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Philippi: Birthplace of Christianity in the West

An ancient city in Greece is an important piece in the mosaic that was early Christianity.

Nestled in a quiet corner of northeastern Greece, the ancient city of Philippi now lies in ruins. But the very stones still speak of a once bustling city, a place rich in meaning for Christians, since St. Paul preached the Gospel, won converts, and suffered imprisonment here.

Like St. Paul, modern travelers can reach Philippi by way of a busy seaport town that has been inhabited since the seventh century before Christ. Now called Kavalla, it was known in St. Paul’s day as Neapolis, the “new city.” Perched on the shore of the majestic Aegean Sea, Neapolis served as the port of the more important Philippi, just 10 miles north.

Philippi was named for its founder, Philip II of Macedonia (382-336 B.C.), father of Alexander the Great. It was conquered by Rome in 168 B.C., and in 42 B.C. it was the scene of Octavian’s and Mark Antony’s victory over Brutus and Cassius. Eleven years later, in 31 B.C., Octavian made Philippi a Roman colony. Its inhabitants included many Roman war veterans, as well as Thracians, Greek-Macedonians, and a small Jewish community.

Located on the Via Eqnatia, the stone-paved road that linked Asia to the West, prosperous Philippi was at the crossroads of two worlds. A steady stream of merchants and travelers passed through its gates. It never grew very large, yet St. Luke describes Philippi in the Acts of the Apostles as “the principal city of that district of Macedonia.”

Though it is long forgotten as a city of trade, Philippi is deeply significant in Christian history: it is the place where Christianity was preached for the first time in Europe. When St. Paul landed at Neapolis, he became the first missionary to set foot on the European shore.

Paul would not have been aware of the significance of Philippi as Christians are today. When he left Troas and set sail for Samothrace and Neapolis, he was simply traveling from one Roman province to another. Yet the Christian community he established in Philippi marked the birth of Christianity in the Western world.

In the Acts, St. Luke recounts that Paul received in a mysterious way his commission to preach the Gospel in Macedonia.

One night Paul had a vision: a Macedonian appeared and appealed to him in these words, “Come across to Macedonia and help us.” Once he had seen this vision we lost no time in arranging a passage to Macedonia, convinced that God had called us to bring them the Good News. (Acts 16:9-10)

St. Luke’s account in the Acts indicates that the disciple Silas accompanied St. Paul. It is probable that Timothy and Luke himself were with them.

On the Sabbath, a few days after their arrival in Philippi, Paul and his companions wandered outside the city gates and down along the river. Because the Jewish community in Philippi was too small to have an established synagogue, devout Jews often gathered at the riverside on the Sabbath to pray. They were there when Paul and the other men approached. Luke describes the encounter.

We sat down and spoke to the women who were gathered there. One who listened was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple goods from the town of Thyatira. She already reverenced God, and the Lord opened her heart to accept what Paul was saying. (Acts 16:13-14)

Lydia, the first Christian convert in Europe, was baptized along with her household. A little creek that still flows near the ruined city is believed to be the place where she was christened. After she received the faith, Lydia said to Paul and his companions, “If you are convinced that I believe in the Lord, come and stay at my house.” They must have protested at first and told her they didn’t want to trouble her, for Luke says, “She managed to prevail on us.”

Lydia’s hospitality gave Paul a permanent place from which to work. Other converts, mostly from paganism, began to form around Paul and his fellow Christians.

One day, as Paul and his disciples were going to prayer, they met a slave girl who was believed to be a soothsayer; in the words of St. Luke, she “had a clairvoyant spirit.” There were many like her in the ancient world: unfortunate victims of mental disorders, led around by crafty masters who would interpret the slave’s mutterings for a fee. The girl followed Paul and the others shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God; they will make known to you a way of salvation.”

She did this for several days until finally Paul became annoyed, turned around, and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you, come out of her!” Then and there the spirit left her. (Acts 16:18)

When her masters realized that they would no longer be able to make an easy living from the slave girl’s supposed prophecies, they dragged Paul and Silas into the main square of the city.

