Category Archives: Romans

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: a serialized study.

Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:[24]-27

[24 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be] with all of you. Amen.] 25 To Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of [the] mystery kept secret for times eternal, 26 but now having been revealed and made known through [the] prophetic writings, according to the command of the eternal God unto the obedience of faith for all the nations; 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom [is] the glory forever. Amen.

We began our last Romans study with one specific question, and a couple of general questions with regard to the passage. First, why is verse 24 in some translations, and yet many others either bracket it off, or relegate it to the footnotes? We then asked whether Paul wrote this doxology, and if he did, does it belong at the end of chapter 16, or should it go elsewhere? Having addressed these issues, we examined the verses, especially in light of all that Paul has been teaching throughout this letter.

With regard to verse 24, the earliest and best manuscripts that contain Romans 16 do not have what we know as verse 24. Remember, the verse divisions were later additions. Paul (or, rather, Tertius at Paul’s dictation) just wrote one line after another with no thought of verses or chapters. Some later manuscripts, primarily those that formed the foundation of the KJV (and the NKJV) contained the verse, which is why those translations include it. However, as we shall see, there’s good reason to suspect this verse was a later addition.

Some have suggested that this concluding doxology couldn’t have been written by Paul, and it, too, was a later addition to the letter. Among the more significant arguments cited for this conclusion are:

  • The language of the doxology isn’t very Pauline. Phrases such as “kept secret for times eternal” and “prophetic writings” are more akin to what you would find in Ephesians or Colossians–and, the same people would doubt the Pauline authorship of those letters.
  • None of Paul’s other letters end with a doxology. You might find a doxology close to the end, but not as the concluding verses. Indeed, 16:24 is much more like the kind of ending we would expect from Paul.

Against these arguments, we would note:

  • There’s no good, historical reason to deny the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians, and if we accept those as Pauline, then the objection concerning language becomes irrelevant. But even if one insists that the language strays too far from what we expect from Paul, even in Romans, we should point out that this is the language of doxology. Paul was articulate enough that he could use different words, and these phrases may be borrowed from another source–who can know for sure?
  • As we will discover, the themes of the doxology resonate with themes we’ve seen throughout Romans, so there is a consistency. And there are similarities between the language of these verses, and what we’ve seen in, for example, Romans 1:1-17.
  • The overwhelming testimony of the manuscript tradition supports its inclusion. In other words, the vast majority of Greek manuscripts that contain Romans 14-16 include these verses. There may be disagreement about where the doxology should go, but there’s no dispute that it should be there.

So, to answer the second question, yes, we believe these words were written by Paul, and were intended by the Lord to be a part of Romans. The last question to address, therefore, is where this doxology goes–at the end of 16, or elsewhere? The Greek manuscripts are divided on this point. Some place the doxology where we have it, some put it after chapter 15, some after chapter 14. Those few that remove it altogether finish with verse 24, which might explain why that verse was added: to provide a more “Pauline” ending to the letter. Some manuscripts don’t have either 15 or 16, which may be due to the influence of the Gnostic heretic Marcion. Gnostics as a whole regarded the material world as inherently evil, so the God of the Old Testament can’t have been the same good God of the New, since He created the material world. Being a good Gnostic, Marcion’s Bible didn’t include the Old Testament, and he removed as many Old Testament references (and as many positive comments about the Jews) as possible from the New Testament. Romans 15 and 16 most likely suffered under his hand as a result. This is probably why we have some manuscripts that don’t contain these chapters.

As you can tell, there are a great many choices for where this doxology should go. One of the oldest manuscripts of Romans we have (known as p46–a papyrus manuscript from the mid-second century), has Romans 1:1 – 15:33, followed by the doxology, followed by 16:1-23. I tend to think this might have been the original arrangement. Not only does it fit the structure of the letter, but it also offers an explanation for why Romans 16 is so jam-packed with greetings, and commendations. It’s possible Romans 16 was actually intended as a cover letter. Since Paul had never been to the Roman church, such a cover letter would have served as an introduction to him, and a validation that this is truly from him. Hence, he greets as many people in the church as he knows, and he offers his commendation of Phoebe–perhaps the person carrying the letter to the church. The awkward ending of verse 23 (“and Quartus the brother”) wouldn’t matter because it’s just the cover letter, and the epistle for-real would begin over the page.

This is just a theory, and I could be wrong. What’s most important is the fact that Romans 16:25-27 is part of this letter, and part of what God inspired the Apostle to write. With that in mind, we then turned to studying the doxology.

The first thing we observed is that the doxology is, in fact, one continuous incomplete sentence. Once again, Paul is so consumed with his topic that he completely loses track of grammar. In the class, I translated the passage directly from the Greek to give everyone a sense of the structure (or lack thereof–the translation above tries to do the same). This reminds us that we don’t believe inspiration to be like “automatic handwriting,” where Paul fell into a trance and God just moved his hand to write. Rather, God used Paul, his background, his voice, and his frailty, to write exactly what He wanted to say. What we see in Paul’s exuberant disregard of sentence structure is a man passionate for the glory of God. How often do we lose ourselves in this way when contemplating the glory and majesty of the Lord?

In the opening line, Paul acknowledges that God is the one who establishes the church. He is the one who strengthens them. In 1:11, Paul expressed a desire to see the brethren there, that he might impart to them a “spiritual gift” to “establish” or “strengthen” them. Here, Paul makes it clear that any strengthening that happens is totally from God. Paul might be used by God as an instrument to bring this about, but God is the one who does the work.

Also, in 1:15, Paul said he wanted to preach the gospel to the Roman church, and here he identifies that gospel as the very thing that can (by God’s power) strengthen them. The gospel and “the preaching of Jesus Christ” are, essentially, the same thing. Paul’s gospel is all about Christ, and what he has done to secure our salvation. As we have seen throughout this epistle (particularly in the latter chapters), for Paul, Christ is our sole motivation for everything we do. Our unity, our service, our love for one another–it’s all for the glory of God and magnification of Christ before a lost and dying world.

We’ve discussed previously the biblical meaning of “mystery.” A mystery, in the Scriptural sense, is not a puzzle we need to figure out. Rather, it’s something that is beyond our comprehension that, outside the revelation of God, we cannot hope to understand. Two examples of biblical mystery:

  • The Trinity: There is a level of understanding we can have with regard the Trinity. God has revealed to us that He is a triune being: one being with three persons. However, there is no way we can comprehend what it means to be triune, because we are not. In fact, there is no other triune being in the universe–this is one of the ways God is unique. Any analogy to the Trinity breaks down, because there is no other Trinity to which we can compare God. So there is a level of understanding, but also a level of mystery that we just need to accept.
  • The Gospel: We know the gospel message, and we believe and rejoice in the tremendous act of grace and mercy on God’s part to send Christ to pay the penalty for our sin. But why didn’t God just punish us all? Why didn’t he just treat us all according to his justice? Why did God choose to provide a means of salvation for His people? He certainly didn’t have to. This is the mystery of the gospel.

Paul has already drawn attention to Old Testament passages that support, and even foretell the coming of Christ and the essence of the gospel message. However, the world didn’t understand (and still doesn’t), and even God’s people, the Jews, didn’t get it. Isaiah 53 opens with a lament on the fact that the message hasn’t been received. We must remember, though, that this was part of God’s intention. There was a right time to reveal the full meaning of these prophecies and promises, and that time is “now”–with the coming of Christ and the proclamation of the Apostles. This veiling and revelation happened “according to the command of the eternal God.” Paul recognizes that God is truly sovereign, both over salvation (see chapter 9), and over the working out of history. God has been at work throughout history, orchestrating the finest details of his plan for humanity, and particularly for His people. This plan is secret to us–it something we couldn’t comprehend anyway. But we can be assured that everything happens, both good and bad, to fulfill that plan. Indeed, as Paul says, the revelation of the gospel was commanded by God for “the obedience of faith for all nations”–that is, to bring to faith not only the Jews, but people of every ethnicity.

In 11:33, Paul extols the wisdom of God, its riches and depth, especially in relation to the gospel and His plan of salvation for both Jew and Gentile. Now, at the conclusion of the doxology, having acknowledged God’s sovereignty, he once again reminds us that God is the only-wise, the one whose eternal decrees are beyond our finite minds. He alone knows how He can reconcile God and man to Himself without violating His justice. I noted that there is no other faith or philosophy I know of that satisfies this conundrum: how can a good and holy God justly save anyone? God could consign us all to eternal punishment, and that’s what justice demands. But what of mercy and grace? God could choose to save some or all of us, but what then of His justice? Only in the gospel do we have God satisfying His justice by sending His Son to pay the penalty for sin on behalf of those He wants to save. Only in the gospel are God’s justice and mercy satisfied.

And it’s to God that all glory is ascribed, glory that is made known to us through Christ, and it is His for eternity. Amen! And so Paul concludes his letter to the church in Rome.

I have really enjoyed preparing and leading this study, and my enjoyment has only been enhanced by the wonderful, thoughtful people that have been a part of it for the past three years. Everyone reading these notes, including me, has been enriched by their comments, objections, and wisdom. May these pages serve to draw God’s people closer to Him, wherever they may be.

Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:19-23

19 For your obedience has become known to all, therefore I rejoice over you, and I wish for you to be wise unto the good, and innocent unto the evil. 20 And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus [be] with you. 21 Timothy, my co-laborer, greets you, and Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen. 22 I, Tertius, the one who wrote the letter, greet you in the Lord. 23 Gaius, my host, and [host of] the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, greets you, and Quartus, the brother.

In the midst of sending greetings to the Roman church, Paul launches into a brief warning against false teachers. Last time, we discussed how this was probably intended as a warning to watch those currently within the church causing dissension, not necessary to watch the gates for false teachers coming in from outside. Paul describes these false teachers as employing smooth talking and nice words. The Greek terms are of interest, since they speak of “sayings” or “messages” that are “good” or “lovely” (chrêstologia), and words that are a blessing, or flattering (eulogia). And with these words, they deceive the hearts of those that are akakos. That term literally means “without bad,” which we can take to mean “innocent” or “guileless.” However, I think the context demands a rendering more along the lines of “naive”–those who stick their heads in the sand and pretend evil isn’t there. Reading on in verse 19, I think this becomes clear, as he exhorts the Romans to be “wise unto the good, and innocent unto the evil.” What he wants of the Romans is not to assume the best of everyone, and act as if no-one has evil intent. Rather, he wants them to grow in wisdom with regard to that which is good, and protect themselves against evil. The Greek for evil there is kakos, so there’s a verbal connection with “naive.” They need to know and recognize what evil is, but not become a part of that evil. They should be innocent of evil, while perfectly aware of what it looks like, and be able to know it when they hear or see it.

It’s sad that in our day, many within the church are loathed to call any false teaching “evil,” and want to sugar coat and whitewash that which is contrary to Scripture. Paul calls us all here to stop pretending there’s no such thing as false doctrine, and no such thing as false teachers. Truth is not relative, and we all need to be so familiar with the truth, and so in love with the truth, that we will not tolerate that which is clearly a lie.

On the whole, it seems Paul has an optimistic view of the Roman church. He has never visited them, but their reputation for standing for the truth is widespread. He rejoices that they are obedient (presumably to the gospel, and to Christ), and this will serve them well as they follow Paul’s admonition to them.

We got into an interesting discussion on how we are to understand the classic differentiation between “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge.” In Christian circles, it’s not uncommon to hear someone talk of a nominal believer as one who has “head knowledge”–i.e., they know all the right things to say, but they lack “heart knowledge,” there’s no real conviction there. In other words, they’ve learned the right phrases, but they don’t know the Savior personally. There’s a danger with this, that we might get into thinking that truth resides in the heart. Only if you are convinced in your heart, and have an emotional response to something, is it real in your life. Against this, we have passages like Romans 16:18, and Romans 12:2, where clearly the heart is seen as easily led astray, and the exhortation to be transformed in the mind–not the heart. Christianity does not demand that we ignore our minds. Indeed, we are expected to be thinking people, studying God’s Word, and applying the truths we read and hear from the pulpit to our everyday lives. We are not simply to believe what “feels right.” Since the heart is so prone to corruption, and we are so easily caught up in our emotions, we need to allow our sanctified, Spirit-renewed minds to act as guardians of our hearts. When are hearts would have us wander, our minds remind us of God’s truth, and bring our hearts back into line. This isn’t to say we can’t be emotional. Indeed, the truth should elicit from us an emotional response. The beauty of the gospel, the truth of the Trinity, and the amazing revelation of God’s sovereign work in election and regeneration we see in Scripture should all cause us to love and adore our God and Savior all the more. These things should fill our hearts to overflowing, more than any hug or feel-good movie, or smooth, flattering words.

Verse 20 serves as a reminder that there is a spiritual context to the battle against false teachers. We are engaged in spiritual warfare, and ultimately, any victory we have against those who spread lies and dissension within the church is a victory of the God of peace over Satan. Paul reminds the Romans that God will crush Satan under their feet, and He’ll do it “soon.” Note that God will crush Satan under their feet, not His. In other words, they will be the instruments God will use in Satan’s downfall, lest they should be tempted to feel proud in themselves. This is an important attitude to have as we enter daily battle with the forces of the Enemy that are ranged against us. We fight the battle as servants of the living God, and it is only as He enables and empowers that we have the victory. There is no cause for boasting on our part; without God, we’re useless and completely vulnerable to Satan’s attack. But the situation isn’t hopeless, because God will have the victory. I think Paul’s words have both an immediate sense, God will make them victorious now, and a future, eschatological sense: a day is coming when Satan will be cast into the lake of fire, and there will be true peace between God and His people, and within the people of God. Paul’s reference to God as “the God of peace” is, I think, aimed at what Paul wants to see within the church at Rome: peace between Jew and Gentile believers. And, again, that peace can only come by the power of God. The benediction at the end of the verse reminds the Romans that the strength they need to discern the Enemy’s attacks and resist him comes only by the grace of the Lord

In verses 21-23, we return to the greetings Paul is delivering to the Roman church from various people. At the end of 16, he gave a general greeting from “all the churches of Christ.” He turns now to particular individuals that want to greet the church, starting with Timothy, “my co-laborer.” Timothy is actually quite a prominent figure in Paul’s life. We first encounter him in Acts 16, where Luke tells us he is the son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father. He is well-regarded by the brethren in Lystra and Iconium, and becomes a frequent traveler alongside Paul. His name is often attached to Paul’s letters (see 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon), and he himself was the recipient of two canonical letters from Paul. With such credentials, one might wonder why Timothy is given such a brief, almost dismissive introduction. It’s possible that Timothy is so well-known to the Romans, that he needs no introduction beyond the fact that he’s Paul’s co-laborer. It would also be consistent with Christian humility to demand no more recognition that that. Indeed, what greater honor should a servant of the Lord need than to be known as a laborer in the gospel?

The next name on the list is Lucius, who, along with Jason and Sosipater, Paul regards as his “kinsman.” Some think Lucius is actually Luke, author of the Gospel and Acts, and traveling companion to Paul. The main problem with this is the fact that Luke was Greek, so he could hardly be Paul’s “kinsman.” There’s a Lucius of Cyrene in Acts 13:1 who might be a more likely candidate, but we can’t be sure. Sosipater is probably the Sosipater who left Greece with Paul in Acts 20:4. I’ve mentioned before how I would place the writing of this letter somewhere in amongst the events of Acts 20, which increases the likelihood that this is the same Sosipater. Indeed, he and Lucius may be the men Paul chose to go with him to Jerusalem to deliver the contribution to the saints.

As for Tertius, this is all we know about him: he was Paul’s amanuensis for this letter. It was not uncommon at that time for letters to be written at dictation. This would be especially useful if, for example, one’s penmanship was lacking, or one’s literacy was not what it could be. In Paul’s case, it’s possible the former might be the situation. Galatians 6:11 preserves for us an instance where Paul took the pen and wrote in his own hand. The proof he offered that this was his own handwriting was by the fact that the letters were so large. It’s possible Paul was nearsighted, which, in the days before corrective lenses, would have made writing difficult. If he had written Romans himself, imagine how much parchment he might have used for all 16 chapters! It’s not unreasonable, therefore, for Paul to have employed the services of amanuenses to write in neat, clear letters the things he wanted to say. Some have suggested that some portions of Paul’s letters were actually written not by Paul, but by his amanuensis, maybe even without Paul’s knowledge. There is, however, a consistency of style between the Pauline letters, even when he’s using different amanuenses, to suggest they were all faithful to Paul’s words. What we have in 16:22 is an exceptional instance, where Paul allowed Tertius to insert his own greeting. Perhaps Tertius was known to the Roman church, which is why Paul permitted this.

If Paul is writing from Corinth, as I suggested at the beginning of the study, then Gaius is probably Gaius of Corinth mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1:14. We’ve already discussed how important hospitality is within the church (see the notes on Romans 12:13), and especially back then, when Christians were not the most well-regarded, and churches weren’t necessarily advertising themselves. A Christian coming into a new town looking for a place to stay would be particularly blessed to encounter someone from the local church. For people within the church to put themselves out to give a fellow believer a meal and perhaps a room for the night was considered a notable ministry, as it should be in our day, too. Gaius was clearly someone within the Roman church with this ministry, a ministry he not only extended to those within the church, but to those outside the church like Paul.

There’s an Erastus mentioned in Acts 19:21-22 whom Paul sent into Macendonia from Corinth. This could be the same Erastus who sends greetings to the church in Rome. However, an inscription found in Corinth mentions someone called Erastus who was an “aedile.” In ancient Rome, the aedile was a government official responsible for streets, buildings, and certain finances. Paul’s description of Erastus as an oikonomos of the city may be an equivalent term to the Roman aedile. If not, Erastus might have started out as an oikonomos, and advanced later to being an aedile. It’s possible that Erastus of Romans 16:23 could be this Erastus; or it’s as likely that the Erastus of 16:23, the Erastus of Acts 19, and the Erastus of the inscription are all the same person.

Quartus is not mentioned anywhere else, so all we know is that he is a believer with Paul, probably known to at least some in Rome. And with Quartus we end the greetings section of the letter.

