Monday, December 24, 2012

Away in a Manger (Luke 2:7)

The word “manger” appears in only one chapter in the Bible. Which one? Luke 2.

The nativity story is responsible from some of Christianity’s most indelible images. The setting of Jesus’ birth has become especially ingrained. Baby Jesus is tucked in a manger as there is no room for him in the inn (Luke 2:7). Most representations tend to sanitize the story into a picturesque pastoral scene: After being rejected by a heartless innkeeper, Jesus is neatly placed into a makeshift crib in a tidy stable where he is adored by animals. Unfortunately, in the biblical account there is no inn (in the modern sense of the term) much less an innkeeper, no stable and no animals.

Though only mentioned in Luke’s gospel, there is, however, a manger (Luke 2:7, 12, 16).

And she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7 NASB)
Though traditionally translations speak of an “inn” in Luke 2:7 (ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), a modern day hotel is likely not intended. This reality is reflected in some translations: “guest room” (NIV), “hostel” (MSG), “lodging” (HCSB, NLT).

Joel B. Green (b. 1956) explains:

Peculiar is Luke’s reference to the cause for laying the newborn child in a manger: “because there was no place for them in the guest room.” The narrator apparently pictures Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem and staying for some time before the delivery of Mary’s baby (cf. Luke 2:6: “while they were there”), not their inability to locate lodging on the night of their arrival resulting in the birth of the child in the stable. The term Luke employs here for “guest room” is often translated in English as “inn.” However, the same term appears in Luke 22:11 with the meaning “guest room,” and the verbal form occurs in Luke 9:12 and Luke 19:7 with the sense of “find lodging” or “be a guest.” Moreover, in Luke 10:34, where a commercial inn is clearly demanded by the text, Luke draws on different vocabulary. It is doubtful whether a commercial inn actually existed in Bethlehem, which stood on no major roads. It may be that Luke has in mind a “khan or caravansary where large groups of travelers found shelter under one roof,” but this does not help our understanding of Mary’s placing the child in a manger. That “guest room” is the more plausible meaning here is urged by the realization that in peasant homes in the ancient Near East family and animals slept in one enclosed space, with the animals located on a lower level. Mary and Joseph, then, would have been the guests of family or friends, but their home would have been so overcrowded that the baby was placed in a feeding trough. (Green, (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 128-29)
The combination of the guest room and manger likely depicts a typical room in first century Bethlehem. Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) describes:
Homes in small towns like Bethlehem, as well as in the city proper, would have consisted of one room to accommodate the family who lived there. Separating the living quarters from any animals’ stalls would have been a manger area, where food and farm implements were stored, and where births often took place a bit apart from the ongoing life of the family. Over the manger area would have been the “upper room,” where visiting relatives or acquaintances, or persons linked to the family by political or economic ties, could be given hospitality. Joseph, having returned with his pregnant wife to his ancestral village, would have anticipated such accommodation. The fact that none was available meant that others from a higher rung on the social ladder and in the hierarchy of obligations and honor that characterized Palestinian society had already claimed the space. Not even Mary’s obvious need could dislodge such a firmly implanted order of rights and privileges. Instead of having a guest room, then, Mary, Joseph, and the baby are left to spend their nights in Bethlehem in the manger area where the birth has taken place. (Ringe, Luke (Westminster Bible Companion), 42)
In regards to the building in which Jesus was born, there is room for interpretation (pun intended). Leon Morris (1914-2006) analyzes:
That he was laid in a manger has traditionally been taken to mean that Jesus was born in a stable. He may have been. But it is also possible that the birth took place in a very poor home where the animals shared the same roof as the family. A tradition going back to Justin [Martyr, 100-165] says it occurred in a cave (Dialogue with Trypho 78) and this could be right. Some have thought that the birth took place in the open air (possibly the courtyard of the inn), that being where the manger would likely be. We do not know. We know only that everything points to poverty, obscurity and even rejection. (Morris, Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 92-93)
As Morris alludes, there is a longstanding tradition that Jesus was born in a cave (Protoevangelium of James 18:1). Rainer Riesner (b. 1950) documents:
A somewhat independent reference to Jesus’ origin in the city of David is the early Christian geographical tradition, not derivable from the Gospels, placing Jesus’ birth in a cave in Bethlehem...The present Church of the Nativity, lying at the west edge of the hill that marked the old city, was erected over a large rock cave, some 12 × 3 meters in size. This cavern is one of several that were located near houses and served as stalls or for the storage of supplies (cf. Luke 11:33) in the first century. Already at the beginning of the second century, the local tradition was so well established that Hadrian [76-138] (in c. AD 135) made the cave into a sanctuary to Adonis in order to eliminate veneration of it by Jewish Christians...According to Jerome [347-420] the “manger” (phatné) of Luke 2:7 was still visible in his time and consisted of a rock groove with plain city a side cave some 3 × 3 meters in size...Due to the marble paneling and rebuilding, today it is very difficult to envision the original appearance of this grotto. (Joel B. Green [b. 1956], Scot McKnight [b. 1953] and I. Howard Marshall [b. 1934], Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, 34)
Whatever his accommodations, the newborn Jesus is placed in a manger (Greek: phatne). This word is found only in Luke in the New Testament (Luke 2:7, 12, 16, 13:15) and three of the four occurrences relate to the nativity. The word is typically rendered “manger” (ASV, ESV, MSG, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) with few exceptions (“bed of hay” [CEV], “feeding trough” [HCSB, NCV]).

The latter is likely most accurate. Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) determines:

The manger was a feeding trough for animals. Moving to the manger might take only a few steps, if we assume a one-room farmhouse where the family quarters might be separated from the animal quarters only by being on a raised platform...Since the manger is mentioned three times (Luke 2:7, 12, 16), it must be important to the story. A baby in a manger in sufficiently unusual to serve as a “sign” to the shepherds...Finding the one who is Messiah and Lord in such impoverished circumstances is additional cause for amazement (Luke 2:18). (Tannehill, Luke (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 65)

Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) concurs:

In all likelihood, the manger is an animal’s feeding trough, which means the family is in a stable or in a cave where animals are housed...The contrast between the birth’s commonness and the child’s greatness could not be greater. The promised one of God enters creation among the creation. The profane decree of a census has put the child in the promised city of messianic origin. God is quietly at work, and a stable is Messiah’s first throne room. (Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), 55)
Though no animals are explicitly referenced, due to the presence of the trough it is highly likely that the Christ was born in an animal shelter. The most commonly pictured animals in nativities, the ox and donkey, allude to Isaiah 1:3 and are reflected in apocryphal infancy accounts.

The manger serves as a makeshift crib. Coincidentally, the English word “crib” can refer both to a “a child’s bed with enclosed sides” and “a stall or pen for cattle”.

The word manger is no longer in common use and might be forgotten outside of its connection to the nativity. This may be why we use it. David E. Garland (b. 1947) translates:

I translate the familiar “manger” (φάτνη) as “feeding trough.” The word could refer to a stall (Luke 13:15), but it makes more sense that Mary wrapped her baby and “laid” him in something that can function as a crib. The trough would be in a stall. The point is, “the child lies outside the human dwelling in an unusual place where there are only animals.” The “manger” has been sanctified and glorified over the many years of Christmas celebrations, and this stark translation deliberately diminishes that aura of dignity. No one sings “Away in a feeding trough,” which is just the point. The Savior who dies in a shameful cross was placed in a lowly trough for barn animals when he was born: “his head rests where cattle have fed.” (Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 120)
Though Jesus emerged from humble beginnings, Walter L. Liefeld (b. 1927) reminds:
Luke could have painted a sordid picture, had he so desired. Instead he uses the general word for a lodging place and states the simple fact that when Mary’s time came, the only available place for the little family was one usually occupied by animals...Even today in many places around the world farm animals and their fodder are often kept in the same building as the family quarters. The eating trough, or “manger,” was ideal for use as a crib. Luke does not seem to be portraying a dismal situation with an unfeeling innkeeper as villain. Rather, he is establishing a contrast between the proper rights of the Messiah in his own “town of David” (Luke 2:4) and the very ordinary and humble circumstances of his birth. Whatever the reason, even in his birth Jesus was excluded from the normal shelter others enjoyed (cf. Luke 9:58). This is consistent with Luke’s realistic presentation of Jesus’ humanity and servanthood. (Liefeld, Luke (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 50)
It is still worth inquiring as to why the holy family is relegated to such meager lodgings. Fred B. Craddock (b. 1928) speculates:
The guest room was apparently occupied and hence could offer no privacy, so Mary and Joseph had withdrawn to a stable at the back of or underneath the house, perhaps in a cave. A feeding trough served as a crib. How simple and bare it all seems. At John’s birth there was a miracle (speech restored to Zechariah [Luke 1:64]) and an inspired prophetic song. Not so here; Luke has kept the story clean of any decoration that would remove it from the lowly, the poor, and the marginal of the earth. In the history of the church there have been many so poor and abandoned as to be able to identify with this scene. (Craddock, Luke (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 35)
The manger reminds the reader that Joseph and Mary are humble transients. Henry Wansbrough (b. 1934) denotes:
Luke goes out of his way to emphasize that Jesus was born in poor circumstances, with none of the advantages of position, despite being of the line of David. His parents were migrants, friendless in the town, and could find no place for the mother to give birth...We need to imagine a large open dwelling-room, in two levels. The humans are on one level, the animals at a slightly lower level. As the level for the humans is too crowded even for a precious new-born baby, Mary leans over to place her baby in the hay-filled feeding-trough of the cattle. (Wansbrough, Luke: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer (Daily Bible Commentary), 30-31)
R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) theologizes:
No child born into the world that day seemed to have lower prospects. The Son of God was born into the world not as a prince but as a pauper. We must never forget that this is where Christianity began, and where it always begins — with a sense of need, a graced sense of one’s insufficiency. Christ, himself setting the example, comes to the needy. He is born only in those who are “poor in spirit.” (Hughes, Luke (Volume One): That You May Know the Truth (Preaching the Word), 84)
David L. Tiede (b. 1940) adds:
This is more than historical reporting and more than the story of the humble origins of a person of future greatness. The Greco-Roman reader might have recalled Virgil [70-19 BCE]’s poetic stories about the ideal ruler as shepherd of the people, born among simple shepherds (see Aeneid 6.791ff. and his fourth Eclogue). But certainly the Jewish reader who knew the heritage of the psalms would recall the words concerning David: “He chose David his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the ewes that had young he brought him to be the shepherd of Jacob his people, of Israel his inheritance” (Psalm 78:70-71). Even as he lay swaddled in cloths in a feed bin in a town away from home, this child Jesus was destined to be the fulfillment of God’s promises to David and all of Israel, indeed to all the world. (Tiede, Luke (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 68)
The story likely occurred darker and dirtier than we typically imagine. But the scene is meant to be visualized. Luke is painting a theological picture. David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) details:
From Origen [184-253], who may have been among the first to connect Isaiah 1:3 to the scene in the Bethlehem stable, through Cyril of Alexandria [376-444], Bede [672-735], Bonaventure [1221-1274], and others, commentary on such passages is lyrical and poetically textured precisely for the reason that the conceptual magnitude of the incarnation, the mystery of the birth of the Redeemer of the world, far exceeds the capacity of mere literal exposition alone to register it. Medieval painters love to show the manger scene with the ox and ass looking over the manger with the Christ child; their audience remembered, as perhaps we do not, that this was a gesture of visual theology, intended to help us see the nativity as long prepared for and beautifully heralded in many passages in Isaiah. This itself is a mystery. (Jeffrey, Luke (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 37)
How do you picture the nativity scene? Is this a sanitary place to give birth? What is the strangest place you have heard of a baby being born? What unconventional items can you name that have been substituted for a crib? How do you think that Joseph and Mary looked back upon the place where they spent the first Christmas? Why did God not place Jesus into a more affluent home?

