Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be fully qualified, and fully furnished unto every good work. (II Timothy 3:16-17, RVIC)
Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do. (I Thessalonians 5:11)
The Apostle Paul may not have imagined that one day, his writings would be included in the compilation of divinely inspired works that would come to be known as the Bible. At the time he wrote the words that became II Timothy, the scriptures, to him, probably encompassed not much more than what we now know as the Old Testament. In the years that have passed since Paul's time, the Bible in its entirety has come to be regarded by many Christians as the definitive source for the word of God. These consider the Bible to be the sole and sure means by which God has revealed Himself and His plan to His creation, mankind. Over the centuries, through divine direction, the Bible has come to be the work we know today. Students of the Bible expect that if God overruled matters such that a particular work, inspired by Him, became included in the Bible, then there is a reason for that inclusion. Although Paul was not referring to his own words when he wrote II Timothy 3:16, students today, who are blessed with the completed Bible and equally blessed with recognizing it as the inspired word of God, have little trouble applying Paul's words to the works of the New Testament as well.
One of the main themes of the Bible is the creation of mankind, its fall from perfection, and ultimate ransom and restitution. In harmony with that message are the prophecies regarding the deliverer of mankind's ransom, the Messiah, Jesus. To those blessed to comprehend it, another major message, woven throughout the Old and New Testaments is God's calling of a select group of mankind who, if found faithful, will share in the wonderful reward of existence with their glorified Lord. The portions of the Bible that stress these major themes are, as would be expected, routinely analyzed, studied and discussed by those who have turned their lives to pleasing God. However, some portions of the Bible, particularly portions that do not seem to connect directly with one of these themes, may receive a more cursory level of study and evaluation.
However, as Paul reminds us, all scripture that is inspired by God is worthy of study. The careful student of the Bible understands that if God overruled matters such that an inspired scripture remained in the Bible, then there is a reason, even if that reason is not immediately obvious.
An Old Testament Example
There are, perhaps, many reasons why those who become aware of the Bible's existence, even its importance, never actually complete a reading of it, let alone begin a habit of studying it. Some may be put off by the language and structure of the scriptures, finding them “dated”, “overly formal” or “confusing”. Some may have begun a reading of the Bible, beginning with Genesis, having every intention of completing it, but trail off in their resolve before doing so.
One chapter that is perhaps skimmed through by most casual readers is Genesis chapter 5. This chapter is a listing of the generations of mankind starting with Adam, down through Noah and his three sons. Many of the names in this chapter are never cited again in the Bible, and historical records of them are few, if existent at all. This may lead to the casual reader to determine that Genesis chapter 5 has little importance to themselves, or to mankind.
However, there came a time when certain truths about God's plan were due to be revealed by God, through the scriptures, and understood by mankind. Students of the Bible realized that Genesis chapter 5, not only lists the names of the descendants of Adam, down through Noah and his sons, but also records the number of years each of those descendants lived. Eventually, students of the Bible realized that this recording, in conjunction with other records throughout the Bible, revealed a timeline of events that allowed the careful student to construct an actual timeline of God's plan for mankind. This important timeline reveals, among other things, the time of Jesus's return, and blesses God's faithful ones in the present day with the understanding that the time of the full establishment of God's kingdom is well at hand.
(Note: for a more thorough examination of the timeline referred to above, and the place of Genesis chapter 5 in the calculation of that timeline, the interested reader may refer to the greater work The Time is at Hand, in particular, study two.)
The Closing Chapter of Romans
To those who seek to understand how to live a life that is pleasing to God, the book of Romans, written by the Apostle Paul, has long since held a special place of importance. Throughout the sixteen chapters of this book, Paul discusses many concepts critical to those who have chosen, like Paul did, to consecrate their lives to God's service. Many students of the Bible divide the book of Romans into roughly two sections. In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul lays out series of observations and logical arguments on the topic of justification by faith. In short, the concept of justification by faith dictates that one may achieve righteousness, or justification, in terms of God's justice, through belief in Jesus and his sacrifice on our behalf. By using the belief in that sacrifice as a foundation, those who choose to do so are able to consecrate their lives to God in the hopes of a grand reward.
