Philippi was established as a ‘gold rush’ city. It was named after Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. Some historians described it as a gate between Europe and Asia.
" In a series of battles there in 42 B.C.E., Mark Antony and Octavian ('Augustus') conquered the forces of the assassins of Julius Caesar, Cassius and Brutus. In some ways this battle marked the turning point between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire (which meant the emperor would now be deified)… Augustus turned Philippi into a Roman colony… Here he planted veterans of the civil wars and the supporters of Mark Antony… Special privileges were allowed to these Roman colonists, such as exemption from taxes and the right to own and market property." (Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible)
By the time Paul got there, Philippi was highly Roman, highly militarized, wealthy, and because of where it was situated geographically, one of the hubs of the modern world intellectually, economically and spiritually. In Acts 16, we read an account of how the church started in Philippi. (This version is The Voice. You can read it at biblegateway.com)
11 We set sail from the port city of Troas, first stopping in Samothrace, then the next day in Neapolis, 12 finally arriving in Philippi, a Roman colony and one of Macedonia’s leading cities.We stayed in Philippi for several days. 13 On the Sabbath day, we went outside the city walls to the nearby river, assuming that some Jewish people might be gathering for prayer. We found a group of women there, so we sat down and spoke to them. 14 One of them, Lydia, was a business woman originally from Thyatira. She made a living buying and selling fine purple fabric. She was a true worshiper of God and listened to Paul with special interest. The Lord opened her heart to take in the message with enthusiasm. 15 She and her whole household were ceremonially washed through baptism.[
Lydia: If you believe I’m truly faithful to the Lord, please, you must come and stay at my home.
We couldn’t turn down her invitation. 16 One day, as we were going to the place set aside for prayer, we encountered a slave girl. She made a lot of money for her owners as a fortune-teller, assisted by some sort of occult spirit. 17 She began following us.
Slave Girl (shouting): These men are slaves like me, but slaves of the Most High God! They will proclaim to you the way of liberation!
18 The next day as we passed by, she did the same thing—and again on the following days. One day Paul was really annoyed, so he turned and spoke to the spirit that was enslaving her.
Paul: I order you in the name of Jesus, God’s Anointed: Come out of her!
It came right out. 19 But when her owners realized she would be worthless now as a fortune-teller, they grabbed Paul and Silas, dragged them into the open market area, and presented them to the authorities.
Slave Owners: 20 These men are troublemakers, disturbing the peace of our great city. They are from some Jewish sect, 21 and they promote foreign customs that violate our Roman standards of conduct (codes of worship – all publicly worshipped gods had to be approved by the Roman Senate – and Caesar needed to be at the top).
22 The crowd joined in with insults and insinuations, prompting the city officials to strip them naked in the public square so they could be beaten with rods. 23 They were flogged mercilessly and then were thrown into a prison cell. The jailer was ordered to keep them under the strictest supervision. 24 The jailer complied, first restraining them in ankle chains, then locking them in the most secure cell in the center of the jail.
25 Picture this: It’s midnight. In the darkness of their cell, Paul and Silas—after surviving the severe beating—aren’t moaning and groaning; they’re praying and singing hymns to God. The prisoners in adjoining cells are wide awake, listening to them pray and sing. 26 Suddenly the ground begins to shake, and the prison foundations begin to crack. You can hear the sound of jangling chains and the squeak of cell doors opening. Every prisoner realizes that his chains have come unfastened. 27 The jailer wakes up and runs into the jail. His heart sinks as he sees the doors have all swung open. He is sure his prisoners have escaped, and he knows this will mean death for him, so he pulls out his sword to commit suicide.
28 At that moment, Paul sees what is happening and shouts out at the top of his lungs,
Paul: Wait, man! Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here! None of us has escaped.
29 The jailer sends his assistants to get some torches and rushes into the cell of Paul and Silas. He falls on his knees before them, trembling. 30 Then he brings them outside.
Jailer: Gentlemen, please tell me, what must I do to be saved?
Paul and Silas: 31 Just believe—believe in the ultimate King, Jesus, and not only will you be rescued, but your whole household will as well.