The manger serves a larger narrative purpose. Wrapping a newborn in swaddling clothes was the standard operating procedure of the day. Being born in a manger was not.

N.T. Wright (b. 1948) instructs:

What do people know about Jesus’ birth? The manger – the Christmas crib. The most famous animal feeding-trough in all history. You see it on Christmas cards. Churches make elaborate ‘cribs’, and sometimes encourage people to say their prayers in front of them...To concentrate on the manger and to forget why it was mentioned in the first place is like the dog looking at the finger rather than the object. Why has Luke mentioned it three times in this story?...The answer is: because it was the feeding-trough, appropriately enough, which was the sign to the shepherds. It told them which baby they were looking for. And it showed them that the angel knew what he was talking about. To be sure, it’s another wonderful human touch in the story, to think of the young mother finding an animal’s feeding-trough ready to hand as a cot for her newborn son. No doubt there are many sermons waiting to be preached here about God coming down into the mess and muddle of real life. But the reason Luke has mentioned it is because it’s important in giving the shepherds their news and their instructions...Why is this significant? Because it was the shepherds who were told who this child was. This child is the saviour, the Messiah, the Lord. The manger isn’t important in itself. It’s a signpost, a pointing finger, to the identity and task of the baby boy who’s lying in it. (Wright, Luke For Everyone, 21-22)
The savior of the world resting in a manger might have been viewed as a theological impossibility. Robert Redman (b. 1958) critiques:
Philosophers expressed it this way: the finite is not capable of the infinite (finitus non capax infiniti)...On this view, one “marginal Jew” living in the first century CE in a backwater province of the Roman Empire could not possibly be the full and complete revelation of God...The manger of Bethlehem is God’s counterargument. (David L. Bartlett [b. 1941] and Barbara Brown Taylor [b. 1951], Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, 118)
The manger is a counterintuitive sign that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. John T. Carroll (b. 1954) relays:
The manger of Jesus would...suggest God’s identification with this child but also pose an unsettling question. Will God’s people come to know and regard the Lord who begins life in a manger?...The connection between “Messiah and manger” brings disorientation and forces Luke’s audience to rethink what it means to be Messiah, what sitting on David’s throne entails...This is not so surprising, though, if God is the God of status reversal praised earlier by the child’s mother (Luke 1:46-55). Samuel found David among the sheep and anointed him king (I Samuel 16:1-23); this child who is to sit on David’s throne also beings life in a place for animals and will find honor first among shepherds (Carroll, Luke: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 67)
What sign would you have expected to accompany the birth of the Messiah? How big of an obstacle to belief would being born in a manger have been to the original audience? Was it easier for shepherds to believe in this miracle than kings? Do you believe that the Savior of the world was born in a manger?

“Great God, has thou sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah himself can be born in a grave?” - an old Jewish grave digger who hid a young pregnant Jewish woman in Wilna, Poland, during World War II, who later gave birth in the grave. Quoted by Paul Tillich (1886-1965), “Born in the Grave”, The Shaking of the Foundations, p.165

Thursday, December 20, 2012

To Us a Child Is Born (Isaiah 9:6)

Who prophesied “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given”? Isaiah (Isaiah 9:6)

The prophet Isaiah spoke to Israel during the tumultuous reign of King Ahaz (Isaiah 1:1, 7:1). While the king was becoming the embodiment of failed leadership (Isaiah 6:1-8:22), the prophet provided hope to the people (Isaiah 9:1-7). He famously prophesied:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6 NASB)
Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) comments:
This familiar and beloved oracle offers to Judah, driven as it is to distress, darkness, gloom, and anguish, yet another chance in the world. The prophetic oracle beginning in Isaiah 9:2 is introduced by what seems to be a prose transition in Isaiah 9:1. In the Hebrew text..Isaiah 9:1 is the final verse of chapter 8, so that it looks back to the ominous judgment of Isaiah 8:22 as well as forward to the promised well-being of the oracle. (Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Westminster Bible Companion), 81)
Daniel L. Akin (b. 1957) concurs:
Isaiah an extension of the “virgin conception/Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Israel would be attacked and crushed in humiliating defeat in 722 BC by the Assyrians. And yet, in the midst of their despair and hopelessness, a word of hope arrives. The gloom, distress, humiliation, darkness, and death of Isaiah 9:1-2 would be turned into the rejoicing, joy, light, liberation, and peace of Isaiah 9:2-5. How? By the coming of the Messiah-King. (Akin, A Theology for the Church, 487)
Prior to this hopeful proclamation, Isaiah acknowledges that Judah will be afflicted by the powerful Assyrian army (Isaiah 8:1-22). John N. Oswalt (b. 1940) details:
The Assyrian conquests began in the tribal territory of “Zebulun” and “Naphtali,” which extended from the Jezreel Valley northward to the foot of Mount Hermon. A major part of that area is what is known today as the Huleh Valley. The Jordan River flows through this valley before emptying into the Sea of Galilee. Not only was this a lush agricultural area, it was also the place through which the main trade route from Mesopotamia to Egypt ran (“the way of the sea”). Thus, it is easy to see why it was high on the priority list for conquest. But God is greater than Asyria, and he promises that just as these people have experienced the grief and despair of conquest, they will also experience the joy of and triumph of victory (Isaiah 9:3-5). As Gideon defeated Midian in the Valley of Jezreel (Judges 7:1-25), so God will defeat Israel’s enemies in that same place...But how will God accomplish this great feat? Through the birth of a child (Isaiah 9:6)! For the third time in as many chapters, the birth of a child is filled with great portent. (Oswalt, Isaiah (NIV Application Commentary), 160)
Judah’s hope will come in the form of a child. Given the well known list of epithets that conclude the oracle about the child, most conclude that Isaiah is referencing Ahaz’s son and successful successor, Hezekiah (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) explains:

The royal titles of kingship are conferred upon him: “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Each name brings out some extraordinary quality for the divinely selected ruler: a counsellor of unique wisdom and abundant power, endowed with enduring life, and the bringer of eternal peace. The description of his reign makes it absolutely clear that his role is messianic. There is no end to his rule upon the throne of David, and he will reign with justice and righteousness forever. Moreover, it is the ardor of the Lord of hosts who will bring this eschatological purpose to fulfillment. The language is not just of a wishful thinking for a better time, but the confession of Israel’s belief in a divine ruler who will replace once and for all the unfaithful reign of kings like Ahaz. (Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 81)

The birth of this child will be a cause for great hope. Christopher R. Seitz (b. 1954) clarifies:

Most regard the references to birth and the language “child” and “son” at Isaiah 9:6 as referring to the king’s accession rather than to his actual birth, in line with the imagery of Psalm 2:7...and common Near Eastern practices. Whether or not this is so in the strict historical sense, the reference to birth is surely meant to pick up the language of Isaiah 7:14: “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son” (RSV). On chronological grounds, a royal accession oracle is out of place at this juncture in the presentation. Hezekiah’s mature reign still lies ahead, as is made clear by the material following (Isaiah 9:8-10:34), where the Assyrian foe is still gainfully occupied in the role of “rod of my [Yahweh’s] anger” (Isaiah 10:5). Therefore one is already dealing with a decision to place the royal oracle at this juncture secondarily, whatever its original historical circumstances. If a link has been established intentionally between the “birth” of Isaiah 9:6 and the promise of Immanuel at Isaiah 7:14-16, then the effect is to focus the royal oracle on the birth rather than on the accession of Immanuel. The birth then portends great things and in that sense is analogous to children of the prophet, who are “signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 8:18). (Seitz, Isaiah 1-39 (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 86)
This child will be nothing less than a gift of God. Gary V. Smith (b. 1943) analyzes:
The initial announcement that a child “will be born” (yullad prophetic perfect verb) is further explained in the parallel phrase, God “will give a son to us,” that is, to the people of Judah. The second line emphasizes that this is a work of God’s gracious giving, not just a coincidence. No date of birth in the future is hinted at, and the only comparable son promised by God in earlier oracles was Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14-15. An identification marker that links these two sons is that they both will be righteous Davidic rulers. But the two sons do not have identical names. Concerning the Davidic ruler, “he [presumably God] will call his name” (not passive, “he will be called” as in NIV) titles that represent his character and roles. The eight words that follow could be eight names, but since Immanu-el, Shear-Jashub, and many other Hebrew names comprise two words (Isaiah means “God saves), it seems natural to divide these eight words into four titles. (Smith, Isaiah 1-39 (The New American Commentary), 240)
Who or what do you associate with the names Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace? When you look to the next generation of leaders in your region, does it elicit hope? When has God given you or your country a gift? How does Isaiah’s prophecy relate to the birth of Jesus?

Christians have long connected Isaiah’s 700+ year old messianic prophecy to the birth of Jesus. Though Isaiah 9:6 is not quoted directly in the New Testament, Matthew does, however, quote the related passage in Isaiah 7:14 (Matthew 1:23).

Geoffrey W. Grogan (1925-2011) traces:

The word “child” is in a position of emphasis. The first person plural “us” suggests a link with Isaiah 7:14...and the reader is probably meant to see the connection, for as far as the reader is concerned, Isaiah is acting as a teacher. Just as his theme of the Branch of the Lord...becomes more and more explicitly messianic, so it is with the motif of the child. If the child of Isaiah 7:14-16...typifies the ultimate divine Christ, the child of these verses is that Christ. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] & David E. Garland [b. 1947], Proverbs-Isaiah (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 528)
John Goldingay (b. 1942) delineates:
It is usually assumed that the name in Isaiah 9:6b comprises a series of asyndetic phrases...and describes the person named. The son then is the Wonderful Counselor. Christian claims that Jesus fulfills the vision of Isaiah 9:6b can do justice to the designation Mighty God, but the difficulty comes with Everlasting Father, which hardly applies to Jesus. Conversely, a reading in the light of eighth-century B.C. Middle Eastern thinking can perhaps do justice to Everlasting Father as an extravagant Old Testament description of a king’s relationship with his people, but Mighty God is unparalleled in the Old Testament in such designations. Hans Wildberger [1910-1986]...suggests it is based on Egyptian ways of speaking of the king, but even these hardly parallel such an extravagant description. It is difficult to know what the original hearers would have made of the words if this is how Isaiah meant them. It is significant that the Jewish exegetical tradition assumed that at least the first three phrases referred to God, though it took them as describing God as namer rather than as part of the name. (Goldingay, Isaiah (New International Biblical Commentary), 72)
Remarkably, God needs only a child to respond to grievous oppression. Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. (b. 1949) acknowledges:
God’s answer to everything that has ever terrorized us is a child. The power of God is so far superior to the Assyrians and all the big shots of this world that he can defeat them by coming as a mere child. His answer to the bullies swaggering through history is not to become an even bigger bully. His answer is Jesus. (Ortlund, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners (Preaching the Word), 99)
God’s radical solution to the world’s sin was a baby. This is what the world celebrates at Christmas.

If Isaiah 9:6 foretells both Hezekiah and Jesus could it relate to another baby in the future? What dimensions does the fact that Jesus’ birth was prophesied add to the nativity story? When have you placed your hopes in a child? When has a child brought light into a gloomy world?

“Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.” - Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shepherds Kept Their Watching (Luke 2)

Which gospel tells of the visit of the shepherds to the manger? Luke (2)

The Christmas story is one of the most familiar in all of the world. Though one of the standard features of the nativity is the visit of the shepherds, these important witnesses appear only in Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:8-20).

