Luke is my favourite book of the Bible, because the ink on every page drips proof that women are not invisible to God. Romans 16 is my favourite chapter for the same reason. That might sound odd since this chapter is a message of final greetings. If you are tempted to skip over the long list of names like credits after a movie, I hope I can persuade you to see the beauty in these greetings. Paul’s very personal, affectionate greetings capture the soul of women’s ministry in early Christianity. They give us a picture of redeemed men and women working as partners alongside each other in Rome’s first church, and this is the prototype for our local church. Women found the church a liberating place to be. It was a beacon of light in their Greco-Roman culture where husbands could abandon them on a whim, baby girls were considered worthless and left outside by their fathers to die in the cold, and child brides were married off at 11 or 12 years old. In contrast, the church was a place where husbands were taught to be faithful and to love their wives like Christ loved the church. This was a far cry from husbands in Rome who expected their wives to be chaste while they engaged in any kind of sexual behaviour themselves, including having mistresses, temple prostitutes and homosexual encounters. For centuries, Christianity was mocked for being pro-women as women made up two thirds of the church, while the ratio in Greco-Roman society was two thirds men. Christianity was a safe haven for women because the wisdom of the gospel gave them life and dignity. Their voices were heard and their contribution valued in the local church. It was a place where they were free to be all that God created them to be, instead of chattels or sex objects. Romans 16:1-16 gives us a glimpse into these things:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.
3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
Snapshots from Rome
The nine women’s names in Romans 16 may seem irrelevant, but consider for a moment that these were real women with families and dangers that we cannot even imagine. They were a mix of rich and poor, slaves and aristocrats, married and single, young and old, Jews and Gentiles, bound together as sisters by their common commitment to Christ. They offered whatever resources they had to make a difference for the Lord in all kinds of ways and passed the gospel baton on to their children. They developed ministries to help widows, orphans and believers in prison, and gave their finances and homes too. Paul expresses obvious affection for these women and mentions some of them by name: Phoebe a deacon and patron of the church; Priscilla who (together with her husband Aquila) hosted the church in her house and risked her life for the Christians, Mary, Junia, Tryphena and Tryphosa (sisters), Persis, Julia, and Rufus’s mother, who was like a mother to Paul. These women did not just warm the pews but were active “workers in the Lord.” There is great affection and intimacy in Paul’s tone, but not a hint of impropriety or paternalism.
Costly but liberating faith
Women continued to flock to Christianity in the second and third centuries. Justin Martyr (150AD) noted that Christianity was spreading to wealthy women in aristocratic classes, many of whom were married to non-Christian husbands. Life was not easy for these women, as bearing the name of Christ carried a high price. Many women were single or widowed, and thus were very dependent and vulnerable. The husband of one wealthy woman despised her conversion to Christianity so much that he reported her to the authorities to be imprisoned. Marcia was the mistress of the tyrannical Emperor Commodis (of Gladiatorfame). This brave Christian woman shared the gospel with the Emperor and influenced him to show mercy to Christians in prison, even freeing some of them. Today contemporary culture mocks Christianity for being oppressive and misogynist, but the record of history tells us a different story. The truth is that women have taken refuge in Christianity for centuries, because the gospel accords them value and dignity as image bearers of God. It also provides forgiveness and restoration from the shame many women experience as a result of what they have done and what has been done to them.
Romans 16 introduces us to some of the sisters who blazed the trail for us and we will meet each one of them in heaven one day! Their names and lives matter profoundly to God. Even today, the Lord values the sacrifices women make and takes delight in their joyful efforts to show the world the most beautiful story that has ever been told. History bears witness to the many women who served at the forefront of Christ’s army, which grew from twenty disciples in the 30’s (AD), to thirty million by the end of the 4th century!
What a beautiful picture of a redeemed family of servants on mission!
Why should we care about women who are long dead and part of ancient history? I believe the rich tapestry of women in the Bible and historical sources weaves a picture of who we are as Christian women today, and shows us how we should follow Jesus, through the lens of who God is. The rich heritage behind us can give Christian women perspective to see our worth and to grasp the unique God-given opportunities to make the gospel beautiful to the world around us. That is our ‘Great Commission’ at home, in church and in the city (Matt 28:18-20).
Prayer for daughters of God
Lord, give us the faith of Sarah who left her family, culture and home in Ur to follow her husband Abraham into a strange and dangerous land. Help us to hold loosely to the things of this world so that we are willing to pitch our tent anywhere you lead, like she did.
Father, give us the conviction of Rahab, who took a stand on Jehovah’s side and was resourceful and brave when she hid the spies (Josh 2:11).
If we are entrusted with leadership, help us to lead without losing our God-given distinctness, like Deborah, “who arose as a mother of Israel” (Judges 5:7).
Jesus, give us the loyalty and love of Ruth, who left everything in Moab to care for her mother-in-law and identify herself with your people. Help us to see you alone as our Kinsman-Redeemer who brings abundance from emptiness and joy from mourning.
Give us the serenity of Hannah, who released her beloved son Samuel to fulfill your purposes. Let us always know that our children are on loan from you and help us to raise them to love and serve you all their lives. We declare with Hannah, “It is not by strength that one prevails” (1 Sam 2:9).
Give us the strength and boldness of Queen Esther who was ready and willing to step up to the plate “for such a time as this.” Help us to see the opportunities you have placed in our lives right now and to act upon them in faith (Esther 4:15).
Holy Spirit, give us a humble, willing spirit like Mary’s so that even if we are afraid, we may say, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to your will” (Luke 1:38).
Jesus, give us a teachable spirit like Mary of Bethany who sat at your feet and listened to you, knowing that you would give her something that could never be taken away from her. Let busyness never be our master (Luke 10:38).
And Lord, when life’s storms come and you seem far away, make us as bold and sure as Martha, who, even at her brother’s funeral, declared without wavering, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 11:27).
Saviour, show us your vast forgiveness so that we may be like the woman who let down her hair and anointed your feet with perfume. Make us worshippers first so that we may give extravagantly out of the overflow of your grace. Help us to see you as our advocate, our refuge and the one to whom we can bring everything, even our greatest shame and sin (Luke 7:44-46).
Lord of the harvest, give us a big vision to see the many practical ways in which we can sow into your kingdom wherever we are. Make us brave and industrious like those women in Rome.
And finally, Lord, if you give us grace to live until we are old and grey, help us to be like those two old women in Luke. Like Anna, may we always long for your presence, remain steadfast in prayer and be quick to bless others. And if we are left with just a widow’s mite, give us hearts that want to drop it all into your treasure store. Help us to live each day eager and ready for your return as King (Luke 2:36-38; Luke 21:1, 2, 3).
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! (Romans 16:16-17).