wolf in sheeps skin

Dealing With An Ever-Present Threat, Titus 1:10—16

With these seven verses, Paul gives the reason for the sense of urgency in appointing godly elders who were able to teach the truth.   Apparently the island of Crete was full of false teachers.  It seems that every generation produces its own brand of false teaching spread by false teachers.  False teaching is deadly to the Church of Jesus Christ because otherwise good and decent Christians can find themselves ensnared in it before they even realize what they are into is false teaching.  Surely one of the greatest needs of Christians today is the ability to discern false teaching from true.

1.  Description of these false teachers, Titus 1:10—13a

For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision groupThey must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true.

The word “for” shows us that elders have a lot of work to do.  The New English Bible translates this verse a little differently, with a much more pointed meaning—

There are all too many, especially among the Jewish converts, who are out of all control.

“These” people, “those of the circumcision group,” are not referring to Judaizers; Paul’s letter to the Galatians deals with them.  In the context of this letter, Paul is simply referring to Jews who had converted to Christianity.  These people, Paul says, are “many,” and they are dangerous.  What could be dangerous about a person becoming a Christian?   We would expect the Apostle to be happy that there were so many Jewish converts.  The problem with these converts was that they refused to accept the teachings of their new faith; instead they sought to attach aspects of their old Jewish faith onto their new Christian faith, producing a kind of hybrid religion.  And they were infiltrating the local churches on Crete, pushing their morphed out faith on others.

Paul describes these false teachers using three words:

  • Rebellious.  These men refused to subordinate themselves to any Christian authority, including the Word of God.
  • Mere talkers.  They were smooth talkers; what they taught sounded so good that they were able to fool many people.  Their words, however, were really meaningless and empty.
  • Deceivers.  Their empty words held a dangerous fascination to genuine believers who were led astray far too easily from the truth.

Paul, in referring to them as part of a “circumcision group,” suggests that they themselves used this moniker as way to show their superiority over other Christians, especially the Cretans.  If they were superior by virtue of their circumcision, then it followed that their teachings were superior to the teachings of others.  Little wonder these false teachers were so destructive!

Naturally, Paul could see right through these false teachers and in telling Titus what he should do with them—“they must be silenced”—he used a very rare Greek verb that means “to stop the mouth by means of a bridle, muzzle, or gag.”  The false teachers must not be tolerated but they must be silenced, and given the context of this letter, this must be done by Titus and the elders.

We are told exactly how Paul expected Titus and the elders to stop these false teachers.  Because these errorists were ostensibly Christians, in keeping with Paul’s other teachings they would have been quietly, gently admonished and shown the error of their teachings.  If they refused to listen, then the next step would have been to sternly reprimand them publicly and insist that they cease and desist in their false teaching.  At last, a person who persists in their evil ways needed to be shunned by the church and excommunicated in hope that these extreme measures would lead to their repentance.   As one commentator quipped:

In the church of God, there is no such thing as “freedom of misleading speech.”

Why were these false teachers to be dealt with so sternly?  Simply because their false teaching was so dangerous, it was ripping families apart.  Any teaching that confuses people or leaves people worse off for listening to it is false.   Truth, though, is like a mighty force of nature that grabs hold of a person’s mind forcing them, sometimes, to rethink some of their old ideas.  Barclay wrote:

Christianity does not run away from doubts and questions, but faces them fairly and squarely.  It is true that the truth often mentally takes a man by the scruff of the neck and shakes them; but it is also true that teaching which ends in nothing but doubts and questions is bad teaching.

Verse 12 is provocative.  The island of Crete had a large Jewish population, but they were largely secular Jews who had been heavily influenced by the pagan Cretans.  Paul quotes from Epimenides, a Cretan poet and prophet, whose judgment of the wayward Cretans was commonly held.  That judgment was—

“Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”

By quoting from a well-known Cretan poet, Paul was effectively deflecting any criticism that he was being racist or anti-Cretan in any way.  However, his point should have hit home:  don’t allow these Cretan false teachers to tear the church apart!

2.  A measured response, 1:13—14

He has surely told the truth! Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth.

Apparently Paul wholeheartedly agreed with Epimenides!  This situation demanded some immediate action on Titus’ part.  Like a skilled surgeon cutting away cancerous tissue, Titus must rebuke these false teachers sharply.  The word for “rebuke” can also mean “convict,” meaning Titus had to expose not only the false teachers but explain the error of their teachings.  What Paul did not want Titus to do was act with a heavy hand.  No, the way to handle this was with tact and firm resolve.  In other words, good reasons had to be given for publicly rebuking the errorists.

