True friends

These recent years and months of pandemic have been hard on relationships. Some people felt increasingly isolated and alone. Others, ironically, suffered from too much togetherness as families were forced to share the same space (and Internet bandwidth!) around the clock. We still had our Facebook “friends,” of course, and thankfully, we were able to connect on Zoom. But it’s not quite the same as being in each other’s presence, interacting will full-size people who don’t suddenly and randomly freeze.

As we’ve seen, Paul had his enemies. But he also had friends to whom he was dedicated and who were dedicated to him. Indeed, when you read Paul’s letter to the Philippians, you can almost feel the warmth of their mutual love and friendship. It was a relationship ordained by God and forged in adversity.

Paul, Silas, and Timothy had been preaching the gospel in what is now western Turkey; by God’s leading, they found themselves in the port city of Troas. There, as he lay dreaming one night, Paul had a vision:

[T]here stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. (Acts 16:9-10, NRSVUE)

Paul’s first convert in Macedonia (roughly, what to us would be northern Greece) came in the city of Philippi, a small but proud Roman colony. On the Sabbath, Paul and his companions found a group of women gathered on the outskirts of town to pray. They were probably “God-fearers,” Gentiles who nonetheless worshiped the God of Israel.

Image courtesy of totheendsoftheearthmovie.com

Among them was a businesswoman named Lydia who hailed from Thyatira (again, western Turkey). Paul spoke to them about Jesus, and Lydia believed. She and her household were baptized, and she insisted on hosting Paul (Acts 16:11-15). Chances are, Lydia later continued her hospitality by hosting a house church in her home.

We don’t know how long Paul and his crew stayed with Lydia, but the way Luke writes, they were probably there for a while — long enough to get in trouble with the law. For days, a slave girl with a talent for fortune-telling had been following Paul around in public, loudly declaring him to be the servant of the Most High God. You might think Paul would be glad for the free advertising. But that wasn’t his way, nor would he stand for having her owners profit what was really advertising for them. When he had had enough, Paul wheeled around and cast the spirit of divination out of the girl.

Her owners were incensed; they could no longer make money from her fortune-telling. They hauled Paul and Silas before the magistrates, saying, “These men, these Jews, are disturbing our city and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us, being Romans, to adopt or observe” (Acts 16:20-21). Note the wording: they are Jews, outsiders; but we are Romans.

Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into prison overnight to teach them a lesson. In the dead of night, God caused an earthquake that loosed the prisoners’ chains and threw the cell doors open. But no one left, and Paul led the astonished jailer to Christ.

In the morning, the magistrates sent the police to release Paul and Silas, figuring that a night in the stocks would be enough to prevent them from causing any more trouble. But Paul refused to go and played his ace in the hole: No way are they shuffling us quietly out the back door. We’re Roman citizens, and they beat and condemned us without a trial. If the magistrates want us to leave, let them come down here and do it themselves!

Remember, Philippi was proud of their status as a Roman colony. They prided themselves on following Roman law. Their failure in Paul’s case was a serious matter. Horrified at the realization that they had beaten a Roman citizen without cause, afraid of the possible consequences, the magistrates did indeed come down to the prison to apologize, and begged Paul to leave. Paul and his companions did leave, but not before going to Lydia’s house to encourage the small but already growing core of believers. Imagine the story he had to tell!

Why didn’t Paul say something about his citizenship earlier? True, he could have saved himself and Silas a beating. But imagine the freedom of movement he would have had in Philippi after the magistrates’ blunder. We know that Paul came back to the colony at least once (Acts 20:6), and I imagine there being an unofficial hands-off policy. His sacrifice would have made more room for the gospel.

Again, we don’t know how long Paul stayed in Philippi on either of these occasions. And it’s possible that Paul visited Philippi three times; on his third missionary trip, he traveled through Macedonia twice.

But Paul’s letter to the Philippians is written to a vibrant community of believers whom he deeply loves. Imagine his bond with Lydia, a woman of influence, or with the jailer. Paul baptized them and their entire households, and the church grew outward from there. By the time the letter was written, Paul had already benefited from their loving support. He wrote to them as partners in the gospel, as friends.

And as we’ll see, the letter itself shows this.

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