Vignettes into the early church – Romans 16:1-16
It is often easy to read over these greetings, but they contain in themselves important lessons for the church today. For one thing, they give us a glimpse into the early church through the lives of the people that the apostle mentions and greets. And this is important because the church today is not called to revise itself to the times, but to be faithful to the church that Jesus Christ constituted two millennia ago.
As we come to the end of Romans, it is important that we remember that doctrine is never to be divorced from our lives. Doctrine is not something just to be believed, but something to be lived. If the truths of God’s word never penetrate beyond the realm of imagination into the realm of our affections and doings, then we are little different from the wayside hearer our Lord speaks of in the parable of the sower. And this chapter helps us to remember that Romans was not written to a bunch of ivory tower scholars, but to common, everyday folks (including slaves) who were to take these truths and incorporate them into their lives. We are to do the same.
This then is the line of demarcation between the church and the world. If you ask what is the fundamental reality that distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian, it is this: the Christian is someone who is in union with Christ, who is in a saving relationship with Jesus. You are not a Christian if you do not believe in Christ and if your hope for righteousness before God and eternal life is not completely based upon the merits of Jesus for you. You cannot be part of God’s people and reject Christ. This is affirmed by our Lord (John 14:6) and by the apostles (Acts 4:12). The apostle Paul has been preaching this fact all the way through the book of Romans. How are we justified? It is by faith in Christ (Rom. 3-5). How are we sanctified and glorified? It is in union with Christ (Rom. 6-8). It is why the apostle John said, “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).
The doctrine of our union with Christ is so important that is bears reminding ourselves what it means and implies. It is one way to sum up all the blessings of our salvation. In fact, this is precisely how the apostle puts it in his epistle to the Ephesians. There, he writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). He then goes on in that great chapter to unpack all that that means. It means, in particular, that we are chosen in Christ (1:4), that we are predestined to adoption in Christ (5), that we have the forgiveness of sins in Christ (7), and revelation (8-10), and an eternal inheritance (11), and the earnest of the Spirit (13-14). There is not one spiritual blessing, not one thing that will bring you to heaven, that does not come to you because of what Jesus Christ accomplished by his redemptive work. We have come to be saved, not because of our goodness but because we have become connected to Jesus by faith. It is the fundamental identity of the Christian.
A Christian is someone who is in possession of these great realities, and they are in possession of them, not because they have made themselves worthy of them but because they are united to the only one in the universe who is worthy. And this is something that we must continually remind ourselves of. It is so easy for us to separate our work for Christ and our union with him, as if our work for him makes our union with him more certain or secure. But this is not so. It is the other way around. Our work for the Lord is not significant or meaningful because of what people think of it. It is not significant because of the numbers associated with it. It is significant and meaningful because it is work not only done for Jesus but fundamentally because it is done in him.
A Christian is therefore someone who recognizes their need of Jesus Christ and that he is the answer to man’s greatest need – the need of forgiveness of sins and freedom from its crushing dominion. Every other problem in the world is but the symptom of this greater problem and thus to be free from this is the greatest possible freedom. True freedom doesn’t come in the ability to express ourselves anyway we please – for this is another symptom of sin’s turning us into ourselves – but freedom from sin which separates us from God. And we need to constantly focus on Jesus and to preach the gospel daily to ourselves and to renew our commitment to him daily and to constantly trust in him every day. In other words, we need to put into practice Scripture passages such as these: Heb. 12:2; Gal. 2:20; Jn. 15:5.
Christians manifest their union with Christ through mutual love.
This is a passage suffused with love. We especially see the love the apostle had for the believers at Rome, but it is clear that this was love that was reciprocated. It becomes explicit in verse 16: not only is Paul greeting the believers at Rome but he is joined by all the other churches as well: “All the churches of Christ greet you.”
First of all, we see how love is manifested in the way believers see each other, as part of a family. Thus, the apostle opens by saying, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe” (1). In verse 13, Paul identifies the mother of Rufus as his own; not because Rufus was the apostle’s biological brother, but because they were all part of the same family. It was in this family environment that the “holy kiss” was commended and commanded (16). It was a sign of affection, as members of a family would greet each other. (I would argue that this is culturally conditioned, but the principle remains the same. We are to show affection to each other in a way that is appropriate to belonging to the family of God.) It reminds me of what the apostle exhorted Timothy to do: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women was mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (2 Tim. 5:1-2).
Second, this love is manifested and seen in the way the believers helped each other. Phoebe is described as a woman who was a patron of Paul and of many others. It is probable that she, like Lydia of Philippi, was a businesswoman and a woman of means who used her wealth to support and give lodging to traveling saints (Cenchreae was a port city adjacent to Corinth). In addition, she is called a servant of the church, for she ministered to the needs of the saints. Mary, the apostle says, “has worked hard for you” (6). She is not the only one: so did Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and “the beloved Persis” (12). Here are saints who are bearing each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:1-5). Then we have Prisca and Aquila “who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well” (4). They are working for Christ, yes. In fact, first and foremost we work for him (cf. ver. 9). But in working for him we labor for the saints. It is impossible to work for the Lord and to do so without a due consideration for the needs of the church. If we are a family, we will inevitably and naturally work hard for each other.
This is work, by the way, that is never forgotten. It may be forgotten by men, but not by God: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb. 6:10).
This is love that does not show preference. Commentators note how that the names that Paul mentions in these verses probably contain the names of slaves along with freedmen and freedwomen. Names like Junia and Ampliatus, Tryphosa, Tryphaena, Stachys, and many others. Those in the households of Aristobolus and Narcissus are probably referring to their household slaves. Nevertheless, there is no distinction in the greetings between slave and citizen. They are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Again, this is a natural outflow of the love of God in us, as well as a recognition that what puts us in the family of God is not our status in society but the sheer grace and mercy of God.
