I know I promised you Philippians, and trust me, we’re going to get there. But first we need to take a short detour into Acts, in order to establish a foundation for our study of Philippians. Just as in purchasing real estate the three most important factors to consider are location, location, and location, so in Bible study, we need to always focus on context, context, and context. While I was preparing this study in Philippians, I knew we needed to learn a little bit about the city and the church itself – it’s location and history, and how the church came into existence. In doing that, though, I came upon some passages in Acts that we can benefit from delving into before we start into Philippians itself.
Languages and Translations
Before we start, I’d like to talk for a moment about translations. As you all are hopefully aware, one of the tenets of our Statement of Faith at Refuge Church is the inerrancy of the Word of God…
We believe that all the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts, and that they are the infallible rule of faith and practice.
We believe that the original manuscripts (autographs) of the Word are without any faults whatsoever, and that they are the true and complete Word of God Himself, delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit to their human authors (scribes). Unfortunately, though, we don’t possess the original autographs, so we have to rely on translations, which have been subject to various human errors in translation and transcription over the passage of time. So we rely on the grace of God by the power of His Holy Spirit to reveal the truths of His Word to us.
I will be teaching from the New King James translation. I know all of you have your personal favorite translations, so I encourage you, to speak up if your translation of a passage differs significantly from the NKJV, and share your translation with us. We can always gain a new perspective on passages in the Word by seeing how different translators handled them. While we’re on that subject, I’d also like to encourage anyone who is bi-lingual to obtain a Bible in your second language if you don’t already have one, and study the passages we go through in both. I’ve shared before my belief that different languages have different approaches in the way they express ideas, and we can often benefit by exploring them. Having said that, I need to also tell you that I am almost totally ignorant of Greek and Hebrew. I’m hoping to improve that over time, but I know some of you are already trained Hebrew and Greek students, so I encourage you to speak up, and share with us any insights you might have into the original texts.
So let’s get started!
Location & History of Philippi
Philippi was located in ancient Macedonia (in southeastern Europe north of mainland Greece) along the northern shore of the Aegean Sea about half way between Istanbul (known as Byzantium in Roman times) and the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. The city was founded in 356 BC by King Phillip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great) in order to control nearby gold mines. At the time of Paul’s missionary journeys, Philippi was a Roman colony located along the Via Egnatia – the main road connecting the western and eastern provinces of the Roman Empire – which ran from the port of Dyrrachium (modern day Durres, Albania) on the eastern shore of the Adriatic to Byzantium (modern day Istanbul, Turkey) on the Bosporus strait which connects southeast Europe and southwest Asia. Due to the presence of the nearby gold mines, and it’s location along this major trans-continental trade route, Philippi was prosperous throughout its history until it was abandoned for unknown reasons sometime after the Ottoman conquest.
Founding of the Church at Philippi
The church at Philippi was founded during Paul’s second missionary journey about 49 or 50 AD. Initially, Paul had left Jerusalem with Barnabas, Silas, and Judas Barsabas to deliver a letter to the Gentile believers in Syria, Antioch, and Cilicia (eastern Asia Minor) from the apostles in Jerusalem in answer to certain questions (e.g. the need for circumcision) which had been raised by some of the Pharisees in those cities who had become followers of Jesus, but still insisted that Gentile believers should be required to conform to the Mosaic law. (see Acts 15:1-35)
What does Ephesians 2:8-9 say?…
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
After considerable “heated discussion” and an impassioned plea by Peter, the council in Jerusalem came to the same conclusion and wrote the following letter to the new Gentile believers to be delivered by Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and Judas…
They wrote this letter by them:
The apostles, the elders, and the brethren,
To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:
Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” – to whom we gave no such commandment – it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:
that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality [πορνεία porneia – fornication]. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.
After the letter had been delivered, Paul wanted to go on with Barnabas to revisit the churches that had been planted on his first missionary journey the previous year (47-48 AD), to find out how the brethren there were doing. Barnabas wanted to also take with them John Mark (author of the Gospel of Mark), but Paul refused because John Mark had abandoned their first mission, returning to Jerusalem from Cyprus when Paul and Barnabas had sailed for Asia Minor. The dispute between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark became so sharp that they parted company – Barnabas taking John Mark with him, and Paul continuing with Silas through Syria and Cilicia. (Acts 15:36-41)
Along the way, in Derbe or Lystra (Acts 16:1) they met a young Gentile Christian named Timothy whose mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois, were strong believers who raised Timothy in the faith from his infancy, teaching him the scriptures (2 Timothy 1:5 and 3:15). Interestingly, despite the results of the council in Jerusalem and the contents of the very letter that Paul had been sent to deliver (Acts 15:23-29), Paul decided to circumcise Timothy…
Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.
Why did Paul circumcise Timothy? Clearly, the finding of the council was that circumcision was not needed for salvation. Paul, himself would speak out against circumcision of the flesh many times in his epistles, even referring to it as “the mutilation.”
Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh,
Can anyone think why Paul might have made this decision?
- Perhaps Paul believed that Timothy’s uncircumcision would distract potential Jewish converts from receiving the preaching of the Gospel by Timothy.
- Perhaps Paul wanted to ensure Timothy’s safety and acceptance among the Jews with whom they were about to share the Gospel.
- Perhaps Timothy requested circumcision as a token of devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob whom he had chosen to follow and obey.
