Women are Essential Workers
Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 16:1-16
(The audio is not edited at this time. will republish when edited version is available)
Today’s Mother’s Day, and I figured we should probably take a break from Job, because in the next section of Job, he talks about wishing his mother had miscarried. I figured that probably wouldn’t make for the best Mother’s Day sermon.
Instead, I’d like to consider Romans 16:1–16. We typically don’t give this passage much attention, because it consists almost exclusively of greetings between Paul and the Roman church that we assume have nothing to do with us. But this is inspired Scripture, and it is profitable for us. Specifically, it sets a pattern of the deep bond that Christians share in the gospel and of how we must partner together for the advance of the gospel.
You might be thinking, “That’s great, but what does that have to do with Mother’s Day?” The answer is that one of the striking features of Romans 16:1–16 is that Paul mentions 10 women, all of whom were dear friends and significant partners in the work of the gospel. Therefore, my title today is, “Women Are Essential Workers.” As I read, look particularly for the women Paul mentions and notice what he has to say about them (read).
I doubt you caught all the feminine names, because they aren’t common to us, but here they are: Phoebe (v. 1), Prisca (v. 3), Mary (v. 6), Junias (v. 7), Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (v. 12), Rufus’s mother (v. 13), Julia, and Nereus’s sister (v. 15). That’s pretty incredible, considering the fact that Paul lived in a culture where most men saw women as property, who couldn’t be trusted with significant responsibility. But Paul saw them as highly capable essential ministers.
I’d like to use this text to reflect on the essential role the ladies in our church play both at home and at Life Point and to call all us to follow the example of Paul and of the ladies he mentions. To do this, I’d like to begin by detailing the testimony of the 10 women in Romans 16, and then we’ll consider how we should respond to them. Notice first…
I. The Essential Ministry of Phoebe (vv. 1–2)
Paul wrote Romans from Corinth, and most scholars believe that Phoebe delivered the epistle to the Romans. And Paul indicates that she had to attend to some other business, while she was in Rome. Therefore, Paul’s basic purpose is to encourage the Romans to take good care of her while she is in town. To make this point, Paul tells us 2 important facts about Phoebe.
A Servant of Her Church: I have to mention that there is a fair amount of disagreement regarding how to translated the Greek term for servant, which is diakonos. It’s used 20 times in the NT, and the vast majority of the time, it refers generally to ministry or service. However, in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, it is used as title for the office of deacon.
The debate is whether Paul is saying that Phoebe is simply a servant, who is doing a lot of ministry in her church, or if she holds the office of deacon or deaconess. Good men and churches differ on how they see it. I don’t think it’s a problem for churches to have deaconesses, as long as they honor the instructions in 1 Timothy 2 regarding women not “teaching or exercising authority over a man.” But since the NT doesn’t mention deaconesses elsewhere, I don’t think this verse alone makes a compelling case for them.
Regardless, Paul clearly intends to say that Phoebe was doing tremendous ministry in her church at Cenchrea. BTW, Cenchrea was a port city located only 8 miles from Corinth. Since Paul spent a lot of time at Corinth, he had probably observed Phoebe in action.
She made an impression with her service in the gospel ministry. I imagine that she was very active in discipling the other ladies, ministering to their physical needs, and supporting the work of the church. She stood out as having a significant ministry. Not only that, Paul adds in v. 2 that Phoebe was…
A Helper of Many, Including Paul: The Greek word translated helper is probably better translated as patron or benefactor. It specifically describes someone who provided housing, financial help, and even legal aid to travelers who came through town. This kind of ministry was very important in a day when there weren’t hotels and restaurants on every corner or credit cards in everyone’s pocket.
Therefore, we can assume that Phoebe was relatively wealthy and that she had a large home. But she didn’t selfishly keep it to herself. Rather, Paul had stayed at her home for days or maybe even months, while she fed him and provided for his other needs. And considering the fact that she lived in a port town, she probably had done the same for many other Christians who were travelling through her area.
Therefore, Phoebe had a significant hospitality ministry that blessed many people. When you combine this with the fact that Paul says that she had distinguished herself as a minister in the church, you start to get a picture of a strong, driven, generous, godly woman, who was having a profound impact on her own church but also on the advance of the gospel throughout her entire region of the world.
