In our day and age, recommendations are a very effective tool for an employer or admission office to assess the qualities of an applicant. Modern conveniences like the social networking site LinkedIn© make commendations a key part of your profile. They add validity to a person’s trustworthiness and true capabilities.
The concept is not new. The Greeks and Romans wrote letters of commendation for many practical matters. Their style was part of the culture of New Testament times and would become part of the fabric of the early ecclesias. In fact, as we uncover Biblical examples, it may surprise the reader as to how frequent was the use of letters of commendation, especially by the Apostle Paul.
It is important to recognize their use by the early ecclesia for two reasons. First, in a personal sense, it affects how we perceive ourselves, our humility, and how we put ourselves forward in service. Secondly, pertaining to the ecclesia, it demonstrates an attitude and carefulness in inter-ecclesial relationships, which we would be wise to follow.
First century practice
Elite leaders and socially important people commonly wrote letters of commendation in Greek and Roman times. There is a vast amount of examples left behind especially by such Roman luminaries as Cicero (106-43 b.c.), Pliny (61-120 a.d.), and Fronto (100-166 a.d.). These letters show a system of patronage for clients that they would wish to promote to prominence and thus establish their own position of authority. It was largely an exchange of power between those already in power, and this established the ruling classes of Roman order.
A good example comes from a letter of Pliny to the Emperor Trajan,
“Your generosity to me, Sir, was the occasion of uniting me to Rosianus Geminus, by the strongest ties; for he was my quaestor1 when I was consul. His behaviour to me during the continuance of our offices was highly respectful, and he has treated me ever since with so peculiar a regard that, besides the many obligations I owe him upon a public account, I am indebted to him for the strongest pledges of private friendship. I entreat you, then, to comply with my request for the advancement of one whom (if my recommendation has any weight) you will even distinguish with your particular favour; and whatever trust you shall repose in him, he will endeavour to show himself still deserving of an higher. But I am the more sparing in my praises of him, being persuaded his integrity, his probity, and his vigilance are well known to you, not only from those high posts which he has exercised in Rome within your immediate inspection, but from his behaviour when he served under you in the army. One thing, however, my affection for him inclines me to think, I have not yet sufficiently done; and therefore, Sir, I repeat my entreaties that you will give me the pleasure, as early as possible, of rejoicing in the advancement of my quaestor, or, in other words, of receiving an addition to my own honours, in the person of my friend.”2
The letter shows a genuine friendship between Pliny and Geminus, but it was built on a patron-client relationship. Pliny was the benefactor for the advancement of Geminus into higher positions in Roman office and society. Without these types of “connections” nobody could receive advancement. At the end of the letter, Pliny is quite clear that he is not only looking out for Geminus but for his own welfare and status when he says, “receiving an addition to my own honours.” Thus, these letters were self-serving in solidifying the power of those in authority.
This method of Roman patronage was so well exploited that even Jesus comments on it in Luke 22:25-26,
“And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.”
While the letters of commendation in the New Testament follow the same structure as Roman society, they could not have had more opposite intentions.
New Testament word studies
The letters of commendation embedded into the New Testament become apparent after a few word studies. The main word is “commend” but other words like “send” and “receive” also play an important part in identifying key passages.
Strong’s Concordance yields a variety of Greek words for the subject of commendation.
— to set together, by implication to introduce (Rom 16:1; 2Cor 3:1; 4:2; 5:12; 6:4 “approving”; 10:12,18; 12:11)
1867 epaineo / 1868 epainos
— to praise (Luke 16:8 “commended”; 2Cor 8:18)
— to give or deliver over (Acts 14:26 “recommended”; 15:40)
— to put near, to place with someone, entrust, commit, set before (Acts 14:23; 20:32; “commit” 1Tim 1:18 –> 2Tim 2:2 “commit”)
— to place near, set before, present, stand by, brought before (1Cor 8:8, “commendeth”, Rom 16:2 “assist”).3
1381 dokimazo / 1384 dokimos
— approval after distinguishing and discerning4 (1Cor 16:3; 1Tim 3:10; Rom 14:18; 2Cor 10:18).
Taking all these words together, commendation was the act of setting someone in front of another to introduce and praise them. In many cases there was an ability or office involved where the person was entrusted with a responsibility. Care would be exercised that the one being commended would be trustworthy and stable. This is why the letters of commendation often use the word “approve” (1381 dokimazo / 1384 dokimos).
(2) Send and receive
The act of commending someone by a letter involved “sending” the person on some sort of errand or mission and expecting the other party to “receive” or welcome that person for the work they were to do. In a day without telephones and email, the letter would be the key means to ensure that a person was genuine and could be trusted. Not only did it protect against fraud but also insured that the person could not boast of themselves as being more than they were.
There are two main Greek words used for “send” in the New Testament: pempo and apostello.5
— to dispatch (Acts 15:22, 25; 1Cor 16:3; 2Cor 9:3; Eph 6:22; Col 4:8; Phil 2:19, 23, 25, 28; 1Thess 3:2; Tit 3:12). A number of derived words are:
375 anapempo (Philemon 12),
1599 ekpempo (Acts 13:4),
4842 sunpempo — to send along with (2Cor 8:18, 22) and
4311 propempo — to send forward, escort, conduct forth (Acts 15:3).
