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Courage through friendship

Acts chapter 28 describes the final leg of Paul’s arduous journey from Caesarea to Rome to plead his case before the Emperor Nero in an attempt to clear his name and more importantly, obtain official recognition of Christianity as a legal religion in the Roman Empire.

Walking along the famous Appian Way, Paul and his colleagues encountered fellow believers in Jesus at Appii Forum, a town 43 miles from Rome, and again at Three Inns, some 33 miles from the capital. Luke notes that “when Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage” (Acts 28.15). When one considers the events leading up to this moment, it is easy to see why Paul needed some encouragement.

  • · Arrested on trumped up charges in Jerusalem

  • · Imprisoned for two years at Caesarea

  • · Transported to Rome under armed guard

  • · Shipwrecked on the island of Malta

  • · Bitten by a deadly viper

  • Proceeding to an uncertain fate in an increasingly hostile environment

Paul prayed that the ‘God of hope’ would fill the Christians at Rome with all joy and peace in believing, and that they would abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 15.13). However, sometimes that hope and encouragement comes through the testimony of other believers. Paul spoke of his desire to be encouraged together with the Christians at Rome “by the mutual faith both of you and me” (Rom 1.12). The Twentieth Century New Testament puts it this way: “that both you and I may find encouragement in each other’s faith”.

Friends with long names and special benefits

Some years earlier Paul had written to the Christians in Rome, many of whom he had encountered during his missionary journeys. It is somewhat ironic that 19 verses or 4.39% of a letter, generally considered to be the greatest exposition of Christian doctrine in history, consists of personal greetings and salutations. To put it into perspective, if you or I were writing a treatise on sin and grace, or judgment and redemption, it is unlikely that we would conclude the article with a ‘shout out’ to our friends!

However, in Paul’s world, theology was not suspended in an intellectual vacuum like antimatter in a canister. Theology was intertwined with everyday life; faith was bound up with practical behaviour. Christ was enthroned in heaven, but he was also present on earth in his body, the church (Eph 1.23). God spoke through the scriptures, but he also spoke through prophets in the local assembly (1 Cor 14.29-31).

Reading Paul’s letter to the Romans two thousand years later, it is easy to focus on the divine inspiration of the message and forget the human dimension of the messenger. Hence we tend to skip over the last chapter, considering it superfluous to the main body of the text. (Not to mention the difficulty we encounter in pronouncing the rather strange names!) But I contend that Romans 16.1-24 is as integral to the theology of the text as Romans chapter one in which Paul proclaims the sovereignty of God in creation or Romans chapter three in which Paul proclaims the mercy of God in redemption. Why? Because Romans 16.1-24 reveals Paul’s relationship with Christ who is present in his body, the church (Col 1.27).

Priscilla and Aquila, and Phoebe and Epaenetus, and Andronicus and Junia, and Amplias and Urbanus were not just casual acquaintances or ‘Facebook friends’ — they were people from whom Paul had received gifts of grace (Rom 16.24). Paul described them as ‘helpers’, ‘fellow workers in Christ Jesus’ who risked their own necks for his life, his ‘beloved in the Lord’. They, and others like them, made Paul the man that he was and enabled him to accomplish a vast amount of work in a relatively short time.

Paul prized loyalty or faithfulness above almost every other virtue. Writing to Timothy from the imperial city, Paul lamented the fact that the majority of believers in the province of Asia had deserted him, possibly because of his arrest and imprisonment, and his status as hostis publicus (enemy of the people). In contrast, he prayed that the Lord would grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, who was not ashamed of Paul’s manacle, but upon arriving in Rome sought Paul out with extraordinary diligence and brought refreshment to him (2 Tim 1.15-18. The Greek word anapsucho, translated ‘refresh’, literally means to cool off or to revive by fresh air. In other words, Onesiphorus’ visit was like a breath of fresh air to the aged apostle.

According to Kenneth Wuest, ‘not being ashamed of Paul’s chain’ indicates that “Onesiphorus was not deterred from visiting Paul in prison by any danger which he might incur by reason of the fact that he was a friend of a prisoner who was a Christian, and who was on trial for his life.” The language that Paul uses suggests that by this time Onesiphorus was dead. Indeed, some scholars theorize that Onesiphorus may have lost his life because of his visit to Paul in prison.

Most of us are familiar with the injunction to “be strong and of good courage” and to “meditate in the law of the Lord day and night” (Josh 1.6-8). Sometimes, however, it takes more than personal prayer and Bible study to get across the line. Sometimes we need a word, or a hug, or an act of kindness from a friend to imbue us with the strength and courage to carry on. The Christian life was never intended to be an individualistic pursuit. Jesus said, “If two of you agree on earth…” and “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Mat 18.19-20).

As Solomon observed,

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls. For he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Eccl 4.9-12).

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