Paul now draws his letter toward its conclusion with a list of faithful saints and diligent servants of God. Of a few more detail is given; most are mentioned by name only. We know little of them; they lived a long time ago. Yet, the Lord Jesus Christ knows each of his sheep by name. Our names are written in his book, engraved upon his hands, and born in his heart before the throne of grace. When we read of their labors for Christ, each one of us should aspire to join the list of God’s faithful servants. There is no higher privilege than to promote our Savior’s kingdom, to serve him faithfully, and to be used by him in some way to build his church.
Many desperately want to be remembered, to make their mark, and to gain notoriety, by means fair or foul. Taught that there is nothing but the moment, nothing meaningful but fun, an increasing number of young people try to outdo their peers in shameless behavior, preferably while someone is recording their actions. Men have always craved worldly recognition; our pride and ambition are insatiable. There were such people living in the first century, and there always have been. We do not remember their names. They left nothing behind worthy of being remembered. The Roman world had its celebrities and courtesans, its beauties and gladiators, its business magnates and politicians, but they are largely forgotten. “The name of the wicked will rot” (Prov. 10:7). We had better be sure that the memory of our name does not rot, buried under the ignominy of sin, consigned to eternal anonymity in hell. For here is the glorious truth about this list. God has not forgotten one of these names. These men and women are alive. They are with God in Christ. They served the Lord faithfully in their generation, and they then departed to be with the Lord, with whom they shine as stars in the kingdom God has prepared for us (Dan. 12:3). Will we shine with them? Be remembered as zealous servants of Christ?
Of Phebe (vv. 1-2)
Beautiful is the union of knowledge and love in our apostle! His high doctrine is matched by his deep love. This is as it should be, for the more we learn Jesus Christ and his truth, the more our hearts are filled with love for God and love for his people. How could it be otherwise? These are the two great commandments of the law, and the Holy Spirit writes them upon our hearts. Truth is unto love, or it is but a weak shadow of its true self. Love must always be grounded on truth, or it always degenerates into wispy sentiment that is quickly blown away under the pressures of life in a fallen world. Paul begins with a woman of some reputation in the church, Phebe or Phoebe, who Paul particularly commends to the Romans because she carried his letter to them from Corinth. The postscript attached to the book in many versions supports this belief. Phebe was a servant of the church in Cenchrea, which was one of the two Corinthian ports. It was on the Asiatic or eastern side of the Corinthian isthmus, and a church had been planted there by the apostle. It was likely one of several Corinthians congregations.
She is called a “servant,” and the use of diakonos has led some to the mistaken idea that she held an ordained office in the church, but this is by no means a necessary inference or consistent with the analogy of faith. The qualifications for deacon assume a male candidate (1 Tim. 3:12), though without a doubt there were older women set over the younger women, as mentors and teachers. This was a commendable practice for the time, and served for the good ordering of the church and a safeguard against the suspicion of impropriety. It is better to see this as notable use of the common word for servant. Paul uses the word frequently with respect to himself, and he was not a deacon, at least not in the official sense. All believers are called “servants of God,” but most believers are not deacons. All, however, are servants of God and of one another, and Phebe’s life was devoted to serving of Jesus Christ. Whatever else she might have been, and she seems to have been a woman of some means and position in the church and perhaps in society, she is commended to the Romans on the basis of her exemplary, devoted service to our Lord Jesus.
