I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea.
I. PHOEBE WAS A SERVANT. It would appear that she was a lady of some means. She devoted her means and her time to assisting the poor and the helpless. She had been "a succourer of many" (ver. 2). But whatever position she occupied, she bears the name of servant. Now, there is nothing to be ashamed of in the name of servant. Every one who is worth anything is a servant in some sense. The less service any one renders, the more useless he or she is in the world. The sovereign upon the throne, the judges and magistrates, lawyers, medical men, men of business, ministers of the gospel, all are the servants of others. Be faithful in your service. The maxim of many in our time seems to be to take all the pay they can and render as little service as possible. That is not honest. Nor is it honest to work only when the eyes of your employer are upon you. "Servants, be obedient to your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord and not to men." Be trustworthy. Regard what belongs to your master or your mistress with as much care as if it were your own. If your employer's children are committed to your care, how scrupulous you should be regarding them! Never let them hear from your lips a profane or evil word. If you are teaching them, seek to communicate to their youthful minds all the good principles that you can. Your work may be a quiet work, but if it is done faithfully it is a lasting work. You may not receive much notice or much thanks from your employer, but he that seeth in secret himself shall reward you openly.
II. PHOEBE WAS A SERVANT OF GOD. That was the secret of her useful and honoured life. It is the highest thing that could be said of any one. Employers are beginning to find out that God-fearing men and God-fearing women are not the worst servants.
1. A servant of God will not be the servant of this world. Many young ladies who call themselves Christians seem to spend their life altogether in the service of selfish pleasure and worldly amusement.
2. A servant of God will not, keep the company of the godless. There is no subject on which young women in our towns and cities need to be more plainly warned than the choice of their companions of both sexes. How many happy and promising young lives have been blighted, how many hearts have been broken, by foolish companionships and too hasty intimacy! The casual knowledge obtained of any one at an evening party or a pleasure excursion is no basis on which to form an engagement on which depends the happiness of a lifetime.
"Thrice blest whose lives are faithful prayers, III. PHOEBE WAS A SERVANT OF THE CHURCH. That is to say, she was a helper of God's people. She was a helper in Christian work. There are many young women whose lives are absolutely wasted, who are utterly wretched and miserable, for want of something to do. How many forms of useful service there are in which a young woman may engage I She may teach in the Sunday school; visit the aged and the sick, and minister unto them in spiritual things, and perhaps also to their bodily comfort and relief; she may invite the careless to the house of God. And a woman's influence is often powerful for good where even a Christian man would utterly fail to reach the hardened heart. - C.H.I.
III. PHOEBE WAS A SERVANT OF THE CHURCH. That is to say, she was a helper of God's people. She was a helper in Christian work. There are many young women whose lives are absolutely wasted, who are utterly wretched and miserable, for want of something to do. How many forms of useful service there are in which a young woman may engage I She may teach in the Sunday school; visit the aged and the sick, and minister unto them in spiritual things, and perhaps also to their bodily comfort and relief; she may invite the careless to the house of God. And a woman's influence is often powerful for good where even a Christian man would utterly fail to reach the hardened heart. - C.H.I.
I commend unto you Phebe.1. Cenchrea was a thriving sea-port town about eight miles from Corinth, from which the Corinthian commerce was carried on with the East. Thence Paul had sailed for Jerusalem on a former occasion, and had established a Church there. Phebe, travelling westward, would pass through Corinth, and embark from the opposite shore at Lechaeum, whence ships sailed for Italy.
2. There are indications that she was a person of considerable influence, and even wealth. She had "business" on which it was necessary to travel to the capital. She was "a succourer of many"; and the original word implies the ideas which we connect with patronage and protection. Add to this that she was probably a widow, since only in that character could she have travelled so independently.
3. Her Christian character is very distinctly brought out. The apostle guarantees this when he calls her "our sister." The Roman brethren may receive her with perfect confidence as one with them "in the Lord." At Cenchrea she was not only a recognised member, but an active and useful "servant of the Church." Many would translate, "a deaconess." The letter of Pliny to the Emperor Trajan, written early in the second century, speaks of two Christian women, "who were called ministers," having been examined by torture. This looks as if a female order of some kind existed in the Churches of Asia Minor at that time. In the New Testament itself, besides this passage, the only similar indications are in 1 Timothy 3:11, where for wives some would read women, i.e., women deacons; and Titus 2:3. But these are too vague to sustain any very definite conclusion. The probable fact is that there was no actual order of deaconesses, but that wherever a Christian woman showed capacity and enjoyed sufficient leisure, she was joyfully accepted as a fellow-labourer. She would do such work as elders and deacons failed to do so well, or could not do at all, and perhaps would be entrusted with the relief of the poor. A glorious sphere is opened by the gospel to women. Those of them who are without domestic ties may find a place in the very van of the Christian army. In the most dangerous districts of Paris, in India and China, English ladies labour with a devotedness and a success never exceeded by the stronger sex. Without neglecting her home, the matron may have her class or district, and shed a heavenly influence round. The cry for woman's rights finds its best satisfaction here. Happy are those Churches where the gentler gifts and graces set themselves to the sterner qualities of the other.
4. Phebe, then, is about to sail for Rome, and will arrive a stranger in the mighty metropolis. Paul asks that the necessary attentions may be bestowed on her.
