I Samuel 7: The People Return to the Lord

The preceding chapters revealed the atmosphere of war and godlessness that was in and around the nation of Israel. As we read in chapter 6, there were still consequences to be had as the Israelites still did not treat the ark with the reverence and holiness that it deserved.

Samuel is ready to take up the mantle of leadership in this chapter. He sees that the people are returning to God in their devotion and religious practices. In verse two, he says, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” The peoples’ return is sincere. They heed Samuel’s direction to assemble at Mizpah. They fast and confess their sins to God as Samuel is seen as their leader.

During this time, however, the Philistines hear of their assembly and seek to attack the Israelites. The people are scared, but Samuel beseeches them to rely on God to save them and he sacrifices a lamb to God. After Samuel prays to God, God sends thunder to the advancing Philistines. This confuses them and they flee as the men of Israel chase them out of the area, slaying them along the way.

As a memorial and testament to God helping them, Samuel names a stone “Ebenezer,” setting it up in a recognizable place saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” Throughout the rest of Samuel’s life, the Philistines bother Israel no more. Israel reclaims their land that had been taken and there is peace in the land. Samuel serves as Israel’s leader for the rest of his life, judging Israel as he travels from one city to the next. His home was in Ramah, and there he built an altar to the Lord.

A simple change of heart can lead us back to God, and thus also back into the grace and blessings He has reserved for those that love Him. God is quick to forgive and bless us. It is so simple for us to turn to Him when we need Him or when we think we have no other choice. One of the true tests of a faithful life is whether we lean, depend on, and serve God when it appears that we have no use for Him. We always need Him, but this life is such that we can be lulled into a false sense of spiritual security by money, comfort, and material possessions. While they offer a sense of assurance, do not be fooled; true and lasting security is found in the arms of our Creator.

I Samuel 6: The Philistines Return the Ark

When we left the Philistines in I Samuel 5, they were experiencing great consequences from having taken the ark. Here in chapter 6, they have had enough. After seven months of death, tumors, and evidently rats, the Philistines ask their priests and diviners, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it to its place.”

One might understand how the heathen and errant Philistines seek guidance from their spiritual leaders on how best to dispense with the ark. Just returning it the way they had captured it was not enough for the diviners and priests; they advised some special conditions for return:

  • Include with the ark a trespass offering of five golden tumors and five golden rats
    • The five represents the pentapolis, or the five large cities making up Philistia; the tumors and rats represented the separate calamities
  • Place the ark on a new cart with the trespass offering beside it
  • Have the new cart pulled by two milk cows that have never been yoked
    • Hide the cows’ calves away (presumably to increase the cows’ focus)
  • Sending the cart away:
    • If it goes towards Beth Shemesh (nearby Israelite territory), it proves that God was creating the calamities
    • If it goes elsewhere, the calamities were due to chance

The degree of difference that these manmade provisions made to God is not clear. One could conclude that God preferred the fearful hearts and minds of the Philistines over the trespass offering, but there is nothing in the text to support this.

A surprising aspect of the guidance of the Philistine priests and diviners is that they allow for a scenario where the calamities of death, tumors, and rats were not due to the Philistines having stolen the ark. It would be difficult to think that these were chance occurrences, considering that the calamities followed the ark from Philistine city to Philistine city. They certainly believed that the “Israelite God” was capable of retaliation and judgment, because they said as much to the Philistine leaders in verse 6: “Why then do you harden your hearts s the Egyptians and Pharaohs hardened their hearts? When He did mighty things among them, did they not let the people go, that they might depart?”

The Philistines, as a polytheistic culture, might struggle with knowing how to ascribe certain actions to members of the pantheon. Still, we might think deeper about why the Philistine diviners and priests would not automatically assume that the calamities were the work of God. After all, the regular people and leaders of Philistia seemed convinced that God was bringing the tumors, death, and rats because they stole the ark. Perhaps, not unlike some of the complicated takes we get on simple things from so-called “experts” in the modern age, the Philistine priests and diviners felt the need to justify their existence and their “divine knowledge” by delivering a solution with complex provisions.

The chapter concludes with the cows returning the ark with the trespass offering of golden tumors and rats directly to Beth Shemesh. When it arrives, the Israelites rejoice. They use the wagon as fuel for a fire on which to offer the cows sacrifices to God. But, many of the Israelites were killed by God because they opened and looked into the ark of the Lord. This was forbidden (Numbers 4:20, Exodus 19:21). The men at Beth Shemesh were so greatly upset by the deaths that they sent for men to come from Kirjath Jearim to remove the ark (it was about ten miles west of Jerusalem).

The lesson for I Samuel 6 is that God’s commandments apply to everyone, and they apply regardless of the offender’s knowledge of the statute. Seem unfair? Perhaps, but in the face of divine power, would not the wise man make it his responsibility to acquaint himself with the ways, wonders, laws, and statutes of Almighty God?

