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(chapter 16, verses 1-27)
Romans chapter 16, verses 1 and 2
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.
When Paul refers to Phoebe as “our sister,” he is likely not thinking of her as a blood relative but as a fellow believer. Phoebe came from Cenchrea, one of the seaports serving Corinth. Corinth is located on an isthmus and has two harbors, one serving westbound shipping (for example, Italy) and the other serving the east. Cenchrea was on the eastern (Aegean) side of the isthmus.
The term used to describe Phoebe is diakonos. It could very properly be translated “deaconess.” What her exact capacity was as a “servant of the church in Cenchrea” is not known, nor are we told what her role in Rome was to be. One thing is very clear: she had been most helpful to the Christian cause. Paul gives her high praise and an unqualified recommendation to the Christians in Rome.
We need to remind ourselves that in ancient times there was no international postal service such as we take for granted. A standard method of sending correspondence was for a letter to be carried by a traveler who happened to be going to the place you wanted to send it to. A likely scenario would be that during his three-month stay in Corinth, Paul, who wanted to send a letter to the Romans, learned that Phoebe was going there. Hence he prevailed on her to carry the letter and deliver it to the Roman Christians. It might also have served as a letter of introduction for her.
Romans chapter 16, verses 3-15
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.
They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
Greet also the church that meets at their house.
Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.
Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.
Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord.
Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.
Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ.
Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus.
Greet Herodion, my relative.
Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.
Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.
Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them.
Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the churches of Christ send greetings.
An unusual feature of the letter to the Romans is the large number of personal greetings Paul attaches—over two dozen! No other letter comes close to having that many. Such a quantity of greetings is the more remarkable when we recall that Paul had never visited the Christian community in Rome. The likely explanation is that many of the “Romans” may have been people whom Paul got to know earlier during his days of working “from Jerusalem . . . to Illyricum” (chapter 15, verse 19) who subsequently moved to Rome, either permanently or temporarily. Note, for example, that Epenetus was “the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.” There was, after all, a good deal of truth in the ancient generalization that all roads lead to Rome.
As for the people Paul simply mentions by name, the Roman readers would obviously know exactly who was being greeted. It’s a pity that we know so little about them. Once we’re past Aquila and Priscilla,* (Known from Acts chapter 18, verses 18-26; 1st Corinthians chapter 16, verse 19; 2nd Timothy chapter 4, verse 19.) they tend to be mere names for us.
Paul, however, adds some intriguing tidbits of information that allow us to do some grouping. One feature that leaps out from the list is the number of women who are commended. Paul’s inspired teaching on the role of women has occasionally (and incorrectly) gained him the reputation of being a woman-hater. How far that is from the truth is indicated by the fact that approximately a third of the people greeted here are women—and all are given unreserved praise. The list includes the following women and tributes:
Priscilla: “my fellow [worker] in Christ Jesus . . . risked [her life] for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to [her].”
Mary: “worked very hard for you”
Tryphena and Tryphosa: “women who work hard in the Lord”
Persis: “my dear friend . . . another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord”
Rufus’ mother: “who has been a mother to me, too”
Incidentally, the gender of Junias (verse 7) could be debated. The ancient Greek manuscripts didn’t have accent marks, so adding them was a later editorial addition. Junias could be accented as either a man’s name or a woman’s name. Note that in crediting Andronicus and Junias with being “outstanding among the apostles,” Paul is using a wider definition of apostle than only those who were called directly by Christ himself.*
* (Paul uses this wider sense when he calls James, the Lord’s brother, an “apostle” (Galatians chapter 1, verses 18 and 19), as also does Luke in calling Barnabas an apostle (Acts chapter 14, verses 4 and 14). In 1st Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 6, Silas and Timothy seem to be included among the apostles.)
Another interesting feature is Paul’s mention of “relatives.” Three of them—Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater (chapter 16, verse 21)—are with Paul in Corinth and are sending greetings. They would no doubt have a special interest in the three relatives in Rome: Herodion (verse 11) and Andronicus and Junias (verse 7). The latter two are commended as having “been in prison with [Paul]” and are further described as people who “were in Christ before [Paul] was.” This second piece of information suggests a highly interesting situation where Paul’s family members became Christians while Paul was still a vicious persecutor of Christians.*
* (For additional support to the Christian cause by Paul’s relatives, see Acts chapter 23, verses 12-22, particularly verse 16, where Paul’s nephew (“the son of Paul’s sister”) tips off the authorities to a Jewish plot against Paul.)
