The foundation of the church at Philippi was the gospel clearly taking root through the ministry of a few people. Before we turn to Acts to see how the church in Philippi started, we need to understand what kind of City Philippi was.
Philippi carried the name of Philip II, king of Macedon, since his fortification of the city in 356 b.c. His patronage of Greek arts contributed to the ambition of his son, Alexander the Great, to make the world conform to Greek culture. Tutored by Aristotle, Alexander founded Greek cities across western Asia to be centers of Greek language and Greek entertainment. The conquests of Alexander made koinē Greek the means of communication in government and business throughout the Hellenized world.
After Mark Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius, Julius Caesar’s assassins, on the plains near Philippi in 42 b.c., Philippi became a Roman colony and home for discharged Roman army veterans.
So this town was more like Rome than most cities, and it held a place of prominence being 9 miles from the sea port where incredible commerce and trade passed through. It was a diverse town with many nationalities, and many religious backgrounds, but Rome and the Greek culture ruled the day.
Roman aristocracy flourished and Roman architecture became the standard. More Roman soldiers were given allotments in Philippi. Since it was a Roman colony, the citizens of Philippi enjoyed all the privileges and rights of Roman citizens: they were exempt from taxes and governed under Roman law, the ius Italicum. Philippi was modeled after the mother city, Rome. Roman arches, bath-houses, forums, and temples dominated Philippi at the time of Paul. In a Greek-speaking province, Latin became the official language of Philippi. Although Greek, Phrygian, and Egyptian gods had their temples in Philippi, the imperial cult was the most prominent in the city. With impressive altars and temples dedicated to the emperor and members of his family, the city’s religious life centered on the worship of the emperor. Withdrawal from participation in the imperial cult was viewed as subversive activity.
This is the town that Paul walked into in Acts 16:6-40.
Acts 16:6–40 (ESV)
6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. 11 So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. 13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. 14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. 16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. 20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. 35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
The take away from these stories in Acts are simple. Paul started the church with a wealthy female, which was uncommon for the day. He also rescued a demon possessed slave girl, who was more than likely a part of the church in Philippi. Then while being unjustifiably jailed, Paul and his God honoring behavior was given the opportunity to share the gospel. God allowed all of this so that the church at Philippi would be grounded and started with three of the oddest people coming together to be the core. It was out of this foundation and hard work that Paul formed a lasting care, concern and relationship with the church at Philippi.
Knowing all this we can answer the question, why did Paul write this letter, both as a back drop to future sermons and as a helpful reminder.
What was the cause for Paul to write this letter?
- The church at Philippi had given a gift to Paul, and was a church that for the duration of Paul’s ministry, they supported him financially.
- An encouragement to remain unified. It appears that there was a dispute between two prominent women in the church threatening to do more damage than had already been done by their schism.
- To remind the church that the gospel is the most valuable asset they have.