Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:12-18

12 Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa, who work in the Lord; greet Persis the beloved who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, the chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brethren with them. 15 Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. 17 I exhort you, brethren, to watch out for those making [or causing] dissension and stumbling blocks against the teaching which you yourself learned, and turn aside from them. 18 For these people do not serve or Lord Christ, but their own stomach, and through smooth takling and nice words, they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.”

We jumped straight back into the greetings where we left off last time. As we get to the end of the list, Paul gives us fewer biographical details, and we’re left to read between the lines given our understanding of ancient naming patterns. For example, it was common to give siblings names from the same root; from this we can assume that Typhaena and Tryphosa were sisters. More important than this, perhaps, is the fact that they “work in the Lord,” adding to the list of women Paul notes with active, if not high-profile, ministry within the local church. Persis is another hard-working woman in the church. There’s no way we can know for certain what their work involved. All we can be sure of is that Paul was aware of their labors and deeply appreciated all they do.

Rufus is a popular name, so we can’t be certain who he is. Some have, however, conjectured that he is the same Rufus, son of Simon of Cyrene, mentioned in Mark 15:21, along with his brother, Alexander. Paul describes Rufus as eklektos, “elect” or “choice,” and perhaps he has this designation because his father carried Christ’s cross. If this is the case, one might wonder why Paul didn’t mention Alexander, or Simon himself, only his mother. Perhaps Simon and Alexander had died by this time? Again, this is guesswork based on the fact that someone of the same name is mentioned in Mark. It does raise the question of what Paul means when he calls Rufus “elect” or “choice.” It could simply mean he’s a Christian, and have no more significance than “beloved” as a term of endearment. But Paul hasn’t used the term eklektos of anyone else, and he has used “beloved” a number of times. I’m loathed to think Paul means nothing by the term, and it may well have significance to Paul and the Roman church. Maybe it’s because his father was Simon of Cyrene, or maybe it’s simply because of the self-sacrificial love and care Rufus and his mother have shown to Paul, to the extent that Paul would regard Rufus’s mother as his own.

The last few verses of the greetings section presents us with lists of names, and not much else. Hermes was probably a slave or freedman, but that’s the only name about which we can discern anything. The addition of “and the brothers with them” to the end of verse 14 suggests these may be members of a house church. Likewise the list in verse 15. Philolgus and Julia were probably another husband-wife team. Nereus and his sister might even have been their children. We discussed before how the church in Rome was divided up into smaller house churches, and what we might have here in 16:3-16 is Paul greeting each of the house churches through the members of those groups known to him.

Paul then instructs the Romans to greet one another “with a holy kiss.” The kiss as a greeting was well-known in this culture, and is still practiced in the Middle East and some European countries. The “kiss of peace” was already established as part of the church’s worship by the second century, so the idea of greeting another person with a kiss was not foreign to the Roman church. Paul also gives the same instruction to other churches (e.g., 1 Corinthians 16:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:26), so what’s the significance of it here? Why does Paul call this greeting a “holy kiss,” not just a “kiss.”?

In our culture, here in the US, the idea of Christian brethren greeting one another with a kiss would be met with a great deal of discomfort (and, especially these days, could run the danger of being misconstrued!). There are many in the church that don’t like to be hugged, for whom a handshake is as much intimate contact they want with those outside of their family. I would certainly say we need to respect each other’s comfort with regard to physical greetings, but we mustn’t lose sight of the intention behind the “holy kiss.” If we recall the context of Romans, Paul has been striving through argument and quotation to bring the Jewish and Gentile believers together. He has, for fifteen chapters, pressed again and again for peace and unity. That “holy kiss,” the sanctified kiss, a kiss shared between those who are united in the spiritual bonds of Christian brotherhood, symbolizes that peace and unity. It is “holy” because it is shared by those who are set apart by Christ: Christians. I may be wrong, but I think that even within the secular society, such a kiss wouldn’t be shared with a stranger. There had to be some bond, either by business, kinship, or friendship, to receive such a greeting. As Christians, we share a spiritual bond that transcends differences of ethnicity, and even secondary theological disagreements. We may not share a kiss in our culture, but however we greet one another, we should do so in such a way that recognizes the familial bond we share as believers, as those who, by the grace of God, are redeemed by Christ.

As if to underscore this message of unity, Paul adds, “all the churches of Christ greet you.” I’m sure Paul isn’t presuming to speak for all the churches, but he can certainly speak for the ones he knows and planted. But I don’t think his point is to suggest he literally has greetings from every church in the known world. Rather, he wants to remind the Romans that they are not alone, that they are part of the body of Christ throughout the world. And just as there should be a deep sense of unity within the local church, there should also be a similar sense of unity with other churches in other cities and countries. That churches in Ephesus, Philippi, Antioch, and Jerusalem know of the church in Rome, and pray for them, should give the Roman Christians a sense of belonging, knowing they are a part of a mighty work of God that spans the globe.

