Forum Class #17 January 11, 2004
Notes from Ray C. Stedman
ALL IN THE FAMILY
We have finally reached the last chapter in our study in Romans. Some of you are old enough to remember when we started! I am not going to finish it today, however. The last paragraph is reserved for next Sunday and our Communion service. Many people ignore this chapter, I think, because they see in it nothing but a list of names of people long since dead and gone. But in many ways this is one of the most exciting chapters in Romans, as I think you will see.
There is something in all of us that wants to see our names preserved. Years ago I visited the Natural Bridge of Virginia. There were thousands of names and initials scratched on the rocks, but high up on the side of it, above almost every other name, was scratched "George Washington." Even the father of our country felt the urge to gain a kind of immortality by carving his name on the rock.
But here in Romans 16 is a list of names of men and women who never knew that they were going to be famous. I am sure that if they had known that mention in one of Paul's letters was to give them undying fame, there would have been a long line of people outside his door urging him to include them in the letter. But these names are mentioned only because they were personal friends of Paul's in Rome, to whom he was writing, or they were with him in the city of Corinth, from which he wrote.
In these first 24 verses there are 33 names mentioned. Nine of these people were with Paul -- eight men and one woman. There are 24 names mentioned in Rome -- 17 men and 7 women. There are two households mentioned, and two unnamed women -- the mother of Rufus and the sister of Nereus -- as well as some unnamed brethren. So there is quite a list of people the apostle knew personally in Rome, though he himself had not yet visited that city -- these are people he had known somewhere else in the Roman Empire. We tend to think of those ancient days as a time of limited travel, and they were. It took weeks to reach cities that we now reach in less than an hour by plane. Nevertheless, these people got around, and here is a record of that fact.
This passage has three simple divisions: First, Paul's greetings to the brothers and sisters at Rome (the first 16 verses), then a brief warning about phony Christians who were there in Rome, and Then greetings from the brothers who were with Paul as he wrote. The letter to the Romans was carried by a traveling businesswoman, Phoebe, and she is introduced to us in the opening verses of this chapter:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me. (Rom 16:1-2 NIV)
The whole church can be grateful to this woman for her faithfulness. She bore and preserved this letter all along that hazardous journey from Corinth to Rome. She is called by the apostle "a servant of the church in Cenchreae." Cenchreae was the port of Corinth, located about nine miles east of the city. Evidently, a Christian church had grown up there, and Phoebe was a deacon in it. (That is really the term, not deaconess, as the King James Version puts it. That is a sexist term. The word is the same for male or female.) That does not mean that she held some governmental office in that church; we sometimes read present-day meanings into these words. It means that she had assumed a ministry on behalf of the church. She represented them in some labor, and whether it was material, physical, or spiritual, she was very faithful in it. So Paul commends her to these Christians in Rome, and asks them not only to receive her, but to help her. "She has been a help to many others," he says, "and to me."
You cannot read Chapter 16 of Romans without being impressed by the number of women Paul mentions -- many more than in any other literature of that day. Women occupy a prominent place in these letters of the New Testament. Evidently, they handled very important tasks within the church, according to the gifts they had. There is strong suggestion here that Phoebe was a teacher or an evangelist -- a laborer for the gospel with Paul. We do not know much more about her, but her name has been preserved forever because of this mention. Paul now turns to greet those he knew in Rome, and he begins with a very well known husband and wife team, Verses 3-4:
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. (Rom 16:3-5 NIV)
We meet this couple in other letters of Paul. We see them first in Chapter 18 of Acts, where Luke tells us they were Jews, tentmakers by trade, who were driven out of Rome by the decree of the Emperor Claudius. (That is a historical mention, dated in 52 A.D.) They went to Corinth, took up their trade there, and met this strange young Jew, also a tentmaker, who had come from the north. Evidently, Saul of Tarsus moved in with them and soon led them to Christ. Theirs was probably the first home in Corinth that started a church. Luke tells us that after two years there, Paul left to go to the great city of Ephesus, and Priscilla and Aquila went with him. Again, they took up the trade of tent making and again opened up a church in their home.
They also ministered in the synagogue, for Luke tells us that one morning they heard a mighty and eloquent man named Apollos preaching, but it was evident to them that he did not understand the fullness of the gospel, for he preached only what John the Baptist taught, that "One was coming, who would do mighty things." After the service they invited him home to dinner (That is a wonderful thing to do for a preacher!) and instructed him more fully. Because of their ministry to him, Apollos went on to Corinth, where he had a mighty ministry in the Word of God. Incidentally, of the six times their names are mentioned, four times Priscilla's name is put first -- which indicates that she had the gift of teaching, rather than her husband. Now they are in Rome, having traveled from Corinth and Ephesus. Paul greets them, and reminds the church that they had risked their lives for him. That was probably in that uproar that broke out in the city of Ephesus, recorded in the latter part of Acts, when the whole city was upset, and a mob was intent on taking Paul's life. He reveals the fact that everywhere this couple went they had a church in their home.
In these early days, Christians did not meet in buildings like we have now. In fact, for 300 years there is no mention of church buildings in Scripture. What a relief, not to be bothered with a church building program! People just got together where they could for larger meetings. But here in Rome there were at least three, and probably many more, house churches where Christians gathered and one of them was in the home of Priscilla and Aquila. Paul goes on to mention two other friends, Verses 5-6:
Greet my dear friend Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. (Rom 16:5-6 NIV)
Epaenetus was never forgotten, for he was the first one to believe the gospel when Paul came to the province of Asia, of which Ephesus was the capital. You never forget that first one you lead to Christ. No matter how many others follow, you never forget the firstfruits. We do not know what Epaenetus was doing in Rome, but he was cherished because he was the first to exercise faith in Asia. And associated with him is Mary, whom Paul calls "Mary the toiler." She is one of the group of unknown women in the Gospels who had the gift of helps. She could not teach or preach or evangelize, but she could work, and she did. Paul is very careful to remember these women and men who had the gift of helps. Then he mentions some relatives and friends, Verses 7-10:
Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ. (Rom 16:7-10a NIV)
Andronicus and Junias were relatives of Paul, and since he says they were "in Christ before me," this takes us back to the very first days of the church, back to the ministry of Stephen in Jerusalem. What it must have meant to the young Saul of Tarsus, who was breathing forth threatenings and slaughter against the Christians there, to learn that two of his own kinsmen had become Christians! Undoubtedly the prayers of Andronicus and Junias affected the apostle. It is hard to tell whether this is a husband and wife team, or two brothers. It all depends on the name "Junias." If it is "Junias" with an "s," as we have it here, it is a male; if it is "Junia," as the King James Version has it, it is female. But whoever they were, they were Jews, relatives of Paul, who had become Christians. There is a wistful note here as Paul remembers that they were in Christ before him, and no doubt they were praying for him. Somewhere along the line they shared a prison term with him. There is no better place to make friends than in jail. You have to get to know your fellow-inmates -- there is no escaping them! They became fast friends, as well as relatives, and Paul speaks highly of them. He says that even the twelve apostles in Jerusalem held them in high regard. What they were doing in Rome we do not know -- doubtless they were leaders in the church there.
