18. Paul, the "People Person" (Romans 16)
One of the tests of a man’s beliefs is what we might call the ‘people test.’ That is, how we relate to people to a great extent indicates the validity and value of our beliefs. I would, for example, immediately suspect the dogmas of a man who could make a statement like this: “I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash.”124 You might be interested that this is a statement written to Pfister by Sigmund Freud. As a result of such a statement, I would be suspicious of anything Freud might advocate.
How different is the attitude of the apostle Paul toward his fellows. He is such a ‘people person’ that he sent personal greetings to twenty-six individuals and five households in the city of Rome—a city, I might add, Paul had not yet visited. Paul’s familiarity with this church and particular members of it is so intimate that a number of scholars have suggested this letter could not have been written to the unvisited church at Rome, but rather the familiar church of Ephesus.125
I have previously suggested that in verse 14 of chapter 15 we have come to the final section of this great epistle, and that here we are privileged to obtain a more intimate glimpse into the personal life of Paul. We are indeed reading Paul’s mail in chapter 16 as well. Verses 1-16 constitute words of personal greeting; verses 17-20 are final words of warning; verses 21-24 contain the greetings of those with Paul; and verses 25-27 conclude with a benediction of praise.
Words of Personal Greeting
The Commendation of Phoebe (vv. 1-2). There is much which suggests that Phoebe, the sister from the city of Cenchrea, a port city of Corinth, was the bearer of this epistle of Paul. The real question which arises with the mention of this woman is the reference to her as a ‘deaconess’ (NASV, margin, v. 1) of the church. This passage is one of a very few biblical texts which are employed to substantiate the church office of deaconess.126
It would seem to me that several factors combine to militate against such a conclusion.127 First of all, the Greek word diakonos (servant) is a very general term, which is rarely used with the technical force of an ecclesiastical office in the New Testament. Out of approximately 30 occurrences of this term in the New Testament, 27 instances of diakonos are employed in the non-technical sense of a ‘minister’ or ‘one who serves.’ In only three instances does the technical sense emerge, and this with reference to male deacons. Approaching this term from a statistical perspective, we should expect to find the non-technical sense In Romans 16:1.
Second, the context demands nothing more than a general sense, rendered adequately as a servant of the church at Cenchrea. In verse 2, she is referred to as a helper of many, and of Paul. I cannot see an ecclesiastical office here. Third, biblical principles would prohibit a woman to fill any ecclesiastical office in which she would exercise authority over men (cf. 1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Corinthians 14:34-36). Finally, the existence of such an ecclesiastical office does not occur historically until sometime later than the New Testament period.128
I would hasten to say that the work of this woman Phoebe was a vital service to the body of Christ, and such work continues to minister to the saints today. Though there may be no official office associated with the task of the ministry of women, there is great need for it and great benefit derived from it. From the further description of Phoebe in verse 2, I would conclude that she may have been financially affluent and used her resources to minister to the church much as Lydia, described in Acts chapter 16 (verses 14-15).129
Because of her service to the church, Paul includes in his epistle a personal word of commendation. He exhorts the saints in Rome to receive her and minister to her in a way which is befitting to those who name the name of Christ (v. 2).
Greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, Romans (vv. 3-4). If verses 1 and 2 give us some insight into the ministry of a single woman in the church, verses 3 and 4 provide an example for the married woman. It is not without significance that out of the six instances in the New Testament where Priscilla and Aquila are named, four times Priscilla is mentioned first. It is possible that Priscilla had a more outgoing personality than her husband, or that she was more gifted than he. It has also been suggested that she may have been by birth a woman of higher social rank.130
From Luke’s account in Acts chapter 18 (verses 24-28), we are informed that both Priscilla and Aquila instructed Apollos more fully in the truths concerning the gospel. Here is a great husband-wife team, ministering together. They were apparently warmhearted people who gladly took people into their hearts and home, even when doing so might entail great personal danger. Although we do not know the specifics behind Paul’s statement concerning their ‘risking their necks’ for Paul’s life in verse 4, we do see this couple as a splendid example of ministry within the confines of the blue collar class.
Now there has been a great deal of conjecture made as to the identity of the remaining individuals, but little can be said of any of the rest with great certainty. I would suspect that we should conclude that those who are mentioned are not extraordinary people, but typical members of the Christian community such as you and me.
I suppose that you might wonder at the value of the recording of these names (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) for the Christian today. They may seem about as relevant to us as the names recorded in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ (which, incidentally, are of value as well). But there are several important observations that should be made concerning Paul’s reference to these individuals in the conclusion of his letter.