— to send forth on service or with a commission (Acts 15:27; 19:22; 2Cor 12:17-18; 2Tim 4:12).
Similarly, there are two words for “receive”: dechomai and lambano.
— accept, receive, take (Matt 10:39-42; Acts 21:17; 2Cor 7:15; Col 4:10). Words using this root include:
588 apodechomai — to take fully, i.e. welcome, approve, accept, receive gladly (Acts 15:4; 18:27),
4237 prosdechomai — to admit, accept, allow, by implication to await (Rom 16:2; Phil 2:29),
1926 epidechomai — to admit, receive (3John 9-10).
— to take, to get hold of (2John 10). Root words are:
4355 proslambano (Acts 28:2; Rom 14:1, 3; 15:7; Phil 1:15-17),
618 apolambano — to receive in full or as a host (3John 8)
Jesus emphasizes the concept and importance of these words by repetition:.
“Behold I send you forth (v.16) …. whoseover does not receive you… shake of the dust of your feet (v. 14) … he that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me reciveth him that sent me” (Matt 10:14-16, 40-41).
Form and structure of commendation letters
The structure of a passage also provides clues. When I was in school, we learned about letter writing and their different forms. This seemed to be the case in Roman society as well. All of the letters of commendation from Cicero, Pliny and Fronto had a similar style and structure. The following summarizes the key points:
Identify the one being commended
Cite the criteria and credentials for commendation
Make a request of the letter’s recipient
This structure will show up repeatedly in the letters of Paul and will help us to recognize his letters of commendation.
The New Testament examples
At this point, we can come up with a rather long list of actual letters of commendation or ones appended to epistles.
Fortunatus and Achaicus (1Cor 16:15-18)
Envoys for poor fund (2Cor 8:16-24)
Tychicus (Eph 6:21-22)
Onesimus and Marcus (Col 4:7-10)
Timothy (Phil 2:19-24; 1Cor.4:17; 16:10-11; 1Thess 3:2)
Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25-30)
Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3)
Leaders (1Thess 5:12-13)
Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas (Acts 15:22, 25-27)
Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2)
Philemon (in full)
Moreover, we can also compile a list where we do not have the actual recommendation but we have mention of its practice.
Paul and Barnabas were sent and recommended by the Antioch ecclesia and the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:3-4, 14:26)
Paul and Barnabas as envoys of the Antioch ecclesia to the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:2-4)
Apollos (Acts 18:27)
Those sent to take the money for the Jerusalem poor fund (1Cor 16:3)
It may be surprising to find that this subject touches on much of the New Testament. While we would encourage the reader to look up every example as a worthy exercise, we will only comment on a couple of specific examples.
The Jerusalem conference
The first example occurs in the incidents surrounding the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. The debate had started in Antioch that “except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (v. 1). The dispute was so great that “they” (v. 2), that is, the Antioch ecclesia, decided to send representatives, Paul and Barnabas, to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to decide the final resolution. One of our key words comes in verse 3,
“And being brought on their way by the church…”
The Greek word for “brought” here is propempo and all modern translation use the word “sent”. Therefore, Paul and Barnabas did not go of their own accord but were sent by the Antioch ecclesia. As we have already seen, this word implies a recommendation by the sending party especially when paired with the act of “receiving”, which we have in verse 4.
“And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.”
We should not take the manner of this as a casual exchange. There is an intentional “sending” and “receiving” being done. There is no mention of a letter but we can assume with some confidence that there was one. There is no assumption that Paul and Barnabas could be representatives of their own accord. The Antioch ecclesia6 granted them that position and the Jerusalem ecclesia welcomed them on that basis.
The order of the words in verse 4 is interesting as they are received first by the church and secondly by the apostles and elders. It is interesting because the order is reversed in verse 22.
“Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren.”
It was only the “apostles and elders” (v. 6) who came together to consider the matter but in the end the decision “pleased” the whole ecclesia. That is, they were not left out of the decision process and approved to “send” (pempo) their own representatives back to Antioch. The letter they7 composed was therefore a declaration of their decision but also a letter of recommendation for those who carried it.
“It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to
chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have
therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth” (Acts 15:25-27).
To be continued.
Tim Young (Cambridge, ON)
1. A quaestor was any type of official who had charge of public revenue and expenditure.
3. This word is also used in presenting before the judgment seat (2Cor 4:14; 11:2; Eph 5:27; Col 1:22,28; Rom 14:10 “stand before”).
4. See Vine’s Dictionary entry on “Approve, Approved”.
5. Vine’s Dictionary entry on “sent” has more information on the differences between pempo and apostello.
6. For an earlier example of the Antioch ecclesia commending Paul and Barnabas compare Acts 13:3 with 14:26.
7. Notice the letter is written by “the apostles and elders and brethren” indicating that the ecclesia was also included in the formal formation of the words sent to all the ecclesias.