Ampliatus in an interesting name. In the cemetery at Domitilla, found among the catacombs in Rome, there is a highly decorated tomb with the single name "Ampliatus," written on it. A single name like this implies that the man was a slave, but as the tomb is rather ornate, it indicates that he was a Christian, and highly respected by the leaders in Rome. We cannot be sure that he was the same person Paul mentions here, but he most likely is. Therefore this man, though a slave, had a great ministry among the brethren in Rome.
Urbanus and Stachys we know no more about than what Paul mentions here. Somewhere, Urbanus joined Paul's team, and also "his dear friend Stachys," and that is all we know. But I have always been fascinated by this man Apelles, whom Paul says has been "tested and approved in Christ." (I wish that is what I would merit on my tombstone. Would not that be a great inscription, "Tested and approved in Christ"?) This man will forever be known as one who endured a testing of his faith and who stood against the pressure. Thus he has been approved in Christ. His name means "called," and he certainly proved himself to be one whom God had called. In the latter part of Verse 10 and in Verse 11 two groups are mentioned, involving Christians and, perhaps, non-Christians as well:
Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my relative. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. (Rom 16:10b-11 NIV)
Dr. William Barclay, probably the best commentator of all to get at the background of Biblical stories, tells us that Aristobulus may have been the grandson of King Herod the Great, who lived in Rome. He was behind the scenes politically, but was the close friend of the Emperor Claudius. When Aristobulus died, his household, i.e., his servants and slaves, became the property of the emperor (and by this time Nero was on the throne, succeeding Claudius, who had been murdered), but his household was still known as the household of Aristobulus. It is this group, probably, that Paul is referring to. If so, it means that even in the royal household there were a number of Christian servants and slaves who exercised great influence on the leaders of Rome -- even the emperor himself. This is supported, I think, by the fact that Paul mentions his relative, Herodion, in connection with these servants. You can see from his name that this man had connections with the family of Herod. This is also a hint to us that Paul himself had some connection with the ruling family of the Jews. His relative, Herodion, had become a Christian, and was living there in Rome as part of the household of either Aristobulus or Narcissus.
The most famous Narcissus we know in Roman history was a former slave who became the personal secretary of the Emperor Claudius. He gained much wealth, because he was in charge of the correspondence of the emperor. (His palm had to be greased before a letter got through to the emperor.) When Claudius was murdered, Nero took over, and he also took over the household of Narcissus. Shortly after Nero came to the throne, he forced Narcissus to commit suicide, as he did many men. But it is very clear from this mention here that there were Christians among his household. "Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord." Already, in the heart of the Roman Empire, a Christian witness had been established, and Paul sends greetings to the slaves and servants in the house of Nero. Next, we get another band of hard-working ladies, and also another hidden romantic story, Verses 12-13:
Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa [I have always enjoyed those names!] those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. (Rom 16:12-13 NIV)
These words of Paul open up hidden vistas that bring the whole flavor and color of this first-century Christian life home to us. Here were Tryphaena and Tryphosa. I can just imagine them knitting and darning and crocheting, these dear maiden sisters who worked very hard. We do not know what they did, but there is a delicate irony here. When Paul wrote this he probably smiled to himself, for their names mean "dainty" and "delicate" -- yet they were hard workers. Their names are suggestive that they were probably aristocrats, women who were born to a high class. And yet, they who did not have to work for a livelihood worked hard in the service of the Lord.
We know nothing about Paul's dear friend Persis, other than that she too had worked with him somewhere, perhaps traveling in his company of evangelists. In Verse 13 we have Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who had been a mother to the apostle too. There seems to be little doubt that Rufus, along with his brother Alexander, mentioned in the Gospel of Mark, were the sons of Simon of Cyrene. In the Gospels we are told that as our Lord was making his way down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, on his way to the cross, he was so weak from loss of blood that he tripped and fell. The Roman soldiers laid hold of a passing stranger whom they compelled to bear the cross to Calvary. That man was Simon of Cyrene, a Jew coming into the city for the Passover. His home was in North Africa, and he evidently had little or no interest in the things of Christ until he was forced to carry the cross of Jesus. Though we do not know the details, it is evident that this man became a Christian and there is a hint in the book of Acts that he was present on the day of Pentecost.
His two sons, Alexander and Rufus, became outstanding men in the Christian community. There is an Alexander who comes to the rescue of Paul in the city of Ephesus, at the time of the outcry there. There is a Rufus here in Rome, who is well known, and Paul sends his greetings to him, and reminds him also that Rufus' mother had been his mother too, at some time. This again takes us back to the earliest days of the gospel ministry when perhaps young Saul of Tarsus, coming to Jerusalem to sit at the feet of Gamaliel, the great Jewish teacher, had probably stayed in the home of Simon of Cyrene and his two sons, Alexander and Rufus. Later they became Christians, and Paul cherished them as friends he had known even before his own Christian days. We cannot be certain of all those details, but much is suggested by this. Then in Verse 14 we find a businessmen's group:
Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them. (Rom 16:14 NIV)
Here is a kind of male commune, all with Greek names, suggesting that these were young businessmen who had come to Rome and formed a group. They had all become Christians and had another house church going in their bachelors' quarters there. Paul sends his greetings to them and all the brothers with them. Then a final group, perhaps another house church in Rome, Verse 15:
Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings. (Rom 16:15-16 NIV)
Philologus means "a lover of the word," and this was probably a nickname given to him, just as Barnabas was called "the son of consolation," even though that was not his name. Here was a man who loved the Word of God, and gathered with him these men and women -- Julia, Nereus and his sister.
Nereus is another fascinating name. Dr. Barclay suggests that he may have been the housekeeper of a prominent Roman citizen named Flavius Clemens, later to become Consul of Rome, the highest political office in the city, who, in 95 A.D., was condemned to death by the Emperor Domitian because he was a Christian. His wife, Domatilla, also a Christian, was banished by the emperor. Here is a hint that in the household of Flavius Clemens was a Christian slave, Nereus, who was undoubtedly a great influence in leading this prominent Roman citizen to Christ, and who would later give his life as a martyr for the cause of Christ.
We can see from these names that Roman society had already been infiltrated by the gospel before Paul ever arrived in the city. That is why, at the beginning of this letter, he says, their "faith is being reported all over the world," (Rom 1:8 NIV). These prominent Christians had already penetrated society from top to bottom.
That is the way Christianity should work. I do not think it makes its best progress by massive campaigns. I think it makes its best progress when it infiltrates all levels of society and brings them all together in the church of Christ. Now we have this warning paragraph. Paul is evidently thinking of his own trip to Jerusalem and the threat that awaits him from the Judaizers there, Verses 17-20:
I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way, contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. (Rom 16:17-20 NIV)
There is a very helpful passage here on what to do about problems within the church: Here is a group of people who are professing Christians, but, who, to judge by the apostle's language, are not truly believers. The danger, as Paul outlines it, is that they create factions within a church -- that is, little dissident groups that gather about and emphasize one particular point of doctrine or teaching, to the exclusion of everything else. That is always a problem within the church when people think one particular thing is most important. We have people today who emphasize tongues, or prophecy, or some phase of teaching that they think is the mark of a true believer, to the exclusion of everything else. Paul warns about this.