Yes, she was unusually wealthy, but it wasn’t her money that made her stand out. It was the fact that she was determined to be a good steward of God’s gifts. So, ladies, don’t limit what God can do through you; rather, determine to generously use what God has given you for his purpose.
If you do, God can use you. You may never be Phoebe, but the Spirit has given you a role to play through the work of the gospel and the gifts of the Spirit. Just use the resources God has given you, and watch what he will do. You might end up being surprised at what God does. I believe that many of God’s humblest servants are going to be shocked at the Judgment at how the Lord used them far beyond what they understood. Notice 2nd…
II. The Essential Ministry of Prisca (vv. 3–5a)
In these verses, Paul greets 2 of his best friends and most crucial coworkers. Acts 18:1–3 tell us how this important relationship began. In AD 49, the Roman Caesar Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome, so v. 2 says that Aquilla and Priscilla left Rome for Corinth, where they met Paul. They became immediate friends, because of their shared faith and because of their shared trade as tentmakers.
And Aquilla and Priscilla became important co-laborers with Paul. Acts 18:18–19 say that Aquilla and Priscilla traveled with Paul when he left Corinth for Ephesus. And when Paul left Ephesus, they stayed behind and played a vital role in the establishment of the Ephesian church and the spread of the gospel in that region. Specifically, Acts 18:24–28 say that they discipled Apollos, who went on to have a great impact.
Not only that, 1 Corinthians 16:19 states that one of the Ephesian congregations met in their house. So, we can assume that Aquilla and Priscilla had a huge impact in shaping the network of Ephesian churches.
And by the time Paul wrote Romans, Claudius had died and with him his edict keeping Jews out of Rome. Therefore, they returned to Rome and picked up where they left off in Ephesus, serving the church and discipling believers. Verse 5 says they hosted one of the Roman churches.
The fact that they had houses in Ephesus and then Rome large enough to host a church indicates that Priscilla and Aquilla had some financial means beyond tentmaking. But even more importantly, this couple was committed to the advance of the gospel. Everywhere, they went, they made a massive gospel impact with the financial resources and spiritual gifts God had given them. In vv. 3–4 Paul highlights 3 facts about this ministry couple. Today, we particularly want to highlight the significance of Priscilla.
Paul considered her a “fellow worker.” That’s what the Greek word literally means. The root is ergos, which means work, and the prefix, sun, means with. So, Paul is saying that Priscilla was a vital coworker in his work to spread the gospel to the nations.
And notice that their bond wasn’t fundamentally about their shared Jewish heritage or any other earthly thing. No, it was Christ Jesus, or their shared life in him, that drew Paul together with Aquila and Priscilla and made them such a powerful team.
That’s worth emphasizing, because some of you might be intimidated by Phoebe or Priscilla. You think, “Wow, I’ll never be like that, so why even try?” It’s important to remember that Christ is the one who draws us together in ministry, and Christ makes us effective in ministry. Therefore, no matter who you are, God has given you grace to serve. You may never be Phoebe or Priscilla, but you can be a faithful steward of the ministry he has given you.
Priscilla risked her life to rescue Paul (v. 4a). I’d love to know the story Paul is talking about here. But it’s obvious that at some point when Paul’s life was in danger, Aquilla and Priscilla risked their lives to rescue Paul.
The most likely possibility is in Acts 19, which tells us that during Paul’s second stay in Ephesus a mob gathered in the theatre, ready to attack the church. It’s possible that they grabbed Paul in their rage. However, Aquilla and Priscilla stepped into this dangerous mob and appealed for Paul. Whatever it is, it was dangerous, and it was bold, but it was right.
So, Priscilla was not some prissy little girl who hid from the world. She was committed to the gospel, and she courageously risked her life to protect her friend. Third…
Priscilla earned the praise of the entire Gentile church (v. 4b). That’s quite the commendation isn’t it? By the time Paul writes Romans, his church planting work is mostly done, and he has planted a lot of them. And his disciples had started many more. We’re talking about a huge network. And Paul can say that the entire network of Gentile churches had felt the impact of this Jewish couple, Aquilla and Priscilla.
