Commending and Welcoming Radical Risk-Takers for Christ
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. 3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.
Romans 16 is far more than a list of names. It is dense with theology and ecclesiology and ethics. But it’s all implicit rather than explicit. It’s contained in words rather than propositions. Consider these examples: Lord, Christ, Jesus, church, sisters, brothers, saints, apostles, Gentiles, elect, holy, loved, firstfruit, servant, approved in Christ—all of them full of God-centered meaning. But Paul now assumes it rather than explaining it. Now is not the time for explaining. The time has come for greeting. And O how much we can learn from these greetings!
Let’s get the big picture first and then look at three of these people that Paul mentions. Six general observations from the big picture of greetings in verses 1-16.
The Big Picture in Romans 16: Six Obervations
1. Notice the names. There are twenty-seven names. More people are greeted, but twenty-seven are named—twenty-six of them in Rome, and Phoebe (the first mentioned) on her way to Rome. Surely we should learn from this that names matter. I wish I could call you all by name. Jesus does. John 10:3 says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Strive to know each other’s names. Paul is working here at building a relationship with the church he wants as his sending church in the mission to Spain. It’s amazing how many names he knows in Rome when he has never been there. Let’s be like him in this.
2. Notice the different the relationships and partnerships. It is remarkable the words that he uses to describe who these people are in relationship to him and to each other: sister, brother, servant, saints, patron, fellow workers, church, firstfruits, kinsmen, fellow prisoners, beloved, approved in Christ, elect, mother to me. The more you connect with people the more different and the more enriching are the ways that they bring blessing into your life—and you to theirs.
3. Notice how Christ-saturated these relationships are. Verse 2: “Welcome her in the Lord.” Verse 3: “My fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” Verse 5: The “first convert to Christ.” Verse 7: “They were in Christ before me.” Verse 8: “My beloved in the Lord.” Verse 9: “My fellow worker in Christ.” Verse 10: “Apelles, who is approved in Christ.” Verse 11: “Greet those in the Lord.” Verse 12: “Greet those workers in the Lord.” Verse 13: “Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.” Verse 14: “Rufus, chosen in the Lord.”
This is not a simple list of greetings. This is the way a person who is drenched in Christ talks about his friends. When you write your family or friends, or when you talk on the phone, or send an email, is Christ there like this? If you say, as I have heard some say, “I don’t wear my faith on my sleeve,” be careful. The issue isn’t what’s on your sleeve. The issue is what’s in your mouth, because Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). If Christ isn’t there in your talk and in your emails, it’s not a sleeve issue—it’s not merely a personality issue, it’s not merely an ethnic issue, it’s not merely a family-of-origin issue—it’s a heart issue. Let’s be a church drenched with Jesus like Paul in Romans 16.
4. Notice that these folks are spread over several churches in Rome. Verse 5, referring to Prisca and Aquila: “Greet also the church in their house.” So there is one church that he gives a generic greeting to through Prisca and Aquila. Then there are all these other names. Look at verse 14: “ Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them.” That probably means: the church that meets with these brothers. Similarly in verse 15: “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.” And there are probably other groupings. So we learn that the church in Rome was really churches in Rome. So the church in the Twin Cities should be the churches in the Twin Cities. May the Lord multiply Bible-believing, Christ-drenched churches in these cities!
5. Notice the most common command—to greet. Thirteen times in sixteen verses he tells them: Greet so and so. And greet so and so. Who is he talking to? I assume that this letter is written to all the Roman Christians. Romans 1:7, “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.” If I am talking to Kenny Stokes, I don’t say, “Greet Kenny Stokes.” So it seems that Paul expects this letter to be handled and read and taught by the leaders of the church in Rome. He is telling them: Greet these twenty-six people that I have named and all the churches they represent.
6. Notice the love that permeates this chapter. Four times Paul uses the word loved or beloved. “My beloved Epaenetus” (v. 5), “Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord” (v. 8), “my beloved Stachys” (v. 9), “Greet the beloved Persis” (v. 12). And then we read things like: “Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” (v. 6) and Prisca and Aquila “risked their necks for my life” (v. 4). This is the language of love. May the Lord take last week’s message on wrestling and resting together and draw us into these kinds of relationships.