The second thing they do is introduce practices or ceremonies that Paul calls "obstacles to faith," certain rituals or practices that these groups insist are the marks of true Christianity. They build a sense of superiority. They say, "If you have this mark, then you really are a Christian." Their motives, Paul says, are not to serve Christ, even though they say they do. These factions are really out to advance themselves, to get a following, to gain prestige. You can tell by the way they act that is what they want. Their methods are to come on with smooth and plausible talk. They always use scriptural language. They always appear to be the most dedicated and devoted of believers. Have you noticed how many of the cults today are trying to go back to the Scriptures, arguing from them a groundwork for their faith? Another method is flattery. They make Christians feel important. They lift them up above the rest and give them a peculiar mark of distinction, and flatter their egos as being members of the true church. These factions always cause division. When some group like this appears, many of us tend to want to rush in and excommunicate them, read them out from the pulpit, or violently attack them. Paul does not say to do any of those things. His advice is to keep away from them. Ignore them. "You Christians in Rome have a reputation for obedience. You have a spirit of wanting to obey what the Lord says. Now here is your word from the Lord: Do not follow them; do not get involved with these separatist groups. When you obey this, God will work. The God of peace, who will preserve the peace of the church, will also crush Satan under your feet." Something will happen to open the eyes of people to the unscriptural position of these groups, and they will lose their following. The peace will be preserved without a lot of warfare and dissension. In Verses 21-23 we have the greetings of those who are with Paul in Corinth:
Timothy, my fellow worker, sends his greetings to you, as do Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, my relatives. I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings. Erastus, who is the city's director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you his greetings. (Rom 16:21-24 NIV)
That brings us to the final paragraph when, as was his custom, Paul takes his pen and writes the last words himself. Up to this point he has been dictating this letter to a man who identifies himself in Verse 22: "I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord." Evidently, the apostle said something to him, such as, "Tertius, you've written this whole thing and you must have writer's cramps by now. Just write another line and send your own greetings." The name indicates that he, too, was a slave, because his name means "Third." In slave families they did not bother to think up names; they just numbered the children, First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, etc. Here are Third and Fourth of a family of slaves. (His brother, Quartus, Fourth, is mentioned in Verse 23.) They are educated slaves who have become Christians. They can read and write, and are part of this group in Corinth.
You can picture them gathered in the home of Gaius, this gracious, genial, generous host of the city, mentioned in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Gaius opened his house to the entire Christian community, so here is Paul, sitting there with his friends. Tertius is writing down the letter, and the others are gathered around listening to Paul as he dictates, and profiting much from the writing of these great truths. With Paul, of course, is his dear son in the faith, Timothy, whom we know so well from the two letters addressed to him. Paul spoke of him always in the highest terms; his beloved son in the faith, who had stayed with him so long and remained faithful to the end. The very last letter Paul wrote from his prison cell in Rome was to Timothy. Paul also mentions Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, his relatives.
Here in Romans 16 are six members of Paul's family, kinsmen who are now Christians. Some were Christians before him, but some Paul influenced toward Christ. They come from various places. Lucius appears to be the same one who comes from Cyrene, mentioned in Chapter 13 of Acts as one of the teachers in the city of Antioch. Jason was evidently Paul's host when the apostle went to the city of Thessalonica, in Macedonia. Paul stayed in Jason's home when a riot broke out in the city. Sosipater may be the man from Beroea, mentioned in Acts 20 as "Sopater." Paul met him in Macedonia and may have accompanied him to Jerusalem with the offering to the churches there.
The final name is Erastus, director of public works in the city of Corinth. You can see how the gospel penetrated all levels of society, with slaves, public officials, consuls, leaders of the empire, all sharing an equal ground of fellowship in the church of Jesus Christ. All class distinctions disappeared within the church and that is what happens whenever the church works.
I think the thing we need to remember from this list of names is that these Christians were noted for their steady, tested commitment, their faithfulness to the gospel. I must say that I am troubled today when I see Christians succumbing so easily to the world's philosophy of life -- live for your own pleasure, try to retire as early as possible so you can do as little as you can. I think that is a deadly philosophy. The early Christians did not believe that.
Four things ring clearly throughout their lives: One, they were not their own. "You are not your own; you are bought with a price," (1 Cor 6:19b-20a NIV). They believed that. They did not have a right to direct their lives any longer. God had sent them into the world, and God would take them through it. Second, they believed that life is a battle, a battle to the death. It is not a picnic. They were engaged in warfare that never ended until they left this life, so they kept on fighting. Third, they believed that there is need for rest and leisure at times, but only to restore them to go back into the battle. They never envisaged retiring and enjoying themselves for the remaining years of their lives. They only envisaged getting adequate rest in order to come back and fight through to the end. Finally, they understood that the gifts of the Holy Spirit among them opened up a ministry for every single believer. No Christian was without a ministry. Some of these dear people had only the gift of helps (although I should not say "only" the gift of helps, for that is a great gift.) They could not teach or preach but they could help, and they did, right to the end.
I think this passage reminds us that God has called us all to a ministry, and we all have to give an account for what we have done with our gifts. We had better find out what they are and get to work, get involved in the battle, because God has not called us to a picnic ground. He has called us to a battleground.
THE GREAT MYSTERY
We have seen that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Romans from Corinth. And now we have come to the very last paragraph of the letter. Very likely at this point, Paul took the pen and wrote the closing paragraph in his own hand. Paul tells us in Second Thessalonians that this was his custom (2 Th 3:17). He did this to protect his letters from forgery, for one thing, but also to bear a personal greeting to those to whom he was writing. I think almost all scholars agree that the apostle probably suffered from a serious eye problem. The letter to the Galatians suggests that. So Paul wrote these marvelous words in large letters with his own hand, Verses 25-27:
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him -- to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom 16:25-27 NIV)
Those remarkable words constitute a summary of the whole letter to the Romans -- a beautiful finale to this great epistle. I have chosen this as the central study around which we may gather as we come to the table of the Lord this morning. You will notice that the goal the apostle has in view in writing this letter and summary is that we who read this letter may be established.
Have you ever had the desire to be established? Many people think they are established when actually they are simply stuck in the mud. Most of us think that being established means that all progress ceases. We sit down, camp there, and that is it. In that sense, there are a lot of Christians who are established. But when Paul speaks of our being established, he means putting us on solid, stable ground. Have you ever erected a picnic table and tried to find a place where all four legs touched the ground at the same time? You tried to establish it so that it would not rock, or become shaky, or uncertain. That is the idea that Paul has in mind in this word establish. God wants to bring you and me to a place where we are no longer rocking or shaky or unstable, but solid and secure. The idea is basically what all human beings look for -- an inner security from which you can handle all the problems of life. You become dependable, and have a true sense of worth, so that nothing gets to you, or shakes you up, or throws you off balance.
