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Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 16:3-6

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[a] to Christ in Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.

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Last week’s post was about Phoebe, the first person Paul commended to the Romans in the final part of his letter to them.

John MacArthur explains the significance of naming so many people he had met during his ministry who were now in Rome (emphases mine):

… the first insight into his love and into his relationships with people, his accountability, his dependency is related to this commendation. Now let’s look at the second one and that’s his cordiality. And that takes us from verse 3 all the way to verse 23 with a little break in verses 17 to 20 … But starting in verse 3 we begin a list of names that runs down to verse 16 and then stops where there’s a greeting. And then we pick up more names in verse 21 to 23. Now all of these names really extend to us insight into Paul’s love, because it’s a whole lot of cordiality, a whole lot of loving greeting to everybody. It is a real display of open love. He greets the saints. I love the fact that he knows who they are. I mean, they’re not a lot of nameless folks. This is not a man who is so isolated from reality, who is so into his own thing, who has reached such a level of esteem in the minds of everybody and in himself that he just loses touch with everybody. Not at all.

We see here, Paul knew who was his helper. Paul knew who stood by him. And he loved them and they were an essential part of his life. The breadth of his ministry, the sweep of it can be seen in the fact that though he has never been to Rome he names here 24 individuals, 17 men and seven women, and he names two households along with some unnamed brothers and unnamed sisters in the Savior who are at Rome. Though he had never been there he had been instrumental in winning so many to Christ who had gone to Rome and were now there as a part of that church in that great city. Undoubtedly what we have in these 24 individuals and two households and unnamed sisters and brothers is a catalogue of very choice Christians.

The next people he mentions were Prisca — Priscilla — and her husband Aquila (verse 3), formerly of Rome but exiled when the emperor Claudius decreed that all Jews had to leave the city. They went to live in Corinth, in Greece.

Those who know the Book of Acts or who read my series on it, will remember this couple from Acts 18:1-4. My post has a description not only of Corinth but also of this couple, who, like Paul, were tent makers. They welcomed Paul into their home and the three became close friends. He stayed with them for quite a while, then the three moved on to Ephesus, where Priscilla and Aquila founded the church there (Acts 18:18-19).

While they were in Ephesus, they instructed Apollos more precisely in scriptural doctrine enabling him to prove in his preaching that Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 18:24-28).

Many Bible scholars believe that Priscilla is named before her husband because she had a more dominant personality. Others say that her command of Scripture was better than her husband’s. In any event, she was the first female preacher.

Priscilla and Aquila were still in the city when young Timothy was preaching (2 Timothy 4:19).

They had risked their lives for Paul (verse 4). Corinth was a dangerous place for Christians. Phoebe hosted worship services for Corinthians in her house in Cenchreae, the port outside of Corinth.

Matthew Henry’s commentary explains:

They exposed themselves to secure Paul, hazarded their own lives for the preservation of his, considering how much better they might be spared than he. Paul was in a great deal of danger at Corinth, while he sojourned with them; but they sheltered him, though they thereby made themselves obnoxious to the enraged multitudes, Acts 18:12,17. It was a good while ago that they had done Paul this kindness; and yet he speaks as feelingly of it as if it had been but yesterday.

Paul says that all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.

MacArthur says that is because they protected Paul:

Why are they thankful? Because they’re all a product of Paul’s ministry, right? And a dead Paul means the end of everything.

So it’s not only that I’m thankful for them, everybody else is thankful for them. I mean, we don’t know that story. We say, “Oh the apostle Paul, the apostle Paul, isn’t it marvelous, what a man.” But do we need to be reminded that it may have been that there would have been nothing but a dead body had it not been for these two rather obscure dear people who were willing to lay their head on a chopping block to spare the life of that man they knew God had anointed? That’s great devotion, great devotion.

MacArthur points out that Paul refers to Prisca rather than Priscilla:

Priscilla is a diminutive form which is used by Luke. Luke favors the diminutive forms on many names whereas Paul favors the more classical formal forms. This is true not only of Prisca and Priscilla, but of Silas and Silvanus. That tends to be a difference between Luke and Paul.

Once Claudius died, Prisca and Aquila moved back to Rome:

… they had returned to Rome because of the death of Claudius, so the banishing of the Jews was a past matter.

They held worship in their house in Rome (verse 5). As it was a large city, Christians worshipped in various people’s houses. Prisca and Aquila’s home was but one of those locations.

MacArthur says:

Now here they are in Rome and their house is open to house the church. Oh this is a magnanimous couple. On the one hand they have laid down their life for the great apostle Paul. On the other hand they have opened their home to the church. Now you’ll get a flow as we go through here and you’ll find out that the church in Rome met in several places. The church in Rome was not always meeting in one place, they had no building. So they were meeting in varying homes. They were really a whole lot of Flocks, a whole lot of home Bible studies and since the church could only come together in a public place, perhaps outdoors for maybe the Lord’s Table or a love feast or a communion or a great celebration of some kind, its weekly meetings would have to be held in the homes of those who were gracious enough to open them for the use of the church.