It’s my intention that next time–our last meeting for the year–we will finish Romans. We’ll start with the “missing” verse 24, and then discuss the final doxology, the status of which has also been called into question in the past. If there’s time, we’ll also consider what we’ve learned from Romans, and look ahead to our next study.

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.

Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:5b-11

5b Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Asia in Christ. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked very hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia [or Junias], my fellow-countrymen and fellow-prisoners, who are well-known [or outstanding or esteemed] to [or among] the apostles [or Apostles], and who were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our co-laborer in Christ, and Stachys, my beloved. 10 Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ. Greet those of [the household of] Artistobulos. 11 Greet Herodian, my kinsman. Greet those from [the household of] Narcissus, those who are in the Lord.

We continued this week with Paul’s lengthy list of greetings. As we noted previously, these may well have been the only people in Rome Paul knew (or knew of), and his listing them here is possibly his way of connecting with the church. However, these are not merely “say hi and let’s do lunch sometime” kind of greetings. Even in a few words, Paul betrays a sincere appreciation for each of the names on this list. These are people that have meant something to him in some way, at least enough to warrant Paul singling them out for greeting.

Paul describes Epaenetus as “beloved,” but this doesn’t necessarily imply a special relationship (like the Beloved Disciple to Jesus in John’s Gospel). Indeed, Paul calls the whole Roman church “beloved” in 12:19. The Corinthian church is also “beloved” (1 Corinthians 10:14; 15:58), as is the Philippian church (Philippians 2:12). Yes, Epaenetus is dear to Paul, but not exclusively. It’s possible that he considers him special because he was “the firstfruits of Asia in Christ”–in other words, he was the first convert to Christ in Asia. I would venture to suggest that Paul is probably speaking in terms of his ministry, that is, Epaenetus was Paul’s first Asian convert; but we can’t rule out the possibility that the statement is literally true: he was the first convert to Christianity in Asia, period. In any case, he was clearly a great encouragement to Paul early on in his ministry, and so he has a special place in Paul’s heart.

The name “Mary” (or Mariam, or Maria) was a popular Jewish name, but it was also widely used in Gentile circles, so we can’t be 100% certain of her ethnicity from her name alone. Far more important than this, however, is the fact that she has “worked very hard for you.” In what capacity, we can’t be certain since Paul doesn’t elaborate. Maybe the “for you” is a hint that she has labored among the church in Rome trying to keep the peace between the Jewish and Gentile factions. Mary’s not the only person Paul notes who has “worked hard,” which brings up an interesting observation. The people Paul draws our attention to are not the most prominent, or the ones with spectacular gifts, or amazing testimonies. These are people who labor day-to-day for the gospel within the church. They may be performing menial, maybe unglamorous jobs, just to make sure the needs of the church are met. Nevertheless, Paul considers their work to be no less important than anyone else’s. It’s often the hard working Marys in the church that, by the grace of God, make it possible for the Pauls and Peters to minister.

Verse 7 is much-debated, as one might discern from the various translation possibilities I suggest above. Andronicus and Junia(s?) are “fellow countrymen,” suggesting that they are, like Paul, of Jewish descent. Since Andronicus is a Greek name, they are probably Hellenistic Jews. But is Junia(s?) male (Junias) or female (Junia)? One way to determine this is to look at the Greek accents (the masculine form of the name is accented differently from the feminine). But the earliest manuscripts don’t have accent marks, so we still can’t be certain. And even though later manuscripts would include accents, there is a split between pre-13th century commentators who take it to be feminine, and post-13th century commentators who take it as masculine. Interestingly, the masculine name Junias would be a contracted form of the name Junianos–but this contracted form doesn’t exist in any Greek literature outside of this passage. On the contrary, the feminine form, Junia, is quite popular. Also, if we understand the name to be Junia, this fits the pattern of greeting husband-wife couples (like Prisca and Aquila). For these reasons, I’m inclined to think that Andronicus and Junia are a husband-wife team.

As well as being “fellow countrymen,” Paul says that they are “fellow-prisoners.” Were they imprisoned with Paul at some time, or did they simply share Paul’s experience of having been incarcerated for the gospel? Again, there’s no way to know for certain. However, Paul clearly commends their willingness to sacrifice their freedom for Christ, just as he had done a number of times.

The next phrase could be taken in two different, yet equally legitimate ways. One way is to say that they are “esteemed among the apostles, ” and another is to say they are “esteemed by the apostles.” The importance of this passage lies in whether we understand Paul to be referring to the Apostles (i.e., The Twelve), or the apostles, as in those who are sent out as missionaries. The Apostles were a distinct group of people, set aside by Christ, with a very limited membership (see Acts 1:21ff. for the qualifications). On the other hand, there were many “apostles”–those sent by the church to plant churches and proclaim the gospel–who were not of The Twelve (e.g., 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:23). Some might want to translate the passage “esteemed among the Apostles,” and thus make Junia one of The Twelve, arguing both for female church leadership, and for the continuation of the Apostolate. I think both the qualifications for Apostle in Acts 1:21ff., and Paul’s comments on church officers in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 would preclude Junia from being one of The Twelve. However, it wouldn’t preclude her from being an apostle in the sense of a messenger, or a missionary. Of course, if one translates the passage in the second sense (“esteemed by the apostles”), we could assume Paul is referring to The Twelve, and there would be no controversy, since he is simply saying that Andronicus and Junia were known and well-regarded by the The Twelve. Either way, I don’t think there’s anything here to suggest that Paul regards Junia as an Apostle, or that there are Apostles beyond The Twelve (and Paul).

The last tidbit of information Paul throws out about Andronicus and Junia is that they were “in Christ before me.” In other words, they because Christians before Paul’s conversion. This would suggest that they used to live in Jerusalem, and later moved. Were they part of the scattering in Acts 8, going to Samaria and then Rome? Is it possible that their imprisonment was also prior to Paul’s conversion–maybe even at Paul’s (or Saul’s, as he was then) own hand? All of these scenarios would fit the historical data that we have, however, this is all speculation.

From his name, we can assume that Ampliatus was a freedman. Slaves were often re-named by their slave-owners, who drew from a pool of names to identify their slaves. Like Epaenetus, he is “beloved,” but we don’t know why. It might be enough for us to recognize that Paul saw this freedman without much social standing as beloved, just like anyone else in the church.

Paul describes Urbanus as our co-laborer, not my co-laborer. It’s possible Paul wanted to acknowledge him, but hadn’t personally worked with him, and so he shares him with the church. Again, from the name we can tell he was probably a freedman, so now we have Paul calling someone of low social standing a “co-laborer.” Stachys is another “beloved” that we know nothing more about.

Apelles is a relatively rare name, and his designation as “approved” (Greek dokimos) is also notable. Is he “approved” in the 2 Timothy 2:15 sense (i.e., the faithful worker who rightly handles God’s word), or in the James 1:12 sense (i.e., proven through trial–persecution)? Either or both could be true. It’s possible there is some controversy around Apelles, and Paul is coming to his defense by saying that he is approved in the eyes of Christ. Maybe there’s a hint of Romans 14:18 here, where Paul said that the one who has the right attitude about his brethren is well-pleasing to God and approved by men? One could conjecture that Apelles had tried to be accepting of the Jewish brethren and been scorned by his fellow Gentiles as a result. Once more, we can’t know for sure, but we should pay attention to the way Paul commends these people. Clearly, being “approved” by Christ, whether through attitude, doctrine, or ordeal, is commendable to Paul, no matter who you are in the church.

Paul doesn’t greet Aristobulus, but those who are “of” him. I understand this to mean “of the household of Aristobulus,” or maybe the church that meets at Aristobulus’ house, or even the slaves that were a part of Aristobulus’ household. The name Aristobulus is also relatively rare, and could be a reference to the brother of King Herod Agrippa I who went with the King to Rome. Aristobulus never held public office, and died less than 10 years before this letter. If this is a reference to the slaves that were a part of Aristobulus’ household, that tells us something about the reach of the gospel.

“Herodian” was not a name in common use in Rome at this time, so it’s probably a reference to a slave who was in the service of Herod. Aside from this, we know he is of Jewish descent since Paul calls him a kinsman.

There was a Narcissus who was a well-known freedman under the emperor Claudius. He committed suicide not long before Paul wrote Romans, so “those from Narcissus who are in Christ” are possibly those who belonged to the now-deceased Narcissus’ household. Paul makes a point that he is directing his greeting to those of Narcissus’ household “who are in Christ,” suggesting there were those in that household who were unbelievers.

Just in this section we’ve encountered an interesting selection of people in the Roman church: freedmen, those connected with power and influence, those who are of little social standing, those who have served on the mission field and suffered for their faith, and those who are simply working hard serving the local church. Paul sends greetings to all of these people, regarding them as peers, and of equal worth. As we look around our own churches today, and see a similar cross-section of our societies, we need to be sure we have a similar attitude toward them as Paul did to all the Christians he met. This is, after all, the main point of the letter.

We’ll continue the greetings next time.

Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:3-5a

3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-laborers in Christ Jesus, 4 who laid down [or risked] their neck on behalf of my life, to whom not only I myself give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles; 5 also [greet] the church at their house.