The work of consecration to God is a lifetime process, and requires much effort on the part of the individual. This lifetime pursuit of letting go of the priorities of society and other earthly endeavors in favor of service to God is often referred to as “sanctification”. Sanctification is the main topic of the remaining five books of Romans. In these chapters, Paul offers many words of advice to the consecrated followers of God in the early church. These suggestions are as applicable to those seeking to fulfill their consecration vows to God today as they were to those in Paul's day. Included in these chapters are encouragements to remain humble yet active in God's service, as well as deeper levels of advice such as cautions against becoming stumbling blocks to others who may be seeking to fulfill their consecration vows to God.
The fifteenth, and penultimate chapter to Romans ends with Paul writing the word “Amen”. Through the use of this word, the reader may assume that Paul is concluding his thoughts. However, Romans continues on with one final sixteenth chapter. In the first twenty-three versus of this chapter, Paul takes the time to remember some of the brothers and sisters in the church who were obviously, as evidenced by his writings, very dear to him. He calls these individuals out by name, and in some cases, lists details of their works and in others, sends salutations to them. Many of these individuals are not mentioned in any other place in the Bible.
Like the previously examined Genesis chapter 5, the casual reader of the Bible may gloss over Romans chapter 16 and the listings of these individuals. However, as Paul himself advises us in II Timothy, all scripture that is inspired by God is suitable for study and instruction in righteousness. If these verses exist in the Bible, and if the Bible is the mechanism by which God reveals Himself to mankind, then God must have overruled matters to have these verses included in the Bible, down through the centuries, for us, in the present day. It therefore seems appropriate to reflect on Romans chapter 16, and attempt to determine what lessons or helps can be found in Paul's words.
Priorities of God's Consecrated Followers
When attempting to determine potential meaning in any pursuit, it is often helpful to frame the search for meaning in terms of one's goals or priorities. For example, if one has a goal to bake a cake, one might be expected to refer to a cookbook with the expectation of locating a recipe that will assist with the creation of the cake. In like fashion, it may be helpful to frame Romans chapter 16 from the perspective of what goals or priorities a consecrated individual, pursuing a life pleasing to God, may be expected to have, and see what helps or lessons the chapter may provide with these goals. Thus, a reasonable question could be, what goals should an individual who is seeking membership in “the little flock”, the class of consecrated followers of God, prioritize?
During his first advent, Jesus was asked this question, of how one may live a life pleasing to God, and thus obtain the reward promised to those who do. His response was straightforward, and is just as applicable to those living today as it was to those who directly received his response.
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. (Matthew 22:37-38)
Jesus also expressed that he considered those who sought to follow this command to the best of their abilities his friends. As such, he also commanded his followers that they should love each other even as Jesus himself loved them.
This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. (John 15:12-14)
It is clear from Jesus' words that those who seek to follow him need to prioritize both keeping their vows of loving and serving God as the primary goal in their life. Secondarily, all need to seek to assist others who have likewise consecrated their lives to God with keeping their vows. If, then, these two goals are of such importance to those seeking to maintain their vows to God, a reasonable approach to examining scriptures may include reflecting on the scripture's ability to guide or assist one in the growth of one or both of these critical priorities. Viewing Paul's words in Romans chapter 16 through this lens may, then, assist with obtaining valuable advice for the reader who has dedicated their life to these goals.
Even a casual student of the New Testament will no doubt be struck by Paul's dedication and passion for serving God and in following the example laid down by Jesus. He took his mission to spread the Gospel to not only the Jewish people, but those not of the Jewish faith, the Gentiles, as well. Paul understood that God was calling people from many different backgrounds, with many diverse talents, thought processes, backgrounds and strengths. In the fourtheenth chapter of I Corinthians, Paul addresses this diversity, starting with the simple statement:
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:4)
During his life, particularly during the time of his consecrated service to God, Paul traveled extensively to not only spread the Gospel message to all those who would hear it, but also to visit those who, like himself, were striving to consecrate their lives and their works to God. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Paul, during his life, must have come into contact with a great number of people. In his day, without the benefit of phones, computers or mail, it was no doubt difficult for Paul to keep in touch with as many as he would have liked to. It may also have been difficult for Paul to keep track of all of the many people he encountered during his travels.
