The People of Philippi


Acts 16:6-40

Today we begin a new series of morning sermons, this on Paul’s short letter to the church in Philippi. I preached through Philippians once before, beginning in January of 1984. Most of you were not here almost 23 years ago and I hope and pray that the Lord will make my own reflection on this marvelous book of the New Testament deeper and more useful to you than it could have been so early on in my ministry. This morning our primary reading is, however, from Acts 16, which contains the account of Paul’s first visit to the city and the founding of the church. The Acts narrative provides an introduction to the letter by providing its historical background and by putting some flesh and blood on the skeleton of the church to which Paul writes. Who were these people who made up that church? Well, we have a cross section of the congregation introduced in Acts 16. Here we both encounter some of the people who made up that congregation and hear the story of how they became followers of Jesus Christ. It is a lengthy reading and so I will restrict my comments on the text as much as possible.

Acts 16 begins with Paul, together with Silas, at the outset of what has come to be called his second missionary journey. On that journey he first visited the churches in the Roman province of Galatia that he had founded on his first missionary journey, the evangelistic trip recounted in Acts 13 and 14. As the chapter begins we find Paul assuming that he would continue his evangelistic work in Asia Minor, the area which is today the nation of Turkey. The Lord had other plans.

Text Comment

v. 10

You may have noticed the subtle but all-important change in pronoun. In vv. 6-8 we have third person pronouns: “Paul and his companions,” “when they came to the border,” etc. But in verse 10 we suddenly have “…we got ready…” This is the first of the famous “we-sections” of the book of Acts, those sections of the history in which the narrator, Luke the Physician, was a participant in and eyewitness of the events he describes. This manner of speaking extends to the middle of our passage (16:17) and then resumes again in 20:5. The we-sections are, you may remember, one of the genuinely important evidences both of Luke’s authorship and of Acts’ eyewitness authority. Was Luke practicing medicine in Troas when Paul came to preach there?

v. 14

Paul’s usual practice when he came to a new city, as you remember, was to preach first to the Jews in the town synagogue. Apparently there was no synagogue in Philippi. There must have been an insufficient number of Jews. You had to have ten Jewish males to have a synagogue. But there was a place of prayer, a place for what Jews there were to gather for worship. Among those gathering were some Gentile “God-fearers.” The NIV describes Lydia as a “worshipper of God.” In Acts this refers to Gentiles who, though not full proselytes, that is, not yet converts to Judaism, attached themselves to the Jewish religion, practiced its monotheistic and imageless worship, and observed the Sabbath and some other ritual laws. [F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text, 215] So Lydia had, in a way, already taken some steps toward the Christian faith. She had been prepared, at least in part, to hear what Paul would say about the Messiah and his having come.

v.18

I think we may assume that this slave girl was not only delivered from the spirit, the demon who inhabited her, but was converted, became a Christian. So it always is elsewhere in the New Testament. It does seem that in the ministry of the Lord Jesus himself and at least the early ministry of his apostles, demonic activity preceded them in an unprecedented way. There is, for example, no instance of demon possession anywhere in the Old Testament. This overt activity of the demonic realm provided an opportunity for the public demonstration of the power of Christ and the gospel. The Devil, once again, is God’s devil and, unwittingly and unintentionally, doing God’s work for him, by providing an opportunity for the Lord to demonstrate his power to deliver and save.

v.21

It would have been a matter of immense importance to the citizens of Philippi that their city was a Roman colony, the most important type of city in the Roman empire. Luke mentioned this fact about the city in v. 12. Most cities were not colonies so colonies were proud of their status. Its original settlers would have been either Roman citizens sent out from Italy or Roman soldiers who were being rewarded with land for their service in the army. The town was governed on the Roman model and its citizens were exempt from most Roman taxes. Keeping themselves “Roman” was important and so the need to preserve the town’s Roman character made a powerful argument to wield against the newcomer whom they wished to punish for costing them so much money.

v. 30

The jailer’s question illustrates a common reality: people realize in ways they could not themselves explain that they have come face to face with the Living God, that they are unworthy to stand before him, and that they need salvation.

v.37

Being a Roman colony where Roman law was more strictly observed, the officers of the town would have had to take Paul’s complaint seriously.

v.40

You may have noticed that as the chapter ends we return to third person pronouns. Luke apparently stayed behind in Philippi when Paul and Silas left. Perhaps it was his assignment to consolidate the work. This is confirmed in 20:6 where the next we-section begins with the words, “We sailed from Philippi…” Apparently, Paul and Silas picked up Luke in Philippi as they passed back through the town later.