Another way that is obvious but is easily overlooked is the simple fact that the mutual love of Christian brothers and sisters is verbally expressed. You see this in the greeting which Paul and the other churches give to those at Rome. The apostle obviously saw that it was important. And it is important. Sometimes we can take for granted that others know how much we love and appreciate them. But we must not take it for granted. Let it be expressed. Let others know how much you have been blessed by their ministry to you.
Note how these Christians had a zeal for the gospel.
We are told that Prisca and Aquila were Paul’s “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (3). They were often at Paul’s side, laboring with him to advance God’s kingdom among men. They were the ones who took Apollos aside and discipled him (Acts 18:26). We can see how diligent they were, for they risked their necks for the apostle, presumably in his evangelistic labors, and their labors called out the thanks, not only of some, but of “all the churches of the Gentiles”! (4). Moreover, it seems that many of the early Christians met in each other’s homes, and so it was natural that the apostle could say, “Greet also the church in their house” (5). They were deeply committed to the cause of God and truth.
Moreover, the apostle commends Urbanus, “our fellow worker in Christ” (9); again, this most certainly means church work; either evangelizing the lost, discipling new believers, or encouraging the established. And when Paul points to the work of believers in verse 12, it was probably not only a reference to their work for the saints in meeting their needs, but their work for the Lord in advancing the gospel among men.
Again, this is a natural outflow of what it means to be in Christ. I was reminded recently of Spurgeon’s definition of evangelism: it is one beggar telling another beggar when they can find food. We, who have been filled in Christ, who have found that water and bread of life, will want others to find Christ as well.
Note the role that women had in the early church.
There is something to be said just in the number of women mentioned in this list of greetings: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia. The phrase “to labor” is used of four women: Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis, a word often associated in the New Testament with ministry (1 Co. 16:16; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17). The word diaconos is used of Phoebe (1). Prisca was a co-worker with Paul, who is more times than not mentioned before her husband (though always with him).
It is not only that the ministry of these women was worth mentioning, but that it was significant. It was commended by the apostle, and elicited the praise of all the churches of the Gentiles. Much of the work for Christ that the apostle mentions here would not have been done without these women.
Now I believe that there is an emergent feminism rising in the evangelical church here in the West. There are calls for women to preach, for example. There are calls for women pastors. For my part, I believe this would be dangerous because this would be in contradiction to the repeated and clear prohibitions of the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). When Paul gives the qualifications for the overseer in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1, it is a qualifications list that implies that the bishop/elder is a man. In other words, in the New Testament, the church is to be led by qualified men. And that means that the pulpit, from which the pastors primarily exercise leadership, is to be reserved for qualified and called men.
However, we can go the other direction and end up denying women a place in the ministry of the church, and we must never do that. And it doesn’t begin and end in the nursery. It doesn’t mean that there is no place for women to teach or to speak. We know that there is a significant and important need for this, especially for older women to teach the younger women, as the apostle instructs Titus (Tit. 2:3-4). We also see from 1 Cor. 11 that the apostle encourages women to prophesy (whatever that means, but it certainly is a speaking gift), and this is in the context of the gathered church. God forbid that we mute the believing woman! There is a place where women can and should encourage others by their words. There is even a place where women, like Prisca, can disciple younger men, like Apollos. Though all this must be done in a way that acknowledges the leadership that God has put in place in the church, we must at the same time give it its rightful place. Romans 16 would not be possible apart from the ministry of women.
In connection with this, there is the question as to whether Phoebe is an example of a deaconess. For the word “deacon” is used to describe her relation to the church of Cenchreae. I personally am not convinced by the arguments for this. For one thing, diaconos is a very generic word. It is used of the ministry in any sense, not just that done by those who inhabit the office of deacon. For example, our Lord is called a “deacon” in Rom. 15:8. So the fact that this word is used to describe this woman doesn’t settle the matter.
What settles it for me is the way the apostle refers to the office of deacon in 1 Tim. 3:8-13. In this passage, deacons are men (see esp. 11-12). The fact that women are mentioned in verse 11 doesn’t contradict this. Paul doesn’t refer to them as deacons but as the wives of the deacons. If it is asked why he doesn’t refer to the wives of elders in the previous verses, it is because whereas the wife of the elder cannot assist her husband in those duties which are peculiar to the spiritual oversight of the church, the wives of deacons would have been able to assist their husbands in their duties as a deacon.
But we don’t need to say that since women cannot hold offices in the church that they have therefore no ministry in the church, or that they cannot do important and necessary ministry in and for the church.
One final thing…
There is one final thing to say about this text. How many of these people do we know beyond these pages? Very little to nothing! They performed no feats that are told to this day. They are not famous as men count fame. Like the shepherds at the birth of Christ, most of these names appear briefly in the NT story and then vanish. But here’s the point: these are the kinds of people that God populates his church with and these are the kinds of people by which God advances his kingdom and cause in this world. You may look at yourself and think that because you are no great shakes as men count greatness, therefore you have little to no place in the ministry of the church. But this is not the case. Isn’t it the case that God has shown us again and again in his word and in history that he loves to work through the weak and the worthless, the little people whom no one else notices? We must therefore go back to where we started. The important thing is not our gifts, or our goodness. The important thing is whether or not we are in Christ. And being in Christ, whether we are willing to live out our identity in Christ in faith and obedience? Are you? There is no greater privilege in all the world!