We’re very close to the end of Romans. My plan is to cover verses 1 to 20 of chapter 16 today; and then to deal with verses 21 to 27 tomorrow.
Having written about his travel plans at the end of chapter 15, Paul spends most of chapter 16 on greeting various members of the church in Rome.
However, before he gets to the greetings, he mentions Phoebe in verses 1 and 2. And he wanted to introduce her to them. It seems that Phoebe was travelling to Rome; in fact, she may have been the person who delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans; and Paul added this little note about her to ensure that the believers in Rome would welcome her. So, he describes her as a sister. Believers are all members of God’s family; he’s our Father and we’re all brothers and sisters in the Lord; and so, by calling Phoebe ‘sister’, he was making clear that she was a believer. And he also describes her as a servant of the church in Cenchrea. Cenchrea was a seaport which lay a few miles from the city of Corinth.
Now, every believer is meant to be a servant: we’re to serve the Lord and we’re to love and serve one another in the church. And Paul wants the believers in Rome to know that Phoebe possessed a servant’s heart. And in verse 2 he asks the Romans to receive her in the Lord and in a way worthy of the saints. In other words, welcome her warmly and unreservedly into their fellowship as a fellow believer. And he also asks that they give her all the help she needs. Paul might be thinking that she will need help to find a suitable place to stay while she’s in Rome. And perhaps she’s there for some particular purpose; if that’s the case: help her with that too. And Paul ends his comments about Phoebe by saying that she has been a great help to many people, including Paul himself. Well, the word Paul uses here for ‘help’ means ‘benefactor’ or ‘patron’. The meaning is that she provided practical or financial aid to believers. One of the commentators suggests that, since she lived in a seaport, perhaps she had opened her home and had helped visiting believers like Paul, providing them with lodgings and perhaps even helping to finance their journeys. Now Paul asks the Romans to do the same for her.
Verses 3 to 16
In verses 1 and 2 Paul introduces Phoebe to the Romans. And then in verses 3 to 16, Paul sends his greeting to various believers in Rome. First of all, Paul mentions a couple who are familiar to us: Priscilla and Aquila. We read about them in Acts 18 where we’re told that they were Jews from Italy, but had moved to Corinth because the Roman Emperor had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. While they were in Corinth, they met Paul. In fact, Paul and Priscilla and Aquila were all tentmakers and worked together for a time. Then, when Paul left Corinth, he took Priscilla and Aquila with him. However, he left them in Ephesus where they were able to help Apollos to understand and to teach the gospel better. They’re also mentioned at the end of 1 Corinthians. They must have eventually returned to Rome, because in this letter to the Romans, Paul sends them his greetings. And he describes them as his fellow-workers in Christ Jesus who risked their lives for Paul. When Paul was in Corinth, the unbelieving Jews joined together to attack Paul; and so perhaps Priscilla and Aquila had done something to protect Paul on that occasion. But we don’t really know how they risked their lives for Paul. Whatever they did, Paul was able to record how grateful he and all of the Gentile churches are towards them.
And so, Paul greets them. But he also greets the church that met in their home. In those days, you didn’t have church buildings; there wasn’t a building in Rome which you could point at and say:
There’s Rome Presbyterian Church.
No, believers met for worship in someone’s home. In fact, Paul refers to several house churches in this chapter; so it seems that some believers met on one home and other believers met in another home. The fact that Priscilla and Aquila had a home big enough to hold meetings tells us they were probably a wealthy couple.
Then, in verse 5, Paul refers to his dear friend Epenetus. The words ‘dear friend’ should really be translated as ‘beloved one’; it’s not clear whether Paul knew this man personally or only knew of him. Anyway, this is the only place he’s mentioned in the Bible, but he has the distinction of being the first convert in the Roman province in Asia. Here’s the first man who heard and believed the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps he heard the gospel in Ephesus which was in Asia. But he’s now living in Rome.
Then Paul mentions another woman: someone called Mary who is described as having worked hard for the believers in Rome. It’s not clear what sort of work she did.
The next two are Andronicus and Junias. There’s some debate whether or not the second name should be Junias, a man, or Junia, a woman. If it’s a woman’s name, then these two could be husband and wife. The NIV has Paul calling them ‘his relatives’. However, Paul was really describing them as his kinsmen. In other words, they’re fellow Jews. And, like Paul, they also suffered imprisonment for their faith. Paul also describes them as being outstanding among the apostles; however, he’s using the word ‘apostles’ loosely to mean, not the official Apostles appointed by the Lord Jesus, but to messengers or missionaries, sent out to preach the gospel. And it seems these two came to faith before Paul did.