This is the goal of all Christian teaching in the New Testament (and especially the goal of the letter to the Romans) that we believers might be brought to that place of security where we are not shaken by things, so that we do not lose our tempers easily, or get frustrated, angry, resentful or hostile; where we do not scream at our children, or yell at our mates, or get upset at the neighbors.
Notice the resource that the apostle counts on to make that happen: "Now to him who is able to establish you..." It is God himself who is responsible for this. You and I are not given the final responsibility to bring this about. Isn't that encouraging? Now there are things he asks us to do: We are to understand what he is saying to us in this letter, and we are to willingly cooperate with it and give ourselves to it. But even if we do not, Paul is saying, we do not have the ultimate responsibility to bring this about. God will do it. I am sure, as the apostle wrote this, he had in mind all the instances and circumstances from the past that are given to us in the Old Testament to encourage us. God did this with Abraham, who was an idol worshiper. Abraham could not tell the truth about his wife. He was always lying about her because he thought that would save him from difficulty. He had various character faults but God stabilized him, established him, and brought him to a place where he became one of the great names of all time.
God did this with Moses and David and, of course, with Paul himself. Paul was a brilliant young Jew with an ambitious heart, a sharp mind and a strong sense of achievement, due to his notable gifts and his desire to become famous. Yet God broke him, softened him, changed him and put him through circumstances that Paul did not understand at the time. This finally established him, so that no matter what came, he remained strong, steady, trusting and certain. That is the great good news of this letter. "Now to him who is able to establish you..." Paul goes on to give us three things that God will use during that process: First he says, "Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel..." Now, do not misunderstand that little phrase. Paul does not mean by this that he has a unique gospel. Unfortunately, some teachers have taken these words in that way, and have concluded that the Apostle Paul was giving a special revelation that no one else possessed -- one that Peter, James and John and other writers of Scripture did not know. That teaching has been widespread among certain men of our day, and people have followed that delusion. That is not what Paul means. He answered that accusation in First Corinthians. He said, "Some of you are following me; some are following Apollos; some are following Cephas, and this is wrong. We are not different; we all have the same gospel. You are making too much of men. The message is always the same," (1 Cor 1:11 ff). He rebuked them for tending to divide and to follow certain leaders and teachers.
What Paul means is that he was given a unique revelation of this gospel, which the others understood, as well. You find that in Chapter 11 of First Corinthians: "For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body, which is for you...'" (1 Cor 11:23-24a). Paul is saying, "I was not there at the Lord's supper. I was not even a Christian then. I have not talked with Peter or James or John about this, and none of the men who were present there told me what happened in that room. I know what happened because Jesus himself appeared to me and told me. And I told you only what I received from the Lord himself." The Lord taught Paul the same gospel that the other apostles believed and that is what Paul means when he says, "According to my gospel..." The practical impact of that upon us is this: That the test of all true Christian messages is that they be in line with the apostolic writings. The apostles are the ones who tell us the truth about the gospel. That is why we must always check what we hear today that claims to be Christian and see if it fits with what the apostles gave us. Paul says that is what God will use to establish you: "My gospel -- that which was given to me." The second element is "the proclamation of Jesus Christ." Here Paul is unfolding to us the heart of his gospel. Paul was a mighty theologian. There has never been a greater theologian in the church. I sometimes go to seminaries, and I am tempted to say to the young men and women studying there, "Why waste your time with these fourth-rate theologians, when you could be spending your time with the first-rate theologians: Peter, James, John and Paul." Theology was not the heart of Paul's gospel. The heart of his gospel was the revelation of a Person, Jesus himself. All through this letter Paul has emphasized that fact again and again -- everything centers in Christ. He is the heart of it all. Therefore a gospel that leaves out Christ is a phony gospel.
Jesus himself said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except by me," (cf, John 14:6). There Jesus declared the uniqueness of his position. In the whole realm of theology there is no one like Jesus Christ. In all the history of the religions of the world, there is no one that is equal to him, or that can be remotely compared to him. Therefore, any gospel that minimizes Christ, or puts him on the level of other names, is a perversion of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ is the central figure of all history, of all time, of all faith. There is a third element, the apostle says, which has been the theme throughout Romans, although it is not always called by the same terms. Paul says, "God will not only use my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, but what he will use to establish you is the explanation of 'the mystery.'"
...according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him -- (Rom 16:25b-26 NIV)
There is the mystery. Here is the ultimate test of any Christian message: Does it proclaim the mystery? There are thousands of places in this land today where people are meeting, as we are, in Christian churches. They are singing the same hymns we sing, and reading the same Bible, and praising God in the same way. And yet, in thousands and thousands of those churches, there is nothing exciting happening, nothing that reaches out and touches the community. Do you know why? Because the mystery is not being proclaimed.
After the early service this morning someone told me of a town in California of about 8,000 people, where there are 22 churches. And, according to this individual, almost all of these churches are lifeless. Nothing is happening because they do not understand the mystery. Here is the heart of the gospel, this amazing mystery. The question we need to ask about any church is, "Does it ask men and women to live on the basis of that fantastic secret, which was once hidden but is now fully revealed?" What is this mystery? There are several references to it in the New Testament, sometimes referring to a part of it, sometimes referring to the whole. The only other reference to this mystery in the letter to the Romans is found in Chapter 11, Verses 25-26:
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited [when Christians become conceited it is because they have forgotten the mystery]: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: (Rom 11:25-26 NIV)
Now that is part of the mystery. Paul is referring to the fact that God intends to unite both Jews and Gentiles into one body. For this to happen, the Jews must be partially blinded for a while, in order to allow the Gentiles to see. That is what has been going on for 2,000 years of human history: a partial blindness in Israel. We do not understand fully what is involved here, but it seems to be necessary in the program of God. That aspect of the mystery is also referred to in Ephesians 3:2-6:
Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets [The New Testament apostles and prophets]. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus. (Eph 3:2-6 NIV)
Now that is a very important part of the mystery. But these references to parts of the mystery are not to be regarded as distinct and separate mysteries. They are all one, as we will see. The heart of the mystery is given to us in the opening chapter of Colossians. Here is one of the clearest statements on it (Verses 24-27):
Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness -- the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col 1:24-27 NIV)
There is the mystery. All that God is, wrapped up in a Person and given to you and to me -- the only hope we have of ever discovering the glory that God intended for us as human beings: Christ in you, the hope of glory. There is another reference to the wonder of this mystery in First Timothy 3:16. Paul describes it in terms of a hymn of the early church. He says,
Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. (1 Tim 3:16 NIV)
Jesus himself is the mystery. By means of the virgin birth of Jesus, by means of his holy, sinless life, by means of his substitutionary death upon a violent and cruel cross, by means of his startling break-out from the prison of death, and by means of the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, God has given Jesus -- all that he is and all that he has -- to you and to me.
This enables us to do two things: To deny our natural abilities and strengths, and to rely wholly on Jesus' ability and strength -- and thus to live our lives today as though Jesus himself was living them. That is the mystery. That is the radical, powerful secret of authentic Christianity: Christ in you, the hope of glory. Do you know that mystery? Do you know it, not only in your mind, but do you live it? It is the knowledge of it and the living of it that turns Christianity into an exciting adventure. It may be demanding, it may even be scary, but I can guarantee you one thing: It will never be boring, because the mystery is at work.
