On the lookout for stories that change lives? One need look no further than the incredible true tales narrated by Dr. Luke in two books of the New Testament: the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. In both books dedicated to a “person who loved God“ (Theophilus) he shared “a narrative of the things accomplished among us” (Luke 1.1) and continued the sequel with what happened after Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit was given to the church, from the first days through the apostle Paul’s journeys throughout the known world.

The book of Acts is a fascinating, action-packed backdrop for Paul’s epistles, and since the letter to the Philippians is the subject of my next book, I wondered how the church at Philippi got started. Like many wondrous things that happen in life, this church began with an impediment and a change of plans. Paul had spent some time in Antioch teaching and preaching, and after sharp disagreement with his old mentor Barnabas over letting Mark go with them or not, chose Silas and departed for his second missionary journey, still in Asia Minor, through Syria and Cilicia, the Derbe and Lystra (where Timothy was added to the missionary team), and then Phrygia, Galatia and Mysia. The plan was to go to Bithynia—but their well-though-out plan was interrupted by a huge impediment: “The Spírit of Jesus did not allow them”. So they passed by Mysia and went on to Troas—where a vision came to Paul: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Here Luke continues the narrative as “we” instead of “they”: “Immediately we sought to go on to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them”.

From Troas to Samothrace, Neapolis and Philippi, about eight miles inland--  “a leading city of the district of Macedonia”—founded over two centuries before Christ  by Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, and after Rome conquered Persia, a Roman colony. Their first stay in Europe.

Remaining in the city some days, on the Sabbath Paul and his companions sought a place of worship. There was no synagogue, but there would be a gathering of the faithful “by the riverside”. Since the time of Ezra, Jews in Diaspora would gather to worship by the river in whatever city they lived, (Ezra 8:15; Psalm 137:1). Not even enough men for a minyan—but there were some women who worshipped God. Lydia was an expat from Thyatira (near Tarsus from  whence Paul had been born). Convert number one in Philippi: Lydia, a businesswoman who dealt with an expensive product: purple dyed fabric, cloth and clothes fit for royals. Today she might be comparable to a director of the House of Dior or Givenchy. Whether she was a Jew or Gentile, she was “a worshipper of God” whose heart was opened to “pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16.14). After being baptized with her entire household, she “urged us saying, If you have judged me faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay”. So the first convert became hostess for at least Paul and Silas, Luke and Timothy.

The second narrative “as we were going to the place of prayer” tells of an irritating and constant interruption.  Every time they went to the prayer meeting, a demonized slave girl went after them, calling out loudly: “These men are servants of the most high God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!” What she said was absolutely true, but annoyed Paul because the affirmation was instigated by an evil spirit of divination (Leviticus 19:31: “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out and so make yourselves unclean…”). Fed up, Paul turned to her and commanded the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. The girl was freed from the evil one, but those who owned and used her “gifts” were furious because “their hope of gain was gone”.  Convert number two in Philippi: an unnamed, tormented slave girl who lost her devious ability to read the future by the power of Jesus Christ.

This conversion resulted in “the owners” seizing Paul and Silas, dragging them to the marketplace before the rulers, and accusing them of being Jews (anti-Semitism laid bare) and “disturbing the city”, advocating “customs that we Romans cannot accept or practice”. Adding insult to injury, the rabble joined in attacking them, and the magistrate tore the garments off them and ordered them beaten with rods. After inflicting a severe beating on the messengers of salvation, they threw them into prison, telling the jailer to guard well the disturbers of the peace.

This takes us to the jail, scene of conversion number three. Tortured, beaten, falsely accused, Paul and Silas did not mention their privileged citizenship status, and instead, did what they always advised the brethren: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) —praying and singing hymns to God. The prisoners were listening to them when an earthquake shook the prison foundations and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone`s bonds were unfastened. Freedom for the prisoners meant death to the jailer, so the jailer`s reaction was to attempt to commit suicide instead of undergo the shame of capital punishment by the authorities above him. Paul saw what he was planning to do and intervened: “Don`t kill yourself! We are all here!“ He called for lights, trembling with fear, and fell down before Paul and Silas asking what he must do to be saved. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.” The hardened prison warden took them in and washed their wounds, and he was baptized with his entire family. Then he brought them to his home and gave them food and “rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God“.

People in leadership positions, such as Lydia and the Warden, were saved and included their entire households in this gift of new life. The slave girl, whose sole identity lay in what she produced for her masters, was saved individually,  receiving a completely new identity—and caused an uproar in town because “These men are disturbing our city”. Each person saved in Philippi became a believer through unique means, as they were unique persons – pious  and wealthy God-worshipper, an impudent, wild, demon-possessed fortuneteller, the civil servant jail warden who went from attempting suicide to aiding and abetting his maximum security prisoners --were each and all saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

After everything that happened, the magistrates sent the police to release the apostles, but Paul spoke up: “They beat us publicly and threw us into prison, though we are Roman citizens, and want us to leave quietly?! No, let them come themselves and take us out.” When the magistrates realized that they had mistreated Roman citizens, they were frightened, and went to Paul and Silas with apologies, asking them to leave the city. The apostles left prison and went to visit Lydia. When they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.

Years later, when Paul wrote to the strongly established Philippian church, commending them for their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now“ (Philippians 1:5) told them that they had been given the gift of not only believing in Christ but of suffering for his sake, “engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have“(1:30). He goes on to write the most encouraging text for Christians of all ages, social and political situations, of all eras, about the mind of Christ:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father Philippians 2.

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