Saturday, February 22, 2014

Time for context

So what is the historical context that should augment our understanding of the epistle to the Philippians?  For this we need to look at the book of Acts, together with outside historical sources to understand the city and the events that transpired there.

The city of Philippi was named after the father of Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedonia. Founded in the fourth century B.C. it was located on an important road between Rome and Asia the “Via Egnatia”. The population was no more than 10 000 and the city had special privileges within the Roman world as it was designated a Roman Colony in 42 B.C. This meant that citizens had preferential tax treatment as well as other privileges conferred by holding Roman citizenship.

As for the founding of the church, in Acts 16 we have the story.  Paul and Silas having been directed by the Holy Spirit to leave Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and go into Europe, cross the Aegean Sea and arrive at Philippi which was located nine miles from the coast.

Paul’s habit upon entering a new city was to go to the local synagogue, but that didn’t happen at Philippi.  Apparently there wasn’t a large enough contingent of Jews to support one.  Philippi was a predominately gentile city.  There is subtle evidence for this in the letter of Philippians where every name mentioned is a gentile name.

There were ‘God fearers’ in Philippi however as Paul soon discovers a group of women who met at the local river to pray.  There among those women Paul has his first European converts.  Lydia a merchant of purple cloth is specifically mentioned as one of those first converts since she opened her home to Paul and Silas to stay with her.

Paul soon gets into trouble with the locals after he commands a demon to leave a slave girl.  The girls owners are unhappy that they are no longer able to gain money from the girl as a fortune teller and they subsequently stir up the city against Paul and Silas.  The magistrates order them to be beaten and thrown in prison.

It is in prison, where we read the wonderful story of Paul and Silas singing in prison at midnight when suddenly there is an earthquake that causes the doors to be opened and everyone’s bonds to be unfastened.  The Philippian jailer assuming that the prisoners had escaped is about to kill himself, but Paul assures him everyone is still present.  This leads the jailer to utter those famous words, “what must I do to be saved?”.

Paul’s response is “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”, and jailer comes to know about Christ and is converted both him and his whole family.

The next day the magistrates are about to let Paul go, when he lets them know that their treatment of Silas and him was unlawful.  Since Paul and Silas were Roman citizens themselves, being thrown in jail without a trial was a grievous offence.  You can see this in the fact that the magistrates were afraid and apologized to them once they learned this fact.

Shortly after this episode Paul and Silas leave the city, however based on the letter Paul later writes to them, the church in Philippi is near and dear to his heart.  It is unknown whether or not Paul ever returned to Philippi, but his connection to the church was strong.

As for the church left behind, it seems to have thrived and based on the tone of the letter Philippi seems to be a healthy congregation with few problems.

The letter was most likely written from Rome.  There are allusions to this in the letter.  In 1:13, Paul mentions the imperial guard and in 4:22 Paul refers to those of Caesar’s household.  Also the fact that Paul is anticipating that he might soon die seems to point to the letter being written when Paul was in prison in Rome.

The occasion for the letter is the fact that Epaphroditus a member of the church has recently brought a gift to Paul.  Paul is writing to thank the church as well as let them know that Epaphroditus almost died.  Epaphroditus did recover and it is believed that he carried the letter back home to Philippi with him.

The date for the letter is sometime between 60 and 62 A.D.

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