PHOEBE - A GODLY SERVANT
Dear Friends in Christ,
Do you wonder why the Bible includes certain verses? There are a lot of genealogies. Leviticus has a whole chapter on mildew. Joshua has a few chapters on the precise division of the Promised Land as it was doled out to each tribe. It includes mountains, rivers, and cities and landmarks. Ho Hum! But there are no ho hum chapters of the Bible. Those chapters might be hard to read but they give us names of real people, real landmarks, real places. This is not a book of myths and fables. It is truth.
Romans 16 might be considered one of those chapters. We do value Romans 16: 17 that says, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.” This passage instructs to stay away from those who teach and hold to lies. Lies don’t come from God, they come from Satan.
But Romans 16 also lists a whole lot of names that are hard to pronounce. Paul says “hey” to all of them. Is this really necessary? Actually as we take a closer look the people mentioned fit the prototype for our sermon series this summer – big little people. We meet Phoebe, a Real Servant of God, 1) Someone quite ordinary who did the extraordinary; 2) Someone ordinary who loved and was loved.
Romans is an extraordinary book. Ask Martin Luther. He’s a little like a pastor I know who will tell you he has a hundred favorite Bible passages. Luther said that with Bible books. He said about Romans, “This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the purest Gospel, which not only deserves to be known by heart by a Christian word for word, but to be studied daily as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or studied too much and too well; and the more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.”
Someone said that if you understand three passages in Scripture, you will have a solid foundation in the Christian faith. The first is John 1:14; Jesus became flesh and lived among us. It tells us who our Savior is. The second is Ephesian 1: 3-14; it is a very heavy duty passage that tells us how the Triune God planned and made our eternal salvation happen. He even chose us to be part of it. The third is Romans 3: 21-26; through faith alone in Jesus we are saved freely, fully and forever. Notice Romans
But Pastor, when do you talk about Phoebe? We need a little background. Paul wrote the letter to the Romans on his third mission journey. Besides preaching Christ to various people in various cities, he was collecting an offering for the church in Jerusalem. They were having a difficult time and needed aid. Paul was going there.
In Corinth he wrote this letter to the Romans. Paul always wanted to go to Rome. Rome was the center of the world power. They needed Jesus too. There were faithful people there. How did they get there? It began almost thirty years prior. Jews from Rome went to Jerusalem as Jews and left as Christians. They witnessed the miracle of Pentecost. The rushing of the wind, the tongues of fire, the speaking in tongues. They heard Peter preach a sermon about Jesus. Three thousand were converted and knew God’s plan of salvation. They returned to Rome with their faith. Apparently they were not afraid to share it.
Pastor! How about Phoebe? When are you going to talk about Phoebe? So Paul wrote this letter to the Romans to tell them he was coming. More importantly he also wrote to tell them what he was going to teach them.
Romans stands first among all his letters, not just because it is the longest, but it is the most complete and comprehensive statement of faith he wrote. I had a professor who once said, “The book of Romans has every doctrine of the Bible in it except the teaching of the Lord’s Supper.” In fact, I had once considered using the book of Romans as my God 101 course to introduce people to the Bible and review Christianity.
What did the Roman churches do with it? They read it and studied it. They shared it. It was copied to refer to again and again. God made sure that such important and basic teaching was and is part of his holy book.
Irenaeus, an important church father, who lived in the latter portion of the second century was strongly influenced by the book of Romans. His writings reflect what is in the book of Romans. While you may not have heard of Irenaeus, you have hear of Augustine. He tells us that through reading Romans 13:13-14 he came to faith in Jesus Christ. He was deeply distraught because his attempts to live a good moral life had been a total failure. He got his hands on a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans and read the first words his eyes fell upon – Romans 13: 13-14, “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” He literally turned from playboy to prayboy, by the grace of God revealed in Romans.
Martin Luther was a theology professor at Wittenberg, Germany beginning in 1510 –pre-Reformation. Luther, along with his students, began to read Romans. As Luther and his students studied they began to grasp the true meaning of the gospel – salvation by grace alone through faith alone, found in Scripture alone. At first the book of Romans spoke to him personally, liberating him from the agonies of conscience. He realized he was forgiven by Jesus. Soon he became convinced that the teaching and practices of the church of his day were clearly in contradiction to the gospel, which he had first discovered in Romans. The Reformation began.
