I know what you’re thinking: “Lists of names!!! Yay!!! Just what I’ve been looking for!” I know I know I know. To modern Americans, a list of names is about as interesting as watching paint dry. But let me quote myself:
“[These] “boring” parts are important, if for no other reason than this: They remind us that the Bible is literally true. It doesn’t really matter to a Buddhist if Buddha never physically lived, but things like this do matter to a Bible-believer. The Bible claims to deal with real people who historically lived in the physical places the Bible records. If not, then we should accord the Bible no more authority than Dear Abby. Also this means that the Bible deals with real people like you and me, not some fantasy world of people who don’t have real problems.”
But setting that aside for a moment, there’s some points here for us from a theological/practical standpoint.
First, let’s talk about Phoebe. She’s not mentioned anywhere else, so the only knowledge we have of her is contained here. However, within these two verses is a whole boatload of controversy. The key word is the description of the Phoebe’s position in the church at Cenchreae, the Greek word diakonos. The NIV translates it as “deacon,” while other translations render it as “servant,” since that’s literally what the word means. Conservative Evangelical scholars are divided on whether or not Phoebe held the actual office of “deacon” in the church (MacArthur--Mr. Bible Conservative--comes down on the “deacon” side, believe it or not). I’m not going to publically come down one side or another on that question, since that’s a rabbit trail that’s more trouble than it’s worth.
However, whether she held an official title or not, she was definitely a great servant to that church. Paul praises her as someone who’s been a benefactor to lots of people, including himself. And apparently he considered her incredibly trustworthy, dependable, and competent. Why? Because the best indications are that Phoebe was the one Paul entrusted to carry this letter to the Roman church. If so, that was an incredible responsibility that he asked her to bear, and she did so willingly. The Lord used her to get this epistle to us; humanly speaking, she’s the reason you’re reading this right now.
The rest of them are names that Paul knows and remembers, dear ones who have been his co-workers and fellow soldiers. Some of them (Priscilla and Aquila, for example) are fairly well-known. Just a bit of trivia: “Rufus” was probably one of the sons of Simon from Cyrene, the man enlisted to carry Jesus’ cross. But most of them we know little to nothing about besides what Paul says here. Details about their lives, about the service they provided Paul and others, and about the sacrifices they gave for the sake of their Savior are lost forever to history. To us they’re little more than names on a page.
But no, they’re not forgotten. The Lord in whose name they loved, gave, and sacrificed has not forgotten a thing. From the smallest inconvenience to martyrdom, he watched it all. He’s written it down. And one day, we’ll hear a lot more about what they’ve done.
And think about it. These people in chapter 16 are forever enshrined in God’s word as examples for us, even if we don’t know all the details. But for every one of these names, there are countless millions throughout history who’ve given things large and small for their Lord. There are many many more whose names we’ll never hear. . . this side of the Great Divide.
If this is you, please take heart. Please be encouraged. If you’ve been working behind the scenes as a hidden servant, be sure of this: Your Savior knows about it. You’ve not been forgotten. Let the writer of Hebrews speak to your heart right now: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” When you feel unappreciated and unknown, read passages like this, and keep in mind that he knows your name too.
Father God, for all the hidden servants who are reading this, please bless them and encourage them and strengthen as only you can. And for those who’ve helped me over the years, thank you so much.