These “greetings” passages, much like the genealogies in the Old Testament and the Gospels, are often considered “fluff” passages–perhaps of passing historical interest, but not of any theological substance. We must guard against the two extremes of ignoring them, as if they are totally devoid of spiritual application, and of importing more theological meaning into them that was ever intended by the Spirit of God when He inspired them. The primary way to guard against these extremes is to remember the original context. These people are real people that Paul knew, and he is addressing the Roman church, asking that they pass on his greetings to them, and giving–for the most part–reasons why these people are dear to Paul’s heart and deserving of being singled out. Paul is not intending to teach any deep, spiritual truths. But that doesn’t mean that the Spirit isn’t using Paul to communicate important principles to us, by making us aware of the kind of people in the Roman church, and the way Paul regards them.

The 19 names that Paul mentions in verses 3-16 are a cross-section of Roman society. From the names themselves, we can determine that some were slaves, or free-men, some male, some female, some Jewish, and some Gentile. We have already discussed Phoebe, and how she might have been a woman of means; but not everyone in the Roman church was financially well-off. This tells us that despite the Jewish-Gentile squabbling, the church was not socially elitist. From the earliest days, the gospel message cut across social boundaries, as God called people to Himself from every strata of life; and the same is true today.

Why these 19 people? It’s possible that these were the only people in Rome that Paul knew, and by mentioning them, he’s indicating to the Romans that his interest in them is real and personal. While he didn’t plant the church, and has never visited, he knows people there, some of them very well. These people can vouch for Paul, should he need the testimony of others. While this is possible, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Paul has a genuine affection for the people he names, and the communication of greetings to them is sincere and heartfelt.

Today we only got as far as Prisca (or Priscilla, as Luke calls her) and Aquila, certainly the most significant names on Paul’s list, not only in terms of how much Paul says about them, but also in terms of their prominence in the New Testament. Thanks to Luke, we know more about them than we do any of the other names on the list. According to Acts 18, Priscilla and Aquila were Jews from Pontus who left Italy as a result of Claudius’s decree expelling Jews from Rome. They established themselves in Corinth, where they took up tent-making. They shared this skill with Paul, with whom they soon became co-laborers for the gospel. In fact, it’s probably not too far off the mark to think Paul mentored and discipled them. Luke tells us Paul took them with him to Ephesus and left them there, where they were used of the Lord to disciple Apollos (Acts 18:26). Paul later rejoined them in Ephesus, and stayed with them a while (1 Corinthians 16:9). Clearly, they are now back in Rome. After Claudius died, his edict died with him, and the Jews could return. It’s only natural that Prisca and Aquila would want to go back home, so it’s not surprising to find them there. Neither is it surprising that they top Paul’s greeting list, and he devotes as much time as he does to greeting them. Of all the 19 people on the list, he knows them best, and wants to be sure the Roman church appreciates how much they mean to him.

We can’t know for certain what Paul means when he says that Prisca and Aquila “laid down their necks on behalf my life.” Does he mean this literally–i.e., at some point, Prisca and Aquila were facing execution for Paul’s sake? Perhaps he’s using an idiom, similar to our phrase “to stick your neck out” in the sense of putting yourself out, even to the point of putting your life in danger for someone else’s benefit? Since Paul doesn’t give us any other information (when this happened, or where), it’s hard to be certain which way to take these words. This phrase is not known in the rest of the New Testament, but there is precedent in Greek literature for the metaphorical use. It could be a reference to the Ephesian riots mentioned in Acts 19:23 ff., where Paul’s life was in danger as a result of the preaching of the gospel. Perhaps Prisca and Aquila put themselves in harm’s way to protect Paul? I’m not convinced the phrase is to be taken literally simply because there is nothing on record to state that Prisca and Aquila were ever formally tried and faced execution. However, there are occasions (like the Ephesian riot) where they might have endangered themselves for Paul. Again, there’s so little to go on, we’re simply taking best guesses at what Paul means, and I could be wrong.

Paul brings out the more important point next: he is grateful for their sacrificial ministry on his behalf, but it’s not just him that’s grateful. Indeed, all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful. By this, I believe Paul is underscoring the importance of Prisca and Aquila’s role in Paul’s ministry. If they hadn’t risked their own necks for Paul, his ministry to the Gentiles could have been curtailed. In God’s sovereignty, of course, this didn’t happen. But God used Prisca and Aquila, and their willingness to lay down their lives for Paul’s sake, as a means of progressing the gospel throughout the Gentile world. For this, the Gentiles should be eternally grateful to God, and to Prisca and Aquila.

The final part of Paul’s greeting is directed to “the church at their house.” We know that the early church met in houses. It’s possible they got together for corporate worship–where, it’s hard to be sure. The church in some places may have met in synagogues, but in some places, large gatherings of Christians may have caused problems (think of the trouble Paul aroused in Jerusalem). In any case, for both practical, and maybe political reasons (i.e., not wanting to cause trouble with either the religious or the secular authorities), the church would commonly meet in houses. Prisca and Aquila may have been leaders of such a church group, or they may have simply had a house big enough to accommodate such a gathering.

We spent some time first on the subject of house churches, and then on the subject of church government. I won’t go into all that we discussed, but if you have questions, feel free to leave comments. In brief, we noted that while these gatherings are referred to as “churches,” Paul doesn’t regard them as separate from the Roman church. In other words, these are not split-off church groups, or churches independent from the elders who ruled the church in Rome. Paul’s church planting pattern was to enter a city, establish a church, and call elders to rule that church. He didn’t establish the house churches–these, we presume, were organized by the church of that city. There would likely have been leaders of each house church, but they would have been answerable to the elders of the church of that city. I base this on passages such as Acts 20:17, where Paul goes to Ephesus and calls the elders of the church, indicating that the Ephesian church as a whole (including all the house churches) was led by elders. Indeed, he instructs Timothy, himself a leader (elder?) of the Ephesian church on the appointment of elders for the church (1 Tim 3), without regard for individual house churches.

With regard to the modern “house church” movement, we noted that the idea of churches meeting in homes clearly has biblical precedent, and indeed, many churches (including our own) started out as believers meeting in someone’s house. The definition of a true church has nothing to do with where that church meets; rather it is that body’s fidelity to God’s Word that makes it a true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. When a church, house church or otherwise, strays from God’s Word and follows after personalities or programs–especially when this leads to deviation from central Christian truth–it is no longer a true church.

This led to a discussion on church government, and the importance of accountability for leadership. We discussed both Baptist (particularly Reformed Baptist) and Presbyterian models of leadership, and while noting the significant differences, I think there are some points of agreement. Firstly, that no oversight or accountability structure is infallible. Whether it’s a Presbytery, or an association with like-minded brethren, as long as there are people involved, there will be error. As the PCA has seen with the PCUSA, if that error is serious, then it may be necessary to leave that accountability structure. But the basis upon which we evaluate any accountability, or advice, or guidance, is always God’s Word, and not what sounds good, or is politically expedient. Secondly, the form of church government is not a primary issue for the church. Undoubtedly, it is important, and churches need to have some kind of organization in order to function, and it is the responsibility of each church to determine from Scripture which model of leadership is the most appropriate, and adopt it. But no-one’s salvation is going to be determined on whether they are Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopal, or Congregationalist.

Next time, we’ll consider more of the greetings in this section.

Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:1-2

1 Now I recommend to you Phoebe our sister, being a servant of the church in Cenchreae, 2 so that you may receive her in the Lord, worthily of the saints, and stand by her in whatever matter she might have need of you; for she also has been a benefactor of many, even me myself.

After nearly three years of study, we come to the final chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans! We began by reading the entire chapter, and making a few observations. For example, there seem to be an unusually large number of greetings, as well as a warning and a benediction. We find such things in Paul’s other letters, but some have questioned whether Paul wrote this chapter because (among other things):

  • It seems odd that Paul would have so many people to greet given that he didn’t plant the church, and has never visited the church.
  • The issue at Rome was not false teachers, but church unity. Why would Paul warn against false teachers, especially this late into the letter, when we’ve had no hint that this was even an issue?

I think these points can be explained. First, if we recall the historical situation (Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in the late 40s AD, those Jews returned after Claudius died in 54 AD), it’s possible Paul met believers from the Roman church while he was elsewhere. For example, Prisca and Aquila appear to be in Rome (16:3), but Paul originally met them in Corinth (Acts 18). Maybe the people he greets are all people he met in other churches where they had fled as a result of Claudius’ edict, and have now returned to their home church in Rome. As for the warning against false teachers, as we will see, Paul’s concern is over those who cause dissension in the church, which is certainly in line with the message of Romans. Further, Paul knows what happens if the situation in Rome is left unchecked. The church in Galatia came under attack from the false teaching of Judaizers, and he doesn’t want to see that happen in Rome. Given these points, I see no reason to doubt that Paul wrote Romans 16.

Paul begins by recommending Phoebe to the Romans. Such recommendations were not uncommon, especially at a time when communication was relatively slow, and it was important that those receiving the guest had some assurance of the person’s character. Remember, the first century church was not officially recognized. They may not have been formally persecuted at this point, but they had no special protection from the authorities either. Anyone could show up claiming to be a believer, and cause who-knows-what kind of trouble for the brethren. A word of commendation from an Apostle of Christ would carry a lot of weight, and assure the church that Phoebe’s worthy of their acceptance. It’s even possible that Phoebe carried the letter to Rome for Paul.

