Well, we’ve worked our way right through Paul’s letter to the Romans now. I checked, and we began this epic journey on 22 April 2007. Whether you were here then or not, we all need this extraordinary letter to the Romans in our blood and in our bones. Then our minds will be reshaped around the good news of God’s life-giving gospel. And when our minds are reshaped, our lives get reshaped too.
My title is ‘From Sinners to Saints’ and we come over these next two weeks to the final chapter – that’s chapter 16. You’ll find it on p1142 in the Bibles. Please have it open in front of you. Faced with this particular chapter, you might think that there was a note of desperation in the prayer of that hymn just now:
Help us, O Lord, to learn
The truths your word imparts…
And maybe you also think I owe our intrepid Bible reader an apology for making her wade through all those names. Perhaps your first reaction is to think as you listen to them all that there’s more than a hint of the telephone directory about Romans 16, and what can we learn from that? Are you one of many who, when faced with one of the chapters in the Bible that’s full of lists of names, accelerates through them at high speed, or even (dare I suggest it) skips past them on to something more interesting? If you do, that’s a mistake. The theologian Emil Brunner went so far as to describe Romans 16 as…
… one of the most instructive chapters of the New Testament.
He may be overstating his case just a touch. But it is a wonderful, wonderful chapter if you can just get under its skin.
What we have here is two things, really. For one thing, it’s like a great picture window on to the life of some of the earliest believers. And for another thing, Paul doesn’t leave behind all the things he’s been talking about in the first fifteen chapters. I’d go so far as to say that these verses encapsulate many of the main themes that Paul’s been hammering away at. Why do I say that? I’ll try to explain.
I want to draw your attention to four aspects of discipleship – four elements of the experience of those who live as followers of Christ. They can all be seen in these verses. We can learn from each of them. They will make up my four headings. What are they? First, the blessings of interpersonal partnership in the gospel. Secondly, the virtues of faithful ministers of the gospel. , the dangers from opponents of the gospel. And fourthly, the power of the proclaimed gospel. You can see that they’re all centred on the gospel – and that’s the nature of Romans. Let’s take a look at each in turn. To start with then:
Firstly, THE BLESSINGS OF INTERPERSONAL PARTNERSHIP IN THE GOSPEL
Right at the heart of living for Christ and working for Christ are our relationships with one another. People matter to God. Every individual – each with his or her name – matters to God. So there is a real Christlikeness in the way that Paul so carefully greets the believers he knows in Rome by name. And the way he does it, with a comment here and a comment there, lifts the lid on what it was about these people that turned the world upside down.
Caring friendship is evident here. Let me give you some examples. Verse 5:
Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.
Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord.
And again in verse 9:
Greet… my dear friend Stachys.
And then there’s that touching reference in verse 13:
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Must have cooked him his favourite meal, I reckon.
It’s typical of Paul that these references are full of warm personal affection. He was a rigorous intellectual. But he was also passionate and emotional. He needed people. He valued his friends. He loved them. And what is more, he tells them so. He’s not shy about it. I’m British. I am. But if we need to know that our friends care about us, which we do, then our friends need to know that we care about them, which we’re not always good at telling them. And please note, Paul was a man’s man. Men, let’s find ways of letting it be known to our friends that they’re dear to us.
But there’s more than one on one caring friendship here. There’s community too. The church is much more than a bunch of individuals and what they call in international diplomacy ‘bilateral’ relationships. The church is the multilateral family of God. It is the Body of Christ. So, for instance, look at the first couple of verses here:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you…
He expects and urges that the church will behave collectively as befits the way that Jesus the Lord of the church laid down his life for them. If a sister from another land comes among them, she should be given whatever help she needs. That’s the kind of church we need to be. If ever a believer comes among us from anywhere in the world, we need to treat them in such a way that they know we care for them, and will take care of them.
You can see that kind of practical outworking of caring community in verse 23 as well:
Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings.
