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The Phabulous Phoebe

Posted by on Oct 4, 2010 in scripture, service | 18 comments

The Phabulous Phoebe

At the beginning of Romans 16, Paul introduces us to someone named Phoebe. He says:

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 ESV)

Many scholars (perhaps most) agree that Phoebe was delivering Paul’s letter to the many Christians who met in various groups around the city of Rome. He told them that Phoebe was from Cenchreae, which was a seaport on the eastern side of Corinth. He also told them that she was a servant and that she cared for many people, including himself. (The word translated “patron” can also be translated “protector” or “helper.”) I honestly don’t think Paul cared whether or not people used the title “servant” (deacon) for Phoebe. She served people and, therefore, she was a servant.

Paul also instructed the church in Rome to take care of Phoebe while she is with them. This is similar to other instructions that we see in the New Testament. Believers were expected to care for their brothers and sisters who were traveling through their city. (For example, see Romans 15:24, 1 Corinthians 16:5-6, 1 Corinthians 16:10-11, Titus 3:13, 3 John 5-6).

Paul does not tell us anything else specifically about Phoebe. But, by examining Paul’s recurring practices, we can learn other things about Phoebe.

For example, we know that Paul often left people in cities or sent people to cities to continue encouraging believers and proclaiming the gospel. We see this with Timothy (Acts 17:14, Acts 19:22), Silas (Acts 17:14), Erastus (Acts 19:22, 2 Timothy 4:20), Titus (Titus 1:5), among others.

Furthermore, when Paul sent a letter to the Christians in a city, he would have one of his co-workers deliver it for him. Again, we see this with Timothy (1 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Thessalonians 3:2), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), Tychicus (Colossians 4:7), Onesimus (Colossians 4:9), among others.

Paul always sent his letters by people that he trusted, who lived faithfully, who served tirelessly, who cared for people. Here are some of the way that he described these co-workers:

That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:17 ESV)

I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger [apostle] and minister to my need… (Philippians 2:25 ESV)

Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here. (Colossians 4:7-9 ESV)

This tells us the kind of people that Paul entrusted with his letters. He sent people who were faithful servants and who worked to proclaim the gospel. He expected them to deliver the letter to the church in the city, and he expected them to help the church in that city for a time. (Unless, like Epaphroditus, the person was returning to his or her home city, in which case, Paul expected them to remain their indefinitely.) Paul expected them to provide a living example of the things that Paul wrote in his letters.

So, as Paul says, Phoebe was a servant. She cared for and helped many people, including Paul. He expected Phoebe to deliver the letter, but also to tell the Christians who met in different places in Rome about Paul’s travels. He expected her to help and strengthen the church there. He trusted Phoebe, and he expected her to be a good example for the Christians in Rome.

In other words, Phoebe was an itinerant servant (an apostle) and a co-worker with Paul, in the same manner as Timothy, Titus, Erastus, etc.


18 Comments

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  1. 10-4-2010

    Amen.

  2. 10-4-2010

    Hey Alan,

    Just one over-simplified question: Are you saying that the term “itinerant minister” and “apostle” are synonymous?

    Thank Brother – I so appreciate your ministry.
    Doug

  3. 10-4-2010

    Hutch,

    Sorry you had to wait so long for this post. :)

    Doug,

    Yes. An “apostle” is someone who travels away from their home to proclaim the gospel and encourage believers. I use the phrase “itinerant servant (or minister)” to mean the same thing.

    -Alan

  4. 10-4-2010

    Yep, you kept me in suspense. My pesky Gen-X need for instant gratification and feedback was challenged. But I survived and hopefully grew in the process! :)

    This weekend, Stacy and I were poring over all the NT texts related to the things Paul said about those he had worked alongside.

  5. 10-4-2010

    one of my fave posts ever, thanks!! :)

  6. 10-4-2010

    You know, if this got out, it could totally change church as we know it. :)

  7. 10-5-2010

    Hutch,

    I bet that was a very interesting study!

    Randi,

    Thank you!

    Fred,

    Perhaps.

    -Alan

  8. 10-7-2010

    A good one! Of course, “Junia/s” (Rom 16:7) is an apostle and almost certainly female, despite the tendency in translations to produce a masculine form of the name. As far as I am aware, the masculine Junias, is undocumented until some time after Paul’s time.

    We err to restrict the concept of apostle to the 11+Paul (or whatever): John 17:18, where Jesus prays for all whom God gave him, is a place where he says to God, “As you have made an apostle of me, I have made them apostles into the world.” An ungainly translation, but…

  9. 7-5-2011

    Great post.

    Also, Phoebe would have been the one to read the letter to the church (most people were not literate) and from that we can deduce she would also try to answer any questions about it. So she was trusted by Paul.

  10. 7-12-2011

    Sold. Thanks for this.

  11. 7-13-2011

    Don

    “Also, Phoebe would have been the one to read the letter to the church (most people were not literate) and from that we can deduce she would also try to answer any questions about it. So she was trusted by Paul.”