The next section of the letter, 16:17-20, is a warning to the church about false teachers, encouraging them to be discerning and firm, trusting in Christ that God will have the final victory. If we look ahead to verse 21, we see that Paul picks up the greetings again, passing on greetings from Timothy. This makes 17-20 appear to be an insertion that breaks the flow of the letter. From this, some have proposed that Paul didn’t write this section, and it was added later. The fact that the topic of false teachers seems inappropriate both to Romans as a whole, and to chapter 16 in particular, seems to support this idea. However, I think there are some important counter-arguments to consider:

  • Verses 17-20 are in all of the existing Greek manuscripts that contain Romans 16. There doesn’t appear to be any point in the transmission of this letter that these verses were added or removed; it seems, as best we can tell, they’ve always been there.
  • It’s not unusual for Paul to jump from one train of thought to another. We’ve seen him lose track of sentence structure when he gets into his argument. Also, bear in mind that there would have been no opportunity for him to “cut-and-paste.” If it suddenly occurred to him in the midst of the greetings that he ought to address the subject of false teachers, he couldn’t have told Tertius to insert his comments at some point earlier in the letter to avoid disrupting the flow.
  • Paul probably didn’t write this letter in a single sitting. I daresay he got up from time to time, had a drink of water (he’s dictating to Tertius, remember), maybe paused to ask Tertius to re-read a passage. He might also have been interrupted by a visitor–any number of things could have stopped his thought flow and given him time to reflect on other things that needed to be said before returning to the letter.
  • It’s not unlikely that Paul would have considered addressing this topic. He already mentioned those who were spreading false rumors about him in 3:8. And he’s keenly aware of what happens when Judaizers infect a church (e.g., Galatia). The Jew-Gentile conflict within the Roman church would be a potential breeding ground for Judaizers who demand obedience to the Mosaic Law for salvation.

Paul warns the Romans to “watch out for” or “keep an eye on” those causing dissension. Some think Paul isn’t talking about a known group, but those who might possibly come from outside the church, bringing false teaching with them. Given Paul’s description of the way these teachers operate, however, I’m inclined to think Paul’s talking about a situation that might arise from within the church. The two main heresies of the time–and, hence, the two earliest forms of false teaching the church had to battle–were the teachings of the Gnostics, and the teachings of the Judaizers. As we’ve already noted, the disagreements within the Roman church would be fertile soil for Judaizers to rise up and spread their false teaching among the disgruntled. So, I don’t think Paul is calling upon the Romans to watch the gates for attacks from outside (as he instructed the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28-30), but rather to keep a close eye on the troublemakers within their midst.

Such teachers throw up dissension and “stumbling blocks” against teaching they have learned. We noted before that there’s nothing in this letter that the Roman Christians couldn’t have learned elsewhere. Indeed, one of Paul’s points is that everything he has said about the gospel, and God’s plan to unite Jew and Gentile in Christ, can be found in the Old Testament, and in the teachings of Jesus himself. So when Paul talks about the things they have learned, he’s not just referring to the things Paul has taught them in this letter. Rather, he’s talking about the gospel, and the truths of Scripture as they have been taught by other faithful preachers over the years. Those who put up barriers to the gospel, and who cause division by speaking against these gospel truths should be avoided.

Paul says that these false teachers don’t serve Christ, but serve “their own stomach”–probably not a reference to Jewish food laws, but rather a picture of their self-indulgence. These are people more concerned with fulfilling their own needs and desires than serving Christ and his church. We talked a little about what motivates false teachers, whether in Paul’s day or our own. Do they know they’re teaching falsehood? How many sincerely believe what they teach, and how many are truly just out to scam the church? While we can’t know the true intentions of people’s hearts, I believe a very small proportion of false teachers are actively, knowingly, scamming the church. For the most part, I think false teachers sincerely believe what they teach is true. Whether they believe it because they think they’ll get rich, or they believe it because they are ill-informed, or they’re just deceived–whatever the case, they don’t know the truth, and need to be brought to a knowledge of the truth. When that happens, the state of their heart will be revealed in their response. Those who reject the truth are clearly wolves among the sheep. But those who repent and embrace the truth are true brethren that were, for a season, misguided.

False teachers, as we well know, employ “smooth talking and nice words” (the Greek is chrêstologias kai eulogias). They make their bad theology sound appealing by means of flattery, context-abuse, and various other oratory techniques to persuade people to their viewpoint. Interestingly, Paul says that in this way they “deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting [or, perhaps, the naive].” Notice, he doesn’t say “deceive the minds“–and I think Paul’s choice of words here is important. By “deceiving the hearts” I think Paul is talking about using emotional appeals to guilt people into accepting their arguments. We see this all the time today: “God wouldn’t send such a nice person to Hell, would He?” “Of course Muslims are saved! Don’t be so judgmental!” And I’m sure you’ve heard many similar statements. Just as in Paul’s day, we need to be very wary of emotional appeals that are designed to subvert our biblically-based rational thinking, lest we see the false teaching for what it is.

We’ll continue with verse 19 next time.

One Response to Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:12-18

  1. Pingback: Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:12-18 » Colin D Smith | Church News Blog

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