The first coronavirus was discovered in 1965. This family of viruses can cause the common cold, or as we have learned over the past 21 months, cause much worse damage, even death. Other viruses in this family (e.g., SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012) have caused some issues for a period of time, but the one now called (SARS2, called COVID-19) has now persisted at deadly levels for nearly two years.
We all know people who have had the virus, and some who have struggled greatly, or even died. But although the physical impact receives a great deal of the attention, the long-term impact on relationships may be even worse. Many people simply do not want to be around other individuals. And with the winter season coming soon, that scenario is not likely to end soon.
The situation has impacted schools, businesses, sporting and other entertainment events, friends spending time with one another, family gatherings, and, of course, attendance at many churches.
Sure, people can watch messages, and even participate in worship, online. We can talk with others online. And some will argue that gathering together online can produce some sense of fellowship. But, we can’t really experience true fellowship apart from others.
But that is not just a 21st Century issue. The issues were different, but Paul longed to fellowship with others who apart from him as well. In many cases, he wrote letters to churches (i.e., people) he knew. In those letters, Paul remembered whatever fellowship they experienced together, and longed to be with those people again. But for Rome, it was different. Certainly, Paul knew some people at the church in Rome. But most of the people there, he likely did not know. However, he desired to be with them and to mutually encourage one another once he was able to travel to Rome (Romans 1.12).
As he informed the church, Paul knew his plan to travel to Rome must wait until he has travelled to Jerusalem first (15.25). So, as he closes this letter, Paul sends greetings to the people in the church there. In essence, Paul is encouraging the believers in Rome to have fellowship with one another on his account even though he cannot be there.
And for someone who has not yet been to the church in Rome, the number of names he includes in the verses today (26) is impressive. But who were these people? What was their significance? Why did Paul take the time to include all of these individuals? And what, if any difference does it make for us today?
Who were the people listed?
The easy way to answer that question is to go through this list of people and point out most of them by name or to highlight several key individuals. Surprisingly, we can take some pretty educated guesses about many of the people in this list. Most of the ideas come from inscriptions found in and around Rome, while a few are directly from the Bible. But that is not my intention today. I am taking another approach, but not because the names are not important (I will cover some individuals in the daily Discipleship Videos this week – Monday, Prisca and Aquila, who risked their lives for Paul; Tuesday – Andronicus and Junia, who was likely a female apostle on Tuesday; and a few other select ones, such as Rufus who is likely the son of Simon who carried Jesus’ cross, on Wednesday).
So, rather than covering individuals today, I want us to look at the bigger picture and consider Paul’s intent.
The larger picture is that Paul listed people from various backgrounds. Some of the names included in the list are Jewish, others are Greek, and some are Latin. Although, it is difficult to pinpoint the nationality of all the names, scholars have defined the origins for several of them.
Related to that idea is the social status of the names. Some were citizens of Rome. Others were transplants from Judea. Many were slaves. And surprising to some, more than one-third of the people mentioned are women.
From Acts 22.28, we know that Paul was a natural Roman citizen. He was free, but as Philippians 4 reminds us, he was not wealthy, at least for much of his life. Prisca was likely a free-born citizen (Aquila was likely a Jew which is why they had to leave Rome (Acts 18.2). Regardless, they were wealthy and hosted a house church in multiple towns, which I will share more about tomorrow. But many of the names, both male and female were slave names. Thus, Christianity was not considered a religion for the elite only; the message of the gospel was true for male or female, rich or poor, slave or free (cf. Galatians 3.27-28).
24 names are mentioned in these verses, and two others were not named (e.g., Rufus’ mother). So, 26 were mentioned, with nine of the individuals being women (adding Phoebe (v. 1), makes 10 of 27). Many consider Paul as misogynistic. Granted the culture was male-dominated, but as I shared in last Wednesday’s video and we see again today, analyzing the text seems to reveal something different.
So, that is a generalized look at who was included the list of names. But what is the significance of these people?
What is their significance?
Because Paul had not travelled to Rome, it is very unlikely that he knew most of the people he mentioned. Scholars have suggested that he personally knew those listed early in the list and had only heard about the others. But let me give you three significant aspects of those listed.
Undoubtedly, Paul knew Priscilla and Aquila. Paul called them fellow workers (v. 3). I have already mentioned them generally, but these two were more than just acquaintances with Paul. Again, I will say more in tomorrow’s video, but verse four mentions that they had risked their necks for Paul. We may use that term to talk about putting oneself in harm’s way, but in ancient Rome, the words were meant literally. Paul was saying that they risked being beheaded! We don’t know the details, but it may have been during their time in Ephesus when a riot broke out due to Paul’s constant preaching throughout Asia (Acts 19). I will say more about this couple in Monday’s Discipleship Video.
Likewise, we have Andronicus and Junia. Verse 7 says that they were fellow prisoners. That does not mean that they were in prison at the same time (although they could have been), but their service to the Lord made them well known to Paul, (and the rest of the apostles), and Paul was grateful for their ministry. I have much more to say about Junia, in Tuesday’s Discipleship Video.
So, Paul mentioned fellow workers (v. 3) and fellow prisoners (v. 7). These individuals were definitely ministry partners of Paul and he wanted the church to know that.
