by Al Maxey

Issue #635 ------- September 26, 2014
A man wrapped up in himself
makes a very small bundle.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

The Beloved Persis
A Study of Romans 16:12b

The sixteenth, and final, chapter of Paul's epistle to the Romans is quite interesting, and in some ways quite challenging. It contains a verse many in my particular faith-heritage feel justifies our denominational designation: "Church of Christ" -- "The churches of Christ salute you" (Rom. 16:16b, KJV). One will find this verse placed on a great many signs in front of our buildings all across this nation, and even in other countries. It "proves," one minister declared, that WE have the "right name." They don't like having it pointed out to them, however, that "Church of God" appears in the NT writings about a dozen times more often! I have dealt with "our" misuse of this descriptive phrase in Reflections #536 -- "True Church, True Name." In that same verse we find reference to the "holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16a), which I discuss in Reflections #426 -- "The Holy Kiss of Love." Immediately following this verse one will find a brief comment by the apostle on the need for discipline within the Body of Christ (Rom. 16:17-18), which I have examined in some depth in my study titled "Divine Design for Discipline: Pondering the Purposes & Parameters of Punishment for the People of God" (Reflections #245).

The bulk of the first half of the chapter, however, is a listing of the names of a great many people who had an impact upon the life and work of the apostle Paul, although a significant number of them are completely unknown to us today. We are quite familiar with some, however, such as Priscilla and Aquila (vs. 3-5a) and Timothy (vs. 21). Some of these people, and the comments Paul makes about them, have generated a bit of controversy and debate over the centuries. Two such individuals are Phoebe (vs. 1-2), who is referred to as a "deaconess" (Reflections #299 -- "Our Sister Phoebe: Deaconess of Cenchrea"), and Junia (vs. 7), who is said to be "of note among the apostles" (Reflections #201 -- "Andronicus & Junias/Junia: A Reflective Analysis of Romans 16:7"). As one can quickly perceive, although little is stated about the persons named in this chapter, volumes have nevertheless been written about the "issues" raised by certain comments Paul made about them. In this present issue of my Reflections we will examine another individual from this chapter: a woman by the name of Persis.

"Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord" (Rom. 16:12b, ESV). The New English Bible describes Persis as one who "toiled in His service so long." The New World Translation states, "she performed many labors in the Lord." David Lipscomb (1831-1917), a leader in the Stone-Campbell Movement, of which our denomination (Church of Christ) is a branch, correctly stated, "Of this person mentioned in this verse we know nothing, save what is here revealed" [A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, vol. 1: Romans, p. 273]. "The names mentioned in these verses are all, and utterly, unknown to fame. They here glint across our vision, like meteors in the midnight sky, which appear for a moment, only to vanish forever" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 462]. Charles Swindoll notes, "Each of the apostle's comments is like the tip of a narrative iceberg. We can only imagine what stories each remark could introduce. All we know for certain is that each name brings to mind a relationship the apostle cherishes and shares in common with the church in Rome" [Insights on Romans, p. 327]. And yet, there are some insights we may gain from the scant information provided by Paul, insights which may prove a source of enlightenment and encouragement to disciples of Christ today.

Persis is a name which simply meant "a Persian woman." Although this could suggest her ethnicity, it should also be noted that this name was very "common in ancient papyri and inscriptions" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 720], and it was also "a name used of freedwomen, and especially of female slaves, throughout the Roman empire" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 780]. It is entirely possible, at least statistically, that Persis may have been a freed slave who chose to remain in Rome and serve the Lord along with her fellow believers. Dr. John Gill (1697-1771), an English theologian and Baptist pastor, stated in his Exposition of the Entire Bible, referring to some traditional understandings, "She is said by the Syriac scholiast to be the wife of Rufus, who is mentioned in the next verse." This assertion, of course, can't be verified, although it makes for interesting speculation.

We do know, however, that she held a special place in the heart of Paul and the other disciples in Rome, for he characterized her as "the beloved." With three other names (all men) in this chapter, Paul uses the word "beloved." There is a difference, however: to them he says "my beloved" (vs. 5, 8, 9). With Persis he leaves out the word "my," and simply says she is "the beloved." This has caused some to wonder why. "'The beloved,' without 'my,' implies that Persis had not come from one of Paul's churches and was not personally known to him" [R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, p. 910]. Lenski assumes that this was a woman beloved by the church in Rome, but not known personally by Paul. Thus, she is "the beloved," but not "my beloved." This is possible, but most scholars think it highly unlikely. Others feel Paul was simply making the point that this woman "was dear to the whole church," and not just to Paul alone [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 720]. The most popular interpretation, however, is that Paul (given the social and cultural norms of that time) sought to avoid any appearance of an improper intimacy with this woman that might cause some "tongues to wag." "It is to be observed how, in calling her 'the beloved,' he avoids, with delicate propriety, adding 'my,' as he does in speaking of his male friends" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 456]. "She is described as 'the beloved,' by which may be meant a personal convert and disciple of the apostle or one closely associated with him in his work. If so, it may be with intentional delicacy that St. Paul has so described her and not as 'my beloved,' the term which he applies to three men whom he salutes. On the other hand, 'the beloved' may indicate not personal relationship to the apostle but the affection in which Persis was held by the whole church to which she belonged and in which she 'labored much in the Lord'" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 190].

