Guardians of the Gospel: The Background of Philippians
In 2014, audiences all over the world were introduced to a rag-tag crew of nobodies that have since helped save the world on several occasions and transformed into household names. Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot are not names many would have easily recognized prior to their blockbuster hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, but now they are iconic. They’re part of the Avengers, they have two major movie releases with a third on the way, and they are the stars of rides soon to be at both Disneyland and Disney World.
Marvel Studios took these characters with no history together, gave them a common goal and a common enemy, and brought them together to form an incredible team that would change the world. Science fiction movies are great and entertaining, but they are still a fantasy. In Acts 16, however, we’re introduced to a real-life crew of nobodies that would also be brought together with the hopes of changing the world in a vastly different way.
The Team Assembles
At the end of Acts 15, we see missionaries Paul and Barnabas discussing their second missionary journey and determining who to take along with them. Barnabas would like to bring back the original team from the first journey: Paul, John (also called Mark), and himself. Halfway through the first journey, John had abandoned Paul and Barnabas and returned to Jerusalem for reasons unknown to us. Apparently, this did not sit well with Paul who did not want to repeat this experience. This caused the two groups to set out in opposite directions: Barnabas and John left for Cyprus, and Paul and Silas headed to Syria, picking up Timothy along the way.
In Acts 16, we see the rest of the Guardians gather together. Paul and Silas shortly thereafter recruit a young man named Timothy. The author of the book of Acts, Luke, is presumed to have joined the team around this point in the journey because of Luke’s shift from writing in third-person to writing in first-person in Acts 16:10. And lastly, they would enlist Lydia, “a seller of purple goods who was a worshiper of God,” to join with them on their mission of hope.
The Annoying Opposition
As the Guardians of the Gospel take their mission to Philippi, they encounter an unexpected, annoying source of opposition: a slave girl who had a spirit of divination. This was an evil spirit enabling her to disobey God’s laws concerning fortune-telling (Deut. 18:10; 2 Kings 17:17). The girl’s owners were exploiting her demonic abilities for their own financial gain and were quite successful in doing so.
Luke recounts in Acts 16:17-18 that she followed them for days screaming, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” It appears at first glance that the woman was encouraging others to follow Paul and subsequently Christ, but that might not be what is actually happening here. There would have been a very small percentage of Jews living in Philippi at the time. Although the phrase “Most High God” is used several times in the Old Testament in the Psalms, Proverbs, and Daniel, some scholars would argue that it was not a term that most people would have associated with the God of the Bible. Instead, most of the pagan Philippians would have associated the term with Zeus.
Interestingly enough, the phrase “Most High God” in the New Testament (apart from a single reference to the “Most High God” of Melchizedek in Hebrews) is a phrase only found on the lips of those influenced by demons upon encountering Jesus or his messengers. The slave girl’s situation is similar to Jesus’s encounter with a demon-possessed man described in Mark 5:7 and Luke 8:28.
After many days of her attempts to discredit or dull the message of these disciples, Paul has had enough. He commands the demon, in the name of Jesus, to come out of the girl and the demon obeys. In an instant, the girl has an encounter with the power of Jesus and is set free from demonic opposition (and potentially her status as a slave since she was no longer valuable to her owners).
An Abuse of Power and a Terrible Escape Plan
Upon realizing that Paul had cost them a lot of money, the owners dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace before the rulers where they were accused and punished without a chance to defend themselves. They were accused of being Jews and were punished as Jews. During their official flogging, many people from the crowd began to beat the messengers as well. Eventually, after receiving “many blows” they were taken to prison where they would be “safe” from the crowd.
Around midnight, Paul and Silas do what any of us would do in a dark prison after being beaten earlier that day—they break out into song! As the other prisoners are listening to their worship concert, miraculously, an earthquake throws all the doors open and all their chains are removed. It was the perfect jailbreak, except no one left.
The jailer assumed everyone had bolted and was ready to kill himself when at that exact moment Paul yells out: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer sees the power available to these men through Christ and falls down trembling before them asking what he must do to obtain salvation. Paul tells him to “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” He believes and is baptized that same night. The message is then proclaimed to his household, and they believed as well.
The Beginning of the Battle
The next morning, the rulers sent word to set the men free without a scene. However, Paul didn’t want freedom, he wanted vindication. He was illegally abused as a Roman citizen without trial and furthermore, a vindication would declare to the public that Paul’s message about Christ was not a threat to Rome and was legitimate.
We don’t know a lot of what happened to the early church in Philippi between the events of Acts 16 and when Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians but we do see that this seemingly random series of events with this random group of people was anything but random. It was God’s plan to use this ragtag team to be the first boots on the ground in the battle for the souls of the Philippians. He took a group of people who had nothing in common and gave them a singular mission: worshipping and proclaiming Christ. There’s no doubt that Lydia, the slave girl, the jailer, and his household were only the beginning of the soldiers that Jesus would enlist for the spiritual battle of Philippi.
Lucas Smith has served in full-time ministry since 2011 and holds MDiv and MA in Biblical Languages degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves as Associate Pastor of Youth and Families at Eastern Heights Baptist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.