June 4, 2017
The city began as a wealthy settlement, named after the Father of Alexander the Great, Phillip II. He sought gold from the town and used it to pay for his army and to bribe other territories. He was a military man and was reported to have made the statement that, “No fortress is impregnable to whose walls an ass laden with gold can be driven.” As time went on, the gold depleted and after a number of political changes, the city became known as a Roman colony title: Colonia Julia Augusta Victrix Philippensium. Given the history and wealth, it was soon known as a mini Rome and in Paul’s day it had approximately 10,000 people living in it. Wealth and prestige flowed into the city from its big brother Rome. Latin was the predominant language and Roman soldiers who had land were raising their families here. It sat on the major highway, the Via Entourage and was very metropolitan.
In Acts 16 we meet 3 individuals who, by God’s grace, made up the initial church plant in Philippi. All of them reflect the wealth and diversity of church a Roman province. It would have felt a lot like our city today.
In Acts 16:11-15 we meet the first convert in this city, a woman in the fashion industry, Lydia.
Being called by God to go and preach the Gospel into this new territory, Paul, Luke and Timothy set off the Philippi, the leading city of Macedonia and a Roman colony. Paul’s plan is strategic: He travelled to the big cities and places of trade and preached the Gospel to the Jews first, and then the rest of the population. In going to a big city, the message would be picked up by traveler and then spread into the places they go. This is the plan in Philippi. Except, for such a large city, he finds no Synagogue. It is striking that out of some 10,000 residents, there were less than 10 male Jews in the city. 10 males would be enough for a Synagogue to start. Finding none, Paul followed the next Jewish custom – if there is no Synagogue, head to flowing water on the Sabbath. Paul ended up finding a small gathering of local Jewish women (no record of men) and began speaking to them. Those gathered didn’t appear to be Jewish, and would have been known as God Fearers – other nationalities who worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. One of the women there was named Lydia. Lydia was a wealthy business woman who sold purple, a rich, costly and expensive dye that came from her home town of Thyatira. This dye came from shellfish in that region, and, with the Romans lust for purple, she made a good living from this. But, more than that, she was a God Fearer. She rejected paganism and polytheism – she didn’t believe in god’s of the rain, sun, moon, harvest or trade. She believed in One God. The teaching of the Jews, this was curious to her. In other words, as Matt Chandler says,
“She worshiped the Father, not Prada.”
Matt Chandler, “To Live Is Christ. To Die Is Gain.” 2013. Pg 19
As Paul spoke this day, the Spirit opened her heart to receive Jesus. The first convert was a business minded, fashion oriented, God Fearing Woman who heard a discussion about Jesus and the Spirit opened her eyes.
Acts 16:16-17 tell us of the next convert.
Soon after this, as Paul is heading back to the place of prayer where Lydia was saved, perhaps a week or two later, he meets a slave girl going in the other way. Her entire life and conversion is the opposite to Lydia. She was demon possessed and her owner was making a living off selling her misfortune. Notice that she follows Paul (16:17) and then starts to harass him. What she says isn’t a lie, it’s all true. But, it’s being said from someone who is under the grip of sin and Satan. Demons can say true things – it doesn’t make them holy. A person can be both morally corrupt and a skilled artist, mechanic or doctor. Paul hears this and, after a time, is fed up from being drained and harassed by this girl. In this moment, God uses Paul to save her. Not by an intellectual conversation, like Lydia, but by rebuking and commanding. The Holy Spirit works salvation for the girl who knew of it and was mocking it and she now receives it. It was nothing short of a spiritual awakening.
The next salvation comes after a naked beating (16:22-23) from the city guards, resulting from the owner of the slave girl lamenting his loss of fortune from her conversation. Getting saved changes your entire course in life and sometimes those who were close to you, now persecute you (1 Peter 4:4). This man attempts to get Paul back for his loss of livelihood by bringing them before the courts. Soon, Paul and Silas are thrown into prison by the jailer. They are placed in stocks – these were big blocks of wood that fastened their legs so they couldn’t move and suffer a painful and humiliating turn of events for the cost for the Salvation of the girl. Paul will later write to the Philippians (Philippians 1:29-30) that you have been granted to suffer for Christ, just as you saw me do. Surely this event would have sprung to mind. In verse 25 Paul is singing hymns to God, with the eager ears of the other prisoners listening. Such a reaction to a naked beating and stocks would hardly be normal.
Matt Chandler says this about Paul’s attitude towards suffering and imprisonment,
We see Paul’s gospel fixation echoed throughout his letter to the Philippians. He is the man who when threatened says, Well, to die is gain.” In response his captors will say, “We’ll torture you, then. He says, “I don’t count the present suffering as worthy to even compare to the future glory.” You can’t win with a guy like this. If you want to kill him, he s cool with that because it means he gets to be with Jesus. If you want to make him suffer, he’s cool with that, so long as it makes him like Jesus. If you want to let him live, he’s fine with that, because to him, “to live is Christ.”
Matt Chandler, “To Live Is Christ. To Die Is Gain.” 2013. Pg 24
For Paul, as he writes in the first 11 verses of Philippians 1, the Gospel was at the centre of all he did and it sustained him, and his well being mattered little compared to magnifying Jesus.
All of a sudden a violent earthquake shakes the foundation of the prison and the cells open wide (16:26). This woke the jailer and, seeing the doors open, assumed that the prisoners had escaped. This burly man knew the consequences of this – his own life would be required. He had failed in his job and would be punished. Far better to end it himself (16:27) than face an agonising Roman death. Don’t miss this! He’s going to end his life, he’s not in a good place. And it’s into this that Paul’s voice is heard, Stop! Don’t hurt yourself! (16:28). We are all here!
What an incredible course of events! One moment he was going to end his life, but, the very event that caused him to feel the burden of living like never before, was God’s vehicle of waking him up and giving him eternal life. Trembling with fear and being terribly overwhelmed with all this, he falls to Paul’s feet and says, what must I do to be saved? (16:30). He means more than simply keeping his job and not taking his own life. This guy is not the intellect like Lydia, nor is he super spiritual like the slave girl. He’s a typical worker from 8-5, wants to do well, go home, hug his wife and have a beer. Go to the pub Friday night and support Collingwood. And the Spirit grabs him just like the other two. How? By Paul’s example. He saw Paul’s life – he stuck him in jail. He heard Paul singing in the cell. This guy needed to see what difference Jesus made in someone’s life and by the power of God, he then woke him to saving faith. Acts 16:31-34 then recount the complete change in character than this man experienced. Instead of beating and torturing, he bandaged and treated Paul and Silas. He gave them food, opened his home and invited his family to hear the Gospel and, notice this, joy flowed from this (16:34).
All of this lead to Paul and Silas receiving an apology from the city guards for the way they treated two Roman citizens and, to keep it quiet, they asked them to leave the city (16:39). Before departing, Paul went to saw Lydia and the church, encouraged them and then left quickly (16:40).
This wasn’t the typical church planting method we think of. It was relatively simple with Lydia, but pretty quickly it all went upside down with the slave girl, beating and imprisonment and another salvation – all before being pushed out of town. But the church was born and the church grew. Lydia may have been a business woman in a man’s world in Rome, but in the Church she was an equal. Saved by grace, just like the slave girl and the jailer. The church formed when this odd bunch of people, from the most diverse backgrounds meet Jesus.
This bunch of believers loved Paul and continued to support him and his mission work. 10 years would pass since then before the letter to the Philippians was written.