THE CHURCH SHOULD COMMEND AND ASSIST FELLOW CHRISTIANS WHO ARE COMMITTED TO SERVING OTHERS
Frank Thielman: Before releasing his audience, he observed two epistolary customs. He commended the letter’s courier, and he urged his audience to greet people in their midst that he knew either personally or by reputation. This sounds rather humdrum at the formal level, but the unusual features of these standard epistolary elements demonstrate that they were intended to advance one of the primary purposes of the letter in an important, practical way. They promote the mutual, familial love that Paul has been encouraging explicitly within the Roman community since 12:1.
Michael Bird: Paul wants his patron Phoebe to receive a warm welcome from the Roman believers and perhaps wants her personally to extend his greetings to all the persons so named as part of a “charm offensive” ahead of Paul’s visit.
I. (:1) IDENTIFICATION OF THE COMMENDATION = PHOEBE
A. By Spiritual Family Relationship
“I commend to you our sister”
Thomas Schreiner: This designation means that Phoebe is a fellow believer, part of the church family. Apparently, the use of such a family term was distinctive to early Christianity, showing solidarity and mutuality. The term “sister” relays the intimacy and warmth characterizing the early church so that the relationship between family members describes most appropriately the affiliation between Christians (cf. 1 Tim. 5:1–2).
B. By Name
Frank Thielman: Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to Rome, and Paul affectionately recommends her to the Roman Christians as an indispensable envoy of the Christian assembly in a busy, cosmopolitan port city just southeast of Corinth.
Everett Harrison: “Phoebe” means “bright” or “radiant,” a well-known epithet of the Greek god Apollo.
C. By Church Role
“who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea;”
Thomas Schreiner: The main point of the text is that the Romans should receive Phoebe warmly not only because she is a fellow believer (which is reason enough) but also because she is well known for her service in the gospel of Christ.
Scholars debate, however, whether she held an office. On the one hand, the term διάκονος may be generic, denoting various kinds of service and assistance. On the other hand, the term also designates an office (cf. Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12; see also Ign. Eph. 2.1; Magn. 6.1). Is Paul commending Phoebe because she held the office of deacon, or because she served in a variety of unofficial ways in the church in Cenchreae? It is impossible to be sure, but for several reasons it is likely that she held the office of deacon. First, 1 Tim. 3:11 probably identifies women as deacons (see Schreiner 1991c: 213–14). Second, the designation “deacon of the church in Cenchreae” suggests that Phoebe served in this special capacity, since this is the only occasion in which the term διάκονος is linked with a particular local church. Third, the use of the masculine noun διάκονος also suggests that the office is intended. Of course, we need to beware of reading into early church offices the full-fledged development that was realized later. But women deacons were probably appointed early, especially because other women needed assistance from those of their own sex in visitation, baptism, and other matters (cf. Pelagius [de Bruyn 1993: 151]).
Michael Bird: She is from Cenchreae, the eastern seaport of Corinth, before the canal was dug between the two. Phoebe is probably a merchant, perhaps a widow, with enough financial means to travel to Rome. I doubt she traveled alone, and she probably would have had escorts accompanying her, such as slaves, freedmen, friends, or relatives.
S. Lewis Johnson: I’m therefore inclined to the view that there were no official deaconesses in the early church and that this is a reference to Phebe’s informal work of a servant of the church. And she obviously was an outstanding Christian woman, and not only that found it very significant to be a servant of the church in the church at Rome and did her job extremely well. The apostle says, “That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints.” So can you not imagine here arriving in the church in Rome and handing her letter of commendation, they used letters of commendation then when they traveled from place to place and they met with the saints they carried a letter of commendation from the elders in another city. I used to do that, I had letters of commendation from elders in the church of which I was fellowshipping. If I went to Houston and I was in a church there I would give them my letter and the letter would say, “Greetings in the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom it may concern, our brother S. Lewis Johnson Jr. is a Christian man in good standing in our assembly, receive him in the Lord.” And it would be signed by all the elders, four or five elders. You pass that around, letter of commendation.
