Romans 16 is a dreaded public Scripture reading for any young seminary student or pastoral intern. I know — I was asked to do that reading by my pastor as a first or second-year seminarian, and I poured over my Bible and Greek New Testament for much too long, attempting to sort out the correct pronunciation of each of the unusual names in that passage.
In the opening 16 verses of that chapter, Paul mentions 29 different people — 27 by name — and says of each of them, “greet ______…” It makes you wonder, “why did Paul take the time to offer greetings to so many different people, and what does it even mean to “greet” someone?”
To answer the last question first, to greet someone was to hospitably recognize someone. It was a way of expressing happiness at the arrival of someone or something. It was a greeting or gesture that communicated hospitality and friendship or fellowship at one’s arrival. We might say today, “I’m so glad to see you!”
But why would Paul single out so many different people in the Roman church?
Perhaps he gives us a hint in verse 17, where he warns the church to avoid those who were causing ““dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned.” So the list of 29 people he greeted served as a reminder of those who were faithfully engaged in ministry and were not divisive — they could be trusted. “Follow them and people like them,” we might imagine Paul saying.
What’s also interesting about all the greetings, is that with each individual or group of people to whom he offers greetings, he also offers a commendation of some kind. So he says Phoebe is “is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea” (v. 1). And Epaenetus he calls, “my beloved” (v. 5). And Mary “has worked hard for you” (v. 6). And Rufus is “a choice man in the Lord” (v. 13). Over and over, he offers commendation.
And with those commendations, he reminds the Roman readers that each individual in the church fulfills a role and function in the church (see Rom. 12:3ff). The growth of the church was dependent on each person fulfilling their individual roles, and Paul’s commendations were his way of offering observations of how he saw these people exercising their gifts for the good of the body. And it was also a reminder of the necessity of each person and the joyful embrace of each person. In any church, there are bound to be difficult and broken relationships and these words by Paul serve to remind the Romans that each person not only must be recognized for his part in the body, but each person must also be embraced, welcomed, and loved.
So how do you relate to the individuals in your church body? Can you take some time today and think through the various ministries of your church, or go through a directory or listing of your church family and give thanks to God for each individual’s part in your church? And can you embrace and thank each person individually for their participation in your church fellowship?
Can you, like Paul, greet every person in your church as your friend and co-laborer?