There are a Lot of Interesting Conclusions to be Gleaned from the Laundry List of Names in Romans 16. But the One I Appreciate the most is Paul’s Example of Offering Divinely Inspired Encouragement. According to my Biblically Informed Definition, Encouragement means Highlighting the Evidences of God’s Grace in the gospel or in a gospel-centered person to the glory of God. Each part of that definition is important. Encouragement is not spotlighting a person but underlining God’s grace. It is not about commending nice people to make them feel good but about commending the work of the gospel in others to the glory of God.
The definition above can help differentiate encouragement from flattery. Encouragement is based on what is true about a person. Flattery affirms through exaggeration or falsehood. Encouragement keeps human praise in proportion, lifting everything up for God’s praise. Flattery gives too much influence to human agency. Encouragement blesses for the sake of the blessed and the Blessed One. Flattery harbors ulterior motives and looks for favors or reciprocal affirmation. While God despises flattery, He delights to see Christians encourage each other. One reason we know this to be true is because He inspired Paul to record his encouragements in Romans 16. Notice four characteristics of Paul’s encouragement.
First, he recognized others publically. Paul had never been to the church at Rome. But he knew some of the members through his travels. Others he had heard about. And he liked what he’d seen and heard. So he told the whole church. He did this in all his letters. He held up Tychicus as a faithful minister in the Lord (Eph. 6:21) and Epaphroditus as a fellow worker and fellow soldier (Phil. 2:25). He went out of his way to encourage, speaking of “Luke the beloved physician” when plain old “Luke” would have sufficed (Col. 4:14). We probably don’t think of Paul as a great encourager but as more of a champion of the gospel or defender of the faith. Yet maybe the reason we don’t see him encouraging others is because it happens so frequently.
Second, Paul was tender in expressing his affections. Epaenetus, Ampliatus, Stachys, and Persis were all beloved to him. Rufus’ mother could have been his own mother; their bond was so close (Rom. 16:13). Elsewhere, Paul told the Philippians he held them in his heart and yearned for them with the affection of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:7). He had abundant love for the Corinthians and was happy to live and die with them (2 Cor. 2:4; 11:11). Perhaps people find us discouraging or intimidating because they sense no warmth. Our praise is always perfunctory, never tender. There’s a difference between saying, “You’re in my thoughts,” and telling someone: “I hold you in my heart.”
Third, Paul’s encouragement was rooted in his love for the gospel. He didn’t simply commend people for being really good at something. He honored them for the work of God he saw in and through them. These were fellow workers, fellow servants, fellow saints. Paul’s heart beat with gratitude because God had saved these men and women and used them to bless others. The strongest bonds of friendship should be gospel bonds. The deepest affections ought to be stirred in us not because we like the same movies and music or come from the same place and root for the same teams, but because we share the same passion for an identity in the gospel. These “greetings” are more than secular “hellos.” They are signs of churchwide solidarity growing out of our communion together through our union with Christ.
Fourth, Paul didn’t just encourage his friends and co-laborers; he cultivated an atmosphere of appreciation and affection in the whole church. He greeted them but then told them to greet each other: “Go meet Philologus. Stop by and see Julia. Give my regards to Nereus.” Paul fostered community. He even encouraged signs of physical affection. The sign is not as important as the thing signified. Whether it’s a kiss, a hug, a hearty handshake, or a super sweet fist bump, Paul understood that God gave us bodies and wants us to use them appropriately to encourage others.
Paul wanted the church to be quick to encourage, not quick to condemn. His love for encouragement makes sense because God is the great encourager. God is always rejoicing in the truth. He loves to highlight His own grace and glory. He called Jesus His “beloved Son” and speaks just as kindly to us—“beloved,” “little children,” “new creations,” “holy ones.” Because of the work of Christ, God accepts us when He would otherwise reject us, which means He can encourage instead of condemn. And by this same work of Christ, we can encourage all those who belong to Christ.