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The Roll Call of Heaven

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 16:1–16

Although the Bible is full of rich doctrine, it is not a theoretical or academic book. Jesus Christ came to save people, and many of them are named in His Word. We can learn many things from reading about these people, most especially that God knows us and treasures us in His Son.


One of the deepest desires in our hearts is for someone to know who we are—to know that we exist, that we matter—and to care about us. Nobody wants to be forgotten.

For Christians, one of the glories of the gospel is that God knows our names. That is not just a conclusion based on His omniscience. Revelation 20:15 indicates that all those redeemed in Christ have had their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Not only does God know our names, but He also knows every act of service done for Christ. The Bible says in Hebrews 6:10 that God will not overlook your work for Him. Nothing is too small or unimpressive that He does not notice. It might be another honest day’s work; it might be another load of laundry, another automobile repair job, or surgery completed. All of it matters to God.

Now as we set sail into the final chapter of this great book of Romans, Paul bares his heart in gratitude toward the believers. He imitates the heart of God as he names thirty-five people in this closing chapter. In the next sixteen verses, Paul will personally greet seventeen men and nine women by name. He will acknowledge two married couples and five converted slaves. He will greet five large groups, along with two households. Romans 16 is God’s way of saying, “People matter—their names matter.”

The first person mentioned here is Phoebe. Paul writes in verse 1, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (Ken-kree-eye).

Phoebe is a Gentile. Her name is the feminine form of “Phoebus,” one of the Greek gods. We do not know when Phoebe became a believer, but we do know she was a member of the local church there in Cenchrea, which was close to Corinth.

She is more than likely the one carrying this letter from Paul to the Roman believers. Paul says in verse 2 that he wants them “to welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints.”

Paul calls Phoebe a servant of the church, and he uses the Greek word diakonos, the word used for a deacon. This does not mean she held the office of a deacon—in fact, Paul uses this same word for Jesus who came as a diakonos, a servant, in Romans 15:8. The apostle Peter also uses a verbal form of this word for the entire church assembly when he writes in 1 Peter 4:10 that all the men and women—the entire church—are to “serve on another.”

Now I personally do not see anything wrong with a church having deaconesses—so long as they do not exercise the authority of a pastor/elder in the church. Paul will address that later in his first letter to Timothy. But for now, let me tell you, beloved, the local church advances and flourishes when everybody is a servant, no matter what title anyone happens to hold.

Paul then moves on to commend a married couple named Prisca and Aquila. He writes in verse 3, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” We know them as Priscilla and Aquila—Prisca is the more formal name. They appear three times in the book of Acts, always as faithful and helpful servants to the church. They owned a tentmaking business, and since Paul was also trained in tentmaking, they worked together and helped Paul earn his expenses as he carried on his missionary work.

But even more than that, Paul mentions, “[They] risked their necks for my life” (verse 4). More than likely, this is a reference to the riot in Ephesus and indicates that this couple risked their lives to protect Paul at that time (Acts 19:28-31). They clearly stood up for him at some critical moment in his ministry. And Paul never forgot them.

Evidently, Paul has kept some kind of list of people who prayed for him and served with him. Perhaps he wrote their names on some parchment and kept it with his books. It is quite possible that he pulled out this list of faithful friends so he can thank them now.[1]

Paul will commend or greet twenty-six more men and women in this chapter. You could call this his personal list of praise. Some of them were converts of Paul’s preaching ministry—like Epaenetus. Some knew the Lord before Paul met them, such as Andronicus and Junias.

Some are described by Paul as “beloved” or “approved”—like Ampliatus, Stachys, Persis, Apelles. Paul calls some of them “fellow workers” or “servants”—like Mary, Urbanus, Tryphaena, and Tryphosa. These latter two probably were sisters, maybe even twin sisters, given their similar names.

Paul refers to fellow Jewish believers as his “kinsmen.” These include Andronicus and Junia in verse 7 and Herodion in verse 11. He mentions the household of Aristobulus in verse 10 and that of Narcissus in verse 11.

There is an interesting greeting to a man named Rufus in verse 13, where Paul writes, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.” Rufus evidently was the son of Simon of Cyrene, the man who had been forced to carry the crossbeam of Jesus up the hill of Golgotha (Mark 15:21). Apparently, this family came to faith in Christ and became close friends of the apostle Paul.

In verse 14 Paul greets what appears to be a house church, and he names its leadership team: “Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them.” Another house church is greeted in verse 15, where Paul writes, “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.”

What a list this is, beloved. It should encourage us all to live for Christ and to be servant-minded believers. Furthermore, this list should cause us to be thankful that we are also on a list that belongs to the Lord Jesus—a list of the redeemed called the Lamb’s Book of Life. It contains the names of all those who have put their faith in Christ as Savior. You want to make sure your name in on that list, above any other.

I am reminded of a Sunday school teacher back in the 1880s named James Black. He taught a class of young people. One Sunday morning as he was calling out the roll, his students were answering their names by quoting the verse of Scripture they had been memorizing.

One of his fourteen-year-old students did not respond when her name was called. She had fallen ill, and as it turned out, she died from pneumonia just a few days later.

James made the comment in his class that it is one thing to miss the roll call of Sunday school, but he was praying that all of his students would answer the roll call of heaven.

That afternoon, with this thought in mind, he sat down and wrote lyrics that became one of the favorite hymns of the church for generations.[2] Here is one stanza of that hymn:

On that bright and cloudless morning
When the dead in Christ shall rise,
And the glory of His resurrection share;
When His chosen ones shall gather
To their home beyond the skies,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Romans 16 is a reflection of the heavenly roll. God knows your name and mine—none will ever be forgotten. God knows who you are; He sees where you are; He cares about every detail in your life. And one day, He will welcome you home and greet you—by name!

[2] Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1985), 310.

[3] James M. Black, “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”

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