+27 (11) 867 3505 church@bbcmail.co.za

Doug Van Meter - 19 February 2023

A Radiant Record (Romans 16:1–2)

In Romans 16 Paul sends greetings to 26 individuals and five households in Rome. It is a chapter filled with names, many of which we might call “hidden figures.” Each was significant in the eyes of God, and no doubt, to their local church. Whether others knew about them is irrelevant. The bearer of this letter, including the bearer of these greetings, was almost certainly Phoebe. In the two verses in which Paul writes of her, we learn that she was a sister in Christ, a servant, and a supplier of help.

Scripture References: Romans 16:1-2

From Series: "Hidden Figures"

Lessons from some of the lesser known characters in Scripture.

Read Online     Download Audio

Powered by Series Engine

In Romans 16, Paul reveals his relational concern as he sends greetings to 26 individuals along with five households. Including those sending greetings, 31 persons are mentioned. The gospel, of which Paul had had so much to say in the previous fifteen chapters, is relational in its effect. The gospel saves people, reconciling them to God and connecting them to one another in the Body of Christ. Doctrine matters because God’s people matter.

Paul wrote this letter while in Corinth, and his erstwhile secretary Tertius recorded it. As we recently saw, Tertius also sent his greetings to believers in Rome (v. 22). But keeping this chain of communication before us, consider that, once the epistle was signed and sealed by Paul, it needed to be delivered to its intended recipients. Enter Phoebe.

Phoebe was almost certainly entrusted with the responsibility to deliver this letter to the church in Rome. Like Tertius, Phoebe played a huge role in publishing God’s word, given to Paul by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These two individuals were used by God to get his word—specifically, the book of Romans—to the world. Its first point of distribution was, of course, Rome.

There are only two verses in Scripture that provide us information concerning Phoebe but, as with Tertius, there is enough revealed to bless us by considering the record we have.

The name “Phoebe” means “radiant.” Its root was a pagan name, after the god Apollo. Though apparently raised in a false religion, Phoebe would come to faith and would shine for the Lord. Rather than a worshipper of the moon, she would become a worshipper of the creator of the moon.

In this brief description of Phoebe, we are provided with sufficient information to enlighten our appreciation of this sister in Christ, an exemplary servant of Christ, who supplied aid to the church of Christ. Phoebe truly let her light shine before others to the glory of God. May we be equally radiant in our service.

A Radiant Commendation

Verse 1 contains a radiant commendation of this godly woman: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (v. 1).

In the ancient world, especially with reference to the church, letters of commendation were necessary and therefore customary for a representative to carry (see Acts 18:27; 2 Corinthians 3:1; 8:18–24; 3 John 9–10). This protected against fraud, deceit, and abuse in the local church. For Phoebe to carry this epistle, purportedly from Paul, required an apostolic commendation.

In his commendation Paul introduces Phoebe most favourably. She was a person to be trusted, and to be well treated. After all, she was a “sister” in the Lord.

That Paul would entrust this letter to Phoebe’s care was commendation itself concerning her character—and her courage. A woman travelling in those days was taking a risk, even though she probably had somewhat of an entourage with her as a “patron.”

Regardless, Paul provides this word of confident approval concerning Phoebe, highlighting perhaps the most complimentary description of a believer: “a servant of the church.” Cenchreae was a major port near Corinth. Most likely, it was a “daughter” church of Corinth. Evidently, the church did some things right!

The word “servant” translates the Greek term diakonos. It is in a word group that speaks of serving tables (see Acts 6:2). Related words are translated “minister” (2 Corinthians 3:6; Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 4:7) and “deacon” (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 12), but predominately “servant” (Matthew 20:26; 23:11; etc.). Phoebe was known as a servant, who ministered to the church. As we see here, she also served beyond her local church.

Let it be said of each of us that we are servants of our local church. Let it be said that we seek to serve rather than to be served. Such an attitude would revive and revitalise an otherwise self-focused congregation. I thank God for the many Phoebes in my own church.


At this point, the question often arises as to whether or not Phoebe served in an official role in the church. If so, what was that role?

Some argue that Phoebe served as a “minister” in the church, using that word as synonymous with elder. Because she was entrusted with carrying this letter to Rome (an assertion with which most agree), it is suggested by some that she actually read and taught the epistle to the church at Rome. I have no qualm with the assumption that Phoebe read the letter to the church, and she may even have taught it to some in the church (Acts 18:24–26) but, for biblical reasons (which Paul also wrote!), she would not have taught the letterin the capacity of an elder.

Though the above is a minority position (and based on very questionable evidence), a second, more plausible, position is that Phoebe served as a member of her church’s diaconate in Cenchreae. If so, then there is New Testament warrant for women to serve on the diaconate.

Let me say that there are very good arguments on both sides. There are some very compelling arguments for female deacons and many sound, biblically-faithful churches appoint women as deacons. In fact, historically, Baptist churches, for a couple hundred years, followed this practice.

Some may immediately retort that women are not to exercise authority over men and therefore cannot serve on the diaconate. That argument reveals the fallacious idea that the deacons have authority in the way elders do. They do not. Yes, those who serve as deacons have a measure of authority in their spere of service (e.g. they can tell you where to park, what curriculum to teach in Sunday School, or to stay away from the mixer and to leave the microphones alone!), but these are spheres of authority that do not violate 1 Timothy 2:11–15. In that prohibited sphere, Paul writes about women teaching God’s word in a local church corporate gathering.