Immediately, after Jesus’ birth in a manger (Luke 2:1-7), Luke shifts the scene to a nearby field (Luke 2:8).

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8 NASB)
Though the shepherds seemingly come out fo nowhere, this is not the case. Joel B. Green (b. 1956) explains:
Though their introduction may seem abrupt, they have been anticipated in implicit ways by the continued mention of David (shepherd-cum-king — I Kings 16:11-13; cf. Luke 1:27, 32, 69, 2:4 [2x]) and of the lowly (Luke 1:52). This account is also tied to the preceding material by geographical (“in that region” — Luke 2:8) and temporal (“this day” — Luke 2:11) markers. (Green, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 130)
While the shepherds are going about their business, the sacred enters the profane with the emergence of an angelic visitor (Luke 2:9). The scene is set at night which heightens the drama and accentuates the contrast between the darkness of the night sky and the startling appearance of the unexpected visitor. The angel, eventually accompanied by an angelic host, is the bearer of good news: the Savior of the world has been born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:9-15).

After hearing this proclamation, the shepherds rush to confirm the angelic account (Luke 2:15-20). Outside of his own family, the first witnesses to Jesus are lowly, anonymous night shift shepherds.

Justo L. González (b. 1937) interjects:

The story about the inn, the manger, and the shepherds has been told so often that it is difficult for us to see its full poignancy. This is not a mellow, bucolic story about some shepherds tending their sheep with little or no care beyond the possibility of a wandering wolf. This is not the setting in which Luke presents the story...The setting of the shepherds keeping their flocks at night is much less tranquil and romantic. They live out in the fields, suffer all kinds of deprivations and even dangers, in order to protect their flocks...It is in that scene, perhaps silent, but not as peaceful as we tend to depict it, that an angel suddenly appears before the shepherds. (González, Luke (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), 33-34)
Since the time of Constantine (272-337), Christmas has been celebrated in December, initially to coincide with a pagan feast called Saturnalia. Many attempts to pinpoint the precise date of Jesus’ birth have been made based upon the account of the shepherds’ visit.

Walter L. Liefeld (b. 1927) comments:

That the shepherds were out in the fields at night does not preclude a December date, as the winter in Judea was mild. But, of course, the text says nothing about the time of year. The traditional date for the nativity was set, long after the event, to coincide with a pagan festival, thus demonstrating that the “Sol Invictus,” the “Unconquerable Sun,” had indeed been conquered. December 25 was widely celebrated as the date of Jesus’ birth by the end of the fourth century. (Liefeld, Luke (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 51)
Despite much speculation, none of the theories offering a more precise birthdate are definitive.

Though not reflected in most translations (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), the Greek text informs that the shepherds are literally “keeping watches” (MSG, YLT), meaning that they were taking shifts (Luke 2:8).

The text also suggests that the shepherds lived outside. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) explicates, “The participle agraulountes means that the shepherds made the open fields (agroi) their house (aulē). (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (The Anchor Bible), 409).”

William Barclay (1907-1978) speculates:

These were in all likelihood very special shepherds...In the Temple, morning and evening, an unblemished lamb was offered as a sacrifice to God. To see that the supply of perfect offerings was always available the Temple authorities had their own private sheep flocks; and we know that these flocks were pastured near Bethlehem. It is most likely that these shepherds were in charge of the flocks from which the Temple offerings were chosen. It is a lovely thought that the shepherds who looked after the Temple lambs were the first to see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Daily Study Bible Series), 27-28)
Leon Morris (1914-2006) adds:
It is not unlikely that the shepherds were pasturing flocks destined for the temple sacrifices. Flocks were supposed to be kept only in the wilderness (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7:7; Talmud, Baba Kamma 79b-80a), and a rabbinic rule provides that any animal found between Jerusalem and a spot near Bethlehem must be presumed to be a sacrificial victim (Mishnah, Shekalim 7:4). The same rule speaks of finding Passover offerings within thirty days of that feast, i.e. in February...As a class shepherds had a bad reputation. The nature of their calling kept them from observing the ceremonial law which meant so much to religious people. More regrettable was their unfortunate habit of confusing ‘mine’ with ‘thine’ as they moved about the country. They were considered unreliable and were not allowed to give testimony in the lawcourts (Talmud, Sanhedrin 25b). There is no reason for thinking that Luke’s shepherds were other than devout men, else why would God have given them such a privilege? But they did come from a despised class. (Morris, Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 93)

As Morris discusses, shepherds were not looked kindly upon, especially in a later era. Their occupation required them to perform activities that would designate them as “unclean” and also kept them away from the temple to remedy the predicament.

William R. Herzog II (b. 1944) expounds:

Much has been made of the shepherds as members of a despised profession because they were considered unclean in the eyes of Pharisees and other Temple authorities and dishonest in the eyes of tribute collectors. The reason is that shepherds had movable assets, so when news spread that the tribute collector would be arriving in a village, the shepherds could drive some of their flock into the Judean wilderness where they might escape detection. Trees, vineyards, and crops cannot be moved and so will be taxed fully, but sheep and other livestock are a different story. This practice may explain the expression, “as dishonest as a Judean shepherd.” Of course, this would reflect the tribute collectors’ evaluation of shepherds, who would more likely be viewed as heroes in their villages. Shepherds were, no doubt, considered unclean by Temple authorities or political factions like the Pharisees, who emphasized a purity agenda, but this was true of all peasants alike, not just shepherds. (Herzog, Ann M. Svennungsen [b. 1955], Timothy Shapiro & Marilyn J. Salmon [b. 1948], New Proclamation Year C, 2006-2007: Advent Through Holy Week, 45)
If Luke views the shepherds as thieves, the gospel is incorporating poetic symmetry as Jesus would have spent both his birth and his death in the company of criminals (Luke 23:32-43).

Others respond that though shepherds might have had a bad reputation outside of the Bible, this is simply not the case within its pages. Shepherds often symbolize all who care for God’s people including God (Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34:23; Hebrews 13:20; I Peter 2:25, 5:2). In many psalms attributed to David, the king relates God’s connection to humanity as that of a shepherd to sheep (Psalm 23:1, 28:9, 100:3). There are also many prominent examples of godly Old Testament shepherds, e.g. Abel (Genesis 4:2-4), Jacob (Genesis 31:3-13); Joseph (Genesis 37:2-9), Moses (Exodus 3:1-6), David (I Samuel 16:11-13), Amos (Amos 1:1, 7:14).

Whatever their reputation, of all of the people in the world, God chooses shepherds to be the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth. Luke actually stresses this facet.

Keith F. Nickle (b. 1933) clarifies:

Luke’s narrative emphasis falls not on the birth itself but rather on the angelic announcement of that birth to the shepherds and their response to it...In sharp contrast to the simplicity of the account Luke had given the birth itself, the shepherds experience an angel vision, an extraordinary message, the chorusing of the angelic legion! (Nickle, Preaching the Gospel of Luke: Proclaiming God's Royal Rule, 24)

Shepherds fulfilling the role of witness is in many ways apropos. Eduard Schweizer (1913-2006) critiques:

Shepherds play a role in Hellenistic birth narratives, but David was also a shepherd in the vicinity of Bethlehem (I Samuel 17:15, 16:4, 11; cf. Psalm 78:70-72). Later rabbis looked for the birth of the Messiah, the Shepherd of Israel, at the “tower of the flock” (Micah 4:8) near Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-2)...This notion may be in the background here rather than the later rabbinic attitude that looked down on shepherds. (Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke, 49)

Fred B. Craddock (b. 1928) adds:

They belong in the story not only because they serve to tie Jesus to the shepherd king, David (II Samuel 7:8), but also because they belong on Luke’s guest list for the kingdom of God: the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame (Luke 14:13, 21). And so the shepherds go to the city of David. The shepherds and the scene are described with some of Luke’s favorite words, words he has used before: wondering, pondering in the heart, making known the revelation, praising and glorifying God. The stable is bare, but the glory of God floods the story. (Craddock, Luke (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 36)
Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) concurs:
The shepherds fit the setting of Jesus’ birth. They are ordinary folk who work with animals. Although some interpreters appeal to later rabbinic writings to argue that shepherds were viewed as sinners, it is doubtful that this view is assumed in this scene...Probably there is a connection between the shepherds and the repeated reference to Bethlehem as the “city of David” (Luke 2:4, 11). David was a shepherd before being anointed king (I Samuel 16:11), and later is told, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel” (II Samuel 5:2). Ezekiel speaks of a future David who will be shepherd over Israel (Ezekiel 34:23), and Micah, in speaking of the ruler who will come from Bethlehem, says that he will “feed his flock in the strength of the LORD” (Micah 5:4). The figure of the shepherd has the same ambiguous quality as a royal baby in a manger. A shepherd is an ordinary fellow who would not feel out of place in a stable. A shepherd is also a symbol of kingship. (Tannehill, Luke (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 65)
The fact that shepherds, ordinary people doing an ordinary job on a presumably ordinary day, are the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth is significant. Luke’s story stands in stark contrast to the visitors in Matthew’s account, the only other canonical telling of Jesus’ birth, which features the more prestigious magi or wisemen (Matthew 2:1-12).

Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) notices:

No scholars or court officials visit the baby in Luke’s version of the story. Instead of the magi bearing lavish gifts that Matthew describes (Matthew 2:1-11), in Luke only some shepherds come (Luke 2:8-20). Shepherds...were among the poor, and by the standards of the most religiously meticulous people, they were outcasts. They lived a hard life out in the fields, far removed from the comforts and leisure that would allow them to follow the rules for food preparation, purification, and other aspects of religious practice. They lived a life wrapped in danger as they tried to protect the animals from both human marauders and various wild beasts (see John 10:1-18 for sketch of the shepherd’s life). (Ringe, Luke (Westminster Bible Companion), 42)
The shepherds and the types of people they represent are important to Luke. Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) interprets:
The testimony to Jesus’ birth from the angelic host to shepherds is significant in scope. Creation has no more mysterious and exalted beings than angels, who represent the testimony of the heavens to what is occurring. Moreover, there are no more “normal Joes” in ancient culture than shepherds. They represent the lowly and humble who respond to God’s message, for their vocation is seen positively in Scripture (Matthew 18:12; Mark 6:34; Luke 15:4; John 10:1-18; Ephesians 4:11; Hebrews 13:2; I Peter 2:25). Thus, heaven meets and greets the average person through the angelic announcement to these pastoral figures. Jesus’ birth is more than a family affair. The announcement of “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10) indicates that God desires to speak to every person about the coming of Jesus, since all humanity is impacted by his coming. (Bock, Luke (The NIV Application Commentary), 84)
The shepherds serving as witnesses corresponds to Luke’s central theme. Charles H. Talbert (b.1934) connects:
This good for “all people” (Luke 2:10), outcast as well as in-group. In Luke’s time shepherds were often considered outside the law. Their testimony was considered invalid because of their reputation for dishonesty (b. Sanhedrin 25b). Yet it was to such as these the angel announced the good news of the Savior’s birth (Luke 2:8-11). This can only be regarded as a foreshadowing of the subsequent theme of God’s grace shown to sinners that runs throughout Luke. The messianic Lord is the friend of sinners (e.g., Luke 5:29-32, 7:36-50, 10:30-37, 15:1-2, 17:11-19, 19:1-10). It is to sinners Jesus promises good news (e.g., Luke 18:9-14, 15:11-32). The news that Jesus’ birth signals the benefit of peace is intended for all the people. This is cause for great joy. (Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel, 35)
The shepherds are just the first of many marginalized people depicted in Luke-Acts where the gospel spreads from the bottom up. Ronald J. Allen (b. 1949) traces:
Luke uses the announcement to the shepherds to make an important point: the realm will renew the entire social world. By the end of the book of Acts, the good news that comes first to shepherds (at the bottom of the social pyramid) has made its way to high officials in the Roman Empire and even to Rome itself (Acts 21:17-28:31). All who repent..are welcome in the realm. (Allen, The Life of Jesus for Today, 32)
Bruce Larson (1925-2008) theorizes:
There is an old saying that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” I suggest peace is too important to be left to the diplomats. The professionals have messed it up again and again. In giving this message to the shepherds God bypassed the professional peacemakers. He gave the message and its interpretation to amateurs. We need amateur peacemakers. The great diplomats and ambassadors of two thousand years ago, the councils that met and the peace treaties that were signed are mostly forgotten. But the world still reverberates with the peacemaking message of a group of amateur preachers and peacemakers like the apostle Paul and Luke himself. (Larson, Luke (Mastering the New Testament), 51)
Often lost in the familiarity of the nativity is that the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth are humble shepherds. The shepherds’ presence accents the fact that the Savior of the world was born in a manger. The shocking thing about the shepherds’ presence, given this setting, is that it is not shocking at all.

