The apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is widely regarded as his magnum opus. He began with eleven chapters that are deeply theological, essentially answering the question, “What does the gospel of Jesus really mean?” Then Paul wrote four more chapters that are decidedly practical, answering the question, “What differences does the gospel make in the believer’s life?
Read the letter yourself and you’ll quickly see why the great Martin Luther said, “This epistle. . . can never be read or pondered too much.” By the time you get the last word of Romans 15, you’ll find yourself wanting to say “Amen” right along with Paul! And you’ll be motivated to live for Christ.
Only, Romans 15 isn’t the end of the book. The Spirit of God prompted Paul to tack on one more chapter. That chapter is
. In Romans 16 Paul included thirty-five individuals by name! It’s a tiny but fascinating window into the life of the early church. The first person we see there is a woman named Phoebe.
Paul didn’t write much about her, and she’s not found anywhere else in the Bible. But in two verses. Paul managed to paint a vivid pictures of a competent and compassionate woman of tremendous impact. First, Paul wrote, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe.” This introduction almost surely means this little-known woman was the courier who hand delivered Paul’s letter to its recipients in Rome. Think of that. If Romans has ever touched your heart, you owe a small measure of gratitude to Phoebe. Before translators and Greek scholars and publishers ever got their hands on this sublime document, Phoebe carried it. What a privilege and what a responsibility to be the bearer of such news! Phoebe was commendable, in part because she was both available and reliable.
Second, Paul called her “a servant of the church in Cenchreae.” The Greek word translated “servant” is the word diaconos, or in our vernacular, “deacon.” Theology professors and ministers-in-training love to discuss and debate this verse and whether it describes (or even prescribes) an office of “deaconess” for the local church. Whatever view you take on that question, there’s no debating the fact that Phoebe was a woman known for both her godly reputation and her tireless service in Cenchreae (a suburb of Corinth, Greece, where Paul wrote his letter to the Romans).
Finally, Paul urged the Roman Christians to “welcome her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints and assist her in whatever matter she may require your help. For indeed she has been a benefactor of many-and of me also” (Rom 16:2). Paul instructed the believers in Rome to show hospitality to this sister in the faith, this servant of the church. And why?
Because that’s what saints (God’s holy people) do. And also because Phoebe had been a “benefactor” to many, including Paul himself.
The word benefactor literally means “one who stands besides in order to hold up or assist.” It was sometimes used in secular Greet writings to refer to a sports trainer, alert and at the ready to provide for the needs of his athlete. It broadly means “helper”; and more specifically in this context it means “supporter” or patroness.”
The strong indication is that Phoebe gave generously to the work of God. We don’t know where she go her means or how she derived her income. But she apparently used her material resources to help fund the spread of the gospel. Add such financial generosity to the other ways she served and helped and supported the Lord’s work. She spent her time tending to the spiritual needs of those in her Greek congregation as a “deaconess” (whether official or unofficial). She spent great effort traveling more than 600 miles from southern Greece to central Italy for the apostle Paul in order to deliver his world-changing letter. (Don’t forget this was in an era when travel was far more dangerous and much less convenient).
In just a few word-sister, servant, benefactor-Paul paints the picture of a caring, capable, courageous woman. Who wouldn’t want to be described in those terms?
Romans 16:1 – “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae.”