Surely you are familiar with Charles Dickens's beloved story, A Christmas Carol. It is the story of a stingy miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is transformed by his encounter with three Christmas spiritsthe spirit of Christmas past, the spirit of Christmas present, and the spirit of Christmas future
Titus 2:11–14 is breathed out by a different Spirit, but it likewise points to the past, present, and future in relation to the coming of Christ. It is Christ who transformswho transforms by his coming in the past, by his coming in the future, and by his ongoing interim coming through his Word and Spirit.
Keep Looking at Christ's Past Coming
First, the Christ who has come transforms. He came precisely in order to "purify for himself a people for his own possession" (vs. 14). Keep looking to the finished work of Christ in the past. "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people" (vs. 11).
Our English word epiphany comes from the Greek word translated "has appeared." In classical Greek, this term, for example, was used of the appearing of the sun. It came to be used to refer to the sudden appearance of a deity or hero in order to rescue someone. Who is this One who has appeared to rescue us? He is "our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (vs. 13). He came in the flesh; he is fully human. At the same time, he is "our great God," being fully divine. The second person of the Trinity became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth.
Verse 11 begins with the word "for," giving a reason for what has just been said. Previously, Paul has said that pastors are to "teach what accords with sound doctrine" (Tit. 2:1), specifically godly behavior for older men (2:2), older women (2:3–4), younger women (2:4–5), younger men (2:6), and slaves (2:9–10). Often in Scripture, the basis for Christian behavior in God's grace is explained first, and then the practical implications of the gospel are given. For example, chapters 1–3 in Ephesians proclaim the gospel basis for Christian behavior; then chapters 4–6 spell out the practical implications. But in Titus chapter 2, God first gives the imperatives (vss. 1–10), and then he explains the basis for them in his grace (vss. 11–14).
What did Jesus do to bring salvation? He "gave himself for us" (vs. 14). That is, he offered himself as a saving sacrifice. Notice that his saving sacrifice was voluntaryhe "gave himself for us." Second, it was vicarioushe "gave himself for us." It was also victorioushe "gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works." By his substitutionary, atoning death on the cross, he accomplished salvation for his people.
The salvation he accomplished is both negative and positiveit is both from and unto. He "gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness" (vs. 14). When Jesus saves you, he saves you from sin. At the same time, he "gave himself ... to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works." When Jesus saves you, he saves you unto godliness. He supernaturally transforms you. He gives you a new heart and new desires. I knew a man named Tom, who had lived a wicked life. After his conversion, he kept some of his old friends and tried to be a good witness to them. At one point, someone asked him, "Aw Tom, why do you always have to go to church?" He replied, "I don't go because I have to; I go because I want to." Our Lord Jesus "gave himself ... to purify ... a people ... who are zealous for good works."
This great salvation is both personal and corporate (vs. 14). On the one hand, Christ gave himself "to redeem us." When Jesus saves you, you can say with the apostle Paul, he "loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). On the other hand, he gave himself "to purify for himself a people for his own possession." Salvation is always personal, but it can never be private. The church is important because it was on God's heart in eternity, and it was on Jesus' heart as he hung on the accursed tree. When Jesus saves you, you belong to him; and if you belong to him, then you are part of his people, his church. It is your privilege and duty to join a church and identify visibly with God's people, even though they are sinners saved by grace, just like yourself.
Keep Looking at Christ's Future Coming
When Jesus "gave himself," he died, but Jesus was not merely a martyr. He is the living Savior! After he accomplished salvation for his people, he rose from the dead, was exalted to the highest place, and is now applying to his people the salvation that he accomplished for them. He shall come again to complete and perfect this transformation of "a people for his own possession." Therefore, keep looking forward to the work of Christ in his future coming. The appearance of the grace of God at Christ's first coming trains God's redeemed children to wait eagerly for "our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (vs. 13). Note three things about this hope.
First, it is a blessed hope. Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead. But we should eagerly await his appearing because it is a blessed hope. A blessed hope is the opposite of an accursed hope. Notice that this verse calls Jesus the "great God and Savior." He comes as our Savior, not merely as our judge. Therefore, "since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him" (1 Thess. 5:8–10).
