I, Tertius

"I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord." (Rom.16:22)

That is all that is known about Tertius, this first century Greek Christian of Corinth who was Paul’s scribe for the writing of the epistle to the Romans. Nowhere else in the whole of the Scriptures is he mentioned. He looks in at the door, as it were, introduces himself as the one who wrote at Paul’s dictation, conveys his greetings—and shuts the door again. We have a brief glimpse of—possibly—dark hair, grey eyes, finely modelled features and a pleasing smile, and then he is gone. This is Tertius, whose hand first traced on parchment or papyrus the words of that immortal epistle which the English poet Coleridge declared to be "the most profound work in existence" and Luther "the masterpiece of the New Testament, the purest gospel." Admiration of this epistle has been expressed in many a glowing phrase from the lips and pens of Christian leaders, from reformers and theologians alike. Many in our midst echo their sentiments, and the Epistle to the Romans is a favourite subject for class study. In thought one naturally sees the outstanding figure of Paul, the master‑mind whose creation it is; but when we think of the stalwart and indomitable Apostle of the Gentiles laying bare his soul in this his exposition of Christian doctrine, an exposition that has profoundly influenced the lives of Christians in all ages since his day, we do well to grant a fleeting thought also to the zealous and devoted penman who sat so constantly at his side taking down the burning words, filling sheet after sheet with the cogent arguments, at the end adding those salutations in which his own name appears, and then pasting the sheets together to form the long roll which was the original copy of the Book of Romans.

The Epistle to the Romans was written at Corinth in Greece, probably during the course of Paul’s third and last visit to the Church in that city, and not long before the final journey to Jerusalem which resulted in his being carried a prisoner to Rome. The Corinthian Church had been founded by Paul about the year 52, nearly thirty years after the Crucifixion, and the Epistle was written, probably, about six years later. Two years more and Paul himself was in Rome, having followed his epistle thence. Tertius was one of the Corinthian converts and might very well have known the truth for six years, but could not have known it longer, when he was privileged to render this act of service to the Apostle and the Church, and in consequence had his name inscribed, to be preserved for ever, on the pages of the New Testament. Tertius would not have dreamed at the time that his work would have such far‑reaching consequences or that the simple, fervent mention of his own name would resound through the world and throughout the centuries, to lands and peoples of whose existence he had no conception, as it has done. He was probably a young man, or at least in middle age, perhaps a scribe or clerk by profession, and an earnest member of the little Christian community at Corinth. When it became known that Paul was minded to send a long and important letter to the Christians at Rome, and because of his own weak eyesight required an assistant to write at his dictation, someone would quickly respond "Why, Tertius. He will appreciate the privilege and he will do the work well."

In the great day of the Bible commentators, over a century ago now, it used to be suggested that Tertius was possibly the same as Silas, who figures several times in New Testament narratives and on one occasion—at Philippi—was imprisoned with Paul, an imprisonment that gave birth to the Philippian Church. (Acts 16) There is no foundation for the suggestion; it was made on account of the fact that "Tertius" is the Latin for "third" and that the Hebrew consonants SLS found in the name Silas are those forming the Hebrew word for the numeral "three." In point of fact, Silas is the Greek abbreviation for the Latin name Silvanus, which in turn denotes a forestry worker or woodman (Compare our English word "sylvan" as applied to woodlands and the like). We are still left therefore with that picture of the young man who puts his head in at the door and says, "I, Tertius, …salute you" and is gone.

The Corinthian Church was a remarkable church. It seems that it consisted almost entirely of Gentiles—Greeks. Paul’s first work at Corinth had been with the Jews but they had rejected him and sought to have him expelled from the city. (Acts 18) The dispute came before the notice of the Roman proconsul of the city. Lucius Junius Gallio (called Gallio in the book of Acts), a man described by secular historians as a just and cultured man, of a genial and even lovable disposition. Something of his judicious and impartial administration can be sensed in the story in Acts, where it is apparent that he quickly saw through the Jews’ trumped‑up accusations against Paul and contemptuously dismissed the charges and acquitted Paul. It was following this that Paul found a hearing ear among the Greeks, and the Corinthian Church began its ordered existence in the house of Justus. It was a church that had many undesirable features, for Corinth was in more than one respect an undesirable city, and the Christians had been born and brought up in that environment and educated in those standards and customs. But it was a church that was very dear to the heart of Paul, and although he had on more than one occasion to be utterly scathing in his condemnation of their shortcomings and their failings, there was evidently much there that he dearly loved. Probably Tertius was one of those whom he held in high esteem, not only for his works’ sake but for his Christian integrity and sincerity. Even if Tertius did not realise the importance of this epistle he was writing, it is certain that Paul did, and that he knew that it was going to be a text book of Christian instruction and belief, not only for the Roman Christians to whom it was addressed, not only for the scattered Christian Churches of his own day, but for all Christians in all ages everywhere to the end of time. Knowing this, he would not be likely to choose other than a clean vessel to enjoy the honour of being the scribe of this Epistle.

