Text: Romans 16:1-2
Every time you apply for a job, one of the first requirements is to provide at least three references. If you left a bad impression or had a poor performance review in your last job, it may be difficult to find a new job. Let’s be realistic -- we live in a world where references are important. The image that we leave with people really does matter. As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When we read about Phoebe in the book of Romans and read the reference that Paul gives her, it makes us want to know her that much more. Who was this woman with such a great reference? What did she do that caused Paul, one of the foremost apostles, to speak so highly of her? What was her secret? I believe the most important thing that stood out about her was that she knew how to serve. Phoebe (whose name means “shine”) was a helper -- she had a serving heart and as a result she shined the love of Christ on others.
Can people say the same about you? Can they commend you to others as a worthy servant who has helped many? Can they say that you bring hope in the middle of despair?
Phoebe was from the village of Cenchreae, one of the two ports of Corinth. Paul most likely met Phoebe when he stopped in Cenchreae to cut off his hair before heading with Priscilla and Aquila to Syria (Acts 18:18). Cenchreae was the port town for all trade routes heading east by ship or to the north by land. This ancient town flourished during Roman times, since it was a trade hub for the wealthy city-state of Corinth. According to archaeologists, it had a distinguished, prosperous, and diverse community, and was filled with cults and temples to various Greek gods. In short, Phoebe came from a prosperous community and was most likely wealthy herself. (This is why Paul uses the Greek term for “benefactor/patron” to describe her financial support of his ministry.)
Even though Phoebe was wealthy, she did not use her financial power to control others nor did she see this wealth as something that entitled her to lead or make decisions. Instead she followed the example of Jesus, who did not consider power something to be grasped but instead humbled Himself and became a servant (Phil 2). And Phoebe was not just a servant of Paul (a well-known leader and preacher, who it might be advantageous to serve), but she was a servant/deaconess to many men and women. Therefore, Paul commended and praised her because her hope was not in her power, money, or influence but rather her hope rested securely and totally in Jesus. Phoebe not only followed Jesus, but she imitated Him in such a way that she became a servant to all.
This is the same picture we see of Eve, of the Proverbs 31 woman, and of many other Biblical women. Women of valor, women of rescuing hope, who are created to deeply and fully trust in God as their hope so they can then freely serve and bring hope to others in need. As Diane Langberg said (at the first Hope Gathering), "we offer hope when we offer the likeness of Jesus to others." May we become women like Phoebe, who offer all we are in service to Jesus and His people.