Whatever the reason, after Timothy was circumcised, Paul, Timothy, and Silas continued the journey through Asia Minor with the intent of re-visiting the churches that had been established there (Acts 16:4-8). But God had much bigger plans for this journey. When they reached Troas Paul was given a vision to bring the Gospel to the continent of Europe for the first time…
And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
The missionaries concluded from this vision that God was calling them to preach the Gospel to the Macedonians. There’s another important lesson we can glean here. Note that the missionaries were open to the leading of God’s Holy Spirit. How often do we try to set an agenda for God’s work, and stubbornly press forward with it, ignoring God’s gentle, but clear leading otherwise? We do need to be willing workers, but we need to also be humble and contrite, taking our direction from these words of Jesus…
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
Another interesting point here, although no explicit mention is made, apparently somewhere along the line, Luke joined the party because starting in Acts 16:10, the writer (Luke) begins to refer to the group as “we” rather than “they.”
After sailing from Troas (in western Turkey) they came after a few days to Philippi where the Gospel was preached for the first time on the European continent!
It was Paul’s habit when coming to a new city to evangelize in the city’s synagogue. However, the Jewish community of Philippi must have been very small because it met for Sabbath prayers by the riverside rather than in a synagogue. We can conclude from this that there must have been fewer than 10 adult male Jews in this small community, otherwise they would have built a synagogue in which to meet, study scripture, and pray. Interestingly, the first to hear the Gospel on that Sabbath were women, and the first Philippian convert mentioned in the Bible was a woman called Lydia, who invited the missionaries to stay in her home after she and her whole household had believed the Gospel and been baptized (Acts 16:13-15). So the first church in Europe was a home group like this!
Before leaving the subject of the founding of the church in Philippi, let’s consider one other incident reported in…
Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities. And they brought them to the magistrates, and said, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe.” Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods. And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 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 chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household. And when it was day, the magistrates sent the officers, saying, “Let those men go.” So the keeper of the prison reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Now therefore depart, and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out.” And the officers told these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans. Then they came and pleaded with them and brought them out, and asked them to depart from the city. So they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.
Let’s take a few quick moments to highlight some points of interest in this passage before we leave the story of the founding of the Philippian church…
First, notice that the demon was cast out of the slave girl “in the name of Jesus Christ.” (verse 18).
“And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
See also John 14:12-14, John 15:16, and John 16:23-27, but beware! Do not “cherry pick” these verses. These are among the most widely abused verses in all of scripture. Many false teachers have based their preaching of a prosperity Gospel on doing just that, and the faith of many has been destroyed and abandoned by this abuse of scripture.
God does His will in Hisown way and in His own time. He does listen to our prayers, and He does, on occasions whenever it pleases Him, perform miracles for and through His humble servants for His glorification even today, just as in Biblical times.
So, when reading these passages (as with the entire Bible) focus on context, context, context.
Next, take note in verse 25 that in the midst of this trial, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Make no mistake. If we proclaim that we are Christians – followers of the Lord Jesus Christ – the unbelievers in the world around are watching our every word and deed to see how we handle the trials of life, and to verify whether what we say about the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit within us is true. We need to follow the example set here by Paul and Silas. Paul, himself speaks of this in Philippians 4:4 – Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! This isn’t an attitude we can “gin up” on our own. We need the power of the Holy Spirit of God dwelling within our hearts to carry it off in sincerity.
John 3:3 (Jesus speaking to Nicodemus 3:1-21)
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Finally, I want to point out the danger of taking hand-picked verses out of context. Remember that Adolph Hitler used scripture to justify his evil agenda to annihilate the Jews by taking carefully selected verses out of their context. In order to do this, of course, he had to ignore the main thrust of the Bible – God’s love letter to and about His chosen people Israel. Hitler even proclaimed that Jesus was an Aryan – a patently ridiculous position to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible. Sadly, Hitler was not alone by any stretch of the imagination. Satan did the same thing when he tempted the Lord Jesus in the wilderness…
Then he brought Him to Jerusalem, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you,’
and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'”
And Jesus answered and said to him, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.'”
Satan is quoting Psalm 91 here, and just as he did with Eve in the garden (and with us even today) he is misquoting.
For He shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you in all your ways.
False teachers are doing the same thing today to promote their own agendas and to bilk the gullible out of their hard-earned cash. But even well-meaning but naive brothers and sisters in Christ can be led astray – perhaps by wishful thinking. I am guilty of this in my own life.
Most of you know that neither of my two sons is saved yet, which naturally breaks my heart every day. I think everyone here can think of at least one unsaved loved-one that they pine and worry over in prayer. In our desperation for our lost friends and family, it is easy for us fall into the trap of looking for a “prize verse” to pin our hopes on in our despair. And there’s nothing wrong with seeking succor in God’s Word, but unless we are very careful, we can easily be led astray. For me, it was…
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
Taken out of its context, this sounds like a general promise from God in scripture for all of us with lost loved ones. In our longing for our lost friends and family, it’s easy to latch onto this single-verse as a personal promise from God to us, when the context of the story makes it clear that this pronouncement pertained strictly to the jailor in Philippi and his family. That’s a hard pill to swallow after we think we’ve discovered a gold nugget in the scripture which pertains directly to us, rather than setting the verse in its context and discovering otherwise. Wrongful interpretation of such scriptures can lead to a great deal of heart ache as I learned the hard way, myself.