This is a wonderfully important passage, to which a biblically informed Christian will have cause to return time and time again. Its importance lies not only in its being the narrative of the gospel’s entrance into Europe—which would continue to be the center of Christianity’s influence in the world until almost our own lifetime—and not only in its being the narrative of the establishment of the Philippian church itself, which will later receive one of Paul’s letters that would become part of Holy Scripture, but, still more, its importance lies in providing an historical commentary on the biblical teaching of grace and salvation. If you read through Luke’s account of the missionary work of the Apostle Paul, you will find that Philippi receives an unusual amount of attention. To be sure, as much space is devoted to his time and his work in Corinth and Ephesus, larger and still more important cities, but in neither of those narratives are we told so much about the early converts and the first members of the church as Luke gives us in the case of Philippi. Perhaps that is due to the fact that Luke remained in the town and became intimately acquainted with and came especially to love these people. In any case, in the whole story of Acts, we learn about no congregation and its charter members so much as we learn about the church in Philippi. And so this church serves in the New Testament as something of a typical church, a model, a paradigm. And that is true especially in several crucial respects and it is these respects that I want to consider with you this morning.

It is the story—the founding of this church—it is the story, as you see, of three conversions. But more than that, it is intended, as so much else in Acts, to illustrate in a timeless fashion, the way in which God saves sinners and forms the church of Christ in the world. I think you will agree with me that the timeless principles illustrated in the founding of the Philippian church literally jump off the page. The Bible teaches God’s grace and the way of salvation in many different ways. It is after all the Bible’s great theme, so it is not surprising that it should be taught in a variety of ways. Here that teaching comes to us in history and in flesh and blood.

  1. First, we see here the particularity of divine grace and saving love: how it fastens on some and not on others.

You see this immediately in vv. 6, 7, and 10. God prevented Paul from working in two places and led him to a third. The “problem” of the unreached heathen is simply never a problem in the Bible, never something to be explained, still less to be justified. That many do not hear of Christ and salvation is a fact and the Bible acknowledges it as a fact. But it is never explored as a theological problem or a reason to object to the wisdom or goodness of God.

The classical resolution offered by many Christians is to suggest that those who have not heard the gospel are held accountable only for the light which they have been given. That is right, of course. Paul articulates that principle himself elsewhere in his writings. But what is completely unbiblical is the suggestion that such people can be saved by the use they make of the light they have when they have not heard the gospel. “Those who sin without the law shall perish without the law” is how Paul puts it. The preferred modern resolution to the problem of the unreached is simple universalism: everyone will be saved anyway, so the problem of the unevangelized becomes no problem at all.

But there is nothing remotely like this in the Bible. Nor is there even the appearance of the need to justify God’s providence, leaving as it does multitudes of human beings in ignorance of the gospel. The Bible’s philosophy of history is simply this: 1) all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; 2) God chooses to save some of those who deserve spiritual death and for those and those only he effects their salvation, not only through the work of his Son on the cross, but through the work of his Spirit through the witness of the church.

I do not hesitate to admit that this troubles the mind. It is a truth we must bow before in silence with a hand over our mouths. But that it is true is beyond dispute. God’s ways are not our ways and are far above us. What is more, we Christians should be the very first to admit that sinners are notoriously poor judges of what ought to be done with sinners. But, in any case, it is not the Bible’s point of view to see these facts in other terms than these: the universal guilt of mankind, the universal blindness to sin and bondage to unbelief, and the electing love of God overcoming that willful and determined unbelief in the case of those God has chosen to save.

