In a pluralistic society like our own there are many different ideas about Christianity. What is it? I Googled the phrase “What is Christianity?” this past week and here are some of the answers that came back to me. Christianity is…
• A monotheistic system of beliefs and practices based on the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus as embodied in the New Testament and emphasizing the role of Jesus as savior.
• Christian – a religious person who believes Jesus is the Christ and who is a member of a Christian denomination
The website GotQuestions?org provided the following answer to the question, “What is Christianity and what do Christians believe?”
Answer: The core beliefs of Christianity are summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. Jesus died for our sins, was buried, was resurrected, and thereby offers salvation to all who will receive Him in faith. Unique among all other faiths, Christianity is more about a relationship than religious practices. Instead of adhering to a list of “do’s and don’ts,” the goal of a Christian is to cultivate a close walk with God. That relationship is made possible because of the work of Jesus Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. (Gotquestions.org. http://www.gotquestions.org/christianity.html)
There are lots of additional answers that I read on the internet and the truth of the matter is that many different people understand Christianity to be many different things. Christianity is the term used to describe the system of beliefs established throughout the life and ministry of Jesus. It is monotheistic—we worship only one God. By following Jesus’ teachings we will grow in our relationship with God, but something is missing in all of these descriptions.
When we say, “Yes!” to Jesus and surrender our lives to Him, it radically alters the way we relate to one another. Those who were once neighbors, co-workers, teammates, classmates, friends, enemies, and family members become family in a totally different sense of the word. “Family” is one of those words that we like to see through the brush of Norman Rockwell. We like to idealize the word “family,” make it out to be more than most of us have experienced in our own families, and yet, apart from Christ, families are as prone to fall apart and disintegrate as fast as the U.S. economy.
The word that best describes Christianity is “relationship.” Our relationship with God was broken because of our sin. God sent His Son, Jesus, into this world to pay the price for our sin, reconcile us to God, and allow us to enter in to a new relationship with God. As a result of this action, on God’s part, He empowers us to live out a new relationship with others. In the place of brokenness, manipulation, bitterness, resentment, and divisiveness, we are to experience love, unity, joy, forgiveness, service, and reconciliation with all our brothers and sisters in Christ. These are impossible apart from what God has done for us through the Cross and His Son’s selfless giving of Himself on our behalf.
As we get to the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome we see a long list of those people that have left their mark on Paul’s life. What was it that held these relationships together? It was their undying commitment to Jesus. Let’s read our Scripture and then we will see what we can learn.
1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me. 3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. 5 Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. 8 Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. 11 Greet Herodion, my relative. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. 12 Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings. (Romans 16:1-16 NIV)
All of the wonderful doctrinal lessons that Paul has written about up to this point in his letter to the folks in Rome are now over and the final chapter of Paul’s letter is filled with names. There are names of folks who are in Rome, the name of someone who is on her way to Rome, and names of people who are with Paul in Corinth, the place where he was when the letter was written.
Behind every name is a story. Behind every story is an experience or many experiences that have helped to shape Paul into the man that he has become. That is true of us also isn’t it? If I say the name “Charles” then you will automatically attach that name to a person you have known in your life and stories will follow. For me it would be my dad. I can tell you stories of the lessons I’ve learned from him and the life I’ve shared with him. There are other people named “Charles” who have shaped my life. Charles is also Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a man who has had such an impact on my life, but who I never got to meet since he lived during the 1800’s. I don’t know him as Charles, I know him as Pastor Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers.”
There is another Charles that God has used to shape my life. This one wasn’t a preacher or my dad, but this Charles was a heroin addict. Charles lived in one of the little houses in the alley when we first moved to Oklahoma City. Charles was using at the time and he threatened to kill me. He wasn’t joking either. Charles and his wife moved away from the neighborhood shortly after he threatened to do me in and I didn’t see them for a couple of years until I stood up to teach one Sunday morning and spotted Charles sitting in one of the pews. My heart began to race. I thought, “Oh Lord, don’t let him kill me in front of these people.” At the end of the sermon I gave an invitation and Charles came forward and gave his life to Jesus. I could fill a week of your time with the stories that followed—stories of heartache, reconciliation, staying clean and falling off the wagon, going to jail and regaining his freedom, having the Promise Keepers pray for him before he went to treatment, and on and on the stories go. Underlying all of the stories, the glue that held us together until Charles died was our bond in Jesus. Charles was family. Charles and I loved each loved because Jesus was bold enough to love us. Behind each name are stories.
So many of the followers of Jesus who choose to read the letter to the Church in Rome come to Romans 16 and skip over all of the names. They’ve read the wonderful doctrinal lessons in the first 15 chapters, but because Romans 16 is so different they don’t take the time to really learn from what Paul writes in chapter 16. Let’s not make that mistake. Let’s learn from the stories of those Paul shared his life with.
