We just printed a new pictorial church directory at Ridgewood Church, where I am a member.
There is something about pictures that adds a lot to names. Oh, that’s who that is, I think as I see a picture on page 3. On page 7 I notice someone I have been praying for. Page 12 reminds me of some kids who came to the front for the children’s message.
It’s a congregational family album, that directory is. It makes folks more real, draws them closer to my heart.
Romans 16 is something like that. It is a verbal family album with photos made of words. To some, I suppose, it is just a directory that is hopelessly out of date. Those people have all moved on. We do not know them at all.
But look again. The words trace the outlines of real people, real struggles, real faith, real ministry. We meet Phoebe, called a “servant,” a “deacon” in some versions, but pictured by a word that is rendered “minister” when it is used of Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6).
We know Priscilla and Aquila (we think), but we do not know when they “risked their lives for” Paul and for the gospel. This picture shows something of the strength of their faith.
And there’s Epenetus, who dared to be the first Christian in his community. That picture is worth a thousand words. And Mary. How many Marys are there? This is the sixth we know of, and all we know of her is that “she worked very hard.” But that picture is a vivid one.
We really do not know Andronicus and Junias, but they endured imprisonment for their faith and were judged to be “outstanding among the apostles.”
We move along, page after page filled with “photos” of people whose stories we do not know, but whose images are engraved on our minds because they were carefully placed in this album and are described as loved or hard-working or “tested and approved” or with the lovely caption “in the Lord.”
And there’s Rufus. I wonder if he’s the Rufus whose dad was commissioned to carry the cross (Mark 15:21). That’s a picture worth pausing over. And a group shot of Asyncritus and Phlegon and Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, along with other saints whose names are not even recorded beneath the pictures.
There is a lot of inspiration in these “pictures.” These are real people with real lives and real stories. Their “pictures” are here for a reason—they’re not just credits at the end of a lengthy treatise. They are really the point of it all. They are flesh-and-blood people for whom “there is now no condemnation” because they are “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
They have joined the ranks of those who know they are “more than conquerors” (8:37). And they have offered their lives “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (12:1). They are believers who had “the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had” (15:5). Their names, their stories, their pictures remind us of their message. Our faith is made stronger, and we want to join the ranks of those who “work hard in the Lord” (16:12).
It is a kind of church directory, this chapter is. And the pages, which we usually call verses, bring us back to our calling to embody the Word and to proclaim the Word to the very ends of the earth. That was their mission, and ours: to live and speak and leave stories behind that proclaim, “Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ . . . to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (16:25-27).