No sinner is owed a chance at salvation; we understand nothing of sin or salvation if we do not accept that no one is owed the right to hear. The fallen angels are neither redeemed nor saved! No gospel is preached to them; no offer of salvation made to them. But, what is more important, no one fails to be saved for want of hearing the gospel. Hearing is never the issue. Many hear who do not believe and their guilt is only increased by their hearing the good news and not believing it. Everyone who would respond if he should hear the gospel, hears the gospel. That must be true because, man’s bondage to sin being as abject and as willing as it is, only those God intends to save, only those whose ears he intends to open, would ever believe in any case. [It is my private opinion that the reason so many human beings did not hear and do not hear through the ages of human history is precisely because of God’s mercy. He did not intend to save them—for reasons known to himself alone—and so he did not intend to make their guilt any worse by giving them a message they would not believe. He would rather they be beaten with few stripes, not many.]

If the question is: “what must I do to be saved?” We should all answer, as Paul does here: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ…” But, if the question is: “why does one believe and not another?” the answer is not ultimately “because one believed and the other did not.” That will be true, of course, but the Bible says something more: “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message.” And, what is more, he prevented Paul from going into Bithynia. Bithynia didn’t hear, Philippi did. Some in Philippi didn’t believe, but some did. The Bible does ask that second question, quite often in fact. Why one and not another? And it always gives the same answer: God gives his chosen people eternal life; whom he loves he predestines to become conformed to the likeness of his Son; and those he predestines he calls and those he calls he justifies.

We will never be competent to understand this fully. But we will never be sympathetic to this truth until we genuinely appreciate the full measure of our sin and guilt, and our natural bondage to sin, until we begin, at least really begin to grasp the terrible holiness of God, and until we are willing to give assent from our hearts to the fact of the perfect justice of all of God’s ways and the holy freedom of Almighty God. Nevertheless you cannot understand the world or the church until you understand that salvation is of the Lord and that he shows mercy to whom he shows mercy. This is only confirmed all the more when we consider the next way in which the founding of the Philippian church and these three conversions are typical of the work of God in the world.

  1. Second, we have here the illustration of the sovereign power, and infallible working of divine grace.

When God chooses a person for salvation nothing can stand in the way of that man or that woman’s eternal life—not the world, not the Devil, not the man or woman’s own indifference to or visceral hatred of God or love of his or her sins. “All who were ordained to eternal life” we read of the people in Galatia in Acts 13:48. And, here, in Philippi it was the same. How beautifully we see it. Lydia went outside the town as she was accustomed to do of a Saturday to worship with a small band of Jews, at least most of whom were women. But a stranger was there talking about Jesus Christ, whom he showed by appeal to the Scripture was the Messiah and the Savior of the world. Now there were others with whom Lydia had worshipped Sabbath by Sabbath. Some of them may have been interested; others no doubt scoffed, as many of the Jews did in every other place where Paul preached. But—what do we read?—the Lord opened Lydia’s heart. Remember, in Acts “the Lord” is a reference to Jesus Christ, here working in and through the Holy Spirit. Suddenly and unaccountably this woman knew with a certainty she couldn’t herself explain that what Paul was saying was the truth and that the message she was hearing about Jesus of Nazareth must change her life. The Scripture says that no one can confess Jesus to be Lord except by the Spirit of God. Well, the Spirit moved in Lydia, illuminated her mind and softened her heart and she confessed Jesus Lord, as we read in v. 15.

And so with the slave girl. As so often in the Bible, physical deliverances are pictures and demonstrations of spiritual liberation. Paul’s casting out of that demon—wonderful deliverance as that was for this benighted girl, nothing but a source of income for her owners—cannot be compared to the Spirit’s breaking the bondage to sin and unbelief in this dear girl’s heart and setting her on the path to eternal life. She was once, in the most degrading and painful way, following the dictates of the ruler of the kingdom of this world, the spirit who is at work in those who are disobedient, but God set her free. Her owners, who remained in darkness, did not rejoice in her good fortune. They resented her happiness. They wished she had remained a child of the devil as they were, but she had become, by the grace of God, the second charter member of the Christian church in Philippi.

