Summary: Obedience in Christ
Romans 5.13 brings to an end the main section of Paul’s doctrinal teaching. The remainder of chapter 15 is primarily a personal afterword and chapter 16 is comprised of a lengthy personal greeting and a few “afterthoughts” that wrap up the letter. Though greeting 26 people by name is unusual, given the circumstances of this particular letter it is not surprising. It is clear from the corpus of Paul’s letters that he was acquainted with a great many people from a very large cross-section of Roman society. That many of these people should be in Rome is not at all strange; there is, after all, something to be said for the adage that all roads lead to Rome. Unlike Paul’s other letters where he essentially knew everyone in the church, the Roman church was comprised mostly of people he did not know. Consequently, his personal greetings was all the more to be expected. Through them he would be able to greet the larger church in Rome and prepare the way for his visit on his way to Spain. Though the greetings begin with the introduction of Phoebe, there is much more to this postscript than that. Indeed, for those interested the socioeconomic makeup of the early church, this is a valuable section of Scripture. “There was a tendency in the ancient world to give certain names to certain kinds of people; for example, wealthy people high on the social ladder would give their children certain names; slaves or former slaves would use (or be made to use) others” (Douglas Moo, Romans, p. 918). The majority of the names in Paul’s list indicate a Gentile origin and many names suggest the bearer was a slave or “freedman” (a slave who had been given his freedom or was a descendant of a freedman). In addition to the individuals mentioned, Paul greets at least three house churches (16.5, 14, 15).
The introduction to the closing section of the letter is occasioned by Phoebe’s trip to Rome. There are several notable points suggested by this almost passing comment about this dear sister in the Lord. It is obvious that she is a fellow believer and most likely a Gentile. She resides in Cenchreae (about 8 miles from Corinth where Paul wrote this letter). Paul described her as a servant (diakonos) of the church. All Christians may be considered servants, but there is also an office of deacon. So the question is: what does Paul mean when he introduces her as a servant of the church? Bear in mind that at the time of Paul’s writing the offices of the church were still in their formational stages. “Moreover, the New Testament furnishes little basis on which to pinpoint the ministries carried out by deacons” (Moo, p. 914). Minimally, deacons were charged with visitation of the sick and relief for the poor. Paul simply notes that her munificence toward the saints is worthy of their welcoming her with open arms. He does not identify anything beyond that. Just as she has been the benefactor to many, so too the Roman church ought to aid her in her need, whatever that might be. Whether Phoebe holds an official or unofficial office within the church is not Paul’s point. He merely emphasizes that she is a woman of exceptional character and has proven herself to be an asset to the body of Christ, himself included.
She is to be received “in the Lord,” as the Lord unites one Christian with another, and so that the Roman Christians demonstrate that they are saints by esteeming Phoebe as a saint in her association with them. Those who are Christ’s respect the work of Christ in the one who, like them, has become his possession. She is to receive help because she has helped many, and Paul, too, was among those whom she attended. She presumably cared for him while he was in Cenchreae. The unity that causes the communities to be the body becomes evident. Phoebe has a claim on the gratitude of the Romans because she served those in Cenchreae. What is done on behalf of one community is also to elicit gratitude in the other, for the church is one (Adolph Schlatter, Romans: The Righteousness of God, p. 272).
GENERAL GREETINGS (16.3-16)
It was common for Paul to send a general greeting to his readers, often requesting that they in turn greet one another: Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household (Philippians 4.21-22; cp. Titus 3.15b). He does something similar in Romans 16.16 where he suggests that the believers greet one another with a holy kiss (a common form of greeting, especially in Judaism). What is unusual is the number of people mentioned by name but, as has been noted, it was entirely warranted. Moreover it gives the modern reader insight into the social underpinnings of the New Testament church. While Paul strengthens his bond with the Roman church he is careful not to usurp the authority of the local church’s leadership by imposing any improper constraints upon the church. (Whether the apostle Peter was currently living in Rome at the time is unclear.)