Now let’s go to the first verses of Romans 16 and see what Paul has to say about Phoebe and about Prisca and Aquila. First, Phoebe in verse 1-2:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.
Phoebe is the one person in these first sixteen verses who is not already living there in Rome. She is coming to Rome and Paul is asking the church to receive her in the Lord the way saints ought to, and meet all her needs. Verse 2: “Welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you.” Paul is commending her. She is the only one commended like this. Why is he commending her?
The simplest explanation (though we can’t prove it) is that she is the one bringing the letter from Corinth where Paul is probably writing the letter. Three reasons:
- She is the only one commended, and there is no indication she is coming after the letter but at the same time as the letter. The most natural conclusion is that, if she is arriving at the same time as the letter and she is the only one commended by the letter, she is probably carrying the letter.
- Second, she is from Cenchreae, which is the eastern port of Corinth where most scholars believe Paul was wintering when he wrote this letter.
- Third, she appears to be a woman of means. The word patron near the end of verse 2 suggests this (“she has been a patron of many and of myself as well”). She has helped many, including Paul. So it may well be that she is a successful business woman (like Lydia in Acts 16), who is able to travel from port to port and could be entrusted with the letter Paul wanted to send to Rome.
Whether this is sure or not, what we do know for sure is how Paul commended her. He said three things about her—and let every woman hear this—and every man.
1. She's Our Sister
First, he called her sister. Verse 1: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe.” Not just “my” sister, but “our” sister—yours and mine. He is telling them that she is part of their family, though they may have never met her. That’s a metaphor. You don’t press it beyond what Paul intended. You don’t say, “No Christian man can marry a Christian woman because Christian women are their sisters and the Bible says it wrong to marry your sister.” Metaphors don’t work like that.
You have to ask: What did Paul want this “sister” language to communicate? Theologically, the most obvious answer is that she and you have the same Father in heaven and are moving toward the same inheritance of eternal life. Contextually, the most immediate meaning is: Take care of her. She will have a need for a place to stay and food and connections. She is your sister. Families take care of their own. She is your own.
And one other thing I would say from Paul’s first letter to Timothy (5:1-2)—the only place where he makes explicit what he implies by calling a young Christian woman Timothy’s sister: “Treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity.” In all purity! In other words, to you Christian brothers: Sexual immorality with a Christian woman or girl is not just fornication (or adultery); it’s incestuous. She’s your sister. So listen, leaders of the church in Rome. Phoebe is your sister. Receive her in all purity.
2. She's a Servant
Second, Paul commends Phoebe by saying she was a servant in the church in Cenchreae. Verse 1: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” The word servant is the same word we translate deacon. She may well have been an official deacon in that church. There is no reason why (as I read the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3) women cannot be deacons. The elders are men and are charged with the governance and teaching of the church (according to 1 Timothy 2:12; 3:2 and 5:17), but the deaconate does not bear that same responsibility. And deacons are charged with the kind of ministries of mercy described, for example, in Matthew 25:44—feeding the hungry, taking in the refugee, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned. All these are “diaconal” (diekonesamen). And, of course, there are more. This fits with the way Paul describes Phoebe at the end of verse 2: “for she has been a patron (a helper, a servant) of many and of myself as well.”
3. She's a Patron and Partner in Ministry
That’s the third thing Paul says about her: 1) She is a sister, 2) she is a servant (or a deacon) in her home church, and 3) she is “a patron of many, also of me.” In other words, she has cared for me and met my needs—as she has for many others. For my sake, take her in.
Complementarity in Ministry
From the very beginning of the Christian church, women have been absolutely crucial partners in ministry with men—partners in marriage and partners as single women. (There is no mention of Phoebe having a husband.) At least seven of the names in this list are women. And they are not on the sidelines. In the history of missions, the role of women, and the courage of women, is simply breathtaking. The fact that God calls men to lead the church as the teaching and governing elders is, in the long run, we believe, a strengthening, liberating, joyful thing for Christ-exalting women.