(1) Paul, contrary to what is supposed today, greatly valued women and the significance of their ministry. Within those named in chapter 16, probably eight were women. A special word of commendation was given concerning Phoebe. The mother of Rufus was claimed by Paul as though his own mother (verse 13). Priscilla was highly regarded with her husband. Paul viewed the ministry of women as that which should be greatly appreciated and commended.
(2) Paul was a ‘people person.’ Paul was a man who held Bible doctrine in highest regard, but not to the neglect of his brothers and sisters. Imagine Paul being able to refer to many of the Roman saints by name and yet never setting foot in Rome. Now I will grant that couples like Priscilla and Aquila were obviously highly mobile and that Paul had contact with them elsewhere, but this cannot be true of all that are mentioned.
How did the apostle become so intimately acquainted with individual Christians? Let me employ a little sanctified imagination and suggest some possibilities.
(a) Paul viewed ministry as a personal ministry, not just a platform ministry. By this I mean that Paul was deeply committed to minister to people as individuals and not just ‘en masse.’ Paul’s ministry was both public and private (Acts 20:20). It was not a cold and distant ministry, but involved his deepest emotions:
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7-11; cf. also Acts 20:19)
(b) Paul not only taught and ministered individually, he prayed individually and specifically (cf. Philippians 1:3-5; Colossians 1:3-4; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, etc.). Although the Scriptures do not say it precisely, I believe that when Paul prayed for the Roman saints he did not pray as we do for the missionaries and the lost: “God bless the missionaries everywhere, and please save those who don’t know you.” Paul prayed specifically, I believe.
(c) Paul wrote letters of admonition and instruction addressed to specific individuals, needs, and problems (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12; 5:1ff.; 6:1ff., etc.). Although Paul could not be physically present with the saints, he was present in spirit (1 Corinthians 5:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:17).
(d) Paul did not think of the rewards of his ministry in terms of his monthly bank balance, but rather as measured by the salvation and sanctification of souls. Paul’s reward for ministry was people: “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; cf. also Philippians 4:1).
May I be so bold as to suggest that we may greatly multiply our ministry by following Paul’s example. Let us consider the ministry we can have by writing. We may write to missionaries abroad and inform them of God’s working in our midst. We may ask them to write in response with prayer requests and testimonies of answered prayers. We may minister to those with deep spiritual needs by writing a note of thanks, or a simple word of encouragement. Sometimes we may need to give a gentle rebuke or a word of warning. We may pray for Christians individually, and for the lost specifically. We may seek out individuals to whom we are drawn and endeavor to meet specific needs. We may look for our rewards in terms of changed lives and grateful brothers and sisters in Christ. Our ministry is not to be so much program-oriented as people-oriented.
One of the factors which facilitated people-to-people ministry was the New Testament phenomenon of house churches (cf. v. 5). I am not advocating the sale of every church building, but I am resisting the trend toward centering the total church program toward large groups in the church building rather than in the homes. This is one of the primary reasons Community Bible Chapel has initiated the ministry group concept in our assembly. There is no better environment for person-to-person ministry than in the home.
(3) There was in the ancient churches of our Lord Jesus Christ a great sense (and reality) of unity and fellowship. Paul commends the saints at Rome to accept warmly a saint from Cenchrea (verse 1). All the churches were said to greet the saints at Rome (v. 16). Some of those mentioned by name traveled freely about the Christian churches and were deeply aware of their needs and ministries.
Within Bible-believing local churches today, there seems to be more competition than cooperation and unity. We are jealous of another church which has a more effective ministry than us in a certain area. We seldom tangibly express our Christian unity by joint fellowship and ministry. We think that the church in Dallas is only slightly larger than the membership of our church. What a tragedy! God’s church in Dallas includes every believer in Jesus Christ, rich or poor, black or white, charismatic or non-charismatic, high church or low church. May God move in our city to express the unity of all Christians regardless of which church we attend.
Solemn Words of Warning
Some have felt the transition from verse 16 to verse 17 is far too abrupt. How could the apostle be so authoritative and austere? The reason is simply that there is a great imminent danger from those who are false teachers. “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Romans 16:17).
The nature of the heresy is that it is contrary to the doctrine taught by the Scriptures, and it is divisive (v. 17). The nature of the heretics is that they are very persuasive and that they prey upon the naive and immature (v. 18). In addition, they are men who are the slaves of their own appetites and desires. Our response should not be ridicule or burning them at the stake, but simply to keep away from them. Don’t associate with such persons (v. 17).
The reports Paul has received concerning the Roman Christians has been very positive and encouraging. Nevertheless, they need to strive to be wise concerning the good and naive concerning evil (verse 19). How easy it is to deceive ourselves by saying that we must study what is evil in order to be able to recognize and refute it. Not so. We can easily fall into evil by letting our minds dwell on it. Rather, we must be diligent in studying that which is good and profitable (cf. Philippians 4:8). In doing this, we will devote ourselves to that which is edifying and upbuilding. In addition, we will be able to discern that which is false due to our intimate acquaintance with the truth.