I Samuel 5: Dagon’s Fate is the Fate of all Idols

Chapter four ended with the Ark of the Covenant being captured by the Philistines. The series of events surrounding its capture were destructive all around. Firstly, the Israelites misconstrued the purpose and power of the ark when they surmised it would help them in battle. Secondly, the Israelites were soundly defeated and the ark was captured, which was God’s way of showing them they were thinking about it the ark in all the wrong ways. Thirdly, the battle during which the ark was captured marked the prophesied death of Hophni and Phinehas, the errant sinful sons of the high priest Eli. Fourthly, when news of the ark’s capture and his sons’ deaths reached him, Eli fell and died. And finally, when Phinehas’ pregnant wife heard the compounded news, she promptly gave birth and died. Her last words were, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

The lessons learned were many. The main lesson is that there are severe consequences for misunderstanding God and the way He wants us to approach and worship Him. God had specifically instructed how He wanted the ark to be used and parading it as an oracle in battle was certainly not prescribed. But as we saw in chapter four how God punishes His own people for their careless disobedience, He will not let the opportunity pass to show the heathen unbelievers the power of His might and the scope of His dominion. 

When the Philistines took the ark from the Israelites, they brought it to a city called Ashdod, where there was an idolatrous temple to a god named Dagon. They placed the ark beside Dagon. This act shows us how they viewed the ark: it represented the belief system and god of those they conquered. Their polytheistic tendencies prompted them to believe that they could take the ark and, treating it as an idol, place it alongside their own fashioned and created idol. To them, they were likely merely categorizing idols together; worshipping one was like worshipping another. But when they arose the next day, Dagon had fallen on its face to the ground in front of the Ark of the Covenant. The Philistines placed Dagon back as he was only to find Dagon fallen again the next morning. But on this second fall, Dagon’s head and palms of its hands were broken.

The symbolism is difficult to miss. The power of God easily supersedes the impotency of Dagon. The foolishness of the Philistines prompted them to learn the lesson twice, the second time with Dagon’s destruction. Loss of head and hands means the loss of life and utility; Dagon was powerless and useless. The Philistines took this to heart: “Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who come into Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.” Dagon has been soundly defeated forever. His defeat is gratifying yet also empty in a sense because there was never any power in the idol to begin with.

The Philistines though, like the Israelites, would need to experience consequences for treating the power of true divinity with such frivolity. They did not know with what they were playing. From verse six until the end of the chapter, the suffering of the Philistines is documented.

The people of Ashdod and the people of its surrounding territories were struck with tumors. They sensed that it was due to the arrival of the ark. The way that Dagon was defeated was evidence enough. In light of the suffering, the lords of the Philistines decide to send the ark to Gath. Gath was about twelve miles east of Ashdod, located at the foot of the Judean mountains, and was one of the five main cities of the Philistines. But like Ashdod, Gath received great punishment. It says in verse 9 that “the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction; and He struck the men of the city, both small and great, and tumors broke out on them.”

After this, the ark was sent to Ekron, another one of the five Philistine cities. But when the ark arrived in Ekron, its reputation came with it, and the people of Ekron cried out, saying, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people!” But even so, there still was a great and deadly destruction in Ekron. The final verse in chapter five says, “And the men who did not die were stricken with the tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.” In the midst of their suffering, God was aware of their cries. 

The message of this chapter is simple: there are consequences for taking the things of God lightly. Misunderstanding or ignorance will not be a valid excuse when it comes time to pay the penalty for not honoring God as He has outlined. We cannot make a case for the Philistines as innocent parties, because they were the enemies of God’s people, and they knew the power of God. Recall in a previous chapter when the Philistines noted how the God that the Israelites worshipped had ravaged the Egyptians. The Philistines had been warned in this sense and should have known better than to thwart and toy with the power of the true God. Their eyes and hearts were only concerned with battle and defeat, and they did not seek the deeper truths of divinity that were before them. Could things have gone differently for the Philistines if they had respected God’s power and let the ark be? What if they had returned the ark to Israel after the first time Dagon fell?

Whatever the answers to those questions may be, the lessons are apparent. The parallels drawn to our individual lives can be expressed as questions:

·       Am I treating God in worship as I should? Is my heart right? Do I understand what He expects of me?

o   If not, how best can I seek to understand how God wants me to approach Him?

·       Are there any of God’s truths that I willingly ignore in favor of what I prefer to believe?

o   If so, am I prepared for and convinced of the consequences that are coming?

·       Are there any signals or occurrences in my life that warn me that I am doing the wrong thing?

o If so, am I living in denial, or has my heart become hardened?

I Samuel 4: Ark as Idol

The previous chapter ended with the confirmation of Samuel as the one that would bring the voice of the Lord back to God’s people. Samuel is a prophet in Shiloh and God is giving strength to him and to the words he speaks, letting “none of his words fall to the ground.”

