As we can see from this final chapter in this book, Paul was aware of several individuals in the church in Rome and passed on his greetings to them. Among the persons mentioned are several women. However, the first woman that Paul mentions does not belong to the church in Rome. Instead Phoebe was a member of the church in Corinth. The description that Paul gives of her is one of the most discussed verses in the New Testament because of its connection to the role of women in the church, with many suggesting that she was a deacon.
It is likely that Phoebe carried the letter to Rome, so this is Paul’s introduction of her to his readers. Some interpreters suggest that she was a businesswoman of some kind. It is likely that she was a wealthy woman because Paul describes her as a patron and she would have possessed property in order to show such hospitality. There were trade links between Corinth and Rome, and perhaps Phoebe’s family was involved in one or more of them. It looks as if she did not have property in Rome because Paul asks the church there to show hospitality to her.
Whatever her status, the fact that she carried the letter reminds us how God can use surprising methods in the conveyance of his Word to his people. Would we have entrusted this important letter to her? After all, she could have been attacked by bandits on her journey! It is strange to imagine this unknown woman entering this dominant city with a document that would revolutionise the subsequent centuries.
Phoebe did not know that was the case, of course. All she would have known was that she was carrying a letter from the apostle Paul, and she knew that he wrote with divine authority as a special messenger of Jesus. So while she would not have known the future effects of the letter, she would have known that she was the bearer of a letter with God’s authority.
Paul says three things about Phoebe that are true of all believers and in describing her in these ways he gives us an example of how we should describe one another. The three ways are sister, servant and saint. We will think about those descriptions in subsequent readings.
There are two details, however, that we can note from these descriptions. The first is that believers should show appreciation for and affirmation of one another. From one point of view, Phoebe was only a messenger, but Paul spoke highly of her in spiritual ways. The second is to recognise the equality that exists between Christians and the great privileges that they all share because of the grace of God.