We may take it, then, that Tertius was zealous, sincere, full of faith and anxious to serve in whatever way he could be of service. There were others, of course, in the fellowship, of whom Paul speaks approvingly and who sent their greetings also to the brethren at Rome. "Timotheus my workfellow" he says—we all know Timothy and the sterling service he rendered in after days as elder of the Church at Ephesus—"...and Lucius, and Jason, and Sosipater, my kinsmen, salute you...Gaius mine host…Erastus the chamberlain (treasurer) of the city...and Quartus a brother." (Rom.16:21‑23) Erastus must have been an important man in Corinth; he was the city treasurer and Corinth was one of the wealthiest cities of the Empire. But he was a Christian. Quartus was, maybe, a brother in a much more humble and obscure walk of life; he might even have been a slave; but he also was a Christian. And they were all one in Jesus Christ, these men who with the womenfolk met for praise and worship and fellowship in the house of Justus. It is a picture quite at variance with that of the Church of Corinth drawn in other parts of the New Testament where that church is pictured as being in many respects anything but a model of Christian behaviour and conduct and witness. Perhaps however, the Apostle’s oft reproofs had had their effect and there had been, by the time of this his last visit, some repentance and reformation. We do not know; in any case the Church at Corinth never became noted for Christian fervour and example as did, for example, those at Ephesus and Colosse and Berea.

Nevertheless, it is probably true that even in its darkest days the Corinthian assembly had a minority of earnest ones who did not countenance or endorse the behaviour of the majority and who on that account were drawn together more into a little spiritual fellowship of their own. Perhaps these whose names appear here in his salutation at the end of the Epistle to the Romans were such. We have seen the same kind of thing happen in our own day—most true Christians have in every century—and perhaps can understand and appreciate the position.

What happened to Tertius after the Epistle had been dispatched and Paul had left Corinth for Jerusalem, never to return? We do not know. He is unknown to history. Perhaps in after years he left Corinth on some kind of missionary work, emulating in some small degree the Apostle he had once served in so signal a fashion. Perhaps he remained at Corinth, serving as a faithful minister, through all the vicissitudes of a life spent in a fellowship that was both light and dark, that savoured much of this world even although it professed much of the next. One likes to think that he did remain faithful, that the vessel chosen to do Paul’s work in the days of his presence remained a chosen vessel to the end of the way. If such was indeed the case, one can picture him growing older with the passing years, ministering faithfully and consistently, never weary of reminding the brethren of the exhortations left by the founder of their church, Paul the minister of God to the Gentiles. He would have heard, in time, of Paul’s death in faraway Rome, and with that news would have felt suddenly older. There would be the parting with Timothy, gone to assist the failing John in the administration of the Church at Ephesus and all the communities in Western Asia who looked to Ephesus as a centre. Then perhaps the slow lapse of twenty or thirty years; news comes to Corinth of the death of John, the last of the Apostles. No one is left now who saw the Lord in the flesh; very few remember anything of the early struggles of the infant Church and the herculean labours of its founders. A new generation had grown up around Tertius, and—who can doubt it— he saw, rapidly increasing and flourishing unchecked, more of those evils against which his beloved mentor Paul had spoken and written so many years ago. But now there was no Paul with his forthrightness and fiery eloquence, to bring into the assembly that sense of shame that in times past had brought godly repentance and a great cleansing. Perhaps in the interim Tertius himself had acquired something of Paul’s ability and could himself induce a reformation in the Church; perhaps not. Perhaps he could only pray and intercede for the erring ones in the solitude of his own home, or endeavour by quiet word and remonstrance to turn this one or that one from the error of his ways. Perhaps, at the end, and in spite of all his faithful service, he was ignominiously turned out from the apostate assembly and his name branded as one to be avoided and spurned.

We do not know, only that all these things have happened to faithful servants of Christ in church after church, century after century, and that such experiences have often befallen those who have sought consistently and persistently to "warn every one (their brethren) night and day with tears." (Acts 20:31) It would not be a strange thing if it had happened at Corinth to Tertius.

But we also know something else. We know that to every sincere disciple of Christ who has been true to his Master and true to himself, and has not denied his Master’s Name, there comes at the end a reflection that must have come at the end to Tertius too, in whatever state he encountered that end. It is the reflection that came to Paul himself and which he expressed in fervent words, confident words, immortal words, saying them on our behalf as well as his own, that we may take fresh courage in anticipation of the coming of such a time. "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." (2 Tim.4:7‑8)

One may picture Tertius, in that day, at the time of the fulfilment of the promise, approaching towards the glory of the Throne, around which the triumphant hosts of heaven are standing, beholding the ones he had known and loved in life before, his loved master Paul among them. The weight of earthly years falls away and vanishes, and he steps forward in the wonder and the glory of his resurrection life to greet his long‑lost brethren, brethren with whom he had borne the heat and burden of the day back there in the First Century at Corinth in Greece. And as he sees them, at last, face to face, in the image of the Master, enshrouded in that radiant glory which is the inheritance of all who have been raised to live with Christ, perchance there comes again, unbidden, to his lips, those words penned so long ago, "I, Tertius…salute thee."