Paul at philippi
Acts chapter 9 recounts the conversion of the Apostle Paul, and the circumstances by which he became a believer in Yahweh’s Anointed. Ananias who was the instrument through whom he would receive the Truth, was told by the Lord concerning him: “he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15). Paul (or Saul as he was then known), had himself persecuted the ecclesia of Christ in his misplaced zeal for the Mosaic Law as interpreted by the Pharisees, and now he was told that he would himself be persecuted as he set forth the Gospel before the Gentiles. It was out of such persecution that the ecclesia at Philippi was established, and the congregation of the faithful was formed in that place.
1 Thessalonians chapter 2 describes how the Apostle was “shamefully entreated” at Philippi, as he was bold to speak the Gospel of God in the midst of much conflict (1 Thess. 2:2). Yet despite the sufferings he endured, he continued to speak the Gospel message “not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.” (1 Thess. 2:4). The events that took place at Philippi therefore, are instructive to us, teaching us the importance of continuing to hold forth the word of life (Phil. 2:16) in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation.
LYDIA OF THYATIRA
Acts chapter 16 recounts how Paul, having received a heavenly vision, travelled to Philippi to preach the Word there:
“… we were in that city abiding certain days. And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down and spake unto the women which resorted thither” (Acts 16:12-13).
Evidently, there were insufficient men to hold a synagogue in that place, but the Apostle continued to witness to the women who met there for the purpose of prayer. Of these women, the Word obtained lodgement in the heart of a particular individual by the name of Lydia. The record describes the situation thus:
“a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us” (Acts 16:15).
OPENING THE HEART
The narrative informs us that Lydia’s heart was “opened” that she might receive the principles of the Gospel message that were preached to her. In a similar way the risen Lord enabled his disciples to receive the Scriptures that related to his sufferings, and the glory to follow:
“Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures. And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise the third day …” (Lu. 24:45-46).
Indeed, Messiah himself was subject to such an “opening”:
“Adonai Yahweh hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isa. 50:5-6).
In our circumstance the world at large remains closed to the reception of the Gospel message. The Apostle describes the situation thus:
“if our Gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).
Such is the situation for most of humanity: dwelling in darkness and blindness to spiritual things. But the Lord is able to cause His Word to enter our hearts, if we would but receive it. So the Apostle continues:
“For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6)
Whilst it is true that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14), it is also true that “He that is of God heareth God’s words” (Jno. 8:47). How can these two aspects be reconciled?
The Scriptures describe the process by which the Gospel is preached and received: “… faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). So then, “hearing” itself is something that comes “by the Word of God”. The Proverb has it: “The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, Yahweh hath made even both of them” (Prov. 20:12). Yahweh creates the “hearing ear” of those who have the potential to repent and turn to him, and he does so “by the word of God”. The Spirit-Word, when assimilated into the thinking of men and women becomes a powerful influence upon the minds of the recipients. It changes a “natural man,” naturally unable to receive the Gospel message, into a spiritual man who “heareth God’s words”. We must therefore permit the Word to so influence our thinking that we be not blinded by the god of this world, but permit the principles of the Truth to enlighten our otherwise darkened hearts. Allowing the Word to have it’s due influence upon us, we must follow the example of Lydia who received the Apostles and their teaching.
Lydia was from a place called Thyatira (Acts 16:14) and evidently was a founding member of the ecclesia there. She was given to hospitality, as following her baptism, the writer recounts: “she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us” (Acts 16:15). Again, we see an example for us to follow: “let brotherly love continue, Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:1). And in this regard, we are reminded of the example of Lot (Gen. 19:3), and indeed Abraham, the Father of the Faithful (Gen. 18:1-6).
The ecclesia at Thyatira is mentioned again in the Epistles of our Lord to the seven Ecclesias in Asia Minor, and they are commended for this hospitable spirit:
“and unto the angel of the ecclesia in Thyatira write: … I know thy works, and charity and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first” (Rev. 2:18-19).
