Though many of the earliest believers in Jesus included individuals of high social stature such as Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, and men of great education such as the Apostle Paul (Luke 8:1–3; Acts 22:3), many of the first Christians were of low rank in the ancient world. This includes many of the Apostles, who were fishermen, and also Gentile converts, not many of whom were powerful or “of noble birth” (Matt. 4:18; 1 Cor. 1:26). Paul addresses slaves directly in epistles such as Ephesians and Colossians, indicating that they made up a significant part of the Christian community in various Greco-Roman cities.
We see this reality also in today’s passage. Most of the people in this chapter were likely slaves or former slaves. This is certainly true of Ampliatus, Urbanus, and Stachys, all of whom had names common among Roman slaves (Rom. 16:8–9). We know little about these individuals, except that Paul knew Ampliatus and Stachys personally. After all, he calls them his “beloved.” Urbanus seems to have been less familiar to the Apostle, as Paul refers to him more indirectly than he does to Ampliatus or Stachys. Paul calls Urbanus “our fellow worker,” suggesting a relational distance between the two men. The Apostle likely knew him only through the testimony of others. Apelles is otherwise unknown to us, and the rarity of his name means we have no real clues about his background.
God’s gospel received an eager hearing among slaves during the Apostolic and post-Apostolic period, but it was not only the slaves of more “common” men who believed. Although government officials and others with political power rarely believed in Jesus during those early days of the church, their slaves were a different matter. In Romans 16:8–11, he also greets those who belong to the “household” or “family” of several notable individuals. In other words, they were slaves of these men of renown. Aristobulus was likely the brother of King Herod Agrippa I of Judea. Herodion was probably a servant of one of the other Herods. Finally, Narcissus was a former slave who rose to some prominence as a servant of Emperor Claudius. Sadly, he committed suicide just before Paul wrote Romans.
The gospel was a message that all of these slaves and former slaves received eagerly because of its news that God does not discriminate according to socioeconomic class. Rather, He views all people as made in His image. Even slaves, the least in Roman society, could be in Christ and approved by the Lord. That message continues to be good news for all people today.