Chapter 4 begins with the affirmation that Samuel would now be speaking as a prophet to all of Israel. Although we are not told exactly why, Israel goes out to fight against the Philistines and it could be that Israel is the instigator. Israel and the Philistines were at war regularly during this period in history. The primary reason for the fighting is that Israel never fully purged the land of all of its inhabitants when they took control of the promised land. The constant fighting with their Philistine rivals is a consequence of not having followed through with the commandments of God. Disobeying God will frequently result in unintended consequences, some of which are not always obvious.

There are two battles mentioned in this chapter between the Israelites and the Philistines. In the first battle, the Philistines won and there were four thousand Israelites killed. The Israelite elders ascribe the loss to God not being with them. And while they are likely correct in this judgment, their next idea is a bad one and their leadership is poor, leading the people amiss. The elders suggest that the ark of the covenant be brought out of the tabernacle and into the camp of battle. They believed that it would bring God’s presence among the fighting soldiers, leading them to victory. This is wrong on a few levels. For one, the elders should have understood that the ark was not to be used in this way. It is true that in many ways the tabernacle represented the presence of God among the people, and that the ark served as the core of this idea. But the elders treat the ark of the covenant more like an idol and less like the reminder of God’s caring for His people that it was intended to be. Were the elders led to think of the ark as an idol under the influence of the pagan nations around them, whose devotion to idols was rampant? It is possible. Furthermore, there is no guidance or command from God anywhere in His Word that allows for or instructs that the ark can be used in this way. Implicitly, the presence of God is with His people when they follow and obey Him, not when they tote around the emblems of His care.

Despite the wayward guidance, the soldiers are still heartened by the presence of the ark. As it comes into the camp, they shout and yell, encouraged by “the presence of God.” The Philistines, hearing this, understand what the shouts mean and become intimidated, remembering how the God of Israel punished the Egyptians. But instead of running, the Philistine leadership urges motivation, saying, “Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines, that you do not become servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men, and fight!”

The encouragement works and the Philistines also win the second battle in this chapter, killing thirty thousand Israelite foot soldiers. Alarmingly, the ark is captured by the Philistines and Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas die in the battle. You may remember the prophecy brought by the unnamed prophet in I Samuel chapter 2, which is now fulfilled: “Now this shall be a sign to you that will come upon your two sons, on Hophni and Phinehas: in one day they shall die, both of them.” You will recall their ill behavior and obvious neglect of God’s commands. Now that their deaths have come to pass, there is no doubt of the shame that their actions bring to Eli as the head priest.

The passage that follows in this chapter relates the death of Eli. We see Eli sitting, waiting by the side of the road for news of the battle. He is worried over the ark. Our understanding of Eli’s character has been tempered by impressions both good and bad. We think good of Eli because of his understanding and acceptance of Samuel as a prophet. His care for Samuel and His mercy on Hannah (once he understood her) were representative of good, godly attributes. However, Eli was a very poor father and even poorer steward of the tabernacle, allowing abominations to occur with sacrifices and other activities. His failure to control his sons speaks very poorly of his integrity as a father and as a priest. But here in his final moments, Eli’s heart seems to be in the right place. His worry over the ark implies that he knew it was in danger. Perhaps he resisted its being taken from the tabernacle. Perhaps he suspected its capture. His worried state over the ark is compounded by the idea of the death of his sons hanging over his head since he heard the prophecy. Knowing that they were in battle and could die the same day as prophesied and knowing that the ark was in danger undoubtedly had him in a great state of distress. So he sits, blind and aged by the side of the road, waiting for news.

A messenger comes and tells Eli that his worst fears are confirmed: the ark has been captured and both of his sons have died in battle. This was too much for Eli. His life ends with him falling backwards off of his seat, breaking his neck, and dying. God’s prophecy for Hophni and Phinehas is now complete. But there was more to the prophecy: “But any of your men whom I do not cut off from My altar shall consume your eyes and grieve your heart. And all the descendants of your house shall die in the flower of their age … And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left in your house will come and bow down [to him] for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread, and say, “Please, put me in one of the priestly positions, that I may eat a piece of bread.”” The judgment on Eli’s descendants and the punishment for the wickedness of his sons would not end with their death, but would extend to the coming generation.

Accordingly, the news that the messenger brought to Shiloh also greatly disturbed Phinehas’ wife, who was pregnant. When she heard that the ark had been captured, and that her husband and father-in-law had died, she gave birth to a son and then she also died. But before she died, the women that were attending to her tried to encourage her, saying, “Do not fear, for you have borne a son.” But in the depths of her despair and grief, she did not heed them and said instead, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” She named her child Ichabod.

