Phoebe Our Sister
In this last chapter of Romans, Paul says his farewells, gives various greetings, and does so in a way as to teach us many invaluable things. Some might wonder what kind of message we might get out of a passage in which Paul basically says hi to everyone the Roman church phone directory, but we have to remember that all Scripture is profitable.
“I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: 2 That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also . . . (Rom. 16:1-16).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT:
Paul commends to the Romans a woman named Phoebe, who was probably the messenger who carried the letter to the Romans. As valuable trusts go, this was probably one of the most important missions in the history of the church. She is called a sister, and is identified as a “servant” of the church at Cenchrea (v. 1). In the next verse, Paul urges them to give her a saints’ welcome, and to assist her in whatever business she might need to use them. She had been a great help to many, Paul included (v. 2). Greet Priscilla and Aquila, Paul’s helpers in Christ (v. 3), who risked their lives for Paul (v. 4). Greet their house church (v. 5), along with Epaenetus, the first convert in Achaia (v. 5). The greetings are then extended to Mary (v. 6), Andronicus and Junia (v. 7), Amplias (v. 8), Urbane and Stachys (v. 9), Apelles and the household of Aristobulus (v. 10), Herodian and the household of Narcissus (v. 11), Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis (v. 12), Rufus and his mother (v. 13), Ayncritus, Phlegon, hermas, Patrobas, Hermes and the brothers with them (v. 14), Philogus and Julia, Hereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints with them (v. 15). Paul then tells them to greet one another with a holy kiss (v. 16), and says that the churches of Christ salute them (v. 16).
SOME DETAILS ABOUT THE NAMES:
Paul is greeting a number of the saints who are there at Rome, and it is striking how many of them he knows—and it appears a number of them quite well. I take v. 7 as saying “notable among the apostles” as opposed to “notable apostles,” as Junia is a woman’s name. These saints were converts out of paganism, as most had common names for that culture and others had the sorts of names that a Christian mom would not have given—such as Hermes or Olympas. Paul refers several times to kinsmen (vv. 7, 11), and that he and Rufus had the same (unnamed) mother. These are most likely like kin, and not actual relatives. But who knows? After all, a nephew shows up in Paul’s life around this time (Acts 23:16).
THE VALUE OF LABOR:
We can see how close Paul is to these people. We can also see how he got close to them—for Paul, labor and sacrifice were at the center of his value system. Phobe was a great help to many (v. 2). Priscilla and Aquila put their necks on the line (v. 4). Mary was a hard worker (v. 6). Urbane was a helper in the Lord (v. 9). Tryphena and Tryphosa labored in the Lord (v. 12). Persis labored much in the Lord (v.12)
We were created for work. The fall into sin makes that work harder, true enough, but it also gives us more that we have to do. We should gather up the kind of friends that Paul had, and get to work.
THE CHURCH AT THEIR HOUSE:
The church at Rome was actually a cluster of churches. One of them met at the home of Priscilla and Aquila (v. 5). It is possible that a couple of others met at the homes of Narcissus and Aristobulus, who may have been unbelievers since there were not greet by name. Two other groups are mentioned in vv. 14-15. At this point in history, there were no church buildings, and so the singular church at Rome (which Paul could write one letter to) was actually a collection of churches. Paul could write to them, give a number of greetings to the saints in different gatherings, expecting them to be able to see one another in order to pass on those greetings. Geographical separation, whether or Paul across the ocean or the other Roman saints who were across town meeting at the Best Western, is not a separation in fellowship.
PHOEBE OUR SISTER:
Phoebe is called a number of things, from which we learn a great deal. She is “our sister” (v. 1), she is a servant (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrea, clearly serving that church in some sort of official capacity. She was the one who delivered the letter to the Romans, and Paul instructs them to help her out now that she is in Rome (v. 2). The word translated in the AV as “succourer” is a word that means benefactress or patronness. She was clearly wealthy, and came from the eastern port of Corinth (Cenchrea), a place that had been about six miles east of Corinth, and is now underwater. The word diakonos as it is used here can either denote a formal office, or it can simply mean a generic “helper” or servant. Given Phoebe’s prominance, and the importance of the help, it seems that the former is meant. But it does not follow from this that the church at Cenchrea had a deacon board, and that women were on it. To reason that way is anachronistic.
A HOLY KISS:
Speaking of anachronism, some Christians take Paul’s reference to the kiss here to mean that Christians are required to greet each other in some special liturgical fashion, i.e. with a liturgical kiss, or a “holy” kiss. Others, like myself, would want to say that your greetings, such as they are and how they function, should be holy. Your kiss, or your handshake, or your Christian side hug, should be holy. They would want to point out that Paul has just finished a long list of ordinary greetings, and he then urges them to greet one another (using the same word)—and to do so in holiness. In other words, a woman could be eligible to be enrolled as a widow, even if she had never, ever washed any of the saints’ feet (1 Tim. 5:10). As we make cultural transpositions, we must always remember the difference between principles and methods.