The church is about people and in this final chapter we see something of Paul’s concern for people both those to whom he wrote and those with whom he was working. Often our parting words are of importance. ‘Don’t forget to….’ are often the last words we hear from wives, husbands, fathers and mothers as we leave the house: similarly, Paul’s parting words are of some importance – they give us a perspective of what was of significance in this letter as we shall see.
- Greetings to…
We have a fine list of 27 individuals to whom Paul sent final greetings. The overall point I think is for us to note that Paul was not just a sort of Christian academic who was only interested in abstract Christian thought, he was interested in the realities of living out the Christian faith by ordinary people like you and me. I spotted 11 descriptions he made of these individuals – do you notice yourself in any of these?. 1. Deacon (or servant) 2. fellow worker 3. first convert 4. those who worked hard 5. outstanding 6. dear friend 7. those with fidelity to Christ 8. fellow Jew 9. in the Lord 10. worked very hard in the Lord 11. a mother! It’s quite a list and says a lot about the faithfulness and work of those in the church in Rome.
The first name on the list is Phoebe. It seems that she was charged with delivering Paul’s letter – she was a deacon in the church in Cenchrea (known as Kechries now) which is near Corinth in Greece (the city from which Paul was writing). Paul commends Phoebe and asks the church to receive her ‘in a way worth of his people.’ What an excellent phrase ‘in a way worthy of his people.’ I think that’s worth applying to everything that we do – is what we are doing done in a way that is ‘worthy of his people?’ Phoebe had been a support and help to many people (including Paul) and it was right for the Roman Christians to extend help to her too. Next Paul mentions Priscilla and Aquilla – you can read something of their interactions with Paul in Acts 18 – they were fellow tent makers, and had been expelled from Rome by Claudius. They were with Paul in Corinth and went with him to Syria: they were clearly close friends and workers with Paul. In fact Paul mentions that they risked their lives for him – many people were in their debt. It seems also that a church was meeting at their home.
One other couple get a special mention from Paul: Andronicus and Junia. They had been in prison with Paul. They were fellow Jews and Paul describes them as being outstanding among the apostles. What a wonderful commendation – they had clearly suffered but had come through the suffering with great credit. Paul then adds a curious footnote to their commendation: ‘they were in Christ before I was.’ What would that mean and is this of some significance? If you do a search for ‘In Christ,’ in your electronic bibles you will discover that this is a well used expression of Paul. It seems to denote the condition of the believer – when we believe, we are ‘in Christ.’ Perhaps we should not so much ask each other if we are Christians but rather ask if we are ‘in Christ’ or ‘in him’. In the great passage Paul wrote to the Ephesians he uses this phrase liberally – I count about 10 times the phrase ‘In Christ’ or ‘in him’ in the first 14 verses of Ephesians 1. The benefits of being in Christ are immense – here’s how Paul puts it, ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.’ What a remarkable statement that we are chosen before the creation of the world! This suggests that our salvation has been settled without any activity on our part and before we were even born. But note the importance of two words in Paul’s statement, ‘in him.’ We are not chosen before the creation of the world if we are not in Christ. Coming back to Paul’s statement about Andronicus and Junia, we note that they were in Christ before Paul was. So there was a time when Paul was not in Christ and this must mean there was a time when he was not amongst those chosen before the foundation of the world. Only in Christ is benefit to be found. The key question that this raises is how we attain the status of being in Christ. Ephesians 1 has the answer: ‘You also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.’ The route to being ‘in Christ’ is hearing the messaging and believing it. Sound familiar? It should. This is exactly what Paul taught back in Romans 10 (see verses 14 – 15).
2. Take care!
In chapter 14 we learned about how the church should cope when there are genuine differences of opinion over matters of conviction. When two people hold opposing views with sincerity there ought to be a response on both sides: the one who has freedom (and ‘strong faith’) is not to condemn the person who feels the need to act on their convictions (such as not eating meat or observing calendar days) conversely the one who does not have freedom (and has ‘weak faith’) is not to judge the one who has freedom. All of this is to be done in a way that does not damage either party: It’s not at all a good thing to exercise your liberty to the detriment of someone else in the church who does not have that liberty. Paul says ‘make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification (Romans 14).’ This all applies to what Paul called ‘disputable matters.’ But there are some truths that fall outside of the scope of disputable matters. Paul says ‘ I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.’ This is all about those who teach something that is ‘contrary to the teaching you have learned.’ Paul seems to be referring to the gospel that he preached: ‘his gospel.’ See notes from chapter 15 on this, but I think the point is that there is danger in following false teaching, so much so that in contrast to disputable matters we are not to do what leads to peace, but rather we are to ‘keep away’ from such people. Paul’s teaching was entirely new and he faced a real uphill task to convince people that what he said was from God. We have an excellent example of how we are to scrutinise what people are saying: the Bereans heard what Paul had to say and ‘examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.’ The result of this was that many of them believed. We should do the same. I’m struck how often well meaning Christians seem to be more interested on what I might call ‘denominational pedigree’ rather than biblical consistency. I read a testimony once from a doubtless sincere and dedicated believer who wrote, ‘I came to love..the doctrines of xxx.’ I find that of concern, the person was indicating that simple faith was one thing, but seemed to be saying that the ‘real thing’ was a certain tradition of belief. Church decrees (of whatever pedigree or vintage) and statements of faith must not supersede the bible. I think it is all too easy for us to bring our denominational (and other) assumptions to the bible – we must make every effort to recognise our biases and assumptions and come to God’s word with as clear a mind as possible. This really is important – Paul was quite happy to find ways to accommodate differences in convictions but for those who cause divisions and obstacles because of ‘contrary teaching,’ the advice is clear: ‘keep away from them.’ There are some tell-tale signs we should watch out for in such people. They serve their own appetites rather than the Lord and they deceive the minds of the naïve by ‘smooth talk and flattery.’ This suggests to me that there is something conscious in the minds of those whom Paul is describing. If you are involved in teaching other Christians, Paul’s warnings are helpful in scrutinising one’s motivations, assumptions and biases – let’s do all we can to be like the Bereans. Paul closes this line of thought with this statement: ‘I want you to be wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil.’ The thought seems to be that our energies ought to be given over to understanding and immersing ourselves in what is good and being somewhat uneducated about what is bad. We are for sure immersed in newspapers, TV, radio and internet – is what we listen to, read about and watch developing our understanding of good or reducing our innocence of what is evil? If all of this evil seems overwhelming (and surely it does) then be reminded that ‘the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.’ Somehow we will be involved in the crushing of Satan! – take a look at Revelation 19 for more on this remarkable future event.