Their “charity and service”, along with their works and faith, were commended by the Lord. But there was also a deficiency in the ecclesia:
“notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that women Jezebeel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols” (Rev. 2:20)
What a contrast this was to faithful Lydia! A corrupting, fornicating influence in the ecclesia—which was knowingly permitted by the brethren and sisters there. The exhortation for us is plain: we ought not become so preoccupied by hospitality and good works that we neglect contending for the faith. The two go together, and both are needful for the preservation of the body of Christ.
The record in Acts 16 continues to describe the persecution Paul and his companions experienced at Philippi, and how they were “shamefully entreated”:
“… the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them. And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into the prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely …” (Acts 16:22-23).
The Apostle elsewhere alludes back to this treatment he received. Speaking of the false apostles, he describes his own experiences: “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool), I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft …” (2 Cor. 11:23).
In this context, we also think of our Master, who was scourged likewise:
“he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
In receiving many stripes for the Truth’s sake then, the Apostle was enduring that which happened to Messiah. In a very real way, Paul was able to write to the Philippians of his desire to “know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable to his death” (Phil. 3:10). He was a “partaker of Christ’s sufferings” (cp. 1 Pet. 4:13), as he experienced persecution for Christ’s sake, even the same things that he suffered.
SINGING PRAISES TO GOD
On his discourse upon the mount, Messiah taught concerning suffering for his name’s sake:
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Mat. 5:11-12).
These are sentiments that the apostles took to heart, as in the jail, despite the pain of their sufferings, they sang praises to Yahweh:
“and at midnight, Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. 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 bands were loosed” (Acts 16:25-26).
Let us never underestimate the power of prayer and praise! As other disciples who experienced similar treatment before them, they rejoiced that they were accounted worthy to suffer same for his name (Acts 5:41). The way of the natural man is to assume that if difficulties and trials come upon us in life, that God has forsaken us. But quite the opposite is true: “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth ever son whom he receiveth” (Heb. 12:6). The tribulations we endure in life are tokens of our Father’s love toward us. They are designed to develop our character, so that we become suitable inhabitants of Messiah’s kingdom to come. Contriwise, “if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye illegitimate and not sons” (Heb. 12:8). As difficult though it may be therefore, in times of trial and tribulation we should rejoice in that they are evident tokens that God is with us, and loves us enough to place such things upon us.
Paul and Silas, we read, prayed and sang at midnight. There seems to be an allusion here to Psalm 119:
“the bands of the wicked have robbed me: but I have not forgotten thy law. At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee, because of thy righteous judgments” (Psa. 119:61-62).
Paul and Silas were apprehended by the wicked, and placed with their “bands”, yet at midnight they sang the praises of their God, giving thanks for the things they were suffering. So it is that the mind of the spirit contrasts very greatly with the mind of the flesh!
The prayers and praises of Paul and Silas were heard, and answered in a very dramatic way:
“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 bands were loosed” (Acts 16:26).
Isaiah chapter 42 describes the mission of Messiah:
“I will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light to the Gentiles; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house” (Isa. 42:6-7).
In Philippi, these things happened in a literal sense. Paul and Silas were permitted to escape from the prison, and at the same time provided a witness to the Gentiles at Philippi, particularly the jailor and his family. Beholding these wondrous things, the jailor asked the question of the faithful down through the ages: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). The apostle’s reply is most instructive for us:
“they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his house” (Acts 16:33-34).
From this description, we learn that in order to be saved it is necessary to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and be baptised into his saving Name. The two go together: Messiah himself spoke of the very circumstances that Paul and Silas found themselves in:
“he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16).
Here, we see the jailor witnessing the power of the Lord to save, and he was baptised when the Apostle had spoken to him of the word of the Lord (Acts 16:32). But notice that both he and “all his house” were baptised and saved. Just like Lydia with all her household (verse 15). It is written that “the wicked are overthrown and are not; but the house of the righteous shall stand” (Prov. 12:7), and in these two families we see salvation coming to the houses of righteousness. These two families, it would appear, formed the nucleus of what would become the ecclesia at Philippi. If our Lord permit, we shall go on to consider the Epistle written to that ecclesia in our next issue.