments, and mentioning all these specific names. It’s a team effort.
Finally, see that connected to the mission is meeting particular practical needs. Verse 13: “Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing.” Meeting these practical, seemingly menial needs is not a hiatus from gospel advance, but bound up with what it means to be on mission and to showcase something about the mission of Jesus. Which will lead us to our second summons.
But before we go there, let me give this encouragement and challenge for Bethlehem.
How exciting it is to be part of a community of Christians who have a mission. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. All peoples. We should be blown away to have the number of missionary units (currently 106!) we do serving “for the joy of all peoples” around the world. By God’s grace, we are a very strong church in international missions. But in a fallen world, our strengths come coupled with weaknesses. International strength can mean room for growth locally…
For the rest of us, whom God has not yet called to change geography or culture, do we see ourselves as being “on mission” to these Twin Cities, or has such gospel intentionality been relegated to the missionaries overseas? Do we ask why God has sent us here to the Cities? Not only to rope-hold for our missionaries, but also to be on mission here. And notice that it is not only Paul and Titus and Apollos who are on mission in this text, but Zenas the lawyer. When the gospel lands in Crete and when grace trains in Minnesota, Zenas the lawyer and Tim the toolman and Joe the plumber begin to live on mission—everyday ordinary life infused with gospel intentionality. On the lookout for gospel advance in word and deed. You don’t have to go into fulltime ministry. In fact, it’s probably best if you don’t, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:24, “Brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” So the book of Titus, and verses 12 and 13, challenge us to be a people on mission. But there is a second summons here: to be a people for others.
To Be a People for Others
Back to verse 13, and let’s partner it this time with verse 14: “Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.”
One last time we find the main theme of this letter to Titus: as 2:14 says, Christians are to be a people “zealous for good works.” With the remarkable prominence of this phrase “good works” in Titus, let’s make sure we know what Paul is getting at with it. And before we leave verse 14, don’t miss the connection here between “good works” and helping the “urgent need.”
The first occurrence is 1:16. The false teachers, says Paul, “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works [their actions say something different than their words]. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” In other words, they are not primed to perform actions that benefit others. “Good works” aren’t mere personal morality, but actions that benefit others. It’s not just about keeping our noses clean, but about looking past our own noses to identify and meet the needs of others—and not just individually, but also corporately. Being a people for others.
Then in 2:7, Paul tells Titus, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works.” Titus’s actions should model visibly for the community the kind of actions they should be performing.
2:14: Jesus “gave himself for us . . . to purify for himself a special people who are zealous for good works.” Jesus acted to benefit us that we might share in his joy by becoming people who act to benefit others.
3:1: “Remind them . . . to be ready for every good work.” Be ready to take action for the good of others. Be on the lookout for others’ needs, identify and move toward those needs, and take tangible and specific actions to meet those needs. In other words, be a people for others, not a people for yourselves. (This is why it is so good for us to people a people with a “Global Diaconate” that marks a percentage of all our capital-campaign giving for meeting the urgent needs of the poorest of the poor worldwide.)
Finally, 3:8, which especially connects with verse 14 (see the language of “devotion”): “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” What is the “these things” in verse 8? It is what Paul just said in verses 4–7: “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he 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, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” In other words, verse 8 is saying, “Insist on the gospel, so that believers will take action to benefit others.”
Perhaps the most counterintuitive verse in all of Titus is 3:8. Paul wants Christians to be a people for others, a people zealous for good works. And so he tells Titus to insist, not in particular on what specific actions they should take, but mainly on what actions God has taken for them in Jesus. In other words, surprising as it may be, in order to do good Christians don’t hammer mainly on what good we must do, but we hammer mainly on the good God has done for us—especially the ultimate good of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us. And as we rehearse the gospel, the Holy Spirit produces in us great care for devoting oneself to doing good for others. In dwelling over and over on what grace God has extended to us, we increasingly become the kind of people who thrill to extend grace to others. Kevin DeYoung has written, “The secret of the Gospel is that we actually do more when we hear less about all we need to do for God and hear more about all that God has already done for us.”
Christians are moved to help the needy because we owe our eternal wellbeing to the one who ultimately helped the needy. Jesus concerned himself with our urgent needs—especially our eternal urgent need. He devoted himself to our lacks—especially our eternal lack. And in the receiving of such grace our hearts begin to be reordered to extend grace to others.