    That is a pretty big leap. It might be true but to assume that (and whatever implications you draw from your supposition) assumes a lot that is certainly not required from the text. What we know of Phoebe is pretty limited so we are left making a lot of suppositions. We are assuming, based on what scholars have to say, that she delivered the letter. I am not sure what the basis for that is, it certainly isn’t obvious from the text. Certainly Phoebe might have been the one to deliver the letter but I would be very cautious in making this assumption.

  12. 10-28-2011

    I agree with Arthur that it’s a leap to assume that she read the letter, although that’s a possibility. I think it is safe to assume that she delivered the letter, however. One phrase — “and help her in whatever she may need from you” — leads some to believe that she was in Rome on business, which would make sense as to why Paul also asked her to deliver to deliver the letter. It also fits with the fact that Paul calls her patron, at least meaning that she was a woman of enough means to help — a place to stay, financial assistance — people like Paul. Some believe that calling her “servant” means she held the office of deacon in the Cenchrean church. I don’t see any reason to make that jump. Like Alan said, she was a servant, pure and simple.

  13. 10-28-2011

    This is what happens when you do not know the 1st century cultural context. Back then the letter carriers were the official readers and explainers of the letter.

    Also, diakonos is what Paul called himself and others, it was a general term for the minister/leader of any religion.

    Phoebe was a prostatis, which also indicates she was a leader, as the term refers to someone who stands in front and represents a group.

    All these things are clear once you know the cultural context of the letter and since the letter was written in that specific culture, to not read it that way is simply wrong.

  14. 8-2-2012

    I’m gonna do it…Phantastic. Phoebe was a phaithful phemale, phull of the love of God. She phollowed followed Jesus, thus phound phavor with Paul. No phluffy phantasy here, kids.

    Okay, now that you have a reason to hate me, I say this…Sad are the misconceptions of the role of apostles and the role of women among the saints. I pray God gives us all a clearer picture of how it all works.

  15. 8-2-2012

    Alan,

    Just reading this one tonight. What can I say, I’m behind the times!

    How do you get that you believe Phoebe was an apostle?

    Also, Timothy was not Paul’s equal in ministry. He was Paul’s spiritual son. Hence, this is why Paul refers to Timothy as his child. Timothy functioned under Paul’s authority.

  16. 8-2-2012

    John,

    Actually, I like that very much. :)

    Donald,

    I don’t see “son” as a language of subordination, but one of love and maturity. It probably also referred to the fact that Paul proclaimed the gospel to Timothy and saw him come to Christ. Paul referred to Timothy as an apostle and a co-laborer (i.e., equal), not a subordinate. In fact, I don’t think Paul saw anyone as his subordinate. Instead, he saw everyone as his brothers and sisters in Christ – equal in him.

    As to why I say that Phoebe was an apostle… because she was traveling with Paul. If you read the introductions in each letter to the people who delivered the letters, you can see the kind of people that Paul chose to deliver his letters and what he expected from them.

    -Alan

  17. 8-2-2012

    Alan,

    Paul didn’t preach to Timothy. He (Timothy) was raised by his mother and grandmother and they instilled in him his faith. 2 Timothy 1:5 Nothing is said of Timothy’s Greek father, (maybe he died when Timothy was a young lad? I could not say.), so it makes perfect sense that Timothy would easily relate to Paul as a father figure in Christ.

    I understand the hesitance to see a son as being subordinate to a father, but consider that Jesus, even being equal to God, did only what His Father told Him and showed Him to do. Jesus the Son was subordinate to God His Father. Bu not in a ‘lesser than’ or ‘weaker frame’ kind of way.

    Paul tells us that we have no lack of mentors, but a severe lack of fathers. 1 Corinthians 4:15 The father/son dynamic is the core of our faith, since it has always been about a father and his son, starting with Abraham and Isaac and going from there. By my stating that Paul was as a spiritual father to Timothy is not meant to marginalize Timothy. Quite the opposite actually. Think of how easily Timothy was received and accepted by other believers simply because he carried Paul’s approval as his spiritual father.

    I have a spiritual father and I willingly and voluntarily submit to him as such. No, he is not Jesus. He is not my Master, Lord, Savior or King. He’s a man like all of us. But he loves me like a natural son, and I follow him as he follows Christ. But I digress.

    May I say openly how refreshing it is to know that I can speak freely here and not worry about being banned, deleted, mocked, or ignored. It’s very refreshing. You and your commenters are sharpening me, and I hope to be able to do likewise. :)

  18. 8-3-2012

    Donald,

    We don’t know if Paul proclaimed the gospel to Timothy or not. He lived in one of the cities that Paul and Barnabas visited in Acts 13-14. By Acts 16, Timothy was a believer, but we’re not told who proclaimed the gospel to him. The suggestion that Paul did – and thus, the “son” moniker – has been suggested as a possibility. Either way, spiritual son does not suggest subordination. In fact, subordination is not part of any relationship between believers – we are all equal in Christ. We may submit to one another or yield to another’s maturity/wisdom, but that does not mean the other person is over us – we remain equals. The “son” can disciple and teach the “father” just as well as it happening in the other direction.

    -Alan