First, of course, we see in this long list of individuals the degree to which Paul truly loved the church – knowing, remembering, and greeting a large number of people in a city he did not even personally know. Because of his constant travel and evangelization Paul must have met a great number of people, and it is impressive that he remembered not only the names of many of the people on his list, but also their individual qualities.
We also see in Paul’s list his warm acceptance of all Christians – regardless of race, gender, social position, or any other consideration. The majority of the individuals mentioned in his list have Gentile names, and a large proportion are the names of slaves or former slaves who had been freed. Such were Tertius (verse 22) and Quartus (verse 24) whose names mean simply “Third” and “Fourth,” as they were probably minor slaves in someone’s household and simply given numbers as names, as was often the case. These individuals were not even the “First” or “Second” slaves, making them truly socially insignificant in that culture; but Paul treated them, as he did every believer, with full equality and love. In fact, Paul mentions Quartus in the same breath as Erastus, the influential and important Corinthian director of public works (verse 23).
Looking at what Paul says about all these people is particularly instructive. Phoebe, who is mentioned first in Romans 16:1-2, was evidently the person who delivered Paul’s letter to Rome, and the apostle’s greetings actually begin after she is mentioned. Paul then specifically greets some twenty-eight individuals. Rather than just being an extensive list of greetings with an occasional personal comment thrown in here and there, however, if we look closely, we see a clear pattern. Paul refers to the people he lists in seven different ways:
1. Those Paul calls “beloved.” Paul was well aware that God referred to his own son as “beloved” (Colossians 1:13) and doubtless did not use the expression lightly. He mentions only a few people this way.
2. Those who had helped Paul in some exceptional way such as “risked their lives for me,” or “been a mother to me.”
3. Those Paul says “worked very hard” doing God’s work.
4. Those Paul says “worked hard” doing God’s work.
5. Individuals mentioned as being “fellow workers” without any other comment.
6. Individuals who Paul notes as being fellow Christians who are specifically said to be “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” or “approved by Christ,” but of whom nothing else is said.
7. Some individuals are simply named, along with many others who are unnamed but included in someone’s family or household. Although these people were doubtless Christians, they are included in the list without any qualifying remarks regarding outstanding characteristics.
The first thing we notice about Paul’s list, when we organize it in this manner, is the way in which he differentiates between those who are said to be involved in furthering the work of the gospel in some way, and those other individuals and groups who are said to be Christians but of whom nothing is said relative to the gospel work. Paul doubtless deeply loved and cared about these latter individuals, but seemingly did not remember them as being notable in their service to God. Numerically, the majority of the people Paul greets are not given any special commendation and fall into this category (see verses 5 and 14–15, especially).
Those mentioned in group 6 who were said to be “approved by Christ” or described by a similar expression may have been particularly devout, though no reference is made relative to them being involved in the work of the gospel.
On the other hand, those who Paul mentions specifically regarding their service to the gospel were certainly not all elders in the Church and served in different roles and capacities. Some, such as the lady mentioned only as “the mother of Rufus” (verse 13) clearly were extraordinarily dedicated to God’s work. Others, such as Andronicus and Junia, had even been in prison with Paul (verse 7), showing their dedication to the gospel in that way.
We cannot see any quantitative assessment of the work accomplished by these godly people in what Paul says, just his appreciation for their dedication. But when we move past the individuals who are mentioned as having helped Paul personally, and those whom he calls “beloved” (yet we are not told why they are so regarded), the remaining people on Paul’s list are the ones he shows were most actively involved in doing the work of God. These remaining individuals are said to be “fellow workers,” “those who work hard,” and “those who work very hard.”
We cannot know whether Paul was subconsciously or consciously “grading” these people as he greeted them in these ways, but it is clear that they were a minority among the larger group of Christians Paul greeted in his epistle, and that there was a difference in Paul’s mind between the level of dedication of the individuals he mentions. It is also hard to imagine Paul – who wrote so carefully and deeply – as including the public grading of individuals without having a purpose in doing so. Perhaps that purpose was for the good of those whom he greeted, but perhaps it was for our good, also. We can all ask ourselves which group Paul would have included us in.
Asking that question of ourselves can be both instructive and challenging. After all, as Paul wrote to Timothy: “All scripture” – including the list of names found in Romans 16 – “is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (1 Timothy 3:16–17, emphasis added). If we let it, Paul’s list of greetings can inspire the people of the gospel to more and greater involvement in God’s work.