The amount that Paul tells us about Phoebe gives us an idea of how important she was. We know she was from Cenchreae, which was about eight miles outside of Corinth. This suggests Paul got to know while in Corinth (which is where, we presume, he is writing this letter). Paul describes her as a “servant of the church in Cenchreae,” so it’s possible he visited that church while in Corinth, or people from that church came down to Corinth to see Paul. She is worthy of being received as an equal among the saints, and she has been a “benefactor”–even to Paul himself.

The term “servant of the church” raises some controversy, since Paul uses the word diakonos, which is also the technical term for the office of deacon. Was Phoebe a deaconess–that is, did she actually hold office? If so, this would be an unusual example of a woman explicitly holding office within the church. The traditional understanding is that only men were supposed to hold church offices (elder and deacon), which is why this question has been at the heart of a lot of debate.

The Greek doesn’t really help us with the question. The word diakonos is not gender-specific, and is used in a variety of contexts. The office of diakonos is spoken of in 1 Timothy 3:8. The state is referred to as a “servant” using diakonos in Romans 13:4. Christ is called a diakonos in Romans 15:8. Then there’s Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21), Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:5), Epaphras (Colossians 1:7), and even Paul himself (1 Corinthians 3:5, and Philippians 1:1). The only help we can get with understanding this term as Paul uses it in Romans 16:1 is to look at the context, and Paul’s understanding of the diaconate.

On the pro-deaconess side, one could make the argument that since part of Paul’s recommendation of Phoebe is based on the fact she is a “diakonos” of the Cenchreaean church, the best way to understand the weight of this commendation would be if she held office. In other words, Paul is saying the Romans should receive Phoebe because she holds the office of deacon in another church. Also, Paul describes Phoebe as a prostatis, which can be translated “leader” (i.e., one who stands before others), which would, again, support the idea of church leadership.

On the contra-deaconess side, one might point out that Phoebe’s standing as a “diakonos” of the church is not her only commendation, so it can’t have been as significant as her holding office in the church. Further, the term prostatis can also be translated “benefactor” or “patron,” and this meaning was, in fact, quite common at this time. She may have been a person of means, and able to give financial help to the brethren. Notice that Paul says that she has been a prostatis “of many, even me myself.” Is it more likely that Phoebe was a leader of Paul, or a benefactor of Paul? That she held authority over Paul, or that she provided financial assistance to Paul? Finally, one ought to consider the qualifications for the office of deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. In verse 12, he says that deacons must be “the husband of one wife,” a qualification that a woman cannot fulfill. And while verse 11 does mention “women,” this same Greek word could equally mean “wives,” such that this verse refers to the character of the deacon’s wife. Since verse 12 follows immediately after, this seems a reasonable interpretation.

I, personally, side with the contra-deaconess position. But this is a secondary issue, and good men differ. I think a better question to explore within a church where women are seeking church office is why? Why do women within the church want to hold office? Is it because they feel the men are not doing their God-ordained job? As we discussed, sadly this is often the case, not only in the church, but in many marriages. When husbands fail to live up to their biblically-mandated role as head of household, their wives take up the slack and try to do the job. Likewise within the church: when men fail to do what Christ has ordained them to do, the women will often step up–not because they are biblically qualified, but because there’s no-one else willing. If Scripture says they should not be serving in this capacity, then it is an act of disobedience, and the failure of the men doesn’t let them off the hook for this. However, men bear as much of the blame for letting the situation arise.

In a healthy church, women shouldn’t feel the need to take office to be recognized, and to be empowered to exercise their God-given gifts and talents within the church. Women certainly do have a valuable perspective on issues the deacons have to deal with, but this doesn’t mean they need to serve as deacons for their voices to be heard. Wise deacons will consult their wives, and get the counsel of all concerned within the church, including the women. Paul certainly recognized the powerful and important ministry women often play in the church, as we see in what he says about Phoebe, and the others he speaks of in this chapter.

Paul says that the church needs to “receive” Phoebe, and I take this in the same way he spoke of the church “welcoming” in 14:1 and 15:7–that is, with open arms, as an equal, a fellow-believer, a co-heir with Christ. To further emphasize this, he says she should be treated as one of their own, “in the Lord.” He indicates that Phoebe needs help, and gives no indication of what the “matter” (Greek, pragma) is with which she needs help. Uses of the word elsewhere would suggest it’s some kind of legal help. If she was a woman of means, then it probably wasn’t financial. Beyond this, we are guessing. The idea that she has financial resources comes from the fact Paul calls her a “benefactor,” even of Paul himself. The most obvious way to understand this is that she gave helped support Paul as a missionary, paying for his travels, or giving him money for food and lodging.

This may be only a sketchy picture of Phoebe, but for someone who isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, it’s an important sketch. It shows us in broad terms how much Paul depended on others within the church, even women. And it also shows the important ministry women played within the early church. God’s blessings fall upon those whom he chooses to bless, both male and female. Regardless of gender, if you have been given a way to serve the church, then it is incumbent upon you to find a way to minister, within the bounds of biblical propriety. And in the context of a healthy church, that shouldn’t be a problem.

We’ll begin looking at Paul’s list of greetings (vv. 3-16) next time.

Sunday School Notes: Romans 15:28-33

28 Therefore, having finished this, and having set the seal on this fruit to them, I shall depart via you to Spain. 29 And I know that when I come to you, I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ. 30 I exhort you, [brothers], through our Lord Jesus Christ and through the love of the Spirit, to contend with me in prayers on my behalf to God, 31 such that I may be delivered from the disobedient [or unbelievers] in Judea, and my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32 so that coming to you in joy, through the will of God, I may rest with you. 33 And the God of peace [be] with all of you. Amen.

We noted back in verse 24 that Paul started out talking about his plans to go to Spain, and then was sidetracked into explaining his visit to the church in Rome and about the collection for the Jerusalem saints. Now, in verse 28, he returns to the point he left hanging back in 24: once he has done what he needs to do in Jerusalem, he’ll drop in on the Roman church, and then on to Spain. This further emphasizes the fact that 1) his stop in Rome is not a full-scale ministry trip (though no doubt he will minister there), and 2) it is for pleasure–to fulfill his desire to spend some time with the church in Rome. He is not planning to stay for an extended period, building on someone else’s work.

The language Paul uses in this verse is a little odd: “set the seal on this fruit”–what does he mean by this? In the previous verse, Paul used the Greek verb leitourgeô speaking of “serving” the Gentiles in material things. This is liturgical language, the language of the temple priest performing his ministry. Perhaps Paul is carrying on this idea in his use of the word “fruit,” like the offering spoken of in Leviticus 27:30, where every tithe, whether of the seed of the land or the fruit of the tree is the Lord’s, and is holy to Him. The “fruit” Paul is speaking of is, therefore, the financial gift of the Gentiles to the Jerusalem church. It is their sacrificial offering to their Jewish brethren in their time of need.

As for “setting the seal” on the gift, I think this is a reference to Paul both assuring the churches that the gift will get to the Jerusalem church, and also personally vouching for both the gift and the givers to the believers in Jerusalem. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul encourages the Corinthian church to take up an offering for the Jerusalem church; I believe this is their part of the same gift Paul is talking about in Romans 15. He asks the Corinthians to select worthy men to accompany their offering, but also indicates that he himself might take the gift. Now, in Romans, Paul is certain that he will take the gift himself. Perhaps sometime between 1 Corinthians 16 and Romans 15, Paul read or heard something that raised his concern for the safe delivery of this monetary contribution, such that he needed to take it himself. Perhaps the Gentile churches expressed the desire for Paul to see it safely to Jerusalem. Maybe he and they felt that it would only be accepted by the Jerusalem church is Paul himself took it. Whatever the case, by now Paul clearly believed he needed to be the one to take it.

Paul notes again in verse 29 how his visit to Rome will be one of mutual blessing (see also Romans 1:11-12). Since Paul had been hindered from visiting before this time, if God enables him to fulfill his desire, it will be a sign of His blessing on the endeavor. As we have seen, Paul not only expects to impart a blessing of the Lord to the saints in Jerusalem both in terms of his presence, and the gift, but he expects to be blessed by them. In this way, the blessing of Christ will be full.

Verse 30 starts a brief section where Paul asks for prayer. This is not unusual–Paul includes prayer requests in his letters to the Ephesians (6:18ff), Colossians (4:2-4), and Thessalonians (5:25). In these prayer requests, we get a bit more insight into Paul’s concerns for the trip to Jerusalem (and, again, why he may feel it necessary to take the gift himself). He exhorts (Greek: parakaleô)–not simply asks–the Roman church, both Jew and Gentile, to pray for him. Paul underscores the seriousness of this prayer in three ways. First, he asks for prayer “through our Lord Jesus Christ”–that is, through the Lord who saved them, the Lord they all serve, and in whom the church is united. Second, he asks for prayer “through the love of the Spirit,” not just “in the Spirit.” The love the brethren have for one another is Spirit-born; it is not something we can conjure up within ourselves. Paul recognizes that any unity in the church comes as God the Holy Spirit works in the lives of His people. It is this love of the brethren that binds the church together, both those within the same city, and those in other countries. Even though Paul, and the Jerusalem saints, were just names and stories to many in the Roman church, God the Holy Spirit places within the hearts of all Christians a love for the brethren that transcends distance and personal acquaintance. Paul appeals to that love, that the saints in Rome would pray for him earnestly, despite the fact they don’t really know him, and many of them have never seen him. Similarly, we should pray for missionaries, and believers in other cities and countries, with the same Spirit-given love of the brethren.

