Epistles: Greetings, Friends (Romans 16:1-24)
In the last chapter of Romans, Paul greets a large number of people and gives a few closing exhortations. These greetings reveal a lot about the early church.
In verse 1, Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea.” Although some older translations say that Phoebe is a “servant,” this is unlikely because all believers are servants, and v. 2 indicates that she was a person of some importance. The phrase “of the church” also suggests an official role.
Unfortunately, we do not know what deacons did in the church in Cenchrea (near Corinth). A comparison of Paul’s letters shows that the “organizational chart” could vary quite a bit from one church to another; the description of deacons in 1 Tim. 3 may not tell us much about what a deacon did in Corinth or Cenchrea.
Phoebe is apparently the person who carried Paul’s letter to Rome. As the letter-carrier, she probably also read the letter out loud, answered questions about it and the author, and conveyed some verbal news and greetings.
Paul then asks the Roman church to serve her needs: “I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of God’s people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (v. 2).
The word “benefactor” is just one of many suggested English translations of the Greek word prostasis. In the Greek Old Testament, it was used for officials; in ordinary Greek it was used for patrons — wealthy people who assisted others. Phoebe had helped Paul, and although she probably would not need financial help, Paul asks the Roman Christians to help her in other ways.
Notable women and men
Paul then greets a number of people in Rome — some of them Jewish, most of them Gentiles, often with names commonly used for slaves and freedmen. For a city he has never been to, he knows a surprising number of people who have moved to Rome. He probably begins with his closest friends:
“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them” (vv. 3-4). Acts 18 tells us that Priscilla and Aquila were originally from Rome. Paul met them in Corinth and worked in their tentmaking business. They became part of Paul’s ministry team, went to Ephesus with him, and were instrumental in teaching Apollos about Christianity.
Paul does not call ordinary Christians “co-workers” — this term indicates a person who works “in Christ Jesus” — that is, full-time work in the gospel. He used the term for himself, Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus, Philemon, Mark, Luke, and a few others. Priscilla and Aquila had played an important role in the evangelization of the Gentiles; now they were back in Rome, leading a house church, as Paul notes: “Greet also the church that meets at their house” (v. 5).
Paul then greets “my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia” (v. 5). We do not know anything else about Epenetus. Nor do we know anything about “Mary, who worked very hard for you” (v. 6). We do not know what kind of work she did, or how Paul learned about it.
He then sends his greetings to another couple: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (v. 7). Junia is a woman’s name, but in some translations she is given a man’s name: Junias, suggested as a possible short form of the name Junianus. But no one has ever found this form used, and Junia is used hundreds of times for a woman, so Junia is probably correct.
Andronicus and Junia were a Jewish couple who believed in Christ before Paul did — and that was very early; perhaps they were part of the Pentecost crowd. They were in prison with Paul, probably because they were preaching the gospel along with him. In what way were they “outstanding among the apostles”? It is possible that Paul meant that the apostles thought highly of them, but Paul does not refer to the opinion of the apostles anywhere else in his writings. It is more likely that Paul is commending them for their own work.
However, since Andronicus and Junia have not left any further trace in church history, they probably were not apostles in the same sense that Paul and the Twelve were. Since the word apostle can also refer to an official messenger (see 2 Cor. 8:23), it is possible that Andronicus and Junia served in that way.
“Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test [apparently in some severe trial]. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus” (vv. 8-10).
Paul does not greet Aristobulus, but only those in his household (which would include slaves and servants as well as family members). This Arisobulus may have been the grandson of Herod and friend of Claudius Caesar; such a person would have had a very large household, many of them Jewish. Paul knew that his household formed the core of another house church.
“Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord” (vv. 11-12). The phrase “in the Lord” suggests that these women were involved in evangelistic work of some sort. Narcissus may refer to another wealthy friend of Claudius who would have had a large “household,” some of whom had become believers.
“Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus [possibly the son of Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21)], chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the believers with them” (vv. 12-15). Here, Paul may be referring to two other house churches, and people he does not necessarily know, but he knows enough about the churches in Rome to know the names of the most prominent members.
The early church apparently had an effective (although probably informal) system of communication. As people moved from city to city, churches stayed in touch and were aware of the doctrines taught in other churches. That helped maintain the unity of the faith.
“Greet one another with a holy kiss,” Paul concludes. “All the churches of Christ [in Paul’s region, that is] send greetings” (v. 16). Greet one another as dear friends, he says — and Christians kissed one another for centuries, and still do in some cultures.
But the purpose of Paul’s command would be thwarted if we insisted on taking him literally in American culture today. Instead of being a sign of welcome, a congregational kiss would not be welcomed by most today. Paul’s instructions in this case are limited by culture — by his culture and ours. There is no requirement for us today to greet one another with a kiss.
Plea for peace
Paul then turns to one last, presumably important, exhortation: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, 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” (v. 17). Paul had experience with divisive people who taught rules that the gospel did not have. The solution is simple: Don’t listen to them. If they say, You have to keep our rules to be saved, then they are contrary to the gospel of Christ.
“For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites [it could be an appetite for money, fame, or just a sense of personal importance]. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (v. 18). They make a good argument, but they are dead wrong. They are not yet causing a problem in Rome, but Paul knows that it won’t be long before they try to influence the Roman churches. And since the Roman churches already have different practices (about meat and days, for example), they are vulnerable to divisive teachings.
“Everyone has heard about your obedience [that is, you are already obeying enough rules],so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. [That is why Paul urges them to be alert.] The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (vv. 19-20). God is a God of peace, not division, and when we focus on the good, on grace, the adversary will be powerless (cf. Gen. 3:15).
“The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (cf. Romans 1:7).
Paul’s companions send greetings
Paul closes, as many ancient letter-writers did, with greetings from the people with him: “Timothy, my co-worker, sends his greetings to you, as do Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, my fellow Jews” (v. 21). Why did Paul mention that these men were Jewish? Perhaps he was trying to remind the Jewish readers that many Jews supported Paul in his mission to the Gentiles, and they supported his message of grace. Luke may refer to the same men in Acts 13:1; 17:5; 20:4.
“I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (v. 22). Since it was difficult to write on papyrus, most letters were written by professional secretaries. Here, the secretary sends his own greetings, noting that he is also a believer.
“Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings” (v. 23). Paul is staying at the home of Gaius, and the church meets at his house (cf. 1 Cor. 1:14). “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.” Here Paul makes special mention of a government official — the Roman Christians might be encouraged to know that an official has accepted the gospel. They are likely to know Quartus, too, but we do not.
Things to think about
- If I were writing to a church in another city, which men and women would I name?
- Does a handshake convey the warmth of affection that Paul wanted in verse 16?
- How can I know whether a new teaching is divisive, or merely different? (v. 17) What should the message center on?
Author: Michael Morrison, 2004, 2011