Why are shepherds the first witnesses to the birth of the long awaited Savior, as opposed to priests and scribes who would presumably have had a higher appreciation for the event? When has God broken into the ordinary affairs of your life? Have you ever met God on the job? When have you been the first to hear good news? What newborn baby have you rushed to see? Do you know who was present the day that you were born?

The shepherds were placed in a situation that they could not possibly have been prepared for. David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) construes:

That the doxa (“glory, beauty”) of the Lord should shine around humble shepherds on a Judean hillside is an event of enormous portent and hugely counterintuitive to normative religious thinking. The shepherds are understandably unprepared, as would anyone be in their place, for they can only relate what they see to the bright Shekinah glory of God’s holy presence in the tabernacle (Exodus 16:10; Psalm 63:2; Isaiah 40:5; Ezekiel 1:1-28). How should such a presence be borne by unhallowed men? (Jeffrey, Luke (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 40)

The response of the shepherds, however, demonstrates that they were the right people for the job. They immediately run to Jesus, a suitable reaction to most any situation.

Max Lucado (b. 1955) observes:

It wasn’t enough to see the angels. You’d think it would have been...But it wasn’t enough to see the angels. The shepherds wanted to see the one who sent the angels. Since they wouldn’t be satisfied until they saw him, you can trace the long line of Jesus-seekers to a person of the pasture who said, “Let’s go...Let’s see”. (Lucado, Just Like Jesus: Learning to Have a Heart Like His, 154-55)
Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) lauds:
The shepherds have the type of response any of us should have as we contemplate these events. Their curiosity leads them to go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened. As they see God’s word honored in the presence of the sign, they come to testify to God’s work and tell the story of the child...The audience to the shepherds’ report were amazed. Their response exemplifies the awe that should fill anyone who hears Jesus’ story...In addition, there is the shepherds’ glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen. The birth is no mere arrival of new life, as poignant as each such event is. The story is not told so that hearers can identify with the new mother and father or enjoy a story of hope, of a touching birth in humble surroundings. The birth has value because of whose birth it is. The shepherds have found that the angel’s words were true, that events have transpired just as they had been told. God’s word is coming to pass; his plan is again strategically at work. They break out in praise to God because he has sent Jesus, the Savior, Lord and Christ. (Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), 56-57)
How do you respond to Jesus’ birth? What does Christmas mean to you?
“Maybe Christmas”, he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!”
Dr. Seuss (1904-1991), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Locust Army (Joel 1:1-2:17)

In what book are locusts likened to an invading army? Joel

Joel is classified as a minor prophet, the second of twelve such books canonized in the Bible. Locusts overrun Joel’s text as they do the landscape he describes, figuring prominently in two of the book’s three chapters (Joel 1:1-2:17). The prophet addresses Judah, a land ravaged by a locust invasion that has destroyed everything in its wake (Joel 1:4).

What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten;
And what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten;
And what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten. (Joel 1:4 NASB)
Joel likens the locusts to an invading army (Joel 2:4-11).

Locusts were no laughing matter and Joel’s allusion to the insects represents powerful language. James E. Smith (b. 1939) describes:

Newly hatched locusts resemble ants or tiny roaches. Fully developed, these “hoppers” as they are called form marching bands up to ten miles wide and ten miles long. These bands move forward at a slow pace of about 250 feet per hour. Within their path they consume virtually every blade of grass or legume. No obstacle can stop this irresistible insect army. (Smith, The Minor Prophets, 67)
John D.W. Watts (b. 1921) adds:
Joel skilfully blends the imagery of prophecy with the realistic experience of the locust plague. Travellers who have seen such confirm the accuracy of the account. Locust swarms darken the sky like an eclipse of the sun; at dusk the low rays of the sun catch their wings, reflecting an eerie light. (Watts, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible)), 25)
Joel depicts an especially harsh invasion. David Allan Hubbard (1928-1996) examines:
The devastation does not stop with the laying waste...of grapes and leaves, but includes also the splintering...of the fig tree; the bark itself is peeled off and thrown down so that the denuded branches appear white. A California agricultural official reported that ‘what they...don’t eat they cut off for entertainment.; He also noted that in the wake of the insects, fields are left ‘bare as the floor’, apple trees are stripped of every leaf and rose bushes are consumed through the green bark. During the same attack, a farmer lamented that 100 acres of his bean field had been ‘completely cleared by the hoppers. Joel’s account is not hyperbolic but factual. (Hubbard, Joel and Amos (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 45)
James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) cites another historical example:
When the locust invasion of 1915 struck Palestine and Syria the desolation was as great as anyone could have possibly imagined. The first swarms appeared in March. The final stages did not depart until early summer. During that four-or-five-month period the land was stripped of every green thing: vines, fig trees, grain. Still, bad as the destruction was, the locusts did move on and in time the land recovered. (Boice, The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical Commentary, 106)
Though Joel was not the first to take literary license with the destructive creatures, he adds his own unique spin. John Barton (b. 1948) chronicles:
The imagery occurs elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. In Judges 6:5 the Midianites and Amalekites used to come up against Israel “as thick as locusts” (cf. also Judges 7:12), while Jeremiah 51:14 threatens Babylon that YHWH will “fill you with troops like a swarm locusts. And James L. Crenshaw [b. 1934] cites a Sumerian text..Perhaps we should...see some originality in Joel’s reversal of the image, making locusts seem like an invading army. As so often in the prophets, a familiar trope is given new life, in this case by being reversed. I do not know of any other case inside or outside the Bible in which literal locusts become a metaphorical army. (Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 43-44)
There is great debate as to whether Joel is speaking literally or figuratively. Thomas J. Finley (b. 1945) explains:
Many commentators agree that Joel describes a literal locust plague in the first chapter, though there is much more dispute about the second chapter. The suggestion has also been made (Douglas Stuart [b. 1943]) that even in the first chapter the locusts stand for an invading army, either the Assyrians or the Babylonians. While there may be elements of hyperbole in Joel’s description of the locust plague, as when he asks rhetorically whether anything like this has happened before, the poetic language reflects a manner of expression common among the Hebrews (cf. II Kings 18:5, 23:25). Locust plagues were greatly feared, and this particular one could have been unusually severe. (Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah: An Exegetical Commentary, 26)
Most modern commentators agree that Judah has experienced the devastating effects of locusts. Leslie C. Allen (b. 1935) explicates:
Most scholars interpret the locusts in both chapters in strictly contemporary terms, and this is the most natural way of construing the material. Joel 1:2-4 speaks of the locusts as a present threat to Joel’s generation and the occasion of his summons to lamentation. Joel 1:16 confirms this impression of direct involvement with the ravages of real locusts. The past verbs of Joel 2:18, 19 categorize Yahweh’s response to the locust crisis and the people’s penitential cries as having already occurred. It is significant that the locusts behave in a literal manner: they ravage fields, trees, and fruit, but do not kill or plunder, or take prisoners of war. They are indeed described metaphorically as an attacking army and are compared with soldiers, but to conceive of figurative locusts who are like the soldiers they are supposed to represent is a tortuous and improbable interpretation. Moreover, the restoration promised by Yahweh in Joel 2:18-27 concerns the material damage associated with locust attacks. In Amos 7:1-3, a locust plague is certainly a symbol of coming destruction, and Revelation 9:3, 7-9 actually applies Joel’s language to an apocalyptic event, but these passages provide no warrant for detaching the theme of Joel from its historical and literary contexts. (Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 29-30)
David Prior (b. 1940) rationalizes:
Such a detailed description is more likely the result of actually seeing locusts at work in such profusion. All the descriptions we have of this phenomenon substantiate the accuracy of Joel’s language. The prophet does not exaggerate the situation one bit. Probably only those who have not experienced locusts on the march cannot conceive such an appalling scenario. (Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (Bible Speaks Today), 23-24)
Whether describing a swarm of locusts or an invading army, Joel’s point is clear: The catastrophe is only a sign of things to come. The people are dealing with an earthly phenomenon but soon they will contend with the day of the Lord.

David W. Baker (b. 1950) envisions:

Joel likens God’s judgment to an army of locusts that descends on us all. Like a winged AIDS infestation they destroy everything in their path. It is clear that for Joel, the locust invasion is a metaphor for what will happen on the Day of the Lord, when all righteousness accounts will be settled. To describe this judgment we are driven to metaphors of nature, the economy, or foreign armies, but Joel’s point is that the scope of God’s judgment exceeds them all. (Baker, Joel, Obadiah, Malachi (The NIV Application Commentary), 13)
Lloyd J. Ogilvie (b. 1930) substantiates:
The coming day of the Lord described in chapter 2 results in a cosmic upheaval described in Joel 2:10. This is more than the effect of locusts or even a powerful human army. The language here is reminiscent especially of various theophany texts (Judges 5:4-5; Psalms 18:7-15, 68:8, 97:2-5) and also of other day of the Lord passages (Isaiah 13:10, 13). (Ogilvie, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Mastering the Old Testament), 224)
In making this leap, Joel draws from tradition. Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. (b. 1951) delineates:
That the prophet would draw the connection between the locust plague and a greater judgment to follow should come as no surprise. When the Lord judged the Egyptians prior to the Exodus, a locust plague preceded the final plagues of darkness and death (Exodus 10:1-11:10, 12:29-30). The curse list in Deuteronomy 28 associates locust plagues with death and exile (cf. Deuteronomy 28:38, 42). (Chisholm, Interpreting the Minor Prophets, 56)
The desired response to all of this destruction and the looming Day of the Lord is repentance (Joel 2:12).

Do you think that Joel intended to depict a literal swarm of locusts or an invading army or both? How does making this choice influence your reading of the prophet? Why does Joel incorporate military imagery? What do you need to repent of?

As horrific as Joel’s imagery is, the locusts do not get the last word (Joel 2:25). Trent C. Butler (b. 1941) relays:

Joel ends his book on an unexpected note. No more locust plagues. No more army invasions. No more natural disasters. No more punishment. The Day of the Lord will bring salvation to God’s people—a salvation marked by his eternal presence with them. One thing made that possible. God pardoned, forgave, and annulled all the punishment they deserved. (Butler, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 155-56)
Judah’s survival from the locusts provides hope for future endurance. Bruce C. Birch (b. 1941) connects:
This experience of salvation in a present crisis leads to the prophet’s vision of God’s future salvation, when the day of the Lord does come (Joel 2:31, 3:14). The prophet dares hope that this will not be a date of judgment for Judah. With relationship restored between God and God’s people that future day will be a day of salvation in all its fulness. Such a day of salvation includes, in Joel’s vision, a pouring out of God’s spirit on all people in a way that overcomes differences of gender and age and social status; men and women, young and old, slave and free alike shall be linked to God by the mutual empowerment of God’s spirit (Joel 2:25-29). This is the text and the vision that formed the basis of Peter’s sermon following the Pentecost experience [Acts 2:16-21]. (Birch, Hosea, Joel, and Amos (Westminster Bible Companion), 129)
Even the worst calamity Joel can imagine is nothing in comparison to the redemptive power of God.

