We will consider the assembly at Philippi under seven headings: its distinction, planting, completeness, activity, unity, liberality, and joy.
Philippi seems to have been the assembly that gave the apostle Paul the most joy. He did have to warn them about the Judaizers (3:2), but these did not have the same success as they did with the Galatians. He did advise two sisters to be of the same mind (4:2), but the assembly at Philippi was not in the same danger of division as was the Corinthian assembly.
There was reciprocal love and care between Paul and the Philippians. The assembly at Thessalonica was another Macedonian assembly that gave Paul joy, but they did not show the care for Paul that the Philippians had.
I do not know of any verse in the New Testament that has as many endearing terms in it as: “Therefore, my brethren, dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved”(4:1). So there are good reasons for saying that, of all the assemblies recorded in the New Testament, Philippi gave Paul the most joy.
The second distinction is, since Philippi was the first recorded place in Europe where the gospel was preached, it is likely that it was the first assembly in Europe. Many hundreds have been planted there since, and many missionaries have been sent out into many parts of the world, but Philippi was the first assembly planted in Europe.
Another distinction is the prominence of women. The apostle’s first audience was composed almost (if not entirely) of women, and his first convert there was Lydia, a woman of influence, whose household also believed and was baptized with her. She later hosted Paul and those with him. When Paul sent this letter 10 or 11 years afterward, the only element of the assembly that needed a specific exhortation was two prominent sisters in Christ who had had a variance (both of whom Paul gratefully calls his fellow workers in the gospel). Women are also prominent in two other Macedonian assemblies (Thessalonica in Acts 17:4 and Berea in Acts 17: 12), but they are the most prominent in Philippi. That is a striking fact, only to be compared to the prestige of women recorded in the gospels; three named, and many others who ministered of their substance for Christ, and those with Him during His public ministry (Luke 8: 2, 3).
Note three things: the obedience of the servant, the operation of the Spirit and the opposition of society.
The obedience of the servant. The planting of the Philippian assembly was dependent on the obedience of Paul. Of course, if Paul had been disobedient, God could have used someone else but some servant had to be obedient. In Acts 16:6 we read that Paul and his fellow servants were “forbidden of the Holy Spirit to preach the Word in Asia.” About three years later God used Paul, who began in Ephesus, and we read in Acts 19:10 that for three years, “All they that dwelt in Asia heard the Word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.” But evidently it wasn’t God’s time for Paul to preach in Asia in Acts 16. In Acts 16:7 we read, “they assayed to go into Bithynia but the Spirit suffered them not.” It is very likely that God worked through one or more other servants in Bithynia, because we read of believers there in 1 Peter 1:1.
Paul and his company accepted those two closed doors (to Asia and Bithynia) and another door opened. A vision appeared to Paul in the night (Acts 16:9), “There stood a man of Macedonia and prayed him, ‘Come over into Macedonia and help us’.”
There were a few months when John McCracken and I had gospel meetings in different towns in northern Maine. We had three nights in a grange hall in Sherman Mills. Since we were using his gospel trailer, I envisioned putting his trailer on the green in the center of Sherman Mills. Everything of importance in Sherman Mills was there at that green, the only gasoline station, the post office, and a store. Putting the trailer there meant that soon everyone would know why we were there.
On the prior weekend, one of us went to Madison and the other to Augusta for the Lord’s Day. On the way back to our lodging, we stopped at Sherman Mills. There on that green was a circus! It is hard enough getting people to come to a gospel meeting without competing with a circus. We accepted that as a closed door and went to Oxbow where we found the best interest in all of northern Maine.
Since Paul’s first convert was a woman, we might wonder who the man of Macedonia could be? It is clear that Luke, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, joined Paul at Troas, either just before or just after that vision. We are able to trace when Luke is with Paul and when he is not with him by Luke’s use in Acts of the pronouns, “they” and “them,” or “we” and “us.”
Since Luke uses “we” and “us” (vv10, 17) and then he does not use “we” and “us” again until we read of them sailing away from Philippi (Acts 20:5-6), we know that Luke stayed in Philippi for about six years. That would indicate, if the man in the vision represented a particular man, that the man of Macedonia in the vision was Luke. Be that as it may, we see Paul’s obedience. There is a lesson for us here. The work of God is dependent on men and women of God, and ultimately upon their obedience to God.
This principle of obedience is illustrated in something I heard the late David Craig relate. Two preachers were having gospel meetings in Northern Ireland. One of them was convinced that if he went outside and down a certain road until he found a door with the top half open, he would find a person in that house who wanted to be saved. He only told his partner that he was going for a walk. Sure enough, the person in that house had been crying to God to send someone to tell him how to be saved!