Paul in In Philippi (Acts 16:12-40)

As is typical in the book of Acts, Luke uses a series of short episodes to describe how a church is established in a new community. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony when Paul arrived and “the leading city of Macedonia” (v. 12). Luke described the ministry of Paul in communities with sizable Jewish populations in Acts 13:13-52 (at Pisidia Antioch) and before Gentile crowds in Acts 14:8-20 (at Lystra). In Philippi, Paul will encounter a woman (Lydia) and a man (the Jailer) and lead both to the Lord. Rather than a synagogue sermon, in Acts 16 Luke describes Paul doing “one-on-one ministry.”

The first person to accept Paul’s message was Lydia, God-fearer from Thyatira who was worshiping with other Jewish women outside of the city near a stream (Acts 16:13-15). She is described as a “seller of purple,” probably an import business moving purple dyed goods from Thyatira into Philippi. Purple goods were costly, so there is an implication that Lydia was wealthy. In fact, “sellers of purple” are sometimes included in “Caesar’s household.”

When Paul preaches the gospel, Luke says the Lord “opened Lydia’s heart to believe.” As a result of Lydia’s faith, her household comes to faith in Jesus and she offers hospitality to Paul and his ministry team. She opens her home and (apparently) hosts the growing church at Philippi.

The second person to encounter the Gospel in Philippi is a slave girl Paul encounters in the marketplace (Acts 16:16-22). The girl as the “spirit of Python” associated with Apollo, the god behind the oracle at Delphi. Paul commands this spirit to leave the girl. Without the demon, the girl was useless as a fortune teller. As an oracle, the girl made good money for her owners. Paul is therefore accused of “throwing the city into an uproar” and advocating foreign, Jewish practices which are unlawful for Romans to accept. Paul and Silas were arrested and publically flogged, then thrown into prison without any sort of due process that one might expect for a Roman citizen.

Luke does not say Paul was tortured, but he was put in the innermost cell of the prison and place in rough iron shackles (16:23-34). The two were to be held in the prison overnight until the local magistrates could hear their case and decide what to do about them. During the night, as Paul and Silas are singing hymns, an earthquake shakes the prison and frees them from their bonds.

The third person to hear the Gospel in Philippi is the jailer. After the earthquake, he assumed the prisoners would escape. The jailer asks Paul “what must I do to be saved,” a question that could have two meanings. He may be asking about “saved from his sins,” since they were singing hymns and probably witnessing throughout the night. On the other hand, it is possible his question was “what is it going to cost me to keep you from escaping!” Guards who let their prisoners escape paid with their lives, so this man was in mortal danger if the prisoners overpowered him, and escaped.

The Forum, Philippi

But Paul uses the opportunity to share the Gospel: “believe on the Lord,” and the Jailer and his household are saved that night. Like Lydia, he responds properly with joy and meeting the needs of Paul and Silas. The jailer tends the wounds of Paul and Silas and provides them with food.

These three short episodes in the city of Philippi offer a remarkable insight into the nature of a typical Pauline church. First, there are both Jews and Gentiles. Although Lydia is not described as a convert to Judaism, she is worshiping along with other Jewish women on the Sabbath. The jailer was probably a retired Roman soldier. We do not know if the slave girl accepted Jesus and joined the church, but if she did we were likely a local Greek since she was working as an oracle. This ethnic diversity is common in all of Paul’s churches and it appears to be intentional. In Galatians 3:28 Paul says in Christ there is no Jew or Greek. In Romans 1:14 he says he is under obligation to both Greeks and barbarians (non-Greek speakers). In Colossians 3:11 there is neither Jew, Greek, barbarian nor Scythian. This ethnic diversity was critically important to Paul’s churches and would have been quite radical in either the Jewish or Roman view of the world.

Second, Paul’s churches valued both women and men. In Acts 16 the first person added to Paul’s church was Lydia. The church was not a “men’s club.” This is likely in contrast to a synagogue where men and women were separated, but also in contrast to a Roman social club were only men met together. Although they appear to have been causing some problems in the church, Paul mentions two women by name as co-workers in the cause of the Gospel (Phil 4:2-3). Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 make clear Paul’s churches included both men and women as full members: there is neither male nor female in the Body of Christ.

Third, Paul’s churches were socially diverse. Lydia appears to have been a wealthy property owner since she was able to host Paul and his companions in her home. Many think the church of Philippi was first hosted in her home. The jailer was a retired soldier, so not living in poverty but not particularly elite socially. The slave girl would be considered at the lowest socially and economically. Without the spirit, she was a worthless slave! Yet the church of Philippi embraces all three of these people regardless of social standing or personal wealth. Galatians 3:28 also says there are neither slave nor free in the Body of Christ.

So when the church gathered at Philippi, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, masters and slaves all gathered together and shared a meal and worshiped Jesus together with no social distinctions whatsoever. A slave ate the same food as a slave owner. The words of a woman were as valuable as a man’s. Even a female slave could worship alongside a wealthy Jewish man as an equal within the body of Christ.

It is difficult for us to imagine how radical this would have looked in a Roman city like Philippi. And if it was radical, it was suspicious. People from every social stratification meeting in homes and eating together are exactly the thing that would get the neighbors talking!

Perhaps the reason it is hard for us to appreciate how radical a church with ethnic, social, and economic diversity looks like is that most American churches are in no way ethnically diverse and most people are from the same socio-economic background. There are many reasons for this non-diversity and not all of them are bad. It takes an intentional effort for American churches to embrace diversity and it is always difficult to work. Yet this was Paul’s vision for the body of Christ and the local church ought to reflect that vision.


Author: Phil Long

Images:
By MrPanyGoff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24888281
By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – The Forum, PhilippiUploaded by Marcus Cyron, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30145298

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