Let me give an example. Women lead our crèche ministry. When one of them tells a father that he must sign in and sign out his child, she has the authority to do so. That is a far cry from authoritatively applying God’s word to men in the church.

The point is that a multitude of biblically faithful churches have women deacons without violating Scripture’s prohibition of women serving as elders. They hold this position because they are persuaded that they have exegetical grounds to do so (1 Timothy 3:8–12). I am sympathetic and open to this interpretation. (Our eldership is not unanimous.)

However, I am not comfortable with the claim that these two verses are incontrovertible proof of such a position. There requires too much reading between the lines, in my view, to land on such a conclusion.

Having said this, we can say that this commended, radiant woman shined brightly as a servant in her local church on the port of Corinth. Until this commendation (and huge responsibility), not many (if any) knew of her outside of her local church. Perhaps, for a long while, Phoebe remained a “hidden figure,” but now all the Christian world would become familiar with her name. She who was faithful in least, would be equipped to be faithful in much.

A Radiant Reception

Verse 2 describes the radiant reception that Paul anticipated she would receive: “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” (v. 2). He expected the church at Rome to extend warm and worthy hospitality. I wonder if Phoebe ensured that she read this part of the letter to them first.

The word “welcome” means “to receive to oneself,” “to give access to oneself,” or “to receive in companionship.” It means, in other words, to welcome. But, clearly, this was not merely to be a ticking of the proverbial box. Rather, Paul exhorted them to “welcome her in the Lord.” That is, they were to receive her as they would receive the Lord (see Matthew 25:31–46). After all, she was a member of the Body of Christ.

Further, in strong language suggesting exceptional hospitality, Paul says that they were to treat her “in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you.”

The word “worthy” is modified by the word “saints,” meaning that they are to treat her in a way that is suitable to how one treats a fellow Christian. Perhaps there is a hint here of the same thought as in 3 John 6: “You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God.” Paul appeals for the church at Rome to “stand beside” (“help”) her, aiding her in any way she needs assistance. She was to be treated as a “guest of honour.” But why the special treatment? Who was this apparently remarkable yet otherwise hidden and mysterious woman?

A Radiant Reputation

Finally, Paul points to Phoebe’s radiant reputation: “She has been a patron of many and of myself as well” (v. 2). This woman, given a radiant commendation and who was to be received with a radiant welcome, had a radiant—even exceptional—reputation, for Paul describes her as “a patron of many and of myself as well.” Whatever this means, Phoebe “has been” doing so apparently for some time and she had gained an honourable, perhaps even exceptional, reputation.

A lexical definition of “patron” is someone who provides assistance to others, usually materially or by way of providing some kind of protection. Perhaps one might think of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony who provided protection to Martin Luther when the Roman Catholic regime put a bounty on his head.

Another well-known patron in church history was Countess Huntingdon who, in the eighteenth century, was a major character in the founding of Methodism in the UK, who did much to help spread the gospel to other parts of the world, including Sierra Leone. She provided much material support, as well as spiritual encouragement to both John Wesley and George Whitfield. It is estimated she contributed over £100,000 to the cause of Christ (in a day when an average sized family could live on £31 a year!). In some way, Phoebe was a patron who contributed to the spread of the gospel and the strengthening of the local church. She was a provider for many, and perhaps even a protector of many, including Paul.

During this time period of Paul’s ministry in Corinth, the Roman Emperor, Claudius, had recently issued a command for all Jews to leave Rome. Some, like Aquila and Priscilla, landed in Corinth (Acts 18:1–2). It is not unreasonable to suggest that Phoebe had offered such exiles provision and shelter, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources. If so, what a radiant person! What a truly radiant reputation, and small wonder that Paul therefore wanted the believers in Rome to treat her well.

Phoebe reminds us of other women who served as patrons of our Lord Jesus Christ (see Matthew 27:55; Mark 15:41; Luke 8:3, and note that this latter text uses the Greek word diakoneo). What we can take away from this often hidden figure is our need to use our opportunities to support the ministry of our Lord, which continues through his people, the church. How can we use what God has given to us—our finances, homes, vehicles, time, meals, etc.—to serve God by serving his church?


What stands out concerning Phoebe, at least to me, are the words “servant of the church.” We are not told specifically how she served but that she served is blazoned for all to read. And why do you suppose she served, even most likely to the point of sacrifice? Because of the sacrifice of her Lord who came, not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). When we experience the saving ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are moved to serve. In fact, this, in many ways, is the point of the book of Romans (see 12:1–2).

Perhaps a good illustration of this is Peter’s mother-in-law, whom the Lord healed from a serious fever. Mark records, “And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mark 1:31). That is a lovely picture of the Christian life. We are saved to serve.

Note that she “began to serve them,” not just the Lord. She served the Lord and his disciples. That is a shining example of what each of us should be doing in our church. That is an enlightening illustration of how we should behave towards one another.

We can conclude that Phoebe was a sister, a servant, and a supporter. And she was radiant in each of these roles. Like Phoebe, may our service to the church be radiant, to the glory of God. May each of us leave behind a radiant record of service to the body of Christ, to his praise and glory.