Names (Romans 16.1-15)

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The final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans seems anticlimactic. Chapters 1-11 teach Christian theology. Chapters 12-15 teach Christian ethics. But chapter 16 merely sends Christian greetings to 26 individuals, 24 of whom Paul names. Those greetings may seem anticlimactic, but in reality, they are the point of the entire letter. 

Think of the issue this way. The theology of Romans tells us that God saves sinners by grace through faith. The ethics of Romans tells us that God empowers those whom he has saved to perform good works. But sinners and saved are not abstractions. They are flesh-and-blood people. They have names. By concluding Romans with a long list of names, Paul reminds us that Christ entered the world not to rescue humanity in general but human beings in particular—people with names like Phoebe and Priscilla and Aquilla and Epenetus and George—and, of course, you! 

By listing individual’s names, Paul also reminds us that Christianity is an inherently social religion. Christ did not merely die and rise again to save your individual soul and to reform your individual life, although he certainly did that. Rather, Christ died and rose again to form a new community, in which people of faith form strong social bonds with one another in Christ. Notice the way he describes people: “our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church”; “Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers”; “my dear friend Epenetus”; “Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me”; “Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord”: “Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ”; “my dear friend Stachys”; “Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord”; “Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.” For Paul, anyone who is “in Christ” is a family member or coworker or best friend to everyone else who is in Christ. The church is a social network of love: loved by God and by one another. 

Third, by listing individuals’ names, Paul reminds us that everyone in the church has a job to do. Many of the people he names were evidently leaders in Roman house churches. After mentioning Priscilla and Aquila, for example, Paul writes: “Greet also the church that meets at their house.” For another example, “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them.” But not everyone was a house church leader. In verse 22, we read, “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Evidently, Tertius was the secretary to whom Paul dictated Romans. Notice also the prominent women who exercised ministry roles in the Roman church: Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Junias, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia, Nereus’ sister. In the church, everyone has a place of service, no matter what it is and no matter who they are. 

Finally, notice that Paul considers all these people “saints” (verse 15). A saint is not “a dead Christian, revised and edited,” as Ambrose Bierce once defined the word. Rather, a saint is any Christian whatsoever, saved by grace through faith for good works. 

So, when you come to Romans 16 and its long list of names, don’t turn the page. Read the names! Look closely enough, and you’ll find your name there too.

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