The greeting sections of New Testament epistles fire my curiosity. We are given tantalizing morsels of information, hardly the full back-story. But if we look at these verses like archeologists searching for clues, we can discover a surprising amount of truth for our edification and encouragement. Take Romans 16, for example. You can’t read this passage without appreciating the vital role that women played in the ministry of the early church. Nine of the twenty-four greetings are to women, and their efforts are hardly peripheral or tangential. These women are at the nerve center of ministry in the local church, playing a vital role in its mission to preach the gospel. Four women are particularly interesting, for Paul greets them each in the same way:
“Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” (v. 6)
“Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa” (v. 12)
“Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord” (v. 12)
Imagine it. You gather for the regular assembly of God’s people, and at the conclusion of this soaring theological letter, Paul greets ‘lil old you? I wonder what these women felt when they heard their names read aloud. Did they realize that they were going to be immortalized in Holy Scripture? Here, at least, are two lessons we can learn from what Paul does and doesn’t tell us about these four women.
Our Work Matters More Than We Think
Most of the time, our work for the Lord seems unimportant and insignificant. Especially when it seems to produce so little in the way of measurable success. We’re called on to organize an outreach event, but it’s poorly attended. We give hours to counseling a woman who decides she wants to be mentored by someone else. We make yet another meal for yet another new mom, but it’s just what everyone expects us to do. And so we measure our service the way that we measure everything else—by results, or by how fulfilled it makes us feel, or by the gratitude we receive. And frankly, it’s discouraging.
But Paul doesn’t commend these women for reaching certain numbers goals, or for their successful organization of the largest church event in local church history, or even for the warm fuzzy feeling of fulfillment they derive from their efforts. That’s not how Paul measures gospel success. Here, at the end of his soaring theological treatise, he commends four ordinary women for one thing: working hard. The verb here implies “strenuous exertion.” These women spent all their energy to further the gospel mission. We don’t know how much or little these women accomplished in the way of “measurable” earthly results, but we do know that they were wildly successful. They received one of the greatest honors in human history: to be commended, by name, in the eternal Word of God. Now that’s worth working hard for!
So if you’ve felt discouraged of late; if you’ve started to wonder if your work in the church is a grand waste of time and talent—take heart. Whether or not others recognize your efforts, God does. He called out these four women, and he calls you out today. Be encouraged and don’t give up. Keep working hard for the Lord. Or, as the author to the Hebrews encourages us: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints as you still do” (6:10).
Our Work Matters Less than We Think
Often, it can seem like people only notice the women in the church who are gifted in public ways. The rest of us do our work quietly in the background, with little fanfare. But here in Romans 16, Paul not only draws attention to Phoebe and Prisca who were wealthy and influential but also to sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa who were former slaves, freedwomen. In an ironical side-note, Tryphaena and Tryphosa’s names mean “Dainty and Delicate.” You have to wonder if Paul smiled to himself as he wrote: “Greet those strenuous workers in the Lord, Dainty and Delicate.” The point is: nothing in our background, no physical or spiritual weakness, no lack of experience or gifting hinders us from working hard in for the Lord. We are all eligible for the commendation these women received. “By the grace of God I am what I am,” said Paul in another one of his letters, “and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10). May the same be said of us.
But all too often we get caught up in what “our role” is in the church, whether or not we have a title or a position or, as we like to call it, “a place to serve.” We get locked in petty rivalries with other women, comparing and obsessing about who gets recognized or utilized more. Paul’s greetings graciously redirect our gaze to the right reasons for ministry. Like Mary, we should work hard “for you”—our work is to be out of love for the people of God. And like the sisters and “beloved Persis” our work is to be “in the Lord”— for the glory of our Savior. These women did not strive for position or honor, but they served their hearts out for the greatest cause in human history: the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so should we. Let us follow their example and remember that the cause we are working for is far more important than the kind of work we do for that cause. Let us be willing, eager in fact, to labor strenuously in a lowly position in the church.
It might be easy to skim the conclusion to the book of Romans, assuming that the important stuff got covered in the first fifteen chapters. But really, the book of Romans closes with a pressing question for each one of us: Are you working hard for the Lord? If Paul sent a letter to your church today, are you the kind of woman he would greet and thank? May we unhesitatingly seek the glory and honor these women were striving for, simply to be known as hard workers for the Lord.