Generous, warm, hospitable. Happy, selfless and overflowing with service. If we would like to embrace these characteristics then Paul’s letter to Philippi has an important message for us. The epistle is written with great passion as Paul poured out his thanks to the ecclesia for a gift they had given him. The letter overflows with deep emotion, encouragement and guidance. Paul established many ecclesias around the world but, arguably, he loved the Philippians most. Philippi is a model ecclesia for us to follow – and the ex­hortation that Paul wrote to them is one for us today as well.

The tour commences

The story of Philippi commences in Acts 15, some eleven years before the epistle is written. Paul is planning his second missionary journey and after a sharp disagreement with Barnabas, selects Silas to accompany him (v39-40). The intention was to visit the ecclesias he had recently established in the region of Galatia (Acts 15:36); but God’s plan was much bigger than this.

Paul and Silas set out on their journey and reached the city of Derbe. There was no doubt a warmth of fellowship as stories were exchanged with brethren of that city and conversation turned to the affairs of the ecclesia since Paul had last been there. The brethren discussed challenges they faced, the response they had to their preaching efforts and new growth within the ecclesia. It wasn’t long before a young brother named Timothy was mentioned: a man of outstanding reputation despite his tender years, who had responded to the call of the Gospel in a very positive way. His father did not appear to have embraced the Truth, but despite this, his home life was one of careful instruction in the Scriptures thanks to his diligent mother and grandmother. It seems that Timothy joined Paul on this occasion and remained in close contact with him for the rest of his life.

Paul’s tour of the ecclesias in Phrygia and Galatia continued with some success – the ecclesias were strengthened and more converts were added to their number (Acts 16:5). The cities of Asia, south west of Galatia, presented an attractive proposition to the band of preachers, but God’s Spirit said, “No”. Perhaps then the region of Bythinia to the north? Again, the Spirit said, “No”. Paul’s band travels north west of Galatia to the city of Troas and there the Spirit has a different message. In a vision, Paul is directed to fertile grounds: “Come over into Macedonia and help us.” Immediately the team are on their way, joined, it seems, by Luke1.

Everywhere we see the hand of God at work on this mission. The team of preachers had been carefully chosen: Paul and Silas (not Barnabas), Timothy and Luke. The place to preach had been chosen: Macedonia – not Asia or Bithynia. Three times God openly intervened to direct the footsteps of the travelling preachers. But it wasn’t just the preachers that God was working with. Across the sea in Macedonia, God’s hand was also hard at work with those who would hear the message.

The city of Philippi

Philippi was a Roman town in Macedonia, north­ern Greece. At the time of Paul’s preaching it was not a large city: it wasn’t a centre of commerce or education; it wasn’t powerful or fashionable. But it was ready for the Gospel.

The city was established in 42 BC, shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Mark Antony and Octavian confronted the assassins of Julius Caesar at the Battle of Philippi and were victorious. As a reward for faithful service, many soldiers were re­leased from the army and granted land in Philippi. Up until the first century the area continued to at­tract retiring Roman soldiers2, particularly from the Praetorian guard3. An agricultural city developed over time with a collection of large farms and vil­lages supporting the city, which was later formally established as a Roman colony.

As an imperial province in the Roman Empire, Philippi was under the direct military control of Rome and valued this connection to the capital. Luke’s record describes the magistrates (16:20,22,35,36,38), accurately reflecting the cur­rent local rulership4. It is also here in Philippi that Paul first uses his Roman citizenship as a defence (v37,38), most probably because he knew this was highly valued in the city (v21). Archaeological evi­dence suggests that traders in purple from Thyatira were in the region at the time of Paul’s visit5, while there is no evidence of an organised Jewish com­munity until the late third century6.

Praying by the river

It is presumably because there was no synagogue in Philippi that Paul finds himself outside the city on the Sabbath, with a group of women praying by the river (v13). Paul makes a point of visiting the synagogue first, wherever he goes (Acts 13:14 cp v46), and his visit is frequently followed by a hasty eviction. Perhaps the lack of a Jewish community in Philippi is one reason why the Gospel grew so strongly and the ecclesia appears to remain free from controversy about the Law (a pressing issue at this time). Synagogue or no synagogue, Paul is in Philippi to preach the Gospel and the worshippers of God by the river are the first to hear. The angels of God have well prepared the way and Lydia’s heart is open when Paul arrives. She hears the message, is attentive to what she hears, responds to the message in baptism, evangelises her household and immediately presses Paul and his companions to accept hospitality: “If ye have judged me faith­ful to the Lord, come into my house and abide there” (v15). Here is an argument that Paul and his companions could not gainsay: an inseparable connection between faith and practical service.