When has your past endurance given you hope in the present? Is there any situation so dark that God cannot brighten it?

“We must not offer people a system of redemption, a set of insights and principles. We offer people a Redeemer.” - Paul David Tripp (b. 1950), Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change, p. 8

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fishing the Right Side (John 21:6)

According to John 21, on which side of the boat did Jesus instruct His disciples to throw out the net? The right side (John 21:6)

The epilogue of John’s gospel begins with seven disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:2-4). It seems that after Jesus’ death threw their lives into chaos, the disciples reverted to what they knew, namely fishing. After a long day, the disciples are at the end of their rope after having presumably tried everything without catching anything (John 21:4-5). From the shore, a man commands them to try fishing from the right side of the boat (John 21:6). Unbeknownst to his own disciples, the man is the resurrected Jesus (John 21:4). Despite this failure to recognize Jesus, the disciples inexplicably follow his instructions and their fortunes are reversed.

And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. (John 21:6 NASB)
Success was nearer than the disciples thought as the small adjustment made a large difference.

Jesus does what Jesus commonly does: asks his followers to do the opposite of what they are doing. He does not chastise his pupils for returning to their previous profession. He simply orders a minor alteration. Such adjustments are easier to follow but often harder to believe. How could such a minor modification affect change?

On the surface, Jesus’ suggestion is a long shot but it must not be totally preposterous as the seasoned fishermen do not object to it. Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) describes:

The morning sea had been unfruitful and the seven disciples were frustrated. With sunrise they were finishing up when an unknown voice from shore called out, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some,” (John 21:6). To toss a cast net at random into the sea was virtually futile. Only a school captured by a trammel net could be picked up in this manner. But the stranger may have seen a large school of fish from the shore. (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John, Hebrews-Revelation, 159)
The text does not simply record that Jesus instructed his followers to cast on the “other side” of the boat but rather specifies the “right side” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV). To avoid confusion with the meaning “correct” some modern translations designate the “right-hand side” (NASB, NLT).

Merrill C. Tenney (1904-1985) rationalizes:

The command to cast the net on the right side of the ship may be interpreted in two ways. Either Jesus was testing their faith by recommending a procedure the Galilean fishermen never used, or he could discern the presence of a school of fish from the more advantageous viewpoint of the shore. (Tenney, John-Acts (Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 199)
Jesus’ request is likely counterintuitive to the disciples as evidenced by the fact that they have not already attempted it. In nautical terms, the right side is the starboard side. The word comes from the Old English steorbord meaning the “side on which a vessel was steered”. Unlike modern craft that utilize centerline runners, the steering apparatus in first century vessels was placed on the right side of ships because most seamen were right-handed. Since the starboard side was the right side, it was impractical to position the right side of the boat against a pier when in port, hence the left side of the boat became known as the port side. First century fishermen would seldom have fished the right side of the boat because they might tangle the nets and consequently lose their catch.

Some have suggested that the right side was considered “lucky” but this connection would defeat the purpose of the text. Leon Morris (1914-2006) refutes:

Some commentators draw attention to passages in classical authors showing that the right side is the fortunate side, but it is difficult to understand what relevance this has to the New Testament. Obedience to Christ, not luck, is the important thing. (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 761-62)
Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) sees a literary device in play:
The right side may have been regarded as lucky but that is not the cause of the change; “the due entirely to...obedience to Jesus’ word” (Barnabas Lindars [1923-1991], 627). The fact that the obedient Peter and the disciples to the word should be linked to the right side makes sense: in the gospel’s only other reference to the “right,” the cutting off of what was right (the right ear, John 18:10) reflected Peter’s failure to hear the word. In other words, within the gospel the right side is connected with hearing; cutting it indicates a failure of hearing; using it shows a return to hearing. (Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 583-84)
The fact that Jesus’ suggestion is insignificant may be its significance. James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) asserts:
Why the right side? Because that was the side they were directed to by Jesus! If He had said the left side, there would have been fish there. They would have swarmed from every part of the Lake of Galilee, so anxious would they have been to be caught. (Boice, The Gospel of John, Volume 5: Triumph Through Tragedy (John 18-21), 347)
Why does John include this detail? What do you associate with the right? Do you value right over left? Why do you think the disciples were suddenly successful? Would the fish on the right have not eventually swum to the left? Are you working the right side of your personal boat? Are you more apt to make minor or major adjustments in your life? Why do the disciples take instruction from a person who, to them, was merely an unproven armchair quarterback?

One of the most shocking aspects of this text is the fact that professional fisherman alter their course based upon the unsolicited advice of someone who has not demonstrated expertise.

D.A. Carson (b. 1946) remarks:

Although the right side of anything was widely considered in Greek circles to be a sign of good luck, it would be utterly trivial to think that this is why Jesus gave his command...or why the disciples heeded it. Why he gave the command is straightforward: he knew there was a great school of fish on the starboard side, as he had known it on another occasion (Luke 5:1-11). What is at first more difficult is why these fishermen should pay any attention. If they had already recognized the Master, their obedience would make sense, but not John 21:7, where recognition comes only after the catch; if they have not recognized him, why listen to the voice of someone calling in early dawn gloom from the shore of the lake? (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 670)
For casting right to have been an act of faith, the disciples would have had to known that it was Jesus who made the demand. As such others have seen the disciples’ action as an act of desperation: they simply have nothing to lose.

T.T. Crabtree (1924-2007) imagines:

The command of Christ may call for the unusual. The disciples’ net was usually let down on the left side of the ship. The command to lower it on the right side called for unusual action. “Anyway,” they could have reasoned, “we have been lowering the net not far from the place where you have commanded that we lower it now, so why should lowering it again make any real difference?” (Crabtree, Zondervan 2010 Pastor’s Annual: An Idea and Resource Book, 77-78)
Perhaps there is some faith entailed. In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell (b. 1963) informs that sometimes our instincts are correct because our subconscious has already discovered something that our conscious mind has yet to process. The scene in which Jesus is revealed in John’s epilogue is strikingly similar to the memory of the time that Jesus initially called the disicples (Luke 5:1-11). Perhaps the disciples comply with Jesus’ request because on some deeper level, they realize that the man speaking is the Lord.

F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) hints:

There may be some deeper significance in his direction to ‘shoot the net to starboard’ (NEB). In popular belief the right was the side of good luck, but the disciples would know this in any case, and it would be trivializing Jesus’ words to find this kind of meaning in them. We may take it that he knew there was an abundance on their starboard side; as for the disciples, the old instinct of implicit obedience asserted itself almost before they became fully conscious of his identity. (Bruce, The Gospel of John, 399-400)
Perhaps something deep inside of the disciples recognizes their master before they become fully conscious of his identity.

Do you think the disciples recognized Jesus on any level? What motivates the disciples to change course? Have you ever followed a command that made no sense or taken advise from someone who has demonstrated no expertise? Are you willing to change your methodology at Jesus’ directive? Are you letting Jesus guide you?

We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it...But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world.
- Malcolm Gladwell (b. 1963), Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking, p. 13

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Raising Our Ebenezer (I Samuel 7:12)

What does Ebenezer mean? “Stone of help” or “Hitherto the Lord had helped us” (I Samuel 7:12)

One of the most catastrophic military losses in Israel’s history occurs when the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant at Ebenezer (I Samuel 4:1-11). About twenty years later (and after retrieving the ark), the Israelites engage the Philistines in another significant battle, only this time it is they who prevail (I Samuel 7:7-11). Unlike the first battle, in which the nation acts without consulting God (I Samuel 4:3), they choose to rely on divine intervention (I Samuel 7:8) and are rewarded with an improbable if not miraculous victory (I Samuel 7:10-11). This is a significant triumph as it marks the first time in the nation’s history that they defeat the Philistines.

Samuel, Israel’s last judge, first prophet and de facto leader, commemorates the occasion by erecting a monument which he names: “Ebenezer” (I Samuel 7:12).

Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (I Samuel 7:12 NASB)
Israel now has a new religious symbol, a boundary with both geographic and spiritual meaning.

Stephen J. Andrews (b. 1954) and Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) summarize:

Samuel sought to keep the memory of God’s deliverance current in Israel’s mind. He wanted Israel to remember the past and be thankful for God’s help. Remembering God’s help in the past also encourages hope for the future, and hope sustains faith. (Andrews and Bergen, I & II Samuel (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 57)

Large rocks and stones were often used to mark significant events in the ancient world. This incident recalls the stone of Beth Shemesh in the preceding chapter (I Samuel 6:14-15, 18).

V. Philips Long (b. 1951) comments:

The use of (often inscribed) boundary stones was widespread throughout the ancient Near East. The stones were sometimes named and believed to be under divine protection. Curses against those who moved them were sometimes included in the inscription. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 306)
Samuel names the stone “Ebenezer,” meaning “stone (or rock) of help”. Robert Alter (b. 1935) defines, “The name means ‘stone of help,’ with ‘help’ bearing a particularly martial implication (Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, 38).”

Samuel accents this etymology by adding, “Thus far the LORD has helped us” (I Samuel 7:12 NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV). Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) comments:

Samuel named the newly erected stone monument “Ebenezer” (Hebrew ’eben hā‘ēzer), “The Stone of [the Help” or “The Help[er] Is a Stone”) because “the LORD helped us.” The name given the memorial undoubtedly is a confession of faith and trust in the Lord. In the Torah the Lord is poetically referred as the “Stone of Israel” (Genesis 49:24), an obvious reference to his strength exercised in Israel’s behalf; in the Psalms the Lord is frequently praised as a Helper (cf. Psalms 10:14, 33:20, 40:17, 46:1, 63:7, 115:9-11, 118:7, 146:5). Thus whether Samuel was confessing that Israel’s strong God is also a source of help for his people or that Israel’s assistance-giving God is strong, the name affirms two of the Lord’s virtues. (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary), 108)

Francesca Aran Murphy (b. 1960) interprets:

Samuel does one thing that, as he saw it, was as good as raising a standing army to match the Philistines’: Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer...Augustine [354-430] interprets Samuel’s comment in relation to etymology: he thinks Ebenezer meant “stone of the helper.” For Augustine, the stone, set up on the new border between the Philistine and the Israelite settlement, represents the choice of direction the Israelites had to make: a “material kingdom” and authentic happiness “in the kingdom of heaven.” The stone “points” toward Israel: “And since there is nothing better than this, God helps us ‘so far’” (City of God 17.7). In the emblem of the stone, God helps to orient us toward the choice for God over a merely human kingdom. (Murphy, 1 Samuel (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 54)

Mark Batterson (b. 1969) simplifies:

I...came up with a personal translation of I Samuel 7:12. I decided to tweak the old adage “So far, so good” by taking “good” out of the equation. My translation? “So far, so God.” (Batterson, Soulprint: Discovering Your Divine Destiny, 85)

Christians have long taken hope in the name Ebenezer. J. Hudson Taylor (1832-1905), founder of the China Inland Mission, famously displayed a plaque in each of his residences which read “Ebenezer Jehovah Jireh”: “The Lord has helped us to this point, and He will see to it from now on.”