I don’t think most of you women at Bethlehem think in terms of what you are prevented from doing. I hope you feel continually challenged to abominate wasting your lives watching soap operas and, instead, to find God’s calling to give your life away in ministry—to family, church, neighborhood, city, nations. But if there may be some among you who really wonder, If God appoints men to be the elders of the church what can I do? let me refer you to the article A Challenge to Women or to pages 80-81 of my book What’s the Difference? There I list about eighty kinds of ministries where God stands ready to bless the sacrificial service of women. It’s the climax of chapter five which was a challenge I gave to the women at Bethlehem years ago. I still believe in it. May the Lord continue to help us swim against the stream of bland and unbiblical egalitarianism as we exult in our equality before God and our complementary differences in calling and roles and the nature of manhood and womanhood.
Prisca and Aquila
Let’s close with a brief look at another woman and her husband in verses 3-5, Prisca (sometimes called Priscilla, Acts 18:2, 18, 26) and Aquila.
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house.
Here I want to hold up a challenge to married couples. Let’s assume that Phoebe was single. There is no husband mentioned. And she seemed to have amazing freedom to travel from Cenchreae to Rome. So, single women, take Phoebe for your challenge today. But here let me mention three traits of this amazing couple, Prisca and Aquila. May God use these three words to take some of you couples to the next step you have been dreaming about in ministry.
They are movers, workers, and riskers. Just a few words about each of these.
1. They Are Movers
We know from the book of Acts and Romans and 2 Timothy that Aquila was from Pontus originally (northern Turkey, Acts 18:2) and that he and Prisca lived in Rome until they were driven out by the Emperor Claudius in 49 AD with all the other Jews (Acts 18:2), and that they met Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:2) and then traveled to Ephesus where they settled and had a church in their house (Acts 18:26; 1 Corinthians 16:19). Now they are back in Rome according to Romans 16:3 and have a church in their house. But finally in 2 Timothy 4:19, they will be back in Ephesus. And that’s the last we hear of them.
So from the little that we know, they lived in Pontus, Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, Ephesus. That’s not an easy life. Just a good one: sojourners. Exiles. Following Christ. And everywhere they are, it seems, they had a church in their house. They were movers—with Christ. Is God calling any of you to live like that?
2. They Are Workers
Verse 3: “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” Everywhere they went they went with a view to serving Christ. And remember they were not vocational missionaries. They were tentmakers—literally (Acts 18:3). But they turned it all into ministry, because Paul says they are “fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” I love that phrase. Some people work in the military. Some work in medicine. Some work in politics. Some work in 3M. Paul said Prisca and Aquila worked in Christ Jesus. Whether they were making tents and planning for the forty or fifty people that would come to worship in their home, the main context for all they did was Christ Jesus. All their work was work in him—in relation to him. Is God calling any of you married couples to a more Christ-drenched way of life?
3. They Are Riskers
Verse 4: They “risked their necks for my life.” Phoebe put everything she owned, it seemed, at the disposal of the apostles. She served the church with all she had. Paul loved her for it and he trusted her—probably with the most valuable thing he had, the letter to the Romans. But Paul mentions something even more amazing about Prisca and Aquila: They put their necks on the block for his life. We don’t know what happened. But they saved Paul’s life, it seems, by risking their own, because Paul says, “I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well.” In other words, I am alive today because they put their lives on the line for me.
And what I want you couples to see is that they did it as a couple. He doesn’t say Aquila did it because he was the man. He says they both did it. They were in this together. They were ready to die together. Husbands and wives of Bethlehem, are you ready to die together for the gospel?
O Lord what a chapter! Romans 16! What web of precious partnerships! What a woman Phoebe was! What a couple Prisca and Aquila were! What a great Lord and Savior they all served! Let’s join them. Let’s be like them.