Paul the apostle mentions two fascinating time-markers for conversion in a list of disciples near the end of of his letter to the Romans. In what seems to be a postscript, Paul ends the book with a list of greetings to numerous people. Though he has never visited the Roman church personally, he knows not a few in that group, testimony to his and to the early church’s mobility as they penetrated the empire with the gospel message.
By time-markers we mean that Paul includes an indication of when the conversions occurred relative to others; in both cases, before others were converted; in the second case, before he himself entered into Christ.
The first time-marker appears in Romans 16:5: “Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia” (NET Bible). “First convert” translates the idea of “firstfruits,” which Paul uses several times,* once in 1 Corinthians 16:5 to refer, in the same way, to Stephanus and his household as the first converts in Achaia.
The agricultural figure of firstfruits seems to appeal to Paul as the guarantee of more to come. He draws from the Old Testament law which called upon Israelites to dedicate to God the firstborn of the flocks and the first produce of the crops (Numbers 28:26; 2 Chronicles 31:5). In Romans 8:23 he uses the concept to speak of the Holy Spirit as “as a foretaste of future glory,” while we now “also groan to be released from pain and suffering” (NLT). He uses it of Christ’s resurrection as the promise our own (1 Corinthians 15:23). So the conversion of a person or household in a new area is exciting, since it heralds more to come.
More, Theissen in his commentary on 1 Corinthians states that being firstfruits in conversion means also participating in that harvest. Paul’s mention of Epenetus in this list of dedicated coworkers would not disabuse us of the idea.
We remember teaching the first converts in the city of Guaratinguetá a few years ago and using this term in just this way, at the same time we urged them to assume the mission of God for their city, that they might be the first of many.
Firstfruits suggests that God continually looks for more conversions in a place and for more places to be evangelized.
The second conversion time-marker Paul mentions in Romans 16 follows in verse 7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my compatriots and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.”
Paul acknowledges that these faithful coworkers were converted before he was. They were either his kinsmen or fellow Jews, the term permitting either possibility. No information is available as to when they were imprisoned, whether together with Paul or for the same reason, for preaching the gospel.
It may be to praise them for their quick reception of the gospel that Paul mentions their early conversion. That they were outstanding in the opinion of the apostles† may indicate that their conversion occurred early in the history of the church. One author places them in Jerusalem, as a part of the same group of Hellenistic Jews as Stephen, in Acts 6:1ff.‡
We might even hear a wistfulness in his words, for Paul himself had the opportunity to obey long before he did so, having resisted the truth of the gospel for a number of years. Andronicus and Junia, however, to their eternal credit, took the first chance they had to embrace the faith.
God saves when a person obeys the gospel, be it late or early. But what opportunities are lost, what heartaches are caused, what blessedness is missed when one tarries before following the Lord! Often we hear people lament that they waited before becoming Christians, that they could have avoided much pain and anguish if they had confessed the Lord much earlier. And those who begin early and serve long in the Kingdom of God provide an example and encouragement to others, with influence reaching forward and outward to touch the lives of many.
These two notable examples of disciples, whose conversions were given time-markers in Romans 16, indicate that once in Christ the converted work toward more conversions and assume the mission of God in the world, with the preaching of the gospel. And that God is looking for ever more fruit from the labors of his people.
Lord, give us more converted disciples like Epenetus and Adronicus and Junia!
*Of the eight occurrences of “firstfruits” in the New Testament, Paul uses it six times (Romans 8:23; 11:16; 16:5; 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23; 16:15), James once (1:18) and John once (Revelation 14:4). †The phrase may also mean that Andronicus and Junia were in some sense apostles and so stood out among them. We prefer to take it as translated by the NET Bible. ‡ Leslie C. Allen, “Romanos,” in F.F. Bruce, ed., Comentário Bíblico NVI.