by Gordon Franz
Romans 16 is a chapter that we usually skip in our Bible studies or devotional reading because it appears to be a “grocery list” of names that we think are unimportant. Several years ago, I was attending a Bible study that was going verse-by-verse, in detail, through the book of Romans. When we came to chapter 16, we spent one night on this chapter looking at a couple of names, and then the teacher said we were finished with the book! But in actuality, we were not finished because this chapter is packed with valuable insights. The chapter shows us the heart and focus of Paul’s missionary strategy as well as the practical outworking of the theological truths Paul had set forth in his earliest epistle, Galatians 3:26-28. In these verses, Paul states that the work of the Lord transcends all ethnic, social and gender barriers.
Bible students should take time to study the people mentioned by the apostle Paul in this chapter. It is a fascinating study of Paul’s missionary strategy as well as his heart for people and a unified church in Rome. Paul knows the words of the Lord Jesus from His “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their words; that they may all be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in you; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (17:20, 21). This is what Francis Schaffer in his book The Mark of a Christian called the “final apologetics”, the world will believe if they see believers unified.
The church in Rome was divided along ethnic, religious and social lines. They were marginalizing Jewish believers as well as women and slaves in the church. Paul’s desire in his final greetings was to bring these people together so they would become one in Christ.
Apparently, a few believers in the church were bringing pork roasts that had been sacrificed in a pagan temple to the Agape meal (love feast) in the local assemblies. They were arrogantly flaunting that, and causing offense and division at the Lord’s Supper (16:17). This action marginalized one segment of the church.
The Apostle James, the son of Zebedee, already addressed this issue in the second chapter of his epistle. He called it “showing partiality.” The example he used was partiality based on one economic status, whether rich or poor. Some in the church, meeting in the synagogue, were showing favoritism to a rich person over a poor person, but the lesson also applies to ethnicity, gender and social status.
The book of Romans was written in the city of Corinth during the Apostle Paul’s visit at the time of his third missionary journey in AD 57-58. In the epistle, he expresses his desire to visit the believers in Rome on his way to Spain (1: 7, 11-13; 15: 20-24). His “grocery list” of names in Romans 16 includes both Jewish believers as well as Gentile believers in the Lord Jesus, male and female, slaves and freedmen.
A brief overview of the beginning of Emperor Nero’s reign should be recounted in order to put the Book of Romans in its historical context. At the tender age of 15, Nero married his step sister, Claudia Octavia in AD 53. A year later, as a lad of 16, Nero had come to the throne when his uncle (and some say, father), the Emperor Claudius, died from being poisoned with mushrooms by Nero’s mother, Arippina the Younger. In February of AD 55, when Nero was 18 years old, he or his mother, poisoned his step brother Britannicus. Soon after, Nero expelled his mother from Rome. Now the throne was secure and Nero was the sole ruler. At the beginning of his reign, Nero had two good advisors in his court: Seneca, his tutor, and Burrus, the praetorian prefect, whose guidance led to a peaceful and productive government (Vagi 1999: I: 165, 166). During the first five years on his reign, called the “golden age” by some Roman writers (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 4; LCL 443-447), the epistle to the Roman church arrived (AD 57-58).
The Apostle Paul Commends Sister Phoebe to the Saints in the Church in Rome. 16:1, 2
Paul begins this chapter by commending Phoebe, one of the sisters from the church in Cenchrea, to the love and care of the believers gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus in Rome (16:1).
Cenchrea was one of two harbors for the ancient city of Corinth and was located on the Soronic Gulf, east of Corinth. If Paul had taken a ship from Athens to Corinth during his second missionary journey, the ship would have docked in the harbor at Cenchrea. The walk from the harbor to the city of Corinth was about 7 or 8 miles. Paul, Silas and Timothy ministered in Corinth for 18 months (Acts 18:11) during this missionary journey (Acts 18:1-18). More than likely, Paul became acquainted with Phoebe during this stay in Corinth. When Paul departs for Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla, they left from this harbor (18:18).
Several years later, during Paul’s second visit to Corinth, Phoebe was journeying to Rome, possibly on business or to visit family and friends. Paul took advantage of this opportunity to send a letter to the saints who were in Rome expressing his desire to visit them on his way to Spain (Rom. 1:7; 15:23, 24).
Phoebe had in her possession an epistle in which Paul had laid out many important, foundational, doctrinal truths, making it one of the most important epistles he would ever write. These doctrinal truths should change the way the believers in Rome behaved toward each other. A brief outline of the book might be: Romans 1-3, he addresses the sinfulness of all humanity before a holy God. Paul states that “all (Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freedmen) have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). In Romans 4 and 5, he sets forth the doctrinal truth of justification by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ alone. Again he writes, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we (Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freedmen) have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). In Romans 6-8, he presents the sanctification, or setting apart, of the believer to a holy life of service for the Lord. Notice the pronouns that Paul uses, “we” and “us”. He concludes this section by asking the question, “Who can separate us from the love of God?” (8:35). The logical question that readers should ask at this point is: “What about ethnic Israel?” In Romans 9-11, Paul addresses the issue when he presents the past, present and future of ethnic Israel. In Romans 12-15, Paul elaborates on the practical outworking of the Christian life. He begins this section by beseeching the brethren, in light of the mercies of God, to present their bodies to the Lord as living sacrifices (12:1, 2). He concludes in Romans 16 with an admonition to the believers to greet one another on his behalf and the believers in Corinth.
