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Romans 16: another lesson from the early church

Books for Life Today
Published by in Bible teaching · 26 November 2020
Tags: Spreading_the_gospel
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, just 30 years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus there was ‘an immense multitude’ of Christians nearly a thousand miles away in Rome! How did this happen? There are two important clues in the last chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans. In an earlier blog I gave the first clue: the believers constantly prayed for each other, particularly to be bold in sharing the gospel. Now we come to the second clue.

In Romans 16:1-16 Paul mentions 26 different people in the church at Rome whom he knew by name. He describes several of them as 'workers' or as people who had 'worked hard in the Lord'. Phoebe had helped many people. Prisca and Aquila had been his fellow workers. Mary had worked hard among the Christians in Rome. Urbanus was his fellow worker in Christ. Tryphaena and Tryphosa (twin ladies?) were workers in the Lord. Persis had worked hard in the Lord. So the question I asked myself was this: what did Paul mean by 'work' and 'worker in Christ' and 'working hard in the Lord'? Were they working to earn their living? Were they faithfully carrying out tasks as office leaders in the church or in church worship? Were they involved in the distribution of aid to widows and orphans associated with the church? What did Paul mean by 'work'?

Paul might have included all those things in his definition of work, but there is one thing above all that I believe was in Paul's mind when he spoke of work for or in the Lord. In the previous chapter, Romans 15, he wrote in verse 17, 'In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God.' And then he explained what he was talking about. He was talking about 'what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders... I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.'

Paul's work for God consisted of preaching, teaching and the pastoral care of converts. So when he referred to 'fellow workers' in Chapter 16 it is likely that the people concerned had been engaged in similar work with him. If 'winning obedience' to Christ is principally what Paul meant by 'work', then we have a picture in Chapter 16 of lots of people in the church at Rome who preached the gospel and taught new converts and helped the needy in the church, all with the goal of winning Roman society to Christ as Lord.

That is surely the principal reason that the early church multiplied so fast. Early in Paul's first missionary trip he preached the gospel to some Gentiles (non-Jews) in a town named Perga. 'And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord spread throughout all the region.' (Acts 13: 48,49)) How did it spread? Not through Paul and Barnabas. They were driven out of the city at the instigation of the unbelieving Jewish leaders and went off to Iconium. It can only have been through the excited testimony of the new Pergan believers in Christ, who 'were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit'. (Acts 13:52)

This tells us how the church should - and could - be multiplying today. It is true that in the UK there is increasing opposition to preaching the truth of the gospel. Street preachers have been arrested and Christians have been dismissed from employment for uttering words that unbelievers have objected to. The prevailing culture scoffs at taking the Bible literally and at anything that contradicts scientific consensus, while anyone who publicly supports Christian marriage and morality and denounces anything else as sin is in danger of being arrested for a 'hate crime'. But spreading the gospel in first century Rome was no easier. How dare Christians suggest that the gods who protected Rome had no existence? How dare they call a dead Jewish agitator 'lord': there was only one lord - the emperor Caesar! As a result some had risked their necks (Romans 16:4) and some had been imprisoned (Romans 16:7). Opposition did not put off the Christians of Paul's day, and it should not put us off either.

So are we 'working hard in the Lord' like those early believers did? Are we telling sinners that they can be saved from eternal death and live for ever in a perfect world, through our testimony to the risen Christ, through our preaching and teaching and pastoral care? Would Paul have described each of us as 'working hard in the Lord'? If not, why not? And if not now, when?

Being 'filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit' is essential, I believe, to effectively sharing the gospel. It is essential, both to motivate us to do it, and to convince those we talk to that we are offering them some truly good news. King David prayed, 'Take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee.' (Psalm 51:11-13) That is a prayer that most of us who believe in Jesus need to pray, and we need to keep praying it until the Lord answers.

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