Rome was the largest city in the Mediterranean region of the ancient Roman Empire during the New Testament era. People from around the globe, perhaps as many as one million in number, lived in Rome. Though every citizen was expected to pledge complete submission to the Emperor (the Imperial Cult), it was a center of religious plurality. Under the influence of Greek culture and mythology most Romans were polytheists, worshiping many different gods and demigods. It was a city of temples, shrines, and places of worship. Most religious practices were tolerated as long as they didn't conflict with the expectations of the Imperial Cult.
The first century was a time of relative peace, what historians have called the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), a 200 year period of military restraint until around 180 A.D. Rome was the center of government, the residence of the emperor and members of the Senate. Though it was not a coastal city, Rome was located on the Tiber River and was therefore a center of commerce and trade. Historians estimate that as many as 50,000 Jewish people lived there. The Christian church in Rome is thought to have been established by Jewish believers who had encountered Christ in their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem, or Roman citizens who had heard Peter's message and had professed Christ on the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:10-11).
Christians were perhaps the most reviled religious community in the Roman world. Even though the Pax Romana tolerated many religious practices and sects, the Christian commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord created significant tension. We must remember that the Apostle Paul and Simon Peter were martyred there during that time of peace. Christians in Rome were persecuted, burned at the stake, and killed as Romans cheered their death in staging arenas. At the same time, there was intense conflict among the house churches meeting around the city. Jewish and Gentile believers were often at odds. All concluding that the Roman church faced many obstacles and hindrances.
Paul's Epistle to the Romans did not specifically address the specific needs of the impoverished Christians there. He wrote to them about the Gospel, the truth of salvation. He emphasized what later became known as the doctrine of sola fide, faith alone as he basis of personal redemption. One author proposed that Romans is the theologically richest of all the Pauline letters. The Roman letter forms the basis of much of our systematic theology.
Romans 16 could be called the greeting chapter. It was signed by Paul's amanuensis (literary assistant), Tertius, who actually penned Paul's thoughts. In Romans 16, Paul sent greetings to 29 different people, asking the recipients of the letter to give greetings to them by name. These specific greetings are another indication of the importance of warm greetings to people facing trials, tests, and the probability of suffering. They may have been leaders in the house churches of Rome. In any event, his words of greeting were specific and intentional. Paul obviously believed that his greeting would encourage and lift them. It is significant to remember that Paul didn't found the church at Rome and had never visited them at the time of his writing. Yet, he knew many of them by name and intentionally asked that they receive this special greeting from him. Who are they? Here's a list---
Phoebe, Prisca, Aquila, the church at their house, Epaenetus (the first convert in Asia), Mary, Andronicus, Junia, Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles, Aristobulus, Herodian,
Narcissus, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus, his mother, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes,
Patrobus, Hermas, the brothers, Philologus, Julia, Nereus, his sister, and Olympus.
The Apostle Paul was a remarkable servant of Christ. He traveled much of the ancient world, planted churches, trained many ministry colleagues, and wrote many letters, 13 of which are in of the New Testament. His rich itinerary expanded his circle of influence to include hundreds of fellow first century believers. The text of Romans 16 indicates his personal knowledge and relationship with ten of the individuals receiving his personal greetings. The other 19 of them were known to him through others. That he sent greetings to them as well indicate his pastor's heart and desire to encourage and bless them. His remembrance of them challenges me in several ways---
1. Evidently greetings to others we encounter in ministry and mission is significant. My memory isn't what it used to be but I can still name most of the people who have influenced my career change, education, pastoral service in four wonderful congregations, my time with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, weddings, funerals, and times of personal stress. Paul's word to those 29 people should be my model for continued connection to the people so important in this personal journey. This is an area of personal growth for me.
2. We don't always know the life situation of the people in our circle of influence. That is one of the reasons we should be a source warmth and blessing to the people we value, and to those we meet along the way. They may need our greeting and friendship in hard and difficult times. The stress of time commitments is often our excuse for not doing so. I should be more attentive to opportunities for kindness to the people who have been partners over the years.
3. Expressions of warmth and kindness will always bless us. Reading through Romans 16: 3-16 I could sense the joy and thanksgiving Paul felt as he called those names and sent those greetings. Those people gave value and strength to his life and service. The same would be true for most of us. Me too.
Perhaps that's the reason "greet one another" is mentioned so many times in his letters. Romans 16 is symptomatic of Paul's gratitude and joy in having known and served with the ones he greeted.