More food, no doubt. As well as lots of setting up for meetings, teas and coffees, and clearing up of mess afterwards. And Paul wants all this practical service to be infused with personal warmth. So verse 16:
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
And the very best context for developing caring friendship and community is also evident here. That’s co-operative labour. In other words working together - but working together doesn’t begin with a ‘c’ like caring friendship and community labour. So Paul calls Priscilla and Aquila in verse 3 his ‘fellow-workers’. Likewise in verse 21 he mentions ‘Timothy, my fellow-worker’. These are his team-mates. Football teams only win matches when everyone works together towards the same goal. And sport is trivial. When you stop and think about it, it is pretty bizarre how excited vast swathes of the globe get about kicking around a piece of inflated plastic. But even footballers know that team-work matters. Paul’s team was immensely important to him as they worked together towards their eternal goal. There’s nothing better than co-operative labour in the cause of Christ.
No doubt we need more of these things. But it’s also important that we give thanks to God that we do experience caring friendship, community and co-operative labour. These are immense blessings – among the greatest blessings of life. We must be sure to acknowledge them when we see them, appreciate them, and give thanks for them. They make up what I’m calling the blessings of interpersonal partnership in the gospel. And that’s the first aspect of discipleship evident in Romans 16. Then we can see:
Secondly, THE VIRTUES OF FAITHFUL MINISTERS OF THE GOSPEL.
The virtues that Paul honours are hard work, perseverance, sacrifice, and helpfulness.
Hard work is obviously something that Paul prized very highly in his fellow-workers. Verse 6:
Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.
Greet Tryphena and Trephosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.
Paul knows that no great enterprise gets accomplished without a great deal of hard work from a lot of people.
And this isn’t hard work for a short time followed by a long time with your feet up. This is hard work plus perseverance. That, I think, is what lies behind Paul’s comment about Apelles. You can see it there in verse 10:
Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ.
He’s found it hard, but he hasn’t given up. He’s come through the test.
But sometimes even perseverance isn’t a strong enough word for what’s needed. Because gospel ministers are called to sacrifice. We have to be ready to lay our lives on the line. We’ve already noted how Gaius opened his home so that the church could trample through it and treat it like their own week after week. That’s in verse 23. And that kind of thing is a real sacrifice. Hospitable people with hospitable homes are a great gift to the church and should be honoured for the sacrifice they make.
But sometimes the sacrifice called for is considerably more extreme. So it was with Priscilla and Aquila. Just hop back to verse 3 once more:
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked they lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
Whatever it was that happened (and we don’t know), it was obviously sufficiently dramatic and important that it had become widely known. Priscilla and Aquila survived it – but the essence of what they did is clear. They acted on Paul’s behalf in such a way that they could have died as a result. And they did that knowingly, with their eyes wide open. They were ready to die for Paul. No wonder this was a growing church. No wonder that it was a church marked by warmth and love.
And that spirit of self-sacrificial ministry seems to have shown itself in more mundane and less dramatic ways that we can describe as helpfulness. So Phoebe (verse 2)…
… has been a great help to many people, including me.
What Paul remarks on is what he values in his brothers and sisters in Christ. And by doing so he paints a picture of faithful ministry: hard work; perseverance; sacrifice; helpfulness. There’s a pattern to emulate. Let’s honour these things when we see them among us. And with the help of God’s Spirit, let’s display these virtues in our own lives.
That’s the blessings of interpersonal partnership in the gospel, and the virtues of faithful ministers of the gospel.
Thirdly, THE DANGERS FROM OPPONENTS OF THE GOSPEL
The blessing of church life fuelled by the love of Christ should be appreciated and enjoyed. But it should never be taken for granted. It will always be under threat. And after his long list of warm greetings in verses 1 to 16 it’s almost as if Paul bring us up short deliberately, lest we get lulled into a false sense of security. The destructive forces arrayed against healthy church life and growth are a real and present danger. So with a bit of jolt, Paul issues this stern warning in verses 17 to 19:
17I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people. 19Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
In a culture of caring friendship, community and co-operative labour, what makes these opponents of the gospel so very dangerous is that to start with they’re not all that easy to spot unless you’re on full alert. That’s because they are deceivers. They’re not up front about their real agenda.
