SISTERS AND BROTHERS Romans 16
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1).Lists of names mean little to us. But each name represents a person who is important to God.
Paul closed with personal greetings to close friends in Rome (16:1–16), with an exhortation (vv. 17–20), and with greetings from fellow workers who were with him (vv. 21–23). And he capped it all with praise to God (vv. 24–27).
Understanding the Text
“Greet” Rom. 16:3–16. The Bible’s penchant for including long lists of names sometimes irritates readers. But there are always reasons. In the Old Testament, most listings of names are genealogical: they display the faithfulness of God to the people of Israel, with whom He maintained a covenant relationship over long and often stormy centuries. Those lists of names establish not only the identity of the people of God, but His faithfulness. Here in Romans 16 is a list of names that has another purpose. It displays something of the network of warm and loving relationships which bound the early church together. Paul was not just a theologian, he was a friend. He did not just count up converts, he cared for people as individuals. So let’s not be put off by the list of names here. Let it remind us that in the eyes of God and in the church of Jesus, each person is important enough to be known by name. “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea” Rom. 16:1. The way translators have handled this verse makes Christian feminists see red. That word “servant” in the Greek is diakonos. More than one commentator has noted that the use of this form, rather than diakoneo or diakonia, suggests something more than casual service. It’s likely that Phoebe held the leadership position of a deacon in her congregation, though at the time Romans was written it’s impossible to say what this position involved. I can understand why some Christian women are eager for Phoebe to gain greater recognition. The ministry of women hasn’t been overly welcomed in the church. But probably the highest honor we can do Phoebe or any other believer is to note, as Paul does, that “she has been a great help to many people, including me.” After all, this is what our faith is all about. Not the office we may hold. But the help we can be to each other as we seek together to follow Jesus Christ. “Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus” Rom. 16:3–4. It should give those folks who think of Paul as a male chauvinist a moment’s pause at least. The first two folks that Paul mentioned in this greeting section of Romans 16 are women. And Priscilla was mentioned even before her husband, Aquila. Both Priscilla and Aquila are acknowledged as Paul’s “fellow workers,” even as Phoebe was acknowledged as a church deacon. While Phoebe’s ministry of help seems focused in her local house church, the word sunergos, “fellow worker,” suggests this couple shared Paul’s commission to serve as missionary evangelists. There really is a place for women. At home. And abroad. In local churches. And in missions. “Outstanding among the apostles” Rom. 16:7. The word “apostle” is used in a restrictive sense when applied to any of the Twelve and to Paul. These men were the divinely commissioned leaders of the church, and spoke with a unique authority. But many others earned the title “apostle,” among them Andronicus and Junias. After all, the word “apostle” literally means one who is sent on a mission. Paul’s word about these relatives who were “outstanding among the apostles” reminds us that early Christians felt the missionary call to share their faith with others in the Roman world. Don’t ever suppose that Paul and his little team of missionaries was responsible for the explosive spread of the Gospel in the first century. They didn’t do it alone! Nor today can the Christian’s commission to spread the Gospel be fulfilled by a few “full-time” missionaries. Let’s be sure that we are numbered “among the apostles.” Let’s even try to be outstanding. “Ampliatus. . . . Urbanus . . . Stachys” Rom. 16:8–9. What was the church in Rome like? One hint comes from the names Paul mentioned in Romans 16. These names, for instance, along with many of the others, were most common among slaves, freedmen, and freed-women in Roman society. It’s quite clear that the church in Rome was not an upper crust phenomenon. The Christians there were mostly ordinary folk, and probably drawn from the lower strata of Roman society. But notice how Paul spoke of “low class” Roman believers. Ampliatus was one “whom I love in the Lord.” Urbanus was “our fellow worker in Christ.” Stachys was “my dear friend.” We can feel the love overflow as Paul wrote, surrounding each person with affection. Class isn’t to matter in Christ’s church. It surely didn’t matter to Paul. He loved these men and women for their own sakes, and because they were deeply loved by Jesus Christ. In this too let’s follow Paul’s example. Let’s love people for themselves, not their positions. And let’s let them know how much. “Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord” Rom. 16:12. In another two generations Clement of Rome would report rulings severely restricting women’s roles in church leadership. His words, in 1 Clement 20:7, are sometimes quoted