Holding Forth the Word of Life


In the spring of the year 58 A.D., a middle-aged woman prepares to board a ship sailing from the Gulf of Corinth to Italy. She speaks with her friends upon shore who have come to see her off and wish her well. One of those friends is a man, short in stature. He bears the marks of deep thought, of hard study, and of resolute will. This man, as he bids farewell to the woman, hands her a bulky roll of manuscript. He gives her careful instructions as to its proper delivery. She waves goodbye as the sails are hoisted, and the boat glides slowly from the shore. Soon, the vessel is cutting her way across the fair blue waters of the Gulf, toward Rome.

While we do not know the vessel’s name or what kind of cargo she carried, we do know that she had a treasure on board more precious to the world than a shipload of the purest gold. For the little man with the striking face who had spoken with the woman on shore was Paul, the great Apostle of the Gentiles. The woman to whom he spoke was Phoebe, the deaconess of the church at Cenchrea. The manuscript he gave to Phoebe was the Epistle written from Corinth to the church, which was in Rome. It was an Epistle of such consummate importance to the future of Christianity that some believed she carried beneath the folds of her robe the entire future of Christian theology.

Phoebe is spoken of in Romans 16:1-2, where Paul states, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also” (NKJV). Sources state that she was a deaconess of the church at Cenchrea. Her duties were to attend to female converts, helping them get ready for baptism; to visit the sick and those in prison; and to attend to all parts of the church work which were typically completed by women. Phoebe was a woman of action, a woman who served, worked in, supported, and traveled for an apostolic church. She was a helper of many, and she was a woman with a mission.

Do you suppose Phoebe knew at the time Paul handed her his parcel that she carried a masterpiece? Other sources report Phoebe brought Paul’s letter to the room of Aquila, which was located across the river. This area of town was a region full of mean, vicious, and dangerous people. It was a region into which the police did not willingly enter alone. The Epistle to the Romans was, apparently, first brought to the church meeting in Aquila’s house, where it was read by the light of some small lamp, then taken to some other equally humble room where it was read to other Christian brethren.

Life is not always glamorous, and many times, it does not appear that the work we do or the message we carry will make a difference or impact anyone. We also can sometimes feel that the work or mission we have been given is difficult and heavy to carry through to its proper destination. This biblical account depicts the importance of pressing on and doing what we can. The message that God has for us to carry in “our robes” or in our hands can affect generations to come.

Another example is the legend of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, who also carried something of significance. It is said that, during the 13th century, she climbed steep, slippery, wintry paths to carry a supply of bread to the poor. One day she came upon her husband on the path, and he asked her what she carried. In the folds of her skirt, he did not find bread; instead, according to the legend, the bread had turned into red and white roses, lovelier than those of earth. The story goes that Elizabeth spent her time, strength, and means in caring for the poor people afflicted by famine and plague. She opened a hospital for children and cared for them herself. The legend depicts the beauty of her tender heart for the suffering. Perhaps the imagery of the bread for the hungry, which turned to beautiful flowers, speaks to your heart of the treasure God has given you to carry to others.

Philippians 2:16 states, “Holding forth  the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain” (KJV). This term “holding forth” or “holding out” is to be understood as bringing the message that brings life, or the message that shows people how they can really live. This is an exhortation by the Lord to keep on bringing the Gospel and to keep showing His love to those He leads us to.

The Apostle Paul urges us to embrace serving God and others. According to Galatians 6:10, Paul challenges us, “… as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (NIV). Every Christian can help in some form to make the world a happier and better place. The troubled, the weary, and the unfortunate are always near to us. The troubles and misfortunes of others are often our opportunity to reach them.

We should always be looking for opportunities to do good. In so doing, we should be like the dewdrop that finds a drooping rose and sinks down into its folds, losing itself but reviving the weary flower. So, let us be content to do good and bless the life that needs our benediction, being remembered only by what we have done.


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