In his epistles, Paul often grounds Christian ethics in the character of Israel’s covenant Lord. Ephesians 5:1, for example, calls us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” The apostle also tells his readers to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Our standard for right action is not some impersonal rule or regulation but rather the very character of the creator God.
Titus 3:1–7 also reflects this principle of imitation, making the Creator’s benevolence toward us while we were hateful and undeserving the basis for the courtesy we are to show to the non-Christians around us. Against those who would try to argue that Titus and the other Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy) are not Pauline, the concept of imitation in Titus 3 indicates that these letters come from the apostle. Moreover, it is a powerful reminder of the grace that our triune God has shown to us lest we forget what we were before Christ called us to Himself, rescuing us from our wandering.
Verse 4 of today’s passage speaks of the appearance of God’s goodness and loving kindness, which, as verses 5–7 explain, refers to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Of course, it is not that the love of God was unknown prior to the incarnation. The Old Testament is clear that the exodus from Egypt, among other events, was grounded in the special affection of God for His people (Deut. 7:6–8). But it is true that in Jesus the goodness and lovingkindness of God is revealed in its fullest. In Jesus, the very Son of God takes upon Himself the wrath we deserve in order that we might be reconciled unto Him (Rom. 3:21–26). God’s mercy takes on flesh, as it were, in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah, condescending to our weakness to make it plain beyond a shadow of a doubt that “God would pity and save rather than destroy” (Matthew Henry).
First-century Roman society looked for the emperor to show goodness and kindness, but Paul tells us these qualities are found perfectly not in earthly lords but in the supreme Lord of all. Our God has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is the source of all grace; consequently, those who have received the grace of Christ show it in being gracious to all people.