If you are filled with the secret, the indwelling Christ, it
does not make any difference if you are a Jew or a Gentile. All
the divisions of class and sex and national origin are eliminated
by that secret. It does not make any difference whether you are
rich or poor, slave or free, all are one in Christ Jesus by that
mystery. And whenever a Christian lives on that basis, really
trusting the fact that God is in him through Jesus Christ to be
his wisdom, his power, his strength; when he attempts things only
on the basis of expecting God to fulfill that promise, and moves
out to do things by his grace, he finds himself established. If
you want a place of security, it is not going to come by your
reckoning on what you can do for God. That will never work. It
is going to depend on how much you believe God is ready to do
something through you. That is the radical promise. Paul says
two additional things about this:
First, though the results of this lifestyle were experienced by men and women of God in the Old Testament, no explanation was ever given of how this happened. When you read the Old Testament you find men and women puzzled as to how God was going to put together all its great promises and themes. There is the promise of the restoration of Israel. There is the promise of the forgiveness of an individual's sins. There is the mighty promise of the healing of the nations and the cessation of war. Then it began to unfold. Jesus came. He was the secret. He would be the one who would bring to pass all the tremendous promises and themes of the Old Testament. Therefore, the historic appearance of Jesus was required to put this victorious lifestyle in such vivid light that it could be preached and demonstrated to the nations of the world. That is what Paul means when he says that the mystery was "hidden for long ages past, but now revealed."
The second thing Paul says is that it was "made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God." There is a reference to the New Testament as we have it today. The apostles and prophets wrote the gospel down for us so that we might have a clear picture of who Jesus is, and what he can be in us. This is why we must study the New Testament, particularly, and the Old Testament as well, that we might understand how to live on this basis. And so Paul closes with a great doxology,
--to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom 16:27 NIV)
What a plan! What a program! What a change happens when people really capture this and begin to operate on it. We are going to close the service with the Lord's Table which is itself a dramatic retelling of the mystery of the gospel: When we take the cup, we are being reminded that, by the death of Jesus, God cut off all the natural abilities and strengths that we have, and rendered them worthless. The New Testament teaches us that the flesh cannot please God. But when we take the bread, we are reminding ourselves that Jesus himself, the bread that came down from heaven, is available to us. His strength, his power, operating through the channel of our gifts, can accomplish what we could never do by ourselves. God at work within us; that is the mystery. When we come to the Lord's Table we are reminding ourselves of this, and renewing our promise, our commitment to fulfill that mystery not only here at church, but in every situation throughout the week. Every moment of pressure and every demand upon us are simply opportunities to respond by realizing again the validity of the mystery. (From Ray C. Stedman, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/romans2/)
From William Barclay,
A LETTER OF COMMENDATION
Rom. 16:1-2: I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the Church which is in Cenchreae. I want you to welcome her in the Lord in the way that God's people should welcome one another; and I want you to help her in whatever way she needs your help, for she has been a helper to many, and to me, too.
When a person is applying for a new job, he usually gets a testimonial from someone who knows him well and who can pay tribute to his character and ability. When a person is going to live in some strange town, he often takes with him a letter of introduction from someone who knows people in that town. In the ancient world such letters were very common. They were known as sustatikai epistolai, letters of commendation or introduction. We still possess many of these letters, written on papyrus and recovered from the rubbish heaps buried in the desert sands of Egypt.
A certain Mystarion, for instance, an Egyptian olive-planter, sends his servant on an errand to Stotoetis, a chief priest, and gives him a letter of introduction to take with him. Mystarion to his own Stotoetis, many greetings. I have sent my Blastus to you for forked sticks for my olive-gardens. See then that you do not detain him, for you know how I need him every hour. To Stotoetis, chief priest at the island.
That is a letter of commendation to introduce the Blastus who has gone upon the errand. So Paul writes to introduce Phoebe to the Church at Rome. Phoebe came from Cenchreae which was the port of Corinth. Sometimes she is called a deaconess, but it is not likely that she held what might be called an official position in the Church. There can have been no time in the Christian Church when the work of women was not of infinite value. It must have been specially so in the days of the early Church. In the case of baptism by total immersion, as it then was, in the visitation of the sick, in the distribution of food to the poor, women must have played a big part in the life and work of the Church, but they did not at that time hold any official position.
Paul bespeaks a welcome for Phoebe. He asks the people at Rome to welcome her as God's dedicated people ought to welcome each other. There should be no strangers in the family of Christ; there should be no need for formal introductions between Christian people, for they are sons and daughters of the one father and therefore brothers and sisters of each other. And yet a church is not always the welcoming institution that it ought to be. It is possible for churches, and still more possible for church organizations, to become almost little closed societies which are not really interested in welcoming the stranger. When a stranger comes amongst us, Paul's advice still holds good--welcome such a one as God's dedicated people ought to welcome each other.
A HOUSEHOLD WHICH WAS A CHURCH
Rom. 16:3-4: Give my greetings to Prisca and to Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks to save my life. It is not only I who have cause to be thankful to them, but all the churches of the Gentiles; and give my greetings to the church that is in their house.
There is no more fascinating pair of people in the New Testament than Prisca and Aquila. Sometimes Prisca is also called Priscilla which is an affectionate diminutive form of her name. Let us begin with the facts about them of which we are sure.
They appear first in Acts 18:2. From that passage we learn that they had previously been resident in Rome. Claudius had issued an edict in A.D. 52 banishing the Jews. Anti-semitism is no new thing, and the Jews were hated in the ancient world as they so often are today. When they were banished from Rome, Prisca and Aquila settled in Corinth. They were tent-makers which was Paul's own trade, and he found a home with them. When he left Corinth and went to Ephesus, Prisca and Aquila went with him and settled there (Acts 18:18).
The very first incident related of them is characteristic. There came to Ephesus that brilliant scholar Apollos; but he had not at this time anything like a full grasp of the Christian faith; so Aquila and Prisca took him into their house and gave him friendship and instruction in that faith (Acts 18:24-26). From the very beginning Prisca and Aquila were people who kept an open heart and an open door.
The next time we hear of them they are still in Ephesus. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians from Ephesus and in it he sends greetings from Prisca and Aquila and from the church that is in their house (1 Cor. 16:19). This was long before the days when there was any such thing as a church building; and the home of Prisca and Aquila served as a meeting place for a group of Christian folk.
The next time we hear of them they are in Rome. The edict of Claudius which had banished the Jews had ceased to be effective and no doubt Prisca and Aquila like many another Jew drifted back to their old homes and their old business. We discover that they are just the same--again there is a group of Christian people meeting in their house. For the last time they emerge in 2 Tim. 4:19, and once again they are in Ephesus; and one of the last messages Paul ever sent was a greeting to this pair of Christians who had come through so much with him.
