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3 Lessons from the Life of 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.” — Romans 16:1–2
You are handed a letter from someone you dearly respect — a prominent leading figure in your town. Out of the many people they know, they have hand-picked you to deliver it. Now, this letter is no ordinary letter; it is a skillfully crafted document by a small team of experienced writers who have deliberately chosen each word after multiple rounds of editing and discussion. It has cost them a considerable amount of money and even more of their highly valuable time to construct this literary work of art.
This masterpiece would go on to be known as one of the most significant, ornate artworks ever created using only words, and you are the one responsible for transporting it 800 miles. Oh, and did I mention you are a 1st-century resident living in the Mediterranean Basin? So, for the nearly 1,000-mile trek, you’ll be using some combination of these three travel methods: ship, steed, and sandals. Pick wisely!
Does this seem like an opportunity you would sign up for? How many reasons could you come up with to ensure that someone else makes the trip in your stead?
This is precisely the situation in which Phoebe of Cenchreae found herself, except that there is no reason to believe she even hesitated to say “yes” to the ask. In fact, from what Paul writes about her, I am inclined to believe she may have even volunteered to deliver the letter!
So, who is this “Phoebe,” and why did the Apostle Paul entrust her to deliver his greatest letter?
Well, from the one brief mention of her in the letter to the Romans, there are three truths that make Paul’s decision seem like the obvious one.
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
The term “children” always refers to both sons and daughters, which would be deemed brothers and sisters to one another. So, in calling Phoebe “our sister,” he is placing her at the same level as himself and the men and women who would receive this letter: children of God. However, the surrounding culture would have seen women as less than and a subsidiary to men instead of a co-heir. Here, Paul is reminding the audience that Phoebe, the deliverer of this letter, should be treated with the dignity and respect they would show Paul if it were he himself who delivered it. Why? Because Jesus leveled the playing field.
For Paul to write “our sister Phoebe” was a blatant reminder to the reader that — through Jesus — the family of God opened from the Jewish nation to all nations. She is from the church in Cenchreae — a harbor town to the widely known pagan city of Corinth. Littered with pagan temples, Corinth was known well by the Jews to be an ungodly and wayward city. However, Paul calling a woman from a largely known pagan city a “sister” would have been a blatant reminder to the church of Rome of Jesus’ redeeming love to all nations.
Phoebe was the exemplar of a redeemed sister.
When Paul identifies Phoebe as diakonon “servant or deacon,” they ensure that the audience receiving this letter knows her guidance has authority. To understand what I mean, you’ll need to know the context of the first-century church.
As a small group of writers would customize a letter, they would dedicate someone to be the deliverer if they couldn’t deliver it themselves. This deliverer would sometimes speak the message to the audience since they are the ones who had direct correspondence on which points to emphasize and how best to convey the message. But, even in cases where they weren’t the reader, they would most certainly be the one to answer the congregation’s questions after hearing it read since they would have been the only ones to have directly communicated with the writers and been trained on the message of that specific letter.
In Paul’s extensive list of notable people in chapter 16 of Romans, he starts the list with Phoebe. This is almost unarguably because she was the deliverer of the message. So, if Phoebe was to answer questions from the congregation so that the correct interpretation and meaning of the letter were not lost, she needed the audience to trust her. Paul knew this, so he included this title to inform the congregation that Phoebe was a trained and trusted leader in a gospel community, specifically, a gospel community that, as far as we know, had no known major conflicts or issues in its workings due to the lack of letters written to them.
Phoebe was a valued servant-leader.
“…for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.”
The word “patron” here is translated from the Greek word prostatis, which can also be translated as “succorer” or “helper.” There is no more obvious example of Phoebe being a sacrificial helper than of her delivering this letter. Remember, she would have had to travel 800 miles to deliver it, which would have been expensive and dangerous. There is speculation amongst theologians that she was already going to Rome; some say for legal reasons, some assume ministry reasons, and some promote other reasons, but all of them are purely speculation. This one sentence is all we currently have preserved on Phoebe in history, so I am going to presume from only what information we have and that she went to Rome simply to deliver this letter.
With this view, Phoebe’s willingness to sacrifice herself for the expansion of the gospel and the helping of others is on full display. Paul wrote that not only can he attest that she had succored for many others, but she had also been a help to him. From the language Paul used to preface this point, we can suppose that Phoebe went above and beyond in her patronage and helping of believers. Paul mentions that she is a prostatis because he is petitioning the church in Rome to help her. He writes, “…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.”
Paul transitioned with “for she has been” to give the Roman gospel community no excuse to deny her help because he’s informing them that she has proven to do for others what he is urging them to do for her. She must have welcomed others (Paul included) in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and have helped them in whatever they needed from her.
Phoebe was most certainly a sacrificial helper to many.
So why was Phoebe the one who delivered the letter to the Romans?
I believe it is because she was a redeemed sister, servant-leader, and sacrificial helper. Paul had written in a previous letter to the church in Galatia, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” So, in a divided time between the Jewish Christians and the Greek Christians, a poor, male, Jewish Christian named Paul sends a wealthy, female, Greek Christian named Phoebe to deliver a message of unity in Christ. There is no doubt Paul gave this great duty to Phoebe as a beautiful manifestation of the very message he was sending in the unifying literary work of art we call The Letter to the Romans.