Phoebe and the Sister Saints of Rome

This week’s episode of All God’s Women is a little different. We usually focus on one woman or a couple related women, but this week we look at the ten women mentioned by Paul in the sixteenth chapter of Romans.

Backstory

What a contrast we have from the royal sisters of last week to this week’s saintly sisters in Christ. You may wonder why we would call them saints? We tend to think of saints as being individuals who are as close to perfect as they can be, doing amazing things for the Lord. In fact, the word Paul uses in Romans 1:7 for the saints in Rome actually means set apart for God, holy, or sacred. That term could be used to describe any Christian living a righteous life. It’s a designation that could be used to describe you or me.

Her Story

We meet the Roman ladies in the last chapter of Romans. Paul wrote this long letter to the Christians in Rome and then closed it with personal greetings to various individuals including ten women. It’s interesting that Paul had yet to visit the church in Rome, but he knew so many Christians who were serving there.

He begins by introducing Phoebe. Now, unlike the others, Phoebe is not a member of the Roman church. She’s the messenger who delivered the letter to them. This was a very important mission in that she was representing Paul to the church.

Though Paul has a reputation for being anti-women, his writings and actions prove otherwise. Paul entrusted a woman to deliver his message to the church. This was more than merely being a postal carrier. Some suggest that she would have been the one to read aloud the letter and present it to the church.

So who was this woman tasked with such an important assignment?

Phoebe was a Greek Christian from the city of Cenchrea, a seaport town known for its wicked reputation. She’s the only Christian woman we know about from there, but Paul must have established a church since he references her being a deaconess at the church in Cenchrea.

The word used for deaconess means servant, attendant, church leader, or pastor. You’ll recall the early deacons were called to provide for and serve the widows and the poor. She was a church servant.

Considering how far she had to travel to deliver a letter from Corinth, Greece (where Paul was) to the church of Rome, she would have had to have been a woman of wealth and independence. Paul told the church to assist her in whatever business she had need of, so perhaps she was a businesswoman who had to travel to Rome and volunteered to deliver Paul’s letter. One commentator suggested she could have had legal business to attend to there.

Whatever it was that brought her to Rome, she came with Paul’s endorsement, letting the church members know that she had been a great help of him and others, so he was asking them to help her if she needed it. The word he used to describe her could mean benefactor, guardian, patroness. Perhaps she had provided legal or financial aid to him.

Once he finished introducing Phoebe, he launched into greetings to individual members of the Roman church. Nine of the twenty-something were women.

Paul opens with Priscilla and Aquila. You’ll recall, he met them in Corinth where they had immigrated when Claudius ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Then, when Paul headed on his missionary journey to Ephasus, they went with him and started a home church there. Now, we learn that they’d returned to Rome, starting a church in their home.

Next is Mary. We met her in our episode on the other Marys. All we know about her is that she labored much.

Junia, mentioned in 16:7, is a little controversial. Junia is a feminine name, but Paul says of her and Andronicus that they were his countrymen and “fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.”

Many Bible commentators say that Junia is supposed to be Junias, a male name. But if we believe the Bible is the inerrant word, then Junia was a woman, most likely the wife or sister of Andronicus.

By countrymen, this would mean fellow Jews or perhaps even closer relatives.

Fellow prisoners? No one is sure exactly what this means. Were they imprisoned with Paul at some point? Apparently.

“Of note among the apostles”. This is particularly confusing and controversial. They obviously were not part of the original twelve, so what does Paul mean? It could have meant they were included among those who had personally seen the Lord. Or maybe they were well respected by the apostles.

No one knows exactly who Junia was, but we can tell from Paul’s greeting that she was someone who had suffered for her faith and stood firm.

The next women mentioned are Tryphena and Tryphosa, thought to be twin sisters. Their Roman names mean luxurious. They were likely from an upperclass family used to living an easy life, and yet Paul tells us that they worked hard for the Lord. In other words, they rejected their standing in life in order to become as a servant. What a beautiful testimony!

In the same verse with the sisters is a greeting to Persis who had worked hard for the Lord. While Tryphena and Tryphosa were currently working hard, Persis had worked hard in the past. Paul referred to her as “beloved Persis”. Her names means “to take by storm”. Perhaps she was an older woman who had worked hard and was now a senior saint encouraging the younger generation.

In verse 13 Paul greets Rufus and his mother. Rufus is thought to be the son of Simon, the man who carried Jesus’ cross. If so, this unnamed woman would be Simon’s wife. Paul points out that Rufus’ mother had been like a mother to him. Since Paul rejected his upbringing when he chose to follow the Way, his family would have likely rejected him. Having a woman to treat him with motherly kindness would have been such a blessing to the man of God.

In verse 15 Paul calls out Julia. Hers is a slave name thought to be a member of the royal household.

Finally, Paul greets Nerus and his sister and “all the saints who are with them.”

The Rest of the Story

I always ask myself, “Why is this person mentioned in the Bible? Why does the author name her or not name her? Why is this woman singled out?”

I love this seemingly random listing of men and women greeted in Romans 16. It’s a mix of Jews and Gentiles, wealthy and poor, young and old, male and female, all working together for the glory of the Lord. Though we each have a different life to live with different giftings and callings, He can use each of us for His work.

Your Story

When I read passages like this, I always wonder what it would be like to be one of those individuals called out for their labors. The thing is, none of those women expected to be rewarded. None of them were doing good deeds in order to be recognized by others. No, they were quietly doing what God had called them to do, expecting nothing in return.

But imagine how encouraging it was for those women to hear from Paul letting them know that their work was not in vain. He appreciated all that they were doing.

So often we allow ourselves to get discouraged when we do good works and no one seems to care. It’s easy to want to quit because we think it doesn’t matter. But it does. Even if no one else ever says a word, God sees what you’re doing, and He appreciates you.

I challenge you to be like Paul, letting those around you know that you see them and appreciate them. Be a blessing by letting others know how much they’ve blessed you. You never know the impact a few kind words can make.

Prayer

Lord God, we thank You so much for all the individuals You’ve brought into our lives who bless us through their hard work and kindness. Thank You for saintly sisters who are there for us in our time of need. Open our eyes to those around us who are working in the shadows and may need words of encouragement. Use us to be blessings to others. Forgive us those times we get caught up in ourselves and lose sight of why we do what we do. Draw us near to You. We love You. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

Tune in next week when we look at Euodia and Syntyche, two women at odds with each other.

Bible Study

Scripture Background

Their Story: Romans 16

Bible Study Review

  1. Who delivered Paul’s letter to the Roman church?
  2. Who were the twin sisters?
  3. Who treated Paul like a son?

Thoughts to Ponder

  1. Why might Paul have chosen Phoebe to deliver his letter?
  2. What was Phoebe’s role at church?
  3. How did Paul encourage the church members?

Personal Reflection

  1. Are you encouraging those around you?
  2. Are you making a difference to others?
  3. Which of the listed women do you connect with?

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Phoebe and the saintly sisters in Rome. An All God's Women podcast Bible study about the women in Romans 16
Phoebe and the saintly sisters in Rome. An All God's Women podcast Bible study about the women in Romans 16
Phoebe and the saintly sisters in Rome. An All God's Women podcast Bible study about the women in Romans 16

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