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The Story Behind the Letter Philippians

In last week’s post, we looked at the history and background of the ancient city of Philippi. Today, let’s become familiar with the story behind the letter to the Philippians which is found in Acts 16.

Founding of the Church at Philippi

On the Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey in 49 A.D. – 52 A.D., while spreading the gospel about Jesus to the Gentiles, he and his small team of missionaries find themselves on one of those trips where everything seems to go wrong. In Antioch, Paul and Barnabas have a heated argument over whether or not to trust John Mark to complete the missionary journey with them this time around or leaving them in the lurch like he did on the first missionary journey. Barnabas decided to take John Mark with him and Paul set off with Silas for Tarsus. From there they travel to Derbe and Lystra. It is in Lystra that Paul meets Timothy, who would become his frequent traveling companion, fellow laborer in spreading the gospel and his best friend (Acts 16:1; 1Timothy 1:2, 4:14).

As they journey to the northwest of Antioch, Paul desires to preach the gospel in western Asia. God’s spirit, however, forbids him to do so (Acts 16:6). The group continues to travel north toward the region of Mysia. Paul wants to travel East to the province of Bithynia but again is forbidden to do so (Acts 16:7). The group instead travels to the port city of Troas on the Aegean Sea. It is in Troas that Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, joins them. God then gives him a vision of a man in Macedonia (Greece) begging him for help (Acts 16:8-9). Paul and his traveling companions immediately board a ship for Neapolis (Acts 16:10-11). From Neapolis the group goes to Philippi.

Upon entering any city to preach the gospel, Paul first shares the Good News of Jesus with the Jews at the local synagogue on the Sabbath. Yet, Philippi has no synagogue. So, on Saturday they go instead to the Gangites river bank. (The riverbank was designated by the Roman authorities of Philippi as a place of prayer and worship for the Jews.) There the men find some God-fearing women both Gentile converts to Judaism and Jewish women who gather weekly for worship.

The first person to believe in the gospel is Lydia, a wealthy and respected merchant of significant social standing and a Jewish proselyte. Immediately she extends hospitality to Paul and his companions telling them, “If you consider me to have believed in the Lord, come stay with me.” She persuades them, so they reside in her home during the rest of their time in that city. The missionaries and the new converts, Lydia and at least two other women – Euodia and Synthyche – serve in partnership sharing their faith in Jesus Christ with the people of Philippi.

For many days, as Paul and friends travel the city telling people about the good news of Jesus Christ, a slave girl follows them around mocking God saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation!” This girl was possessed with a spirit of divination and brought her owners much profit by fortune-telling. When Paul reaches his limit, he turns and commands the spirit to leave the girl in Jesus’ name. And the spirit obeys.

That’s when the trouble begins. The girl’s exploiters are outraged! No more fortune-telling means no more income. So, they drag Paul and Silas before the city’s magistrates and accuse the visitors of disturbing the peace and advocating law breaking. The marketplace riff-raff join in with heckling, so the magistrates strip Paul and Silas and have them flogged. Severely. Then the leaders send them off to prison. The jailer receives strict orders to guard Paul and Silas. So, he throws them in a dark inner cell and fastens their feet in stocks.

With their work halted, their rights violated, and their bodies beaten, the men respond by praying and singing for hours while the other prisoners listen. Suddenly, about midnight, an earthquake rocks the building. Walls crumble, doors fly open, and chains fall loose. The jailer sees the open doors and realizes he’s virtually a dead man.

Assuming his prisoners have escaped, he deems suicide better than the punishment for failing to do his job. Yet Paul cries out, ”Stop’! We’re all here. Don’t harm yourself!” The jailer calls for a torch and rushes in to find Paul and Silas with the rest of the prisoners. He can’t believe his eyes. None have attempted escape.

Though thrilled, the jailer is now even more terrified. He trembles and falls before Paul and Silas. His countrymen worship Zeus, Apollo, Artemis and the emperor, but what kind of god causes earthquakes, breaks chains, and inspires prisoners to sing? And what kind of prisoner stays when he has the chance to flee? At first, this jailer feared his supervisors. Now he fears a God who can do such wonders!

Still shaking, he rises and leads Paul and Silas out of prison. And as they stand outside the rubble, he speaks with the respect he lacked when he brought them in. “Sirs,” he begs, “What must I do to be saved?” They offer a simple reply. “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved – you and your household.”

The jailer believes and takes the men to his home where they speak the word of the Lord to him and all who were in his house. Once he has enough light available, he gets a good look at their wounds and sees the filth in their gashes. He washes them himself. Then he tells his astonished family and slaves about the night’s events.

In the early morning hours, all the members of his household make their way to the river and are baptized, professing belief in the one who opens prison doors and sets captives free. Then they all share a meal thanks to the jailer’s hospitality.