The name has also been famously adopted by Christian churches. Alton Hornsby, Jr. (b. 1940) chronicles:

The Ebenezer Baptist Church was founded in 1886, just two decades following the Civil War. The selection of the name Ebenezer, “Stone of Help” (I Samuel 7:12), was “profoundly prophetic,” for this church attained a unique history “in the struggle for freedom of all oppressed people.” The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [1929-1968] was born into and nurtured by Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Hornsby, Southerners, Too?: Essays on the Black South, 1733-1990, 102)
The name Ebenezer affirms that the Israelites’ upset was the result of divine assistance rather than human strength. The stone’s name gives God rightful credit for the victory.

John Goldingay (b. 1942) elucidates:

For the Israelites, the battle meant God had been an extraordinary and decisive help to them “as far as this” in making it possible for them to reach their destiny as a people. They were not all the way there yet, but they were well on the way, and experiencing God acting powerfully on such an occasion had the capacity to embolden them about the certainty that God would take them to that destiny. During the narrative that will unfold through the story of Saul and into the early years of David, God will do so. (Goldingay, 1 & 2 Samuel for Everyone, 44)
Ebenezer puts the Israelites’ accomplishment in its proper perspective. Richard D. Phillips (b. 1960) remarks:
He [Samuel]...reminds Israel that this recent victory is just the latest in a long history of God’s mighty redemptive acts, not the least of which was God’s aid in helping the Israelites to repent. It is because of a long chain of mercies that the people of God exist in blessing. Samuel aims for the people to remember what God has done “till now,” so that in the future they will again appeal to him in faith. (Phillips, 1 Samuel (Reformed Expository Commentary), 128)
The name also alludes to the nation’s inevitable need for future assistance. Their success as a nation would be largely dependent upon their willingness to rely on God. At the moment Ebenezer is erected, they acknowledge this need.

Robert P. Gordon (b. 1945) expounds:

There is more to the naming of the commemorative stone than the acknowledgment that the victory had come from God. Ebenezer, as the name linked with Israel’s earlier defeats by the Philistines (cf. I Samuel 4:1, 5:1), announces the reversal of these indignities; it is a symbol of reintegration...Hitherto may mean no more than that God’s help against the Philistines was experienced along the way as far as Ebenezer. However, in the present is tempting to entertain a temporal significance: until this point in Israel’s history Yahweh has been her helper. The question soon to be resolved (I Samuel 8) is whether Yahweh would be allowed to continue that help within the old theocratic framework, or would be set aside as Israel sought to go it alone. (Gordon, I and II Samuel: A Commentary (Library of Biblical Interpretation), 107-108)
Erecting this monument is very personal for Samuel. Joyce G. Baldwin (1921-1995) connects:
Samuel’s spiritual style of leadership had been vindicated. The memorial-stone named Ebenezer...proclaimed the effectiveness of trusting the Lord and his designated judge. What possible need could there be to seek innovations such as kingship? The incident provided a strong argument for maintaining the tradition of leadership by judges, appointed and spiritually endowed by the Lord. (Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 33-34)
Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) adds:
The primary focus is again on the person of Samuel. Samuel’s words assert the theological reality of the inversion and surprising victory: “Yahweh helped” (I Samuel 7:12). Samuel and Israel are clear that the transformation was wrought by Yahweh and by none other. Israel must always remember that the victory is a victory given by Yahweh. It is not Israel’s victory, or even the victory of Samuel. (Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 54)
The name is also significant as the location where the ark had been seized was also called Ebenezer (I Samuel 4:1, 5:1). Prior to Samuel’s dedication, the Israelites would have cringed at the name “Ebenezer” the way that Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) reacted to the name “Waterloo” after 1815.

Though they share the same name, there are likely two Ebenezers with the site of the monument being located many miles northwest of the previous battle site. P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. (b. 1945) analyzes:

The relationship of this Ebenezer, located north of Mizpah, to the site of the great battle in I Samuel problematic, especially since that Ebenezer is supposed to have existed already before the foundation of this one. But it is clear that a certain symmetry is intended between the two battles of Ebenezer, and perhaps the two sites are to be identified...The Bible provides plenty of examples of the anachronistic mention of a place name in advance of the narrative describing the foundation of the place so named. (Bethel, for example, is named by Jacob in Genesis 28:19, though already mentioned in connection with Abraham as early as Genesis 12:8.) (McCarter, I Samuel (Anchor Bible), 146)
Though the victory likely did not occur at the same site as the earlier defeat, a name associated with destruction becomes synonymous with victory. One timely right counters a costly wrong. The sting of the earlier defeat is alleviated and the name “Ebenezer” is redeemed.

David Toshio Tsumura (b. 1944) explicates:

Perhaps Samuel named the stone after the place-name “Ebenezer” with the earlier experience in I Samuel 4-5 in mind so that the people might always be reminded of God’s special help (‘ēzer) in this time and at this place. The name “the stone Ezer” is not unusual as a place-name, and it is certainly a reminder of God’s powerful intervention in the history of Israel as well as her former failure at the other “Ebenezer.” (Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 238)
Hans William Hertzberg (1895-1965) determines:
It is hardly fortuitous that the same geographical designation also appears in the account of Israel’s defeat (I Samuel 4:1, 5:1). In that case it was the false Ebenezer; this time it is the real one. Whether we have, or are meant to have...the same locality here, cannot be ascertained...because of the intimate geographical details in either case; it will be a place near Mizpah. Here...the theological element is more important that the historical. (Hertzberg, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 68-69)
The name specifically and intentionally accents God’s redemption. John Woodhouse (b. 1949) remarks:
Giving this memorial stone the name of the earlier locality...and drawing attention to the meaning of the name underlines the reversal that had taken place. The earlier Ebenezer had a terribly ironic name. At “stone of help” Israel had not been helped! Now, however, the new Ebenezer stood as a testimony to the Lord’s help, which was once again enjoyed by Israel. (Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader (Preaching the Word), 133)
Ebenezer was to remind the Israelites that God had reversed their fortunes in the past and could do so again. It serves the same notice to the modern reader.

What do you associate with the name Ebenezer? Why do you think that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) named the immortal protagonist of A Christmas Carol (1843) “Ebenezer Scrooge”? What is the modern equivalent of erecting an Ebenezer stone? What disgraced names do you know of that have been redeemed? How do you acknowledge your dependence upon God? What personal victories do you commemorate? Do you give God proper credit? What in your life has been redeemed?

Samuel’s institution of the “Ebenezer” stone sets a strong example to establish spiritual markers in our own lives. Dutch Sheets (b. 1954) admits:

There are many...memorials that stand as monuments to the faithfulness of God in my life. Today, when nagging doubts try to trouble my mind in order to convince me that God will not come through for me in a particular situation, I revisit my Ebenezer. I whisper quietly. “Thus far He has helped me.” (Sheets and William Ford III [b. 1965], History Makers: Your Prayers Have the Power to Heal the Past and Shape the Future, 117)
Being intentional about acknowledging God is important as it seems to be in human nature to forget. Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) contextualizes:
The promised land that had been slowly eroded through generations of willfulness and forgetfulness was recovered as Samuel preached God’s word and administered God’s law. Enemies to the west (Philistines) and to the east (Amorites) were put in their place. The life of faith is never only a matter of the soul; nor is it ever merely circumstantial. The interior and exterior are always impinging on and affecting each other. Every once in a while there is a remarkable confluence of the two elements that calls for recognition. “Ebenezer” is one of those moments of recognition...It marks the place and time in Samuel’s leadership of Israel when the “insides” and “outsides” of Israel were in harmony. These moments are not constant in the life of God’s people, but when they arrive they deserve to be memorialized, for they are evidence of what can happen and what finally will happen as we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” (Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Westminster Bible Companion), 53)
Often, we must be reminded of how far we have come and who got us where we are today. Kenneth Chafin (1926-2001) advises:
Creating occasions for remembering is important in life. Often we receive stability in our present and hope for our future as we are reminded how God has dealt with us in the past. This is why one aspect of worship should always be remembering what God has done for us. This creates praise that fortifies us against temptation. Often an individual can work out of a time of discouragement simply by stopping to remember all the blessings God has brought into his or her life. (Chafin, 1, 2 Samuel (Mastering the Old Testament), 71)
Beth Moore (b. 1957) encourages:
As we walk out the remainder of our time line of faith, let’s keep memorializing God’s obvious interventions through stones of remembrance. In the meantime, by faith let’s walk with a (figurative) stone on our hand as an “Ebenezer” until we see the next astonishing evidence or spiritual marker and lay it on our line...The “Ebenezer” stone constantly reminds us, “Thus far the LORD helped us.” In other words, with God’s help we’re making it so far, and we’ll make it some more.” (Moore, Believing God, 255)
Samuel creates Ebenezer so that the Israelites have a constant reminder of God’s activity in the world and their lives. Jonathan Falwell (b. 1966) imagines:
Every time the children of Israel looked at that rock, it reminded them that God had been faithful before and would be faithful again, no matter what danger or trial they might face. We, too, need to be reminded of God’s grace in our lives. In our humanity, we tend to forget how good God has been to us. We must always remember how God takes us by the hand and leads us through violent rivers and dark paths of pain and doubt. Let us always remember our deliverer and all he has done for us. (Falwell, One Great Truth: Finding Your Answers to Life)
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the Israelites ever built upon Ebenezer. I Samuel 7:12 is the last of only three occurrences of the name Ebenezer in the Bible (I Samuel 4:1, 5:1, 7:12). The euphoria of the victory at Ebenzer does not last long as in the next chapter the Israelites demand a king (I Samuel 8:20). There are no further Bible stories set at Ebenezer and there are no tales of heroes drawing inspiration from the landmark. At no point in the Bible is anyone ever said to look back at the Ebenezer stone.

Did the Israelites ever remember Ebenezer? When have you drawn comfort from the past? Are you thankful for God’s blessings in your life? What are the spiritual markers in your life story? Do you take time to look at the Ebenezer stones in your life?

Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I'm come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
- Robert Robertson (1735-1790), “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, 1758

Friday, November 16, 2012

Trusting Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2)

In what city was Phoebe a deaconess? Cenchreae (Romans 16:1)

Paul’s longest and most influential letter is the Epistle to the Romans. After communicating doctrine throughout the book’s first fifteen chapters (Romans 1:1-15:21), the letter concludes with customary salutations (Romans 16:1-27), equivalent to modern “shout outs”. This section incorporates 26 names representing a hodgepodge of people; Paul greets Jews and Gentiles, men and women alike. The chapter is so thorough that some have posited that it constitutes a self contained letter.

The most extensive salutation is devoted to endorsing Paul’s associate, Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2).

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1-2 NASB)
This passage is a letter of recommendation. Letters of introduction, known as sustatikai epistolai, were common in the ancient world (Acts 18:27; II Corinthians 3:1, 4:2, 5:12, 10:12; III John 1:9-10; I Maccabees 12:43; II Maccabees 9:25). These affirmations were important as the ancient traveler had to rely on networking in an age where communication was far scarcer and slower than in modern times.

