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Paul's Second Missionary Journey (2): Preaching at Philippi (Acts 16)

J Gibson, Derby

References cited with no note of the book in which they are found are all from Acts.

The missionaries' arrival at Philippi – the first major city of that part of Macedonia – marked a significant movement of the gospel westwards into Europe (v.12). Philippi was located on a plane between the Pangaeus and Haemus mountain ranges, approximately nine miles from the Mediterranean. Being on the Egnatian Way, an important Roman highway which spanned Macedonia from east to west, Philippi was an accessible city. It had local gold mines, exceptionally fertile soil, and a medical school, but no synagogue. While Paul's habit was to begin his preaching in each city at the local synagogue, at Philippi he started "by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made" (v.13). As a Roman "colony" (v.12), Philippi enjoyed all the privileges of Roman citizenship (including exemption from taxation and flogging), a status which was highly valued by its population (vv.20-21).

Giants of human history had cast their shadow on the city. It was originally founded in 350 BC by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar and the future Caesar Augustus had, in partnership with Mark Antony, vanquished Marcus Brutus and Cassius at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Seeing the inevitability of defeat, Marcus Brutus fell on his own sword. After the battle veteran soldiers were released to colonise the city.

The missionaries

It was approximately 100 years after the battle of Philippi that the Apostle Paul, Luke, Silas and Timothy evangelised Philippi. Although a diverse group, these four men were united in their desire to spread the gospel. Paul was a converted, self-righteous Pharisee, who had zealously persecuted Christians. Luke, the author of Acts, was a Gentile doctor. As the recorder of events, Luke humbly marked his joining the missionary party at Troas with a subtle transition in the narrative from "they" to "we" (vv.8-10). He remained at Philippi while the others passed on to Amphipolis (17.1), perhaps spending time at the medical school. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul and Luke, partners in the gospel, wrote more than half the New Testament. Silas had been a well-respected Christian at the Jerusalem church (15.22).

Timothy's devotion to the Lord is evident throughout the New Testament, this beginning of his missionary life being no exception. Paul viewed him as his own spiritual son (1 Tim 1.2; 2 Tim 1.2; 2.1). It is likely that Timothy had witnessed at first-hand God's power at work in Paul's life (14.8-10), seen his humility (14.11-18) and steadfastness in the face of severe opposition (14.19-21; 2 Tim 3.10-11), as well as his genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of new converts (14.21-23). Whether or not Timothy was converted under Paul's preaching at Lystra during the first missionary journey, it is clear that a solid foundation of Bible knowledge had been laid up in his heart as a young child, probably by his grandmother and mother who were both believers (2 Tim 1.5; 3.15). Before starting as a missionary, Timothy was saved and already active in the Lord's service, being "well reported of by the brethren" in two different assemblies (16.2). Despite the pain of circumcision, the half-Jewish, half-Gentile Timothy submitted to Paul's advice and was circumcised, seeking to avoid any needless offence to local Jews (v.3; cp 1 Cor 9.20).

It was the Holy Spirit who led the missionaries westward (vv.6,7,9). He prevented them from going south "to preach the word in Asia" (v.6) and stopped them moving north into Bithynia (v.7). Through a night vision to Paul the missionaries were called westward into Macedonia (v.9). With promptness, they obeyed the divine call, immediately endeavouring "to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called [them] for to preach the gospel unto them" (v.10). While believers today do not rely on visions for divine guidance, as the sons of God they are led by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8.14). Much of this leading takes the form of illuminating God's Word and applying its principles to the believer's life. Of course, such obedience to the Word proves love for Christ (Jn 14.15).

Although we are living in a world culture which is obsessed with images, rather than relying on visual tools we must follow the example of these missionaries and preach "the word" (v.6), communicating with clarity the gospel message using words. Although the missionaries began by speaking to a small group of religious women (v.13), news spread quickly about these "servants of the most high God, which shew…the way of salvation" (v.17). Since this good news comes from God (Rom 1.1), and men are naturally opposed to God (Rom 5.10), not only is suffering an inevitable part of the Christian life (14.22; Phil 1.28-30; 2 Tim 3.12), but any clear presentation of the gospel inevitably arouses hostility. This opposition began with a demon possessed girl who, while acknowledging the true character and message of the missionaries, attempted to hamper their prayers and thus their service, for nothing of lasting value can be achieved in the Lord's service without prayer (v.16). Paul expelled the demon, but the text is unclear whether or not she was converted (v.18). Since this girl and her soothsaying abilities had enriched her owners (v.16), the sudden loss of revenue due to her exorcism prompted a violent turn of events. Paul and Silas were apprehended, stripped, beaten with rods and "thrust…into the inner prison" (vv.22-24). But they were not downcast. They did not complain that God's guidance resulted in suffering. Instead, "at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God" (v.25), their witness resulting in the jailor's conversion. In difficult circumstances we too should pray, being "careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving [letting our] requests be made known unto God" (Phil 4.6). And we should remain joyful, knowing that "the joy of the Lord is your strength" (Neh 8.10). Since the ungodly watch us, God could also speak to sinners through our reaction to adversity.

The converts

Lydia and the jailor were very different individuals, as were their conversions. Lydia was a wealthy business woman who traded in "purple" (v.14), an expensive dye which was extracted from the neck glands of Mediterranean shellfish. Having a religious inclination, Lydia prayed, worshipped God, and listened attentively to the words of the missionaries (vv.13-14). The Lord quietly opened her heart, "that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul" (v.14).

The jailor, on the other hand, appeared indifferent to the gospel and callous in his management of the freshly beaten missionaries, thrusting them "into the inner prison, and [making] their feet fast in the stocks" (v.24). In his case it took a finely tuned earthquake (which shook the prison's foundations, opened its doors and loosed its prisoner's bands, v.26) to bring him to an end of himself. Assuming that his prisoners had escaped and knowing the severe punishment for such failure, "he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself" (v.27). But his life was preserved by Paul crying out, "Do thyself no harm: for we are all here" (v.28); and in the middle of the night "he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" (vv.29-30). Of course, the answer to this urgent and personal question was not "do" but "believe" (v.32).

As soon as they believed the gospel, Lydia, and the jailor and his household were all baptized (vv.15,33), symbolising their association with Christ's death, burial and resurrection, as well as the internal transformation which had taken place in their lives (Rom 6.1-5). Their subsequent behaviour verified this change. Lydia eagerly showed hospitality to the missionaries (v.15). The jailor, who had treated them harshly, now "washed their stripes…[and] set meat before them" (vv.33-34). Instead of trembling (v.29), "he rejoiced, believing in God with all his house" (v.34). Truly, "if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor 5.17).

Paul's relationship with the church at Philippi continued through the years. Ten years later, while imprisoned in Rome (28.16-31), Paul received a gift from the Philippian Christians. He wrote a letter to thank them (Phil 4.10-20), in which he confirmed his affection for them (Phil 1.8; 4.1). He still prayed for them (Phil 1.9) and, with the skill of a true shepherd, ever watchful for God's people, he encouraged them to live godly lives (Phil 1.27). He warned against the danger of Judaising teachers (Phil 3.2), and exhorted them to be united (Phil 1.27; 2.2; 4.2). As well as reminding them of his own good example, he urged them to follow the example of other godly Christians (Phil 3.17), and drew their attention to the Lord Jesus who is the ultimate example to imitate (Phil 2.5-8).

To be continued.

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