The Church at Philippi
J. H. Large, Lesmahagow, Lanark
Quotations are from the Revised Version
The story of Paul’s visit to Philippi makes a considerable contribution to the sidelight which the book of The Acts throws on early missionary enterprize, among other things revealing that even a commissioned apostle was not immune from the perplexities which beset servants of Christ today.
The Call into Macedonia
Important reasons would make obvious to Paul the desirability of revisiting the scenes of his earlier labours - witness his words to Barnabas - ‘Let us return now and visit the brethren in every city wherein we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they fare’, Acts 15. 36. The circumstances which led to Paul undertaking this journey with Silas instead of with Barnabas do not now concern us - we only note that their immediate purpose having been accomplished (Acts 16. 4, 5) the question arose as to the direction the missionary party should then take. No doubt Asia (Minor) appealed to them as a needy and promising field but the fact remains that they were ‘forbidden of the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia’. It then seemed natural to conclude that it was the Lord’s purpose that they should turn in the direction of Bithynia but ‘the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not’. The difference in tone between ‘forbidden’ and ‘suffered not’ suggests that after the disconcerting failure to discern the will of God in regard to Asia they were now more cautious and consequently more sensitive to ‘the Spirit of Jesus’. Obviously the existence of a need cannot determine the spheres of labour for the servants of Christ, else they would be bewildered and distracted by clamourous calls from every point of the compass. The Lord has not only His place but also His time for all His servants, and it behoves us to be exercised as to where He would have us be - and when! Paul was to be privileged to do a great work in Asia (Acts 19. 10) but the time was not yet. Bithynia was not overlooked by God, for a letter written by Peter some years later testifies to a great work of grace having been done in that part, 1 Pet. 1. 1. God’s mysterious providences in the evangelization of the nations form a humbling discipline to faith. Why should the Holy Spirit forbid the evangelization of Asia at that time? To many such questions there is no answer - we can only bow to the sovereignty of God.
Since they were not to turn north or south, the missionaries not unnaturally continued westward, but when they reached Troas the sea barred further progress on foot. It is easy to believe that here the team were in perplexity and we are disposed to think that they were in a mood to ‘sleep on it’. Very often this is a good thing to do. God’s choice of the ‘vision’ method to guide Paul possibly indicates that his sub-conscious mind was wrestling with the problem even whilst he was asleep. Evidently the vision was so vivid that he felt justified in inviting his colleagues to assess the significance of it. It is delightful to think of a man of Paul’s calibre and gift of leadership conferring with his fellow-labourers so that they could piece things together and thus conclude that the Lord had called them to preach the gospel in Macedonia, 16. 10. How human it all seems, and how it warns us to treat with caution the claims of those who always appear confident that God is guiding them to do this and that. Here was an apostle, entrusted with unique revelations, but who could face the problems of service with practical common sense whilst fully conscious of the divine realities involved. It is worth while noticing that, on crossing to what we now call Europe, the missionaries made a strategic centre their first objective -Philippi, the chief city of that part and a colony.
The Church Established at Philippi
Attention has often been called to the fact that the preachers’ first significant experience in this city was a seemingly simple one - finding a group of praying women. There have been so many parallel cases since that we dare not discount the possibility that the prayers of these women were behind God’s call to His servants.
How many unsuspecting Christians, not alert to the devil’s wiles, would have hailed the demon-possessed girl’s testimony as a heaven-sent boost to the Gospel, but Paul would not accept apparent support from a questionable source. Possibly Paul foresaw that preventive action might precipitate opposition, but it could not be long delayed. Thus it was that at Philippi opposition to the Gospel took a new form - vested financial interests. It was the loss of their ill-gotten gains which infuriated the masters of this poor girl, but of course they could not base their complaint on the fact that they were losing money. They were careful to make it appear that they were prompted by patriotic motives! Later at Ephesus when the progress of the Gospel touched men’s pockets there was an uproar, but on that occasion religion provided a convenient cloak to cover their true motives. How little human nature has changed!
The cruel and shameful treatment that Paul and Silas received would strike many as being a perplexing sequel to the call of God but although Paul felt it keenly (1 Thess. 2. 2), it was all accepted as being part of God’s plan, and God over-ruled it for His glory. Earthquakes had happened before but when had it been known for prisoners writhing from the excruciating pain of inhuman scourging to sing to the praise of the God whose service had landed them in that predicament?, 16. 25. Coupled with their miraculous deliverance and the fact that they did not take undue advantage of it, this undoubtedly paved the way for the conversion of the jailor and the wider reception of the Gospel message.
It would be fascinating to have more details about the founding of the church and the events which led to the emergence, not only of bishops (i.e. overseers) as elsewhere, but also of deacons, Phil. 1. 1, but we have to be content with the detailed accounts of the conversion of two of the foundation members—Lydia and the jailor. No doubt there is a purpose in the selection of two such complete contrasts. Although God’s object with both was to bring them to faith in Christ, yet it is most instructive to observe that His method with Lydia was completely different from His method with the jailor. How wonderful that God accommodates His methods to the individual and what a rebuke to the foolish idea that souls can be dealt with in a routine fashion. Some sleepers are gently awakened by the sunrise while others need to have their doors hammered in!
Is it fanciful to see in the portrayal of these two diverse characters a hint that from the first the church embraced a great variety of characters so that we may better understand the difficulties which later arose threatening the unity of the saints? Paul’s Epistle written some ten years later bears eloquent testimony to his joy in them but there is an unmistakable undertone of anxiety over a tendency to conflicting views and lack of cohesion in their work for Christ. If we are right in thinking that the church was composed of strongly diverse elements, it helps us to understand how the devil could sow the seeds of dissension in an otherwise excellent company. The difficulty between Euodia and Syntyche is often regarded as arising from a petty quarrel but this is surely wrong. They were two splendid women and the general tenor of Paul’s remarks is consistent with the view that they were divided only because of genuine differences of conviction on matters which seemed to them to be too important for compromise. Paul’s confidence in them is proved by the fact that he could bring their particular case out into the open, but no doubt it was typical of the problems which the devil had engineered and which called for reiterated appeals for unity. The devil came near enough to success on this occasion to encourage him to resort to the same tactics in many cases since, and just as we may confidently hope that Paul’s wise counsel thwarted him in Philippi it is to be feared that neglect of Paul’s advice has often enabled the devil to succeed elsewhere. That advice was, in essence, to subordinate all merely personal considerations to the supreme object of seeking the glory of Christ and the furtherance of His cause.
Although if a modem missionary were in such a plight some Christians would calmly conclude that he had obviously not been called of God, yet the fact remains that Paul was at times compelled to undertake secular work for his support. During the period we are considering no church took any concern in this matter with the happy exception of Philippi, Phil. 4. 15. The believers there were remarkable for the interest that they took in supplying Paul’s material needs and in ministering to the needy saints in Jerusalem despite their own poverty, 2 Cor. 8. 1. Despite the tremendous obstacles imposed by primitive conditions, which we can hardly appreciate, they maintained contact with the apostle and made frequent contributions to his support. More than once, one or more of their number willingly tramped the hundred miles to Thessalonica and back again (about six days’ march) to bring him aid. And what adequate comment can be made on the long and perilous journey of Epaphroditus to far-off Rome to minister to Paul’s necessities on behalf of the assembly? Is it not all too evident that the enervating effect of modem luxury makes us unworthy to be compared with these loyal souls who accepted suffering and sacrifice for Christ’s sake as being among the privileges of the Christian?, Phil. 1. 29.
To be followed by ‘Thessalonica’.