The Measure of a Woman: Reflecting God's Character
- 2006 17 Nov
To be reverent in the way they live
A Biblical Portrait of Phoebe’s Exemplary Lifestyle
Though Paul’s reference to this woman is very brief, it’s amazing what we can learn about the way she lived her life as a Christian. Here are Paul’s words:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me (Rom. 16:1-2).
A Typical Gentile City
Note that Paul identified Phoebe’s hometown as Cenchrea, which is located just seven miles from Corinth. Like Corinth, Cenchrea was a Roman city permeated with pagan practices. Describing Gentile behavior in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul pulled no punches:
They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more (Eph. 4:18-19).
Phoebe probably became a Christian during Paul’s extended ministry in Corinth (see Acts 18:1-18). Interestingly, her name is the feminine form of “Phoibos,” a name given to the god Apollo.1 In other words, Phoebe had been converted from a pagan lifestyle, although like many Gentiles, she may have initially become God-fearing because of her association with God-fearing Jews.
A Trip to Rome
t some point in time, Phoebe traveled to Rome and when Paul wrote his letter to the Christians living in this imperial city and extended a series of greetings, Phoebe was literally at the top of the list (see Rom. 16:1). In fact, some believe that Phoebe actually carried Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, demonstrating how much Paul trusted this godly woman. This indeed would have been an awesome responsibility.
Think about it. How would you feel if you had been asked by the apostle Paul to deliver one of his personal letters that was inspired by the Holy Spirit? As you boarded a ship in Corinth and set sail for Rome, you would have kept this sacred scroll in your possession at all times. And as you disembarked near Rome, perhaps at Puteoli, and traveled by foot via the Appian Way (as Paul did later, see Acts 28:11-16), you would have felt an even greater burden to complete this sacred trust.
A Transformed Life
Paul wanted everyone in Rome to know that Phoebe had helped him personally. How, we’re not told, but we can assume she came alongside him in a very special way when he ministered in Corinth — perhaps offering her home in Cenchrea as a place to stay or as a place where the believers in that city could worship.
Without question, Phoebe was reverent in the way she lived. Whatever her lifestyle as a pagan, as a Christian she no longer lived “as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking” (Eph. 4:17). She had “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24).
A Faithful Servant
Phoebe definitely developed a good reputation in the Christian community. Not only did she help Paul but she helped many others as well. In fact, some believe this godly woman had an official position in the church in Cenchrea, serving as a deacon. In Romans 16:1, Paul used the Greek word diakonos to describe Phoebe’s ministry. This word, translated “servant” in the New International Version of the Bible, is also used to describe what all believers are to be and do. But in this passage Paul seemed to use the term in a more specific way: to describe her deacon role.
Paul went on to describe Phoebe as being “worthy of the saints” (v. 2), which means that she had earned the right to be highly respected and consequently to be cared for financially. In fact, she may have been a widow who met all of the qualifications also outlined by Paul in his first letter to Timothy (see 1 Tim. 5:9-10). If so, we can understand more fully why Paul recommended that the church in Rome should without hesitation “give her any help she may need” (Rom. 16:2).
Though Phoebe’s role as Paul’s assistant was very unique in this first-century setting, her character was not to be unique among women who professed to follow Jesus Christ. She beautifully exemplifies the quality Paul listed first in his letter to Titus: She was reverent in the way she lived.
A Woman’s Reflections
Over the years, we’ve had the wonderful opportunity of ministering together with the wives of elders at Fellowship Bible Church North in Plano, Texas. We’ve asked each of these women to write a letter to you, the reader, reflecting on the qualities of maturity outlined by Paul in his letter to Titus.
In this chapter, it’s a privilege to introduce you to Sharon Cornwall, who is serving our church along with her husband, Mike.
The portrait on Phoebe’s life reminds me of a woman I’ll call Sue. She and her husband were in our small group at church. To get to know one another, my husband and I encouraged everyone to relate his or her life story.
As Sue began to share, tears streamed down her face. “You might not like me after I share my life,” she said, straining to get the words out.
Sue had come out of a hard drug culture, and immorality was part of her lifestyle. We could feel her pain as she shared the results of bad choices. But we now saw God’s amazing grace reflected in Sue’s life! We told her so. We reassured her that she was cleansed and that Jesus was shining through! Her life was now being lived in devotion to God and in service to others. She, as Phoebe, proved herself reverent by her inner life, which was manifested outwardly.
As you conclude this chapter, ask yourself what God is seeking to do in your own life. Do you recognize the changes He has already made in your life? On the other hand, are there areas that need a “housecleaning” by the Holy Spirit? Ask God to reveal these to you, to give you a tender heart and then to empower you! He will! Your reverent life, lived for God and for others, will be both amazing and rewarding!