Chapter four ends on this depressing note to underline the consequences of sin. What Hophni and Phinehas did was deplorable and not only hurt them, but many others, including the whole of the nation of Israel. It is easy to learn the lesson from them to not corrupt God’s commandments with selfish and sinful lusts. Perhaps more nuanced lessons can also be learned:

  • When God specifies the terms of how we are to worship and serve Him, we need to take them very seriously
  • Punishment and consequences will result when we corrupt worship
  • God will carry through with His promises of consequence and judgment
  • The leadership of our children is a responsibility meant to be undertaken with great seriousness
  • Knowledge of sin suggests complicity
  • Sin is best handled when it is found and smothered early; Do not allow it to fester and grow

I Samuel 3: A Voice Fills the Void

The chapter opens with a reminder of the environment in Shiloh: relative godlessness. Recall the priest’s Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas from chapter two. They sought their own pleasure instead of fulfilling the commandments of God. Their father the priest Eli was also inadequate in that he did not oversee the temple activities properly, allowing his corrupted sons to participate in unsanctioned and sinful practices. In these surroundings the prophet Samuel comes of age. He will fill the void of godlessness, self-service, and neglect with the voice of God. In addition to the poor environment, we are also told that there had not been other prophets revealing the Word of God in those days.

Samuel was just a boy at this time, but God decided that he was ready to begin speaking the Word of Lord to the people. Samuel, having been given to God by his mother as a small child, lived with Eli in the temple, helping with the tasks and jobs required to maintain temple activities. Verse two tells us that Eli was growing older, his eyesight growing so poor that it was difficult for him to see.

As we begin the main sequence of this chapter, there is foreshadowing in verse three: “and before the lamp of God went out in the tabernacle of the Lord where the ark of God was…” In coming chapters, we will see the ark stolen and the light which is supposed to continually burn go out.

Events commence in a domestic scene as we picture Eli and Samuel sleeping at night in a common tent or structure, if not in the same room. Samuel hears a voice calling his name and it happens four separate times. Each of the first three times, Samuel believes it is Eli calling out for some sort of help in the night. After the third time of Samuel coming to Eli and asking, “Did you call me?”, Eli recognizes that God is the one calling Samuel in the night. Eli tells Samuel in verse nine: “Go, lie down; and it shall be, if He calls you, that you must say, ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears.’”

When Samuel entreats God to speak to him after the fourth time God calls to him in the night, God speaks to Samuel directly. The content of this first message is that God will complete the actions against Eli that were proclaimed by the unnamed prophet in chapter two. In I Samuel 2:27-36, it is prophesied that Eli and his house will be ostracized from the house of God, with their descendants begging to be fed by the new inhabitants of the tabernacle. This is because Eli’s sons were “vile and he did not restrain them.” Hophni and Phinehas were also pronounced to die on the same day.

After receiving his first words from God, Samuel lays down until morning, but the text does not say the he slept. Would any of us be able to sleep in such a situation? Think of it: Samuel had lived with Eli from a very young age. Eli was surely a father figure to Samuel and had taught him all the ways of God and maintaining the tabernacle. Even though Eli was a flawed priest and father, Samuel still must have felt betrayal, shame, and embarrassment in hearing God’s harsh judgment against Eli. Samuel is afraid to tell Eli all that God has told him of the coming punishment.

But Eli is eager to hear from Samuel what God told him in the night. Showing faithfulness in both his new relationship with God and his relationship with Eli, Samuel tells Eli everything that God said, holding nothing back. Samuel’s open-hearted proclamation shows his worthiness as a prophet. In kind, Eli hears and accepts all of these things, showing that he was aware of his faults to some extent and was willing to pay the price for them. Eli says, “It is the Lord. Let Him do what seems good to Him.” The chapter ends with the Lord being with Samuel as he grows. Samuel will perform honorably as a prophet of God and all of Israel comes to know that the word of God comes from the prophet Samuel who resides in Shiloh.

Eli’s spirit is willing to accept the judgment and punishment from God because he understands the sanctity of God’s Word and that there are real consequences at stake for breaking His commandments. There is something for us to learn by Eli’s example. We have all sinned and still do from time to time. Accepting the reality of the consequences of our sins and the attached consequences is an honorable thing. Not only will we be better prepared to repent by maintaining such an attitude, but we will also not hold God in contempt. Holding God in contempt produces rebellion and alienation. Much better are we to accept our punishment and resolve to change our ways.

Likewise, Samuel’s attitude holds lessons for us as well. Even though he was young, he still understood the weight of his responsibility and carried it through honorably. He did not let excuses such as his youth, his relationships, or his (supposed) anxiety get in the way of doing what God asked him to do. Our spirit should yield like Eli’s when confronted with our sin and its consequences, yet it should also be unshrinking like Samuel’s in the face of doing the hard things necessary to accomplish the will of God.

I Samuel 2: Hannah’s Gratitude & the Depravity of the Sons of Eli

I Samuel 2 deals with separate yet connected topics: Hannah’s gratitude, Samuel’s blessings, and the wickedness of the priest Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas.

As the chapter opens, Hannah offers a prayer to God after being blessed with a son. She is overjoyed because God has saved her from her plight of being a woman unable to bear children. Her prayer of praise and confidence in God is impressive because of its sincerity; her reaction to God’s blessing is appropriate in its expansiveness.