The opening lines of Chapter 16 are Phoebe’s “letter of commendation” to the church in Rome. While a few in the church knew Phoebe personally, most did not. Paul states that she is a sister (believer) and requests that the saints in Rome help her out with whatever business she has in that city because she is a worthy person.
A pattern surfaces in the New Testament that is followed when a believer goes from their home assembly to an assembly in another city. Believers took a letter of introduction as they went on their journey. In Acts 18:27, Apollos left Ephesus with a letter from the brethren in that city exhorting the disciples in Achaia, and Corinth in particular, to receive him. Paul exhorts the believers in Philippi to receive Epaphroditus (the letter carrier) “in the Lord with all gladness” (Phil. 2:29). Paul did not need a letter of commendation when he returned to Corinth because the believers there were his letter (II Cor. 3:1-4).
The early church, at least into the 4th century AD, followed this practice. At least nine papyrus letters have been found in Egypt, dating from the late 3rd century AD to the early 4th Century AD that commended believers to a church in a different location (Llewelyn 1998: 169-172).
Letters of introduction were common in the Greek world. The teacher would give a letter to his student who was traveling to another city. A case in point is Eudoxus from Cnidos (ca. 407-357 BC). He was a student of Plato while he studied in Athens. Upon his return to Cnidos, he decided to study in Egypt. Diogenes Laertius, writing in Lives of Eminent Philosophers states: “He (Eudoxus) proceeded to Egypt with Chrysippus the physician, bearing with him letters of introduction from Agesilaus to Nectanabis, who recommended him to the priests” (8:87; LCL 2: 401-423).
In “Plymouth Brethren” circles, this practice is considered an “assembly distinctive” because it is still followed. I came into “Plymouth Breathren” fellowship while I was doing graduate studies in Jerusalem (1978-79). At the end of my studies I returned to the States and sought out an assembly near my home in New Jersey. Before I left Israel, I was given a “letter of commendation” by one of the elders. I was glad I had it when I attended Valley Bible Chapel for the first time. Some in the congregation were looking at me thinking, “Who is this strange bearded fellow sitting there?!” [In 1979 I had more hair on my chin then most men in this assembly had on the top of their head!]. At the beginning of the breaking of bread meeting, one of the elders, Mr. Les Campbell, got up to read my letter. He remarked, “It is not too often that a church receives a letter from the church in Jerusalem. Today we have such a letter,” and proceeded to read it.
The letter, dated September 9, 1979, said, “Greetings. May Grace, Mercy and Peace be yours from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is to commend to your love and fellowship our dear young brother Gordon Franz who has been in happy fellowship with the Believers here in Jerusalem for the past months and is now leaving for his home. Receive the dear brother as becometh Saints, even as God has received us in Christ Jesus, His Son. The Believers gathered to our blessed Lord in Jerusalem send greetings and salute you all in Christ Jesus our Lord. Maranatha.” It was signed by Mr. George Wald, a long time missionary in the Middle East, now enjoying his rewards with the Lord in Glory. After the meeting, I was made very welcome, partly because the letter helped them know who I was and that I was “kosher”.
Phoebe was commended to them as a “sister.” This implies a family relationship. Every person in this world is in one of two families, either the Devil’s family or in God’s family. We all begin in Satan’s family, but “[God] has delivered us [believers in the Lord Jesus] from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13, 14). The Apostle John tells us: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13).
Phoebe was also characterized as “a servant (diakonon) of the church.” She was apparently exercising her spiritual gift of ministry (diakonian), or service (Rom. 12:7). William McRae says of this gift: “The person with the gift of service has an unusual capacity to serve faithfully behind the scenes, in practical ways, to assist in the work of the Lord and encourage and strengthen others spiritually” (1976: 47). D. Edmond Hiebert notes: “Paul calls her not a servant ‘in the church’ but a servant ‘of the church.’ This would indicate that the ministries of Phoebe were no mere private effort but were carried on under the approval and authorization of the church” (Hiebert 1992: 195).
Paul instructs the church in Rome to “receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints” (16:2). The word “receive” has the idea of opening ones home and showing hospitality to a traveler. Phoebe would have known at least Pricilla, Aquila, and Epaenetus from Corinth and most likely she stayed with them at the beginning of her stay. Paul also instructs them to “assist her in whatever business she has need of you.” Some have even suggested that she was going to prepare the way for Paul’s visit to Rome (Jewett 1988). The reason Paul commends her to the believers in Rome is because she was a helper of many, including Paul, and was worthy of their support.
There are two reasons why Phoebe was an excellent choice to deliver the letter. First, she saw first hand the division in the church at Corinth along religious lines and between personalities. She would be an excellent witness to the church in Rome because she saw the church come together as one and could testify that unity was possible. The conflict in Corinth was apparently solved. When Paul entered Corinth, there were two groups: Jews and Gentiles. When he left, there was a distinctively third group: the Church of God made up of Jewish and Gentile believers in the Lord Jesus (I Cor. 1:2; 10:32; II Cor. 1:1).
Second, she could model the use of spiritual gifts to the believers in the church in Rome. Paul had already addressed this issue (Rom. 12:3-8), but she could add some practical lessons while she was in Rome.
 There are some who have suggested that the list of names in Romans 16:3-16 are greetings to believers in Ephesus, not Rome. This idea has been refuted by Peter Lampe 2003: 153-164.