Prisca and Aquila lived a curiously nomadic and unsettled life. Aquila himself had been born in Pontus in Asia Minor (Acts 18:2). We find them resident first in Rome, then in Corinth, then in Ephesus, then back in Rome, and then finally again in Ephesus; but wherever we find them, we find their home a centre of Christian fellowship and service. Every home should be a church, for a church is a place where Jesus dwells. From the home of Prisca and Aquila, wherever it was, radiated friendship and fellowship and love. If one is a stranger in a strange town or a strange land, one of the most valuable things in the world is to have a home from home into which to go. It takes away loneliness and protects from temptation. Sometimes we think of a home as a place into which we can go and shut the door and keep the world out: but equally a home should be a place with an open door. The open door, the open hand, and the open heart are characteristics of the Christian life.
So much is certain about Prisca and Aquila; but it may be that there is even greater romance in their story. To this day in Rome there is a Church of St Prisca on the Aventine. There is also a cemetery of Priscilla. This cemetery is the burying place of the ancient Roman Acilian family. In it lies buried Acilius Glabrio. He was consul of Rome in A.D. 91 which was the highest office Rome could offer him; and it seems extremely likely that he died a martyr's death as a Christian. He must have been one of the first of the great Romans to become a Christian and to suffer for his faith. Now when people received their freedom in the Roman Empire they were enrolled in one of the great families and took one of the family names as theirs. One of the commonest female names in the Acilian family was Prisca; and Acilius is sometimes written Aquilius, which is very close to Aquila. Here we are faced with two fascinating possibilities.
(i) Perhaps Prisca and Aquila received their freedom from some member of the Acilian family, in which it may be that once they were slaves. Can it be that these two people sowed the seeds of Christianity into that family so that one day a member of it--Acilius Glabrio, no less a person than a Roman consul--became a Christian?
(ii) There is an even more romantic possibility. It is an odd thing that in four out of the six mentions of this pair in the New Testament Prisca is named before her husband, although normally the husband's name would come first, as we say "Mr. and Mrs." There is just the possibility that this is because Prisca was not a freedwoman at all but a great lady, a member by birth of the Acilian family. It may be that at some meeting of the Christians this great Roman lady met Aquila, the humble Jewish tentmaker, that the two fell in love, that Christianity destroyed the barriers of race and rank and wealth and birth, and that these two, the Roman aristocrat and the Jewish artisan, were joined for ever in Christian love and Christian service.
Of these speculations we can never be sure, but we can be sure that there were many in Corinth, in Ephesus and in Rome, who owed their souls to Prisca and Aquila and to that home of theirs which was also a church.
TO EVERY NAME A COMMENDATION
Rom. 16:5-11: Give my greetings to my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. Give my greetings to Mary who has toiled hard among you. Give my greetings to Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow-prisoners. They are of high mark among the apostles, and they were Christians before I was. Give my greetings to Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Give my greetings to Urbanus, our fellow-worker in Christ, and to my beloved Stachys. Give my greetings to Apelles, a man of sterling worth in Christ. Give my greetings to those who are of the household of Aristobulus. Give my greetings to Herodion, my kinsman. Give my greetings to those of the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.
No doubt behind every one of these names there is a story which is a romance in Christ. None of these stories do we know, but at some of them we can guess. In this chapter there are twenty-four individual names and there are two interesting things to note.
(i) Of the twenty-four, six are women. That is worth remembering, for often Paul is accused of belittling the status of women in the Church. If we really wish to see Paul's attitude, it is a passage like this that we should read, where his appreciation of the work that women were doing in the Church shines through his words.
(ii) Of the twenty-four names, thirteen occur in inscriptions or documents which have to do with the Emperor's palace in Rome. Although many are very common names, this fact is nonetheless suggestive. In Php. 4:22 Paul speaks of the saints of Caesar's household. It may be that they were for the most part slaves, but it is still important that Christianity seems to have penetrated even thus early into the imperial palace.
Andronicus and Junias form an interesting pair, because it is most likely that Junias is a female name. That would mean that in the early Church a woman could be ranked as an apostle. The apostles in this sense were people whom the Church sent out to tell the story of Jesus at large. Paul says that Andronicus and Junias were Christians before he was. That means that they must go right back to the time of Stephen; they must have been a direct link with the earliest Church at Jerusalem.
Behind the name of Ampliatus may well lie an interesting story. It is a quite common slave name. Now in the cemetery of Domatilla, which is the earliest of the Christian catacombs, there is a decorated tomb with the single name Ampliatus carved on it in bold and decorative lettering. The fact that the single name Ampliatus alone is carved on the tomb--Romans who were citizens would have three names, a nomen, a praenomen, and a cognomen--would indicate that this Ampliatus was a slave; but the elaborate tomb and the bold lettering would indicate that he was a man of high rank in the Church. From that it is plain to see that in the early days of the Church the distinctions of rank were so completely wiped out that it was possible for a man at one and the same time to be a slave and a prince of the Church. Social distinctions did not exist. We have no means of knowing that Paul's Ampliatus is the Ampliatus in the cemetery of Domatilla, but it is not impossible that he is.
The household of Aristobulus may also be a phrase with an interesting history. In Rome household did not describe only a man's family and personal relations; it included also his servants and slaves. In Rome for long there had lived a grandson of Herod the Great whose name was Aristobulus. He had lived always as a private individual and had inherited none of Herod's domains; but he was a close friend of the Emperor Claudius. When he died his servants and slaves would become the property of the Emperor, but they would form a section of his establishment known as the household of Aristobulus. So this phrase may well describe Jewish servants and slaves who had once belonged to Aristobulus, Herod's grandson, and had now become the property of the Emperor. This is made the more probable by the name mentioned on each side of the phrase. Apelles may quite well be the Greek name that a Jew called Abel would take, and Herodion is a name which would obviously suit one who had some connection with the family of Herod.
The household of Narcissus may have still another interesting story behind it. Narcissus was a common name; but the most famous Narcissus was a freedman who had been secretary to the Emperor Claudius and had exercised a notorious influence over him. He was said to have amassed a private fortune of almost 4,000,000 pounds. His power had lain in the fact that all correspondence addressed to the Emperor had to pass through his hands and never reached him unless he allowed it to do so. He made his fortune from the fact that people paid him large bribes to make sure that their petitions did reach the Emperor. When Claudius was murdered and Nero came to the throne, Narcissus survived for a short time, but in the end he was compelled to commit suicide, and all his fortune and all his household of slaves passed into Nero's possession. It may well be his one-time slaves which are referred to here. If Aristobulus really is the Aristobulus who was the grandson of Herod, and if Narcissus really is the Narcissus who was Cladius' secretary, this means that many of the slaves at the imperial court were already Christians. The leaven of Christianity had reached the highest circles in the Empire.
Rom. 16:12-16: Give my greetings to Tryphaena and Tryphosa who toil in the Lord. Give my greetings to Persis, the beloved, who has toiled hard in the Lord. Give my greetings to Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and to his mother who was a mother to me too. Give my greetings to Asyncritus, to Phlegon, to Hermes, to Patrobas, to Hermas, and to the brothers who are with them. Give my greetings to Philologos and to Julias, to Nereus and to his sister, to Olympas, and to all God's dedicated people who are with them. Greet each other with the kiss that God's dedicated people use. All the Churches of Christ send you greetings.
No doubt behind all these names lies a story; but it is only about a few of them that we can guess and reconstruct.