It’s not because they had flashy, charismatic personalities. Apollos had a much bigger persona than they did. But they knew the Word, and they were eager to graciously minister the Word and use their resources sacrificially to build the church. And God used them in great ways.
So, ladies, don’t underestimate how God can use you as you faithfully steward the opportunities, graces, and gifts that God has given you. You are having and can have a mighty impact on your family, on Life Point, on our community, and in places all over the world by simply stewarding the grace God has given you. Praise God! Then in the following verses, Paul mentions 8 other ladies who were also doing great things for the advance of the gospel.
III. The Essential Ministry of Other Women (vv. 6–16)
It’s worth noting that many of these ladies had names that were typical of slaves, so they are probably not high society women. As well, Paul had probably never met some of them, but he had heard about their impact. He knew they were vital to the ministry and worthy of love and recognition.
Mary worked hard (v. 6). This is all we know about this Mary, and we can assume that Paul had never met her, but he had heard about her significant impact on the Roman church. She “has worked hard for you.” BTW, Paul uses a verb that speaks of intense labor to the point of exhaustion.
And the past tense of the verb probably indicates that she was not just working hard at the time but that she had a legacy within the church of hard labor by which she had served many and maybe even played a vital role in the early years of building the Roman churches. We know women like Mary. They labor for the gospel, and God uses them in mighty ways.
Junia enjoyed a long legacy of godliness and sacrifice for the gospel (v. 7). I have to mention that there is some debate over whether this is a masculine or feminine name, though most agree that it is feminine. And the remainder of the verse sounds more like a married couple than brothers.
So, Paul tells us that Andronicus and Junia were his “countrymen,” meaning they were fellow-Jews. And then he adds that they were “fellow prisoners.” Again, I’d love to know more about this incident. But most likely at some point they spent time with Paul in jail for preaching the gospel. And it’s always good to remember that ancient prisons weren’t nearly as comfortable as ours. They were disgusting and terribly uncomfortable. So Junia was a tough lady. She was so committed to courageously standing for Christ that she suffered in prison.
And she emerged with a strong testimony. Paul ends by saying, “Who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” Again, there’s debate about how to understand this. Is Paul saying that this couple were known by the apostles or that they were apostles? The best option seems to be that Paul is using the Greek term apostolos, not for the office of apostle, but in its more general sense of a messenger. Therefore, he is saying that Andronicus and Junia were well known as gospel messengers or missionaries. Again, they were a powerful gospel team whom God was using.
Finally, Paul adds, “They were in Christbefore I was,” meaning they received Christ, before Paul did. So, this couple was among the earliest disciples, and now for years they had served Christ, making a profound impact.
Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis worked hard (v. 12). This is all we know about these women. Most likely Tryphaena and Tryphosa were sisters. Maybe Persis was their mother. Their names indicate that they were probably either slaves or freedwomen, so these ladies came from humble roots. But it didn’t stop them from laboring in ministry. Paul uses the same verb for them that he used for Mary. He had heard of their strenuous labor.
And I find it interesting that Paul adds that they hadn’t served in their own strength. Rather, Paul follows both verbs with the adverbial phrase, “in the Lord.” The Lord strengthened them to serve in his power and his grace. We can’t be reminded too often all ministry is only by the grace of God.
Rufus’s mother ministered to Paul (v. 13). Paul says that this presumably older lady had acted as a mother not just to Rufus but to Paul. Again, I’d love to some more specifics. But we can imagine that this dear lady, who is left anonymous, had shown great love and care to Paul at some point. And Paul loved her for it.
Even if she never taught a class or held a position of leadership, she did her part in advancing the gospel by lifting up God’s servant Paul. Of course, I’m not anywhere near Paul, but I can testify to the fact that some of you have played a crucial role in the ministry of Life Point by your encouraging words and acts of service to me and my family. I’m sure the Schaals would say the same thing. We’re all a team.
Julia and Nereus’s sister earned Paul’s love (v. 15). Again, we don’t know much about these people. Philologus and Julia were probably married, and Nereus and his sister may have been their kids. Paul either knew this family or had heard about them. But for whatever reason, he loved them, and he wanted to make sure they knew about it.
