The Early Christians of Philippi

During [the] night Paul had a vision.  A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” — Acts 16:9.

It was about two decades following the death of Christ, when Saint Paul brought Christianity into Europe.  One evening while fast asleep in Troas (western Turkey), Paul dreamt of a Macedonian pleading with him to evangelize in Macedonia.*   When Paul awoke, he felt confident that the Holy Spirit was leading him to the Roman province.  So, along with his missionary companions, Paul began the journey across the Aegean Sea.  They entered Macedonia/Europe through the port city of Neapolis, but continued on until they reached Philippi.  Paul’s preaching in Philippi was fruitful, even though he endured a beating and imprisonment, followed by an urgent request by authorities to leave!  Still, Paul and the Christian Philippians developed a comfortable bond and this kind community gave him both emotional and financial support.  But, who were these people?  What names and personalities emerge from the biblical Christians of this city?  The 16th chapter of Acts gets us started with learning about these earliest European Catholics.

Lydia the Purple-Seller

When Paul and Silas (and possibly Luke) first arrived in Philippi, they spent some time in the city and then went to a river bank, hoping to find a place of worship.  There, Paul found a group of women and began to share the story of the Lord, Jesus Christ.  In the midst of his discourse, one of these women, Lydia, had a profound conversion, embracing all Paul spoke of.  Lydia actually had her whole household in Philippi baptized and then invited (practically insisted, actually) the men to stay at her home during their time in Philippi.  This Lydia was a business woman who dealt in purple cloth – she is therefore sometimes referred to as “Lydia Purpuraria” – Lydia the Purple-Seller.  She evidently had roots in Asia Minor (Turkey) for she was said to be of Thyatira … an ancient city there (in a region curiously called “Lydia”).  After being baptized, Lydia generously let her home in Philippi be used as a house church for the growing number of Christians in the European city.   She is listed in the Roman Martyrology (official book of saints) and her feast is celebrated on May 20.  Read about her in Acts 16:11-15, 40.

The Slave Girl

After baptizing Lydia and her household, Paul and Silas went about Philippi preaching the message of Christ.  One day, a slave girl intriguingly began to follow them around.  This slave girl had fortune-telling abilities and her owners were able to make a nice profit from this talent of hers.  However, when she happened across Paul and Silas and heard the words they spoke, she felt compelled to trail behind them loudly pronouncing, “These people are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  Surely Paul did not mind at first, any praising of the Lord had to be enjoyable to his ears.  However, after several days, it understandably grew annoying.  So, he turned to the girl and commanded the spirit within her to leave.  Which it did.  So, the exasperating shouting was gone … and so was the girl’s ability to tell fortunes to customers in Philippi.  This financial loss outraged her owners who riotously brought Paul and Silas to the local authorities.  The magistrates had the men stripped, beaten and thrown into prison.  Luke (the author of Acts) does not share what happened to the slave girl after this experience.  It’s a hopeful thought, however, that her experience brought her to believe in the news of Christ.  Likely her owners would not have allowed her to openly accept the faith, but I like to ponder the possibility that at least quietly in her heart she did. Read about her in Acts 16:16-24.

The Jailer

While the battered Paul and Silas sat in the Philippian prison, they began to pray and sing hymns, seemingly little impacted by their dire circumstances.  Near midnight, the ground surprisingly began to rumble.  Before they knew it, they were living through an earthquake which shook so powerfully their chains broke loose and the door fell open.  They then noticed the guard about to take his own life, distressed over escaped prisoners.  The Holy Spirit nudged the now-freed Paul and Silas to stop the jailer from harming himself and to offer him comfort.  The overwhelmed guard went from terrible fear to hope.  He asked Paul and Silas for advice on how to be saved and the missionaries gently told the distraught man all about Christ.  The jailer, struck by the message, cleaned the wounds of Paul and Silas, brought them to his home and gave them a meal to eat.  He then had his whole family baptized.  At daybreak, Paul let his Roman citizenship be known which prompted a hasty release and an anxious plea from the city magistrates that the men leave Philippi (beating a Roman citizen was illegal).  The rest of the story of the jail guard is unrecorded … however, it seems feasible that he learned of Lydia’s house church and began to attend meetings there with his family.  Perhaps the two families became wonderful friends in Christ. Read about him in Acts 16:25-40.

After the harrowing beating, imprisonment and miraculous release in Philippi, Paul and Silas decided it was time to move on.  Just before leaving the city, however, they stopped off at Lydia’s house to see the Philippian believers who had gathered there.  Luke doesn’t offer any specific names, but one can consider the possibilities … Lydia and her family … maybe some of the other women who were at the river bank.  Maybe the slave girl was able to sneak away and join the fellowship.  It may have been too early on in the Jailer’s life as a Christian, but perhaps even he and his family had already learned of Lydia’s house and were there too.  Whoever was there that day, it is easy to imagine their sadness in seeing Paul and Silas go.  Their lives had been affected so profoundly.  Little did they know that they were to be recorded as the earliest Christians of Europe.

