Stories – Romans 16:1-16

by Roger McCay
29 March 2020
Scripture Passage: Acts 16:1-16
Link to Audio Version

He regularly risked his neck for my life. While deployed to Iraq, serving as a Battalion Chaplain, my chaplain assistant, (SPC) Swaringen (later, SGT Swaringen), was assigned to assist in the religious support of our unit. His duties were rather expansive. The Army Regulation on Chaplains at the time stated:

Chaplain assistants require skills in combat survival, religious support, human relations, counseling, administration, funds management, and staff level support for battalion and echelons above. [1]

Swaringen took his duties seriously. He was a Christian brother, and we worked alongside one another to take care of soldiers as best we could. He set up for worship services, ran the sound system, played in the band, and took care of all sorts of little details so that I didn’t have to worry with them and could focus specifically on the ministry of a Battalion Chaplain at war.

Often, heading out in sector to provide worship services or other religious support to the troops, Swaringen went with me. Since the Army does not allow chaplains to have weapons to defend themselves, Swaringen was my defense. He was very diligent about it. Whenever we were out of the vehicles in sector, he was alert looking for danger putting himself between me and anything that looked suspicious. I felt very comfortable with his abilities. Yet, every time we got in the vehicle we both knew we were risking our necks, for the next IED blast could be directed at us. Swaringen regularly risked his neck for my life and the ministry of the Lord.

We all have a story to tell, and, when we hear the stories of others, we pick up on similarities in their stories and ours. We instinctively find connections and ways to relate. This fits with a larger truth. Our stories are all interlinked—interlinked within the very plan and purpose of God in the master story that is history—History.

Sometimes, however, we get so caught up in our own stories that we become self-centered in our own little tale. As Christians, such a mindset causes us to lose sight of how our story interlinks with the larger narrative of the whole body of Christ. We lose a huge gift we have in one another. Our stories help unify us amid diversity, strengthen us, guide us, and show us that we are not alone in our journey. They lead us to take care of one another and honor one another.

When we look at Ch. 16 of Romans and see this list of greetings from Paul to his friends in Rome, it is important to take the time to look deeper at the stories of these people. Although their stories took place nearly 2 millennia ago, and the list includes all sorts of people from the powerful and wealthy to slaves, their story is our story.

How so? Well, let’s look and see. First, there is Phoebe—vv. 1-2:

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.

Phoebe has long been held in high distinction in the church based on Paul’s words for her. He called her “our sister,” “a servant of the church,” one of the “saints,” and “a patron of many.” Phoebe was evidently a woman of means, since she was a patroness, and likely a widow. It is clear that she was a woman who ministered in the church of Cenchrea to Paul and others as a servant of the church, probably in the capacity of one of the widows on the “list” referred to in 1 Tim. 5:9-10. Her widow status is also consistent with the Greco-Roman culture at the time because, as one theologian explains, “She could not… have been mentioned as acting in the independent manner described…either if her husband had been living or if she had been unmarried.” [2]

What a story she must have had! She likely witnessed the churches start and grow in Cenchrea and Corinth, and she came directly under the apostle Paul’s teachings and many of the other early missionaries. Her home was at the seaport and her husband may very well have been a businessman of some sort there. She could have had a huge home in the Roman style along with all that went with that sort of household. And, at the time that Paul wrote this letter, she was leaving for Rome to take care of some business there—likely a legal matter.

Paul, knowing her and her situation, took advantage of her journey to Rome by entrusting her with this remarkable letter to the Roman church. He committed her to the church by his introduction for her and his entreaty that they “welcome her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints and help her in whatever matter she may have need.”

There are so many things we can learn from Phoebe’s story. It is incalculable the rippling affects that this one woman’s faithful service have had across the whole church from her time until now – directly affecting us. The impact of the letter of Romans is very much an influence in every Christian’s walk of faith. If she had not been faithful… What a loss for us all. Her service and role in her church, her story as a Christian woman dealing with her culture (it’s business, customs, and legal matters), and her faithfulness in fulfilling her mission to which she was called shows us how truly her story is our story.

What about Prisca and Aquila in vv. 3-5?

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 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. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia.

Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned several times in the New Testament (Acts 18:1ff., 18, 26; 1 Corinthians. 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19.). They seemed to have been quite famous among the Christian churches due to their getting around quite a bit, their solid teaching, and their adventures with Paul.

Paul first met them in Corinth after he left Athens recorded in Acts 18:2-3:

2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.

Pontus was on the southern border of the Black Sea, where a widespread settlement of Jews was located. [3] We don’t know how Aquila came to know Priscilla, but they lived in Rome during the time of the Emperor Claudius who succeeded Gaius Caesar (Caligula). Around A.D. 51, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because of an uproar among them that is recorded by Seutonius, as having been “because of Chrestus.” [4] Most historians agree that the uproar was over the Christians and the Jews coming to heads over Christ. As one historian explains, “Christian proclamation caused so many riots among Jews that the emperor decided to expel the lot.” [5] As such, Priscilla and Aquila were kicked out of Rome and they headed to Corinth where they met up with Paul. This turned out to be an amazing example of God’s providence putting people together from distant places for his purposes … and, how convenient that they were tentmakers, just like Paul.