John Wesley, the father of Methodism, noticed a spiritual decline in England. He and others were deeply troubled by the condition of the church. He and others met and read Luther’s commentary on Romans. As he listened, his heart was “strangely warmed.” Peace came to his heart. While not always a theological straight shooter when it comes to the Word of God, he led a spiritual awakening in England. Romans was the game changer. Actually, I could go on with examples.
Now comes Phoebe! Paul wrote the letter from Corinth. Phoebe’s hometown was Cenchrea, a port city of Corinth. She was the courier who took the letter to Rome, probably accompanied by others. “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea.”
Just take a look at Romans 16. There is a long list of people whom Paul greeted. He either had met them from somewhere else or knew them by reputation who lived in Rome. He greets them. In verses 21 to 23 he lists people who were with him in Corinth. Phoebe doesn’t fall in either category. She was commended to them as she came. Paul wanted them to receive her and take care of this sister in Christ. It seems apparent she was the mail lady, handling and handing over this letter that means to so many over the ages.
I hope you see my point. Not many of us are like Jonah who preached to a whole city and the whole city repented. Not many of us are like Paul who covered much of the then known world with the Gospel and started so many churches that any mission board would smile; not many of us can be like Peter who preached a sermon and 3,000 were converted in one day. But we can be Phoebe’s to do the necessary tasks by which God does big things.
It is amazing what an invitation to church can do for someone. It can change the hell-bound to the heaven-bound. I heard someone say about a single employee in a 300 employee company that the one was the Jesus man, and was admired. A God-loving parent or Sunday School teacher lays the foundation for a child’s eternal future. As a pastor I get to hear from visitors about the kindness of a congregation and its godly warmth and hospitality and acceptance.
Perhaps that is what you remember about someone who did something for you that made a huge difference. You just never know who something small can be used by God to do something big.
We can see Phoebe as someone who loved but was also the object of love. Paul urged the people in Rome to receive her well. “I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you.” We have a number of people in our congregation who were born outside the borders of our country. Maybe you are best to understand what Phoebe was going through. She was from Cenchrea, a port city of Corinth in Greece; she was traveling to Rome. They were very different from each other. Some people are built for that, others aren’t. No matter where we go in this world, I pray that we would be received well by fellow Christians. We have the same God, same Jesus, same faith, same forgiveness, same heaven promised. We are in the same family – God’s family.
Back in 1987 we held the WELS International Youth Rally in Georgia. The theme was “Friends Forever, Won by One.” I loved that theme – everlasting friends because Jesus won us the victory over sin. Years ago I held a position where I represented our church body. I traveled to churches and potential congregations in the Caribbean and throughout Southeastern United States. I was always greeted as brother in Christ, on the same team. I love to have people visit from the neighborhood here at Messiah. I pray they will share in our love and allegiance for Christ and his Word and the work God has given us to do. It is also good when brothers and sisters in Christ who are just visiting a passing through from other places visit too. While some may come even from Minnesota and talk funny, we still share Jesus here and there. When we get to there, Jesus will fix that speech impediment.
There are four titles that Phoebe has in these two verses. She is called a sister…in Christ. Someone once said about family, "All of us are we--and everyone else is they." A family shares things like dreams, hopes, possessions, memories, smiles, frowns, and gladness...A family is a clan held together with the glue of love and the cement of mutual respect. A family is shelter from the storm, a friendly port when the waves of life become too wild. No person is ever alone who is a member of a family.” That’s a pretty good definition even for the family of God. But what is most important. God is our Father through faith in Christ Jesus.
She is called a deaconess. Actually that is one possibility. The word is literally female servant. In the book of Acts seven men were called to be deacons, the same word except masculine. Whether she was a deaconess or simply female servant, what is most important is the servant part. The office is not nearly as important as the action – service.
She is called a saint. Holy, set apart, washed clean in the blood of Jesus. Saint Phoebe just like all who are in Christ. You don’t have to die to be a saint. We are holy now.
Paul says, “She has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Literally the word benefactor means to “stand beside.” In Greek secular literature it sometimes meant a person who would take care of other people. As Christians we stand by any and all. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.” We are like all people - sinners; we are like all people, Jesus died for each of us. He puts us all on the same level, equally loved. Don’t forget it.
I hope you learned more about Phoebe today. We really do have a lot in common with her. One day we will see her face to face. In the meantime, let’s imitate Phoebe as God’s servants through whom God can do extraordinary things, as God’s servants who love and are loved.