Divine Disclosure: How God worked to bring the Good News to Philippi
Beginning of our study through the book of Philippians.
Going to begin at the beginning. In Acts 16 we read of how the church came into being.
Let me give you some dates, so we can understand things according to their timeline in which they occurred.
- 33 AD – Pentecost
- 50 AD – Paul’s missionary team comes to Philippi.
- 62 AD – Paul writes the book of Philippians.
So, the events we read about in Acts 16 are about 17 years after Pentecost. And Paul’s letter to the church is written ~12 years after the church began.
The city of Philippi
Located in Macedonia (modern day Greece)
About 10 miles inland from the Aegean Sea.
The name was given to the city by King Philip II of Macedonia (in the mid-330s BC) when he enlarged the city.
Acts 16:12 tells us that it was a leading city in Macedonia. It became a Roman colony in 42 BC. Evidence from a later period shows that the term used here was an honorary title given to certain cities. It is apparent from the response of the citizens that they took some pride in their Roman identity (Acts 16:20).
The city lay in a strategic location along what was called the “Via Egnatia,” a great Roman military road which led from Asia to the west.
There were evidently few Jews in Philippi. Paul made it his practice to first visit the synagogue whenever he came to a town. But he does not do that in Philippi, most likely because there was no synagogue. Since it took a quorum of ten male Jews to from a synagogue, it is likely that there were few Jews there.
The people were then overwhelmingly Gentile. They were pagans and animistic, recognizing deity in spiritual presences that they believed had the power to render aid or do harm. They also worshipped the emperor. As one commentator put it: “The Christian faith came to a world hungry, and insecure and unsatisfied, to a morally disintegrating society, and to utter religious confusion.”
So how did the gospel come to Philippi? How was a church born in Philippi?
- The Providence of God
Paul and Silas were sent out on a second missionary journey. They were joined by Luke (the author of the book of Acts; we know that he was with them because he speaks in the 1st person plural; Acts 16:11-12). We should note that he must have remained in Philippi because after Acts 16 we don’t find the word “we” used anymore in the account. They also were joined by Timothy in Lystra (Acts 16:1-3).
They went from city to city preaching the gospel and delivering the decree which had been decided upon at the Jerusalem council. The Jerusalem council affirmed the truth that salvation is by grace and not by keeping the Law. The decree has already proven itself to be of great encouragement to the church in Antioch (Acts 15:31).
Now these four men had the Holy Spirit for their guide on their journey. He was leading the way. They were being directed by Him.
Acts 16:6. “They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” The Holy Spirit closed a door to them. We are not told exactly how the matter was disclosed to them—a prophetic word, an inner prompting, or circumstances—but there was no doubt to what the Holy Spirit was saying.
Acts 16:7. “And when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go to Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” Mysia is on the western shore of modern day Turkey. They wanted to go to the NE to Bithynia, a highly civilized region. A logical place for them to go. But the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them to go there either.
So, no Asia and no Bithynia. And note that Paul and his companions are listening and responding to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Acts 16:8-10. “And passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God has called us to preach the gospel to them.”
Now what are we to make of this. God closed two doors to them. But then Paul was given a vision which opened another door. Now God is the ultimate cause of the vision. And the man is speaking by way of God’s design.
This is the matter of which the hymn speaks when it says, “We have heard the Macedonian call today, ‘Send the light! Send the light!’ There are souls to rescue, there are souls to save, Send the light! Send the light!”
When Paul and his companions cross the sea to what is now Greece, they were entering another continent. The church in Philippi became the first church began in what is modern day Europe. That wasn’t Paul’s original plan, but that was God’s plan. He was providentially leading them there.
And notice what happens when they set their course to Macedonia— “Therefore putting out to sea from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and on the day following to Neapolis.” They made the journey from Troas to Neapolis in only two days. By way of contrast, the same journey in verse later took Paul five days (Acts 20:6). God sped them along.
