For years visitors to Memphis have been welcomed by a variety of signs. All of these welcome signs focus on the strengths of Memphis or Tennessee.
- For example, there’s the sign on the bridge leading drivers from Arkansas to downtown Memphis which says, “Tennessee The Volunteer State Welcomes You.” The sign boasts that that Tennessee is the “volunteer state,” a place where people sacrifice and sign up to defend the country and help one another.
- In various places around Memphis, there have been signs that say, “Welcome to Memphis, America’s Distribution Center.” These signs highlight the fact that Memphis provides businesses great access to the rest of the country.
- And for years at the edge of the Mississippi River visitors to Memphis were greeted by a sign which stated “Memphis, home of the blues, birthplace of rock and roll.” The sign drew attention to the fact that Memphis has a rich and historic music culture.
Imagine if you had to create a welcome sign about yourself. What words would you use to alert onlookers what they might expect as they approached you? Let’s think about that positively for a moment. What strengths would you put on a welcome sign describing yourself? I might put, “Welcome to Chris Altrock, a disciplined and hardworking person.” That testimony is true. I am disciplined and hardworking. What would you put on your sign if you focused on your strengths? On a sign describing for others your strengths, what is one word you’d include? Write that down in the Link.
What would you put on that sign if it had to be truthful about your weaknesses? I’d have to put something like this: “Welcome to Chris Altrock—he is too quick with a sharp word at home.” I hate that sign. But its testimony is true. How about you? If you had to write a sign telling people what weaknesses to expect from you, what would you write? On a sign describing for others your weaknesses, what is one word you’d include? Write that in the Link.
As Eric and I pointed out over the last two Sundays, the reality is that all of us have some negative things to write on signs about ourselves. And the question is this: What can we do about those things? What hope is there for people like us who struggle with weaknesses like these?
- Paul addresses this in his letter called Titus. And in the first chapter of Titus Paul writes about a welcome sign for an island called Crete. It’s a welcome sign highlighting the weaknesses of those who lived there: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” (Titus 1:12 ESV) Crete was a large island in the Mediterranean Sea. Those who lived there were called Cretans.
- And Paul quotes an ancient author who wrote, “Cretans are always liars.” They were devious people.
- Others of that time called the people of Crete “evil beasts.” In Paul’s day the island of Crete had no or little native wild animals. Thus the ancients said something like this, “The only animals on Crete are the people who live there.”
- Not only were Cretans called liars and beasts. They were also called “lazy gluttons.” Cretans were known to hire themselves out as mercenaries. So it’s not that they were necessarily lazy. But they were selfish. They would do anything to turn a profit.
In other words, if the island of Crete had a sign welcoming people to it, and the sign could only list weaknesses, this is what it would say: “Welcome to the Island of Crete: The Home of Liars, Evil Beasts, and Lazy Gluttons.” This isn’t what the Crete Chamber of Commerce would put on its sign. But Paul writes in vs. 13 “This testimony is true.” “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”
Being the island of Crete was a bit like being the city of Detroit and for four years in a row topping the list of the nation’s most dangerous cities. Being Crete was a little like being the city of Memphis and topping the ranking for America’s fattest cities. Being Crete was a bit like being Las Vegas and being known as Sin City.
Ironically, the religion of Crete only contributed to the problem. According to one ancient historian, the people on Crete believed that the gods started out as humans who lived on Crete. Then these humans were elevated to the status of gods. They moved from Crete to Mount Olympus. Zeus, the ruler of the gods, actually incarnated himself into a human Cretan named Picus. Picus used his power to seduce women. He was devious and immoral. When he died, he was buried on Crete.
It’s no wonder that the people of Crete, who followed this religion, were liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons. They were just doing what their gods did.
In addition, the Christian churches were making no impact on Crete. By the time Paul writes this letter to a young Christian named Titus living on Crete, the churches seem as far gone as the rest of the island.
Here’s how Paul describes the situation: 10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. (Titus 1:10-16 ESV).
Paul describes in v. 11 how the churches on Crete have been infiltrated by people who are “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers.” That is, they are just as bad as the rest of the people who live on Crete. They are just as bad as the gods worshiped on Crete. Paul goes on to say in v. 12 that these religious people are “teaching for shameful gain.” They are acting just like the rest of Crete. And Paul says in v. 16 that these religious people are unfit for any good work. That’s a nice way of saying that they are good for nothing.
