Paul is nearly finished with his letter to the Romans. Before he signs off for good, he sends some greetings and a final exhortation.
1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.
3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
Paul’s list of greetings begins with a commendation of Phoebe, the one bringing this letter to the Roman Church. As the messenger between these two parties, she’s serves a very important role. This is all the more amazing because of the social status of women during this time. Paul obviously has great trust in her. Christianity does not knock women down, it lifts them up. Just as there is unity between Jews and Gentiles, so also the genders find common ground beneath the cross of Christ.
In fact, Paul includes several women in his list, all of them helpful to him in ministry. Phoebe is a deacon and Paul’s benefactor (v.1). Prisca is a co-worker who risked her neck for the sake of Paul (v. 3). Mary works hard on the behalf of others (v. 6). Junia is a fellow Jew and prisoner (v. 7). Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis are women who work hard in the Lord. Finally, the mother of Rufus cares for others with motherly affection (v. 13). All of these women were not to be looked down upon but to be elevated for their service and sacrifice to Paul and the rest of the church. The bottom line: women have a tremendous role to play in the life of the church!
Aside from this observation, it’s hard to know what to do with a catalog of people in the Bible. We don’t know most of them beyond this record, and even if we do, we know very little. But a list like this does show us two things. First, there is great diversity in the Kingdom of God. Second, there is great affection among the great diversity in the kingdom of God.
First, there is great diversity in the Kingdom of God: slaves, women, Gentiles, Jews, people of prominence, and those of low status. Paul refers to as many as five different house churches, all composed of various types of people. The gospel is not for one segment but for all. God intends to save people of all walks of life, all races, all ethnicities, all social statuses.
Second, there is great affection among the great diversity in the Kingdom of God. Paul urges them to greet one another with a holy kiss. Paul is urging them to welcome one another intimately. They are not to act cold toward one another. We don’t kiss often in church today, but the point is to greet one another warmly.
As we saw throughout Romans 12-15, Paul shows how gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. How we interact with one another shows what we believe about how God acts toward us. Francis Schaeffer said,
Now, if we are called upon to love our neighbor as ourselves when he is not a Christian, how much more should there be beauty in the relationships between true Bible-believing Christians, something so beautiful that the world would be brought up short! We must hold our distinctives. Some of us are Baptists; some of us hold to infant baptism; some of us are Lutheran, and so on. But to true Bible-believing Christians across all the lines, in all the camps, I emphasize: if we do not show beauty in the way we treat each other, then in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of our own children, we are destroying the truth we proclaim.... My favorite church in Acts and, I guess, in all of history is the church at Antioch.... It was a place where something new happened: the great, proud Jews who despised the Gentiles ... came to a break-through. They could not be silent. They told their Gentile neighbors about the gospel, and suddenly, on the basis of the blood of Christ and the truth of the Word of God, the racial thing was solved. There were Jewish Christians and there were Gentile Christians, and they were one! ... The church at Antioch on the basis of the blood of Christ encompassed the whole. There was a beauty that the Greek and the Roman world did not know—and the world looked.
The diverse church shows the world what only God can do—that the gospel has the power to break down walls and reconcile the unreconcilable. Like a master weaver, God applies the good news to our hearts individually and entwine it with a community of believers to create the most beautiful fabric.
That beautiful fabric praises God with one voice and brings heaven down to earth so that even outsiders can see it and feel it. When a church so diverse praises God so mightily no brother or sister in Christ is an outsider. Everyone belongs and everyone sees the glory of God. Malcolm Muggeridge talks about this kind of experience in Russia.
In Kiev, where I found myself on a Sunday morning, on an impulse I turned into a church where a service was in progress. It was packed tight, but I managed to squeeze myself against a pillar whence I could survey the congregation and look up at the altar. Young and old, peasants and townsmen, parents and children, even a few in uniform—it was a variegated assembly. The bearded priests, swinging their incense, intoning their prayers, seemed very remote and far away. Never before or since have I participated in such worship; the sense conveyed of turning to God in great affliction was overpowering. Though I could not, of course, follow the service, I knew little bits of it; for instance, where the congregation say there is no help for them save from God. What intense feeling they put into these words! In their minds, I knew, as in mine, was a picture of those desolate abandoned villages, of the hunger and the hopelessness, of the cattle trucks being loaded with humans in the dawn light. Where were they to turn for help? Not to the Kremlin, and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, certainly; nor to the forces of progress and democracy and enlightenment in the West.... Every possible human agency found wanting. So, only God remained, and to God they turned with a passion, a dedication, a humility, impossible to convey. They took me with them. I felt closer to God then than I ever had before, or am likely to again.