The Way We Live
The Greek word Paul used, which is translated as “reverent,” comes from hieros, meaning holy. In fact, this is the term Paul used to describe the Word of God when he wrote his final letter to Timothy. He reminded his “son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2) that he had become a Christian because his mother Eunice had laid the groundwork by teaching him “the holy [hieros] Scriptures” from the time he was a young child (2 Tim. 3:15).
You Are a Letter from Christ
Someone once said that our lives may be the only Bible some people will ever read. Paul underscored the importance of this idea when he wrote to the Corinthians:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:2-3).
This is a very important truth. We cannot expect others to hear what we say unless they first see it demonstrated in our own lives. As a young man himself, Titus could not expect other younger men to respond to his teaching unless they saw it exemplified in his own life. That is why Paul wrote, “In everything set them an example by doing what is good” (Titus 2:7). In the same way, older women could not expect younger women to hear what they taught verbally unless they themselves were consistently reverent in the way they lived. In essence, they were to reflect the life of Jesus Christ.
Modeling is a foundational concept in New Testament communication. In actuality, Paul exemplified a twofold teaching approach in his own life-on-life ministry — modeling Christlikeness while verbally instructing believers. When he wrote to the Thessalonians, he reminded them of the way he, Silas and Timothy had utilized these two dimensions in their communication.
Their model: “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed” (1 Thess. 2:10).
Their teaching ministry: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:11-12).
When Paul encouraged Timothy to communicate the Word of God faithfully to the Ephesians, he emphasized the same twofold approach:
His model: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
His teaching ministry: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13; see also Titus 2:7-8).
Process Versus Perfection
When Paul wrote to Titus and instructed him to teach the older women to be reverent in the way they lived, this modeling was to embody all of the qualities Paul outlined for both older and younger women (see Titus 2:3-5). On the one hand, he was certainly not describing and demanding perfection. However, he was teaching the importance of consistency and a level of maturity that will win the respect of those we are attempting to lead. This is also why Paul emphasized that elders who are to shepherd the church are to “be above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and “blameless” (Titus 1:6). In essence, they too were to be reverent in the way they lived so as to both model and teach Christlike character to others.
Don’t let this standard intimidate or discourage you. Developing this kind of reputation in the Christian community takes time. Imagine how long it took Phoebe to grow in her relationship with Christ. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. Remember that Paul ministered in Corinth for more than a year, and when he wrote his first letter to these believers, he accused most of them of still being “infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1). They were “still worldly [and] acting like mere men” (v. 3) — or as pagan unbelievers. Let’s not forget that Phoebe lived just a few miles from the Corinthians and that the town she grew up in was just as pagan as Corinth.
If Phoebe could eventually become a woman who reflected God’s character, so can you. God has given you all you need to grow and mature in your Christian life, no matter what your past behavior. The apostle Peter put it this way:
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness (2 Pet. 1:3).
Older Versus Younger
Since Paul emphasized the need for older women to train the younger women, you might conclude that since you are a young wife or mother or single woman, this statement by Paul doesn’t apply to you. It’s true that the term “older” refers to age and that the older we get, the more wisdom we hope to have to share with those younger than we are. However, when it comes to applying what Paul was teaching, there is certainly an element of relativity in this exhortation that applies at three levels.
- First, younger Christians can teach older Christians. Both Timothy and Titus were younger than those they were teaching, and in order to be effective, they also needed to be reverent in the way they lived (see 1 Tim. 4:12).
- Second, we should all be an example to our peers. Both Timothy and Titus were to be reverent in the way they lived so they could be an example to those who were basically their own age (see Titus 2:6-8).
- Third, wisdom normally increases as we grow older. In terms of Paul’s exhortation to Titus, he recognized how important it is for older, mature women to both model and train younger women to be Christlike in all of their relationships.
Remember too that you are always older than some women in your life — younger sisters in your home, in your church and in your larger circle of friends. For example, you may be in high school. As an “older woman” you have the opportunity and responsibility to train a younger woman — say a junior high school student — to be a godly Christian. In other words, what Paul wrote to Titus about older women training younger women generally applies to all age levels.
A Tribute to a Very Special Woman
I (Gene) have received some resistance from my wife, Elaine, for including the following tribute, especially since she participated in writing this book. However, I feel this is one of those very rare occasions in our marriage when I’ve asked her to submit, even though she is reluctant. Anyone who knows her well also knows she is hesitant to talk about herself, whether it’s in our immediate family or within the family of God in general. However, this is not Elaine speaking; it’s her husband.