The Romans are to receive her in the Lord, “as becometh saints.” Christians are always to receive fellow-believers with all love, kindness, and support, as if they are receiving Jesus Christ himself, and we are, for “it is not we who live but Christ that lives in us.” We serve the same Master, and however we may differ in outward circumstances, gifts, and preferences, love for our Lord unites our hearts together. If we lack this love, we must go back and learn the ABCs of the gospel. Phebe had business in Rome, so Paul encourages them to help her in every way possible. She had been a great help to many and to Paul himself. In an age that foolishly believes that women are trampled upon unless they have a worldly equality with men, here we see what marks a godly woman. Imagine being known as a servant. This will hardly win you accolades in today’s egalitarian and envious society, in which women vie with men for authority, recognition, and remuneration. Instead, a Christian woman strives only to be a servant of Jesus Christ in the many fields of labor that are particularly suited to women and absolutely necessary for a healthy, loving, and well-taught congregation: hospitality, older teaching the younger, and showing the devotion of the Lord’s wife to him by her adoring service. Many Christian women served our Lord in this way, such as Mary and Martha, and the church absolutely requires an army of diligent, pious, and serving women. My guess is that Phebe blushed to read such praise heaped upon her, but when the Holy Spirit praises, who are we to keep silent! The Christian woman should keep her home, to be sure, for this is her first field of responsibility, but she must also set her hands to building the house that will last longer than hers, the church of Jesus Christ.
Of Priscilla and Aquila (vv. 3-5)
Paul first met Priscilla and Aquila when he came to Corinth. They were Jews expelled from Rome as a result of Claudius’ edict in A.D. 49 that all Jews had to leave the city. They were of the same occupation as Paul, tentmakers (Acts 18:2-3). He encourages the Romans to greet them, for they had either returned to Rome by this time, the edict being expired or no longer enforced, or perhaps they planned to return home in the company of Phebe. They were Paul’s stalwart helpers in the gospel ministry, being able to disciple others in the way. They hosted the meetings of the church in their home (v. 5; 1 Cor. 16:19), which was the most regular place of congregational assembly in those first days of the church’s Gentile existence. This does not mean “home church,” as if the family is the church, but a simple reference of geography and logistics. There were few other locations available to believers to meet except in private homes, especially since the Jews everywhere hounded the church and stirred up the Roman authorities against her.
Paul had great reason to love this husband and wife, for they “laid down their necks for him,” likely in the wake of the tumult that was caused in Corinth through the instigation of the unbelieving Jews, who beat Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, to show their displeasure when the Roman deputy Gallio refused to hear their case against Paul (Acts 18:12-17). He soon left Corinth in the company of Priscilla and Aquila, traveling to Ephesus. They risked their own well-being to deliver Paul, and he publicly gives them thanks, and asks all the Gentiles to do the same. Gospel love for Jesus Christ creates the deepest bonds between believers, willingness to lay down our lives for one another, and diligence in laboring together for the promotion of our Savior’s gospel. It also makes us thankful, which is one of humility’s most beautiful fruits.
First-Fruits, Laborers, and Fellow-Prisoners (v. 6-7)
In 1 Corinthians 16:15, the household of Stephanas is described as the “firstfruits of Achaia, so it must be that Epaenetus, whose name means “praiseworthy,” must have been part of that household and perhaps the means of its conversion. He is Paul’s “well-beloved,” as all believers ought to be to one another, and especially toward those whom God has used us to bring into the faith. Should we not aspire to bring men to the Master? We shall be, as God wills and as we grow in love for the Savior. “We cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). An otherwise unknown Mary is marked out by her ardent labor for Paul and his associates (v. 6). Two of Paul’s kinsmen, Andronicus and Junia, perhaps husband and wife, were also Paul’s fellow-prisoners. This likely refers to the imprisonment at Philippi, which at the time of this writing is the only known imprisonment that Paul had yet suffered. Remember his words to the Philippian jailer. “Do thyself no harm: for we are all here” (Acts 16:28). There were more with Paul than simply Silas. Paul could not have known whether prisoners in other cells or locations in the prison were present and accounted for; after the earthquake, it was dark (Acts 16:29). They were well-known by the apostles for their godly lives and service to the church. It is a blessing when believers suffer together, for then they are able to encourage one another; it is a marked blessing from God when their patience in suffering is used to bring others to a knowledge of Jesus Christ (Acts 16:30-33).
