The Apostle Paul felt deep affection for many believers in the church at Rome. In fact, the last chapter of his epistle to this church is devoted largely to Paul’s greetings and expressions of thankfulness and affection for some he knew personally. We know little or nothing but the names of most of them. That may be said of four women Paul mentioned by name—Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis. But though brief, what a commendation these women receive. Of Mary, Paul writes that she “bestowed much labour on us” (Rom. 16:6). Paul acknowledged Tryphena and Tryphosa as two women “who labour in the Lord” (v. 12). Paul referred to the fourth woman as the “beloved Persis” and observed that she “laboured much in the Lord” (v. 12). These commendations provide us with insight into what Paul—and ultimately, the Lord—valued.
Some things we don’t know (that must not be important). We are not told anything about the personal lives of these women. We do not know if they were married with children or single. We do not know if they were young or old (though the fact that Persis’s labor is mentioned in the past tense, may suggest that she was older). We do not know if they were attractive in appearance or charming in personality. We do not know if they were well-to-do or not so much so. Nor do we know what special talents they might have possessed and been known for. We do not know if they were popular and garrulous or quiet and retiring. In short, we know nothing of all the things that account for so much time and attention in the eyes of the world—many of them things over which we have no control.
Two things we do know (that must be important). Paul commends these women (and the Spirit of God inscribes their names in the eternal Word) because they “labored” or “labored much.” We are not made privy to what they did. It may have been cooking food, preparing a comfortable place for Paul to stay, or washing his clothes. It may have been ministering to the sick or helping the needy. It may have been wearing their knees out in intercessory prayer. We simply are not told. (The fact that Paul writes that Mary “bestowed much labour on us” may suggest that she ministered to their practical needs but could just as easily refer to the succor of their spiritual needs.) What we do know is that these women worked hard, the Gk. word for labour meaning to feel fatigue, by implication to work hard. (And if their names describe them physically, then Tryphena [meaning “delicate”] and Tryphosa [meaning “dainty”] were not robust physical specimens.) These women were not afraid of working hard, even to the point of exhaustion. But we also know that Paul was not impressed merely by the fact that they rolled up their sleeves and went to work because he twice adds “in the Lord.” Whatever the nature of their work (and it probably varied), they performed it in such a way that Paul realized it to be a service done ultimately for the sake of the Lord, in the power and under the tutelage of the Spirit.
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