A final observation drawn from incidental pieces of information incorporated into Paul’s list is that there does not appear to have been one formally organized congregation in Rome at this time. Rather, the Roman Christian community seems to have consisted of a series of house churches convening in private homes. We are clearly told of that arrangement in the case of Aquila and Priscilla, where Paul speaks of “the church that meets at their house.” “The household of Aristobulus” sounds like a similar grouping. Also, the apostle sends greetings to Christian leaders and “the brothers with them” and “all the saints with them.” The impression left is that these are loosely organized house churches.
When Paul says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” he is urging a common practice that was in use in the early church** (See 1st Corinthians chapter 16, verse 20; 2nd Corinthians chapter 13, verse 12; 1st Thessalonians chapter 5, verse 26; 1st Peter chapter 5, verse 14) and is still practiced in some churches. Then, as now, it was a sign of Christian fellowship and did not bear any romantic implications.
Romans chapter 16, verses 17-20
I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.
Because this section of the letter sounds different from the surrounding sections, some have questioned whether this section belongs here. The solution to that supposed problem lies in observing how Paul has structured the material under discussion.
It is essential to realize that Paul starts verse 17 with the connecting word but. Unfortunately, many translations drop that conjunction, including the NIV. When we take that conjunction into account, the progression of thought between verses 1 to 16 and 17 to 20 becomes clear. After listing numerous people whom the Roman readers were to greet, the apostle then continues, “[but] watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way.”
Note whom Paul is warning against. These are not people of different political persuasions or different cultural practices. They are religious people—but religious people who teach false doctrine, doctrine “contrary to the teaching you have learned.”
Also, the original makes it clear that these are not people who have simply become a little confused in their thinking and would be willing to correct their teaching if their errors were pointed out to them. No, they are people who may fairly be described as regularly and intentionally causing divisions and questioning beliefs. They have an agenda; they are teachers seeking to win others to their point of view.
Paul is very definite in his advice concerning false teachers: Watch out for them and keep away from them! Or to cast it in the terminology of the first 16 verses of this chapter, Don’t greet them as if they were brothers in the faith.
Avoiding fellowship with false teachers ourselves and warning others against them is not a popular message, particularly in our age of false ecumenism. But as Paul points out, such avoidance of false teachers and false teaching is very necessary, for two reasons.
First of all, “Such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.” A standard assumption on the part of the ecumenicists is that unity of doctrine is neither possible nor necessary. Thus they follow their own inclinations (“their own appetites”) rather than our Lord, who sent his heralds out with the commission to teach all nations “to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew chapter 28, verse 20). Ignoring some doctrines or incorrectly teaching what Christ has entrusted to us is simply unacceptable to our Lord.
But there is another very practical reason to steer clear of false teachers and false teaching. False doctrine is a grave danger to saving faith! Or as Paul says, “By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” This “naive people” is not just other people; it includes us as well. False doctrine is nothing to trifle with. “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?” Paul warns (1st Corinthians chapter 5, verse 6). “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1st Corinthians chapter 10, verse 12).
Although Paul feels the need to warn very earnestly, he is not being critical of the Romans or implying that they have not been avoiding false teachers. Quite the contrary! He commends their faith and their faithfulness. With his usual generosity toward others and enthusiasm over any growth and maturity in the faith of his readers, Paul says, “Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”
With a promise and a benediction, the apostle now concludes his letter. “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.” Just as there was a note of finality at the end of chapter 15, so there also is here. Paul has finished his part of the letter, but there still remains a bit of unfinished business. His colleagues in Corinth, who, like Paul, also knew many of the same people in Rome, would like to take advantage of the rare opportunity to send their greetings. Therefore, Paul lets them piggyback on his letter.
Romans chapter 16, verse 21
Timothy, my fellow worker, sends his greetings to you, as do Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, my relatives.
Timothy, of course, is well known from Scripture. Since joining Paul’s missionary team on the second missionary journey (Acts chapter 16, verses 1-5), he has been Paul’s constant companion and coworker. By contrast, we know nothing about Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, except that they are Paul’s relatives.
Romans chapter 16, verse 22
I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.
Fortunately, Tertius identifies himself. He was the professional scribe, undoubtedly Christian, who wrote what Paul dictated. Paul always used secretarial help. The secretary would write the body of the letter, and Paul personally added merely a closing section as his signature (2nd Thessalonians chapter 3, verse 17). That practice is evident at the close of Galatians where Paul says, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand” (chapter 6, verse 11). Here in Romans, verses 25 to 27 of this last chapter are very likely the sign-off in Paul’s own handwriting.
Romans chapter 16, verse 23
Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.
This Gaius is often assumed to be the same person referred to in Acts chapter 18, verse 7. There we are told that after Paul and his Christian group were driven out of the synagogue in Corinth, they “went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God.” The assumption is that this benefactor’s full name was Gaius Titius Justus.
