Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the churches of Christ greet you.
Romans is a letter from the heart of Paul, the Apostle. Romans also is a doctrinal thesis that lays out both the truth of the Gospel and the practicalities of how that truth is to be lived out. This letter reveals the depth of Paul’s insight and understanding. It also shows his passion. In this epistle, we see reflected the truth of his statement in Philippians 3:8-9.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith ()
In this passage from Philippians, we find the “why” of Paul’s life. Everything he did was shaped by this one overriding passion; that he could “gain Christ.” Why did Paul have the friends he had? Why did Paul make the trips he made? Why did Paul write the letters he wrote? Why did Paul say the things he said? Why was Paul willing to suffer hardship and imprisonment? Why? Because he was determined to gain Christ.
In his endeavor to gain Christ, Paul built relationships with a disparate group of people. These people were from different ethnic backgrounds, different social backgrounds, different economic backgrounds and different linguistic backgrounds. They differed in every conceivable way, and yet Paul was tied to them with the strongest bonds of love.
As we begin our look into the final chapter of the book of Romans, we come to a list of greetings. In these greetings, we will see the relationships that the heart and passion of Paul forged. We will see how a strong, successful businesswoman was used of the Lord to advance the Gospel. We will see how a husband and wife team worked together in the Gospel. We will see how a single man and a single woman served Jesus. And, we will see how a couple dedicated themselves to mission work.
These are not all of the people we meet in this chapter, but they will help to show us that each of us has a place in God’s work. Whether we are strong or weak, bold or timid, male or female, married or single, the Lord can use each of us, and He will use us if we are willing.
In Romans 16:1 we meet Phoebe.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. ()
First, you will notice Paul commends Phoebe. This is a recommendation. In those days, it was the practice for people to carry letters of recommendation when they traveled to a new place. This was important for the early Church to guard against false teachers and those with malicious intentions. Since the close of this epistle includes the recommendation of Phoebe, it is the assumption of most of us that Phoebe is the person who carried the letter from Corinth to Rome.
We can thank her for seeing that it arrived safely in Rome and is preserved for us to this day.
Next, we see that Phoebe was a servant of the church at Cenchreae.
Cenchreae is on the coast/water and was the port city of Corinth. We do not know if the Christians of Corinth met in Cenchreae or if there was more than one gathering of believers in Corinth. Our assumption is that because of persecution the believers met in the port city because it was more “out of the way.” This would mean that Phoebe was a vital part of the Church in Corinth/Cenchreae.
The word translated “servant” by the ESV is the word “διάκονον” (diakonon). This is the word Paul uses nearly 10 years later when writing to Timothy. In 1 Timothy 3:8-10, he says:
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. ()
From this passage, we know that the Church had an office called “deacon.” This office was established early in Acts when Stephen and 6 others were elected to serve in the distribution of food. In verse 11 of 1 Timothy 3, it says:
Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. ()
This verse has an issue in its translation. It appears that the word “women” is translated “wives” based on the assumption that a woman could not serve in the office of “deacon.” “Wives” is not a mistranslation, because wives is a possible translation of the word used, but wives is not the primary meaning of the word. Thayer, in his Greek lexicon, defines the word in 1 Timothy 3:11 as “universally, a woman of any age, whether a virgin, or married, or a widow.” As an example of a literal translation of the text of 1 Timothy 3:11, Young’s Literal Translation renders 1 Timothy 3:11,
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul first gives the qualifications for the office of overseer or bishop. Then in verse 8, he uses the word likewise to lay out the qualifications for the office of deacon. And, without a break, he says, “In the same way, Women...” The natural progression and context of the passage would be to assume that women in the office of deacon would “in the same way” need to meet the listed qualifications. Given that 10 years earlier Paul used the word “deacon” in introducing Phoebe, it is reasonable to assume that the Church in Corinth had at least one woman in the office of “deacon” and that she was qualified according to the qualifications Paul lays out in 1 Timothy 3.
In her office of deacon of the Church in Cenchreae, Phoebe was entrusted with Paul’s letter to the Romans. She apparently had both the means and the respect of the Apostle Paul to be entrusted with such a task.
The next thing I want to point out about Phoebe is that Paul says, “…she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.”
“Patron” is defined as: “a person who gives financial or other support to a person, organization, cause, or activity.” Now, if, as Paul says, Phoebe was a patron to many, it is safe to assume that she had money. Based on this assumption, it is not difficult to imagine she had business that would take her to Rome. Legal or trade matters could easily have required the trip. However, we are given no details. Please note that Paul instructs the Christians in Rome to “help her in whatever she may need from you.” From the greetings that follow, we learn that there were members of the imperial household in the Church. Therefore, people with significant political influence were among the believers.
Whatever the circumstances, we have a lady who had means and a reason to travel to Rome, who was a trusted member of the Church in Cenchreae. We do not know how she traveled, but for a woman to tackle such a voyage in that day and time, she was strong, independent, resourceful and apparently successful. We do not know if she was married. There is no mention of a husband or household.
I would like to make two comments.
First, there is a place in the Church for strong, independent, resourceful and successful women.
Second, Phoebe strikes me as what our American culture is pushing as the model for all women to follow. The culture seems to insist that women must have their own careers, be independent and strong, and be successful apart from men.
Looking at the greetings in Romans 16, two couples are listed: Priscilla and Aquila, and Junia and Andronicus. These couples also serve as models for Christian service. Throughout the Scriptures, we find women in many roles, and it is not good to find one role and say “all women should fit this model. God has created each person unique, and each person has a unique role or place to fill. Priscilla was not less in her service to God because she was married and had a partner. Paul’s list of friends and co-workers in the cause of Christ shows a wide variety of people.
Phoebe was in Paul’s life because they shared a “why.” Paul lived to gain Christ. Apparently, Phoebe shared the same passion. For this reason, they were friends and workers together for a common cause. As part of the fruit of this partnership, we enjoy the epistle of Paul to the Romans.
In reading Paul’s recommendation of Phoebe, I am reminded of why. Why should we welcome somebody in the Lord? Why should we behave in a way worthy of the saints?
Because, we make it our goal to gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of our own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ. In these greetings, we can see a why that is worthy of our devotion and our lives, a why that will bind us together in love.