John Toews: The letter of recommendation for Phoebe is both interesting and significant for the role of women in the early church. Women in antiquity were usually characterized by their relationship to men, e.g., daughter, wife, widow. Phoebe is defined by her church functions rather than her gender. She was clearly a person of means who provided leadership in the church.
James Dunn: Cenchrea, the town where Phoebe lived, was the eastern port of Corinth, six miles from the city center (see Acts 18:18). The church here was probably a daughter church of the one in Corinth.
II. (:2a) PURPOSES OF THE COMMENDATION
A. Receive Her Well
“that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints,”
Frank Thielman: Paul now gives the two purposes (ἵνα) of his commendation for Phoebe. First, he wants the Roman believers to “welcome” (προσδέξησθε) her, a term commonly used for receiving an envoy. The phrases “in the Lord” and “worthy of the saints” refer to the way those who have been united with the Lord Jesus Christ should treat others who, like themselves, have been set apart by this union as the people of God. Paul has already described what such a welcome would involve in 12:10–13. It would mean showing Phoebe the sort of sincere, instinctive love that family members should have for one another, taking the lead in showing her respect and honor, sharing in her needs, and eagerly giving her hospitality.
B. Reciprocate by Helping Her
“and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you;”
Frank Thielman: Second, Paul wants the Romans to respond appropriately to the benefaction Phoebe has given to him and many others. The term “benefactor” (προστάτις) typically referred to a person, usually a man, of high social status that received clients, did them favors, and expected favors in return, especially displays of honor. Women sometimes played this role.
William Hendriksen: What kind of help would Phoebe need when she arrived in Rome, which was clearly not the place of her residence? Would it not be protection and especially hospitality? And what kind of help did those travelers need who were passing through, and stopping over at, the seaport Cenchrea, Phoebe’s home-town, proceeding from west to east or from east to west? Is it not a fact that even today such very busy junctions make strangers feel somewhat uneasy? Was not what they needed a cordial word of greeting, good advice, protection against danger and frequently even a friendly home in which to pass the night, or even the days and nights until the next ship would leave harbor on the way to their destination?
In a word it was hospitality that was needed at very busy Cenchrea. And it was hospitality Phoebe knew how to offer. Is it not probably that, like Lydia (Acts 16:11-15, 40), Phoebe was a well-to-do Christian lady, blessed with an alert mind and with a heart overflowing with the spirit of kindness and helpfulness? Perhaps, also like Lydia, Phoebe was a businesswoman.
III. (:2b) REASON FOR THE COMMENDATION
A. She Helped Many
“for she herself has also been a helper of many,”
Douglas Moo: Paul gives a further hint of Phoebe’s function in the church at the end of verse 2, where he calls her a prostatis “to many people, including me.” Prostatis is derived from a verb that means both to care for, give aid to, and to direct, preside over. The former meaning is assumed in the NIV translation, “she has been a great help.” Others argue for the latter meaning, viewing Phoebe as the “leader” of the community. Perhaps the best suggestion is to give prostatis the meaning it often has in secular Greek, “patron, benefactor.” Phoebe was probably a wealthy businesswoman, who used her wealth to support the church and its missionaries (like Paul). Her ministry in the church and beneficence to the church’s workers make her worthy of a Christian greeting and any assistance the Roman church can give her.
B. She Helped the Apostle Paul
“and of myself as well.”
Michael Bird: Phoebe was Paul’s benefactor, who provided him with resources and residence in which to carry out his ministry while in the Corinthian peninsula.5 Clearly Phoebe was an important person in the Pauline circle. She was a household leader, financially independent, perhaps socially prominent, actively serving the Corinthian churches, and she is the one (not Timothy, Titus, or Tertius) whom Paul entrusts this important letter to be delivered to the Roman believers.