The next person Paul mentions is Epaenetus, the first convert in Asia (verse 5), which in those days meant Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).

The King James Version states ‘Achaia’ rather than ‘Asia’. If that is true, then Epaenetus came from Greece, as that is where Achaia is located.

Henry says:

Of Epenetus it is further said that he was the first-fruit of Achaia unto Christ; not only one of the most eminent believers in that country, but one of the first that was converted to the faith of Christ: one that was offered up to God by Paul, as the first-fruits of his ministry there; an earnest of a great harvest; for in Corinth, the chief city of Achaia, God had much people, Acts 18:10. Special respect is to be paid to those that set out early, and come to work in the vineyard at the first hour, at the first call. The household of Stephanas is likewise said to be the first-fruits of Achaia, 1 Corinthians 16:15. Perhaps Epenetus was one of that household; or, at least, he was one of the first three; not the first alone, but one of the first fleece of Christians, that the region of Achaia afforded.

MacArthur leans towards Asia Minor and says that Epaenetus had reason to move to Rome:

Now who is Epaenetus? He is the first fruits of Asia unto Christ, the first convert in Asia Minor, which is now modern Turkey. Asia Minor had the city Ephesus and all the other cities mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3, the cities of Laodicea, Philadelphia, Smyrna, Sardis, and Thyatira, Pergamos and Ephesus, they were all there in Asia Minor. The first convert in Asia was Epaenetus and now he is in Rome, a part of the church at Rome, moved there for whatever reason. He calls him, and here you get to see the love of Paul, “My well beloved.” There’s little doubt in my mind that there was something significant about the first convert in Asia, don’t you think? The first one that came to Christ, Epaenetus, had a special place of affection in the heart of Paul. And he is the first fruits. Now the fact that he was the first fruits means that many others followed, right? He doesn’t say he’s the only fruit, he says he’s the what? The first fruit, the first fruit not unto me, but “the first fruit unto Christ.”

And you know, don’t you, that he is the one to whom all the first fruits are offered. Go back to chapter 15 verse 16, how Paul says that he offers up the Gentiles to God as a sacrifice, an offering, and the first…the first fruits of his ministry in Asia that he offered to Christ is none other than Epaenetus, who has a special place in his heart. We know nothing more about this man at all. But Paul loved him greatly and Paul knew where he was, I like that, he knew he was in Rome. He followed these people. He understood where they were because they were so deeply ingrained in his life.

The next person Paul mentions is a lady named Mary, who has ‘worked hard’ for the church in Rome (verse 6).

MacArthur says that the Greek word used means that she worked tirelessly, to the point of exhaustion:

The word is a strong word, it means to labor to the point of weariness, it’s that very familiar verb kopia. It means to work to sweat and exhaustion. And he says greet her who bestowed much labor on you.

He surmises that Prisca and Aquila must have told Paul about Mary:

the best idea is that Aquila and Priscilla who had come from Rome would have informed Paul about her and this dear lady that had given so much labor to the church was known to him through the testimony of Aquila and Priscilla. And the idea of much labor expresses the fact that she probably had been an early part of the church at Rome. The fact that it’s in the past tense indicates that by now she may have been very old and her labor was much behind her. And he commends with a loving greeting this woman who in the past rendered much labor to the establishing and the developing of the church of the believers in Rome.

Henry’s commentary says that Paul might have met Mary elsewhere during his ministry:

Some think this Mary had been at some of those places where Paul was, though now removed to Rome, and had personally ministered to him; others think Paul speaks of her labour as bestowed upon him because it was bestowed upon his friends and fellow-labourers, and he took what was done to them as done to himself.

It is fascinating that the names of these people have been recorded and will be forever remembered in the New Testament.

We can be grateful to Bible scholars who made the effort to research their lives through the ages. MacArthur mentions JB Lightfoot, an Anglican priest from the Victorian era and  William Barclay, a 20th century Church of Scotland minister:

we could just read names and say, well, we don’t know who they are, and go on. But there are some in history who couldn’t do that and we’re grateful to them. A great exegetical commentator by the name of J.B. Lightfoot seemed to be preoccupied with finding out who all these people were. And he has some fascinating data. William Barclay, also personally preoccupied with trying to find out who all these people were, adds some very important and interesting data and I want to intersect with a little bit of that, anyway, as we go through because I want you to see that these are flesh and blood real people. And some of them, even the New Testament gives us a little information about.

There are plenty more names and insights to follow in the weeks ahead.

Next time — Romans 16:7-10

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