Finally, Paul doesn’t just ask them to pray for him, but he urges them to “contend with me in prayer.” He uses the verb sunagônizomai, which is made up of the verb agônizô, with the prefix sun-. The sense of agônizô is that of fighting, struggling, or engaging in conflict. It’s where we get the English word “agonize.” The sun- prefix simply means “with.” Paul is invitingt the Roman brethren to engage in struggle with him by praying for him. This is the language of spiritual warfare. The conflict between Jew and Gentile within the church was certainly damaging, but in this, and in the persecution of the church by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Paul also recognized the hidden battle raging, as the enemies of the faith sought to bring down the work of God and undermine the gospel.

The nature of the spiritual battle comes out in verse 31, as Paul explains what they need to pray for: 1) his deliverance from the unbelievers in Jerusalem, and 2) the acceptance of the gift by the Jerusalem church. Acts 21:15-17, 27-32, and 23:12-15 provide insight into Paul’s request. In those passages we see what actually transpired when Paul went to Jerusalem. He was received by the brethren there, and he was warned about how his teachings were being understood by the Jewish people. The church encouraged Paul to show good faith to the Jews, but the hard-liners (i.e., the “unbelievers”) just wanted him dead. Paul ended up being put in chains by the Romans for his own protection, and he actually left Jerusalem for Rome under Roman guard. So it turned out that Paul’s concern for his safety on this trip was well-founded

The “service” Paul refers to is, no doubt, the collection for the Jerusalem church. Given his experience with Rome and Galatia, Paul knew it was not a given that the offering from the Gentiles would be accepted by the Jewish believers. However, this display of solidarity from the Gentiles to their Jewish brethren was very important to Paul. And if the Jewish saints in Jerusalem received the gift, not only would this help them out physically, but it would also show their acknowledgement and acceptance of their Gentile brethren, something that has been on Paul’s heart this entire letter. As we see in Acts, Paul’s prayer was answered positively.

In verse 32, Paul again expresses his expectation that he will come to the Roman believers “in joy,” and that he will “rest” with them. But notice he adds “through the will of God,” and this turned out to be a very important caveat. Things did not go quite as Paul expected. Without doubt, he anticipated trouble in Jerusalem, but his hope was that he would leave Jerusalem after meeting with the church there and delivering the gift, and then make a joyful stop in Rome, where he would have some time to rest and be refreshed before heading for Spain. Thanks to Luke’s record in Acts, we can compare Paul’s expectations with what actually happened:

  • Was the gift received by the Jerusalem saints? Yes, I think we can assume it was from the account in Acts. Paul was received with gladness, though he was warned that the Jewish people were harboring ill-will toward him.
  • Was Paul protected from the Jews in Jerusalem? Again, I think we can say, on the whole, yes–though not without being beaten and harassed. Given they wanted to kill him, I would say he was protected. But remember the form in which Paul’s protection came: Roman house arrest! This wasn’t exactly what Paul had in mind.
  • Did Paul get to Rome? Once again, yes, but under Roman guard. The nature of his arrest would have been such that he was able to meet with the believers in Rome (see Acts 28:14-16; 30-31)–but this wasn’t quite the restful pit-stop he planned. Indeed, Paul could have been set free, except that the circumstances of his arrest gave him the opportunity to appeal directly to Caesar. Paul could have had a refreshing visit with the Roman church, and then sailed off to Spain, but instead, he traded this for the opportunity to present the gospel to the highest authority in the Roman Empire. Perhaps he saw in this a more fitting end to his Gentile ministry? Whatever he thought, he clearly saw the hand of God at work, and rather than being angry and frustrated, he embraced God’s will for him, and tried to make the most of the opportunity the Lord was giving him, for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God.

He finishes the section with a prayer that the God of peace be with all of them. This goes back to the theme of unity, and ending strife within the church. There is no reason for Jewish and Gentile believers to be quarreling. Paul’s prayer is that the God of peace would bring reconciliation to them. And no doubt he hoped this letter would be used by the Lord to help bring about that peace.

We will begin chapter 16, the final chapter, next time!

Sunday School Notes: Romans 15:24-27

24 when I am going to Spain, for I hope to see you while passing through, and to be helped on my way there by you, if I may first enjoy your company for a while. 25 But now I am going to Jerusalem, to minister to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia were well-pleased to make some contribution to the poor of the saints in Jerusalem, 27 for they were well-pleased, and they were their debtors. For if the Gentiles have shared with them in spiritual things, they ought also to serve them in material things.

We cut Paul off in mid-sentence last time, so we pick up his train of thought in verse 24. He’s discussing his ministry plans, and how he feels as if he has accomplished all that the Lord had given him to do in the Mediterranean area in which he has been working. He has planted churches, pioneering gospel work, not laboring upon foundations laid by others. Paul’s ministry was not that of long-term pastoring. He had no ambition to join existing churches. And having done all he believes he can within the area of Greece, Macedonia, and Achaea, it’s time to look ahead to the next phase in his life. For that next phase, Paul has his sights set on Spain. We’re not sure exactly why, but he clearly sees opportunity there. The Iberian Peninsula had already, within Paul’s lifetime, been organized by the Romans, so there’s no doubt Christians had traveled that far west (bear in mind, Roman ships often transported Christian slaves and merchants). We’re not aware of any churches in the area at that time–at least none known to the Apostles–so perhaps Paul saw this as an opportunity to pioneer a work there.

Whether Paul made it to Spain is uncertain. The evidence from Acts and from the Pauline Epistles (particularly Philippians), seems to indicate not. Yet, the late first century work known as 1 Clement (though it was actually a letter from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth, not from any one person) points to a tradition that Paul made it to the “farthest limits of the West,” which would be the Straits of Gibraltar (see 1 Clement 5:5-7). This letter was from the church in Rome, so perhaps they knew something either Luke didn’t know when he wrote Acts, or they were aware of what happened to Paul after the events of Acts 28–and it wasn’t execution. On the other hand, the church in Rome may only presume this based on Paul’s itinerary, and were unaware that he never actually made it to Spain. The end of Acts, and the tone of Philippians, suggests that Rome was Paul’s final destination. One would imagine that, since Luke was with Paul on this last journey, he would have written of Paul’s adventures in Iberia had they happened–especially if Luke is writing after Paul’s death, which is the scholarly consensus.

In the second part of verse 24, Paul seems to go off-topic. We have seen already how Paul’s passion often shows through in his writing, and the way he will interrupt a train of thought if another thought occurs to him, and he may or may not pick up the first train later. Here, Paul jumps into a brief explanation of what he hopes to achieve by visiting Rome–aside from the fulfillment of a long-held ambition:

  1. He wants to be “helped on the way by you”–this suggests the raising of support, possibly for the Spanish mission. The verb he uses, propempô, often has the meaning “to escort” or “to accompany,” but it can also carry the sense of “fund-raising,” or raising support (see Acts 15:3 and 20:36, for example). It’s also possible he was looking for traveling companions, going back to the more popular rendering of the verb–perhaps Roman businessmen who had been to Spain, and knew the area, or who had contacts there.
  2. “To see you, that I may be fulfilled by you.” The language Paul uses sounds strange to us, but the idea is that he wants to enjoy their company for a while. By “see” he means “visit,” not just say “hello.” Given what we’ve read about the problems in the Roman church, we might expect Paul to be preparing to work while he’s there. But despite the issues with the Romans, Paul seems to feel that a visit to the church will actually be refreshing, both spiritually and personally, and not a cause of stress. Of course Paul will preach to them (he said as much in 1:15), but we would expect nothing less from Paul, even if he’s on vacation! But the main purpose of Paul’s visit would be to rest, not work.

However, before Rome and Spain, there’s important ministry work to attend to. Paul needs to go to Jerusalem “to minister to the saints.” The ministry in Jerusalem is to deliver a financial gift to the church there, consisting of donations from the Gentile churches he had collected during this, his third missionary journey. He makes mention of this gift in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, and in 2 Corinthians 8-9. I believe that at this time, the Jerusalem church was probably the church suffering the most persecution. There was no systematic, “official” persecution of the church by the Roman authorities–any Roman persecution would be local to a particular city or province. However, we already know that the Jews had no love for the Christians in much of Judea. We see instances of Jewish authorities trying to limit the proclamation of the gospel in Acts, and, as we shall see, Paul recognized that a visit to Jerusalem may involve a certain amount of personal danger. Also, while there was no state-sponsored persecution of Christians by Rome at this time, Christians were still being lumped in with Jews whenever Rome decided to keep them in check. We’ve already noted the effects of this, with Claudius’s edict banishing the Jews from Rome, which gutted the Roman church of its Jewish believers. No doubt, the Christians in Jerusalem were feeling pressure from the state, which drew no distinction between them and their fellow Jewish monotheists.