A fact we can definitely ascertain about Persis from this passage is that she was an extremely hard worker for the Lord. Paul states that she "labored much in the Lord." The Greek word for "labor" is "kopiao," which means "to be wearied or spent with labor; faint from weariness; to toil hard" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 237]. It comes from a root word meaning "beating." Thus, it has reference to an extreme "weariness as though one had been beaten" [Dr. Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT, vol. 3, p. 827]. Dr. Kittel goes on to inform us that this word has "a distinctive NT use," one that is "found first and most frequently (19 times) in the writings of Paul" -- i.e., "the missionary and pastoral work of himself and others for the Lord and the community of believers" [ibid, p. 829]. Such "laborers" were those who, at great personal sacrifice, exhausted themselves in proclaiming the Good News and working to build up the Body of Christ. In Romans 16:12a Paul says that two women, Tryphena and Tryphosa (perhaps sisters), were "working hard in the Lord." This is the same Greek word used in the next phrase about Persis. They were hard working women.

Frankly, women in the church rarely get the credit or honor due them, yet where would most congregations be if not for their tireless labors of love?! "We learn from this that Christian women as well as men labored in the ministry of the Word. ... Many have spent much useless labor in endeavoring to prove that these women did not preach" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 163]. "It is noteworthy that this verb ('kopiao'), which suggests painstaking effort, is used in Romans 16 only of women. ... It is therefore impossible to regard the work of Persis and of the other women as limited to practical benevolence, such as the showing of hospitality" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 190-191]. There are many today who seek to limit the service of women in the church. I believe this to be wrong. By so doing, we shackle one of the church's greatest assets: its women! I would refer you to my articles under the heading "Role of Women" in my Topical Index. I completely concur with one of our movement's early leaders, who wrote, "With the evidences which we now have before us, of Paul's high appreciation of female excellence and work in the church, how anyone can hold him capable of underrating them, as has been done, or of thinking meanly of them, it is difficult to see. Nothing could be more unjust than such an imputation" [Moses Lard, Commentary on Paul's Letter to Romans, p. 458]. Indeed, many scholars believe Persis (as well as the other two women mentioned in verse 12) served as a deaconess in the church, and that she was not limited to "woman's work," but "labored to promote the spread of Christianity. Pious females, then as now, were able to do much ... to extend the truths and blessings of the gospel" [Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Brethren, we shackle our women to our shame! They are the hardest workers, and often the most devoted, we have. Use them!!

Yes, the apostle Paul, in Rom. 16:12, declared these three women to be hard workers in the Lord. There are a couple of differences to be noted in the statement about Persis, however, when compared with the statement about Tryphena and Tryphosa. First, although Paul uses the same Greek word to describe their labors to the point of weariness and exhaustion, he adds the word "much" to the statement about Persis. The other two labored, but Persis "labored much." When she had reached the point of exhaustion, she kept on working. What an example she is for us, and what an indictment against too many of us who are quick to complain when we grow weary in well-doing. Second, with respect to the labor/work of Tryphena and Tryphosa, Paul uses a present participle, which indicates that these two women are currently engaged in such wearying work for the Lord. However, he changes the word to an aorist indicative when using it with respect to Persis, which indicates he is referring to her exhaustive labors as having taken place in the past. This is a significant grammatical shift in verse 12, and should not be overlooked. The first two women in verse 12 "are still at work, but the 'much toil' of Persis, the beloved, belongs to some occasion in the past" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 720].

Since Paul sends greetings to Persis, we know that she was not deceased. So, why does Paul speak of her labors as being in the past, while speaking of the labors (using the same word, but in a different tense) of the other two women in this same verse as being ongoing in the present? Further, this is clearly not an attempt by Paul to rebuke Persis for inactivity; seeking to shame her by pointing out that Tryphena and Tryphosa are presently working hard, while her own labors are past. So, what are we to make of this? Notice the following two comments: "The aorist, in contrast to the present used in the same verse of the labors of Tryphena and Tryphosa, may point to some definite occasion of special importance in the past; or we may suppose that Persis was an aged woman whose active work was over" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 191]. "The past tense (aorist indicative) -- 'who worked hard' -- suggests an older lady who had done a considerable amount of Christian work" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 780].

