If our church could bring any expert from any time or place, how much would the counsel of the Apostle Paul be worth? It is obvious it would be worth more than could easily be calculated. Yet, we DO have an opportunity to “bring Paul in” and listen to his counsel for the church. We have something even MORE. We have the God-inspired directives Paul recorded, that were more than his mere impressions of how the body should behave.
When you need to teach another, there are two ways that are extremely effective. The first is to model, or show them how by doing it in front of them. The second is to offer specific and measurable verbal instruction on what to do. Paul closed his letter to the Romans with both model and verbal instruction.
Key Principle: Healthy practices for believers are not intuitive; they must be learned.
Let’s take a look first at the way Paul modeled healthy discipleship for people of his time.
Paul’s Model of Healthy Discipleship
It is significant in my mind the record of modeling preceded and is longer than the record of final instructions. We could argue that Paul had been instructing them for chapters, and that would be a fair observation. Yet, when it came time for a summary of what God wanted to do among the people of Rome and in the church body, the modeling was more profoundly recorded than the final instructions.
It is important that we remember that people get more from our example then from our words, particularly if they are close to us. Any good parent knows that our children observe our way before they hear our words. The same is true in a work setting, a community setting – and yes, even in a church setting. People are watching you, whether you are conscious of it or not. Your behaviors are being recorded, even when you aren’t asking anyone to notice you.
Here are some of the behaviors that Paul demonstrated as God used his life to model ministry and healthy discipleship:
Paul looked out for others in ministry.
Before you dig deeply, notice that Paul didn’t ignore or overlook the contributions of many people as he wrapped up the letter. On first glance, you will easily see the chapter is FILLED with names of people. Look at the opening two verses:
Romans 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; 2 that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.
Tucked into the verses there is a reference and two directives given by the apostle. He explained that Phoebe was a servant (the word is the same as “deaconess” and may mean that she held that office, if such an office was formed at that time). In any case, she was a proper servant of Jesus, and was to be seen as such. In that context, Paul called on the people to both “receive” her and “help” her.
Here we can easily notice three things:
Paul took time to point out people that might have easily been un-noticed by the body. Believers don’t mean to overlook people – but we must recognize that we DO overlook people.
Paul made clear that those who had a testimony of service must be more carefully regarded than others who just had strong opinions about things. More regard should be given to those who are actively engaged in the work than to those who simply want to call from the sidelines with their opinion about how they would do it if they were busy at the task.
Paul called believers to trust this servant to know what she needed, and be willing to provide it. He didn’t make them into a committee to give counsel on the work. He asked them to provide and assist, not counsel and coach.
Paul remembered what others did for him.
Paul didn’t only recall people that worked hard for the body; he recalled people who made a difference in his life. Take a look at verse three:
Romans 16:3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who for my life risked their own necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles; 5 also greet the church that is in their house.
Did you notice the words “risked their own necks” in verse four? As best we can tell, this was no simple idiom at the time. It appears they were in danger of hanging or strangulation.
Ritual strangulation was the favored Roman means of execution that avoided bloodshed. It was the only form of death routinely practiced within the city of Rome. There are many examples:
Assinoe, Cleopatra’s younger sister was a failed rebel queen, and was captured by Julius Caesar. He had already promised loyalty to Cleopatra’s claim of reign over Egypt, and he made known he was planning to have Assinoe strangled (as he did with Vercingetorix, the Gallic leader who had surrendered to him). The crowd rejected the notion that a noble girl be publicly shamed beforehand and thus Caesar found himself unable politically to follow through (but later Marc Antony authorized the deed).
It is very likely that Priscilla and Aquila faced a judgment they were argued from by a lawyer on behalf of housing Paul and promoting the work he had among them. They may have been found reading his letters in a meeting. We simply don’t know.
We should remember that our faith was first lived out by people at great peril and profound sacrifice. Many died in Paul’s generation simply because they followed Jesus, and lived as one body in Christ. Paul remembered those who took risk – especially for him and his ministry.
Paul remembered who God reached in his ministry.
Romans 16:5b …Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first convert to Christ from Asia.
Paul fondly recalled Epaenetus, and recalled those who came to Christ because of his ministry. What an encouragement! He looked back on his life and could see the faces of those who would be eternally in Heaven because God gave him a moment to preach or teach and God opened their hearts! He never forgot them. If you have such faces, you won’t either!
Paul interconnected believers (and reminded them to commend others for their service).
Romans 16:6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. …12 Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa, workers in the Lord. Greet Persis the beloved, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brethren with them. 15 Greet Philologus and 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.
