Phebe our Sister, Romans 16. 1-2
Richard Jeffery, Reading, England
The closing chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is full of interesting matter: names of saints, places from which they came, their family connections and sometimes a little information as to their spiritual experience or activity. In all, the names of thirty-five Christians are recorded, some Hebrew, some Greek, some Latin, and possibly some Asiatic, a convincing commentary on Paul's declaration that "the gospel of Christ ... is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth ; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek", Rom. 1.16.
The gospel had won its victories among many nations. Barriers of nationality, culture, religion and personality had tumbled and fallen before the divine message of salvation for "whosoever will". In his great Epistle, Paul, by the Spirit of God, has affirmed the total depravity of the human race. He has put the case of man's failure clearly, and shown the divine remedy announced in the gospel.
The great doctrines of the gospel are thoroughly set forth, as is the subject of Israel, past, present and future. Towards the close of the Epistle there is advice as to the believer and those that are without, particularly in the matter of the Christian and "the powers that be", 13. 1. But in chapter 16 there is given an insight into Paul's personal love of individuals and his care for them. There is the verification of Galatians 3. 28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus".
To bring into a living unity those thus described is the work of the sovereign and "only wise God", Rom. 16. 27 R.v.
Not until we come to Romans 16 do we read directly of the local church, but in this chapter there are five references to it, and in contemplating the names listed we are reminded of the truth expressed that, "through the church the manifold (all-various, j.n.d.) wisdom of God" might be known, Eph. 3, 10. In spite of the pressures Paul endured, "without were fightings, within were fears", 2 Cor. 7. 5, and "daily the care of all the churches", 11. 28, he still had time for individuals—like his Lord who, even when "great multitudes followed him", had time and compassion for a poor, outcast leper, Matt. 8. 1.
The first name on the list in Romans 16 is "Phebe our sister", of whom is given a four-fold description. Her name means "radiant", and is most suitable since, unlike a reflector, the light she radiated was from within, the Spirit of God generating it. Others of Paul's acquaintance were exhorted to "shine as lights (luminaries) in the world", Phil. 2. 15.
First, "Phebe our sister"; this establishes the family link and, bearing in mind Paul's charge to Timothy regarding things to "command and teach", 1 Tim. 4. 11, she was to be received and treated as a sister, with all purity, as a gentle man would treat his own sister in human relationships. With the moral standards of our day so low, it is necessary for Christians to give good heed to these apostolic injunctions. As a sister, Phebe was to be given a sister's welcome in the Lord, and as Christ had received her to the glory of God, we too, should receive such in the same spirit of love.
Next, she is described as a servant, or deacon of the church at Cenchrea. The description "servant" does not denote an official status, but rather that she did needed service in that assembly. Hers was the willing heart, and hers the ready hands. Phebe could be relied upon when and where help was needed. The scarcity of such saints enhances their worth, and we do well to pray that our God would raise up many more such as the need for them increases in a chaotic society. Those who clamour for more participation by sisters in the assemblies, and want to have more "women's ministry", would be advised to read again carefully what the great apostle says of Phebe. For it is quite clear by these remarks that there is a vast sphere of usefulness in which sisters may work, where brothers would be out of place or even useless. God has "set the members everyone of them in the body, as it hath pleased him", 1 Cor. 12. 18. Phebe our sister was to be received in the Lord as becometh saints. Paul's phrase, "in the Lord", speaks of subjection to His authority, whereas his other noticeable phrase in Romans 16, "in Christ", or "in Christ Jesus", speaks of salvation.
There is reluctance with Christians to refer to one another as "saints", a reluctance due perhaps to the distorted image we have had in our minds from childhood—the image of a sad-faced, halo-crowned person, wearing unearthly garments, one possessed of ability to giant special favours to those who invoke him or her. Such is not in keeping with the portraits given in the Scriptures of God's saints. Phebe, a very approachable person we gather, a helper of many, and as such, "many" would indicate many forms of help. As she had helped others, Paul says she is now to be assisted herself "in whatsoever business she hath need of you", v. 2.
Phebe had been a succourer or helper of many, and of Paul himself, who was ever ready to express his appreciation of the help of others such as Lydia, Acts 16. 15, 40, or "those women", Phil. 4. 2-3. One of the gifts God has set in the church is simply termed "helps", 1 Cor. 12. 28. This description of such a gift lends itself to envisage a very wide area of usefulness in the church. "Helps" may appear rather ordinary but here, in Paul's use of the word, it is complimentary. Her help was that upon which others depended, and by which many had profited, We might be tempted to underrate the gift of "helps" and not include such in the list of "best", or "better" gifts, 1 Cor. 12. 31, but Phebe's help had benefited "many". All cannot preach; all are not able to teach; many are incompetent to instruct the young in the Scriptures, but all are eligible to help in the assembly. She had the added honour of giving support to the apostle to the Gentiles, whatever form this took, possibly the provision of food and shelter, the repair or replacement of items of clothing, or writing the occasional letter with news of the saints at Cenchrea, and, doubtless, her prayers for Paul and the work of the gospel entrusted to him. These are the characteristics of "helps".
We might ask the question, "seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not", Jer. 45. 5. It is still true that "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much", Luke 16. 10. Let us give thanks to God for Phebe and every sister for their spiritual calibre, praying that such saints may be multiplied in the church in which there is still ample scope for the ministry of women after the order of God's house, and not after the whims of Christendom or the arrangements of a godless world.
May our sisters "in the Lord" take heart as they read again Paul's glowing appreciation of a good Christian woman who was a sister, a servant, a saint and a succourer.