17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. 21 Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen. 22 I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. 23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.
Paul wants to end his letter now, but one more topic rises to his mind. He wants to warn them of wolves who come in among the sheep and scatter. Those who cause divisions and create obstacles are to be avoided. They serve themselves, not the Lord. The problem is they seem holy. They look like they want what the Lord wants. They use religious language and do religious things. But their heart is far from God because they seek to scatter what he has gathered.
It’s not easy to spot this. But Paul exhorts the Romans to be on guard. As long as we live in this world, we will encounter those who come into the church to destroy the church. He is not calling for a witch hunt. He’s calling for wisdom and gospel-centeredness. Most people don’t need to be thrown out for bad doctrine. They just need to be taught. But there are some who are unteachable and instead seek to teach others another message altogether. Colin Smith gives a simple checklist to recognize counterfeit Christianity:
- Different Source—Where does the message come from?
- Different Message—What is the substance of the message?
- Different Position—In what position will the message leave you?
- Different Character—What kind of people does the message produce?
- Different Appeal—Why should you listen to the message?
- Different Fruit—What result does the message have in people's lives?
- Different End—Where does the message ultimately lead you?
All it takes is one person to ruin the entire church. What might this look like? Ray Ortlund helps us see in an article he entitled “How to Wreck Your Church in Three Weeks.”
Week One: Walk into church today and think about how long you’ve been a member, how much you’ve sacrificed, how under-appreciated you are. Take note of every way you’re dissatisfied with your church now. Take note of every person who displeases you. Meet for coffee this week with another member and “share your heart.” Discuss how your church is changing, how you are being left out. Ask your friend who else in the church has “concerns.” Agree together that you must “pray about it.”
Week Two: Send an email to a few other “concerned” members. Inform them that a groundswell of grievance is surfacing in your church. Problems have gone unaddressed for too long. Ask them to keep the matter to themselves “for the sake of the body.” As complaints come in, form them into a petition to demand an accounting from the leaders of the church. Circulate the petition quietly. Gathering support will be easy. Even happy members can be used if you appeal to their sense of fairness – that your side deserves a hearing. Be sure to proceed in a way that conforms to your church constitution, so that your petition is procedurally correct.
Week Three: When the growing moral fervor, ill-defined but powerful, reaches critical mass, confront the elders with your demands. Inform them of all the woundedness in the church, which leaves you with no choice but to put your petition forward. Inform them that, for the sake of reconciliation, the concerns of the body must be satisfied.
Whatever happens from this point on, you have won. You have changed the subject in your church from gospel advance to your own grievances. To some degree, you will get your way. Your church will need three or four years for recovery. But at any future time, you can do it all again. It only takes three weeks.
Wolves don’t always come in with the heretic badge hanging out of their front pocket. Often, they appear normal, they know their Bible and seem religious, but what they say and do is not gospel-soaked or forgiveness-driven. They aren’t Jesus-exalting. They’re self-promoting. In Acts 20:29-31, Paul calls the Ephesian elders to alertness, saying, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.”
25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.
Paul finally comes to the end of his letter, and what an end it is! He ends in prayer for God’s strength. That strength is the gospel. After all, the gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. The gospel is the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We are not longer waiting on our Messiah. He has arrived and accomplished the work of salvation. Now we await the final resurrection. We wouldn’t have thought of this. Only God could. He alone is wise. To him be the glory forever.
As Isaac Watts wrote:
To God the only wise,
Our Saviour and our King,
Let all the saints below the skies
Their humble praises bring.
’Tis His almighty love,
His counsel, and His care,
Preserves us safe from sin and death,
And every hurtful snare.
He will present our souls
Unblemished and complete
Before the glory of His face,
With joys divinely great.
Then all His faithful sons
Shall meet around the throne,
Shall bless the conduct of His grace,
And make His wonders known.
To our Redeemer, God
Wisdom and power belongs,
Immortal crowns of majesty,
And everlasting songs.