The result is that the churches, meeting in homes across the island, look no different than the world around them. The whole island is filled with weaknesses as are the churches.
And the question was this: What, if anything, could be done about these weaknesses? Was there a way to rescue this island and these churches? Or were they too far gone?
That question is one which filmmakers have spent millions of dollars exploring. The contemporary Batman trilogy is actually a meditation on whether a group of people—in this case a city called Gotham—can be so filled with weaknesses that it is beyond saving. In the first movie of the trilogy, one of the main villains– Ra’s al Ghul–explains the reason for his campaign to destroy Gotham: ”Gotham’s time has come. Like Constantinople or Rome before it, the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.” In the third movie, Bane, the villain, states, “I am Gotham’s reckoning… Gotham is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.” It’s not hard to imagine that some were saying the same thing about Crete. It’s not a stretch to imagine some saying the same thing about the churches on Crete.
Whether or not you’ve seen the movies, you probably see the issue. Are there cities, churches, or people who are beyond saving? Are there weaknesses so deep that there’s no way they can be changed? Is there a method by which God can transform such weaknesses?
Thankfully, Paul’s answer is a resounding YES! There is a way for the entire island of Crete to be changed. There is a way for all of these churches to be changed. And here, Paul says, is how it’s going to happen: 5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, his children are believersand not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sounddoctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9 ESV)
Now just a minute, you may be thinking. I was hoping Paul was going to have Batman or some superhero sweep in and save this day. But instead Paul writes about elders. Elders!? God’s going to use elders to save the day? Actually, yes.
Ultimately, Paul is saying this: God transforms the weaknesses of others through the strengths of individuals. Paul is saying that the key to saving this island and these churches lies in the hands of a few individuals—elders—who have the right stuff. Through a handful of individuals, cut from the right cloth, God can save the un-savable. God can transform all of these weaknesses through the strengths of these individuals.
Paul urges Titus to “appoint elders in every town.” The word “appoint” signifies an official action. This isn’t a casual request from Paul. There are individuals who need to be formally placed into action in these house churches.
Beginning today, Highland is asking you to nominate individuals to be appointed as Highland elders. Highland elders serve for a period of four years. At the end of that time, they may choose to serve another four years. Or they may step down. And, at these four year intervals, we come before you to ask for nominations for additional elders.
Paul calls them “elders.” Unfortunately, when we hear that word, we think of a similar word: “elderly.” That’s not what Paul is saying. Paul’s not restricting this group to elderly men. The word “elders” was used in Paul’s day to refer simply to spiritual leaders. Paul is saying that God can transform this island and these churches through individuals—elders. And by “elders” he means people who have the capacity to provide spiritual leadership.
Thus, we are not asking you to nominate only elderly men as additional elders for Highland. We’re asking you to nominate men of any age who have the capacity to provide spiritual leadership in the way Paul describes here. That could be someone in his twenties, thirties or forties. Or it could be someone in his fifties, sixties or seventies.
And what were these elders to do? Paul believes that God could transform the weaknesses of the island and the churches through elders as they did two things: live out a transformed life and teach others to do the same.
Paul writes in detail about the transformed lives elders are to live. He lists several character traits. This is not a comprehensive list. These are examples of the kind of lives elders are to live among the people:
- First, they are to live transformed lives in their marriages. They are to be “the husband of one wife.” Basically, Paul’s asking them to be faithful husbands.
- Second, they are to live transformed lives with their kids. They need to have been capable of pointing their children to Christ.
- Third, Paul asks that these men not be arrogant, or overbearing. This refers to someone who rides roughshod over others.
- Fourth, they must not be quick-tempered.
- Fifth, they must not be a drunkards or violent. This was clearly an issue in the larger culture of Crete.
- Sixth, they must not be greedy for gain. This stands in contrast to the description Paul gives of some in the churches who are pursuing dishonest gain.
- Seventh, they must be hospitable. Paul mentions this because in that culture, churches often met in homes.
- Eighth, they must be lovers of good—inclined to pursue things that are good for others.
- Ninth, they must be self-controlled.
