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.
When I prepare a message to speak (which I did this past month), I always create two documents. The one document is the message itself, and the other is the message “extras.” My “extras doc” is full of discarded sentences, points, quotes and ideas, and usually ends up much longer than the message itself.
One point from John 21—that ended up in extras because of time restraints—continues to affect me. It’s about failure.
We all know about the apostle Peter’s failure. While Jesus was enduring unimaginable torture leading up to his crucifixion, Peter, just a few yards away, was denying that he ever knew Jesus. Three times Peter denied his Lord. Then there is that vivid scene that Luke records (22:60-62): After Peter’s third denial, the rooster crowed, “and the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” Can you imagine the agony, guilt, and shame that overwhelmed Peter when his eyes met his Lord’s? Peter “went out and wept bitterly.”
Fast forward to John 21. The resurrected Lord meets his disciples, including Peter, on the beach. They have been fishing all night, and they are tired, and in one of the most beautiful
scenes in Scripture, Jesus makes them breakfast. Then he turns to Peter.
Three times he asks Peter: “Do you love me?”—giving Peter the opportunity to make three public reaffirmations of his love and loyalty to the Lord, in place of his previous denials.
Three times he commissions Peter: “Feed my sheep.” Not only does he restore Peter, but he also commits his flock into Peter’s care.
Peter’s restoration and the renewal of his calling offer hope to all of us when we consider our grievous sins and failures. As John Stott put it, “No matter how desperate our failure, or how deep-seated our shame, he can forgive and renew us and then use us in his service. Failure is never final with God.”
Whether you live with regret because of a wife fail, a mom fail, or a friend fail. Whether you feel guilty because you compromised your gospel witness at school or work. Whether you feel shame because of sexual sin or because you had an abortion. Whatever sins and failures mark your past, remember: failure is never final with God.
First of all, if you have repented of your sins, you are forgiven. Completely forgiven! Even if the person you sinned against doesn’t forgive you, God does. Jesus Christ has taken the punishment for your sins. He received the wrath of God that you deserved. He suffered in your place. He took your guilt upon himself. You need not carry it around anymore! In fact, to do so is to deny the guilt-obliterating power of what Christ has accomplished for you.
Secondly, you are not finished yet. No matter what our past sins or failures, we are not useless or ruined for kingdom work. God not only forgives and renews us, but he also uses us for his good purposes. Jon Bloom writes: “Jesus is the great restorer of failures who repent…[He] specializes in transforming failures into rocks of strength for his church.” Peter is the prime example, but throughout church history up through this very day, God is still in the business of deploying forgiven sinners in kingdom work.
If failure is never final with God, then let it not be so with us. Let us repent. Let us ask God to restore us. Let us—a community of forgiven failures—devote our lives to serving our forgiving Savior.
When we were growing up, both our parents read to us almost every day. Dad read aloud to us after dinner. We would all sit, captivated by the world of Narnia, while Mom washed the dishes. Then Mom would read to us before bed, and I never wanted to miss a night. I still remember waiting up for her on the rare nights she would be out for the evening, greeting her with InGrandma’s Attic in hand, having no idea how tired mommies are at ten o’clock at night! She never let on, always sitting down to read to me no matter how late it was. I tried to remember her example last night when my girls ran to me, the same book in hand: because now I know just how tired mommies feel.
But you get the idea, reading together is a priority and we are always on the look out for new books. My kids are currently ages four to eleven, so I love it when a book comes along that captures everyone’s attention. And just such a book landed on my kitchen counter just the other day. It was from our friends at The Good Book Company. The One O’Clock Miraclebrings to life the story of Jesus healing the royal official’s son in John 4:46-54; or, to quote from the back of the book: “Discover a journey full of excitement and surprises as you find out just what happened at One O’Clock.”
The story is wonderfully simple, with repeating phrases that help children grasp the miraculous power of a loving Savior. The author’s creative approach to an all-familiar story did indeed make the book exciting and surprising. And the illustrations are the perfect complement to the writing. They are whimsical, colorful, and childlike, providing the visual aid that draws children in as you read. This book has been officially inducted into the Bradshaw Bedtime Reading Hall of Fame. Oh, and it was also CBA Children’s Book of the Year 2016. And guess what? Thanks to our friends at The Good Book Company, we have three of these books to give away. Simply send us an email, or comment on the girltalkFacebook or Twitter pages by midnight, and tell us your favorite children’s book. Tomorrow we will pick four winners at random. Even if you don’t win, consider adding this book to your family’s library.
P.S. The second edition of the girltalk newsletter just went out last week, and it is full of all kinds of favorites, including one of our favorite children’s book series. Subscribe on the sidebar to receive your issue each month.