Yet, in the sixteenth chapter of Romans, we find the majority of the chapter dedicated to Paul's remembrance of, and salutations to, many of those he considered his brothers and sisters in Christ. In these verses, he takes the time to remember those whose service to God he noticed. He calls out a faithful sister, Phebe, in verses one and two, and in “commending” her to the receivers of the letter that became the book of Romans, lays a foundation for the facilitation of assistance with Phebe's work in God's service by the letter's recipients. He calls out two more people, Priscilla and Aquila, who, at one point, risked their lives to assist Paul during a time of need. He calls out Andronicus and Junia, calling them “his kinsmen” and “fellowprisoners”, and assures the reader, and them, that their work was known among the apostles. Imagine some labor you are performing in God's service, and having someone like Paul tell you that your work was known to the actual apostles!
Throughout the verses, he lists out many other brothers and sisters in Christ, some he provides heartfelt salutations to, some he calls out as having “labored much in the Lord”, and some he refers to not as names, but simply as “saints”.
By all evidences, Paul was an extremely humble servant of God. Throughout his life, he maintained a keen awareness of his shortcomings, and considered himself, in his own estimation, “the least of the apostles”:
For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (I Corinthians 15:9)
However, Paul was also no doubt aware that many in the early church of Christ undoubtedly did not consider him so, and held him in some esteem. In taking the time to specifically remember many of he early members of the church he had visited, Paul provided these early brothers and sisters with an encouragement in their service. No doubt, even Paul was unaware that their names would be recorded in scripture to be studies centuries later by those still seeking to consecrate their lives to God. In his humble manner, Paul recognized the strengths and talents of many of these brethren, and by remembering those works or strengths in his words, he demonstrated that a kind word can have an edifying effect on the recipient. Even those who he simply sent salutations, either by name or by the term “saints”, Paul demonstrated that they were being remembered by him. In these few simple words of remembrance and salutation, he validated their importance to him. By seeing their importance to other brethren, especially one such as Paul, the recipients of these encouragements and salutations no doubt felt more accepted into the fellowship of Christ, and that their works, at whatever level their talents allowed, were important to Paul, important to the church, and thus important to the Lord they sought to serve.
Edifying Our Brethren in the Present Day
The scriptures are clear that, for those who choose to consecrate their lives to God, many of the people they encounter or interact with will not understand their choice. In another his writings, Paul refers to this concept by referring to mankind in general as “the natural man”, and contrasting them against those who have been blessed with an understanding of God and the scriptures:
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (I Corinthians 2:14)
Jesus, himself, described the path of consecration to God as a “narrow way”, and further stated that few among mankind would “find” this path:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:14)
Further, Jesus made it very clear to his followers that an individual who chose to follow his teachings and enter the “narrow way” of consecration to God, could expect to receive negative feedback from mankind in general, just as he experienced during his first advent:
Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. (John 15:20)
Taking all of these scriptures into account, a reasonable expectation on behalf on one who chose to seek the “narrow way” would be, to a certain degree, a potential separateness from the rest of mankind. Much of mankind is consumed with “living their best lives.”. For many, that definition is one of living a life of adventure, of travel, of new experiences, of enjoying the time they have in this lifetime. From mankind's perspective, there may be nothing inherently wrong with these pursuits. However, these pursuits distract from the simple yet profound instructions that Jesus gave to those who seek a consecrated life, and thus membership in “the little flock” examined earlier, which is to place God first in one's life, and to seek to assist others who have likewise done so.
For those who are, perhaps, keenly feeling the separation between themselves and the majority of mankind, a simple salutation of acceptance, a few kind words of acceptance as a fellow brother or sister in Christ, can be a blessing and an encouragement beyond words. When one becomes aware of discouragement or difficulties of another, a simple card, offering sympathy or prayers or a few words or scriptures, can serve as a reminder that despite the narrowness of the way and in spite of the non-understanding of the vast majority of mankind no one who labors in “the narrow way” is alone in this world. The receipt of a card of remembrance from even a previously unknown brother or sister may serve to reinforce to the recipient that their work is seen; their presence known; and through that acceptance, may provide the much needed encouragement to take that one more needed step along the path before them.