We could surmise that her prayer takes place publicly at the temple, after her interchange with Eli. However, it could just as easily have been more of a private affair. She recognizes that God is holy and singular. In the wake of the blessing of her son, Hannah admonishes others to temper and remove the arrogance from their speech. She acknowledges God as the “God of knowledge”, and the One who weighs actions. Verses 4-8 are an acknowledgement of God’s control over the land of the living:

“The bows of the mighty men are broken, and those who stumbled are girded with strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, and the hungry have ceased to hunger. Even the barren has borne seven, and she who has many children has become feeble. The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and He has set the world upon them.”

He brings the high of the world low and the low He exalts. Through His unreachable wisdom, He puts things as they ought to be: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Matthew 19:30

Verses 9-10 display an attractive and sure confidence in God’s prevalence in the world, the surety that He will accomplish His will. Hannah’s mention of God giving strength to “His king” could be viewed as a prophecy. Her son Samuel will ultimately prophesy about Israel’s first King (Saul), so there is a case to be made here for prophecy. Alternatively, Hannah’s mention of a king could also be interpreted as a prophecy of the Messiah Jesus. This option seems less likely though, especially considering that her son will prophesy Saul’s coming. Skipping ahead to verses 18-21, the account of Samuel growing before the Lord is encouraging. Also, Hannah had more children, three sons and two daughters.

The chapter transitions to listing the transgressions of the priest’s sons Hophni and Phinehas. These two angered God with their disregard for the specific commandments of sacrifice and with their selfishness. They manipulated the rules and methods of sacrifice to gather for themselves the meat they wanted. Their use of a three-pronged fork to gather meat was nowhere mentioned in God’s instructions for sacrifice. Also, the fat was meant to be burnt as a sacrifice to God, but Eli’s wicked sons took it for themselves, as seen in verse 16: ““And if the man said to him, “They should really burn the fat first; then you may take as much as your heart desires,” he would then answer him, “No, but you must give it now; and if not, I will take it by force.”” Despite the people trying to do the right things, these wicked men collected the best meat selfishly for themselves, denying God’s portion and angering Him.

Eli’s sons also had sex with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle. In terms of degrees of sin, this one seems just as bad as taking God’s portion of the sacrifice. Once can picture these wicked sons, taking advantage of the women seeking to praise and glorify God by bedding them. This is a depraved corruption, a disgrace of the worship and holy approach that should otherwise be made to Almighty God. The actions of Hophni and Phinehas so angered God that He made them not listen to the admonitions of their father Eli because “the Lord desired to kill them.”

But why did their depravity get to such a point? News of the deeds of Hophni and Phinehas reached their father Eli, and he attempted to influence and change their behavior, but by then it was too late. It is a lesson for parents but especially fathers: if and when we see insolence, evil, corruption, sin, disrespect, or ungodliness in our households, it needs to be addressed and aggressively removed. Because if it is not, it grows into something akin to the abomination Eli has on his hands. It is clear that Hophni and Phinehas sinned greatly and will pay for their sins, but Eli bears some of this burden along with them.

The chapter ends with a prophecy from an unnamed man of God (Samuel’s first prophecy comes in chapter 3). The prophecy is given directly to Eli (more evidence that he bears significant responsibility) and reveals the height of insult that the actions of Hophni and Phinehas have caused. Their selfishness and desire for sin were not what God had in mind when He delivered the priesthood to men, with the design of facilitating worship and sacrifices. God says that an enemy will be in His dwelling place, a suggestion that the tabernacle will be occupied by foreigners or the ark will be stolen, or both. The young men of Israel will die and Hophni and Phinehas will die on the same day. Eli’s family, although in the line of priests, will not be allowed to remain as priests and the day will come when they will beg money and food from the new priesthood.

The new priest that will replace Eli is not mentioned by name, but it is one that God says will be faithful and will do “according to what is in My heart and in My mind.” In the closing verses of chapter 2, we have a reference to David “My anointed” in that the new priest will be faithful. David, as one in the lineage of Christ, intimates what weighty matters the wicked brothers were playing with.

If we were not convinced before, may we be convinced now that God is highly serious about His commandments, the way we approach Him, how we heed His provisions for worship, and our attitude when we approach Him. Are we taking these things seriously enough? Do we have the right amount of reverence, awe, respect, and fear? God expects us to take Him seriously and to approach and obey Him sincerely and in the prescribed ways. May each of us pray that our hearts are right before Him.

Romans 16: A Beloved Spiritual Family

This final chapter of Romans includes the largest list of people greeted of any of Paul’s letters. It speaks to the family in Christ that Paul treasures and interacts with and Paul’s influence and memory on those that exhibited faith in Christ. His consideration and memory of others shows us how much he valued the relationships and the souls of his friends. The bonds felt through this communication suggest a connection stronger than mere blood relatives; this is a peek into the spiritual family that uplifts one another that we all can enjoy through Jesus Christ.

