NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SIXTEEN (Lesson I)
16:1-2 I want you to know that you can trust our sister in Christ, Phoebe. She is a special servant of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to accept her in the Lord. Accept her the way God’s people should. Help her with anything she needs from you. She has helped me very much, and she has helped many others too.
This is the first mention of our Christian sister, Phœbe (also spelled Phebe). She was no doubt a devout believer who decided to keep the name she was given in honor of the pagan female deity Artemis, also known as, the Moon-Goddess. It is supposed that the term Phœbe is associated with the aura of the moon but the Phœbe Paul extols here is associated with the aura of God’s Son. Back in those days, it took an extraordinary woman to be selected to carry a masterpiece epistle all the way from Greece to Rome. Although we only have Paul’s beautiful cameo of this saintly servant of Christ in this letter, Paul held back no words in appealing to the Romans to assist her in every way possible.
Paul begins by calling her “sister.” This should not be confused with their being any part of a natural family as siblings. By this time calling a fellow believer in the family of God a brother or sister was well established by Paul’s day.1 Paul spoke of he and Phœbe’s relationship in the spiritual family of which Christ was the head, telling them that because we are God’s sons and daughters, we are now able, due to the Spirit of Christ His Son living in us, to refer to God as our Heavenly Father, and others in the family as brothers and sisters.2
By Paul referring to Phœbe as a sister in Christ and describing her as a faithful servant of the Lord, he is echoing the words of our Lord Jesus who told a group He was ministering to: “Anyone who does what My Father in heaven wants is My true brother and sister.”3 And to those who questioned whether it was right to leave father, mother, sister, and brother to follow Him, He had good news: Here in this world they will get more brothers and sisters.4 The Apostle James kept this tradition going in his letter by referring to his readers as brothers and sisters,5 as did the Apostle Peter.6
But in addition to Phœbe, a member of Christ’s spiritual body, she was very active in the local church in Cenchreae, Greece. This is where Paul arrived on his third missionary journey and from where he no doubt wrote this epistle to the Romans. After referring to Phœbe as his sister, Paul calls her a special “servant” in the church there at Cenchreae. Paul uses the Greek noun diakonos which occurs some 36 times in the Final Covenant and is translated by the KJV not only as “servant,” but also as “minister, servant, and deacon.”7 It appears to have come from an ancient word that means “to run an errand,” and this is certainly what Phœbe was used by Paul to do. Even though the English female term “deaconess” does not appear anywhere in the text of the Final Covenant, the male term “deacon” does appear in Paul’s letter to Timothy.8
Then Paul uses the Greek noun prostatis to define her contribution to the congregation in Cenchreae. The KJV translates it as “succourer,”9 to describe her caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her personal resources. These were mostly the poor and underprivileged who looked upon a prostatis as a guardian, protector, and patron saint. Paul says that he personally benefited from her assistance as well. Anglican Bishop Handley Moule translates this verse this way: “For she, on her part, proved to be a good standby (almost a champion), one who stands up for others, of many, aye, and of me among them.”
In noting Phœbe to be a resource of great help, this is a subliminal way of saying that she was either a woman of means or belonging to a family of some wealth. Bishop Moule notes that her devotion did not start upon the arrival of Paul but that she already was a caregiver and it would seem particularly a brave friend of new converts in trouble, especially those with unbelieving family members, as well as Paul himself. Perhaps in the course of her visits to those who were shunned and abandoned she also stood up in difficult times to protest because of the harshness and oppression she saw them receiving. It may be, that she pleaded her case for assistance to the poor with her brothers and sisters who were in a position to share.10 So we can see why Paul recommended her so highly to the believers in Rome.