Concern for the Church’s Public Image
Related to and intertwined with this theme of good works is what we might call in Titus, and elsewhere in Paul, “the overall concern for the church’s public image." Not only in 3:8, but also in at least four other places in Titus (1:6–7; 2:5, 10; 3:1–2), there is what may seem to us at first glance to be an odd concern with how the church is being perceived by the wider society. You can hear it in the main characteristic of church leadership: that an elder should be “above reproach” (1:6–7). And Paul even adds in 1 Timothy 3:7 that an elder “must be well thought of by outsiders.” Or Titus 2:5: that young women should live in such a way that “the word of God may not be reviled.” It relates to the charge we saw last weekend in 3:2 to “show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Paul is even clearer in 2 Thessalonians 4:12 (“live properly before outsiders”) and Colossians 4:5–6 (“Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders. . . . Let your speech always be gracious.”) We do well to note that “those who claim the name of Christ are . . . either eyesores on the gospel or beautiful ornaments." There is no virtue in making Jesus, his gospel, and his church look bad because of our sin, carelessness, and indifference.
Some of us might argue that we shouldn’t care how the world perceives the church. There is some truth in that. But texts like these are painting a fuller picture. As we’ve said now for seven weeks, this whole letter is about the church adorning her doctrine with goodness toward others. Our collective actions often speak louder to outsiders than our words do. It should matter to us what people in the Twin Cities think about Jesus, the gospel, and his church. We should long to avoid any vice on our part, whether laziness or disobedience or impatience or argumentativeness or lack of love, that would tarnish the reputation of Jesus among those in the Twin Cities that we ache to liberate with our gospel.
On the positive side, we could say that the reputation of Jesus in our metro is at stake in our corporate extension of mercy. Being a church that is manifestly “for the city” through various ministries of mercy, as well as seemingly “random acts of kindness,” is important in adorning our doctrine. And granted, there is always the threat of gospel social action becoming hollow social action, but there is a way to seriously extend mercy without going soft on the gospel, namely, by being relentlessly saturated in and driven by the message of the gospel.
Learning to Be Fruitful
Two final things to note here in verse 14: First, there is a “learning” process. “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works.” Taking action for the benefit others doesn’t just happen automatically. It is a process. We grow in it for a lifetime. This should be an encouragement for us personally and corporately. Second, don’t miss the last part of verse 14: “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.” In other words, be fruitful. But what about the saying that it’s “faithfulness, not fruitfulness” that counts? There’s truth to it, but it can be misleading. There are, in fact, kinds of fruitfulness that God expects of us. Like meeting urgent needs. Food for the hungry. Water for the thirsty. Clothing for the naked. Care for the widowed and orphaned. Help for the needy. While there are some kinds of fruitfulness that are out of our control (like giving someone new birth), there are other kinds of fruitfulness we have no excuse to miss out on.
Think of it this way: The created world, with all its many physical needs, should not be an obstacle, but an opportunity, to making visible for others the grace of God toward us. The finite is a chance for us to display the infinite. Jesus’ saving is seen in our serving. Our little self-givings in taking action to benefit others echo Jesus’ ultimate self-giving for us sinners.
I thank God for the ministries of mercy that have grown up through and in partnership with Bethlehem. So much good is being done through ministries of care for the poor (like Jericho Road), the alien (like Refugee Life Ministries), and the orphan (like Safe Families for Kids). And so many more. I pray that we as a church would heed the words of 2 Thessalonians 3:13 and “not grow weary in doing good.” There is such a temptation to grow weary in doing good, because good often accumulates in long haul. God’s reputation in this metro doesn’t mainly improve with one big effort, but with loving action after action, day after day, year after year. 1 Timothy 5:25 tells us that “good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.”
The wealth of teaching and doctrinal blessings we have received here at Bethlehem tends to go one of two ways. On the one hand, wonderful doctrines about God’s goodness toward us produce in us goodness toward others. God being for us increasingly makes us a people for others. But on the other hand, there can be a danger to turn inward in others. To neglect that the Scriptures have been designed by God to make us “competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17), and to begin to focus exclusively on our taking in (being puffed up with knowledge) to the detriment of our building up others in love. We can become so concerned that we keep ourselves clean from the dirtiness of the world that slowly begin to cut ourselves off from society and opportunities to love. May it be true that the gospel and its glorious doctrines not take us inward but ever outward.
Bethlehem, let’s not be a people for ourselves. Let’s be a people for others—for each other and for our metro. Let’s amass knowledge not for its own sake, but in the service of love. Knowing that God is for us in Jesus, we are liberated to be a people for others.
So, Titus summons us both to be a people on mission, and to be a people for others—and finally, to be a people of grace.