Paul names 26 individuals, but those are not all that he greets in the final sentences of his letter. He also greets Rufus’ “mom” and Nereus’ “sister”—twenty-eight individuals in all. Among these 28 folks in Rome are people from every walk of life—Aquila was a tentmaker, Rufus was the son of Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried Jesus’ cross, historical sources tell us that the names Ampliatus, Urbanus, Hermes, Philologus, and Julia were common names for slaves, and many believe that Aristobulus was the grandson of Herod the Great and friend of Emperor Claudius. There are Jews as well as Gentiles and nine of the names listed are women. The wide diversity of people who are addressed by Paul gives us some indication of the crowd Paul was writing to. He wasn’t writing to scholars or preachers, but he was writing to people from all walks of life. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Romans, writes,
As we consider the weighty matters Paul deals with, we are apt to overlook the fact that it was addressed to people like Ampliatus and Tryphena and Rufus. Clearly Paul expected this kind of person to be helped by what he wrote, a fact which modern experts sometimes overlook. And it is fitting that this letter, which has given us so much solid doctrinal teaching, should end with this emphasis on persons, on love, and on a reminder that humble servants of God perform all sorts of active ministry. (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdman’s Publishing Company. Inter-Varsity Press, 1988. Pg. 527.)
It is fitting that the letter ends with an emphasis on “persons, on love, and on a reminder that humble servants of God perform all sorts of active ministry.” Paul sends his greetings to the people of Rome, but there are others who want to send their greetings to the brothers and sisters in Rome as well. Paul says, “all the churches of Christ send greetings.” (Romans 16:16 NIV) Timothy, Lucius, Jason, Sosipater, Gaius, Paul’s host in Corinth, Erastus, the director of public works in Corinth, and Quartus all send their greetings along with Paul to the people of Rome.
During this study of Romans I have benefitted so much from the studies of others. People like John MacArthur, David Darnell, F. F. Bruce, and John R.W. Stott, men who have studied Paul’s letter to the church in Rome and left their notes for people like you and me to benefit from in our own studies. Dr. MacArthur writes about Romans 16.
This passage is by far the most extensive and intimate expression of love and appreciation to come from the tender heart and inspired mind of the apostle Paul. It is a rich and rewarding section that yields many insights into the life of Paul, into the lives of other early Christians, and into the nature and character of the first-century church. The apostle’s comments about these mostly unknown individuals are all the more poignant because this great apostle takes time to speak so warmly and appreciatively of these “ordinary” Christians, who were as much his brothers and sisters in Christ as Peter, James, John, and other New Testament notables. He here reveals his deep affection for those whom he had served, for those who had served him, and for those who served with him. (John MacArthur, MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary: Romans 9-16. The Moody Bible Institute: Chicago, IL. 1994.)
A study of Romans 16 is truly a glimpse into the heart of the Apostle Paul and the relationships that meant so much to him. Let me introduce you to some of Paul’s family. In Romans 16:1-2 we meet a wonderfully godly woman named Phoebe. Read along with me. Paul writes,
1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me. (Romans 16:1-2 NIV)
This is the only mention in the entire New Testament of Phoebe’s name. We only have two verses about her, but boy can we learn a lot from those two verses. Let’s take a look.
Paul Commends Phoebe
First of all, Paul “commends” Phoebe. To you and me that might not seem like much other than a pat on the back, but in the ancient world a “commendation” meant so much more than that. In the ancient world where there was no email, cell phones, texting, or other means of communication outside of letters and speech, letters of commendation could open doors for those coming into a town where they were unknown. We have some examples in Scripture that I want to show you. In Acts 18:26-27 we find that Apollos carried with him a letter of commendation when he went to Achaia. Read along with me.
26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. 27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. (Acts 18:26-27 NIV)
In Colossians 4, we read where Paul was sending some folks to Colosse. He was sending Tychicus along with Onesimus to fill them in on what is going on with Paul and to encourage the hearts of those in Colosse. Then in verse 10 Paul says,
10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) (Colossians 4:10 NIV)
For someone who was unknown to a community a letter of commendation from Paul would give that person instant credibility. Phoebe was commended by Paul to the church in Rome. Paul asked the people of Rome to receive her in a manner that would be worthy of the saints and to give her any help that she needed.
Many Bible teachers believe that since Phoebe is the first on the list of those Paul recognizes, and that he “commends” her to the people in Rome, this suggests that she is on her way to Rome. This should also lead us to the conclusion that she was on her way to Rome to deliver the letter Paul had written to the church. Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote,
Never was there a greater burden carried by such tender hands. The theological history of the church through the centuries was in the manuscript which she brought with her. The Reformation was in that baggage. The blessing of multitudes in our day was carried in those parchments. (Donald Grey Barnhouse, God’s Glory: Exposition of Bible Doctrines, Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, vol. 10, Romans 14:13-16:27 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1964.) pg. 124.)