Early church preacher Chrysostom makes some remarks about this chapter, noting that there are many, even some apparently good commentators, who hurry over this part of the epistle because they think it is pointless and of little importance. They probably think much the same about the genealogies in the Gospels. They see it as a catalog of names and think they can get nothing good out of it. But people who mine gold are careful even about the smallest specks that eventually add up to be very valuable. Chrysostom laments, sad to say, some of these commentators even ignore huge bars of gold!11
Paul mentions here that Sister Phœbe was active in the same church in Cenchreae where Priscilla and Aquila attended.12 It was there that Paul cut off his hair in order to fulfill a vow. Cenchreae is located about nine miles south of Corinth. It is also important to notice that Aquila and his wife Priscilla were Jews that once lived in Rome.13 So Sister Phœbe is not being sent to strangers in Rome but a couple she already knew from their days in Cenchreae. There is no documented evidence anywhere in the Bible or ecclesiastical history that Phœbe made it to Rome. However it is clear that Paul assigned Phœbe to carry this letter to Rome, that’s why he asks them to accept her as a trustworthy servant of God. On the other hand, this portion of Romans is considered by many Bible scholars as something added later on as it was copied and circulated throughout the churches. The oldest known copy of Romans from the early third century places the benediction, found here in verses twenty-five to twenty-seven, previously after verse thirty-three in chapter fifteen. But one thing cannot be discounted and that is that these precious saints should be remembered as stalwart servants of the Lord during very difficult times in Church history.
We also read where early church theologian Origen prepared some instructions for the leaders of the church in his day, but apparently they were not all persuaded to take his advice. He took this passage as a lesson from Paul on appointing women as leaders of church outreach ministries. Not only that, but they were eligible to be ordained into the ministry, because they helped in many ways and by their good services deserved the praise even of the Apostle Paul.14 And preacher Chrysostom also gives his support for Phœbe. He is impressed by the many ways Paul dignifies this great lady. He mentions her before all the rest and even calls her his sister. It was no small thing to be called the spiritual sister of the Apostle Paul! Moreover, he mentioned her rank of deaconess as well.15 Then Constantius joins in by pointing out that the Apostle Paul demonstrates that no discrimination or preference between male and female ministers in the church is to be tolerated, because here he sends this letter to Rome by the hand of a woman and sends greetings to other women in the same epistle.16
Then Pelagius lets us know the situation in the East Orthodox Church during his time (354-420 AD). He reports that even in his day women deaconesses in the East were known to minister to their own gender in baptism or even in the ministry of the Word. They were inspired by the fact that some women taught privately, namely, Priscilla, whose husband was Aquila17.18 Also, the early church Bishop of Cyr makes note that because Cenchreae was a village outside Corinth, that the Gospel was spreading quickly, even to the villages outside the metropolis. In fact the church at Cenchreae was so large that they appointed woman as deaconesses, and one of which was trusted and chosen to carry Paul’s letter to Rome.19
According to what Martin Luther understood and believed in his day, this letter to the Romans was dictated by the Apostle Paul to Tertius while in Corinth, then sent and carried by deaconess Phœbe to Rome. She was a deaconess in the church in Cenchreae, a port city some eight miles south of Corinth. Also, by Paul calling the believers in Rome “saints,” we are to understand those who were already established in the church. But Luther is perplexed about how the Apostle Paul could enumerate the names of so many even though as yet he had not been to Rome nor ever met them? Luther answers his own question by saying he believed that Paul heard about them by way of reports from several member he did know such as Priscilla and Aquila whom he met in Corinth. After all, in his opening he wrote: “Your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.”20 Luther also suggests that the early church followed the Hebrew custom of recording all members of the synagogue according to their family ties, which we know today as church membership.21
Fellow Reformer John Calvin states that he planned to touch only on those salutations which required some explanation for better understanding. He begins with Phœbe who would carry the letter to Rome. He notes that Paul commends her on the basis of her performance in a most honorable and a most holy function in the Church. Another thing was that Paul requested that the leaders in Rome receive her with great hospitality since she always proved to be an excellent helper as an assistant minister in the Cenchrean Church to the believers seriously disadvantaged.22
1 See 1 Corinthians 7:15
2 Galatians 4:6
3 Matthew 12:50
4 Mark 10:30
5 James 2:15
6 1 Peter 1:22
7 Matthew 20:26, 28; Mark 10:43; Romans13:4; 15:8; 1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:6, etc .
8 1 Timothy 3:10, 13
9 Succor is an old English term for giving aid and assistance
10 Expositor’s Bible, Ch. 32, Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 30
12 Acts of the Apostles 18:18
13 Ibid. 18:2-3
14 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 30
16 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 See Acts of the Apostles 18:1-3, 24-26
18 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Romans 1:8
21 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 222
22 Origen and Chrysostom considered her to be a deaconess, but the word does not necessarily prove this; for it is used often to designate generally one who does service and contributes to the help and assistance of others. She was evidently a person of wealth and influence, and was no doubt a great support and help to the Cenchrean Church. Calvin: On Romans, loc. cit., footnote