What are we to make of this? The church in Philippi came into being by God’s providence in a remarkable way. God closed some doors to Paul. Then the vision. The birth of the church in Philippi didn’t happen by accident or coincidence or any plan of man. It was God’s idea. He led Paul and his companions to go there. To that specific place. And later, as the church grew and was established, they could remind themselves of how God had worked to bring the gospel to their city. And how God had worked to start the church there. And there is a lot of encouragement in that.
There is something else here of great importance. We noted in our previous study of how the early church was Spirit-led and empowered to do what it did. The birth and growth of the church was not by human wisdom or effort. The Spirit of God was at work. And we see the same thing here. Paul and his companions are being led by the Spirit. They are listening to the Spirit. They are submitted to the Spirit. The Spirit is out in front where He belongs. Now this is the terminology that is applied to us with respect to the Spirit of God.
Romans 8:14, “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.”
Galatians 5:16, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” Galatians 5:18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.”
The Spirit is still at work. We, as a church, need to be led by the Spirit in our ministry. You, as a believer, need to be led by the Spirit in your Christian life.
You say. But no prophet is speaking and I’m not receiving any visions like Paul. But you are indwelt by the Spirit and the Spirit is able to speak to your heart. Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Cf. Romans 8:27.
- The Preaching of the Gospel
Acts 16:10, “Concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
Acts 16:13, “And we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled.”
So, Paul and his companions made their way to Philippi. And they spent some days in the city.
On the Sabbath they went down by the river supposing that there would be a place of prayer. As we’ve already noted, they would have gone to a synagogue if there would have been one. But there wasn’t, so they went to find the best alternative.
They found a “place of prayer.” And some women there who were evidently praying. Now we don’t want to skip over this detail. There are some women in Philippi praying. These folks are not believers in Christ. Lydia is a “worshipper of God,” and we might suppose that the others were either Jews or God-fearing Gentiles. But they are praying. And God is in the process of answering.
And we read about this dynamic in the book of Acts. The Apostles and others were continually devoting themselves to prayer and then came Pentecost. Cornelius was a man who was “praying to God continually,” and then God revealed the truth to him in dramatic fashion through the Apostle Peter.
Closer to home we’ve had our own experiences. In the Masaka Region there are about 100 churches in five alliances in a work that has been much blessed by God. But before any of that happened, there was Paul Mwesigwa and his wife, Lydia, praying— “God what can be done for all these children?” And then later Pastor Bob was in the habit on his visits of walking to the edge of the village so that he could pray, asking God to take the gospel over the hills to the surrounding villages.
But these folks are praying. And God is sending an answer to their prayers by way of Paul and his companions.
Lydia came from Thyatira. Her name was derived from her home town which was in Lydia. Literally she was “the Lydian woman.”
The people of that region were famous for their skill in the manufacture and use of a purple dye. She had come to Philippi as a trader. Since there is no mention of a husband, it may have been that she took over her husband’s business. She had her own home in Philippi, so she was evidently there for some time.
So, the group—Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke—were speaking to the women who had assembled.
And Paul was speaking to Lydia.
What were they saying? They were preaching the gospel to them. These were folks how had some understanding of the Scriptures but didn’t know about Jesus. So, they spoke to them about Jesus. One might suppose that Paul’s message to them was much as what he had to say when he spoke previously to Jews and proselytes in Pisidian Antioch.
Christ died for sins and rose from the dead.
In Him is forgiveness of sins to everyone who believes (Acts 13:39).
Now this was Paul’s pattern wherever he went. He understood certain truths of the gospel. He would later write of the gospel, inspired by God as he was:
- He called it “the matter of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
- He called it “the glorious gospel the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11).
- He acknowledged it to be “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
The plan was according to God’s plan. Remember Acts 1:8 and Christ’s plan for the building of His church— “ordinary people Spirit empowered to bear witness of Christ.” That’s the same plan that Paul and his companions were following. Not very complicated. Preach the gospel by the power of the Spirit. People are saved. Churches are established. Not very complicated.