And no less wonderful was the work the Spirit of God performed in the heart of the jailer. We have no reason to think that day began in any different way than countless days before it. He went to work and, so far as we know, his heart wasn’t troubled by dark thoughts. He wasn’t conscious of his alienation from God. But by the mighty power of God, before another day dawned he was a new man, knowing things he had not even suspected before, staking his life and his eternity confidently upon a Savior whom he had never heard of before. Extraordinarily, the jailer interpreted the events that night in his prison in terms of his own personal relationship to God. He might not have done so; many in the NT did not do so, but he did! There was an earthquake and Paul assured him that no one had escaped and this man immediately gathered that he needed to be saved! Everything becomes suddenly so clear to those in whom the Spirit is working! Why did the jailer believe as he did? He didn’t first check the cells; he assumed he would be punished for an escape brought about by natural causes! But when he realized that this wouldn’t happen he wasn’t relieved; he didn’t simply relock the cells and go back to his desk. He found himself in even deeper spiritual distress. Why? Because God was at work. This is the terror of the Lord! That is why he asked Paul about salvation: it was clear to him that he had come face to face with God!

God had people in Philippi, his chosen ones, and so he steered Paul and Silas away from Bithynia into Macedonia and brought them to Philippi. And Paul had but to open his mouth and people believed and were saved. The circumstances were different in each case, each person’s background and life situation was different, the means of the conversion of each to faith in Jesus was different, but the change was the same and the result was the same. What is this but the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise:“My sheep hear my voice and follow me. I have other sheep that are not of this fold. They too will hear my voice and follow me.” That is the point: God speaks, in whatever way, and they hear and respond!

We have all seen this in speaking to people and in the conversion of people we know or hear about. One moment: darkness, unbelief, indifference to Christ and the next: clarity, faith, love, thrill in Christ’s salvation.

I read in Alexander Smellie’s little biography of the great Scottish preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, an account of the conversion to Christ of three of McCheyne’s cousins. These were three young women of a nominal Christian family and they came, almost simultaneously, to true and living faith in Christ as a result of a visit that McCheyne paid to their family home in August of 1842. His words, and perhaps especially the example of his life, brought them to see things that they had never seen before. This was the Holy Spirit at work, of course, all the more plainly in view of the fact that the three came almost as one to this new faith. One of them, Maria, wrote afterward to her cousin, “You say, it seems like a dream, the precious week you spent here. I feel, indeed, awakened from a long dark dream, and I earnestly pray that I may be still more awakened and enlightened.” Lydia, the slave girl, and the jailer might have said the very same thing!

What is also interesting about all of this is that there was another sister who did not fall under the sway of the gospel. She thought what had happened to her sisters unfortunate and unnecessary and quite dismal. She also found quite distasteful her sisters’ new interest in talking to anyone and everyone about their faith.

“I cannot make my sisters understand that they are far too young to be encouraged prowling about the Parish, talking to all the ploughmen and women on religion and conversion. The sort of feeling of equality there is too much of in Scotland is hateful to me. The lower orders are very well in their way, but should be kept in their proper place…. I…fear having some brothers-in-law in the shape of pious tallow-chandlers, or tinkers, or ploughmen, presented to me, and then told they were Christians and therefore far better than my unconverted self.” [Smellie, pp. 139-141]

The Lord had opened three hearts, but not another. The wind blows where it will and who knows where it comes from or where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit of God. And so it was in Philippi. Three different individuals called, in three different ways, but with the same surprising and wonderful effect.

  1. Third, we have illustrated the corporate reach of divine grace, the family solidarity of God’s gracious working.

We speak of this often and are reminded of it at every infant baptism. But, we have it in spades in the founding of the church in Philippi. It is not these individuals in isolation, but as had been the case from the beginning of God’s work of salvation in the world, their families too who are brought to Christ and into his church. Some of us today are individuals—as was the slave girl—but most of us are families and so it has always been.

Lydia’s heart was opened to believe Paul’s message but she and her entire family were baptized. The Philippian jailer was evangelized and the gospel preached to him, as we read in v. 16, was explicitly a promise of salvation both to him and to his family. And it is the jailer and his family who were baptized that night. Three converts originally, but many more people added to the church. Such has been the way of the gospel ever since. God’s promise to be the God of believers and their children was fulfilled here and has long been fulfilled and is being now fulfilled before our eyes in this church. How typical was the church in Philippi, made up, as it was of believers and their children.