Preaching and persecution

Paul’s preaching by the river continued after the conversion of Lydia and her household. Gradually the message filtered through the city until every­one knew about it. Among those who heard was a woman whose mind was perhaps confused or impaired but nevertheless the message was grasped with remarkable clarity. Paul came as a servant and he preached salvation. And everywhere Paul went, the voice of this woman went before him like a herald. It is rare for such preaching shouted from the housetops to have any effect and so it was on this occasion. Somewhat frustrated by this impediment, Paul is compelled to heal the woman of her condition and in so doing sparks persecution.

Wherever Paul travels on his journeys, persecu­tion follows but the reason for persecution is not always the same. Here in Philippi, persecution arose firstly because it endangered commercial interests7 (v19) and then, because the message was perceived to be Jewish, controversial, illegal and un-Roman (v20-21). These sentiments were most likely well entrenched in the city of Philippi and, while not always visible, were just below the surface.

Praising God in prison

Having been hastily tried by the generals in charge of Philippi, Paul and Silas are roughly beaten and thrown into the inner cell of the city prison. With their backs bleeding, Paul and Silas are locked into prison stocks. The jail is dark, painful, in­hospitable and demoralising. Yet in such terrible circumstances, Paul and Silas find the strength not only to pray to God but to sing praises to his name. The picture is a remarkable inspiration indeed and one that would have remained in the minds of their fellow prisoners. How could men in this situation be praising God? There was something within the minds of Paul and Silas that empowered them to rejoice, even in adverse circumstances. A dull rumble in the distance grows louder and louder and with a crash everything in sight rocks and heaves. Doors are thrown open, bars and chains ripped from the stone. Walls are pulled apart like they are paper and debris rains from the ceiling. And then in a moment, as quickly as it had commenced, all is still. The deep roar of the earth fades away into the distance. The jailer, woken from his sleep, thinks first of his prisoners: have they escaped? Fearing for his life, he rushes to the inner cell and is amazed to hear from Paul and Silas – his newest charges – that everyone is in their place.

We know what follows. The jailer hears all about the message of salvation that Paul and Silas had come to preach. He listens intently as the wounds of Paul are bathed and hears of the Son of God, who gave his life to bring salvation. What was the first thing the jailer did after he was baptised? He took Paul and Silas to his home, shared a meal with them and rejoiced in his newfound hope. A truly remarkable response given it was the middle of the night and Philippi had just been rocked by a major earthquake. The founding members of the Philippian ecclesia shared a wonderful faith that was expressed in boundless hospitality and a spirit of rejoicing that could not be defeated by their often challenging circumstances.

What happened after Paul left Philippi?

After Paul had planted the seed of the Gospel in Philippi, the new ecclesia was very busy. Their service in Christ began with hospitality and it con­tinued to grow and flourish in this beautiful way.

After a hasty exit from Philippi, Paul continues his preaching in Thessalonica. But the fledgling ecclesia in Philippi doesn’t forget Paul. They seek him out and provide practical support with a gift (Phil 4:15-16). And then they seek him out a second time with another gift (Phil 4:15-16). Paul travels on to Corinth and, again, the Philippians know just where Paul is, they know just what his needs are and they send a gift (2 Cor 11:9). When Paul sets out to take a gift to the poor saints in Jerusalem, the Macedonian ecclesias, no doubt including Philippi, are quick to provide and it seems that Luke is sent as their delegate (2 Cor 8:1-4; Acts 20:3-6). It seems that the generosity of the Philippians only stopped when they ‘lacked opportunity,’ perhaps through extreme poverty or persecution (Phil 4:10). But as soon as that cloud passes, the generosity of the Philippian ecclesia continues. They send Paul a gift when he is a prisoner in Rome (Phil 4:10,14; and possibly a second messenger Phil 2:26) and it is in response to this gift that Paul writes the epistle.

Before reading the letter that Paul wrote to this ecclesia, we know of their ready embrace of the Gospel, their boundless hospitality, their undying support of Paul and their joyful spirit that flourished in poverty and trial. It would have been a great joy for Paul to write to this wonderful ecclesia as he received their gift in his gloomy prison cell in Rome.

Footnotes

  1. Cp Acts 16:8 – “they” came to Mysia and v10 “we” came to Macedonia.
  2. Speidel, M (1970). The Captor of Decebalus, a new inscription from Philippi. Journal of Roman Studies, 60, 142-153.
  3. Burnett, M Amandry and PP Ripolles, (1992). Roman Provincial Coinage I. From The Death of Cafsar To The Death Of Vitellius (44 BC-AD 69). London: British Museum Press And Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale.
  4. Philippi at the Time of Paul and after his Death, edited by Charalambos Bakirtzis and Helmut Koester 1998, pg 52.
  5. Ibid pg 26.
  6. Ibid pg 34.
  7. Perhaps the ecclesia’s poverty in years to come is connected with this motivation of persecution