Steps and Stops

The Psalmist wrote that “the steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in His way” (Psalm 37:23). But someone has wisely observed that God lovingly orders not only our steps but also out stops.

At one point in his second apostolic journey, the apostle Paul experienced successive divine “stops” within Asia Minor (known then as “Asia). The first time, the Holy Spirit prevented him and his team from pushing on to its western reaches – the coastal area north of the city of Ephesus. The second time, they tried to go north into Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16:6-7). Finally, Paul looked to the northwest – to Troas – a seaport just across the Aegean Sea from Macedonia. Given the roadblocks of previous days, he may have turned toward Troas somewhat tentatively. But whatever uncertainty he arrived with was quickly dispelled. God met him there with unmistakable instructions; sometime in the night, Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man pleading with him, “Come … and help us” (Acts 16:8-9).

Suddenly all those stops made sense! God wanted them to bring the message of Christ to Macedonia. Paul and his apostolic team were so certain that God had made Philippi in Macedonia their top priority that Luke writes: “Immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel to them” (Acts 16:10).

Leaving Troas on a ship, they docked overnight on the island of Samothrace and landed at the coastal city of Neapolis the next day. As always, Paul wanted to get to work quickly, which in this case meant travelling to Philippi, the leading city of the region.

The one thing lacking in Philippi at that time was a Jewish sanctuary. Consequently, the Jews who wanted to gather on the Sabbath did so on the banks of the Gangites River – a source of fresh water necessary for ritual cleansing. So that’s where Paul and his companions went, finding a group of women assembled for prayers. One was named Lydia, an apparently prosperous Gentile businesswoman who worshipped the God of the Jews but knew nothing of their Messiah, Jesus Christ (Acts 16:14). When Paul spoke to the group about Jesus, Lydia responded with faith. Afterward, her home became the gathering place for all the early converts in Philippi (Acts 16:40). Thus the church in Philippi was planted, and Philippi became the first European city to receive the Gospel of the Kingdom from Paul. 

As with many other places where Paul preached, persecution followed close behind the founding of the church in Philippi. But not even persecution and imprisonment could taint his memories of ministry in that city – a ministry that was sparked by a vision in the night and launched on the side of a river with a group of godly women.

Some years later, during his first imprisonment in Rome, Paul thought about and prayed for the church he had established there, writing those believers perhaps his most intimate and personal letter. By then Paul had spiritual children across much of the Roman world, but the Philippians had a unique place in his heart. In just four chapters, he uses I, me, and my well over 100 times, with the word I appearing 69 times. In this spirit of constant gratitude, Paul expresses his heartfelt affection: “I thank my God in all my remembrances of you” (1:3), “I hold you in my heart” (1:7), and “I yearn for you all” (1:8). This is a book about fellowship from the hand of a man who intimately loved his brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Imprisoned, not knowing his fate, Paul nevertheless wanted to express his love for this group of believers, along with the deep satisfaction and pleasure he gained from their fellowship and their progress in the Lord. Well aware of their concern for him, Paul longed for them to look at his difficult circumstances in a positive, hopeful way – understanding that God could use these events to advance the Gospel and reach people Paul might not have otherwise reached. He strongly urged them to refocus their gaze on Christ, strive for unity, and be on guard against the false teachers who had slipped in among them.

When the Philippian church learned that Paul was imprisoned in Rome (around AD 60-62), they sent him a gift by way of an emissary, Epaphroditus (4:18). While serving the Philippian church in this way, Epaphroditus fell ill. It appears as though this illness was a source of distress for Epaphroditus, and Paul felt it necessary to pave the way for this faithful servant’s return to the church (2:25-30). In this instance and throughout the letter, Paul’s correspondence is marked by love and joy, from a spiritual father (apostle) to his beloved children in the faith. 

You might, with this summary as background, spent some time reading Paul’s letter (epistle) to the Philippians in the New Testament.