Human nature causes us to gravitate to those who are known or similar to us. When a congregation of the Lord's people gathers together, it is, perhaps, easy to allow the majority of one's time to be devoted to those of old acquaintance, or of family that one may hold very dear. Part of edifying our brethren may involve remembering that all who are called to “the narrow way” are considered brethren, and thus family, by Jesus himself:
Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother. (Matthew 12:47-50)
God has called forth individuals from all types of different backgrounds and with all types of different personalities. Some will naturally be more outgoing than others. However, if one has answered the call to “the narrow way”, then assuredly each and every one longs for membership in the Church, and the fellowship of not only their Lord, but of the brethren he loves. Reaching out to those less outgoing, to those more reserved, may provide a level of reinforcement, and certainly a reassurance of acceptance, that may be otherwise difficult for those of such personalities to achieve, and perhaps, overtime, allow them to soften their reserve and forge new and stronger bonds with their brethren.
Further note how, in the verses of Romans 16, Paul takes the time to recognize some of the specific works and services performed by those he considered his brothers and sisters. As noted earlier, God has called forth individuals with a wide array of talents and strengths. Some of these talents may be more visible than others. Some individuals naturally display a strength in public speaking. Others may be able to grasp more readily some of the more intricate aspects of the scriptures such as chronology or prophecy. Some have musical talents that can wonderfully express praise to the glory of God. For others, perhaps many, their talents may be more subtle, less obvious. However, if God has called them forth into His service, then He sees a need for them above countless others. They are bringing, or are capable of bringing, something that the Supreme Architect of the Universe determined was necessary for the completion of His glorious plan for all of mankind. While it is true that Paul remembered in the verses those who had saved his very life, he also took the time to remember Phebe, who carried his letter to the church. He remembered Andronicus and Junia, who had served God by remaining faithful to their commitments even through imprisonment; a condition that would certainly not have been looked on favorably by society in general at that time. Even more, he assured them, and the recipients of the letter, that they were known not only to him, but to the other Apostles as well. Imagine hearing those words! He additionally called out and remembers Persis, who “labored much in the Lord.” Although we are not told the details of Persis' labors, the very fact that Paul recognized them may have been a validation that his labors were not in vain and that they were a testimony to his love for God and to his commitment to his vows.
When interacting with our brethren, particularly when reaching out to brethren that may be little known to us, considering Paul's words may serve as a reminder that all prospective members of the Church are contributing something, even if that something is unseen. When our course is complete, and our path has been finished, all those who have faithfully kept their commitments will leave behind some evidence of those commitments. Some in “the little flock” may have difficulties in recognizing their own contributions or talents as significant. When undertaking any project, relying on those who are known to us is a comfortable path forward. Taking the time to include brethren who may be unknown to us in our projects in God's service may be a considerable blessing on both sides. Not all who desire to labor in projects in God's service know how to start. Reaching out, taking the time to know and understand the abilities and efforts of our brethren, such as Paul did when he visited the various early churches, can provide a strengthening to the bonds of the Church, and ultimately assist all involved with a further means to glorify God.
Romans chapter 16 can be, perhaps, an easy chapter of the Bible to skim over. However, given that it is part of the Bible, this chapter, like any other scripture, has much to teach those who are striving to become members of “the little flock”. By taking the time to remember the brethren of his day, whether recognizing their works or by simply remembering them in general, Paul provides a concrete and positive example for all those down through the ages, to us, in the present day regarding the privilege all have of assisting their brethren in their progression in God's service.
None who have consecrated their lives to God have done so because they seek recognition, either from mankind or even from their fellow brethren. Those who are members of this group do so to demonstrate their love for God, and for his Son, whose commandments they seek to follow. Edification of one's brethren does not mean to “build them up” to stand taller than others, as so often happens in the world and even in Christianity itself. Edification of one's brethren means recognizing their work, their existence as potential members of the body of Christ, to help them meet that goal of “sealing the word of God in their foreheads”. Doing so will assist them in their efforts to remain faithful to their commitments of consecration to God, and ultimately, to join in the wonderful reward promised to all who are found worthy by Him.