My wife has a fondness for ancestral archaeology. She likes pouring through lists of names and making familial connections. She enjoys the hunt for ancient connections (“did you know that we have a family member who…?”) and is even more excited to find “unknown” family relations in our generation and even in our area of Texas, as she did a few years ago.
I haven’t asked her, but I suspect she reads the genealogies in the Bible and the lists of names similarly, looking for those same kinds of relational nuggets.
There is a gold mine of names in Romans 16.
Nowhere else in his writings does Paul have a list of names for greeting as he does in Romans 16. He sends greetings to 24 people by name (and two more without mentioning their names, vv. 13, 15). If that list was not long enough, he also passes greetings to Rome from eight more individuals (vv. 21-23).
It’s hard not to think of the genealogies of the Old Testament when reading this list of names from Paul. And it is tempting for our eyes to glaze over with lack of recognition and boredom when reading these lists, because like the OT lists, the names in Romans 16 are largely unknown to us except for their appearance in this chapter.
What should we think of those names — and the lives behind those names? I mentioned several principles to remember in my message on Sunday. Let me add a few more ideas to how to think about these largely anonymous lives.
Recognize the church is about people. We know and affirm this and we nod ascent to it, but it is also essential to remember and act on this reality. Ministry is accomplished through programs, but ministry is about people, not programs. There are real lives and complete stories behind all those names: there are marriages and the attendant struggles and joys, there are children, financial pressures, job struggles, relational pressures, unexpected illnesses, untimely death, disappointments, unmet expectations, unanticipated delights, difficult decisions, invigorating worship, and discipling needs and privileges. Just in this list in Romans 16 there are marriages, sibling and parental relationships, imprisonments, hard work (a repeated theme), life-threatening circumstances, employment under unbelievers, political influences, and mission ventures. This list of names reminds us that ministry is not “general” but is specifically oriented to particular people. Ministry is about people and happens in the context of people, and the privilege of the church is to care for people in all these diverse circumstances. People are not an intrusion to distract us from our life purposes; people are our purpose.
Recognize the diversity of the church. Not only are people’s circumstances diverse, but the people themselves are diverse. In this list there are both men and women, Gentiles and Jews, slaves and freemen, political leaders and subjects, church leaders and laity, and the financially prosperous and struggling. It is unlikely that any other similar gathering of people existed for a common cause in Rome (or anywhere else, for that matter). Ministry doesn’t just happen with people to whom we naturally gravitate; ministry happens with and towards those to whom we have no natural affiliation — we are of different ethnicity, social and financial standing, gender, age, and political affiliation. Yet we minister together because we have been united in a particular way.
Recognize the unity of the church. While the church is inherently diverse — even magnificently diverse — there is a common unity in the church. It sounds trite, but the unity is Christ. Notice how often Paul mentions the common fellowship believers have around Christ — we are brother and sister (with an implied common Father, v. 1), co-laborers (vv. 2, 3, 6, 9, 12 [2x]), co-worshippers (vv. 4, 5, 14, 15, 16), unified together in Christ (vv. 3, 7, 9, 10, 16), and having a common Lord and Master (vv. 1, 2, 8, 11, 12 [2x], 13). Our fundamental and most important identity is not what separates us and makes us different (like our gender or financial position), but what unities us to our common Lord and Savior. Because we have one Head above us, we all are tied together to Him in a common (joyful) enslavement to Him. We are corporately aligned together because we are all individually united to Christ through faith in Him. We are one people of God.
Recognize the affection in the church. Despite all the diversity of the church and because of the unity in the church there is affection in the church. Paul’s 21 uses of the word “greet” in this chapter are an admonition to be welcoming, affirming, and hospitable. He is not expecting the believers in Rome to simply say, “Paul says ‘hi’ to you…” When he sends greetings, he is expecting them to care for one another and help one another with affection for one another. The affection for the church is also observed by how many times he greets the people in Rome as “beloved” and also in the encouragement to greet one another with a holy kiss (v. 16). It is not enough for believers to simply say, “I love and am committed to helping you…” Because of our union with one another through Christ, we also say, “I love and am committed to helping you because I have affection for you and am thankful to be bound together with you in this fellowship of believers.” We are united together (in part) to have a means of expressing the affectionate love of Christ for one another — and in an increasingly hating and hateful world, that responsibility is increasingly important.
Recognize God’s care of all His people. While Paul mentions almost three dozen people in the Roman church, how many dozens more must have existed in that church? History has forgotten the significance of their lives, but God knows them all. And He knows every detail of each person’s life as if He was responsible to know and give attention to only that one person. And He not only knows the details of all the members of the Roman church but of all the people in every genealogical list in Scripture (and outside Scripture, too). He is not strained to remember those details; and He not only knows the details but He cares attentively to all those who are His (and judges attentively and righteously each individual who is not His — and never makes a mistake about which list of people anyone is part of). The believer who is unknown to the world is known intimately and cared for fully by the all-knowing God.
When reading lists of names of God’s people in Scripture, whether in genealogies or in lists like Romans 16, look beyond the names to comprehend the principles that God is teaching us about the nature of His corporate people — and be encouraged to continue fulfilling God’s task for you in that people and be comforted that God will remember you and remember all you have labored to do for Him.