Priscilla and Aquila worked with Paul in Corinth for a year and a half or more before they sailed together to Ephesus. Paul left for Antioch and several other regions on his third missionary journey (Acts 18:23ff.), but in the meanwhile Priscilla and Aquila stayed in Ephesus. There they met Apollos (Acts. 18:24-26), and taught him in their home. 1 Cor. 16:19 shows us that they had a church in their home around A.D. 55, and obviously they were vigorous in proclaiming and teaching the gospel in Ephesus.

After Claudius’ death, the couple returned to Rome, and they were there when Paul wrote the letter to the Romans between A.D. 55 and 57. There, they continued their practice of having a church in their home where it is obvious they were doing great things for the Lord’s Kingdom.  They were true warriors for the Lord.

Today, we don’t know how they risked their necks for Paul, but it was enough that Paul knew and honored them for it. What a couple! What a story they have! And it came about by their faithfully following the Lord Jesus, spreading His message wherever they went.

Although we know only a little of their story, we know enough to see how it is also our story. When we faithfully follow the Lord, we can look to their story for encouragement and strength. Their story gives an example of how the Lord turns even tumultuous events, even like what’s going on these days, to our benefit (Rom. 8:28). I think of my assistant Swaringen and his faithfulness where Paul mentions Priscilla and Aquila risking their necks for him. Many, many names come to mind of folks (soldiers and their families, missionaries, and just regular folks) who, wherever they are living, even if they move often, always seem to have a Bible study in their home and continue to spread the message of the Lord.

Other names that Paul mentions, whom we can only guess about, include Mary “who worked hard for you” (v. 6); Rufus’ mother who was at one point like a mother to Paul (v. 13); even Gaius who was in Corinth and who hosted Paul and the whole church in v. 23. Each are examples of hard workers who gave selflessly in hospitality and other ways.

So, how does your story interlink with the stories of these faithful Christians who served one another and the Lord? Do you find connections with your own life and theirs? Can you see how the impact of their faithfulness has impacted you, centuries later?

Consider this … your story is interlinked with the larger story of the church of Christ. You don’t know what kind of impact your faithfulness for the Lord will ultimately turn out to be, as you live your life today, serving him and others—an impact (perhaps) on generations to come. We make this impact through numerous means—hospitality (when we’re not holing up due to viral outbreaks—although, there are opportunities even now—Rosario Butterfield has a good article on the Gospel Coalition website concerning that, which I recommend)[6] … We make an impact for Christ through serving one-another in Christ’s name, taking risks for one another, and spreading the message of the Lord in various ways, wherever we are. These things have true substance and are valuable in the grand narrative of the Lord’s people, just like the works of those honored in Rom. 16.

Let us be steadily faithful in our ministry to each other. The Lord uses each of us for His glory and His Kingdom—even our stories. Whether we are old or young, man or woman, or rich or poor, we are merely asked to be faithful in our service each and every day. The stories will unfold from there. Christians must take care of one another.

Among the stories of those who served in Rom. 16, Paul hints at the stories of those whom he honored that were in the church at Rome.

If you have ever led someone to faith in Christ Jesus, perhaps it imprinted on your mind in such a way that you’ll never forget that first convert and the surrounding events (maybe a face is coming to your mind even now). Well, for Paul, the face of “the first convert of Asia for Christ” was Epaenetus (v. 5), who had made his way to Rome. I’m sure Paul fondly recalled the memories of how Epaenetus came to the Lord. As he dictated these greetings, he probably replayed the events in his mind, maybe he even shared them with Tertius (Paul’s secretary who sends his own greetings in v. 22 of chapter 16).

And then, in v. 7, Paul mentions Andronicus and Junia, likely another couple like Priscilla and Aquila. Their ministry was very effective in spreading the gospel and were “well known among the apostles.” They were even Christians before Paul was—Jews who may have been of the same tribe of Benjamin. We don’t know where Andronicus and Junia were prisoners with Paul, but it is speculated that it was likely “in some of those imprisonments not recorded in the Acts to which he alludes” [7] in 2 Cor. 11:23. It seems Paul knew these folks quite well. I guess when you spend time with someone in prison, particularly other Christians, you can get pretty close.

This makes me think of the close relationships that were forged in Iraq among those of us who were on the FOB ministering together. While not in prison, many a soldier likened that deployment to prison for good reason. During that time, a number of us grew very close. I fondly think of my fellow chaplains and the chaplain assistants along with regular believers, who used their gifts to serve the Lord and others in extremely difficult circumstances. We were fellow-workers for the Lord, and the experiences we shared echo into eternity.