I believe these two reputable sources (and others could be cited) may very well have "nailed it" on this matter. If so, what an encouragement this is to many of our "senior saints" who are no longer physically able to accomplish the same things they were able to accomplish in their past. As we grow older we also find we have less energy and less strength. I have talked with countless aged brethren over my almost 40 years of ministry, and I can't even begin to list the number of men and women who have come to me feeling guilt over the fact that they just can't do what they once could, or what they would like to do. I have tried to let them know that the Lord fully understands our physical limitations as we age, and that He most certainly is not going to hold such against us. I only wish back then I had understood what Paul may have been saying in this passage about "the beloved Persis," who worked to the point of weariness, and then some, in her past, but who, perhaps through no fault of her own, was no longer able to do so. Paul commends this woman, just as we should commend those who gave the full measure of their time and energy as they had ability and opportunity, but who may now be in the last days of their journey home. May we lift up such disciples to the Lord for their past service to Him and us, and may we never fail to show them the love and respect they so greatly deserve and need.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Washington:

Dear Al, would you please send me your two CD set: Revelation: A Reflective Study. My check is enclosed. Thank you for being a resource for sound teaching. May God, the eternal Spirit, continue to bless your efforts.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, your article "Deuteronomistic Theology" (Reflections #633) was excellent. Keep up the good work! We are saved because of the goodness of God, not because of our own righteousness. Salvation is of God, and there are well over a hundred passages in Scripture which attest to this fact.

From a Reader in Georgia:

I was out of town, so just now was able to read your article "Five Stream-Smoothed Stones" (Reflections #634). It is interesting to see how many lessons some people try to pull out of obscure numbers, symbols and events -- as if the main message wasn't enough for them! One of the assumptions about David's choice of five stones, however, carried more weight with me than the others: being fully prepared to fight the enemy. David knew where to look to find his ammunition, and he had previously practiced with his weapon so as to have confidence in his ability, thus he anticipated the end result of the battle, which gave him great courage. How many actually run toward the enemy, as David did?! This event is a good message for us today.

From a Reader in California:

Of the many explanations for why David chose five stones, I like this one the best: he simply sought to be fully armed. Putting myself in David's shoes, I wouldn't be thinking of any special numeric symbolism as I picked up stones from the stream. No siree! Rather, I'd want enough for whatever task might be at hand, as had been my policy with lions and hyenas. I'm thinking: he took a little walk along the stream and found five suitable stones, but no more. So, he quit looking and got to the task at hand. He took what was readily available, and then got to work. It is also possible to be too prepared.

From a Missionary in Peru:

I believe, as you suggest, that David chose five smooth stones in order to be fully prepared. It would be no less faith to get the job done with one stone or five stones. The reality is that in many situations we simply don't know fully how God will fulfill his promise. Thus, we prepare ourselves for whatever He has in mind to do. We should be fully prepared for any future changes or challenges that come our way. That seems to me the sensible lesson we can learn from David on this occasion. Yes, David might say, there is no doubt in my mind that Goliath is soon going to be dead, but if the first stone whistles past his ear, then out will come another smooth stone! As Oliver Cromwell once said, "Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry."

From a Reader in Illinois:

I certainly enjoyed reading your newest Reflections about David and the five smooth stones. You present some very interesting points, any of which could be the correct explanation of his choice, but I think we can all agree, as you have said, that his faith in his God was the most important part of the battle. At least, that is what touches me the most. In your last line you wrote, "Of far greater significance in the account is the weak faith of the Israeli army in contrast with the strong faith of a young boy, and the great truth that greater is He who stands with you in battle than he who stands against you!" This, of course, is the lesson I take away from this article. We, as God's army, need to stop cowering in the face of the enemy, and with boldness step forward and fight the giants we face in this world, knowing that we have God on our side. If God is for us, who can be against us?! One of my concerns, of course, is that we are not stepping forward together, but rather in factions and fragmented groups, each of which feels that it, and it alone, is the true army of God, with all others being impostors. We fail to align ourselves with other people of God who can and will fight the battle with us. If Satan's plan is to "divide and conquer," we are implementing half his plan for him by our factious infighting and bickering over insignificant notions we've conjured up; things which I believe are not even going to be remembered on The Great Day (Matthew 25). If only we could all just quit fighting and start feeding, fixing and befriending people who need Jesus! Love you, Al. God bless!

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