Paul’s endorsement features standard form and content. Efrain Agosto (b. 1955) outlines:

Romans 16:1-2 includes some typical terms from Greco-Roman commendation letter-writing: συνίστημι, synistēmi (“commend”); προσδέχεσθε, prosdechesthe (“receive”); and παραστητε, parastēte (“assist” or “help”). Paul clearly states Phoebe’s credentials for commendation. She is a “sister,” a διάκονος, diakonos (“servant”), someone “worthy [ἀξίως, axiōs]of the saints,” and a προστάτις, prostatis. Except for the final term, Paul uses language found elsewhere in his letters, including commendation passages (cf. “service [διάκονια, diakonia] to the saints,” I Corinthians 16:15; “receive [προσδέχεσθε, prosdechesthe] him in the Lord,” Philippians 2:29). Finally, the action Paul requests from the Roman churches on Phoebe’s behalf is ambiguous. She is to be welcomed and assisted in whatever she needs. Such ambiguity is also typical of Greco-Roman commendation letters. (J. Paul Sampley [b. 1935], Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook, 123)
Paul does add weight to the common formula. Arland J. Hultgren (b. 1939) explains:
Paul’s commendation has a fourfold structure, in which he (1) identifies Phoebe by name; (2) mentions her credentials (a sister and deacon); (3) expresses a desired action from his readers (to receive her and to assist her); and (4) adds further credentials (calling her a benefactor of many and of Paul). Typically the first three items (identification, credentials, and desired action) appear in Pauline commendations. But in this case Paul adds an additional statement concerning Phoebe’s credentials. That is especially appropriate in this instance, since it sets up reciprocity. Paul asks that the Roman Christians receive Phoebe and assist her, for she has assisted others, including Paul himself. (Hultgren, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary, 569)
Despite employing routine form and content, this unit and Phoebe herself have come under much scrutiny. The mystery surrounding Phoebe’s role has perplexed scholars attempting to reconstruct the flow chart of the early church. The enigma surrounding Phoebe has projected her into the debate regarding what ministerial activities she and other women are authorized to perform and has made her a highly controversial figure.

Though her name was common, Phoebe is mentioned only here in the New Testament (Romans 16:1-2). She is otherwise unknown. Her name means “bright” or “radiant”. It is the feminine form of Phoebus (φοἰβος), a famous epithet given to the god Apollo, “the Bright One”.

Slaves were routinely issued pagan names because figures from Greek mythology commonly substituted for the godfather during the naming process. When slaves became Christian they typically retained their pagan names if not their meaning. In view of this practice, some have speculated that Phoebe is a freedwoman.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) theorizes:

The name Phoibē suggests her pagan background and probably connotes her status as a freed slave (so Heinrich Schlier [1900-1978], Römberbrief 441). The name was of mythological origin, that of a Titaness, daughter of Heaven and Earth (Hesiod, Theognis 136), wife of Coeus, and mother of Leto, grandmother of Apollo (Phoebus) and Artemis. The name means “shining, beaming, bright”; it was commonly used in the Greco-Roman world of the time. (Fitzmyer, Romans (The Anchor Bible), 729)
At the very least, it can be inferred that Phoebe is a Gentile as a Jewess would not have used such a name.

Phoebe is referenced with no mention of a father, husband or sons. Paul ignores all other biographical data and emphasizes her role in the church at Cenchreae. Cenchreae was a port situated on the Saronic Gulf, on the southeastern side of the narrow isthmus that connects southern Achaia to northern Achaia (and Macedonia further north). This locale would provide plenty of opportunity for the practical expression of Christian compassion (Romans 16:2).

Located eight miles from the city, Cenchreae served as Corinth’s eastern port to the Aegean Sea; one of two Corinthian ports. The reference to Cenchreae supports the common belief that Romans is written at Corinth (Romans 16:1). Paul spent eighteen months in Corinth (Acts 18:1-18) and the apostle sailed from Cenchreae in traveling from Corinth to Ephesus (Acts 18:18). In all likelihood, Phoebe was well known in Corinth.

In his glowing recommendation, Paul asserts that Phoebe is a sister, a deacon/servant, a saint, and a helper (Romans 16:1-2). In describing her as “our sister” and “saint”, Paul informs that she is a fellow believer and appeals to their common bond: Christ. Early Christians commonly referred to women believers with the familial appellation “sister” (I Corinthians 7:15, 9:5; Philemon 1:2; James 2:15; Ignatius Epistle to Polycarp 5.1; II Clement 12:5, 19:1, 20:2; The Shepherd of Hermas Vision 2.2.3, 2.3.1).

Paul evokes Phoebe’s status as a diakonos, a shadowy term with a broad range of meaning. Paul uses the same designation earlier in the letter (Romans 13:4 twice). The intent of this term has sparked much discussion. The question is whether the word indicates a general use (“servant”) or the ecclesiastical office of “deacon”, albeit an undeveloped form of this position.

Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) assesses:

Paul uses the language of “service” (diakonia) in a variety of ways, as we might expect for a term so broad in its possible applications. In this letter, he uses it for his own ministry of preaching (Romans 11:13), his collection for the saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:31) and for the work of Phoebe (Romans 16:1). A separate ministry of “deacons” appears in I Timothy 3:8, 12, but the “gift of service” may extend beyond that office (see I Corinthians 16:15; II Corinthians 8:4, 9:1; Ephesians 4:12). (Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 193)
Colin G. Kruse (b. 1938) adds:
He uses the same word he employs regularly to describe both himself and others as servants of God (II Corinthians 6:4), servants of the gospel (Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23), servants of a new covenant (II Corinthians 3:6), servants in the Lord (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7), and servants of Christ (Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:7; I Timothy 4:6). Only here in Romans 16:1 do we find anyone described as ‘a deacon of the church’, and this appears to be the earliest reference to such a ministry in ‘the church’. In Colossians 1:24-25 Paul does speak of the body of Christ, the church, of which he became a ‘servant’. All this suggests that the apostle recognized Phoebe as a servant of the church similar to his other colleagues and himself. (Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 553)
The diverging opinions on the term’s purpose are evidenced by the variance among translations. Many opt for the general meaning, “servant” (ASV, CEB, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV) as it used of servants drawing water (John 2:5, 9). Others go with the more formal title, “deacon” (NIV, NLT, NRSV) or “deaconess” (AMP, RSV). Still other translations utilize broader designations like “leader” (CEV) or “key representative” (MSG).

Deacon was one of the first offices to emerge in the early Christian movement (Philippians 1:1; I Timothy 3:8; Ignatius Epistle to the Ephesians 2.1, Epistle to the Magnesians 6.1). Today, it is a loaded term as “Deacon” means different things depending on the denomination or person speaking. Paul’s casual use of the word shows that it has not yet developed the baggage it carries today.

Translations often demonstrate their bias in their rendering of Romans 16:1. Sojung Yoon exposes:

Διάκονος appears a total of nineteen times in the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline letters. Sixteen times the KJV and ASV translate it as “minister,” while in Philippians 1:1 and I Timothy 3:8,12 they translate it as “deacon.” and in Romans 16:1 as “servant.” Therefore one can say that the KJV and ASV imply that διάκονος refers to an official position within the church, since normally they translate it as “minister.” Only in Romans 16:1 do they translate διάκονος as “servant,” thus implying that Phoebe was not a leader in the church but a devoted lay person. The RSV translates διάκονος as “deaconness,” also differentiating Phoebe’s leadership from other male διάκονοι by making the masculine noun διάκονος feminine, a distinction not found in the Greek. (Holly E. Hearon[b. 1956], Distant Voices Drawing Near: Essays in Honor of Antoinette Clark Wire [b. 1934], 20)
Alvin J. Schmidt (b. 1932) chronicles:
Phoebe...was a diakonos, not “deaconess” as male theologians have mistranslated this work in many Bible versions. (The feminine form of diakonos) did not appear in literature until about 300 years after St. Paul addresses Phoebe in the Epistle to the Romans. The Apostolic Constitutions [a Syriac document of about A.D. 375] is the first known Christian writing to use the feminine form of diakonos). The word diakonos appears many times in the New Testament. In the King James Version (KJV) it is most often translated as “minister” when it speaks about a man holding this office. Three times the KJV translates the word as “deacon.” Only in one place does it use the word servant, and that occurs in Romans 16:1, where Phoebe in mentioned...Evidently, beginning with the KJV, English translators were overwhelmed by sexist values because the Miles Coverdale [1488-1569] edition, about seventy years earlier (1535), still translated diakonos in Romans 16:1 as “minister.” Closer to our time, the Revised Standard Version renders diakonos as “deaconess.” while the New International Version, like the KJV, has “servant.” (Schmidt, Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology, 180)
As Yoon and Schmidt allude, “deaconess” is an especially incorrect translation (AMP, RSV, J.B. Phillips [1906-1982]). Kristina LaCelle-Peterson (b. 1960) corrects:
The fact that Paul used the masculine nominative form of the word suggests that she held a particular recognized role of “deacon” or “servant” that carried the same responsibilities as when a man held that role. If Paul is not referring to a specific office that Phoebe held, we have to assume that he simply confused the endings, but that would be like using the wrong gendered pronoun (as in, Phoebe had his mission to fulfill). No educated person would do that, particularly not someone as articulate as Paul. When an English translation renders the word as deaconess it leaves the inaccurate impression that Paul is drawing a distinction of roles based on gender. (Fortunately this is less common in more recent translations.) (LaCelle-Peterson, Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective, 62)
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) concurs:
In a church context the word should be rendered ‘deacon’, whether masculine or feminine. That the duties of a deacon could be performed by either men or women is suggested by I Timothy 3:11, where ‘the women’ are to be understood as ‘deacons’ (like the men of I Timothy 3:3-10). (Bruce, Romans (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 252)
Scholarly opinion is as divided as the translators regarding the meaning of diakonos. Grant R. Osborne (b. 1942) surveys:
She is a “deacon”...of the church in Cenchrea, which could refer to a general service to the church (NIV; NASB; Kazimierz Romaniuk [b. 1927] 1990:132-34) or an official office in the church (NRSV; REB; NLTL; C.E.B. Cranfield [b. 1915] 1979; James D.G. Dunn [b. 1939] 1988b; Leon Morris [1914-2006] 1988; Douglas J. Moo [b. 1950] 1996; Thomas R. Schreiner [b. 1954] 1998). Most accept the latter, for the term referred to that office (Philippians 1:1; I Timothy 3:8, 12), and women at times did hold the office (I Timothy 3:11). Moreover, this is the masculine noun (diakonos), and if it did indicate a general “serving,” one would have expected the feminine diakonia. In fact some have concluded that she was the pastor of the congregation (Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza [b. 1938] 1986:425-26; Robert Jewett 1988:148-50), but there is too little evidence that this term was used of the position of pastor over “overseer” in the first century. Most likely she held the office of “deacon,” but there is little evidence regarding what this office entailed...Most likely deacons dealt with the practical needs of the church, for example, caring for the needy...and financial oversight. (Osborne, Romans (IVP New Testament Commentary), 402-3)
The debate is not new, it has persisted for centuries. Colin G. Kruse (b. 1938) documents:
Some early church fathers believed that she fulfilled an official role. Origen [184-253] said: ‘This passage teaches that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry by the apostle’s authority...Not only that — they ought to be ordained into the ministry, because they helped in many ways and by their good services deserved the praise even of the apostle’. Pelagius [354-420] said, ‘Even today, women deaconesses in the East are known to minister to their own sex in baptism or even in the ministry of the Word, for we find that women taught privately, e.g., Priscilla, whose husband was called Aquila.’ Some recent commentators agree. (Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 553-54)
The majority of scholars assert that Phoebe served in some official capacity. Many have concluded that since Paul’s qualification “of the church” (Romans 16:1) connects diakonos to a specific church it also indicates a specific office. This is the first time “church” is used in Romans and in this epistle it always speaks of a local, not the universal, church (Romans 16:1, 4, 5, 16, 23).