The goal of the stern rebuke was that the false teachers might see the error of the teachings and be restored to good spiritual health.  That should be the goal of all church discipline; we do not discipline in order to break a person’s heart, but rather in hopes of making the individual strong in the faith.  All discipline, including Titus’ discipline of the troublemaking Cretans needs to be done in grace and love.

With verse 14, we may be given a glimpse into what the false teachers were promoting.  Paul refers to “Jewish myths.”  Scholars are divided as to just what Paul meant.  He may have been referring to the general nature of the Jewish faith as it had evolved in Paul’s day.  Thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations had become more important than the words of the Law itself.  In some quarters, Judaism and Gnosticism had become mingled together, creating a strange version of Judaism that barely resembled the faith of the patriarchs.  While this could be what Paul was thinking of, it is more likely that Paul had in mind the wild Jewish myths found in some of the Apocryphal books.  The Cretan teachers latched on to these fanciful stories and were preaching them as fact.  It’s human nature to be attracted to the romantic, speculative notions of man while finding the Gospel dry and boring.

3.  Final words of condemnation, 1:15—16

To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.  They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.

These false teachers stand condemned by two things: (1)  the test of character, verse 15, and (2) the test of conduct, verse 16.

On the surface, verse 15 is bit confusing.  What is Paul trying to say?  Not only is this verse a bit hard to understand, it is very often abused.  Morrison wrote:

The commonest misuse of [verse 15] is this.  Something offensive has been spoken, something coarse or allusively indecent, and one of the company with a hot heart has protested against the evil utterance; whereupon immediately, sometimes with a smile, he is told that unto the pure all things are pure.

In other words, this verse is often used to excuse a dirty joke or some other questionable thing.   But Paul is restating a principle first put forth by Jesus Himself concerning Jewish food laws—

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into your mouth does not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth that is what defiles you.”  (Matthew 15:10)

The false teachers were preaching against the freedom that comes from having faith in Christ and were trying to get new converts into the habit of obeying the old Jewish dietary laws and observing all kinds of ceremonies and rites.  However, true devotion and purity is not found in what one eats or wears or in the style of worship.  Rather, true purity is found in the heart.   This is the positive aspect of this wonderful teaching, but here on Crete, it was the negative aspect that really troubled Paul.  Note what he wrote—

to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.  (verse 15b)

What Paul is staying is actually very simple:  to people who are “defiled and unbelieving” (KJV), everything is bad, nothing is pure.  Again, Barclay’s comments are spot on:

Such a man can take the loveliest things and cover them with a smutted uncleanness.  He can see uncleanness where there is no uncleanness.  But the man whose mind is pure finds all things pure.  It is a terrible thing to have that film of uncleanness and impurity in the mind.

Those who tell others what kind of clothes to wear or what they should and should not drink or eat, or the kind of music they should listen to are the ones with the impure minds.  Real believers are people who have been cleansed from their guilt by the blood of Christ and the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit.  To these regenerated people, food and clothing (for example) do not determine one’s level of purity; that level has been established in their hearts and minds by the Spirit of God dwelling within them.

So, the character of the false teachers condemned them.  Then also their conduct condemned them.  They publicly confessed to knowing God, they obviously had some knowledge of God and of Christianity and given the order of the words in the Greek (“God” is emphatic), they truly did have a relationship with Him.  These false teachers were not pagans or practitioners of the occult; they were Christians.  However,  they were practitioners of a very dangerous form of Christianity:  the legalistic kind.   However, while they preached and taught what appeared on the surface to be a very moral and upright faith, their actions told another story.  Even they could not live up to the standards they foisted upon others.   In they way they lived, they denied God.  1 John 2:6 establishes a “golden rule” for all those who claim to be Christians—

Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

J.B. Philips translates this verse in a much more cutting way—

The life of a man who professes to be living in God must bear the stamp of Christ.

This “stamp” was totally missing from the false teachers.  Paul describes them three ways:

  • Detestable.  The false teachers were loathsome,they  caused jaws to drop because of their obvious hypocrisy.  The Greek word comes from a noun that describes something causing “horror and disgust” to God.
  • Disobedient.  They put their own thoughts and ideas ahead of the Word of God.  They made up all kinds of rules and regulations and adhered to them in place of Scripture.
  • Unfit for doing any good.  This phrase is in stark contrast with what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:17 where he describes the people of God this way—

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:16, 17)

Only the Word of God can change a heart.  Rules and regulations can give a person the appearance of being holy, but, as in the case of these false teachers, eventually their true character will be revealed by their conduct.  But when a heart is changed, a person’s life will testify to that fact.  James wrote—

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.  (James 2:26)

But they must be the right deeds performed for the right reasons.  Calvin remarked:

Faith alone saves, but faith that saves is not alone.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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