Following is a breakdown of the people listed, with some having more information than others. There is a total of twenty-six people mentioned, a third of whom are women.

  • Phoebe, benefactress

Phoebe was the traveler that delivered the letter. Her being referred to here as a sister, helper, and servant of the church implies that she was a patron of sorts.

  • Priscilla and Aquila, teachers and tentmakers

We know that Paul had a good and productive relationship with Priscilla and Aquila. Reading in Acts 18:1-3, we see that Paul worked with them as a tentmaker as he preached in the synagogue at Corinth. Priscilla and Aquila were converted Jews who by this time has established a church in their home. They were astute teachers that traveled with Paul and were able to correct and exhort properly with humility and grace: “Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” Acts 18:24-26. By the time of this letter, we may assume that Priscilla and Aquila were residing in Rome.

  • Rufus and his mother, Rufus “chosen in the Lord”

This Rufus was quite possibly the same man whose father Simon of Cyrene had helped Jesus carry the cross on the way to Golgotha: “Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross. And they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull.” Mark 15: 21-22

  • Amplias, Urbanus, Stachys, and Apelles

These are all common slave names that have been found in lists of slaves that served in the imperial household. Given the context, it seems likely that  these slaves had been converted to Christianity apart from their masters’ permission or knowledge. Or perhaps their masters cared not about the spiritual beliefs of their slaves.

  • Aristobulus’ and Narcissus’ households

Seemingly along the same lines as the slaves, Aristobolus and Narcissus were masters whose slaves evidently had obeyed the gospel. These slaves must have worshipped with the church in Rome and Paul wanted to reach out to them, likely by way of encouragement. Some have theorized that this Aristobulus mentioned in Romans 16 was the grandson of Herod the Great and brother of Agrippa I, but this is not substantiated. Narcissus was a name taken from Greek mythology and others have theorized about this man as well, suggesting that he was the same Narcissus that was put to death by Agrippa after Nero came to power in Rome.

  • Herodion, Andronicus, Junia, countrymen

Herodion being mentioned as a countryman implies that was a Jew, like Paul. We could assume the same for Andronicus and Junia, with the distinction that they had served prison time with Paul. Did Paul convert Andronicus and Junia while he was imprisoned with them? Given Paul’s pedigree and reputation as a teacher and preacher, it seems likely.

  • Mary

There have been a couple of different ideas about the identity of this Mary. Some have thought over the years that she was Mary, the mother of John Mark, while still others have offered the idea that Paul is greeting Mary Magdalene, without adding the formal distinction “of Magdalene”. It is exciting to think that we will know the answer one day.

  • Epaenetus

Although not substantiated biblically, Epaenetus was the name of a man that was a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church and in the Roman Catholic Church. This man is thought of as being the first convert in the Asian province. This Epaenetus being the same as the Epaenetus mentioned in Romans 16 is a statement that we do not have enough information to confirm.  

  • Other assorted brethren: Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas, Hermes, and the brethren who are with them. Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Tryphena, Tryphosa, fellow workers in the Lord, likely sisters, and Persis, who labored much in the Lord.

These last names in the first section are listed generally and there is not as much context to be found around these brethren. Whatever their exact identities, they held a place in Paul’s heart as valued parts of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.

In verses 17-20, Paul offers an important encouragement to the Romans to be on the lookout for those that would come into the church, seeking to divide the brethren. Paul implies that their obedience to Jesus may have made them targets of people who do not serve Jesus, but rather themselves. These people will deceive the hearts of the less learned “by smooth words and flattering speech.” When we are strong, resisting false truths and standing up for actual truth, Paul tells us that “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.” Further encouragement can be found in the wisdom of seeking to know much about righteousness, goodness, and faith and to be ignorant of evil things. This is a good message for us anytime in life, but it is especially good for those new in the faith and for our children.

The letter closes with Paul sending greetings from the friends that were with him to the Christians in Rome, and with a prayer. Here is a breakdown of Paul’s friends listed in verses 21-24:

  • Timothy

A young man that worked with Paul, teaching and preaching. I and II Timothy in the New Testament are addressed to this same Timothy.

  • Lucius

This is Luke, apostle and author of the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts of the apostles.

  • Jason and Sosipater

Jason is named in Acts 17:5-9 and was Paul’s host on his first journey to Thessalonica. Sosipater could possibly be the same individual mentioned in Acts 20:4: “And Sopater of Berea accompanied him to Asia…”

  • Tertius (scribe)

Tertius, as scribe, did not compose the letter as Paul was the author. Paul, as the author, dictated the letter to Tertius, who wrote it down word for word. As an example, see Jeremiah 36:4: “Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah; and Baruch wrote on a scroll of a book, at the instruction of Jeremiah, all the words of the Lord which He had spoken to him.” Accordingly, we are complimented in our faith by II Timothy 3:16-17 that the information in the Holy Bible originates from the source of our great God: “ All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

  • Gaius

Paul was lodging with Gaius at the time. I Corinthians 1:14 tells us that Paul baptized Gaius.

