A Missionary Reflection on Paul’s Letter to Titus

Paul’s passion to bring the gospel where Christ has not been named is clearly seen in his letter to Titus.

This short letter tells the story of pioneer church planting on the isle of Crete. Titus had been a missionary co-worker of Paul for over fifteen years[1] by the time that Paul appointed him to “set in order the remaining things and appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Paul did not command Titus to serve as a pastor in every town of Crete but to establish elders in them. Unfortunately, the misnomer “Pastoral Epistles” has often obscured the missionary orientation of Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus.[2] Sometimes, when people hear “Pastoral Epistle,” they incorrectly assume that Titus was a local church pastor.

Titus was not a pastor. Instead, he was a long-term missionary companion and coworker of the apostle Paul. Andreas Köstenberger called him an “apostolic delegate” of Paul.[3] In modern terms, Titus was a member of Paul’s missionary team who operated under Paul’s leadership in pioneering new areas for gospel proclamation, making disciples, establishing churches, and developing leaders.

Paul gave a clear commission to Titus: “set in order the remaining things and appoint elders in every city.” “Set in order the remaining things” probably refers to organizing churches from the new believers in Crete (cf. Acts 14:21-23). Because of the enormity of this task, some have assumed that this was Titus’ life work. However, Paul saw this as a short-term task. How do we know that Paul understood this commission as a short-term task? In Titus 3:12, Paul commanded Titus to come to Nicopolis before winter. Since Paul could not have sent this letter during winter, Titus would have received these commands in the same year he was expected to travel. Therefore. Titus was to set the churches in order and establish elders in the churches of Crete in a matter of months. Subsequently, Titus went to Dalmatia, another pioneer province (2 Tim 4:10; Rom 15:19). In summary, Paul’s letter to Titus represents the short-term assignment of a missionary, Titus, by his missionary supervisor, Paul.

The short-term nature of the book of Titus begs a question, “Why?” What was so urgent that Paul gave Titus such a limited amount of time to accomplish such a critical task? Why wasn’t this Titus’ life work? The answer is simple. Paul’s eyes were set on gospel expansion. He was already setting his hand to the next unreached field and he needed Titus’ help. Paul was calling Titus to Nicopolis, the capital of the Roman province of Epirus, which was to the west of Achaea. This verse is the only mention of Epirus in the New Testament, meaning that Epirus was another pioneer field. Simply put, Paul left one pioneer field (Crete) to go to another pioneer field (Epirus). Paul demonstrated an urgency that modern missionaries should emulate to bring the gospel to peoples and places who have never heard.

The astute reader will note that Paul’s missionary journeys to Crete and Epirus are not contained within the book of Acts. The most common understanding is that these events occurred after Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Paul was released, during which time he traveled and visited the churches he had planted and pioneered new fields. Then, around 67 AD, he was arrested again and beheaded under emperor Nero.[4]

Titus 1:5 implies that Paul was with Titus, proclaiming the gospel in Crete (“The reason I left you in Crete…”). Imagine Paul, Titus, and their team going city-by-city throughout Crete proclaiming the gospel. New believers were won to Christ. New churches were forming. Then, Paul announced that God was sending him to a pioneer field. Paul’s departure from Crete was no doubt marked by weeping like when Paul left the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:37).

Paul’s boldness in gospel advance is stunning considering the fact that he had recently been released from more than four years of imprisonment for his ministry (Acts 24:27; 28:30). Upon his release from Roman house arrest, Paul almost immediately began pioneering new territories with the gospel!

A few months later, the believers on Crete felt Paul’s urgency to pioneer new fields again when Paul called Titus to join him in Epirus. I imagine that this felt like a great loss to the Cretan believers. But Paul’s priority was gospel advance. It was necessary for him to move on to new, unreached fields. In order to move on, it was necessary to establish churches with elders. Thus, Paul’s command “set right what was left undone and appoint elders in every town.”

Even when Titus left, Paul did not leave these new churches without guidance from his team. Paul told Titus that he was arranging for a replacement, either Artemas or Tychicus (Titus 3:12). Thus, Paul’s team continued to minister and develop the churches and elders of Crete even in the absence of both Paul and Titus. Paul was able to continue to minister in established fields as well as pioneer new fields largely because his missionary team continued to grow and expand. For Paul, gospel urgency was linked to an urgency to develop leaders.

Where did Paul learn to develop leaders for gospel advance? No doubt, he looked to the model of Jesus. After all, Paul stated, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). In Luke 8:1-3, Jesus went village-by-village proclaiming the gospel, while the twelve watched. In Luke 9:1-6, Jesus sent the twelve. In Luke 10:1-11, Jesus sent the seventy-two. As Jesus multiplied leaders for gospel advance, so did Paul. Missionaries today would do well to follow the example of Paul and Jesus. Pioneering new fields. Raising up missionaries and missionary teams. Naming Christ where He has not been named.