One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. 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. Titus 1:12-14 (NIV).
Paul’s words seem harsh here, resorting to gossip and common canards. Yet before you or I go judge Paul, let’s go back to that history. And context. Both are necessary to avoid the too-contemporary mistake of painting Paul with a broad brush.
First, consider Paul’s task in Titus 1. He was protecting the church by refuting false doctrine. Paul wrote the letter to encourage Titus on what to teach the young church. Part of that includes identifying what was wrong about what was being said at the time. The purpose wasn’t to hammer those misleading the church: the purpose was to steer even them back to the road of the straight and narrow.
He was also using irony, namely the irony of a popular aphorism from the area where Titus was ministering. Per John Gill’s commentary, this is attributed to Epimenides (a poet) and Ovid (also a poet), both of Crete, who associated the ancients of Crete with falsehoods. It was they, not Paul, who associated Crete with dishonesty.
Last, Paul was being honest. He was being honest by talking frankly about the dishonesty of those who would mislead the church by demanding they do things according to Jewish traditions (like circumcision). Many of the converts into the new Christian following were former Jews. Christianity itself was seen as an offshoot sect of Judaism, and the roots of the Christian faith are wholly Jewish. It’s understandable that some people would think that the traditional Jewish laws governing circumcision, sacrifices, festivals, and daily life would, then, apply to Christians.
It’s also false. Those who would preach that from within the workings of the church must be silenced. Their falsehoods must not be allowed to take root or believers could be swayed away from following Jesus. It isn’t that Jesus wasn’t strong enough to overcome that. It’s that people weren’t. As we talked about yesterday, that same push happens today. The Catholic concept of paying a penance has its roots in the false idea of doing something to earn God’s grace. The idea that churches must adhere strictly to a man-made church calendar is another manifestation of it.
If tradition glorifies God and helps people believe in Him, it can be a good thing. Yet the second it becomes about adhering to the tradition and not giving that glory, then the tradition is bankrupt. It was true in Paul’s day; harsh or not, it’s true now.
For further reading: Acts 2:11, Acts 17:28, Colossians 2:22, 1 Timothy 5:20, Titus 1:15
Lord Jesus, forgive those who misconstrue Your holy words. And help me today to only truthfully teach them to others through what I say and do.