Second, it is a visible hope. It is the "appearing" of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. Here is that word epiphany again. Acts 1 clearly says that the second epiphany of Christ will be similar to his ascension, which was physical and visible. "And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven'" (Acts 1:9–11). God's Word instructs us to expect a return of Jesus that will be physical and visible, like his ascension. He "will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
Third, it is a glorious hope. It is "the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." Revelation 1:13–16 gives us some hints about Christ's glory: John saw "one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength." If those are hints, what must the reality be like? He is coming in power and great glory.
The apostle Paul testifies, "Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing" (2 Tim. 4:8). Likewise, God says, "And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb. 9:27–28).
These Scriptures include an implicit warning. Who is he coming to save? "All who have loved his appearing," "those who are eagerly waiting for him." And yet many have taught and still do teach, "No! There will be no second coming of Christ."
This is the stance of theological liberals, who defy the authority of God's holy Word. But such error is found even among some who imagine themselves to be Bible believers. There is a small, but vocal, group called "hyper-preterists." They insist that the prophecies about the return of Christ in power and glory and the resurrection of the dead were fulfilled in A.D. 70. Clearly, this is soul-destroying error (cf. 1 Tim. 1:18–20; 2 Tim. 2:16–18), and we must reject it.
At the same time, however, many do believe that Christ is coming again, but they nevertheless let themselves get lulled into spiritual slumbers. A good question to ask yourself is: Do you love his appearing? Are you eagerly waiting for the appearing of Christ in power and glory? If not, confess this sin to God. Pray for the Holy Spirit to awaken your heart. And set yourself to meditate on the blessedness, visibility, and glory of the coming of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Keep Looking at Christ's Present Coming
Finally, keep looking at the Christ who, in this interim period, now comes in power by his Holy Spirit to transform "a people for his own possession" (Tit. 2:14). Keep looking to the present, ongoing work of the exalted Christ. "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age" (vss. 11–12).
Notice that the grace of God in Christ trains usit transforms! It is important that we take this seriously because most of us have been affected in one way or another by the commonly held, but false, idea that the grace of God does not transform, but just forgives. But look at what God himself says in verse 12: the grace of God in Christ not only forgives, but also trains. It not only justifies, but also sanctifies.
The grace of God in Christ trains us in two specific directions (vs. 12). Negatively, the grace of God in Christ trains us "to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions." The grace of God teaches people to turn away from sin. Positively, the grace of God in Christ trains us "to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age." The grace of God in Christ transforms your relationship with yourself (giving you self-control), with your neighbors (making you upright), and with God (making you godly).
That raises another question: are you experiencing the supernatural, transforming power of God, so that day by day you are saying no to temptation and putting off the sins of the flesh? And day by day are you saying yes to the grace of God in Christ and putting on the fruit of the Spirit? If not, then you need to ask yourself: do I really know the great God and Savior Jesus Christ, or do I just know about him? Cry out to Jesus and ask him to save you, to deliver you!
The Shape of Salvation
When he does save you, you live the Christian life between his two epiphanies! These two appearings reveal the shape of our Savior's work: first grace, then glory. He came in humiliation; he will return in exaltation.
The two appearings of Christ also reveal the shape of your salvation: first grace, then glory; first the cross, then the crown; first humiliation, then exaltation. Look at 1 John 3:2"Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is."
When I was a child, my mother had an uncanny ability to catch me doing wrong, even when I was sure she wasn't looking. I thought she had "eyes in the back of her head." As you live the Christian life, you need spiritual eyes in the front of your head, in the back of your head, and on top of your head. God calls you to keep looking in three directions at once. Every time you come to the Lord's Table, God reinforces that call.
First, keep looking back to the pastto the appearing of grace, to the finished work of our Savior Jesus Christ, who "gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works."
Second, keep looking forward to the futureto the appearing of glory, to the blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Third, keep looking up in the present to the ongoing work of the exalted Christ, as he comes in power by his Holy Spirit, who works through the Word to transform us, "training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age."
The author is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Ind. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2009.