This gift Paul will be delivering is from the saints in “Macedonia and Achaia,” which is probably a shorthand for all the churches in those regions (of these we know about Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth). These churches, Paul says, were “well-pleased” to give this contribution to “the poor saints” in Jerusalem. The word for “contribution” is the Greek word koinônia, more commonly translated “fellowship” or “partaking.” I think Paul’s word choice underscores the idea that this is not just throwing money at a bad situation. This gift is symbolic of the Gentile church’s solidarity with their Jewish brethren. They are partnering with their brethren in Christ to make sure they are taken care of, even though they are hundreds of miles away, and of a different culture. Note also that the gift is to “the poor of the saints,” not the poor in general. Paul well knew that the church must first look after her own before she can take care of the community. This reminds us that for the church to be salt and light to the world, the focus of our mercy ministry needs to be our own people primarily. Not only is a healthy, cared-for church better able to help those outside the church, but it symbolizes the love of God that is being offered.

In verse 27, Paul makes the point that the Gentiles have been recipients of the blessings of the gospel thanks to the Jews. He has already made this point in chapters 10 and 11. The Messiah and the gospel came to the Gentiles through Israel. The Gentiles are now co-inheritors with the Jews, grafted in to the same line as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Law and the Prophets came through the Jews, and the Gentiles are beneficiaries of theirs. In light of this, Paul argues, is it too much to ask that the Gentiles serve their Jewish brethren by helping them meet their material needs? The word he uses for “material” is the word sarkikos, “fleshly.” But he’s not saying that material needs are not “spiritual,” in some Gnostic sense (which we often see today, where people can get caught up in thinking that unless something is “spiritual” it’s ungodly). Rather, he’s contrasting the “spiritual” good of the gospel from the Jews with the “material” good of supporting the Jerusalem church in their time of need. Paul is, in fact, endorsing the benefits of money to purchase food, clothes, shelter–the things we need to live, and perhaps even be comfortable, in the world. He is not an ascetic, and this is a reminder that while we shouldn’t become attached to our material goods, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thankful for them, and seek to use them in a way that better enables us to serve God.

One of the lessons we took away from this week’s class is how different our plans often are to God’s. Comparing Paul’s ministry aspirations to what actually happened in Acts 20-28 shows that even he didn’t have any special insight into what God’s will was for him. Paul writes in Romans as if he expects to drop off the gift in Jerusalem, make his way to Rome, visit the church, and then on to Spain. And while he did, in fact, go to Jerusalem, he encountered a lot of trouble, ended up being placed under arrest for his own protection, and then carted off to Rome as a prisoner where, from what Luke tells us, he was granted an audience with the highest officials in the Empire, and never left. Yet Paul didn’t once complain. He accepted whatever God had for him, even if it wasn’t quite what Paul had in mind. May we have the same attitude when things don’t go the way we plan!

We’ll carry on with verse 28 next time.


Sunday School Notes: Romans 15:19b-23

19 … so that from Jerusalem and around as far as Illyricum I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ, 20 and in this way, aspiring to preach the gospel not where Christ has been named [already] so that I may not build upon another’s foundation, 21 but, just as it has been written: “To those it has not been proclaimed concerning him, they shall see, and those not hearing shall understand.” 22 Therefore I also have been hindered many times from coming to you, 23 but now, no longer having a place in these regions, and having a desire to come to you for many years…”

We’re cutting in on Paul mid-sentence and mid-thought, so to re-cap, Paul is reflecting on the ministry he has been doing, and planning ahead. By the power of God, through words and works, signs and wonders, he has brought the gospel to many people around the Mediterranean. The sense of his words are that he feels a season of ministry is coming to an end, and he’s looking to take a short break before embarking on what the Lord has planned for him next.

A couple of questions come out of Paul’s statement in 19b: Why does he suggest his gospel ministry started in Jerusalem when he was converted, and first proclaimed Christ, in Damascus, and his first missionary journey started in Antioch (see Acts 9 and 13)? Acts doesn’t record a visit of Paul’s to Illyricum, so is he referring to an otherwise unmentioned trip (which seems hard to fit into the itinerary given in Acts), and if not, is he mis-remembering, or is there some other way these words can be understood?

With regard to Jerusalem, I think Paul considers this the starting point of his ministry because it was in Jerusalem that Barnabas took him under his wing and introduced him to the Apostles. It was there his ministry was given “official” sanction (Acts 9:26-28). In other words, Paul does not consider himself a “Lone Ranger” Christian. He saw his ministry within the context of the church. For him, his labors for the gospel didn’t start until it was under the auspices and sanction of the church. Perhaps there is also a theological element to Paul’s statement: the gospel went to the Jews first (Jerusalem). He made an attempt to reach out to his Jewish brethren first, by visiting synagogues and preaching there (Acts 13:44-52). It was after being rejected by his own that he realized the true call the Lord placed on his life.

I think Acts 20:1-6 sheds some light on the Illyricum reference, especially since it is somewhere in the midst of this section of Acts that I believe Romans was composed. Paul left Ephesus in Asia to go to Macedonia. He then traveled “through those parts” to Greece. After three months, he returned. Luke’s account is a little vague as to exactly which “parts” of Macedonia Paul visited, but he probably went through Thessalonika and Berea, where he picked up Sopater, Aristarchus, and Secundus. I think it’s possible that going “through those parts” included a trip to the north of Macedonia, at least as far as (a legitimate translation of the Greek mechri which he uses in 19b) Illyricum–i.e., right up to the border. See the map below for visual help:

Note: Illyricum is north of Macedonia, to the west. [Source:]

In what sense does Paul mean that he has “fulfilled the gospel of Christ?” Probably that he believes he has fulfilled the mission he was given to plant churches in strategic areas of the Gentile world. This is not to say he has finished his work and he’s going to retire. On the contrary, he plans to make a pit-stop in Rome before embarking on what he believes is the next phase of his missionary endeavors: Spain. So the sense of his words are that he has fulfilled the gospel of Christ with regard to this current mission. Whether or not the Lord will bless his plans further west was unknown to him at that time. But he believed he had left the churches he planted in good hands and was ready to move on.

One reason Paul gives for his conviction that he has “fulfilled the gospel of Christ” is the fact that he doesn’t want to “build upon another’s foundation.” These churches he planted were pioneering works; the gospel had not been preached in these places prior to Paul’s arrival. He didn’t see himself as someone who would go in to an existing church situation and settle in as one of the elders for the rest of his life. His mission was to establish churches where churches didn’t exist, train up the leaders, and then move on. I think he was convinced he had done this in these churches around the Mediterranean.

But isn’t this very epistle an example of Paul “building upon another’s foundation”? I don’t think so because:

  • Paul is responding to a situation in the Roman church; he has not had on-going dealings with this church. It’s possible the Roman elders contacted Paul to get his advice, and perhaps lend Apostolic weight to their attempts at reconciliation.
  • Paul is not trying to pastor the church: he’s simply offering counsel to help resolve the situation.
  • When Paul visits Rome, he plans to rest, preach, and encourage the saints. He’s not looking for a Senior Pastor position.

As biblical support for his missionary approach, Paul quotes Isaiah 52:15b. The quotation is almost verbatim the LXX, which in turn is a faithful translation of the Hebrew we have. This passage in Isaiah is a Messianic “Servant of the Lord” passage. Indeed, it leads into the famous Isaiah 53 prophecy of Christ. The passage speaks of “kings” in the context of those who will see and understand, which Paul clearly associates with the Gentiles. There’s mention of “sprinkling” many nations in the first part of Isaiah 52:15, which Paul understands as spreading the gospel, bringing in the Gentiles who are, as a result, clean and acceptable to God. These “kings” come to the Servant of the Lord–to Christ. This is Paul’s mission: to take the gospel to “those who haven’t been told,” and “those who have not heard of it.” People who have no foundation upon which to build. Paul, by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit, wants to build that foundation; and he believes he has fulfilled that in the churches he has planted.

In verses 22-29, Paul discusses his travel plans. As we’ve already noted, he ultimately wants to go to Spain, but he must first make a stop in Jerusalem. He will then set off west, dropping in on the Roman church on route–presumably for the first time. He speaks in verse 22 of having been “hindered many times” from visiting the Romans. We shouldn’t see this as a negative “hindrance.” Indeed, his hindrance has been the vital ministry he has been involved with over the past three missionary journeys, planting churches, training leaders, encouraging the saints, battling heretics, and so forth. I’m sure Paul didn’t regret any one of these “hindrances,” but this explains why it has taken him so long to get around to visit the Roman church. Now, however, he no longer has a “place” in “these regions.” As we observed, he believes he has fulfilled the purpose for which Christ sent him to the Gentiles in this part of the world. He has done all he can for the gospel there–this is probably what he means by having no “place” for him. Those churches are being pastored by appointed elders. Paul has no day-to-day role in their lives. It’s now time for him to look to the future, and what the Lord has in store for him next.