Now, someone might argue, indeed, many have argued that we cannot tell the makeup of those families or households. Perhaps they were all adults and, surely, it would be fair to assume that all of them believed just as Lydia and the jailer did. Well, that is possible, though the Bible doesn’t say that. It is certainly just as likely that there were little children in these households who were included with their parents, even that the jailer’s wife was included in the decision of her husband and changed her faith, at first, simply because he had. But, the fact is, grace embraced the family as a unity, the church was built not with individuals but with families summoned by the call of God. And, when you add this historical data to so much else in the Bible, including Peter’s “the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call,” it seems a desperate strategy to attempt to separate what seems to be happening here in Philippi from that long tradition of family grace, of grace in the lines of generations so much a part of the faith of the covenant from the beginning. The family is as fundamental an institution in the world of grace as it is in the world of nature. And what a kindness of God that it is!

  1. Finally, we see here illustrated the way divine grace obliterates the barriers sinful men create between themselves.

McCheyne’s unconverted cousin would not have liked this church in Philippi. Its charter members were a Jewish business-woman; a formerly demon-possessed slave girl, and a jailer—with their families and servants, which Lydia and the jailer probably had. Talk about people with nothing in common! A mature, religiously-minded, independent and, apparently, well-to-do business woman; a slave girl; and a civil servant, a particularly hard-boiled, worldly-wise jailer, probably a retired Roman soldier. They must have had interesting congregational meetings! That was as it has continued to be the way of God’s saving grace.

And surely it is interesting that women figure so prominently in the narrative of the founding of this church. The church’s first member was a woman, and so was her second member. And no doubt a great many of the others. Two are mentioned by name in Paul’s letter to the church. There is nothing of Islam here. We see on the television the bodies prostrating themselves in the mosque, but they are all men. The sermons preached by the imams are preached to the men. But in the Christian church in Philippi the men and the women formed the body of Christ together. They worshipped and their served together. The slave girl with her demon is an accurate picture of the woman in the Greco-Roman world. The transfiguration of her life is a beautiful picture of the effect of the Christian message on the life of women in the world. The dignity that the gospel invests in the life of women was something entirely knew and splendid.

This was obviously the Lord’s doing. He could have created a church out of people who were the same socio-economically speaking. He could have advanced his cause by starting the church with the conversion of the most intelligent and most influential men of the town. It might have been easier in the long run for these people to get along with one another if they all came from the same side of the tracks. But this was not God’s way. He called very different people out of darkness into his marvelous light. And if that is beautiful to him, then it must be beautiful to us as well! We will be true to the profile of the church of Christ which the Scripture itself provides only so long as we happily incorporate and seek to incorporate into our body, people of every race, sex, ethnic background and social and economic level.

And what is it that brings all of this detail into one coherent narrative? It is Jesus Christ: the one Paul preached, the one who transformed these various lives, the one in whom these different people believed, and the Lord whom these people, in their joy and gratitude, began to serve together. Not a one of these people so much as knew that Jesus existed a day before Paul’s arrival. But as soon as they had heard of him and, by the Spirit of God, believed him to be their Lord and Savior, he was the touchstone of their lives. And they were found saying to anyone and everyone who would listen to them, what centuries later Charles Spurgeon would say in one of his famous sermons:

“I tell you, who do not know Christ, and do not…know what true religion is, that five minutes’ realization of the love of Christ would be better for you than a million years of your present choicest delights. There is more brightness in the dark side of Christ than in the brightest side of this poor world. I would sooner lie on a bed and ache in every limb, with the death-sweat standing on my brow, by the month and the year together, persecuted, despised, and forsaken, poor and naked, with the dogs to lick my sores and the devils to tempt my soul, and have Christ for my Friend, than I would sit in the palaces of wicked kings, with all their wealth, and luxury, and pampering…”

And if you wonder why anyone would say such a thing, well those folk in Philippi and any true Christian since would say, “Well, you haven’t met Jesus Christ.” He makes a difference more wonderful than words can describe. So it was in Philippi and so, I pray, it will always be here: the visible, constant, and unchangeable mark of the church an undying devotion to Jesus shared by all the different people that God’s sovereign grace calls together in this place.