32-34 The jailer brings them to his home, and they have a long conversation with the man and his family. Paul and Silas explain the message of Jesus to them all. The man washes their wounds and feeds them, then they baptize the man and his family. The night ends with Paul and Silas in the jailer’s home, sharing a meal together, the whole family rejoicing that they have come to faith in God.
So that’s the background to the young church Philippi. Now, here is the opening of the letter Paul wrote to the Philippian church several years later:
1 Paul and Timothy, slaves of Jesus the Anointed One, greet you, our friends in Philippi—those set apart by Jesus the Anointed—and we greet the elders and deacons who serve with you. 2 Grace and peace be with you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus the Anointed. 3 Whenever you cross my mind, I thank my God for you and for the gift of knowing you. 4 My spirit is lightened with joy whenever I pray for you (and I do constantly) 5 because you have partnered with me to spread the gospel since the first day I preached to you.
6 I am confident that the Creator, who has begun such a great work among you, will not stop in mid-design but will keep perfecting you until the day Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, returns to redeem the world. 7 It is only right that I should feel such admiration for you all—you hold me close to your hearts. And, since we are partners in this great work of grace, you have never failed to stand with me as I have defended and stood firm for the gospel—even from this prison cell. 8 Before God I want you to know how much I long to see you and love you with the affection of the Anointed One, Jesus.
9 Here’s what I pray for you: Father, may their love grow more and more in wisdom and insight— 10 so they will be able to examine and determine the best from everything else. And on the day of the Christ, the day of His judgment, let them stand pure and blameless, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that ripens through Jesus the Anointed. All this I pray, so that God will be glorified and praised.
Let’s consider three main elements in this greeting in light of the background of Philippi and the origins of the church. In many ways, it’s going to set the table for the rest of this series.
1.Paul applauds and encourages their partnership, community and unity.
This must have been a daunting issue in this church. Look at the diversity in just the first three converts: a wealthy widow in the fashion industry; a demon-possessed slave, and a jailer.
Roman elite society was highly stratified… Elite males engaged in a relentless quest for personal and familial honor. These concerns generated a consuming passion to identify persons publicly according to social status… Based on their social status individuals wore different clothing, occupied different seats at public events, and experienced different treatment at the hands of Roman magistrates… Public banquets and food distribution in the provinces were administrated in such a way as to ensure that resources were given according to rank, not according to need. All such practices served to reinforce the values of the elite society.
Different backgrounds, social class, different rank, different clothes, food and places to sit. Add to that different methods of entering into discipleship. Lydia appears to be a classic example of finding Jesus through education and intellect; the slave girl through the supernatural deliverance from demonic forces; the jailer through Paul’s selfless act of character, integrity and concern.
It’s often noted that what brings a person to Jesus is often the thing that continues to primarily nourish or build them. That’s to be expected, right? The problem is that it is easy to assume that whatever brought you to Christ or builds you in Christ will have the same impact on others.
- If you became a Christian through a supernatural experience (like the slave girl), you are probably inclined to think that should be the heart of the church.
- If you became a Christian through theology and reason (like Lydia), you are probably inclined to think that should be the heart of the church.
- If you came to Jesus because somebody showed you God’s love through acts of kindness, you are probably inclined to think the church will flourish when that is at the heart.
- If you grew up in a Christian community that encouraged you or even steered you toward a commitment to Christ, you are probably inclined to think that a tightly knit church community is very important.
- If you grew up constantly asking questions and searching and ended up at the foot of the cross, you probably think an open environment where people are free to ask question and express doubts in important. If you grew up constantly getting answers, questions make you very uncomfortable and might even seem ungodly.
We have this range of experiences (and far more) here, in our church, right now. Is there ever tension as we try to do life together? You bet. That makes us normal. One of the earliest churches in existence felt this immediately. This is also one way in which God works through His church to bring transformation. Matt Chandler wrote in To Live Is Christ:
“We tend to prefer to do life with people who are similar to us. We live in neighborhoods and associate with people who look like us and act like us. Most of us go to church with people similar to us. This is the natural tendency of all people. But the gospel is not natural… the gospel creates a new reality that deepens our understanding of the world and our place in it.”
