It may seem strange to us to speak of God's grace "appearing." Pagans used the term grace to signify divine or regal beneficence—something good done by a god or king for those who could not do for themselves. For the Hebrew and the Christian, however, the grace of God is the essence of God's covenant with humankind. It signifies God's unmerited love. The language of verse 11 shows that this grace culminated or found full expression in a particular event. But what event does Paul mean?
The verb appeared is a technical term for the manifestation or "epiphany" of a god (or hero) to bring help. Paul (or his material) has borrowed this concept to denote the "appearance" of Christ (2 Tim 1:10), and elsewhere in these letters the term refers to the second, future "appearance" of Christ (2:13; 1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 4:1; compare 2 Thess 2:8). It is this historical event that gives full expression to God's grace.
This event, too, brought help. But the help associated with God's grace, salvation, transcends any pagan notions of help or deliverance from physical calamity. It is salvation from sin and sin's extensive, destructive results. Salvation is an adjective in the Greek sentence which describes something intrinsic to grace: God's grace is not simply beneficent in purpose, it means to save.
This event is unique in another respect. In scope it is universal, reaching in some way to all men. This does not mean that all people respond to the appearance of Christ—to his birth, ministry, death and resurrection—with equal acceptance. In fact, the change to us below (vv. 12, 14) implies the need for belief. But as a means of salvation God's grace in Christ is offered to all. Compared with pagan beliefs in patron gods who might deliver a city from crisis, the claims of Christianity are startling.
Thus Paul's logic begins with the event of Christ's incarnation and earthly ministry. But his main point is yet to come.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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