Among those that Paul mentions in Rom. 16 (like Rufus (considered, by some, to be the son of Simon the Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross), Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles, Herodian, etc., also the households of Aristobolus and Narcissus), it is remarkable the variety of their backgrounds represented. Among them, there were Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freedmen, people linked to the household of the Emperor, and just regular folks, both men and women. These people of all walks of life and status made up the church in Rome. Paul (along with those who sent greetings in v. 21-23) knew their names and their story. And think about this. Paul had not yet even been to Rome.

Now, don’t you know, that if Paul knew all these folks’ names, honoring them by mentioning them as “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” “sister,” “brother,” “beloved,” “fellow workers,” and “fellow sufferer,” don’t you know that the Lord Jesus knows their names and their story too?

It’s that way with us. We all have our story. We know our own story quite well, but have you ever thought about who all else knows your story?

Our actions are noticed. What we say is heard and passed on. Even what happens to us, including facial expressions and our perceived emotions at times are seen and known. This seems particularly true here in our small town. People you don’t even know, when you meet them, seem to know all about you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met folks around here, in Monroeville, for the first time to find out they already know quite a bit about me. It’s a little freaky, to be honest. And the ones who don’t get out much, but know everything about everybody with seemingly constantly updated info? I’m at a loss on how they do that.

Think about the stories we share with others about our lives. When we get together with folks, what do we so often do? We share our stories, and not ours alone. We share the stories of friends, family, folks in the church and our community. We tell and re-tell old favorites of stories of those who came before us. Along those lines, at every memorial and almost every funeral I’ve ever officiated or attended, family and friends have stood up and told stories about the deceased. Our stories are a type of glue that unifies us in our common experiences. No matter how diverse we are, stories are how we come to know one another, remember one another, and honor one another.

Yet, of all the folks around us who think they know our story, at the most they were witnesses, otherwise, they really only know hearsay or, in some cases, only gossip. Things are embellished; things are left out; and things are misinterpreted. However, there is one who knows and understands your true story, your real story, better than even you do—the Lord. And know this, your story is precious to Him (Ps. 139:13-16; Matt. 6:25-34).

Our stories are an important element of our fellowship with the Lord. As disciples of Christ, he brings us together, unifies us, involving us spiritually in true, meaningful, and loving fellowship with God and his people (1 John 1:3-4). Our story is one, in him.

Paul honors men and women by greeting them out of his personal knowledge of their stories in Rom. 16. How do we honor one another? Should we not pay attention to one another’s lives and what is going on in them? I don’t mean in a gossipy of a busybody sort of way, but with loving interest and concern. Some people do this very well, perhaps you are one of them. Yet, some folks are so inwardly focused, they don’t really follow what’s going on in other people’s lives—their stories—and some just don’t care. Yet, an outward focus towards others in love is intrinsic to our calling to deny ourselves (Mark 8:34). How are we to pray for one another as we are commanded to do if we don’t know each other’s stories? How are we to know one another’s stories if we don’t remember names? We honor the person whose name we remember. Remembering names can be a struggle, I know. But it is important not to give up on this one. One man suggested that Paul managed to remember all these people’s names because “of their frequent mention in his personal prayer list.” [8] Hmmm …

Another way in which we honor each other is touched on by Paul in v. 16. Paul said to “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Now, do we need to kiss each other? No, I don’t think that is necessary. In Paul’s culture that was a normal greeting. In our culture, however, such a greeting is translated as honoring one another when we greet—being affectionate, looking one another in the eye, and under normal circumstances (when we aren’t in a worldwide pandemic), it’s giving a good handshake, and sometimes even a hug (although for the latter one be careful—some folks are very uncomfortable with that type of physical touch).

So, whether it is by remembering each other’s names, or stories, or giving the right sort of respectful acknowledgment in greetings, Christians must honor one another.

Thomas Moore wrote that “Storytelling is an excellent way of caring for the soul. It helps us see the themes that circle our lives…”[9] The big theme that circles the lives of Christians is the theme of Jesus Christ and his work in and among His people. It is the same theme that all Christians have been a part of in all eras. It is in this way that the story of the Christians in Rom. 16 is our story.

Let us take the time to know one another’s stories. Doing so, we are better enabled to take care of one another and honor one another. In this way, much like Moore wrote, we take care of our souls. We see Jesus in our lives and the lives of others. We are unified as the body of Christ, and strengthened in our faith.

Because we love one another, Christians must know one another’s stories.


[1] Army Regulation 165-1, Chaplain Activities in the United States Army (Washington D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 25 March 2004) Para. 10-5.a. Chaplain Assistant Training, p. 21.

[2] W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, Vol. II (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1886), 189.

[3] C. J. Hemer, “Pontus”, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Ed. Bromiley, Geoffrey W., Vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 903, 904.

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, The Early Church to the dawn of the Reformation, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984), 32.

[5] Ibid.


[7] Conybeare and Howson, 241fn.2.

[8] R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 296.

[9] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994), 13.