To Be a People of Grace
Verse 15: “All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.” What is the last thing that Paul would leave with Titus and the Cretans—and with us at Bethlehem? Grace. “Grace be with you all.” Just as he does in each of his thirteen letters. He begins with “grace to you” and ends with “grace be with you.”
And Titus is a helpful place to get at what Paul has in mind when he says, “Grace be with you,” because the word “grace” appears four times in Titus—here at the end, at the beginning and two spots in the middle. And the two middle texts do about as well at showing us what Paul has in mind when he speaks of “grace” as almost any in the New Testament.
2:11: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people”—and you may remember that we said two weeks ago that this “grace” in 11 is not merely some principle or concept, but he is a person whose name is Jesus. It is the coming, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for undeserving sinners that is the heart of God’s grace.
3:4–7: (Having said in verse 3 that we were “foolish, disobedient, led stray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy”—hell-deserving rebels) “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he 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, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
So given the contours tied to Paul’s use of “grace” in chapter two and then earlier in chapter 3, let me try to venture a definition of what the apostle has in mind in the word “grace” here in his last line in the letter. Grace is God’s lavish giving of himself—the supremely valuable and satisfying one—to us hell-deserving rebels in and because of Jesus. When Paul ends the letter by saying, “Grace be with you all,” he is not invoking a vague, general kind of grace, but a particular blood-bought grace—a particular person named Jesus and his specific saving action for us at the cross. Grace is undeserved divine favor for sinners effected in the death of the divine Son. It is grace with a face: “the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
So Paul’s closing prayer is that Titus—and all the Christians in Crete reading this letter over his shoulder (“you all”)—would have the saving, training, and empowering grace of God in Jesus be with them. “May the grace of Jesus—purchased for sinners at great cost—be with you.” That they would be a people of grace. A people who extend grace to others because we have been transformed by the stunning direction of God’s grace toward us. A people on mission and for others with speech that is gracious, and actions that are gracious, and an attitude that is gracious. We are so prone to treat others on the basis of what we think they deserve. But when the grace of God breaks in on us, and we see that we owe our eternal everything to grace, we begin to be trained in a new way of seeing the world—not in preoccupation with giving others what they deserve, but gladly giving others better than they deserve in actions designed for their benefit.
Let’s end now first with the final challenge and then with the final encouragement.
Let’s be a people of grace. May God be pleased that we would be known in these Twin Cities for the great message of God’s grace in the gospel, and for actions which extend grace to others, and for a demeanor of grace toward outsiders—not cultivating a kind of civic cynicism (that quietly hums, “smaller things are yet to come”), but believing that in Jesus “greater things are yet to come, greater things are still to be done here.”
On June 10, Pastor John informed us of his and Noel’s desire that he transition from being our church’s senior leader and main preacher by June 30, 2014—now only two years and eleven months away as of this weekend. Which means there is some uncertainty ahead for us as a church. But this much is certain: the message of God’s grace in Jesus for sinners is what we are about. We are a people of grace, a people of the gospel. It is the gospel of the God-man that birthed and sustains Bethlehem, not any mere human preacher. Our hope is not in trying to convince John to stay longer, or in finding the perfect successor. Our hope is in God—the God of all grace (1 Peter 5:10). That’s what is means to be a people of grace.
What an amazing inbreaking of God’s grace has happened at this church in the last 30+ years. And not just 30—Bethlehem is 140 years of grace this year. But in particular, this has been an extraordinary three decades of grace. And we praise the God of all grace that his undeserved favor toward believing sinners because of Jesus is so infinitely lavish that 30 extraordinary years of grace has not even begun to deplete his reservoirs. If God would be pleased, his future grace toward us in our next three decades could dwarf the past grace of the last three. And not even another 30 years will make even the smallest dent in his stores of grace. It will take all eternity for the pouring out of his infinite goodness. Ephesians 2:7 tells us, he saved us “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” In Jesus, the best is always yet to come.
And not just to us, but through us. When we sing “greater things are yet to come, greater things are still to be done in this city,” it’s not a fingers-crossed shot in the dark, but a biblically grounded gospel hope about our future together in these Twin Cities. We pray God has more in store for Bethlehem, and we know he has more in store for these Cities. May he be so kind as to give us just a little part in that.
So, Bethlehem, let’s increasingly be a people on mission, shaped by the Son who was sent by his Father on mission. And let’s increasingly be a people for others, in word and in deed, in action and in attitude, just as Jesus was for others and sought to do others the greatest good possible in dying for sinners. And let’s increasingly be a people of grace, like our Savior, the man of grace, who is the Grace of God incarnate.
Of grace, for others, and on mission—to the glory of God.