There is a battle currently being waged by Satan, but this will be short-lived. “And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). In terms which draw our attention to Genesis 3:15, we are promised that God will subject Satan under our feet. Victory is imminent!
Greetings From Paul’s Fellow-Workers
Few would dispute the conclusion that Paul was writing in the spring of A.D. 58 from the city of Corinth, toward the end of his missionary journey just prior to his return to Jerusalem.131 There with Paul in the city of Corinth were a number of men who wished to extend personal greetings as well as the apostle. One of these men was Timothy (verse 21), another Tertius, who was Paul’s amanuensis or scribe (verse 22). Each of these men reflected Paul’s great love for the saints at Rome.
The one fact of which I am reminded in these verses of greetings from Paul’s friends is that Paul seldom ministered alone. He was nearly always accompanied by a group of men. Now to some extent Paul was multiplying his ministry by ‘committing himself to faithful men’ (2 Timothy 2:2) in order that they might minister. But Paul was committed not just to a ministry of discipleship which sought to pattern men after himself, but rather to a discipleship which sought to conform others to the image of Christ, and to make men His disciples. In order to accomplish this, Paul chose to work with a team of men, each of whom ministered to the others, and each of whom exercised his particular spiritual gift(s) to the edification of the rest and the propagation of the gospel.
A Benediction of Praise
When you come to the end of a great epistle like the Book of Romans, there is only one appropriate conclusion and that is a benediction of praise. In these last three verses, the apostle summarizes the major themes of the epistle.
(1) The Wisdom of God. We are reminded in these verses of the infinite wisdom of God. In the wisdom of God, He devised a plan whereby He would take rebellious and sinful men and give to them eternal salvation, yet without blemish to His attributes of justice and holiness. This He accomplished by the substitutionary death of His Son, Jesus Christ. He further planned to save both Jews and Gentiles. The rebellion and unbelief of the Jews has made possible the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles. And the salvation of the Gentiles will provoke the Jews to jealousy, so that they will finally turn again to their Messiah.
The wisdom of God in saving Jews and Gentiles was not fully disclosed in the Old Testament. Though this mystery was spoken of by the prophets, their meaning was not made known until the coming of Messiah and the preaching of the apostle, whose calling was to make known the mystery of God’s plan to save men from every nation and to join them into one body.
(2) The Sovereignty of God. Not only is God all wise, He is all powerful. God is able to accomplish what His wisdom has planned. Paul says in verse 25, “Now to Him who is able to establish you …” If we have learned anything from the Book of Romans, it is that God alone is able to save and sanctify men. Our steadfastness is certain because our God is sovereign.
(3) The Grace of God. Perhaps the word which captures the theme of this epistle more than any other is the word grace. Grace, as we all know, refers to the unmerited favor of God whereby He has showered upon us blessings which we could never earn or merit.
In order to fix the message of this epistle in our minds, let us once again think our way through the book chapter by chapter and section by section.
(1) Condemnation (Romans 1-3a). Without grace man is in desperate plight. All men are sinners who have rejected and perverted the truth of God revealed to them. More knowledge simply brings greater guilt and condemnation. The Gentile pagan is guilty of rejecting the revelation of God in creation. He has chosen to worship the creature rather than the Creator (chapter 1). The Jewish pagan is far more guilty, for although he knows the Law of God and even teaches it to others, he fails to live by its standards (chapter 2). All are sinners, none is a God-seeker and thus all deserve eternal doom (3a).
(2) Justification (Romans 3b-5). The grace of God is revealed at man’s greatest point of need. The righteousness which God requires and man cannot produce by his best efforts, God has provided through the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. He alone has satisfied God’s requirements of righteousness. He has suffered the punishment of God for our sins, and He offers in place of our filthy rags of self-righteous endeavor His own righteousness (Romans 3b). The justification which God offers men in Christ is by faith, not works, as the case has always been. This is illustrated in the life of Abraham (chapter 4). The fruit of justification is peace with God, even in the midst of life’s trials and tests (5a). The root of justification is the work of Jesus Christ. Just as one man sinned and thereby brought all who were his descendants into a state of sin, so one man, Jesus Christ, by His righteous life, death and resurrection, justifies all who are in Him (5b).