Paul greeted many, and let them greet each other – because Paul wanted to join people together. Mature believers aren’t just trying to join people to Jesus; but are trying to tie believers together in the here and now. We are family builders. We are networkers. We want people to connect.
Note something else…
Paul’s connections were deep with other believers.
Romans 16:8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and Stachys my beloved. 10 Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ. Greet those who are of the household of Aristobulus. 11 Greet Herodion, my kinsman. Greet those of the household of Narcissus, who are in the Lord.
Listen to the words “beloved” and “approved” and “kinsman.” Recently I was dealing with a man who was leaving his church to go to another because he didn’t like some of the things that went on at his original church. It wasn’t sin; the church was making decisions that didn’t suit his preferences. He became disgruntled, and like any American “shopper” he decided to vote with his feet. He left. When I spoke to him, I asked him if it hurt him to leave the other people in the church. “Why would it?” He asked. I explained that he wasn’t really a part of that church. He was a spectator, not a family member. When we deeply connect, walking away becomes hard. It is supposed to become difficult. Paul felt and expressed a deep connection to other believers.
Paul connected to a team in every place he ministered.
Romans 16:21 Timothy my fellow worker greets you, and so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen. 22 I, Tertius, who write this letter, greet you in the Lord. 23 Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus, the brother. 24 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
After the picture that Paul left us with his work, we should take a few moments to listen to his last instructions, and hear his heart for the church at Rome. Echoing over the ages, we see these same issues are still with us in the church of our time.
Paul’s Final Instructions to Healthy Believers
Paul pressed the churches to be vigilant about shutting down people pushing other agendas.
Romans 16:17 Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. 18 For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.
Believers have to be trained (including those of us who lead) to put ourselves under the text of the Word and the domination of the Spirit of God. Those who resist that will divide the body, and must be dealt with.
Let’s look at three aspects of this instruction:
First, WHO is included in this?
Note the terms: “those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teachings which you learned.” Now look at verse eighteen and observe “slaves…to their own appetites.” You get the impression that these are people who cause disruption because what they want to do is add license to something God has told the church not to do. Because the issue seems to be their appetites, it appears they want to draw the church into something that satiates a desire, but not something that was allowed by the apostles in their teaching and establishment of the church.
Beloved, the church wasn’t designed to be “edgy.” We don’t have to look and sound like throw-backs to the fifties, but we also cannot ride every new popular trend. We have to measure what we will be involved in entirely on the teachings of the Word as they have been given to us.
Let me caution you here: the teachings of the Word mean the proper understanding and application of the text. Because people used to believe something was wrong, and they thought the Bible was the reason for that belief – did not mean the Bible taught what they thought.
Missionaries to Hawaii, one hundred years ago, taught the Hawaiians to wear long underwear under their grass skirts in order to be truly “modest” in the Victorian sense of the term. There is no Biblical prohibition to wearing grass skirts in tropical climates, but the missionaries from Europe and America felt the Bible justified their teaching. When other missionaries indicated that was an oversimplification of the text, they were immediately seen as liberal and compromising.
I have lived through the “evil” of PowerPoint worship words, the “horror” of drum sets in worship, and a variety of other strong opinions that were framed as Biblical values, but were really cultural preferences. The Bible is filled with references to worship with drums, but if the Beatles and Stones had them, they represented the introduction of the devil into the sanctuary. After all, if people keep the beat by tapping their feet, they will abandon all sensual restraints, won’t they? Don’t giggle! I have sat through those sermons!
At the same time, just because a practice has been largely accepted in the world, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t carefully examine it under the microscope of the Word of God. We should, and must be sure it does not pull the church away from God in licensing something for which God has not given approval.
Second, WHAT is the church told to do about them?
There are two primary instructions: “keep your eye on” and “turn away from them” in the two verses. Take those two apart.
It is not a negative thing for elders, team leaders and those who are given charge over some area of the flock to watch out for things that would divide the work and appeal to the flesh in an “out of bounds” way. That is part of leadership. Though the term “keep your eye on” is given to all of the brethren, functionally speaking it was a leadership issue. We don’t want, need or accept the idea that everyone has equal right to walk up to someone else here and tell them what to do. That isn’t how leadership works. There are people in the body who will watch over the flock. If you are appointed as one of them – do the job. If you aren’t – don’t try to play a role you weren’t given. It only hurts people and disrupts the work without any accountable system to fix what breaks.
