Fellow Workers in Christ: Your Role in Christ’s Work


Most of the New Testament Letters include greetings at their closing. Colossians includes ten personal names in its conclusion (six in the greetings), but it stands a distant second to the thirty-four names referenced in the greetings that conclude Romans. Technically Paul sends greetings to twenty-six people who are identified by name or relationship (16.3-16). Paul had not yet visited the church in Rome himself, but references in this passage and other parts of the New Testament indicate that Paul had met them elsewhere as he preached the gospel, planted churches, and formed disciples throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia. This applies equally to the eight individuals Paul includes alongside himself as sending their greetings to the believers in Rome (vv. 21-23). As these greetings demonstrate strikingly, Paul worked with and was supported by many fellow followers of Jesus in his gospel mission.

The People Paul Mentions

Dissecting these greetings can tend toward speculation about the church of that time period in Rome and elsewhere, specifically as this relates to gender, ethnicity, and social class. Romans 16 often features in discussions about the role of women in the church with debates about whether or not Phoebe was an official female “deacon” of the church of Cenchrae (vv. 1-2) and whether or not Junia was an official female “Apostle,” in a role equivalent to that of Paul or Peter (v. 7). This debate would require separate articles and isn’t necessary for the point of this one.

What is undebatable is that these women were integral fellow servants of Christ alongside Paul in his gospel ministry. Phoebe was a patron of Paul and many others and was likely the one carrying this letter of Paul from Corinth to the Romans given the instruction here to welcome her (v. 2). Junia, alongside Andronicus (probably her husband) was a fellow prisoner of Paul, with a well-known reputation for her faithfulness to Jesus Christ (v. 7). Prisca shares the same kind of honor as a fellow worker of Paul who risked her life for him and to whom, with her husband, Aquila, all the Gentile churches owed their thanks (vv. 3-4). A certain “Mary” is greeted here and described as one who worked hard for the Roman church (v. 6). Tryphaena and Tryphosa are names of women, perhaps sisters, who are honored as “workers in the Lord,” and Persis is a feminine name for another believer Paul says “worked hard in the Lord” (v. 12). Paul greets the mother of Rufus who had been like a mother to him as well (v. 13). Another two women in the church in Rome, Julia and the sister of Nereus, were evidently known to Paul too (v. 15). These greetings illustrate the New Testament pattern of the vital work of women in the gospel mission of Jesus Christ.

This passage equally supports the New Testament pattern of participation in Christ’s gospel work by people of various social statuses and ethnic backgrounds. The work of scholars who have compared the names in these greetings with other literature of the time period demonstrates this point. Accepting their generally agreed upon findings, only seven to eight of these individuals can be definitively identified as Jews. The majority were Gentiles. The names given here reflect Latin, Greek, and even Persian backgrounds, and Paul’s personal knowledge of and words about them indicate that they came from diverse locations across the Roman Empire. Paul’s coworkers and the church in Rome were diverse in culture and also in social status.

More than half of the names included in these greetings were common names for slaves or freedmen. Slaves would also have been included in the reference to the households of Aristobulus and Narcissus (vv. 10-11), thought by many to be two prominent households in Rome, potentially connected to the emperor himself. On the other hand, there are individuals in these greetings with the means to support Paul and gospel ministry and to host churches, like Phoebe (v. 2), Prisca and Aquila (vv. 3-5), perhaps Rufus’s mother (v. 13), Gaius, and Erastus (v. 23). There is room for every kind of disciple of Jesus in his mission and in his church.

The Need for Love and Unity

Many encouraging and instructive applications to work in the mission of Jesus Christ emerge from this snapshot of Paul’s Christian family and coworkers in the gospel. We observe that love and mutual care and appreciation should mark the family of God and those who work together in gospel mission. Besides the references to hospitality, there are numerous uses of family language like “brother,” “sister,” and “mother,” and Paul describes three of these individuals as “beloved.” This emphasis on love and unity among believers in Jesus is a central theme of this letter as an evidence of the unifying effect of the gospel among diverse people, especially Jews and Gentiles. Though division and rivalry had to be warned against (v. 17; chs. 12-15), these greetings show unity and mutual appreciation, graces that should reign among all who work together in the gospel.

The Need for All Kinds of People

We are also struck by the need for all kinds of people to work together in Jesus’ mission. It was people other than Paul, including some mentioned in these greetings, who had been responsible for the planting and growth of the church in Rome. In fact, Paul hadn’t even visited this church, but he intended to do so, which was a primary reason for sending this letter (1.11-15; 15.22-23). He wanted to minister to the church in Rome and strengthen it, and he wanted to be helped by the church in a future endeavor to take the gospel to Spain.

There is a need and opportunity for people like Paul and the others he mentions here to go to places like Rome for the sake of the ongoing work of the gospel of Jesus. There’s a need for hospitality and financial support for expanding the mission of Christ locally and globally. There’s a need for people of diverse backgrounds to work together in gospel mission. There’s a need for people to use their skills and opportunities in tangible tasks like carrying letters, as Phoebe did, or writing letters, like Tertius. There’s a need for individuals and for family units to minister on mission teams and in the church. In other words, there is a role for you to play in the mission of Jesus. And, as you engage this mission, you need a variety of people working alongside you.

Gospel Doxology

It’s not surprising that Romans ends with a gospel doxology like the one we find at 16.25-27: 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, 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—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! (esv)

Todd Davis

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