Salute My Beloved, Helpers, and Kinsmen (vv. 8-15)
Now follows a list of those whom Paul loved, having heard a good report of their love for the Lord. Amplias and Stachys, reputed to be one of the original seventy, are described as his “beloved” and Urbanos as his “helper.” Apelles is “approved in Christ,” well-pleasing to the Lord by his love and service. Herodian was one of his kinsmen, likely his cousin residing in Rome. Narcissus, who had a bad earthly name, meaning “stupid,” was the head of a faithful, Christian household. Baptized into Jesus Christ and faithfully bearing his name, we can always overcome a bad name, a bad life, and a bad upbringing. Tryphena and Tryphosa, whose names closely correspond – “luxuriant” and “luxuriating” – may have been sisters, and they faithfully served the Lord, as did Persis. Rufus’ graces and gifts show that he is one of the Lord’s chosen, and he was blessed with a godly mother, who is unnamed, but who ministered to Paul as a mother. We know nothing else about Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas, Hermes, and the brethren which are with them, or Philologus, and Julia, Nereus, and his sister, and Olympas, but they were part of the illustrious company of saints in Rome about whom Paul had heard many good things that cheered his heart. That Paul new so many of the names and much of the lives of these men and women indicates how large our hearts should be toward God’s faithful saints throughout the world. Our love, prayers, and friendliness to Christians must embrace all who have a good reputation for godliness.
Greet with a Holy Kiss (v. 16)
Here is an apostolic command most no longer keep. God kissed the breath of life into us, and we breathe love and encouragement into one another through sincere and pure affection. If we cannot kiss one another, we have an urgent need to “recover our first love,” for when sincere, loving believers kiss one another, it is our Lord’s love that is doing the kissing. If embarrassment or social convention prevents the actual kiss, still we must cherish the deepest affection for one another and find meaningful ways to express it. Love for Jesus Christ always overflows into love for one another. And since we are not likely to kiss those with whom we are at odds, our hard hearts are rebuked, as are dividing partisanship, gossip, taking up offenses, dividing brothers, and sowing discord. We ought always to think of and pray for one another, and cherish such affection as heirs of God and co-heirs with Jesus Christ, that as soon as we see one other, our hearts leap for joy. It is no wonder that our “God is love” rings hollow when among some believers, a better motto would be, “I play favorites;” or, “Not that man, he has offended me;” or, “I kiss only those believers who agree with me in everything.” Praise God that he does not kiss and embrace us only on the basis of our being perfect. Jesus Christ touched sinners, and unless we would make ourselves better than him, we must lovingly touch one another as Christ has touched us in grace and love.
Is our name on the list of God’s faithful servants? Are we devoted to the gospel? Can you say sincerely of yourself, “I am a servant of Jesus Christ?” Are you beloved by those who preach the gospel, a helper to godly men, a nurturer of love and service within the body? If a Christian woman, can Jesus Christ call you his “beloved Phebe?” It may only be a cup of cold water, or consistent prayer for the needs of the body, or a meal for a sick family. The Lord knows you have a home to keep, children to nurture and teach, and a husband to help. But let every Christian woman think much of Jesus’ love, and as Mary washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, so she will look for opportunities to love him by loving others. Pray for love opportunities, small and great, in your home, congregation, and community. Nothing is more beautiful than a church that is filled with Mary’s, Martha’s, and Phebe’s.
I pray there that the Lord will make all our men like Aquila and Andronicus: able to disciple others, willing to suffer for Jesus Christ, his true servants in our homes and congregations. Admittedly, being a servant is no more a badge of honor for a man in our culture than for a woman, but since our Lord came to serve, let us pick up his gospel flag and follow his example. Many around you need to hear of Jesus Christ. They need to be invited to come and hear the gospel preached. They need encouragement in their families, for sin has wrecked many homes in our society, and you have the gospel that can restore them. We speak of wanting to make a difference. Join the lists. Start speaking of Jesus Christ to those around you. Look for opportunities to serve the Lord’s church. He is enlarging the lists of his faithful servants daily, and there is room for each one of us. He loves us. Let us enter his lists of faithful servants without delay. Put aside those things that are preventing you from doing so. He will forgive. He will strengthen. He will accept your service.