We know nothing about Ampliatus or Urbanus or Stachys or Apelles or Aristobulus who are mentioned in verses 8 to 10. In verse 11, the NIV says that Herodion was Paul’s relative, but again Paul is saying that Herodion was his kinsman, a fellow Jew. We don’t know anything about Narcissus in verse 11. Tryphena and Tryphosa in verse 12 are both women. Since their names are similar, they may have been sisters. Though their names mean ‘delicate’, they worked hard in the Lord, as did Persis who is another woman. The name Rufus in verse 13 appears in another place in the New Testament. I wonder if anyone remembers? Mark tells us in Mark 15 how Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the Lord’s cross. And Mark tells us that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus. So, it’s possible that these two Rufuses are one and the same. Paul describes him as ‘chosen in the Lord’, but, of course, every believer is chosen and called by the Lord to belong to him. And Paul tells us that Rufus’s mother was like a mother to Paul. Presumably she was able to care for him on some occasion and to provide him with hospitality.
We don’t know anything about those mentioned in verses 14 and 15, though when Paul refers to the ‘brothers with them’ in verse 14, he’s probably referring to another house church. And it’s possible that Philo-logus and Julia were married and Nereus and his sister were their children. ‘All the saints with them’ is probably a reference to another house church.
Having greeted them all, Paul encourages them to greet one another with a holy kiss. And he then tells the believers in Rome that all the churches of Christ send their greetings to the believers in Rome.
Well, it’s quite a mixture: men and women; rich and poor; Jews and Gentiles. But, of course, that’s what the church of Jesus Christ is like. We say the church is one. It’s one, because — though it’s spread throughout the world and though it’s made up of lots of different kinds of people — we nevertheless have this one thing in common: we were chosen by God and called by the gospel to belong to Jesus Christ. Former strangers, former enemies even, now find themselves united together in Christ to praise God together and to love and serve one another.
Verses 17 to 20
Let me turn to verses 17 to 20 which are in one sense surprising, and in another sense, totally unsurprising. They’re surprising, because this warning seems to come out of the blue. But it’s unsurprising, because the threat of false teachers who cause divisions in the church and who cause believers to stumble is ever-present.
Paul warns his readers to watch out for those who cause divisions in the church and who put obstacles in our way. In other words, instead of helping believers to walk in the ways of the Lord, and to remain faithful to him, they cause believers to stumble and fall. And Paul refers to things which are contrary to the teaching the believers in Rome have learned. You see, instead of teaching true doctrine, false teachers teach false doctrine. And whereas true doctrine helps us to walk in the ways of the Lord; false doctrine trips us up. So, says Paul, keep away from them. Have nothing to do with them. Just as you’d cross the road to avoid a snarling dog, because you don’t know what it might do if you go near it, cross the road and avoid these false teachers if you should see them, because you don’t know what damage they will do.
And in verse 18, Paul says that instead of serving the Lord, these false teachers are only serving their own appetites. In other words, they’re self-serving; they’re in it for what they can get out of it. And by their smooth talk and their flattery, they’re able to deceive the minds of those who are naive or innocent. Well, you hear about these people who are experts at scamming people. They’re able to deceive people into handing over their money. Now, no one thinks they’ll ever be fooled; no one thinks they’d ever be so stupid to fall for a scam. But thousands do fall for it, because the scammers are such experts. And among believers, not many of us think we’re so naive or so stupid to fall for false teaching. We all like to think we can smell out heresy and error. But thousands do fall for it. So, we need to take heed of this warning ourselves instead of thinking it applies to others.
What’s the best way to protect ourselves from false doctrine? What’s the best way to prepare ourselves to spot error? It’s by making sure we know the truth; if we know the truth, then we’ll be able to spot what deviates from the truth. And so, we all ought to pay attention to the reading and preaching of God’s word on Sundays and on Wednesdays; and we ought to do what we can to read and to study God’s word at home; we ought to do this so that we’re familiar with the truth.
Now, Paul commends the believers in Rome for their obedience: everyone has heard of it. But he wants them to be wise about what is good; and he wants them to be innocent, or naive, about what is evil. Isn’t that the best way to be? To be innocent, ignorant, about what is evil; but to know all there is to know about what is good. Well again, through the reading and preaching of God’s word, God not only helps us to know the truth and to spot error, but he works in our lives by his Spirit to make us good.
And what a marvellous re-assurance in verse 20: The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. Paul is perhaps thinking about Genesis 3:15 where God promised that the seed of the woman, Jesus Christ, would crush the serpent. You see, the Lord Jesus came into the world to destroy the Devil and all his work. And we know that one day the Devil will be destroyed completely. But in the meantime, we can count on the Lord to protect us and to defend us against the Devil and all his wicked schemes, by which he tries to divide the church and to cause believers to stumble and to fall, and to lead us into error. And so we ought to look to the Lord for his gracious help to stand firm and to remain faithful while we wait for the enemy of our souls to be destroyed.