I. HE PUTS HIS REQUEST IN A VERY PRACTICAL FORM The errand on which she goes is one connected probably with law. Now a foreigner would be at a terrible disadvantage. She might readily become a victim of some unprincipled practitioner. Bribery or intimidation might be used against her. "Assist her," therefore, is Paul's entreaty to the brethren. Make her cause your own. Counsel her as to the wisest procedure to adopt, and see that she is not wronged. Would that our sentiments were reduced to this form. It is comparatively easy to give alms, and kind words, and prayers. What is often most wanted is a little trouble. Here, for instance, is a man in want of a situation; can we not procure one for him? There is a sick woman without medical attention; can we not provide it? Here some young man is beginning business; how much would a little sound advice be worth to him!
II. CONSIDER THE MUTUAL CHARACTER WHICH IS TO DISTINGUISH OUR CHRISTIAN FRIENDSHIP. Phebe had done nothing for the brethren at Rome. Why, then, should they be summoned to her side? Because she has helped others. Now let her be helped in turn. The cup of cold water is to go round from hand to hand. Some fainting brother seeks your counsel or comfort. Do not refuse him; your own turn will soon come. Or perhaps your turn has come. Take freely what your friends offer; you will have ample opportunity to repay it. For there is a freemasonry in the kingdom of Christ which we should never fail to recognise.
III. ALL OUR ATTENTIONS TO ONE ANOTHER ARE TO SPRING FROM OUR ALLEGIANCE TO CHRIST. "Receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints." There ought to be a certain characteristic warmth and unction in Christian kindness, distinguishing it from all other. How should we welcome our King, if He Himself landed on our shores, and came to our house-doors, and sought our hospitality, or desired our aid? So are we to receive and succour one another.
(W. Brock.)I. HER COMMENDATION.
1. A servant of the Church.
2. A succourer of many.
3. Especially of the apostle.
4. Prompted not by fee or reward, but by faith and love.
II. HER RECOMMENDATION.
1. By inspired authority.
2. To the Church in Rome as worthy of help.
3. In everything.
III. HER CREDENTIALS AND CLAIMS.
1. The Epistle which she bore.
2. The general rule of Christian charity. It becometh saints to help such.
(J. Lyth, D.D.)
I. A PRACTICAL EXHIBITION OF TRUE THEOLOGICAL GREATNESS. All are bound to confess that the apostle had a mind of the highest type. In this letter he had gone into deeps and soared to heights of thought over-whelmingly solemn and grand. Yet, notwithstanding this, he comes down to write a certificate of the character of a pious woman, who belonged to a little Church. He was not one of those theologians who consider it almost beneath them to be courteous and kind to the private Church members. Nor was he one of those who scarcely condescend to notice anything in people but their beliefs; he notices the kindness and the social usefulness of this woman. Theology must not be substituted for kindness; nay, the theology which does not make us amiable is not the theology of the gospel.
II. A RECOGNITION OF THE PRINCIPLE OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNISM. The language of this Church certificate implies —
1. Common relationship. "Our sister." The universal Church is a family of which Christ is the head.
2. Common service. The service which she had rendered in Cenehrea was of interest to those good people in Rome. You have a son in some distant part; a friend of his calls upon you with a letter from him, introducing him to your confidence and regard; in that letter you are told that the bearer had rendered signal service to your son more than once; will not love for the writer induce you to regard the service as done to yourself, and to treat the bearer as your friend? It should be so in the Church.
3. Common principle. "As it becometh saints." Saints profess to be concerned for the good of their fellow-men — not their own. Act becoming that. Saints profess to love all those who love the Lord Jesus Christ. Act worthy of that, etc.
III. AN INSTANCE OF THE POWER OF ONE HUMBLE INDIVIDUAL TO RENDER SIGNAL SERVICES TO A WHOLE COMMUNITY. In the Apostolic Church there were female officers, deaconesses, whose work was to minister to the necessities of the saints (1. Timothy 5:10); and if ever they were needed it is now. The men are so absorbed in business that in most cases they can only be mere nominal officers. Why should there not be appointed in every Church women who, being free from the pressure of secular engagements, can devote their time and energies to works of usefulness? We do not know how Phebe "succoured Paul"; but we see that a humble woman could inspire an apostle. Every person has some power of usefulness, and should use his talent.
IV. AN ILLUSTRATION OF THE ADVANTAGES OF CHRISTIAN EXCELLENCE EVEN IN THIS WORLD. In this case —
1. It secured the approval of Paul. Perhaps, as now, many sneered at or misrepresented this woman as she toiled on in works of usefulness; but Paul observed her.
2. It secured from the apostle an introduction to the good. What a blessing was this! Better have the sympathy of one noble soul, than the hosannas of thoughtless millions.
V. AN INTIMATION OF THE DUTY OF THE CHURCH TO REGARD THE SECULAR CLAIMS OF ITS MEMBERS. "That ye assist her," i.e. Paul wishes to excite the same interest towards her as he felt himself. We are commanded to "bear one another's burdens," etc., because secular anxiety is —
1. A temptation.
3. A hindrance to usefulness.
VI. A SUGGESTION AS TO THE KIND OF PERSONS THAT SHOULD BE RECOMMENDED FROM ONE CHURCH TO ANOTHER. Paul recommended Phebe because of her undoubled excellence and great usefulness. We know, from painful experience, that many "letters of dismission" are empty formalities and tacit falsehoods. Persons are thus introduced from one Church to another, who, instead of being helps are hindrances; who, instead of "succouring" their ministers are their torment. It is time for this imposture to be exposed. Worthless and troublesome members we will dismiss with pleasure to any pastor that applies for them, and the good and valuable, like Phebe, we will cordially recommend.
(D. Thomas, D.D.)
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