(3) Sanctification (Romans-6-8). The grace of God is not just needed for salvation. It is the grace of God which has brought us thus far, but it is grace that will also make us what we will be, what we should be. In chapter 6, Paul says that our practice (our practical Christian experience) must conform to our position (in Christ) and our profession (in baptism). Although we should live holy lives, this is humanly impossible due to the weakness of the flesh and the power of sin. What we desire to do we do not and what we despise we practice (chapter 7). At this point of human desperation, the grace of God is revealed and realized through the provision of the Holy Spirit Who enables us to meet God’s requirements for godly living (chapter 8).
(4) Dispensation (Romans 9-11). The grace of God is defended in the matter of Jewish unbelief. How could God be gracious when the Jews to whom God had made eternal promises of blessings were turning in unbelief and the Gentiles were being saved? Since God is dealing with men according to grace, He is under no obligation to save every Jew, but only those whom He chooses (Romans 9). Those who demand justice will get exactly what they deserve, and those who reject the righteousness of God in Christ by trying to establish their own will get what they insist upon. (Although men are eternally doomed because God has not chosen them (chapter 9), they are equally lost because they have not chosen God (chapter 10).)
God’s promises to Israel are a future certainty, for there is still a Jewish remnant with whom Israel’s hope rests. Israel’s hardening is neither total nor permanent. God has hardened the Jews to save the Gentiles. When His purposes for the Gentiles are realized He will once again bring salvation and restoration to Israel (chapter 11).
(5) Application (Romans 12-15). The grace of God does not nullify human responsibility. In Romans 16:26, Paul speaks of the obedience of faith. This obedience is our response to the biblical imperatives and injunctions found throughout the Scriptures. This obedience is not our effort to do something for God, but our submission to God’s activity through us. We are commanded to do certain things because God has given us the means (His Holy Spirit) to do them. We should read the Bible, pray, witness and so on because God has commanded it, and God will empower us to do it. (I must also say that we can do these things in the power of the flesh, and with no profit.)
The only reasonable response to the grace of God is submission and service (Romans 12:1-2). The grace of God has been revealed in Jesus Christ, but it is also to be reflected in the life of the Christian. Christians are individually stewards of divine grace in that we each possess spiritual (grace) gifts which we are to exercise for the building up of the body (Romans 12:3-8). The grace of God is reflected also in our human relationships (12:9-21).
The grace of God is to be reflected by our obedience to the ‘law of the land’ and by our expression of the ‘law of love’ (Romans 13). The law of love is also expressed by accepting the weaker brother as he is, and by refraining from the exercise of any liberty which would impair his spiritual growth (Romans 14:1–15:13).
My friend, have you experienced this grace? Have you come to the point of despair, realizing that you can never earn or merit God’s favor? All that is required for forgiveness of sins and eternal life has been accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. Trust in Him and you will be saved.
My Christian friend, are you living in grace? Have you come to see that your Christian experience is as much a work of grace as your conversion? You can never repay the grace of God in salvation, nor can you live the Christian life apart from divine grace. May God grant you to live in the grace of God.
To God be the glory!
127 “It is common to give Phoebe the title of “deaconess” and regard her as having performed an office in the church corresponding to that which belonged to men who exercised the office of deacon (cf. Phil. 1:1; I Tim. 3:8-13). Though the word for “servant” is the same as is used for deacon in the instances cited, yet the word is also used to denote the person performing any type of ministry. If Phoebe ministered to the saints, as is evident from verse 2, then she would be a servant of the church and there is neither need nor warrant to suppose that she occupied or exercised what amounted to an ecclesiastical office comparable to that of the diaconate. The services performed were similar to those devolving upon deacons. Their ministry is one of mercy to the poor, the sick, and the desolate. This is an area in which women likewise exercise their functions and graces. But there is no more warrant to posit an office than in the case of the widows who, prior to their becoming the charge of the church, must have borne the features mentioned in I Timothy 5:9, 10.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), II, p. 226.
128 “The word itself (diakonos) does appear to have been on the way to technical use by the time this epistle was written (xii. 7), but whether it was so used of women is not certain. I Tim. iii. 11 may describe female deacons, or possibly the wives of deacons. Deaconesses are mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions (ii. 26, 57, iii. 7, 15), and earlier (c. A.D. 112). Pliny (Epistles, X. xcvi. 8) speaks of ancillis quae ministrae dicebantur. In the New Testament period the line between the ‘part-time helper’ and the minister set apart to the service of the Church was not so sharply drawn as it is today, and it may therefore be that the question whether Phoebe was a ‘deaconess’ or a valued church worker is wrongly put.” C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. 282.
129 “The kind of help rendered by Phoebe is not intimated. She may have been a woman of some wealth and social influence and so have acted as patroness. Her services may have been of another kind such as caring for the afflicted and needy. Under what circumstances she was a helper of Paul we do not know. But her help may well have been of the kind afforded by Lydia at Philippi (Acts 16:15).” Murray, II, p. 227.