(i) When Paul wrote his greetings to Tryphaena and Tryphosa--who were very likely twin sisters--he wrote them with a smile, for the way in which he put it sounds like a complete contradiction in terms. Three times in this list of greetings Paul uses a certain Greek word for Christian toil. He uses it of Mary (Rom. 16:6), and of Tryphaena and Tryphosa and of Persis in this passage. It is the verb kopian, which means to toil to the point of exhaustion. That is what Paul said that Tryphaena and Tryphosa were in the habit of doing; and the point is that Tryphaena and Tryphosa mean respectively dainty and delicate! It is as if he were saying: "You two may be called dainty and delicate; but you belie your names by working like Trojans for the sake of Christ." We can well imagine a twinkle in Paul's eye as he dictated that greeting.
(ii) One of the great hidden romances of the New Testament lies behind the name of Rufus and his mother, who was also a mother to Paul. It is obvious that Rufus is a choice spirit and a man well-known for saintliness in the Roman Church; and it is equally obvious that Paul felt that he owed a deep debt of gratitude to the mother of Rufus for the kindness he had received from her. Who was this Rufus?
Turn to Mk. 15:21. There we read of one Simon a Cyrenian who was compelled to carry the Cross of Jesus on the road to Calvary; and he is described as the father of Alexander and Rufus. Now if a man is identified by the names of his sons, it means that, although he himself may not be personally known to the community to whom the story is being told, his sons are. To what Church, then, did Mark write his gospel? He wrote it to the Church of Rome, and he knew that it would know who Alexander and Rufus were. Almost certainly here we find Rufus again, the son of that Simon who carried the Cross of Jesus.
That must have been a terrible day for Simon. He was a Jew, from far-off Cyrene in North Africa. No doubt he had scraped and saved for half a lifetime to celebrate one Passover in Jerusalem. As he entered the city on that day, with his heart full of the greatness of the Feast he was going to attend, suddenly the flat of a Roman spear touched him on the shoulder; he was impressed into the Roman service; he found himself carrying a criminal's cross. How the resentment must have blazed in his heart! How angry and bitter he must have been at this terrible indignity! All the way from Cyrene for this! To have come so far to sit at the glory of the Passover and to have had this dreadful and shameful thing happen! No doubt he meant, as soon as he reached Calvary, to fling the cross down and stride away with loathing in his heart.
But something must have happened. On the way to Calvary the spell of the broken figure of Jesus must have laid its tendrils round his heart. He must have stayed to watch, and that figure on the Cross drew Simon to himself for ever. That chance encounter on the road to Calvary changed Simon's life. He came to sit at the Jewish Passover and he went away the slave of Christ. He must have gone home and brought his wife and sons into the same experience as he had himself.
We can weave all kinds of speculations about this. It was men from Cyprus and Cyrene who came to Antioch and first preached the gospel to the Gentile world (Acts 11:20). Was Simon one of the men from Cyrene? Was Rufus with him? Was it they who took the first tremendous step to make Christianity the faith of a whole world? Was it they who helped the Church burst the bonds of Judaism? Can it be that in some sense we today owe the fact that we are Christians to the strange episode when a man from Cyrene was compelled to carry a cross on the road to Calvary?
Turn to Ephesus when there is a riot raised by the people who served Diana of the Ephesians and when the crowd would have lynched Paul if they could have got at him. Who stands out to look that mob in the face? A man called Alexander (Acts 19:33). Is this the other brother facing things out with Paul?
And as for their mother--surely she in some hour of need must have brought to Paul the help and the comfort and the love which his own family refused him when he became a Christian. It may be guesswork, for Alexander and Rufus are common names; but maybe it is true and maybe the most amazing things followed from that chance encounter on the way to Calvary.
(iii) There remains one other name which may have a perhaps even more amazing story behind it--that of Nereus. In A.D. 95 an event occurred which shocked Rome. Two of the most distinguished people in the city were condemned for being Christians. They were Flavius Clemens, who had been consul of Rome, and his wife Domatilla, who was of royal blood. She was the grand-daughter of Vespasian, a former Emperor, and the niece of Domitian the reigning Emperor. In fact the two sons of Flavius Clemens and Domatilla had been designated Domitian's successors in the imperial power. Flavius was executed and Domatilla was banished to the island of Pontia where years afterwards Paula saw the cave where "she drew out a long martyrdom for the Christian name."
The point is this--the name of the chamberlain of Flavius and Domatilla was Nereus. Is it possible that Nereus the slave had something to do with the making into Christians of Flavius Clemens the ex-consul and Domatilla the princess of the royal blood? It may be an idle speculation, for Nereus is a common name, but, on the other hand, it may be true.
There is one other fact of interest to add to this story. Flavius Clemens was the son of Flavius Sabinus, who had been Nero's city prefect when Nero sadistically persecuted the Christians after charging them with being responsible for the appalling fire which devastated Rome in A.D. 64. As city prefect Flavius Sabinus must have been Nero's executive officer in that persecution. It was then that Nero ordered the Christians to be rolled in pitch and set alight to form living torches for his gardens, to be sewn into the skins of wild beasts and flung to savage hunting dogs, to be shut up in ships which were sunk in the Tiber. Is it possible that thirty years before he died for Christ, the young Flavius Clemens had seen the dauntless courage of the martyrs and wondered what made men able to die like that? Five verses of names and of greetings--but they open vistas which thrill the heart!
A LAST LOVING APPEAL
Rom. 16:17-20: Brothers, I urge you to keep your eye on those who, contrary to the teaching which they have received, cause dissensions and put in your way things which would trip you up. Steer clear of them. Such men are not real servants of Christ, our Lord; they are the servants of their own greed. By their plausibility and their flattery they deceive the hearts of innocent folk. I know that you will deal with such people, for the story of your obedience has reached all men. So, then, I rejoice over you. I want you to be wise in what is good, and untainted with what is evil. The God of peace will soon overthrow Satan so that you may trample him under your feet. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Romans was a letter which Paul found very difficult to bring to an end. He has sent his greetings; but before he closes he makes one last appeal to the Christians in Rome to keep themselves from every evil influence. He picks out two characteristics of men hurtful to the Church and to the Christian fellowship.
(i) They are men who cause dissensions among the brethren. Any man who does anything which disturbs the peace of a church has much to answer for. A minister was once talking to a man newly come to his congregation from another town. The man had obviously little of the love of Christ upon him. He said to the minister: "You know such and such a congregation?" naming that of which he had formerly been a member. "Yes," said the minister. "Well," said the man with a certain evil relish. "I wrecked it!" There are people who take a pride in making trouble and who like nothing better than to sow the poisonous seeds of strife. The man who has brought strife to any band of brothers will answer for it some day to him who is the King and Head of the Church.
(ii) They are men who put hindrances in the way of others. The man who makes it harder for someone else to be a Christian also has much to answer for. The man whose conduct is a bad example, whose influence is an evil snare, whose teaching dilutes or emasculates the Christian faith which he pretends to teach, will someday bear his own punishment; and it will not be light, for Jesus was stern to any man who caused one of his little ones to stumble.