Let me be clear: If you don’t like the temperature, ask an usher about it. Don’t touch the control. You aren’t appointed to do that. In that same vein: if you see a young woman from our teen group wearing something you find too loose or too suggestive – don’t take it on yourself to address the issue with the young lady without relationship. There are two options here: build the relationship first, or find the shepherd of that young lady in the ministry. Among our youth, we have both men and women leading them, because they include both in that ministry.
Finally, HOW do we spot those who are a danger to the body?
We cannot “keep an eye” out for those who are bringing in contradictory license and disrupting the body if we don’t know what the Word teaches. We need to be careful to separate what momma taught me, and what I actually have verses and application for in the proving of a teaching. If we take the time to study, pray and seek God – we will hear His direction. It may be exactly what we were told. In my experience, it may just as well NOT be what we thought it was.
Paul made clear innocence isn’t naïve.
Romans 16:19 For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.
If you look closely at what Paul wanted them to really know and understand, it was a life of things he called “good.” The word (ag-ath-os’) means something that is “intrinsically good, good by its nature.” These “good things” were what believers were to “become wise” in, (to “become wise” is the Greek word “sophos” the word from which we get “sophistry and sophisticated). In other words, believers were instructed to become learned, cultivated, skilled and clever in things that were intrinsically good.
All around us we find people who place a high value on “street smart,” but often what they mean by it is actually “sin smart.” For so many, even among believers, you “really know what is going on” when you understand every element of base humor used by evening talk show hosts. When you know “slang” you are smart.
Paul didn’t place the value there; he placed it on people who became clever at things that were good by their nature. Honestly, it gets tougher and tougher, but we have to teach those who come behind us what is truly good, and how to cultivate that within them.
Art and beauty are good. We need to learn more of the great masters who tried to reflect God’s design in the world, and less of the artists who had a world view of a shattered existence. The world had many who wrote intricate pieces of music to reflect God’s greatness, and they are getting buried under a pile of one hit wonders that appeal to sensuality until they die a lonely death on the discount rack a few weeks later.
There is beauty, there is good, and our world has many praiseworthy things we can master – but we must reflect the value of learning those things. I applaud those who are pushing their children to be both practical and play a musical instrument, both hard working and art conscious. They are teaching them to value “good.” That is what Paul would applaud.
He ended with a note of confidence and praise, because that is the “tone” a believer should possess.
Paul shared confidence God would bring victory in their churches.
Romans 16:20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you… 25 Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, 26 but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.
Paul made three things clear:
First, God was about to act in a way among them that would result in Satan’s crushing. He wasn’t going to get the last word or the best of them. God was on the move, and the points Satan had “on the board” were about to get run over.
Second, Paul shared that victory would come in the grace of the Lord, not solely because of their efforts. Our works give God an opportunity to show Himself strong through us, but they aren’t a NEED. God can show up and bless us (and He does) at any time, whether we have done anything to prepare for it or not. Grace is undeserved. We must always be reminded the things we have received from Him were not because of us, but because of His goodness.
Third and finally, Paul made clear that Jesus is the One Who is building up the believers through the truth and getting them ready to present to His Father. This was the truth proclaimed through the ages. We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus. We are His poem. He is at work in us to show the grand design of the Master planner. God is at work changing us to be something incredible.
It may seem strange that the apostle seemed to end on a set of things that share a common thread of grace. On the surface, they seem passive. It looks like we could conclude: “Since God is crushing the enemy and Jesus is bringing us to victory and preparing us to meet His Father—and since we are a “work in progress” of God, doesn’t that sort of imply that what I become isn’t about MY EFFORT, but rather HIS WORK?
In a way, it does imply that. At the same time, it followed many words of instruction in the letter. In other words, this is a balancing truth. We are to do right; but our doing isn’t the whole story. We are to walk with God, but our walk alone isn’t what will make us acceptable to the Father.
You are to work to become what God intended you to be when He saved you – but you cannot complete any of that “becoming” without the good hand of God and the grace of God creating in your life a thousand things you cannot deserve and would not have thought to pick up along the way. God helps you put in your tool box things you don’t know you need when He tells you to put them there. He offers you experiences that change you, that YOU don’t see coming. He gives you people who will impact your life powerfully on a morning you didn’t know something life-changing would be said or explained. God is at work to give you what you don’t know you need, to make you better than you have planned. He is the only wise God. In the end, when you see how He placed things in your life, you will praise Him in Heaven and see He is every bit worthy of that praise.
That perspective will make you healthy – but it requires more than obedience; it requires the grace of God that He freely gives, even when we aren’t looking. Knowing that truth, in that knowledge we will be pressed to become grateful in advance of each gift of God. We have to learn it; it doesn’t come naturally.