Fridays in Philippians – The Church in Philippi

Acts 16:6-40 describes the events surrounding Paul and his ministry team of Silas, Timothy and Luke planting the church in Philippi.

Once Paul leaves Philippi in 49/50 A.D., we have only passing references to the church at Philippi.[1] Likely within a year of leaving Philippi Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he boldly preached the gospel despite suffering and being mistreated in Philippi (1 Thes 2:2). Writing to the Corinthians around 54/55 A.D., Paul intended to visit Corinth after passing through Macedonia (1 Cor 16:5). About a year later Paul explains to the Corinthians that he had originally planned to visit them on his way to Macedonia, and then again on his way back, but his plans changed (2 Cor 1:16). After looking for Titus in Troas, Paul returned to Macedonia (2 Cor 2:13), where he engaged in further ministry (Acts 20:1-2). After three months in Greece, Paul passed back through Macedonia on his journey to Jerusalem in 57 A.D. (Acts 20:3). Accompanying him were several delegates from various churches tasked with delivering the money Paul raised from various churches to help poor Jewish Christians in Judea (Acts 20:4-5). While these companions went ahead of Paul to Troas, he and Luke remained in Philippi through the Feast of Unleavened Bread (early April) before sailing on to join them (Acts 20:6). From there Paul eventually made his way to Jerusalem, where he was arrested in the temple courts (Acts 21:27-36). After three years of imprisonment in Caesarea, Paul appealed his case to Caesar and was subsequently transferred to Rome (Acts 23:23–28:31).

What was the church at Philippi like?[2] The fact that there was no synagogue in Philippi strongly suggests a predominantly Gentile congregation. Luke singles out Lydia, a Gentile worshiper of Yahweh, as an important early convert (Acts 16:14). As a seller of purple goods she had the means to house Paul and the rest of his missionary team during their initial visit (Acts 16:14-16). The jailer and his family were also among the first converts in Philippi (Acts 16:31-34). As noted above, he was likely either a public slave or a freedman rather than a retired soldier. And while we cannot be sure, it is certainly possible that the slave girl that Paul exorcised the fortune telling demon from eventually became part of the congregation. Beyond that Acts does not provide much information, though Luke does note that Paul and Silas left Philippi only after “they had seen the brothers” (Acts 16:40). The impression left is of a small group of believers, left under the care of Luke and perhaps Timothy as well.

By the time that Paul writes to the Philippians over a decade later, a different picture emerges. The church now has overseers and deacons (Phil 1:1), and has partnered with Paul in the advancement of the gospel on more than one occasion (1:5; 2:25-30; 4:10-20). Indeed, their generosity was such that Paul used them as an example to spur the Corinthian church to give generously (2 Cor 8:1-5). They are clearly a source of great joy and encouragement to Paul (Phil 1:3-8). A number Philippians served alongside Paul in gospel ministry at various points, including Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and the mysterious “true companion” (4:2-3). And Epaphroditus even risked his life to minister to Paul’s needs while in prison (2:25-30).

Of course, the Philippian church was not perfect; they were experiencing tensions both internal and external. Internally, the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche was apparently concerning enough for Paul to take the unusual step of calling them out by name to resolve their differences (Phil 4:2-3). He even calls for others to get involved to solve the dispute. There are also strong hints that a lack of unity was hindering the growth of the church, as Paul makes several appeals for unity (e.g., 1:27; 2:1-4; 3:15; 4:2-9). Externally they faced some form of persecution, likely from pagan neighbors or perhaps even the civil authorities (1:27-30). Paul also warns about the possibility of false teachers who promote adherence to the Mosaic Law (3:2-7), as well as “enemies of the cross” who are on the path to eternal destruction (3:18-19).

Yet despite these challenges, the church at Philippi overall appears to be healthy. In contrast to the extensive problems in Corinth and the dire threat of apostasy in Galatia, the church at Philippi seems to be on solid footing.

[1] Parts of the chronology that follows is dependent on D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 420-25, 47-48.

[2] Our answer to this question focuses on the biblical text. But attempts have been made to speculate on the socio-economic and ethnic makeup of the church as well. While such attempts have their place in making sure that our assumptions about the Philippian church are consistent with what we can reconstruct about Philippi, it is unwise to place too much weight on such reconstructions. For an example of a responsible and restrained reconstruction, see Oakes, From People to Letter, 55-76.

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