There are two interesting words in this passage. There is the word we have translated plausibility (chrestologia). The Greeks themselves defined a chrestologos as "a man who speaks well and who acts ill." He is the kind of man who, behind a facade of pious words, is a bad influence, who leads astray, not by direct attack, but by subtlety, who pretends to serve Christ, but in reality is destroying the faith. There is the word we have translated untainted with what is evil. It is the word akeraios and it is used of metal which has no suspicion of alloy, of wine and of milk which are not adulterated with water. It describes something which is absolutely pure of any corruption. The Christian is a man whose utter sincerity must be beyond all doubt.
One thing is to be noted in this passage--it is clear that the latent trouble in the Church at Rome has not yet flared into action. Paul, indeed, says that he believes that the Roman Church is well able to deal with it. He was a wise pastor, because he believed firmly that prevention was better than cure. Often in a church or a society a bad situation is allowed to develop because no one has the courage to deal with it; and often, when it has fully developed, it is too late to deal with it. It is easy enough to extinguish a spark if steps are taken at once, but it is almost impossible to extinguish a forest fire. Paul had the wisdom to deal with a threatening situation in time.
The passage closes with a most suggestive thing. Paul says that the God of peace will soon crush and overthrow Satan, the power of evil. We must note that the peace of God is the peace of action and of victory. There is a kind of peace which can be had at the cost of evading all issues and refusing all decisions, a peace which comes of lethargic inactivity. The Christian must ever remember that the peace of God is not the peace which has submitted to the world, but the peace which has overcome the world.
Rom. 16:21-23: Timothy, my fellow-worker, sends you his greetings, as do Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen. I Tertius, who wrote this letter, send you my greetings in the Lord. Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole Church enjoy, sends you his greetings, as does brother Quartus.
It is tempting to try to identify the group of friends who send their greetings along with Paul's. Timothy was Paul's right hand man, the man whom Paul saw as his successor and of whom he later said that no one knew his mind so well (Php. 2:19-20). Lucius may be the Lucius of Cyrene, who was one of the prophets and teachers of Antioch who first sent Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys (Acts 13:1). Jason may be the Jason who gave Paul hospitality at Thessalonica and suffered for it at the hands of the mob (Acts 17:5-9). Sosipater may be the Sopater of Beroea who took his Church's share of the collection to Jerusalem with Paul (Acts 20:4). Gaius may be the Gaius who was one of the two people whom Paul baptized at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14).
For the first and only time, we know the name of the amanuensis who actually penned this letter to Paul's dictation, for Tertius slipped in his own greeting. No great man can do his work without the aid that humble helpers give him. Paul's other secretaries are anonymous, so that Tertius is the representative of those humble unknowns who were penmen for Paul.
One of the most interesting things in the whole chapter is the way in which again and again Paul characterizes people in a single sentence. Here there are two great summaries. Gaius is the man of hospitality; Quartus is the brother. It is a great thing to go down to history as the man with the open house or as the man with the brotherly heart. Some day people will sum us up in one sentence. What will that sentence be?
THE END IS PRAISE
Rom. 16:25-27: Now unto him who is able to make you stand firm, in the way that the gospel I preach promises and the message Jesus brought offers, in the way which is now unveiled in that secret, which was for long ages wrapped in silence, but which is now full disclosed, and made known to all the Gentiles--as the writings of the prophets said it would be. and as the command of God now orders it to be--that they might render to him a submission born of faith, to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be glory for ever. Amen.
The letter to the Romans comes to an end with a doxology which is also a summary of the gospel which Paul preached and loved.
(i) It is a gospel which makes men able to stand firm. "Son of man," said God to Ezekiel, "stand upon your feet and I will speak with you" (Eze. 2:1). The gospel is a power which enables a man to stand foursquare against the shocks of the world and the assaults of temptation.
A journalist relates a great incident of the Spanish Civil War. There was a little garrison of beleaguered men. The end was near and some wished to surrender and so to save their lives; but others wished to fight on. The matter was settled when a gallant soul declared: "It is better to die upon our feet than to live upon our knees."
Life can be difficult; sometimes a man is beaten to his knees by the battering that it gives to him. Life can be perilous,, sometimes a man is like to fall in the slippery places of temptation. The gospel is God's power to save; that power which keeps a man erect, even when life is at its worst and its most threatening.
(ii) It is a gospel which Paul preached and which was offered by Jesus Christ. That is to say, the gospel takes its source in Christ and is transmitted by men. Without Jesus Christ there can be no gospel at all; but without men to transmit it, other men can never hear of it. The Christian duty is that when a man is himself found of Christ, he should straightway go and find others for him. After Andrew was found of Jesus, John says of him: "He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, `We have found the Messiah'" (Jn. 1:40-41).
Here is the Christian privilege and the Christian duty. The Christian privilege is to appropriate the good news for ourselves; the Christian duty is to transmit that good news to others. A famous story tells how Jesus, after the Cross and the Resurrection, returned to his glory, still bearing the marks of his sufferings. One of the angels said to him, "You must have suffered terribly for men down there." "I did," said Jesus. "Do they all know about what you did for them?" asked the angel. "No," said Jesus, "not yet. Only a few know about it so far." "And," said the angel, "what have you done that they should all know?" "Well." said Jesus, "I asked Peter and James and John to make it their business to tell others, and the others still others, until the farthest man on the widest circle has heard the story." The angel looked doubtful. for he knew well what poor creatures men were. "Yes," he said, "but what if Peter and James and John forget? What if they grow weary of the telling? What if, away down in the twentieth century, men fail to tell the story of your love for them? What then? Haven't you made any other plans?" Back came the answer of Jesus, "I haven't made any other plans. I'm counting on them." Jesus died to give us the gospel; and now he is counting on us to transmit it to all men.
(iii) It is a gospel which is the consummation of history. It is something which was there from all ages and which at the coming of Christ was revealed to the world. With the coming of Jesus something unique happened, eternity invaded time and God emerged on earth. His coming was the event to which all history was working up and the event from which all subsequent history flows. After the coming of Christ the world could never be the same again. It was the central fact of history, so that men date time in terms of before and after Christ's birth. It is as if with his coming life and the world began all over again.
(iv) It is a gospel which is meant for all men and which was always meant for all men. It is not a gospel which was meant for the Jews only; its going out to the Gentiles was not an afterthought. The prophets, perhaps scarcely knowing what they were saying, had their hints and forecasts of a time when all men of all nations would know God. That time is not yet; but it is the dream of God that some day the knowledge of him will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, and it is the glory of man that he can help make God's dream come true.
(v) It is a gospel which issues in an obedient world, a world where God is King. But that obedience is not founded on submission to an iron law, which breaks the man who opposes it; it is an obedience founded on faith, on a surrender which is the result of love. For Paul the Christian is not a man who has surrendered to an ineluctable power; he is a man who has fallen in love with the God who is the lover of the souls of men and whose love stands for ever full-displayed in Jesus Christ.
And so the long argument of the letter to the Romans comes
to an end in a song of praise.
WRITTEN FINAL EXAM (PDF)
January 4, 2004.