2. Paul prays for a love that overflows with knowledge and wisdom.
It’s worth noting he doesn’t just pray for love. That’s a pretty vague term on it’s own. He prays for a very specific kind of love.
- This knowledge is contact with others; first-hand, experiential knowledge. It’s a knowledge that comes from rubbing elbows and butting heads and walking together. Considering different personalities, gifts, backgrounds, expectations, priorities, and passions, this is hardly a surprise. If you really join a church and invest in it, you will spend a lot of time very close to people who make you uncomfortable and maybe a little angry at time. It's what life together looks like. It's messy, but it's good - if it is characterized by wisdom.
- This wisdom is a discernment from God that cuts through hazy moral and ethical matters. This is a the godly application of the knowledge of others and of God’s word. They aren’t asking the Romans what to do and they aren’t voting. They are praying that they are led by God’s Holy Spirit to properly understand His Word and His commands.
- Put together, this is a love that manifests in living holy lives close together, getting to know others, getting to know the mind of God for us and for the world, then blending those two things. This kind of love is crucial in supporting unity, partnership and community.
We got a game called Smash Up over Christmas. It’s called that because there are all these decks of cards with different powers and abilities, and in every game you pick two decks and ‘smash them up’ so they work together. That’s the idea about life together in the church. We have to ‘Smash Up’ very different followers of Christ for our good and the glory of God.
- supernatural experience needs to partner with acts of kindness
- theology and reason needs to work with Christian community
- constantly asking questions needs to join with constantly getting answers
- Extroverts join introverts
- The artists join the social workers who join the builders and the homemakers.
You can mix and match them all. We need each other to accomplish the work of the Kingdom. I don’t mean we all have to become “besties” (we will see later that there was clearly tension in a church that Paul applauds for unity). But we have to purposefully commit to godly interaction that acknowledges and honors the diversity in our church.
3. Paul prays that they be filled with a ripening fruit of righteousness (a life approved by God) for God’s glory.
The Voice uses the phrase “the ripening fruit” of righteousness. Other translations use a verb tense that implies an ongoing process of being filled with righteousness. In other words, it’s not a one-and-done experience. An ongoing work of Jesus in their life was needed, I’m sure. I can only imagine the discussions that took place when that church started.
- There’s a soldier, a slave, and one of the cultural elites.
- There’s the tension of the roles of men and women in Roman culture.
- There’s a Roman who was raised to worship Rome and all it stood for, a slave raised to hate it, and a merchant who probably had gained an appreciation for all kinds of cultures.
- There’s the constant fight for status in Philippi (people would inscribe their history on columns just to show how upwardly mobile and important they were).
- There’s the separation by food, clothing, and seating.
- There’s the incredibly different ways in which they encountered the gospel and committed their lives to Christ.
- There's the problem of Paul: the church's founder had angered the entire town. They were likely under intense scrutiny – a lot of pressure to stand pure and blameless.
How on earth do you make that work? By being “filled with the fruit of righteousness that ripens through Jesus the Anointed, with a view to God’s ultimate praise and glory." This is really the heart of the rest of this series in Philippians: Healthy church life – that is, a healthy representation of God on earth as seen in His body, the church – will be manifest through purposeful unity, love overflowing with knowledge and wisdom, and the fruit of righteousness that ripens through Jesus and builds the praise for and glory of God.
So that’s what we are going to unpack in the weeks ahead. As we go through this series, I am recommending that we all pray this together:
Father, may our love grow more and more in wisdom and insight— so we will be able to examine and determine the best from everything else. And on the day of the Christ’s return, let us stand pure and blameless, filled with the fruit of righteousness that ripens through Jesus the Anointed. All this we pray, so that God will be glorified and praised. Amen.
 I owe a lot in this entire series to Adam Clarke’s commentary on Philippians; Matt Chandler’s book on Philippians (To Live Is Christ); a fantastic website called Precept Austin; an article entitled “The Theme and Structure of Philippians," by Robert C. Swift; N.T. Wright’s Bible study Philippians for Everyone; IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture; and plenty of other sources I have failed to record. Shoulders of giants….
 The Humiliation of Christ in the Social World of Roman Philippi, Joseph H. Hellermana