It can be gleaned from other passages within the New Testament that Paul probably stopped off at Philippi a time or two more in the midst of his continued travels.  However no more names of people or narrations of events that took place in the city are recorded … until we hit the eleventh book of the New Testament.  There, we can find a letter that Paul wrote to the Philippian Catholics.  This letter … or epistle … to the Philippians was written about five years after Paul had first entered the Macedonian city and met Lydia.  It encouraged this early group of Christians to be committed in their faith, to strive for harmony, live humbly and to serve cheerfully.  He also warned these kind (and mostly Gentile) Philippians to avoid those who tried to coerce them into practicing the many regulations of Mosaic Law, and instead to keep their focus on Christ.  Towards the end of the letter, Paul thanked the Philippians for their heartening support.  Also within this letter, we meet a few more early Catholic Philippians by name…

Epaphroditus

The Philippians had great admiration for Paul and so wanted to help him in his work.  They sent a representative named Epaphroditus (e-PAF-roh-DY-tuhs) to visit Paul with gifts … possibly money, food or other supplies, in order to help Paul in his mission.  Epaphroditus made to journey to see Paul who at the time was in prison, probably in Ephesus.  Epaphroditus became terribly ill while visiting Paul, to the point of near death.  Word of his infirmity got back to the Philippians who all began to fear for their brother in Christ.  Thankfully, Epaphroditus recovered, bringing much relief to Paul and the Philippians.  Although Paul enjoyed Epaphroditus’s presence, he thought it best to send this man back to his home after regaining his health.   So, this kind man returned to Philippi with the letter that Paul wrote, surely bringing great happiness and inspiration to the Philippian Christians.  It is believed that Saint Epaphroditus was the first bishop of Philippi; the church honors his life on March 22.  Read about him in Philippians 2:25-30; 4:18.

Euodia and Syntyche

Euodia (yoo-OH-dee-uh) and Syntyche (SIN-ti-kee) are very briefly mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, yet many can relate to their apparent predicament.  Paul merely encouraged these two Philippian women to “come to a mutual understanding.”    It seems that no matter how hard we try to be good Catholics, conflict happens.  Euodia and Syntyche were obviously at odds over something.  It is easy to imagine a million different possibilities — squabbles sneak into lives with so little effort it seems.  Perhaps one helped Lydia clean her house more than the other.  Perhaps an argument arose over their children.  Maybe there was a misunderstanding of casually spoken words.  Whatever the conflict was, Euodia and Syntyche can remind us that differences occur and their difficulty can affect an entire parish.  Paul didn’t offer an easy solution — resolving quarrels often takes a large dose of effort and humility.  Euodia and Syntyche are good people to think of the next time we are at a parish council meeting, working at a church festival, teaching a CCD class, or participating in other church work.  Chances are that some unexpected conflict(s) will arise.  Both parties should recall Paul’s plea to these women and humbly reach for a middle and forgiving ground.  Read about them in Philippians 4:2.

Clement

Paul seems to randomly pull Clement’s name out of the air when he makes reference to co-workers who had helped him in his mission of preaching the Good News.  For a time, some historians have tried to suggest that this Clement of Philippi was the same as Pope Clement, the fourth Pope of the church.  Nowadays, however, most dispute this claim.  All we know is that Paul regarded many in Philippi as holy co-workers and Clement’s name surfaced.  We can only assume that he was an active advocate of Christianity in Philippi. Read about him in Philippians 4:3.

The Whole Group

I like to imagine Epaphroditus returning from his visit with Paul to Philippi and receiving a joyous welcome-back from Lydia, the slave girl, the jailer, Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, their families and others…  all gathered at Lydia’s house church.  It is intriguing to picture them asking Epaphroditus all sorts of questions — about his health, his trip, and about Paul –  and then reading each and every word in Paul’s letter that Epaphroditus brought with him.  I see them smiling, discussing, feeling a sense of renewal.  And, I like to think that the rift between Euodia and Syntyche began to dissolve.  Thanks to these good and generous people, the faith was able to take root and spread further into Europe.

*Nowadays “Macedonia” can refer to one of three things:  1) A country north of Greece, also called the “Republic of Macedonia” or “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”  2) A region in northern Greece (which shares a border with the Republic of Macedonia).  3) A larger geographical region that spans the northern area of the Balkan Peninsula is also known as Macedonia.  Macedonia in the days of Paul’s travels was a Roman province that covered roughly the same area as the three current Macedonias put together.

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