Rom. 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2 so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.
Paul commends to the readers a woman by the name of Phoebe. In personally carrying this letter to Rome Renan tells us, “Phoebe carried under the folds of her robe the whole future of Christian Theology.” (Vincent Word Studies) In commending Phoebe to the Romans Paul presents her titles so that they could understand who this woman was who brought them these important words. She is a deacon at Cenchreae, serving the church there. The word “deacon” carries with it great significance for it is not the feminine form of the word used in Greek, but the same term that Paul would use for himself when referring to his ministry. Origen, a theologian in the third century writes, “This passage teaches that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry by the apostle’s authority. . . . Not only that—they ought to be ordained into the ministry, because they helped in many ways and by their good services deserved the praise even of the apostle.” (Commentary On the Epistle to the Romans) Paul is making clear to them the significant role that this woman plays in the life of the church.
In making clear her position in the church he is helping the readers understand how they are to receive her. She is to be welcomed as a holy follower of Jesus Christ and respected in her requests. When she asks for something, Paul is telling the Romans, you will want to respond, for this is no ordinary woman!
After Paul lays out her ecclesial credentials he adds a little more weight to the matter by mentioning that she is also known as a “patron” or “benefactor.” Phoebe is a woman of great wealth and has been willing to support the work and ministry of many, including Paul. She is a highly respected woman who has wholeheartedly committed her life in service to the Lord and the Church. It is only when we dig into the details of the original language that we discover that there is more than meets the eye.
This last chapter of the book of Romans is filled with salutations and it’s one that may be read quickly as we wrap up this thoughtful letter from Paul. However, in skimming over the details we may miss out on what Paul may be saying to us in the ordinary context of the day. For centuries some translators have said that Phoebe was a “deaconess” and a “helper” of many. Therefore we have been inclined to believe that Phoebe was just one of several women who helped out with the sick and needy at the church in Cenchreae. A nice lady but nothing significant of note. I would guess that she did engage in this type of work from time to time but there is more here to the story.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions when we don’t know all of the details. Recently I was on a plane and during the boarding process I was trying to get some work done. I fly a lot and so I had been given a complimentary upgrade to business class. I was busy making phone calls and wrapping up the work of the day while the flight attendant was asking people around me if they wanted something to drink. She had a tray full of drinks when suddenly a boarding passenger ran into her and the entire tray of margaritas (I had to be told what it was) came tumbling down on me. Suddenly I was drenched in something I had never experienced — from the top of my head, all over my face, down the front of my clothing, my seat-belt and my skirt — soaked through. I don’t drink alcoholic beverages so I had no clue what this was but I had this sudden thought — “Don’t lick your lips!” :) People all around me started handing me everything they could to try and wipe all of this off of me. We were using airplane blankets, baby wipes and napkins. Eventually I realized that it was not going to be possible to dry off and I just had to fly for over two hours, soaking wet in these drinks!
When I got to the next airport I was to have a three hour layover. I decided I would walk for awhile to see if I could get my clothing to dry. The more it dried the harder it became. My hair was rather spikey by now as well. Eventually I decided to have a small bowl of soup for supper and make my way to the plane. Unfortunately during my travels I had been around some folks who had the stomach flu. Now, the nearer I got to the plane, the worse I felt. I began praying and telling the Lord that I REALLY did not want to get sick — but just to get home! I stood around the boarding area feeling quite nauseated but still okay. We boarded the plane and I tried to settle in for the flight home. I closed my eyes and began pleading with the Lord to just get me home when all of a sudden I realized that I wasn’t going to make it and I needed to get to the lavatory. They were just finishing up the boarding process when I leapt from my seat and lunged toward the lavatory at the front of the plane. The flight attendant told me I had to be seated. I just looked at her and said, “I’m going to be sick.” It wasn’t pretty! I barely made it to that little room and didn’t even have time to close the door when the soup and probably a few others things all came up. I felt badly for the folks who could hear me but there was nothing I could do. I tried to clean myself up the best I could but I was a mess. My skirt had now dried stiff as a board, my hair was spiked up with margaritas and I had gotten sick in the lavatory. However — I now felt much better.
As I stepped out to sheepishly make my way back to my seat I was stopped by the Captain. The flight attendants had gone and gotten him. He looked me straight in the eye and asked me what was wrong with me. I have to confess that at that moment I didn’t realize what a sight I was and didn’t have a clue as to what the Captain was probably thinking. He asked what I had been doing and was I going to be able to fly to Kansas City. He had such a serious look in his eye. I told him that I was much better now and I would be okay. He decided not to throw me off the plane. The flight attendants handed me a plastic bag and a ginger ale and I lowered my head and made my way back to my seat. I made it home without another incident but it wasn’t until later and I was feeling a bit better that I realized what the Captain and crew were thinking. Here I was, smelling like alcohol from head to toe and getting sick on the plane. I’m sure they thought that I had been on some kind of a drinking binge — all the while wearing my nice little “I am NTS” pin with the cross on it.
There’s often more than meets the eye, whether in the Scriptures, or in life. We make judgement calls far too easily and we skip right over what may really be happening, or what the Author may want us to know. Let’s not put Phoebe on the back-burner of Christianity and assume she didn’t have a significant role. Let’s not jump to conclusions when we don’t have all the information and let’s give others the benefit of the doubt. God can do more than we can ever imagine with people and in circumstances which may not make sense to us. You can’t put God in a box and there’s always more than meets the eye.
Lord, thank you for the faithfulness of women like Phoebe who have gone before. Please, help me to take the time to slow down enough to not miss what is really happening and to learn from the lessons you place in my path. Amen.
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