C.E.B. Cranfield (b. 1915) comments:

It is perhaps just conceivable that the word διάκονος should be understood here as a quite general reference to her service of the congregation; but it is very much more natural, particularly in view of the way in which Paul formulates his understand it as referring to a definite office. We regard it as virtually certain that Phoebe is being described as ‘a (or possibly ‘the’) deacon’ of the church in question, and that this occurrence of διάκονος is to be classified with its occurrences in Philippians 1:1 and I Timothy 3:8, 12. And, while it is true that the functions of a διάκονος are not expressly indicated in Philippians 1:1 or in I Timothy 3:8ff or in the present two verses, there is nothing in any of these passages in any way inconsonant with the inherent probability that a specialized use of διάκονος in New Testament times will have corresponded to the clearly attested specialized use of διακονειν and διακονία with reference to the practical service of the needy, and there are some features, for example, what is said about Phoebe in Romans 16:2b, which would seem to afford it some support. (Cranfield, Romans 9-16 (International Critical Commentary), 781)
David L. Bartlett (b. 1941) argues that Phoebe is best described as a “minister”: designated as a diakonos. This Greek word often means “minister,” even as Paul applies it to himself (see, for instance, I Corinthians 3:5; II Corinthians 3:6, 6:4, 11:23). Clearly Phoebe has a role of some importance in the early community, and “minister” is probably a better translation than “deacon.” Sometimes a “minister,” or diakonos, is a person who carries out a commission from another. (In II Corinthians 11:15, Paul refers to false apostles as “deacons” or “emissaries” from Satan.) Phoebe may be Christ’s emissary in the church at Cenchreae, as Paul has been Christ’s emissary in Corinth. In Philippians 1:1, “deacons” are apparently local church leaders, though they may not yet be officers in any institutionalized way. Older translations sometimes called Phoebe a “deaconess,” but the Greek word gives not reason to think that she has a leadership role reserved for women. She is a “deacon” or “minister.” (Bartlett, Romans (Westminster Bible Companion), 140)
James D.G. Dunn (b. 1939) states unequivocally, “Phoebe is the first recorded ‘deacon’ in the history of Christianity (Dunn, Romans 9-16 (Word Biblical Commentary), 887).”

If Dunn is correct, there is still great discussion as to what a deacon’s duties entailed. Women holding the office were known to conduct baptisms for women and to preach. The degree to which the term designated an actual office at the time Paul wrote Romans is also unclear.

It is for this reason that many, even those who object to women in ministry, have no problem conceding that Phoebe served as a deacon. Wayne Grudem (b. 1948) explains:

It does not matter very much...whether Phoebe is called a faithful “servant” or a “deacon” in Romans 16:1. In neither case does this passage show that she had any teaching or governing authority in the church. Teaching and governing the whole church are functions given to “elders,” not deacons, in the New Testament (see I Timothy 3:2, 5, 5:17; Titus 1:9; also Acts 20:17, 28). (Grudem, Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism: Biblical Responses to the Key Questions, 154-55)
The word translated “helper” is as contested as “deacon” (Romans 16:2 NASB). It is prostatis, which literally means someone who stands in front of something else. The word is translated variously “been helpful” (NLT), “helper” (ASV, NASB, NKJV, RSV), “she’s helped” (MSG), “succourer” (KJV), “benefactor” (HCSB, NIV, NRSV), “patron” (ESV) and “respected leader” (CEV). The terminology represents distinguished service. The word connotes great honor. The Roman emperor even boasted that he was the state’s supreme benefactor.

Douglas J. Moo (b. 1950) defines:

The Greek word prostatis is found only here in biblical Greek. It comes from a verb that means (1) “care for, give aid to,” or (2) “direct, preside over.” If Paul is applying to the noun this first meaning of the verb, he would simply be characterizing Phoebe as a “helper” of many Christians...But if we use the meaning of the cognate verb to define prostatis, Pauline usage would favor a different rendering. For Paul seems to use the verb only to mean “direct,” “preside over.” Noting this, some recent scholars have argued that Paul intends to characterize Phoebe as a “leader” of the church. But it is difficult to conceive how Phoebe would have had the opportunity to be a “leader” of Paul. Moreover, the fact, that Paul designates her as the leader “of many” rather than as the leader of “the church” (contrast Romans 16:1) suggests that the term here does not denote an official or even semi-official, position in the local church. The best alternative, then, is to give to prostatis the meaning that if often has in secular Greek: “patron,” “benefactor.” A “patron was one who came to the aid of others, especially foreigners, by providing housing and financial aid and by representing their interests before local authorities. Cenchreae’s status as a busy seaport would make it imperative that a Christian in its church take up this ministry on behalf of visiting Christians. Phoebe, then, was probably a woman of high social standing and some wealth, who put her status, resources, and time at the services of traveling Christians, like Paul, who needed help and support. (Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 915-16)
Leander E. Keck (b. 1928) concurs:
The word here surely means more than “a good friend” (REB), for it appears to be the Greek equivalent of the Latin patrona, one who “came to the aid of others, especially foreigners, by providing housing and financial aid and by representing their interests before local authorities”...Acts 16:14-15, 40 suggests that Lydia served as Paul’s patron in Philippi. Phoebe, then, was a “benefactor,” from whose generosity Paul too benefitted (Gaius was another; Romans 16:23). Like Lydia and Gaius, Phoebe had financial resources; what sort of business took her to Rome is not indicated. By making her role in the church a reason to welcome her in Rome, Paul, in effect, says, “She deserves it.” Having assisted travelers like Paul, she would now be given assistance herself. (Keck, Romans (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 369-370)
Some have seen Paul’s use of prostatis as further evidence of a position of leadership. The word is derived from the same root (proistemi) as the word Paul uses for “leads” in Romans 12:8.

Alan F. Johnson (b. 1933) glosses:

The word “help” (Greek prostatis) in Romans 16:2 is found only here in the New Testament and its sense is not entirely clear...The word is found eight times in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) and thirteen times in the first-century Jewish writer Josephus [37-100], in each of the twenty-one cases with reference to a person who holds a publicly recognized service-oriented leadership role, the word may be stronger than simply a benefactor...Its choice here by Paul seems to clearly affirm that Phoebe has not only some social position, wealth, and independence, but that she is recognized as an official leader in the church as well. (Johnson, Romans (Everyman’s Bible Commentary), 259-60)
Thomas R. Schreiner (b. 1954) counters:
That Phoebe is being called a leader here is improbable for three reasons. (1) It is highly improbable that Paul would say that Phoebe held a position of authority over him. He says that about no one except Christ, not even the Jerusalem apostles (Galatians 1:6-7, 11), so confident is he of his high authority as an apostle (cf. I Corinthians 14:37-38; Galatians 1:8-9; II Thessalonians 3:14). (2) There seems to be a play on words between the word prostatis and the previous verb paristēmi, in Romans 16:2. Paul says to help (paristēmi) Phoebe because she has been a help ( prostatis) to many, including to Paul himself. It fits the context better understand Paul as saying “help Phoebe because she has been such a help to others and to me.” (3) Although the related masculine noun prostatēs can mean “leader,” the actual feminine noun (prostatis) does not take the meaning “leader” but is defined as “protectress, patroness, helper.” (John Piper [b. 1946] and Wayne Grudem [b. 1948], Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, 219-220)
Whatever her official position, Paul’s argument is clear: Phoebe has helped others and deserves any assistance the Roman Christians can provide. She has good kharma. In making this assertion, Paul is diplomatically reiterating his previous charge to contribute “to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality (Romans 12:13 NASB).”

It is uncertain what assistance Phoebe might need. Rudolf Schumacher (b. 1884) was the first to espouse that the language (pragma, Romans 16:2) connotes a lawsuit (Schumacher, Die beiden letzten kapitel des Römerbriefes, 49). While others have adopted this stance, it is far from certain.

Regardless of her gender, position and whatever needs she might have, it can be certain that Phoebe is special and a leading figure in the church at Cenchraea.

Which part of the letter was most important to the Romans, the teaching or the greetings? Is the recommendation of Phoebe an afterthought? When have you received a letter of recommendation? Who vouches for you? Who have you known that fits Phoebe’s description? Who are the leading women in your church? Can women serve as deacons there? In your opinion, what functions should a woman not perform? Is there anything that God cannot accomplish through a woman?

Though it is not stated in the letter, the prevailing opinion is that Phoebe is the bearer of the Epistle to the Romans. (To acknowledge her as courier in the letter might be considered stating the obvious.) The Roman Empire had no public postal system and many believe that she is delivering the correspondence while conducting “whatever business” she is tending to (Romans 16:2). Subscriptions in some ancient manuscripts even indicate as much (337, 424, 1881, Majority text). This theory is also attested in early Christian documents, e.g. Pseudo-Constantius, The Holy Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (on 16:1); dated 405.

Margaret Y. MacDonald (b. 1961) notes:

It was quite common for ancient letters to include praise of their bearers, and sometimes letters were written for the sole purpose of commending their bearers. Paul’s instructions concerning Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 appear to reflect this conventional practice (cf. I Corinthians 16:15-18). It is impossible to be certain whether this commendation is made only to guarantee that the Romans offer her the best kind of hospitality or whether Paul intends that she might play a specific role in the life of the Roman community. (Ross Shepard Kraemer [b. 1948] and Mary Rose D’Angelo, Women & Christian Origins, 207-208)

Phoebe is accustomed to serving and her toting Paul’s epistle fits her character. A courier would have need of food and lodging and thus her being the bearer of the letter would account for Paul’s instruction to the Romans (Romans 16:2). At the very least, Phoebe and the letter arrive at roughly the same time.

As courier, Phoebe would be expected to interpret the letter and supplement content, filling in the gaps. This would make her the first commentator of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

Robert J. Karris (b. 1938) describes:

It is highly likely that Phoebe not only carried Paul’s letter to the Romans to the house churches but also read it to them. You see, Phoebe was likely among the five percent of the population who could read. Further, in reading Romans, she surely had to know what it was about. Ancient letters (and manuscripts) did not have spacing, chapters and verses, and subheadings. I give a simple example. Suppose I put a recent headline in capital letters without spacing: FLORIDAKEYDEERREBOUNDS. Without too much effort you read: Florida key deer rebounds. But is “key” an adjective meaning “principal”? Does “key” refer to the Florida Keys? Is “key deer” a technical name for a species of deer? The reader would have to know answers to these questions in order to read this simple sentence out loud meaningfully. Just think of the skill Phoebe must have if she is to navigate successfully through all the elements of scholastic diatribe that Paul used in composing his letter! (Karris, Galatians and Romans (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: New Testament), 94)
Phoebe is Paul’s representative to the leaders of the house churches. In a very real sense, Paul and Phoebe endorse one another. In authenticating her, Paul gives his own work credibility. Paul trusts Phoebe implicitly. Some have speculated that he is sending her to set up operations in Rome and to financially support a mission to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28). More importantly, Paul entrusts Phoebe with his opus, his most complete work. Its survival is evidence of her success.

Brendan Byrne (b. 1939) praises:

Brief though it is, Paul’s commendation of Phoebe is an important indication of the leadership roles exercised by women in the early Christian communities. It is also not without significance that the document many have judged to be the most influential in Christian history (Paul’s letter to Rome) was entrusted to this woman on the long and risky journey to its destination, its ultimate reception very much dependent upon the impression she herself was to make on the recipient community. (Byrne, Romans (Sacra Pagina), 448)
Phoebe is entrusted with nothing less than the gospel. As are we.

Does it matter whether or not Phoebe held an official office? What does having a formal title mean to you? What is the bigger responsibility, being a deacon or bearing the letter to the Romans? What have you been entrusted with?

“This is a staggering fact. God has entrusted to people like us, redeemed sinners, the responsibility of carrying out the divine purpose in history.” - George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God, p. 134