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Phoebe: God's Shammash


Phoebe. The only mention of this woman in the Bible is found in these verses: 



“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”  Romans 16:1-2 NRSV



That’s it. Nowhere else in the entire Bible do we read about Phoebe. And yet, here she is … within a mere 52 words written in the personal greetings section of Paul’s letter to the saints (believers) in Rome. How many times have I just skipped right over these words? Yet, they are there for a reason. If God’s Word is a light for our path (Psalm 119:105), what light does Phoebe’s story shed for us?   



So who was this woman? 



  • SISTER: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe…”   

According to Paul, Phoebe was a sister in Christ. She was a fellow believer. She was set apart as a member of the family of God, based on the redemption of Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.


 

  • DEACON: “...a deacon of the church at Cenchreae…”  

The word deacon is an English transliteration of the original Greek word, Diakonos… a servant or minister. So she was a deacon in the church of Cenchreae, a large seaport city near Corinth. 


*An interesting side note. The Complete Jewish Bible refers to Phoebe as “the shammash of the congregation at Cenchreae.” A shammash (a Hebrew word meaning servant) one reference said that this person directs and leads public worship. In any case, the shammash as a servant leader held a more prominent role in the synagogue. 



  • BENEFACTOR: “...a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”   

The word Paul uses here for ‘benefactor’ is prostatis(Greek). It literally means, “one who stands by in case of need.” In Greek, this is a term used to describe the trainers of the Olympic games. They would be the ones to make sure the athletes were ready for the games. This included an element of protection over the way they were trained to keep them from being either under or over trained. They stood by them, making sure they were ready to enter the arena. Like a champion, one who stands up for others. Wow!


 


It is speculated in several commentaries that as a benefactor, she was a patron of the saints. As the word prostatis also means, patron. This would indicate that she was a woman of wealth and position. Patron’s in the culture of that time were respected and influential. She could possibly have been a single businesswoman, as there is no indication in this passage that she is married. But we really don’t know for sure. In any case, it seems that she was known for her unselfish works of charity and service to her brothers and sisters in Christ (including Paul himself).



So you might ask, but why Phoebe…why does he call her out by name? Why is he asking the church in Rome to “welcome her in the Lord…” and to “help her in whatever way she may require from you,”?  Because she was most likely the carrier of this letter to the Romans. In those days it was customary for the sender of the letter to include a commendation at the end for the person who was carrying/delivering the letter.  Therefore Phoebe would have been considered as one who bore the authority of Paul, his emissary, as she was responsible to deliver the letter and quite possibly recite it to the recipients. Yes, you read that right. She most likely had memorized the entire letter. It was also the custom of the time for the letter carrier to be able to explain the contents of the letter. So Paul must undoubtedly have had a great amount of trust in Phoebe’s ability to properly execute her functions as his emissary as she delivered the letter to the Roman believers. 



In describing her as a sister in Christ, a deacon in her home church, a benefactor (patron, helper, trainer, protector, champion) to many, as well as to himself, Paul is saying that he has put his full confidence in her and he expects them to welcome her with honor, as he says, “...welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints.”  



This kind of blows me away. Why have I never realized before that Phoebe was so significant?  Can you imagine if she had failed on her journey to deliver this most important letter? Can you even imagine not having the book of Romans? I know…I know…God would have made sure His Word would remain. Still…she was faithful. She was willing to do what God required of her. I believe she was more than willing. She was eager to take Paul’s letter, which we now know to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to the church in Rome. 



The major theme in this letter is the basic gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s plan of salvation and righteousness from God through Jesus Christ His Son. 



Earlier in this article, I asked this question:  If God’s Word is a light for our path (Psalm 119:105), what light does Phoebe’s story shed for us?  I find it ironic that the name Phoebemeans “bright, radiant as the moon, or pure.”  



Or, maybe more prophetic than ironic. 



I believe that Phoebe’s story tells us that we, as women, are so very important in the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ to expand the kingdom of God on this earth. We are His emissaries. We are the light of Christ to the world. 



“You are the light of [Christ to] the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden;” Matthew 5:14 (Amplified Bible). 



Just as the moon gets its radiance in reflecting the light of the sun, so we become radiant as we reflect the light of Christ’s love to others.  



I want to revisit this word shammash here. In Jewish tradition, the shammash is also the designated ninth candle of the Menorah. A special candle. It is the first to be lit and used to light all of the other candles. It remains lit and is either placed above or below the other lit candles…ready to be used again should any of the candles go out. It is considered the servant candle that gives light to all of the other candles. 



Jesus was God’s shammash. He left His place at the right hand of God to be emptied of Himself, to become one of us. To humble himself even to the point of death on a cross that we should be lifted up. And God exalted Him because of His obedience to the highest place and gave him the name above all names. (Philippians 2:7`9).



When Jesus told His disciples, “You are the light of the world.” He was saying you are God’s shammash. Be the light that lights others. Let the light of God in your hearts kindle so brightly that others cannot help but be drawn to it.



Phoebe was God’s shammash. She was a faithful servant of the LORD. In only 52 words of two verses of the bible, we find a pretty amazing woman of God. And yet other than these two verses, she gets no recognition on this earth. No accolades. But I’m wondering how many are her rewards in heaven? What celebration there must have been when she arrived at heaven’s gates! 



We are called to be God’s shammash… To serve in ways that bring Glory to His name.  To humble ourselves in obedience to whatever God has called us. So that we bring His light to the people He has brought into our lives. 



We have to have the light within us to be the light to others. So I ask myself…and you. Am I abiding in Christ? Am I allowing the light of His Word to root out the things that are blocking my fellowship with Him? Am I letting go of my own need to control and letting Him lead the way? 



Oh LORD, I want to be so grounded in You that Your light shines through every ounce of my being. Help me to be your shammash that I may lead others by the light of your Son Jesus, who is logos, who is Your very Word to Your heart. 



Blessings, 



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