  • Erastus

Erastus is mentioned as the City Treasurer here. There was also an Erastus mentioned in Acts 19:22, that was sent by Paul to Macedonia. Again, this may or may not have been the same man.

  • Quartus, a brother in the faith

The concluding prayer of the book of Romans is a thing of beauty. In it, Paul ascribes glory to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But it is the way that he does it that makes it beautiful. In giving Christ glory, Paul lists out the how, when, why, and who is connected to the substantiation of why Christ deserves glory. One gets the sense that Paul is burdened with the holy desire to lay out the terms of Christ’s glory with exactness. Here are the terms under which Paul ascribes glory to our Holy Savior:

  • Jesus is able to establish you in a holy relationship with God
  • This act is the result of the revealed mystery, which was:
    • Prophesied
    • Known to all nations
    • Executed according to the commandment of Almighty God
  • Your establishment in a sound relationship with God is made for your obedience to the faith
    • Under which God alone is wise
  • Christ deserves this glory and honor forever

One can almost imagine Paul’s prayer echoing through the halls of heaven, meeting approval by God in that it so accurately, respectfully and honorably gives glory to the Son of God. Our Savior Jesus Christ is singular, holy, and mighty. May each of us put Him in the highest places of our hearts forever.

Romans 15: Help One Another

The theme of brotherly love in Romans is strong and continues as we read chapter 15. Putting others first, particularly fellow believers, is a practice to remember in context of these verses. When you add the concept of the weak and the strong to this idea, the burden of assistance naturally falls to the strong. There is a sense of community that Is fostered among God’s people here in the first part of the chapter. We should follow the lead of Christ, who, as the strongest, as our advocate, bears the great burden of our sins. He experiences the reproaches due us and does so willingly, lovingly, and with divine intent. Our place, then, is to seek unity,  and recognize what a great example we have in Christ in terms of how to treat our brothers and sisters in the faith. Patience and love are the keystones here. Praising and glorifying God as we see the result of following Him will be the natural result.

The message in verses 7- 13 are important to behold in the context of Jesus Christ as a gateway to God for both Jews and Gentiles. For the Jews, Jesus confirms the promises made to the fathers. For the Gentiles, He provides a path to God. Passages from II Samuel, Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah are quoted to illustrate the idea that yes, the salvation offered by Jesus is accessible by the Gentiles. It is likely not a coincidence that the admonition of the strong supporting the weak and living together in peace were placed so closely together with this reminder that God offers redemption to both Jews and Gentiles through Christ. There would have likely been many Jews with contempt for Gentiles. The encouragement, motivation, and inspiration from Christ to give one another leeway in things of little consequence would have went a long way towards establishing the healthy, holy, godly community that God has in mind for His kingdom.

Paul continues on and demonstrates confidence in the Roman Christians. After all of the useful (albeit challenging) guidance, Paul builds them up, supplying them with the compliments and confidence they need to accomplish the goals. The people are full of goodness and knowledge and capable of encouraging each other. Paul takes his responsibility to teach and preach very seriously and he feels compelled to say these things, so that “I might be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Paul has a duty to the Gentiles. Likewise, he is trying to express to the Jews hearing his message that they also have a duty to the Gentiles, one of patience, tolerance, teaching, and understanding.

Paul’s ministry has the bold and appropriate goal of reaching those people that have not yet been preached Jesus Christ. The chapter is concluded with Paul telling them of his plan to visit them in Rome. He has plans to bring the gospel to Spain and wants to visit them in Rome at that time. Also in this section we have the Biblical precedent of one church’s saints helping another group of believers in need: “For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem. It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things.” Paul describes a very nice transaction with these words. The Jews in Jerusalem were in need, and poor. But they had the knowledge and the ability to educate newly believing Gentiles on the history of God and His interaction with man. In kind, the materially blessed Gentiles were in a position to help the Jews in Jerusalem and both parties benefitted from the relationship, inspired by the love exhibited by Jesus Christ. This example is no doubt just the kind of interaction that God desires among His people of all stripes. It forces us to ask ourselves, how can I follow these examples? How can my family and I be the patient, loving members of God’s kingdom that He would have us to be? It is definitely a matter of effort and of prayer.

Paul, ever the humble servant, concludes this section with requests for prayers on his behalf. These are prayers that his ministry is successful and that he may be able to visit them, eventually.

Romans 14: Laws of Love and Liberty

The ending context of Romans 13 had us ruminating on what it means to cast off darkness and put on light. An importance is put on living for, and as, Christ. We are encouraged not to spend energy on fulfilling the lusts of our flesh, but rather to dwell in the blessings and teachings of Jesus Christ. In doing so, our priorities and the hierarchy of importance will make itself known. Chief within this hierarchy is spiritual things over the physical. Simply because people ascribe spiritual meaning to physical things does not make them spiritual things. Eating food, for example. Just like modern times, people in the first century placed spiritual importance on the things they put into their bodies.