That Paul would desire to visit the Roman church is understandable. Rome was the center of the Empire, the most important city; the church in Rome would, therefore, have some natural esteem attached to it. Also, it’s a church that neither Paul nor Peter planted (Peter’s ministry at this time was to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea). As the hub of the Empire, Rome would have had many people from all over the world visit: statesmen, merchants, slaves, and others. It’s not impossible that some of these had been Christians, and they had taken it upon themselves to establish a church. This church clearly flourished since even after the expulsion of the Jews under Claudius, there were enough Gentiles present to sustain it. The church was also known to Paul, and, as we shall see in Chapter 16, he knew a number of people at the church. So both to catch up with friends, and out of personal curiosity, I’ve no doubt Paul harbored a strong desire to visit.

What I think is particularly interesting in verse 23 is that Paul says he’s desired to visit “for many years” (the Greek is pollôn etôn). We can’t know for certain how long a period of time this is, but it must be more than, say, five years. Perhaps ten or more? If Romans was composed in the latter 50s A.D., this would mean the church in Rome was established sometime in the mid-40s A.D. at the latest. Within 10-15 years of the death and resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem, there was already a church as far west as Rome. Again, given trade and travel to and from Rome, this is not inconceivable. However, consider the contents of this letter. The issue under dispute is freedom in Christ. Paul seems at liberty to assume an acceptance of Christ’s deity, salvation through grace by faith, and many other basic gospel doctrines. Which means these were already established early on in the Roman church’s history. Many liberal theologians today like to assume that much of what we consider to be basic Christian doctrine (e.g., the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc.) developed slowly over many years. The first century church in Rome refutes that idea.

We’ll pick up with verse 24 next time.

Sunday School Notes: Romans 15:14-19a

14 I am persuaded, brethren, even I myself concerning you, that you yourselves are full of goodness, having been filled with all knowledge, able even to instruct one another. 15 But I have written to you, rather more boldly in parts, as one reminding you on account of the grace that was given to me by God 16 in order for me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, serving as a priest the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, having been sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 Therefore, I have [this] boasting in Christ Jesus [concerning] the things of God. 18 For I shall not dare to say anything of which Christ did not accomplish through me unto the obedience of the Gentiles, by word and by deed, 19 by [the] power of signs and wonders, by [the] power of the Spirit [of God]…

Paul has finished the main body of the letter where he presented the gospel in light of the situation in the Roman church, and has given practical admonitions based on that theological foundation. We are now to the final part of the letter, where Paul gives some words of encouragement, outlines his itinerary and plans for future ministry, and passes on some greetings.

The way Paul addresses the church in Rome here is a little different, I think, to how he addresses other churches in other letters. Paul does not have the same relationship with this church as he does the ones he planted. He has never visited this congregation, and outside of his reputation, they don’t really know him. As we shall see from the greetings, Paul does have acquaintance with some of the people there, but he is still effectively writing to people he doesn’t know. This, I think, gives a somewhat formal air to his words. In verse 14, he uses a lot of emphatic pronouns (“I myself… you yourself…”) as he commends his readers, perhaps trying to convey a sincerity they would only know from his words,  having never met him. Lest they think he’s treating them like children, upbraiding them for their behavior, Paul expresses his confidence that they only need this reminder. He assumes they are well-taught, and don’t need persuasion that the things he says are true. One might detect behind this a negative sub-text–“you should know better!”–but I doubt that’s at the forefront of Paul’s thinking. I believe he is sincere in his complements and confidence in his readers. Indeed, he notes that some of what he has said was rather bold–perhaps a little forceful for one who is not one of the elders of the church. Paul doesn’t apologize for this, but notes that his intention was simply to remind them, and to fulfill the ministry given to him by God.

The terms with which Paul describes his calling to the Gentiles are interesting. First, it is a “gift” or a “grace” (Greek: charis). Reading what Paul says elsewhere about his ministry, his conversion, and the way he sees himself, I get the strong impression that he feels unworthy of the commission he has been given. He was a persecutor of the church–not just in words, but actually supervising and sanctioning the murder of Christians. When he calls himself “least of the Apostles,” I think that comes from this deep sense of unworthiness. This is perhaps why Paul has such a deep appreciation of the grace of God, which comes through in this and other letters (see 1 Timothy 1:12-17, and Galatians 2:7-10). I think, also, that if Paul had been given the choice, he would have preferred a calling to his own people. Although he was a Roman citizen, and conversant with pagan culture, he was a Pharisee, trained in the Law and committed to Judaism. After his conversion, Paul went to the synagogues–that was his “comfort zone.” However, the Lord knew better what ministry suited Paul, so He gave him, as a gift, the mission to the Gentiles. And it turned out that Paul was precisely the right man for the job.

This is something we should bear in mind when we’re not sure why the Lord has put us in the positions we are in, doing the things we’re doing. We need to remember that our Sovereign Lord has been molding us all our lives for the work He has prepared for us. Every class we took in school, every good and bad experience we had, every book we’ve read, friend we’ve had–all the things that shape our character and form our thinking have been foreordained by God for the purpose of preparing us for the ministry He has in store for each of us. We all have unique experiences, and that’s as God intended.

Paul also uses sacramental language with regard to his calling: he is a servant (Greek: leitourgos, from the same root as our word “liturgy”) of Christ to the Gentiles, serving as a priest of the gospel, so that the Spirit-sanctified offering of the Gentiles might be pleasing to God. Obviously, Paul doesn’t intend these words literally. But this helps us get a sense of how he sees his ministry among the Gentiles. First, this ministry is a gift to him, not something he sought out. He didn’t apply to the Twelve for a ministerial position; it was given to him by God, and confirmed by the Twelve. Also, he sees it as an act of service, like the priest in the Temple serving the Lord. It’s not something he does for his pleasure or convenience, but as working for the Lord. Finally, those to whom he is called, the Gentiles, are his offering to the Lord. Paul doesn’t look upon these people and pat himself on the back for the great job he’s done. He doesn’t consider them his own (though he does express affection for those churches he founded). They are the fruit of his labor which he then offers to the Lord–Paul worked among them for the glory of God, and he recognizes that they are His. In this, I hope we see that for Paul, pleasing God was all that mattered. He ministered for the Lord, in order to glorify the Lord, that his work might be acceptable to the Lord. It’s not about Paul being happy or comfortable, it’s not about the Gentiles being happy or comfortable. It’s all about the glory of God and His pleasure.

Verse 17 seems to go against what he’s just been saying: if Paul has “a boasting in Christ Jesus,” then isn’t he making his ministry about himself? On the contrary, I think Paul’s boasting, or his pride, is in the fact that God chose to use him in this capacity despite who he was, not because of who he was. Paul’s boast is in the grace of God operating so powerfully in his life. Indeed, I think this becomes clear as we read on in verse 18. My translation of verse 18 (above) is rather literal. All those negatives may be confusing, so perhaps it helps to rephrase it in a positive statement: Paul will only dare to speak of the words, deeds, etc. that Christ did through him which resulted in the obedience of the Gentiles. Again, Paul knows that he is merely a vessel in the Lord’s hands; he is the clay, the Lord is the Potter. To boast in anything that was by Paul, for Paul, and done in the power of Paul, would be a waste of time. He sees himself as irrelevant. Only what Christ does really matters, and that’s all Paul wants to talk about.

At the end of verse 18, and into verse 19, Paul makes a short list of the ways he (by the grace of God) has ministered to the Gentiles. First, by word, which is perhaps his most obvious ministry (preaching and writing letters, for example). The next, “by work,” is somewhat vague since we don’t really read much of Paul doing things outside of preaching and teaching. However, I think we can include his missionary journeys, during which he endured beatings, shipwreck, and other kinds of perils and hardships to minister to various congregations. Also, Paul was prepared to support himself through tent-making, so he would not be a burden to the churches. He also took up collections for churches during his missionary trips to help support believers in need. It’s very possible there are other “works” Paul did not mentioned in Acts, so we shouldn’t take this list to be exhaustive.

Finally, the first part of verse 19 mentions “signs and wonders by [the] power of the Spirit [of God].” While “signs and wonders” are, technically, “works,” they are of a special type. First, we should note that Paul calls them “signs,” not “miracles.” John uses the same terminology in his Gospel, speaking of Jesus’ miracles. The significance of the term “sign” is in the fact that a sign points away from itself to something else. If you’re traveling to a city, you look for a sign telling you where the city is. You don’t get out at the sign thinking you’ve arrived, but you follow the sign until you reach your destination. Likewise, the point of the “miracle”-sign is to point to Christ. It isn’t the answer, but it point away from itself to the one who is the answer.

I see these “signs and wonders” as marks of Paul’s Apostolic ministry. In Acts, such gifts were used to authenticate the gospel message. We see “signs and wonders” in Jerusalem, Samaria, and then among the Gentiles. For Paul, the testimony of God’s approval these signs gave was important to convince people that the mission to the Gentiles was indeed valid, and of God. But Paul’s main point here is that all these aspects of his ministry–words, works, signs, and wonders–were all by the power of the Spirit, and were not done in his own strength.

We’ll finish the rest of the verse and continue on from there next time.