3. Greetings from..
Paul worked in a team. He named 27 individuals to whom he offered greetings and now he mentions his fellow workers and others who sent their greetings to the Roman Christians. Timothy was at one time Paul’s student, but it seems has now graduated to become Paul’s fellow worker. Paul is also with fellow Jews who send their greetings to Rome: Lucius, Jason and Sosipater. Sosipater seems to the same person as ‘Sopater’ who hailed from Berea: he would have been one of those who believed because he listened with an open mind and checked Paul’s preaching against the scriptures.
Greetings also come from Tertius. He was Paul’s secretary. It was no small technical feat to write a letter of this length using the technology of the day and Paul entrusted the transfer of words from mouth to paper to Tertius. I suspect that Tertius was quite pleased to be able to add his personal greetings.
Paul relied on the help of others, not just as fellow workers and scribes but those who provided accommodation and hospitality: Gaius is specifically named. Paul mentions two others who send greetings: Erastus the city’s director of public works and Quartus. What a help it is to have supportive fellow workers!
4. Final words
The letter to the Romans is Paul’s fullest exposition of the Christian faith. Our parting words usually convey our highest priority thinking, special attention is therefore warranted for the close of Paul’s most important letter. Paul’s concluding remarks seem to be covered by three specific phrases: ‘my gospel’, ‘revelation of the mystery hidden’ and ‘obedience of Gentiles’. Look back to the notes on chapter 15 to see more on the gospel Paul described as ‘my gospel.’ We noted that the gospel preached by John the Baptist, Jesus himself and the apostles was directed only to Jews and concerned preparation of Israel for the coming kingdom of the Messiah. The call was to repent, recognise Jesus as the Messiah and confirm one’s response with water baptism. This is in distinct contrast to Paul’s message which was directed largely to Gentiles and concerned the church, the message was about recognising that Jesus had died for the sins of the world and the necessary response to this was to be by faith. Rather than water baptism, Paul’s emphasis was on Spirit baptism, indeed Paul specifically stated he was not sent to baptise (1 Corinthians 1: 17). Paul describes his gospel as ‘the mystery hidden for long ages past.’ The Old Testament and the gospels pretty much exclusively tell the story of God’s dealings with Israel and how it would be through Israel that the catastrophe of Adam’s sin would be rectified. It would be through Israel that the seed would ‘bruise the serpents head’ and it would be through Israel that the promises to Abraham, Moses, David as well as the prophets would come about. All of this was contingent on Israel. They needed to be ready for the coming king. Tragically, the nation did not receive the Messiah but rather crucified him and when a second chance was formally offered, the response was the murder of Stephen (Acts 7). Significantly, (in Acts 8 and 9) Luke takes up the story of ‘the apostle to the Gentiles’ (Paul, formerly Saul) immediately after the rejection of Stephen’s comprehensive account of Israel’s dealings with God. Something new was taking place – the mystery hidden for long ages past. This was an unforeseen and unexpected course in God’s dealings with mankind: God was to set Israel to one side and take up with the church. As Paul puts it ‘so that the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith.’ Paul’s use of the word ‘mystery’ to describe this new course in the history of God’s dealings with mankind is of some significance. He does not mean that it is some sort of riddle to be solved, but rather that it was a piece of information that had not been previously disclosed – interestingly there seems to be enough in the Old Testament to hint that a work with Gentiles is not inconsistent with God’s plan even if the plan was hidden.
It should not at all surprise us that since God is not finished with Israel and since he currently deals with the church that there should be two future outcomes identified in the bible: one for Israel and one for the church, God has unfinished business with Israel (as Paul argued in chapter 11). As we grasp what Paul was conveying we are able to get the story line of the bible right.
Paul’s closing statement is ‘to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ! Amen.’ Amen indeed!