Elaine and I have been in the ministry together since our marriage in 1956 — nearly 50 years. For 20 of these years she served with me as a professor’s wife — 13 years at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and 7 years as a full-time professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. The rest of the time has been primarily as a pastor’s wife — serving alongside me in three churches where I was the founding pastor and senior leader. In all of these years, in the academic community as well as in the local church community, I have never heard one negative criticism come from her lips about either her lifestyle or her various leadership roles. The other elders and their wives with whom we have served over the years verify this observation! They have always had the highest respect for Elaine.
Is she a perfect woman — a perfect mother and perfect wife of a one-time professor and now a pastor? Not at all. Has she made mistakes? Of course. But in her humanness she has been reverent in the way she has lived! To this very day she has demonstrated that she is a woman “worthy of respect” (1 Tim. 3:11). She has a good reputation among believers and unbelievers alike.
I’m a fortunate man indeed. As many pastors and other Christian leaders will testify, they have succeeded in ministry in spite of their wives. For some, it’s been an unusually difficult road. They’ve had to put out fires that their spouses had started. In fact, they have not been able to trust their wives with confidential information since they’ve known they would not keep it confidential.
I cannot think of one instance in all of our years of ministry when Elaine violated my trust with confidential information. On the other hand, I can remember times when I shared information with others, only to have her quickly but privately remind me that I had taken that information in confidence.
One of the authors of the book of Proverbs asked the following question: “A wife of noble character who can find?” He then continued to state that if she can be found, “She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life” (31:10-12).
By God’s grace, He enabled me to meet this kind of woman. All these years she has reflected integrity and dignity — and at times when I’ve made decisions that have been less than wise and prudent, she has graciously helped me get back on the right path.
Why have I written this tribute? The biblical author who described the woman of noble character in Proverbs 31 concluded his own tribute with these words — “Give her the reward she has earned” (v. 31). That is reason enough for me to pen these words about Elaine at this moment in her life. Though she knows her weaknesses — and so do I — she has exemplified Jesus Christ to me as no other human being! Thank you, Elaine! It’s a privilege to write this tribute.
Transformed by Jesus Christ
Needless to say, no Christian woman is perfect, just as no Christian man is perfect. However, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, it’s possible for Christian women (and men) to be reverent in the way they live, to live holy lives.
We must remind ourselves often that there’s only been one perfect human being — the God-man, Jesus Christ. However, the Scriptures are clear that we are to imitate Christ. He is the standard by which we are to measure ourselves (see Eph. 4:13). When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he stated: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Knowing Christ Personally
Becoming like Christ must begin with a personal relationship with the Savior. The Bible calls this a born-again experience (see John 3:3). It happens as a result of faith — not works. This is why Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast (2:8-9).
When we confess that we are sinners and in need of a Savior (see Rom. 3:23) and then put our faith in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, God places us in the family of God. At that time, God’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell in each of our lives enabling us to begin the journey of learning to live like Jesus Christ and to experience that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).
Have you taken this step of faith? If not, invite the Lord Jesus Christ to be your personal Savior from sin. You can do that today — at this moment. And if you do, you’ll then begin the journey of becoming more and more like Christ in all of your relationships.
A Suggested Prayer
If you are not certain of your eternal salvation, the following is a suggested prayer. Make this prayer your own heart’s desire by reading the words carefully and sincerely or by formulating the thoughts into your own words.
Dear Father in heaven, I acknowledge that I need a Savior. I confess my sins — and I thank You that Your Son, Jesus Christ, died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins. I now receive the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior from sin. I believe He died for me and rose again to give me eternal life. Thank You for sending Your Holy Spirit to dwell in my life from this moment forward. This I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Thinking and Growing Together
The following questions are designed for group discussion after reading and studying the content of this chapter:
- Why is it important to begin our spiritual journey by making sure we have a personal salvation experience through putting our faith in Jesus Christ?
- Why is modeling so important in helping others to imitate Jesus Christ?
- Reflect on what Paul wrote about Phoebe (see Rom. 16:1-2). Why was he able to recommend her so highly?
- If someone wrote the story of your life, what would you want him or her to say about your character?
- About what can the group pray for you personally?
Set a Goal
Write out one goal you would like to achieve as a result of this study.
From "The Measure of a Woman" © 2004 by Gene Getz and Elaine Getz. Published by Regal Books, www.regalbooks.com. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Gene A. Getz is senior pastor at Fellowship Bible Church North in Plano, Texas. More than 30,000 people currently attend Fellowship churches he has planted in Dallas, while even more such churches span the globe. Gene has written more than 50 books and is the host of the 15-minute daily radio program, "Renewal." He and his wife, Elaine, reside in Plano.