In a previous post, I wrote about the easy-to-miss names mentioned in Paul’s New Testament letters. But I can’t leave this topic without highlighting the one letter that has more unknowns per square inch of ink. It’s Romans, where Paul essentially takes all of chapter 16 to name names in the family.
Now, it would be easy to skim through Romans 16. There is so much in the first 15 chapters, where verse after verse is full of insight, wisdom, and gospel. But the final chapter of Romans isn’t just a conclusion – it’s a picture of what the gospel looks like, lived out. Romans 16 puts names and faces, flesh and blood to what Paul has been writing about in this letter. If the gospel is true, THIS is what it looks like. This is WHO it looks like.
Paul starts by commending Phoebe. This is her only mention in the NT (making her what I call a “one-hit wonder”). Even so, there is so much we learn about her in just two short verses. She’s definitely a Gentile, for her name comes from a description given to the goddess, Artemis. She’s a deacon, so she has a leadership role in the church in Cenchreae. And she is the carry-er of this letter, which means Paul entrusts to her, not simply the delivery of the letter – but likely its reading, as well.
In other words, it looks like Phoebe was the first person to read, and proclaim, the message of the most important theological treatise ever written.
How about Andronicus & Junia, likely a husband-wife team? Paul calls them apostles – of the “little a” version, I would say – missionaries, emissaries, ambassadors for the gospel.
Then there’s verse 13, where Paul writes: Greet Rufus the chosen in the Lord – and his mother, and mine. Paul mentions a woman, not naming her, because apparently he sees no need. To Paul – she’s simply, “Mom.” What do you think she must have done, what must she have meant to Paul – for him to think of her as his mother?
Paul, take your extra tunic. There’s a chill wind tonight.
Here, take this little lunch I made for your journey.
Make sure to get your rest, dear. You work too hard.
And please, please try not to get thrown into prison again. You know how I worry.
There are very few people in a person’s life who are known, not primarily by name, but by title; by relationship. And this unnamed, unknown, never-talked-about woman in Romans 16.13 is one of those for Paul. For apparently when Paul talked about her – when Paul talked to her – he simply said, Mom.
One more we should mention: Tertius. All we know about him is what we read in Romans 16.22: I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.
What kind of name is Tertius? Well, it’s not really a name – it’s a number, for his name means “Third.” Now, who would name their kid “Three”? Some not-very-creative parents, perhaps? Ok, we’ve had one kid; over there is #2. So I guess that makes you Three – Tertius it is.
No. It’s not that simple – or funny. Instead, the writer & speaker Andy Crouch points out that this is the kind of name that owners would use with their slaves. As property, they didn’t even warrant a real name – just a number.
And yet, this “Number 3” finds a place in the family of God. This “Third Slave” becomes the first person Paul turns to when he is looking for a brother he can trust to pen the words of the most important theological letter ever written.
Think about it this way. Paul speaks his letter to a Gentile slave, and then entrusts that same letter to a Gentile woman named after a pagan god —- and through Tertius’s pen and Phoebe’s sharing, Paul’s magnum opus reaches the most important city in the ancient world. And that letter would change their world, and ours – forever.
Because, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female – there is neither rich nor poor, black or white or brown, native-born or immigrant, old or middle age or young – for in Christ, for IN CHRIST – we are all one.
In fact, who else can do this, but Jesus? Who else but Jesus can bring us together, with all our differences? Who else but Jesus can heal our brokenness? Who else but Jesus can fill us with the grace and the courage to be the people he calls us to be – to become a family where everyone has a place?