The obvious meaning of this description is that Phoebe belonged to the family of God, as did Paul and the Roman believers. At one time, Paul would never have recognised her as belonging because she was a Gentile and he, as a Jew, would have had no dealings with her. Instead before he met Jesus, Paul would have regarded her as an outcast, one who could expect no favours from God. Now, however, he was delighted to acknowledge that she was an equal member with him of God’s family.
How had this come about? The essential requirement was for Paul, Phoebe and the Roman believers to have met Jesus. It is likely that Phoebe was a convert of Paul after he came to Corinth. We are not told any of the details, and we don’t need to know them. Nevertheless, we can say what happened to her in a spiritual sense, and what happened to her has to happen to us if we want to belong to God’s family.
The first detail we can mention is that Phebe did not belong to God’s family by birth – she might have belonged to a pagan family. There is an idea around that everyone is a child of God because they are humans. We have to be careful how we use that idea. Paul did say when addressing the philosophers in Athens that they were all God’s offspring, which points to a kind of fatherhood that God shows towards his creatures. Yet that is not the relationship that believers have when they say that God is their heavenly Father. Instead they are connected to God on a different level altogether.
The second detail we can mention is that Phoebe had to be justified by God before she could become a member of his family. Justification is God’s remedy for our state of condemnation. We had broken God’s law and had become estranged from him, as Phoebe had. He sent the gospel to us and in the gospel he informs us of how we can be justified. It is all connected to what Jesus did. In order to change from the state of condemnation by God to the state of acceptance with God, we needed Jesus to provide two things. First, he had to provide a life of obedience that could be given to us; second, he had to pay the penalty for the sins we had committed. The good news in the gospel is that Jesus has met both these needs by his perfect life and atoning death.
Yet it was not enough that Jesus supply those needs and leave us unchanged. Instead, we have to respond to the gospel in repentance towards God and in faith in Jesus. Both those features belong to the response and we cannot have one without the other. Repentance is a turning away from sin, and this turning away is accompanied by sorrow for having committed them. Faith in Jesus is a warm embrace of him in which we depend upon him gratefully.
The third detail connected to becoming a family member is what can be called God’s act of adoption. Justification dealt with our state of condemnation and adoption deals with our state of estrangement (in our society, it is orphans who are adopted; in Roman times, it was slaves who were adopted and given the freedom of the new family). Believers are moved by God into this new status. What can we say about it? Here are some details.
First, we should remind ourselves that the relationship is permanent – no one can be removed from this family relationship. There is nothing anywhere, not even their sins, which take any of God’s people out of his family. Second, the relationship is the highest privilege that God could give to them. Contained in the privileged status is access to God at any time and the recognition that they are heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus. Third, the relationship is paternal in that God now always acts towards them as their Father. An example is what happens when they sin against him. He disciplines them as his erring children, but he does not reject them as rebellious sinners.
So that was how Paul regarded his fellow Christians, whether Phoebe or the believers in Rome. And it is how we should regard one another. If we did so, we would get rid of the trite assessments and petty complaints that we make, most of which are nowhere else but in our own imaginations.