In sum, Paul singles out 10 women. He praises them for their ministry impact and expresses love for all of them. They were essential workers in the work of the gospel, just as so many of you to the mission of Life Point. As a result, notice how the church should respond to such dear women.
IV. The Church’s Response
Give proper honor. Sometimes we guys can be just a little egotistical, maybe a lot. We think that the world revolves around us an our ego. And if anyone had the right to feel that way, it was Paul. Yet after writing Romans, one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written, Paul pauses to “commend Phoebe our sister.” When she showed up at Rome with his letter, he wanted them to know that they were in the presence of greatness.
And Paul’s words about Priscilla are equally strong. It’s interesting that whenever they are mentioned in the NT, they are always mentioned together. Often Priscilla is mentioned first, which tells us they were a team; Priscilla wasn’t just along for the ride. So, when Paul says in v. 4 that all the Gentile churches are thankful for Aquilla and Priscilla, it’s quite a statement. Paul gives honor to this lady.
Now, I’m not going to start listing names, because I’ll leave someone out. But I could go on a long time talking about the women at Life Point who are worthy of honor. Many of you set a vital example of godliness, and you play a vital role in our life as a church. You deserve our honor.
Give proper help. In v. 2, Paul simply urges the Romans to take good care of Phoebe while she was in town. She had taken care of many other people, so she deserved the best of care. Guys, sometimes, we can be guilty of thinking that our work is more important and that we are above women’s work. Instead, we must be quick to help our wives and all the women of our church as the Lord gives opportunity, because they work hard.
Give proper thanks. In v. 4 Paul directly thanks Priscilla for her labor, and he indirectly thanks several others by mentioning the hard work that they did and how Rufus’s mother had cared for Paul.
We need to do the same. Sometimes, we can take routine service for granted. We don’t notice it or acknowledge it. Mothers are often the victims of this neglect. We need to be good about thanking them for all they do.
Give proper love. The most common word in these 16 verses is greet. It’s Paul’s way of communicating his love for all of these people. It wasn’t enough that he loved them; he wanted them to know that he loved them.
It’s hard to tell someone too often that you love them and are thankful for them. So, I just want to say that I am so thankful for the ladies in our church. You are a precious treasure to this church and to the families in our church.
We’ve seen today very clearly that women are essential workers. I’d like to close with 4 other quick conclusions that deserve emphasis.
God loves to save, transform, and use the least expected. This reality is at the heart of the gospel. God has chosen to magnify his grace to choosing save broken, lost, weak, and foolish sinners. And he doesn’t just save them; he transforms them into highly effective ministers. Praise the Lord for the grace that alone is responsible for transforming us. None of us are effective in ministry because we are so smart or so disciplined. It all gospel grace.
And if you have never received Christ, I want to point your attention to a little phrase that pops up over and over in this text, “in the Lord.” It’s the most basic description of a Christian. We stand in grace, forgiveness, and power that Jesus provided on the cross. We are safe in his hands. If you don’t know that you are in Christ, we’d love to talk to you about how you can have that assurance.
Don’t limit what God can do through you. Some of you may feel overwhelmed by the testimony of these women. Don’t be. Don’t make excuses. Just plug into ministry wherever you feel comfortable. Pursue opportunities. You’ll be amazed at what God does.
Embrace the ministry God has for you. I want to emphasize again that you don’t have to be Phoebe or Priscilla; you just have to be faithful to what God has called you to do. So, find what it is. If you want guidance, let us know. And then go after it in the strength of Christ, knowing that God sees, and God will be faithful to honor your work.
Remember that all ministry is grace-given and grace-empowered. Sometimes, we can get a little cranky about how much weight we have to bear. “If only the world knew how much weight I bear.” Let’s never forget that whether it is ministry in the home, in the church, or anywhere else it is a gift of God’s grace to be able to serve the Lord, and we only do anything in the power of his grace. So, keep looking to the cross. Stand amazed at what you have received, and stand in awe that you get to serve such a great Savior. And then go forward in his power and grace.