They turned them over to the magistrates with this complaint: “These men are agitators disturbing the peace of our city! Furthermore, they are Jews, which means they advocate customs which are not lawful for us Romans to adopt or practice.” (Acts 16:20-21)

The crowd joined in attacking Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them stripped and flogged. They were thrown into prison, and the jailer was given instructions to guard them well. He fastened their feet in stocks.

The rest of the story is familiar: that night an earthquake shook the prison, undoing the prisoners’ fetters and throwing open the prison doors. The jailer, terrified to think that his prisoners had escaped, drew his sword and was about to commit suicide when Paul shouted, “Do not harm yourself! We are all still here.” Trembling, the jailer threw himself at the feet of Paul and Silas and asked, “Men, what must I do to be saved?” They told him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, and all your household.” And they preached the Gospel to the jailer and all who were in his house.

Although it was the middle of the night, the jailer took the missionaries in and washed their wounds. Then he and his household were baptized. Afterward, the Acts records,

He led them up into his house, spread a table before them, and joyfully celebrated with his whole family his newfound faith in God. (Acts 16:34)

The next day, the magistrates who had had Paul and Silas whipped and thrown into prison sent word to the jailers to release them. Paul was outraged. Luke records his angry reply:

“They flogged us in public without even a trial, then they threw us into jail, although we are Roman citizens! Now they want to smuggle us out in secret. Not a bit of it! Let them come into the prison and escort us out.” (Acts 16:37)

The magistrates were alarmed to learn that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. They went to the prison to try to appease them, but asked them to leave Philippi nonetheless.

Before departing, Paul and Silas again visited the home of Lydia, where they encouraged the fledgling Christian community. Then they set out for missionary work elsewhere in Macedonia. Paul was to visit the city once again, on his third missionary journey.

St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, written while he was imprisoned, helps keep fresh in our minds his connection with Philippi and his great affection for the Christian community he had founded there. The Philippians’ concern for him is equally evident: they had sent a man of their own community, Epaphroditus, to assist Paul and to bring him gifts of money that the community had collected for him.

Epaphroditus fell sick while attending Paul, and the community heard of his illness and was worried. When Epaphroditus recovered, Paul sent him back to Philippi with the letter, in which he expressed his gratitude to the Christians there.

I give thanks to my God every time I think of you – which is constantly, in every prayer I utter – rejoicing, as I plead on your behalf, at the way you have all continually helped promote the Gospel from the very first day …. God himself can testify how much I long for each of you with the affection of Christ Jesus! (Phil. 1:3-5, 8)

Paul calls the Philippians “my joy and my crown” as he exhorts them to “stand firm in the Lord.” He praises them for their generosity to him.

You yourselves know, my dear Philippians, that at the start of my evangelizing, when I left Macedonia, not a single congregation except yourselves shared with me by giving me something for what it had received. Even when I was at Thessalonica, you sent something for my needs, not once but twice. (Phil. 4: 15-16)

It is not that he is eager for gifts, he adds; the Philippians have more than repaid him for his efforts on their behalf, and he is certain that God will reward them richly.

Pilgrims who come to Philippi today can walk among the toppled pillars of the forum and the marketplace where Paul and Silas preached. Nearby are the ruins of the prison where they were bound, and the town amphitheater. Visitors can also walk among the foundation stones of one of the world’s oldest basilicas, built in the fifth or sixth century and dedicated to St. Paul.

The beautiful countryside around Philippi is unforgettable: green hillsides, wooded mountains sweeping heavenward, the sky-blue sea. The silent ruins of a once strong city are likewise inspiring, recalling the glorious days when the Apostles began to spread the Christian faith “to the ends of the earth,” as Jesus commanded.

Then, as now, a profession of faith sometimes cost one’s life. St. Paul, like the martyrs of every age, found his truest joy in sacrifice for the Kingdom of God, and drew strength from the love of his brothers and sisters in Christ. Even from a dank prison cell he could write to the Philippians,

Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again. Rejoice! …Dismiss all anxiety from your minds. Present your needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions full of gratitude. Then God’s own peace, which is beyond all understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:4, 6-7)

Brother Christian Leisy is a Benedictine monk of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, Abiquiu, N.M. He gathered materials for this article during a visit to Philippi.

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