- Tenth, they must be upright—behaving in ways that are fair and just.
- Eleventh, they must be holy.
- Twelfth, they must be disciplined.
- Finally, they must “hold firm to the trust worthy word.” In other words, their lives need to be shaped by Scripture.
What Paul’s saying is that if you put people of character and spiritual strength in positions of influence in a church or in a culture, they will have a powerful effect. There will be something contagious about their lives. They will influence the people around them. And weaknesses will begin to change. God’s plan to renovate the island and these churches is simply to put men of Christ-like character in the middle of them and just let the leaving process take place.
This is important for us to remember. When members of a board for an organization are chosen, they are sometimes chosen because they are successful in the business world. And, unfortunately, that’s how some churches approach the appointing of elders. They think they have to look for people who are successful businessmen. But that’s not what Paul is saying. Paul is saying that elders need to be successful not in commerce but in conduct. As you consider additional elders for Highland, don’t look necessarily for people who have excelled in the secular marketplace. Look for men who excel in spiritual maturity. Because God transforms the weaknesses of others through the strengths of those kinds of individuals.
Jim Collins writes about leadership. And he often uses the image of a bus to describe groups like churches. When I was in high sports, we had to take very long bus rides to find other very small schools who would play against us in football. These bus rides took four to eight hours one way across rural New Mexico. I remember one year there was a senior on our team who was a troublemaker. As a senior, he had a position of influence. And on those long bus rides he would play vulgar music, he would curse, he would play tricks on the freshman. And before long, others would join him. And soon, the whole team was brought down to his level. That’s the power of one troublemaker on a bus. His weaknesses can bring everyone else down.
But the next year, after the troublemaker graduated, a new senior of took his spot. Only he was just the opposite. He was a godly teenager with Christ-like character and a respect for God and for people. And with him on the bus and now, as a senior, in a position of influence, his presence changed the whole tone of those bus rides. Somehow, he lifted the whole team up to his level just by the way he behaved. And this is what Paul is envisioning here. You put the right people of godly character in the right positions of influence on the bus, and you end up transforming the whole bus.
This is what I appreciate most about so many of our current elders. As I watch them live in our midst, I’m inspired to be a better husband and a better father. I’m inspired to pray more and worry less. I’m inspired to serve others and to evangelize. Because that’s the kind of character these men exemplify.
Not only is Paul looking for people who live transformed lives. He’s looking for people who can teach the rest of us to live transformed lives. Here’s v. 9 again: so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. Let’s be clear about what Paul’s saying. Sometimes churches think that the men who are elders have to be able to teach any Bible class on any topic. They have to be able to answer any spiritual question. But that’s not what Paul’s asking for here. He’s asking for men who live transformed lives and who can teach the rest of us to live similar lives. If you are nominated to be an elder, don’t think you are disqualified because you are confused about what the book of Revelation means. What matters is your ability to use Scripture to encourage others to live transformed lives.
That’s why we are seeking additional elders. We believe that having additional individuals in positions of influence who live transformed lives and who teach the rest of us to do the same will be immensely powerful, not only in the life of this church but also within the larger community.
And there’s a principle at work in this passage. Because it’s not just about the power of God to use elders to transform churches. It’s about the power of God to use individuals to transform you and me.
Think back to that welcome sign we talked about at the beginning of this sermon. Think about some of the words you’d use to describe your weaknesses. There are many ways God can help you transform those weaknesses. But one of the primary ways is through an individual with spiritual strength and influence. Imagine how we could change if we each invited into our lives a person or two who is living a transformed life and we gave that person permission to rebuke us, encourage us, or instruct us to live better. Imagine the impact that would have on our marriages, our friendships, and our behavior at work. Highland needs such men in the eldership. And we each need an individual or two like this in our own lives. Because God transforms the weaknesses of others through the strengths of individuals. Pray this week for God to lead you to this individual.
 Towner, Philip H. (2006-07-28). The Letters to Timothy And Titus (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (Kindle Locations 12780-12781). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Kindle Edition
 Towner, Philip H. (2006-07-28). The Letters to Timothy And Titus (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (Kindle Locations 12011-12014). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.
 The Letters to Timothy And Titus (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (Kindle Locations 12373-12375). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.