to support modern restrictions on female participation in leadership in our own local churches. Whatever authority one may wish to concede to Clement, it must be significant that the Apostle Paul in this listing credits four women with significant service in their own congregations (Mary, Tryphena and Tryphosa, and Persis). In fact, he says this of four women and no men at least on this list. In making this observation, I am not mounting a campaign for women’s ordination, or claiming female superiority in local church leadership. I’m simply pointing out what the text says. And suggesting that perhaps—just perhaps—Clement of Rome overreacted to the freedom first- generation Christian women found through the Gospel to use their gifts in Christ’s church. Perhaps—just perhaps—some men today have overreacted too. “Watch out for those who cause divisions” Rom. 16:17–19. If we are truly devoted to one another, there will be unity in Christ’s church. That bond that Paul himself displayed with those now in Rome that he had come to know and love holds us together in intimate fellowship. But beware if devotion flags, and the church becomes an impersonal gathering of strangers. Then the door is thrown open wide for “those who cause divisions.” Their smooth talk and flattery is designed to deceive. They want to build their own little kingdom, with their own handful of followers. They are not serving Jesus, but their own pride, or need for adulation. Paul had a simple prescription to deal with such people. Half of it is stated in verse 17: “Keep away from them.” The other half is implied in his letter as a whole, and in the first 16 verses of this chapter: “Grow close to your brothers and sisters in the Lord. If you come to know the people in your local church family well, and if you love them deeply, then no smooth-talking stranger will be able to shatter the unity that Christ gives.” “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works” Rom. 16:23. I once worked for a Christian organization whose chapels one year featured Christian “success stories.” The wealthy and respected of our community trooped one by one to the chapel pulpit, and each told how faith in Christ contributed to his rise. How I wished we’d find some poor, uneducated failure, who could tell us how faith in Jesus sustained him in his rush toward ruin. It didn’t happen of course. We get so excited over the converted movie star, the reformed criminal, the Miss World. Apparently the NIV translators share that failing, for Erastus the oikonomos may well have been a financial officer in the Corinthian government, but there’s no way today to tell how high a rank he held. Was he really the “director of public works”? Well, maybe. But not likely. Anyway, it really doesn’t matter, does it? As James so wisely says, “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position [in Christ]. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position [as a mere sinner saved by grace]” (James 1:9–10). What really counts about Erastus wasn’t his position in the Corinthian hierarchy. All that really counts is, he was one of Jesus’ own. And so are you.
I Love a Mystery(Rom. 16:25–27)
It was one of my favorite radio programs. I can hear the announcer now, his voice quavering with feigned excitement: “And now” (he’d begin, in hushed tones), “I” (pause), “Love” (a little louder) “A MYSTERY!” I’d hurry into our little living room, flop down on my stomach in front of the radio, intent and ready to hear the next fascinating chapter in the current adventure. Paul loved a mystery too. No, not the imaginary adventure of my radio days. The biblical mystery of Jesus Christ. In Scripture “mystery” is a technical theological term. It identifies some previously hidden or only hinted at facet of God’s eternal plan, which has only recently been revealed. Christ, Paul realized with wonder, is the greatest of all the mysteries of God. How could God forgive the sins of past saints? How could God not simply declare human beings righteous in His sight, but actually make them righteous? How could God, committed as He was to the Jews, open wide His arms to the Gentiles too? How could Jew and Gentile ever find common ground, enabling the race to be drawn back together into one? How could God’s love for all the human race be so stunningly displayed that hardened sinners would suddenly halt, reconsider, and kneel, broken, before God? These and all of history’s unanswered questions are, for Paul, answered in Jesus Christ. He is the mystery hidden for long ages past. He is the One glimpsed in prophetic writings. He is the One who has come and stands fully revealed today that all nations might believe and obey Him. He is the One who has at last enabled us to sense not only the love but also the wisdom of God. He is the One through whom God receives glory, forever and ever. Christians can differ honestly about many doctrines. They can dispute about practices. But on one thing we all agree. We all love the One whose coming explained the mystery of God’s plan, and revealed once and for all the full extent of His mysterious, wonderful love.
To see clearly, look at everything through Jesus Christ.
“A God on the cross! That is all my theology.”—Jean LaCordaire