Another group was those who were general servants. This group was likely not known by Paul personally, but he obviously had heard their names (perhaps from Prisca and Aquila). We can lump many names into this group, but the names are less important than their qualities. In verse 6, we have Mary (a common name), who worked hard. In verse 12, he mentioned two women who were likely sisters (and may have been twins). Paul also notes their work in the Lord, which is interesting (and many think is Paul showing the irony) because their names mean “dainty” and “delicate.” In the same verse, he also noted the hard work of Persis (another female) who worked hard. Then, in the next verse, he mentioned Rufus, but he also mentioned Rufus’ mother, who was also like a mother to Paul. Being a mother entails many things, but just consider how many injuries Paul had from his beatings and such, and imagine the care she might have given him. If Paul was a misogynist, he certainly promoted the dedicated service of women more than most would.
Sure, many people served alongside Paul. (In the past, I have counted more than 30 people he served with and/or discipled directly.) But these few names did not just serve, they worked hard, and were acknowledged for it, whether Paul knew them personally or not.
Unity of the House Churches
The third group included in this list is a list of different churches meeting in Rome. Three are clearly evident and we find hints of two others. All of these churches were a part of the church in Rome, but due to space, that was part of the problem, they were also apart, and that led to some issues of unity (remember Romans 14!).
Until the 4th Century, churches did not have their own buildings. The people met in homes (primarily) or if that was not safe, they would meet in very isolated places (such as caves). A large home might hold about 50 people gathered for teaching, worship, and oftentimes a meal. Paul mentioned three such house churches in Romans 16 (vv. 5, 14, 15) and hinted at the possibility of two others (vv. 10, 11).
But Paul wrote to one church. The church at Rome met in different locations, but Paul sent greetings to several people representing multiple churches, because really the Church is one church being built by Jesus. To further make this point, the word Paul used for “greet” in this section is in the second person plural, as in “You all” do this. So, Paul is commanding them to greet one another. He wanted the different churches to greet one another, that is, to unite – not in space (again there was not room for that), but in purpose, and in fellowship, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And that leads us to the WHY part of this list.
Why did Paul include this list?
As I just mentioned, Paul wanted the people from the various house churches to join together in purpose because when he arrived, he was going to ask them to partner with him in ministry. As he stated near the end of the previous chapter, Paul’s goal was to go to Spain (15.24), but he planned to stop in Rome to spend time there to teach, to equip them, and to encourage and be encouraged by them (1.11-12, 15.32). But he also wanted to have a new base of operations that would allow him to expand to the west (Romans 15.19-20). And he needed not only needed a new base, but other resources (including people and money) as well. He needed people who would be ministry partners, and servants (who worked hard) and thus he named people as examples from his past, and people whom he had heard of their work, and some whom he likely wanted to inspire to do more.
This letter not only recognized those who had provided support in the past (e.g., Priscilla and Aquila), but was a sort of invitation to those who might want to join him in his future ministry as well. This letter was read aloud to the people gathered, and then passed from church to church to be read again and again. Two benefits happened from these readings. First, the people could better understand the doctrine of salvation, the work of Jesus, and how to live by the Spirit. Second, the people would hear the names of others (and some would hear their own names), and they would wonder what, if anything, they could do to be a part of what God was doing in and through Paul.
Paul was making it clear that he was not a lone ranger. He had partnered in ministry with others, and he wanted to partner in ministry with more people in the future. This letter, and this list, were a part of Paul expressing that desire while also showing – with some key words like “risking their necks” and “worked hard” and “fellow prisoners” – that doing the work of the Lord is not easy. But if Paul recognized their contribution, how much more would God?!?
Paul wrote this letter for multiple reasons. It does not cover all aspects of theology, but the letter is considered to be his most theologically rich letter. But here at the end, instead of matters of theology, Paul writes on a personal basis.
Paul was smart. And focused. And determined. And courageous. And we could add other items as well. But Paul was certainly loving. Today’s passage shows us that. Of course, Paul included a list of names in other letters, but none were nearly as long as this one. But any of the lists, and I believe, particularly this list, is an expression of Paul’s love – not only for what people had done, but for who they were. Paul did not write the verses below, but he lived them, and he wanted others to live them as well. Those verses:
A new commandment I give you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13.34-35)
Again, Paul lived those words. He wanted others to as well. That certainly meant he wanted the people of Rome to love others, but those words still carry meaning for us today.
For the church at Rome, the people worked, the people served, and although they were divided by space, Paul wanted them united, in love. Even in the different homes, and even despite any differences they might have had, Paul knew that Jesus’ words rang true – people would know they are His disciples by their love for one another.
Our world needs love. But how are we to love others, if we do not love one another? COVID has tested that love. It has become more difficult in many ways, but the truth is that all people at all times are tested in various ways, and the command remains the same – love one another.
You may have seen the new vision/mission statement that I proposed in the recent newsletter. That statement: Building for Tomorrow by Sharing Christ Today is only possible if we love and serve each other. But if we do, we can bring love and hope to others just as the church at Rome brought hope in uncertain times nearly 2000 years ago.
What’s Next?: Who do you need to greet? Perhaps it is a Christian friend or neighbor. Perhaps it is someone you have not seen in a while. Perhaps it is someone who used to attend this church, but does not anymore for any number of reasons. My challenge this week is simple – take time to greet someone (or many) whom you haven’t seen in some time. Be united. Be loving. Seek to be in fellowship. It is what Paul wanted. It is what God wants. And it is what we need.