With the sun breaking above the horizon, Paul, Silas, and the jailer dutifully make their way back to the rubble-covered prison. Soon officers for the magistrates arrive. With their jail now in shambles, the officers announce that the magistrates want the jailer to release Paul and Silas and ask them to leave town. (Perhaps they hope Rome will never hear about the disturbance.)

Yet, when the jailer tells Paul he’s free to leave, the apostle delivers another surprise. “No way!” he insists. “They’re not getting off that easy. They stripped and beat us in public without a trial, even though we’re Roman citizens.”

The jailer’s mouth falls agape. Citizens!? He wonders why that little detail hasn’t come up until now. The men have been convicted and punished without a trial, a huge violation of law. The magistrates’ superiors will be outraged when they find out.

“And they threw us into prison,” Paul continues. “Now they want to get rid of us quietly? No. If they want us to leave, let them come and escort us themselves.”

The officers deliver Paul’s message to the magistrates. Upon hearing it, they tremble. And hoping to spare themselves, they rush to escort Paul and Silas from the prison.

Seeking to avoid further trouble, Paul and Silas agree to leave. But first they must go get Timothy and say goodbye to the rest of their friends. So, they proceed to Lydia’s house, where they encourage their brothers and sisters in the faith to stand firm. Then the three missionaries gather their few possessions and bid farewell to their concerned hostess and the little band of Christ-followers.

By noon the men start their journey for Thessalonica (Acts 16:38-40), though Paul and Silas have already been up all night and are probably still in pain.

———–

We have no idea exactly how long Paul, Silas, and Timothy stayed in Philippi. But we do know it was long enough to plant and strengthen a flourishing church for many days (Acts 16:18). The three men probably left Dr. Luke to continue teaching the flock, because Luke’s account describing Paul’s ministry in Acts changes from “we” to “he” until Acts 20:5, where we read that Paul returned to Philippi. Then the text notes “we” again.

Paul continued his second missionary journey in Athens, then moved on to Corinth where he stayed one and half years, then returned to Jerusalem in 52 A.D.

Paul’s third missionary journey was from 52 A.D. – 58 A.D. where he spent one year in Antioch and two to three years in Ephesus before returning to Philippi (probably in 57 A.D.). Then at the end of three months in Greece, his travel plans changed when a plot against his life was discovered, causing him to redirect his route back through Macedonia (Acts 20:3). So, he made a stop in Philippi before crossing to Asia. There, no doubt, in the company of Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, Luke, the jailor’s family and others, he observed the Jewish days of unleavened bread. Then once again he told them all goodbye and sailed with Luke from the nearby seaport to Troas, where seven more of his friends awaited his arrival (Acts 20:4-6).

Paul had hoped to visit Philippi again as he mentioned in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 2:24). He also mentioned Philippi in his first letter to Timothy (probably sent to Ephesus-see 1 Tim. 1:3), in which Paul referenced a trip to Macedonia, which surely would have included a visit with his beloved Philippian church.

In addition to actually going to Philippi, Paul had relatively frequent correspondence with the church there. On two occasions the group sent him gifts (Phil 4:16). Later they did so again (2 Cor. 11:9; Phil. 4:15). After that, during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, they sent a person-Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25; 4:10,14-19), with another monetary gift for Paul’s support. Epaphroditus remained with Paul until a life-threatening illness made him want to return home (Phil. 2:27). And on this return, Epaphroditus carried a letter of thanks from Paul and Timothy back to their friends (Phil. 1:1). (It is this letter we will spend the next few weeks studying.)

By the time Paul wrote this epistle (probably 60 – 62 A.D.), he had spent two to four years as a prisoner of Rome (Phil. 1:7, 13, 16, 4:22). He had heard of pressures on the church at Philippi from without. Yet even more disturbing was the word that his good friends and co-workers, Euodia and Syntyche, were engaged in a disagreement heated enough to threaten church unity.

As a letter-writer, Paul often had to compose difficult defenses of his ministry and faith. But not when it came to his Christian family in Philippi. To them he wrote his warmest epistle. And though he drafted this letter under house arrest while chained to Roman guards, he overflowed with joy. He loved them. And he was grateful to and for the Philippians for their continual support in every way. Not only did he rejoice because of his material gain through their generosity but more importantly because of what their giving spirit revealed about their spiritual health and the eternal rewards they would reap.

Through the Book of Philippians, his thank you letter for their financial gift, we see him thriving in hardship, filled with genuine affection for his coworkers, and as passionate as ever about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, all these centuries later, we, too, are the blessed recipients of that correspondence. For in it we glimpse the face of our wonderful, merciful Savior.

More from this Series

Getting To Know Ancient Philippi Part 1

The Story Behind the Letter Part 2

By Shirley Pittenger, FBC Bixby Staff

Sources:
Frappe with Philippians by Sandra Glahn
Notes on Philippians by Dr. Thomas Constable
The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians by William Barclay

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