Acts (Part 23) - Journey to Philippi
The Epistle to the Galatians was written sometime after the first missionary journey (Acts 13) and before the second missionary journey (beginning in Acts 16). A somewhat educated guess would put the writing of the letter between Acts 15:35 and 36—in those days following chapter 15’s Jerusalem Council. When Luke begins verse 36 with “And after some days…,” (Meta. de, tivaj h`me,raj…), he presents a form expression that serves as a section break. The “some days” of the expression could be a few days to a few months. We could probably safely assume at least a few weeks in this instance. Apparently Paul and Barnabas receive word either by letter or through travelers that the Galatians were having difficulty with those who argued that their lives as Christians must still mimic the rule-keeping demands of the old (Mosaic) covenant. In response, Paul writes the Galatians epistle countering that thought. But he knows his letter has gone out to churches filled with only new Christians who are struggling to maintain a stand against the significant waters of traditional Judaism. Paul’s satisfaction from his trip to Jerusalem apparently gives him the idea that he should return to Galatia and help strengthen their position in person. And so he broaches the idea with Barnabas.
Barnabas welcomes the thought. But, in his enthusiasm, he suggests bringing Mark along with them. Mark had left Paul and Barnabas at Perga on the first missionary journey, returning to Jerusalem. Apparently when Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem for the Council discussion (chapter 15), Barnabas met up with his cousin Mark once again. And it also appears that Mark accompanied the group back from Jerusalem to Antioch. But it doesn’t appear that the differences that caused Mark to abandon the first mission trip had been worked out. Paul fears that the less submissive, hot-tempered Mark will have his feathers ruffled again and leave when they are counting on his participation. Perhaps Paul thought at the very least, Mark would be arguing against whatever direction Paul believed the Holy Spirit was leading them, and that would be too much of a headache to chance. So Paul says no.
But Barnabas insists. And the difference is so “sharp” (15:39) that they separate. The sharpness of the difference does not necessarily indicate angry feelings toward each other. We often assume that just because it is part of our nature to become angry in disagreements. But the text doesn’t indicate that. The sharpness speaks to the incompatibility of their positions, and since both appear inflexible, they do the only logical thing possible—they split up, dividing the territory of their first mission trip. Barnabas and Mark go to their homeland island of Cyprus, and Paul chooses Silas to accompany him in revisiting Galatia.
The first five verses of Acts 16 are all that is devoted to the stated purpose of the trip—revisiting the churches of Galatia. And even in these five another topic takes center stage. In Lystra, Paul meets with Timothy, a young man who apparently had been saved under Paul’s ministry on the first trip. (Paul calls Timothy his “son” in 1 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Timothy 1:2, and 2 Timothy 1:2, indicating that Timothy came to Christ under Paul’s tutelage.) Timothy is the son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father. This is important information that Luke shares because of the action in verse 3. Paul circumcises Timothy. The question immediately comes to mind as to why Paul would do such a thing. Did he not just go to Jerusalem to argue against the need for circumcision? Did he not just finish a letter to the Galatians stating in 5:3, “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” Does Paul abandon that idea as he circumcises Timothy?
The answer is no. Paul remained adamantly opposed to the concept that one must depend on circumcision for relationship with God. But Paul also knew that in their work among Jews, the question would arise whether Timothy (who had a Greek father) was circumcised. It would be an obstacle to the Jews listening to their preaching connecting old covenant Judaism with its fulfillment in Christ. So Paul decides to take the obstacle away. In other words, Paul doesn’t do the circumcision for Timothy’s sake; he does it for the sake of the unbelieving Jews so that his witness can reach them. Consider the following scenario: I invite some unsaved orthodox Jews into my home for the purpose of telling them about Christ. I invite them to sit down to a dinner I’ve prepared. I serve a pork roast. Now, as I begin to eat, I start to preach Christ to them. Are they listening? Probably not. They’re somewhat offended by the pork. And the thought of the pork on the table in front of them fills their thoughts. They are barely listening to anything I’m saying. Instead of that, if I decide to serve a lamb roast rather than the pork, that obstacle is totally out of the picture. Am I compromising? After all, all meats are clean to me. Do I force my clear conscience to the forefront in this situation? No. I do as Paul, becoming a Jew to the Jews in order to win Jews (1 Cor 9:20). Paul does the same thing with Timothy. Both Paul and Timothy know that circumcision means nothing. But Timothy is circumcised so that they do not have the interference of that obstacle as they attempt to preach Christ.
Verses 6 through 11 provide a fascinating look into how the central character of this book (the Holy Spirit) engages and orchestrates the actions of people. We are not told exactly how, but we learn that Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy are prevented from going due west into the province of Asia to get to the coastal cities. They alter their course and head northwest toward the province of Mysia. Apparently Paul wants to turn north/northwest into Bithynia, but again the Holy Spirit prevents them. So they turn southwest and end up in the coastal city of Troas. In Troas Paul has a dream of a man apparently from Macedonia asking him to come over there to help. Immediately, verse 10 informs us, Paul seeks to go to Macedonia.
Why didn’t the Holy Spirit simply give Paul the vision for Macedonia when they were back in Antioch of Pisidia (or the other Antioch for that matter)? Note the urgency with Paul to get where he needs to go once directed. Had he received the vision early, no doubt he would be less sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading and more intent on getting to Macedonia whatever the obstacle. Perhaps then he would have headed south to Perga, boarded a ship, and sailed round to Macedonia, believing that to be the quickest way there. But the Holy Spirit wanted Paul to go through Troas. Knowing the characteristics of Paul and knowing exactly how he would react in every situation with every impact of circumstance, the Holy Spirit nudges him along to go and do exactly the will of God. Multiply that a bizillion times over and you understand how God sovereignly orchestrates all life for his purpose.