This concept would have been familiar to both Jews and Gentiles, but especially so to Jews. There were many restrictions against the types of food and food preparation methodology in the Old Testament. Looking at these provisions from a modern perspective, it is easy to conclude that they were in place for health and safety. This includes the regulations against imbibing things such as blood and meat from hoofed animals. This was God’s way of protecting the health of his people.

Compounding these provisions for the Jews would also have been the food offered to foreign idols. Living in Rome, there were innumerable temples receiving animal sacrifices throughout the day. Some of this food would ultimately make it to the markets, where it would be sold indiscriminate of the religion of the buyer. Some Jews and early Christians would call it sin to eat the food offered to foreign idols. Others would see no issue with eating this food as the idols were nonexistent anyway, so what would it matter? Still others might realize that the idols were false but perhaps they had been converted from some pagan practices and now it was just too close for comfort to eat food offered to idols that they once worshipped.

Paul is instructing the Christians in Rome to be tolerant of the views of others and to let them live and eat in a manner that they are comfortable with. If a person violates their conscience by engaging in an activity, it does no good to force them to change just to prove that the activity is not actually sinful. To them, the knowledge that there is no sin in eating food offered to idols is enough. Their faith, just like yours, needs room to grow and understand the true context of how the spiritual interacts with the physical. We know Paul’s opinion on the matter, he feels (and I think this is right), that all things are allowable. In a companion passage to Romans 14, Paul goes into greater detail on this topic in I Corinthians 10. Within that passage, he quotes from Deuteronomy 10:14 and Psalm 24:1 alike to remind us that “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” I Corinthians 10:23-33 here for a more detailed discussion of eating/not eating to avoid violating conscience:

“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience? But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks? Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.”

This passage makes it apparent that the issue of eating food is far less in importance than the well-being of our brethren. Everything we do should be to glory God, and if that means submitting to another’s provisions, provided they are not sinful, then may it be so. Paul reminds us that the entire goal of life is to bring others closer to Christ.

It is safe to assume that in the time of the New Testament, food safety and hygiene has improved to the point where the archaic provisions from the old law are unnecessary. And by no mistake, the theme of all things’ allowance to be eaten coincides with the idea that God’s salvation is now for all people. Recall the vision that Peter had in Acts 10:9-16. Through this vision, Peter understood that all edible things were allowable by God and that the gospel of Jesus Christ is meant for all men, everywhere. His teaching to and baptism of the Roman Centurion Cornelius’ household supports the theme.

Given all of the history around eating and food in the context of the time, we might wonder, does this bear any meaning today? Yes, it does. In modern times, there are Christians that abstain from certain foods. Primarily these are for reasons of health, but we could also confront our brothers and sisters in the faith that abstain from eating meat for more of a spiritual reason, believing that a diet of red meat is harmful to health, or that it is disingenuous to use living creatures for food. Now is where the point of this chapter should truly come alive for us. Because here Paul does not focus on what is right or wrong in the area of eating. Paul proclaims that the more important thing is to consider spiritual health; the conscience of our brothers and sisters in the faith.

It may be that one stance has deeper Biblical roots than the other. But in the big picture, there is a hierarchy of ideas in terms of our closeness to God and our faith. It is more important to God that we show tolerance to our brothers and sisters in the faith than we split hairs on a topic for which the consequences are not dire.

I must interject here that there remain many sinful ideas and topics for which tolerance should not be exercised, even among brethren. However, in God’s kingdom, in His church, as the brethren grow their faith in the Holy Word of God, these instances recede and abate as faith and knowledge grow. There is another discussion that could be had in this context, which would be to answer the question, besides eating certain foods, what other practices or principles are there whose rightness or wrongness are not as important as recognizing the conscience of our brethren? This might make for a good discussion topic for study with your own family or Bible class.

The main message of Romans 14 is to withhold judgment and “advice” in such inconsequential matters to our fellow brethren and instead to concentrate on building up one another in the faith, creating deep and lasting relationships with them; some things are more important than others. We need to see things in the proper context of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In some matters, considering the feelings of your brothers and sisters is more important than the “rightness” of the matter at hand.

Paul explicitly states such in verses 17-19: “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.”

In the final words of this chapter, Paul urges us to look inside. If we are looking at a brother or sister and judging them, have we also allowed the same thing for ourselves? Or do we play favorites? The most condemning aspect is the exercise of inspecting the source of our condemnation or judgment. Is the judgment of another based on our faith, or is it based on another motive? What are we truly after? Paul’s suggestion is that if we truly think and act in faith, we will not create strife for those of like faith. If our judgment or condemnation is based on a spiritual principle found in the Word of God and we are righting a wrong, we remove sin and we should be happy and give God the glory for such change. But when we openly condemn others for small matters, or, even worse, speak ill of them when they are not present, we are sowing division and hurting ourselves in the process.