I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.Romans 16:1-2
There is something in all of us that wants to see our names preserved. Years ago I visited the Natural Bridge of Virginia. There were thousands of names and initials scratched on the rocks, but high up on the side of it, above almost every other name, was scratched
George Washington. Even the father of our country felt the urge to gain a kind of immortality by carving his name on the rock.
But here in Romans 16 is a list of names of men and women who never knew that they were going to be famous. I am sure that if they had known that mention in one of Paul's letters was to give them undying fame, there would have been a long line of people outside his door urging him to include them in the letter. But these names are mentioned only because they were personal friends of Paul's in Rome, to whom he was writing, or they were with him in the city of Corinth, from which he wrote.
The first name he mentions is Phoebe. The whole church can be grateful to this woman for her faithfulness. She bore and preserved this letter all along that hazardous journey from Corinth to Rome. She is called by the apostle
a servant of the church in Cenchreae. Cenchreae was the port of Corinth, located about nine miles east of the city. Evidently, a Christian church had grown up there, and Phoebe was a deacon in it. That does not mean that she held some governmental office in that church; we sometimes read present-day meanings into these words. It means that she had assumed a ministry on behalf of the church. She represented them in some labor, and whether it was material, physical, or spiritual, she was very faithful in it. So Paul commends her to these Christians in Rome, and asks them not only to receive her, but to help her.
She has been a help to many others, he says,
and to me.
You cannot read Chapter 16 of Romans without being impressed by the number of women Paul mentions — many more than in any other literature of that day. In these first 24 verses there are 33 names mentioned. Nine of these people were with Paul — eight men and one woman. There are 24 names mentioned in Rome — 17 men and 7 women. There are two households mentioned, and two unnamed women — the mother of Rufus and the sister of Nereus — as well as some unnamed brethren. So there is quite a list of people the apostle knew personally in Rome, though he himself had not yet visited that city — these are people he had known somewhere else in the Roman Empire.
Women occupy a prominent place in these letters of the New Testament. Evidently, they handled very important tasks within the church, according to the gifts they had. There is strong suggestion here that Phoebe was a teacher or an evangelist — a laborer for the gospel with Paul. We do not know much more about her, but her name has been preserved forever because of this mention.
Lord, thank you for women like Phoebe who serve you faithfully. Help me to receive such people in a manner worthy of the saints.
Do we aspire to serve as 'helper'? If not, what does that infer about our availability to God's gifts and His calling? How does our assessment compare with Paul's recognition of Phoebe's contribution as helper?