Can you imagine that trip? A trip of over 600 miles. Some by land and some by sea. Did Phoebe know what she was carrying? Sure she was carrying a letter, but it wasn’t just any letter, it was the greatest doctrinal writing in the history of the world that Phoebe carried with her.
Phoebe “Our Sister”
Paul says more about Phoebe. He says that she is “our sister.” That’s an interesting phrase isn’t it? Phoebe wasn’t literally the sister of all those in Rome. They didn’t share the same biological mother or father, but they were related in a far more important and intimate way. Phoebe was their sister in Christ. It was Jesus who first began to identify His followers as “family.” In Luke 8:19-21 we read,
19 Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. 20 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” 21 He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” (Luke 8:19-21 NIV)
There are so many instances of the followers of Jesus being called “brothers” and “sisters” in Scripture. For the sake of time I will just share one with you from 1 John 3:16. Read along with me.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. (1 John 3:16 NIV)
Through what Jesus has done for us we have been bound together as family, the family of God. The bond that we share in Jesus is stronger than any biological bond. It is God’s desire that the relationships we share together as brothers and sisters in Christ be modeled after the relationship we have with Jesus. We are to love, forgive, serve, and stand with one another through thick and thin for the glory of God.
Phoebe the Servant
Paul also tells us that Phoebe is a “servant” of the church in Cenchrea. The word translated “servant” is the Greek word, “διάκονος” (diakonos), the word that we get our word, “Deacon” from. The word can surely refer to the official title of “deacon,” but Paul also uses the word to describe the work of all believers. In Matthew 20:25-25 Jesus uses the word to refer to the work of all believers as well when He says,
25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)
We don’t know if Phoebe served in some official capacity in the church at Cenchrea, but this verse sure suggests that she could have. We do know that she was a servant of the people there and that “she helped many people.” Paul says that she also helped him.
I’ve read several different translations of the Bible this week and in each and every one they translate the word, “προστάτις” (prostatis), as “help” or “helpful to many.” The only exception is the King James Version which translates the word as, “succourer.” You will have to help me with the definition of that word. The Greek word that is used is much more descriptive and gives us some insight into the ways that Phoebe helped many others, including Paul. The word means, “a woman set over others, a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources.” Douglas J. Moo, in his commentary on Romans, says,
A ‘patron’ was one who came to the aid of others, especially foreigners, by providing housing and financial aid and by representing their interests before local authorities. Cenchrea’s status as a busy seaport would make it imperative that a Christian in its church take up this ministry on behalf of visiting Christians. Phoebe, then, was probably a woman of high social standing and some wealth, who put her status, resources, and time at the services of traveling Christians, like Paul, who needed help and support. (Douglas Moo, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI. Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Company. pg. 916.)
Phoebe is long gone. Out of all the people written about in the Bible she would have to fall way down on the list of the most important people in God’s Word. We only have two verses that speak about her. She’s a nobody right? I bet that before you heard this lesson you might have agreed with that statement, but now, after hearing what you have just heard, there is no way that you could ever categorize Phoebe as a nobody. What a woman! What a servant! She might not have been privileged to have inherited a godly heritage from her pagan parents, but once she came to know Jesus as Lord of her life, she spent the rest of her life serving her King with her time, her talents, and her finances. She served the people in her home church. When she heard about financial needs of missionaries like Paul, she was the first to open her checkbook. When someone was needed to carry a letter to Rome, a trip of over 600 miles, she was the first to raise her hand and say, “I’ll go.” What a woman! What a woman of God!
Phoebe’s story reminds me of something that George C. Fuller, a minister in the Presbyterian Church of America and a former president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia once wrote. Dr. Fuller was writing about the ministry of all believers one to another when he wrote these words,
The world measures greatness by the service a person receives. In business the ‘important’ people are those at the top of the organizational pyramid. The bigger the organization, the more important the top person is. In personal affairs the ‘great’ are those who have servants, and the greater number of servants, the greater the great one is perceived to be. Jesus reversed all that. He turned the whole thing upside down, making as it were, ‘the first last and the last first.’ In God’s eyes, greatness consists not in the number of people who serve us but in the number of people we serve. The greater the number, the better the Christian. (George C. Fuller, “Deacons, the Neglected Ministry,” The Presbyterian Journal, November 6, 1978, pg. 9).
You want to be great? Truly great? Then get on your knees and cry out to the Father, “Use me Lord. Use me in any way You desire. Make me a servant who loves to serve You by serving Your people.” What a prayer. What a dangerous prayer. I will guarantee you that if you have enough courage to pray that prayer with all your heart that God will act in ways that you won’t believe.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
June 13, 2010