Why does the Holy Spirit want Paul to go through Troas? Notice that coming to Troas the text reads “they” went here or there. After Troas, the text reads “we” did this or that. Luke, the author of Acts, is in Troas. Perhaps he hears of Christ from Paul and is saved. The “we” indicates he accompanies Paul as they leave Troas by ship to sail to Macedonia.
Some other reasons have been given for the use of “we/us” by Luke. One scholar suggests that historians used “we/us” when travelling by sea. Not only is this difficult to support among other writings, Luke does not hold to this construct consistently. We have already read of sea travels in which “they” rather than “we” has been employed. And Luke will write of activity within cities using “we.” Another suggestion is that Luke used someone’s diary at this point for his source. But Paul’s only companions were Silas and Timothy. Even in the “we” passages, they are both referred to in the third person. There seems to be little support for any reason for the switch to “we/us” other than that Luke did indeed travel with them.
However, once Paul leaves Philippi, we don’t find “we/us” employed again until chapter 20 on the third missionary journey when Paul gets back to Philippi. This suggests that Luke lived in or near Philippi. He had met Paul in Troas, but accompanied him back to Macedonia just for the sail back to his home. Paul leaves Luke in Philippi. When Paul is back in Philippi on the next missionary journey (years later), he meets Luke again, and this time Luke accompanies Paul on the mission.
Philippi is a leading city of the region. Not only is it a Roman colony, but it received special status since it was the general location of Octavian’s overcoming the last remnants of Antony’s army. In 31 BC, the final major conflict of the war was a sea battle near Actium. The survivors of the land army of Antony travelled across Greece to Macedonia where, confronted by Octavian and his superior forces, they surrendered, giving Octavian (Augustus) clear supremacy over the empire. In this victory, Octavian pronounced on Philippi the status of ius italicum, which means that Philippi had the legal status of being part of Italy. Many of the soldiers remained in Philippi. So this city was very Roman and very proud of that fact. Foreigners (especially Jews) were not allowed equal status. It is for that reason that in the next few verses of Acts 16, we find that the Jews did not meet in a synagogue within the gates of Jerusalem, but went out of the city to the riverside to meet on the Sabbath.
Paul meets with several women at this riverside gathering and speaks with them—something strange for men of the time to do, but something we can well imagine Christ to have done. We see over and over that the gospel cuts across old barriers of class and gender. One woman there, a Gentile converted to Judaism named Lydia, listens well to Paul and believes. This woman is described as a seller of purple goods. The trade of purple cloth was an imperial monopoly. In other words, not only was this woman well off because of the rarity and therefore costliness of her product, but because the market for purple cloth was controlled by the emperor, she enjoyed a high social status as well. We see the Bible refer to these people in the employ of an imperial monopoly as being of “Caesar’s household.” In the letter to the Philippians that Paul writes from Rome after he has been imprisoned, he mentions a greeting from “especially those of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22). Many scholars believe this to be a possible reference to Lydia herself—the only person in Caesar’s household that we can connect to Philippi.
Lydia offers her home (most probably a very large place considering her trade and social status) to Paul and his companions. This is a very important offering because through her generosity, the new church, born from the witness of Paul and Silas, have a place to meet within the city of Philippi.
While in Philippi, Paul, Silas, and Timothy are hounded by a slave girl with a spirit of divination. This spirit is literally translated as “spirit of python.” A great python was said to have guarded the oracle at Delphi. Apollo had come and killed the python, taking command of the oracle so that Apollo spoke through the oracle, whose title was Pythia, in connection to the python. Since Philippi was a city that worshipped Apollo in particular, a prophet would be said to speak the words of Apollo. Since the words of Apollo were so closely connected with the oracle of Delphi, the prophet was said to have the spirit of python, meaning he/she spoke for Apollo.
We learn from Luke that the slave girl actually was possessed of a demon. The girl, motivated by the demon, calls out that Paul and his companions were “servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (16:17). And this went on for several days. Although we may understand the truth from what the girl said—that Paul was indeed a servant of the one true God who did witness of the only way of salvation—the Philippians probably interpreted her words according to their cultural bias. They believed in the Roman and Greek gods. This “most high” or highest god that the girl spoke of would be interpreted by them to be the high god they served—Apollo. There is nothing in what she said to make them think that she was referring to the God of the Jews. Additionally, the way of salvation that we associate with transformation to regeneration and eternal life was not part of their thoughts. Gods offered salvation in that they were thought to provide healing and rescue from…whatever.
So although we may see the truth of her message, Paul recognized that the Philippians were getting nothing from it, and it was perhaps even hindering their witness. Irritated, Paul turns to the girl (and the demon) and orders, in Jesus’ name, the demon to leave. But as the demon leaves, so to does the hope of profit by the girl’s owners. Now it is their turn to be irritated. They drag Paul and Silas before the magistrates and accuse them of the terrible, awful crime of…being Jews. Remember that this city is highly Roman and highly arrogant in their status. These Jews were “disturbing our city” (16:20). And of course Jews would “advocate customs” (that is, normal Jewish religious practice) not lawful for good worshippers of Apollo. The accusations, although seemingly extremely mild to us, enrage the crowd listening. The magistrates, apparently to avoid riotous action by the crowds, order Paul and Silas to be beaten, which they were. Then they are thrown into prison, and—to settle the infuriation of the people—ordered to be kept secure, so that the jailer locks them in shackles in an interior cell. Of course, this is all for show since we will learn that in the morning, when the passion has died away and the crowds are dispersed, the magistrates simply send word to let Paul and Silas go. But for now, on that evening, Paul and Silas were offensive criminals chained and imprisoned.