- The Preparatory Work of the Lord
Acts 16:14, “And the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.”
ESV, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”
Now this is the necessary order of things. And it is a good reminder of the true nature of what happens when a sinner is saved by grace.
The Lord opened her heart. Preceding her response to the gospel the Lord was at work in her heart. He opened her heart to receive the truth. And there can be no salvation of a soul apart from this preparatory work of the Lord.
Jesus said, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). God’s work precedes man’s response. Salvation happens by God’s intervention.
Salvation is God’s work—from start to finish. 1 Corinthians 1:30, “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus.” Are you in Christ Jesus today? That happened by God’s doing!
How are blind eyes open to the truth? 2 Corinthians 4:4, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” How then is anyone saved? They experience the same thing that Lydia experienced. The Lord opens their hearts to the truth. 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
The Lord opened her heart. The heart is what needs to be opened to the truth. The message of the gospel must penetrate to the deepest part of a man. It will do no good to merely understand the facts of the gospel. It is the heart that is desperately wicked. It is the heart that needs to be corrected and changed. Salvation happens when a person confesses with their mouth Jesus as Lord and believes in their heart that God raised Him from the dead (Cf. Romans 10:9).
Jesus taught of such things when he spoke of the parable of the sower. The sower sowed the seed. And it fell on hard ground, and rocky ground, and thorn-infested ground, and finally on good ground. Only the good soil worked to bear much fruit. The good soil is representative if soil that is first prepared. The hard-preparatory work has been done. And in the case of Lydia it was done. And it was the Lord who did it.
But this phrase transcends just the matter of salvation by way of our first experience. Every believer must come to salvation in this same manner. But God’s design is such that we would remain in this place—in a place where our hearts are opened so that we might pay attention to the truth of God’s Word. This is the happy and healthy place for us as believers. And should we find ourselves in any other place we ought to pray that God might return us to that open heartedness that He bestowed upon us in the beginning.
So, Lydia believed. She became Paul’s first convert in Europe. She was baptized, along with her other dependents and servants. She gave evidence of her salvation by way of her extending hospitality to Paul and his companions. And a church was born in Philippi. And even after the salvation of the Philippian jailer and his family, it is to her home that they all precede (Acts 16:40).
Jesus said, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). And here we read about one part of that work that He has been doing. That He has been doing since the church was born on the day of Pentecost.
And the work was done according to His plan. He said, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). These Spirit-led and empowered men were providentially led by God to go to this particular place and bear witness of Christ in preaching the gospel. They were doing that which the Lord had given them to do.
The work that started in Philippi was a work of God. That church was founded on that reality. I’m sure the church was henceforth instructed and reminded of how things began for them. They would have looked back in wonder on what God had done. Remember how God led the Apostle Paul to come to us. Remember how he found Lydia at the place of prayer. Remember how she responded to the gospel. God began this work that we are now a part of! How encouraging to know that you are a part of a work that God had started. And that’s true of all of us. Read back in the history of LCBC. God worked to start a church here. Remember 1990. The church was about to close its doors. And Jim and Vic and others humbled themselves before the Lord in prayer. And God worked to revive the work. Look to the other side of the world to the Masaka Region of Uganda. The pastors over there will tell you how they prayed for help from someone. How they needed Bibles and instruction in the Word. They will tell you the story of how God passed over the big-city pastors of Kampala and brought us to help them. And they give God all the glory for that, as they rightfully should.
And note what happened in Lydia’s case. Luke is the inspired author. Note how he wrote about what happened. Why and how did Lydia respond to the gospel? She responded because the Lord opened her heart. No mention is made of Paul’s charisma or outstanding personality or persuasion. The attention is not drawn to any theatrics of Paul or any of his team—here’s the explanation given for Lydia’s response— “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was being said by Paul.” And in that way a church was born. And it is no different today than it was back then so many years ago. All the glory goes to God in the birth of a church or the salvation of a soul!