Romans 16 is quite unlike any other chapter in Romans, indeed in the whole of Scripture. But it is like the endings of nearly all Paul’s letters, just writ large. Now you may think these personal greetings unimportant, after all the recipients are long dead, or boring, like the 9 chapters of genealogies that begin 1 Chronicles. You would be wrong.
The big take away is that the church consists of ordinary people and they count. They are loved by Paul and loved by Christ. Paul greets fellow workers, members, men and women, families (Aristobulus and Narcissus), brothers and mothers (16:13-14), even the unnamed he doesn’t know personally. What’s amazing is that he’s never been to Rome! Yet he mentions 26 by name. A third were women (9 of 28), 5 of whom are identified as workers/workers in the Lord (cf. Philippians 4:3). Women’s ministry in Rome! The list is full of personal and ministry details. Four he calls, ‘beloved’. Clearly Paul was a pastor and loved people. People mattered, women mattered. Ministries were recognised and affirmed. It’s also evident that Paul has close relationships with his fellow workers and friends in Corinth, eight of whom sent greetings to the churches in Rome (16:21-23).
How did Paul know all these people? Some like Priscilla, Aquila and Urbanus, were fellow workers, others gospel workers he knew (Tryphaena and Tryphosa), several were his kinsmen, Andronicus and Junia were fellow prisoners, and others no doubt members of churches he’d planted. Besides knowing Paul, they were united in that they had all travelled to Rome (or previously met Paul on their travels). There was great mobility in the Roman Empire: good roads to ride and walk on and sailing ships that carried passengers. Business women like Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11) and Lydia (Acts 16:14) travelled – she was 500 km by sea from her home town when Paul met her. It wasn’t just traders, missionaries and false teachers who travelled. In the early church there were many travelling evangelists. Numerous Christians kept a guest room aside for travelling evangelists (3 John 5-8), like Gaius who hosted Paul (16:23), as the inns were often seedy places.
Besides all the greetings Paul passed on to individuals, we read: ‘all the churches of the Gentiles’ gave thanks to Priscilla and Aquila (16:4); ‘all the churches of Christ’ greeted the Roman church (16:16), as did Paul’s fellow workers (16:21-23). Clearly there were bonds of love between Christians and between churches. Those bonds had to be maintained, so Paul warns against those who cause divisions contrary to apostolic doctrine (16:17-18).
Finally, Phoebe, a vignette. Paul calls her a deacon (16:1) in the church of Cenchreae. ‘Deacon’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘servant’. Some of those who served were officially recognised in the early church (Acts 6:1-6, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 2:8-13). In Acts 6 they distributed food to the widows in need so that the apostles could give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. From this developed the whole ‘ministry of mercy’ in the early church and Reformation churches. This is a critical ministry needed in South Africa today with its huge unemployment and poverty. Deacons have to know the faith but don’t have to be able to teach (1 Timothy 2:8-13). Paul distinguished between presbyters (elders) and deacons; we need to do the same and recognise and appoint biblical deacons. Their ministry is broad: finances, property, administration and mercy – not Word ministry but the practical side of the church, though some deacons may be gifted in Word ministry like Stephen and Philip (Acts 7-8).
Next Paul states that Phoebe ‘has been a patron of many and of myself as well’ (16:2 ESV). She supported Paul’s apostolic ministry and the ministry of ‘many’. Patrons were wealthy people who financially supported others. They have played a significant role in the church. Churches, theological colleges and charities have benefitted hugely from wealthy individuals and their trusts.
Third, Phoebe was almost certainly the bearer of Paul’s letter to Rome. Romans 16:1-2 introduces and commends her. She had the huge responsibility of preserving and safely delivering the letter first to Priscilla and Aquila’s house church and then to a gathering of the whole church. She too would have read the letter meaningfully to the church, having been coached by Paul. Because of her faithfulness we have Romans today, a letter that teaches the church the gospel and has changed the world!