Landing on a heavily defended beach is the stuff of nightmares, as soldiers wonder if they’ll ever get off the sand alive. In a similar way, Paul & his team must have wondered how far they’d get when the Lord drove them (Ac 16:6,7) to invade the western end of the Roman empire with his gospel. Now on land (Ac 16:11), they know they are entering deeply loyal areas which are quite capable of brutally putting an end to their evangelistic campaign. It’s a nerve-racking time.
The gospel troop Jesus has put together for this expedition into Gentile lands is nicely constructed. Paul is a clever, highly trained theologian who has the apostolic task of explaining how Jew and Gentile are united in Christ (Ep 3:6-9) and showing it in practice by planting churches. Silas, a fellow Jew, is a Jerusalem prophet appointed by the city’s church to explain its judgement in favour of Paul’s mission and the advice it would give for peaceful fellowship (Ac 15:19-22). Timothy is a well-regarded young Christian with a Jewish mother and Greek father (Ac 16:1-3). And Dr Luke (unnamed but understood to be Paul’s colleague – Co 4:14) is a skilled writer who has recently (Ac 16:10) joined the team to record, in the form of a theological history/travel book, the great work of bringing Jew and Gentile together in the Lord (ie the book of Acts).
The men begin their task at Philippi (v12). This city is a colony, meaning that it’s like a piece of Rome itself broken off and planted in another land. Its population includes a high proportion of retired soldiers and archaeology has discovered many indications of deep local pride in its bond with Rome and her emperor. That pride is further bolstered by links with the ancient Greek kings Philip II (after whom the city is named) and his son Alexander the Great. To proclaim that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Ro 10:9) in such a place is an intimidating prospect, made harder when Paul discovers that there is no synagogue to start his work in (Ac 14:1). Did this feel like an impossible task to Paul? Though the Roman empire gave some cultural and religious freedom to those it ruled, it also did not react kindly to those who challenged its glorious Caesar, citizenship and social structure, which glued the empire together; yet Paul’s preaching would do just that. Societies often demand that their citizens uphold certain shared values and feel threatened when some disagree. As a result, Christians regularly find themselves on the wrong side of the authorities, as increasingly believers are discovering in the so-called ‘free’ countries of the western world.
With Christ, however, no task is impossible and the group take their first step. They locate a Jewish prayer meeting (v13) where a wealthy God-fearing Gentile named Lydia has her heart opened by the Lord (v14) and is baptised (v15), showing that becoming a Christian affects both our inner and outer life. However, the Lord goes beyond the sole conversion of this lady; he also brings the rest of her household to faith as well. During his ministry, the Lord warned that such homely unity would certainly not always be the case for his people (Lk 12:51-52). But in doing so here he not only shows his grace to Lydia’s household, but also establishes a place of refuge for Paul’s team, and other believers, in the harsh environment of Philippi.
It’s soon clear how important that is, when a very different woman appears on Paul’s radar (v16). A troubled slave girl, viewed superstitiously by the local population as a guide to the future, starts nagging Paul’s team with public announcements of their mission (v17). Initially, Paul takes no action, maybe knowing the impact if he did, but finally names Jesus and rescues the girl from the spirit which harms her (v18). Inevitable trouble follows quickly (v19), as Philippi awakens to the threat of this little, Jewish team (v20) to their Roman civilisation (v21).
Human society may achieve great things but it also crushes many – like the slave girl. Our sin and malicious spirits combine to ruin whatever we build, making clear that we really do need to be saved (Ac 16:9). Jesus offers that salvation. By his gospel he sets up little colonies of heaven upon the earth, where new life can be found. Though fragile and imperfect, when functioning properly they offer safety and prepare us for a glorious eternity. We must value them highly.