The epiphany of Grace

Last week we looked at the epiphany of Christ, and the way in which Paul described his appearing in 2 Tim 1.10. This week we look at Paul’s description of Christ’s epiphany in Titus.

In Titus 2.11 -13 Paul wrote: “For the grace of God has appeared (epephane), bringing salvation to all, training us live lives thar are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation (epiphaneia) of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ”. Here the emphasis is not on who appeared”, viz. Jesus, but on what appeared, viz. “the grace of God”. Furthermore, although this grace appeared in the coming of Jesus into our world, it was already present in the heart of God from eternity – as Robert Yarborough commented, grace was not “some reactionary expedient on God’s part” (The Letters to Timothy and Titus).

The purpose of this grace is to bring “salvation to all”. In the words of Jerome Quinn, “Just as the one sun and its light are for all human beings and their life, so the Father’s grace ushers in the light of a new day for every human being without distinction” (The First & Second Letters to Timothy). In a culture dominated by Greek philosophy, this message of grace was revolutionary. Aristotle, for instance said: “Only he who is deserving of love can be loved”. Similarly Plato said: “Love is for the lovely”. However, the good news is that God in his grace loved us even “while we were still sinners” (Rom 5.11).

In the immediate context, where he has been speaking to slaves (Titus 2.9-10), Paul may have been emphasising that God’s grace is for all, whatever our social standing. Or in a letter to Cretans, who were a much disdained and despised group of people (see Titus 1.12: “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes and gluttons”), Paul may have had in mind that God’s grace is for all, whatever our background. As he had written to Timothy: “God our Saviour… desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2.3,4). However, do note that there is a very real difference between saying God desires and God decrees – indeed two quite different Greek words are used for desiring and decreeing. God wants all to be saved, but he does not force salvation upon us. Grace, it has been said, means ‘all of him for me’; and faith means ‘all of me for him’

Moving to Titus 3.4-7 the original Greek is one long sentence, of which the main subject and verb are found in the first two verses: “When God’s goodness and loving kindness appeared,…. he saved us”. According to Gordon Fee, the rest of the sentence gives the basis (his mercy), the what (rebirth, renewal, and justification), the means (the Holy Spirit) and the goal (hope of eternal life)” (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). Alternatively we may see here the four stages of salvation: God’s coming to us in Jesus; our response in baptism; God’s gift of the Spirit; and as a result, our future assured.

My interest in this blog devoted to the concept of epiphany is on the opening phrase: “when the goodness and loving-kindness of God appeared (epephane)”. These two words, which in the NRSV are translated as goodness (chrestotes) and loving kindness (philanthropia), in other versions are rendered as “kindness and love” (GNB; Revised New Jerusalem Bible; NIV) or “kindness and generosity” (REB). Why did Paul select these two words in particular? Philip Towner  noted that although it might be accidental, the word chrestotes sounds very similar to the Greek Christos, “suggesting an intentional interpretation of God’s kindness at the outset”; and that the second term, philanthropia was used to describe “God’s fatherly love for all humanity” (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). I am not convinced. There is another reason. According to Gordon Fee, the two terms “occur frequently in Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism as the highest virtues of deities and rulers” (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). Similarly J.N,D, Kelly believed that Paul was deliberately modelling his language on the contemporary ruler cults in order to assert “the more impressively the claims of Christianity” (The Pastoral Epistles). Yet again Paul contrasts the ‘epiphany’ of Christ with the ‘epiphany’ of Caesar.

As Ben Witherington noted the goodness and loving kindness to which Paul refers are personified in Jesus (Letters & Homilies for Hellenized Christians I). An alternative translation therefore would be: “When goodness and loving kindness showed up in the person of Jesus…”. Although a simple past tense is used, no indication is given as to the moment of that “appearing”. Commentators suggest that Paul had in mind the whole salvation event displayed in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is certainly nothing to suggest that epiphany refers to the incarnation alone. True, in the Christ-hymn of 1 Tim 3.16 most scholars see a reference to the incarnation in the first line: “He appeared (ephanerothe) in flesh”. However, D.M. Stanley in Christ’s Resurrection in Pauline Soteriology argued that there is an allusion to the death of Jesus, while J. Dupont in With Christ argued that the allusion is to the resurrection of Jesus. For myself I believe that in 1 Tim 3.16 as also in Titus 3.4  we have an incarnational statement conceived in terms of the redemptive span of a life begun in a stable and brought to an end on the cross and in the resurrection.

So what does this mean for us at this time of the year? It means that we must not separate Jesus’ birth from his death and resurrection they are all part of the grand story of redemption. The Eastern Church has tended to focus on the incarnation, the Western Church on the cross and resurrection. But the New Testament witness is that the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection and also Christ’s return in glory belong together. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into his own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with him. It is precisely one grand miracle.” (The Grand Miracle). The term ‘Epiphany’ encompasses all of the Christ story – for at every step the glory of God is revealed.

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