A Sister, Self-Sacrifice, and Shelter
Paul completed the teaching of the Roman epistle with the resounding “Amen” found at the end of the fifteenth chapter. He then turns his attention to the recipients of the letter and to the means by which it will be carried. Phebe, a sister known to Paul who had proved herself to be faithful in the service of the Lord, is entrusted with the epistle on the long journey to its destination. Over the miles she had in her possession that priceless document setting out the great principles of the Christian gospel. How trustworthy she must have been!
In introducing her to the saints in Rome, Paul uses a word that is only found once in the NT. He commends her in a threefold way. First, she was a “sister”; second, she was “a servant of the church”; and third, she was “a succorer of many, and of myself also.” Regarding the first, she had come into the good of the relationship she now had in Christ. Regarding the second, she had fulfilled her responsibilities in the local assembly. Regarding the third, this unique word “succorer,” she had provided refugeto Paul and others.
But what is the background behind this expression? The word “prostatis,” which means “to stand before in rank,” is the feminine form of a word which answers to our English word “patron.” In Greek and Roman society, people advanced in the political, social, or business world because of their family background. Those who wished to advance, but did not have the necessary family background, would seek a patron, one of substance and of standing in the community. It was understood that the patron would defend such a person of lower rank. This patron protected him and cared for his interests and used all means at his disposal to assist the one whose interests he oversaw. Perhaps the patron provided an introduction into “society” to meet the “right” people, or financial assistance in business, or guidance in contracting a “good” marriage. In return the patron may have received financial recompense or at least the prospect of some benefit once the younger man advanced in his chosen sphere through the patron’s influence. The reward for this patronage could be simply the reflected glory for having the wisdom to recognize in one younger the abilities and character only obvious to others in later years. In such circumstances, the patron would be lauded for his perception and intuition.
When Paul uses it of Phebe he is using the word in a more general way. The word could be so used to indicate one who had used all means at his disposal to further the interests of another. The thought of the patron being of higher rank is not present in this usage. What it does indicate is that there was dignity in such a task. He who enjoyed this succor did not treat the other as a servant, nor as simply a convenient port of call when in trouble. Rather, Phebe would be honored and treated with the utmost respect because of her labors. Paul is, therefore, indicating to the recipients of the letter that Phebe must be treated with such respect, not only because of her faithfulness in the work of the local assembly, but also because of the care which she took of him.
Is there not also a sense of self-sacrifice in the word? Succoring others makes demands on the time and resources of those who so serve. This is part of the self-denial of which the Lord Jesus speaks when He declared “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). To hoard resources for self-indulgence is not Christ-like. The superabundance of God’s giving is written large on the pages of Scripture. Remember, for instance, that the Samaritan did not give the oil and wine in a miserly way! He “bound up his wounds pouring in oil and wine” (Luke 10:34). Do not forget that Paul writes of God “Who giveth us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).
But, does the word not also speak of a life of example that can be followed? Paul had fragrant memories of his dealings with Phebe. She never sought advantage because of her association with the apostle. She had not worked for a benefit of any kind. She was an example which all would do well to follow. No doubt in the rigors of house arrest and imprisonment that lay ahead of him he remembered the selfless, tender loving care of this godly sister.
One feature, however, cannot be overlooked. Succor brings to mind warmth, refuge, and loving care. It was a service of shelter.When he was under her care, her home became a true spiritual shelter to the sore-pressed apostle. Who of us can know the solace and care that she lavished on many? To turn from the rigors of service in order to enjoy these hours of quietness and care would strengthen the apostle for what lay ahead.
The service of Phebe is much needed today. Young believers away from home for work or education need homes open to them. Those who are passing through times of trouble or sorrow need solace. Saints who have exhausted themselves in service need refreshment. Some who may be faltering in the Christian pathway need encouragement. Homes and hearts open to help are often in short supply. Here is a task that, in differing situations, sisters and brothers can undertake. What a privilege it would be if those who crossed our pathway could look back and say of us “succorer of many, and of me also”!