What is Truth? (5): Truth in the Pastoral Epistles

Titus 1:1-4

To say that the Cretans had a bad reputation is an understatement. Throughout the ancient world, they were a byword for brutish and bestial behavior. The most famous indictment of the Cretans came from the pen of one of Cretan philosopher Epimenedes. “The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies” (Titus 1;12, KJV).

The statement has become known as the Epimenedes paradox: If a liar tells you he’s a liar, do you believe him? The Cretans’ reputation for falsehood was proverbial; the Greeks had a verb, kretizein, meaning “to lie.” These accusations of untruthfulness did not refer so much to a general mendacity. Rather, they had a particular focus on Cretan religion.

Like other Greeks, the Cretans worshiped Zeus. But the Cretan Zeus had a different mythology from the Zeus worshiped by other Greeks. He was a man who became a god, reigned as the chief deity, died, and was buried on Crete. It was this religious deviance, more than anything else, that marked out the Cretans as inveterate liars. Thus, when Paul describes them as “liars, evil beasts, slow bellies” he identifies them as corrupt in their worship of God, savage in their relationships with others, and depraved in their lack of self-control; three categories that occur repeatedly, in both a positive and a negative sense, throughout the epistle.

It is no surprise that the Cretans were marked by untruthfulness. The god that they worshiped was a liar. The myth of the Cretan Zeus was a litany of deception and debauchery. The Cretans had demonstrated the truth of Psalm 115:8, people become like their gods. The acolytes of a deceiving, debauching, depraved deity had reproduced the character of the god that they worshiped.

This is the challenge that Titus faced, and it is in this context that Paul wrote the epistle to prepare him for this challenge. The context gives particular emphasis to the way in which Paul presents God in the opening verses of the epistle. Grand and glorious at any time, the presentation of a “God Who cannot lie” shines with an extraordinary radiance against the murky truthlessness of Cretan society, as it does against the relativistic confusion of our own “post-truth” society. The truthfulness and trustworthiness of God are further emphasized by Paul’s reference to God’s eternal promise. It has rightly been said that God’s purposes are His promises, but the use of the verb “promise” reinforces the point that God’s words are utterly reliable – they must be, they can only be truth.

Paul presents himself to Titus as the servant of this God. It is highly significant that this is the only occasion on which Paul refers to himself as “the servant of God.” In so doing, he identifies himself with the “un-lie-able God” and his message with the unalterable eternal promise made by this God. In addition, he locates himself in the history of revelation. In the OT, the term “servant of God” is used only of Moses (1Chron 6:49; 2Chron 24:9; Neh 10:29; Dan 9:11). On 19 occasions (17 in the OT, and twice in Revelation), God speaks of the prophets as “my servants.” Thus, the term “servant of God” is inextricably linked with divine revelation, and Paul’s unique use of it in the opening sentence of this epistle is an indication to us that revelation is the central subject of the opening paragraph (vv1-4).

A grasp of this will help us to answer the hoary question about the meaning of “the faith of God’s elect.” It is possible that “the faith” in this expression could refer to the faith of individual believers, and thus describe the goal of Paul’s apostleship (though the interested reader should see William Kelly’s comments on the verse for a characteristically cogent and forceful argument against the reading of the verse adopted in most modern translations). However, it is more likely, given both the immediate context and the distinctive focus of the pastoral epistles, that Paul here uses the term “the faith” objectively, as a description to the body of truth, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3, KJV). Thus, he is making an important claim about his apostleship. It stands foursquare on a “full knowledge of the truth” (ISV) and aligns with the “faith of God’s elect” (Titus 1:1, KJV).  Paul’s apostleship, then, is not a departure from or a distortion of the truth; he is the faithful servant of “the God Who cannot lie.”

So we see in these verses the model of Paul’s apostleship. He takes his place alongside Moses and the OT prophets as the “servant of God.” We have the message of His apostleship, the promise of the “un-lie-able God,” in full conformity with “the faith of God’s elect” and “the truth which is after godliness.” But we also have the method of Paul’s apostleship, for God has entrusted him with both a message and a mode of delivery: “… hath in due times manifested his word through preaching, which is committed unto me according to the commandment of God our Savior” (v3, KJV). There is a clear reference here to the great dispensational program of revelation. God’s promise had its origin in eternity, “before the world began,” but only now, “at the proper time” (ESV), has it been revealed. And it has been revealed by means of preaching. Preaching, proclaiming as a herald, is God’s chosen means for the communication of truth in this dispensation, and it remains so, even as our society turns from the verbal to the visual, and allows its non-stop diet of digital diversion to whittle away at its attention span and its ability to follow linear reasoning. As a mode of communication, preaching seemed a foolish thing to the intellectual elite of Corinth. It still seems so to many. But for the “due time” of this dispensation, it is the means that God has chosen, and it remains, therefore, the means that we must use.

By the time we reach the end of the opening paragraph of the epistle, Paul has clearly established his authority, and the authority of the message that has been entrusted to him. Therefore, he is able to put his arm around Titus and say, “This is my own son after the common faith – he speaks for me.” This authentication would prove vital as Titus moved among the assemblies in Crete, setting in order the things that were wanting (v5). It is crucial to grasp the significance of this authentication. Paul’s writings are not merely those of a clever man, nor are they merely those of a deeply spiritual man. They are the words of the bondservant of God, uniquely entrusted with the revelation of divine truth. He speaks to us still, and he does so with an apostolic authority that we cannot disregard, for he communicates truth revealed by the God Who cannot lie. And, while, in our study of Scripture, we rightly consider the distinctiveness of the revelation given to Paul, and the way in which his personality is expressed in his writings, we must never lose sight of the fact that the Bible is one Book, a harmonious whole, that speaks with one voice. It is not a patchwork of Pauline truth and Johannine truth, and Lukan truth, but it is the truth – singular and objective, an enduring monolith towering above the fractured fragments of human knowledge.

The epistle to Titus makes it clear what we are to do with this truth. We are to hold it fast, as the faithful word, in dramatic contrast to that of the gainsayers (1:9, KJV), the “unruly and vain talkers and deceivers” (1:10, KJV), the teachers of “Jewish fables” (1:14, KJV), and those who professed to know God, but in works denied Him. We are to teach it, as health-giving doctrine that will stop the mouths of its opponents (1:9,11). And we must live it, for it is the truth “that is in keeping with godliness” (NET) and it is our responsibility to live our lives, in every aspect, in such a way that we may “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (2:10, KJV).