Regardless of whether or not that association of names is correct, this verse does substantiate the assumption that early Christians regularly operated as house churches that met in homes rather than church buildings. Gaius must have had a large home to accommodate the “whole church” in Corinth, which seems to have been more formally structured into one congregation than was the Christian community of Rome.
Romans chapter 16, verse 23
Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.
The observation is occasionally made that the majority of those who were attracted to the Christian message were from the lower classes of society, also including many slaves. For example, attention is called to the fact that names such as Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, and Apelles (chapter 16, verses 8-10) turn up in the listing of slaves in the imperial household. Not all Christians were from the lower classes, however. As “director of public works,” Erastus obviously held an important civil position. Archeology has unearthed a fascinating bit of information possibly related to this verse. While working on an ancient paved square in Corinth, archeologists discovered a reused stone block bearing this Latin inscription: “Erastus, commissioner of public works, bore the expense of this pavement.” That may be the same man who sent greetings to the Romans, but we cannot be certain. “Brother Quartus” remains totally unknown to us.
To close out this section of greetings, many Greek manuscripts have another doxology such as we saw at chapter 15, verse 33 and chapter 16, verse 20. Some translations include this doxology as verse 24; the NIV has entered it as a footnote: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you. Amen.”
Paul’s signature closing
Romans chapter 16, verses 25-27
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.
As indicated earlier, these verses were very likely written in Paul’s own handwriting. They are his signature, if you will. This signature certified the genuineness of the letter. Although he doesn’t say so here, one is reminded of the apostle’s closing comment to the Thessalonians: “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write” (2nd Thessalonians chapter 3, verse 17).
Not only is the handwriting Paul’s, but the theology as well. Actually, this doxology reflects virtually everything Paul said in the letter. Recall how the body of the letter began with Paul’s bold assertion, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (chapter 1, verse 16). Paul closes the letter by focusing once more on that same gospel and power of God.
Paul tells the Romans, “[God] is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.” When Paul says “my gospel,” he is not contrasting it to the gospel his coworkers are preaching. Rather, Paul’s gospel is the message that was uniquely given him when Christ personally confronted him on the road to Damascus and totally changed his life—from persecutor of Christ to witness for Christ.
The meaning of “my gospel” is further defined by the expression Paul sets next to it: “and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.” Considering two grammatical points may help us better understand the relationship between these two expressions. First of all, the word translated as “and” does not work as a connective here, joining “gospel” and “proclamation” as if they were two different things. Rather, the word introduces an appositive, a second expression that restates or explains what is previous to it. Hence instead of translating the word as and, one might more correctly use namely or that is.
The second point to be noted concerns the phrase “the proclamation of Jesus Christ.” The word of would have been better translated as about. The proclamation is not something that Christ possesses or does; it is the proclamation about Christ. Hence Paul is confidently asserting that God is able to establish the Romans by the gospel given to Paul, namely, the proclamation about Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the heart of Paul’s message. Christ is the key, the revelation that unlocks “the mystery hidden for long ages past.” God’s gracious plan of salvation has been in effect ever since Adam and Eve—yes, even from eternity. But for a long time it looked like the personal possession of the Jewish nation.
All of that changed, however, when Christ came to earth, completed his saving work, and commissioned his followers to proclaim that salvation to all the world. Thus the “mystery” of God’s grace—disclosed to Paul and proclaimed in his gospel—is that by faith in Christ, God’s salvation is for all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. Or as Paul says, God’s grace has been “revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.”
Paul had experienced the power of God in the gospel not only in the spiritual rebirth it brought into his own life but also in seeing that miracle repeated in hundreds and thousands of lives in connection to the work the Lord had privileged him to do. His gospel had brought the power of God into the hearts of both Jews and Gentiles, setting up centers of Christian worship all the way from Jerusalem to Illyricum.
Hence Paul is confident that this Word will now also “establish” the Romans, both through the written message he is sending them and through the spoken Word when he comes to visit them. So confident is Paul that he could say, “I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ” (chapter 15, verse 29).
But this gospel also gives Paul confidence for the establishment of future congregations. He has invited the Romans to be partners with him in the proposed outreach work to Spain, so that he may have “a harvest . . . among the other Gentiles” there also (chapter 1, verse 13). Paul can be confident of that because the gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (chapter 1, verse 16).
Paul’s confidence, of course, was not misplaced. For almost two thousand years now, that Word has advanced, particularly to the west—to Spain and beyond—to the point of also having reached us and won our hearts. Moved by that gospel in general, and in particular by Paul’s exposition of it in his magnificent epistle to the Romans, we too join with the apostle in saying, “To him who is able to establish [us] by [the] gospel . . . to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”