That’s so clear, for instance, about the revisionist liberals within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion worldwide. Very often in the early days they will speak with such vagueness and pseudo intellectual waffle that it’s difficult to pin down what they really believe. Mind you, that in itself is a tell-tale warning. A teacher of the gospel should be clear. The gospel is not complicated.
And after a while their true colours show. They are smooth talkers and deceivers. But it’s hard to hide who you are for ever. By then, however, they may have won their way into the confidence of those who aren’t clear about their own faith. And severe damage may already be done to the cause of Christ. Then that brings about division and slows down the work of spreading the faithful Biblical gospel.
What’s the answer? Don’t be naïve, says Paul. Be innocent, but don’t be naïve. Be wise. So we need to be aware of these ever present dangers. These opponents of the gospel are very active in the church in this nation today. We should be under no illusion about that. They don’t accept the gospel that Paul has been at pains to expound throughout this great letter. They deny the faith. Given the chance, they will destroy living faith in others. We need to be alert to them, and we need to avoid them. Watch out – and keep away. That’s Paul’s command to us if we want to preserve a healthy and growing Christ-centred and God-honouring church.
Not that any enemy of the gospel can do more then hinder its progress temporarily. And that’s the fourth theme I want us to see here. It is the single most dominant theme of the whole letter, and it is fittingly the note on which Paul ends. So:
Fourthly, THE POWER OF THE PROCLAIMED GOSPEL
We’ll be looking at the second half of the chapter more closely next week. But for now, take a look at those final verses, 25-27, which are so much more than Paul simply signing off. Paul is pulling together all the threads and summing up his message with one last, long sentence. Here it is:
25Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him – 27to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ! Amen.
Do you see how Paul describes the gospel as ‘my gospel’. That’s a breathtakingly confident thing to say. What does he mean by it? He’s not saying he’s the source of the gospel. This is, as he puts it in the very first verse of the letter, ‘the gospel of God’. Nor is he saying that somehow he owns the gospel. No, rather the Lord of the gospel owns him. As he puts it in that opening verse of the letter, he is …
… a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.
He’s emphasising that the key role he has as a communicator of the gospel to the world is one given him directly by God himself. And he’s saying that his message – the gospel that has transformed the lives of all these people – is the Truth with a capital T.
There’s only one key that will unlock the door to the saving knowledge of Christ. There’s only one key that opens the way to the experience of forgiveness, transforming grace, and eternal life. And that key has been given to Paul. If we reject what he teaches, we’ll never find that key anywhere else. God’s powerful gospel is in Paul’s hands, and in this letter he’s offering it to anyone who’ll listen and take it from him. If we do that, then our name too is added to the list.
So what does this powerful gospel do? It reveals Christ. It builds up believers. It converts the nations. And above all it glorifies God. Paul ends:
to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Romans, you might say, is a game of two halves. The first half answers the question: ‘What is the gospel?’. It runs to the end of chapter 11. The second half begins with chapter 12, and it answers the question: ‘In what ways does the gospel transform our lives?’ But underlying all of it is the purpose of the gospel. And that purpose is glory. The glory of Christ. God’s glory. That is Paul’s supreme concern. He gladly lays down his life for the glory of the God of grace who in Jesus laid down his life for each one of us.
This powerful gospel reveals Christ, builds the church, converts the nations and glorifies God.
This telephone directory of a chapter, then, is surprisingly rich. It’s full of the gospel. It reminds us of the blessings of partnership in the gospel for us to appreciate. It holds up to us the virtues of faithful gospel ministry for us to emulate. It warns us again of the dangers from opponents of the gospel. If we’re not alert, we’ll let the ball slip through our fingers. And Romans 16 sums up Paul’s great theme of the power of the proclaimed gospel.
So let our minds be renewed, and renewed again, by this wonderful gospel! Let our lives be transformed by it. Let our hearts be full of praise and thanksgiving for it!