The Church at Philippi - A Colony of Heaven

A. Naismith, Falkirk

Part 5 of 8 of the series New Testament Churches

Category: Exposition

On his second itinerary Paul, separated from Barnabas because of the dissension between them regarding John Mark, had as his companion Silvanus, a name frequently abbreviated as Silas. Together they visited Southern Galatia and the cities of Derbe, Lystra and Iconium where Paul and Barnabas had evangelized on the first missionary journey. Young Timothy, brought up by his devout mother and grandmother in the Jewish faith, yet not circumcised because his father was a Gentile, joined the missionaries at Paul's request at Lystra, and Paul circumcised him. They then proceeded to Troas where Paul's vision of a Macedonian summoning him to minister to the people of that province was accepted as the guidance of the Holy Spirit to enter Europe and preach in Macedonia, a Grecian province subjugated in 168 B.C. by the Romans. Philippi, named after Philip of Macedon who fortified it, was an important commercial centre and the chief city of the province.

Philippi was the first city in Europe visited by Paul and his company. There the evangelists rejoiced at the response of the first European converts to the gospel; there they saw the first church established in Europe. Philippi is the only city in the New Testament called a "colony", Acts 16. 12, and - signi­ficantly - it was there that Paul made his first reference to the privileges due to him as a Roman citizen. The population consisted largely of Roman soldiers and officers, some living there permanently and others temporarily stationed there. The local administrators were the servants of the Roman Emperor, and the official language in that Greek city was Latin. The names of those who lived in the colony were listed in the distant capital, Rome. They recognized Caesar as their superior lord and were subject to, and judged by, Roman laws.

There was a close connection between meetings for prayer and conversions to the faith of the gospel. Before a prayer meeting, as they "went to prayer", a fortune-teller, a girl under Satanic control, was liberated in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul and Silas were arrested and so were not permitted to continue on their way to the prayer meeting, but there is no reason to suppose that Timothy and Luke did not attend. The proof of Luke's presence with them in Philippi is the change in the personal pronoun from "they" in verses 4-8 to "we" in verses 10-16. During a prayer meeting by the river side, an Asiatic lady-merchant paid eager attention to Paul's message and received the Lord into her heart. After the prayers of Paul and Silas, who lay with bleeding backs in an inner prison cell, the jailor and his household, awakened to the need of salvation, were converted and baptized. Thus the nucleus of a local church was formed by the operation of the Holy Spirit in answer to the saints' prayers.

The letter to the saints, elders and deacons in Philippi, written several years later, is one of the loveliest of Paul's Epistles. It came from the pen of a Roman citizen in a Roman prison, was addressed to believers who were Roman citizens in a Roman colony, and was dispatched from Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. Using the analogy of their privileges and duties as a colony of Rome in Greece, the apostle applies it to their spiritual position as a colony of heaven on earth. In two passages in his letter to the Philippians, Paul uses a word that defines their heavenly citizenship. In 1. 27 the verbal form is employed as Paul tells them how they should behave as citizens; and in 3. 20, using the sub­stantive form, he assures them that their citizenship is in heaven, namely behaviour as citizens and citizenship.

What a wonderful thing it is to realise that each local assembly is a colony of heaven on earth! It makes for full assurance of faith, hope and understanding, and the alignment of each life to the claims of the gospel. Three prominent features in this relationship are indicated in the course of the letter.

The citizen's enrolment is the heavenly equivalent to the list of the citizens' names in the capital of the empire. In Philippians 4. 3 the apostle mentions his fellow-labourers "whose names are in the book of life". The Lord Jesus told His disciples on their return from a time of successful service to rejoice because their names were written in heaven, Luke 10. 20, and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells the Jewish believers of his day that they belonged to the heavenly Jerusalem and to "the church of the firstborn, which are written (enrolled) in heaven", Heb. 12, 23. Every truly regenerate soul is thus on heaven's burgess roll. For the protection of the citizens in a Roman colony, Roman cohorts were stationed to keep guard and guarantee their rights. Paul assures the saints in the church at Philippi that, in like manner, if they present their petitions to their Lord gratefully and without anxiety, the army of divine peace will stand guard over their hearts and minds, Phil. 4. 6, 7.

How are heaven's citizens to be employed in their earthly colony? Paul clearly outlines in 1. 27-30 the employment of all who are enrolled in heaven. The meaning of the word "con­versation" in verse 27 has changed, and our present use confines its significance to what is said or spoken. Kenneth S. Wuest renders this verse: "See to it that you recognize your responsibility as citizens (of heaven) and put yourselves to the absolute necessity of performing the duties devolving upon you in that position, doing this in a manner which is befitting to the gospel of Christ, in order that whether having come and seen you, or whether being absent, I am hearing the things concerning you, namely, that you are standing firm in one spirit, holding your ground, with one soul contending (as a team of athletes would) in perfect co-operation with one another for the faith of the gospel". The use of this specialized word colours the whole letter and gives it a heavenly atmos­phere. Christians are citizens of heaven, their origin and destiny heavenly, and they are responsible to live a heavenly life in the midst of ungodly people and to proclaim to sinners a Saviour who is in heaven.

Four aspects of heavenly citizenship are contemplated in the exhortations of the apostle in the closing section of the first chapter. In verse 1 he addresses them as saints, and as such they are to shine brightly for the display of the Gospel} their manner of life harmonizing with the teaching of the gospel that they profess to believe. This would mean, as Paul further insists in 2. 14-16, that they must be without blemish, without fault and without blame, shining as luminaries in the world and continually holding out to the perishing the offer of life in Christ.

Heavenly citizens are depicted also as soldiers who are to stand firmly for the faith of the Gospel, holding their ground in the face of opposition from infernal foes.

The next word that describes another aspect of the employ­ment of those composing a colony of heaven on earth is "striving", the translation of the Greek word from which "athletics" is derived. To this is attached the Greek prefix sun, which means "together with" and implies united effort. Not only are believers saints of God and soldiers of Jesus Christ: they are also servants and as such must strive unitedly for the spread of the Gospel.

That there were many adversaries Paul knew from his own experience. There are infernal enemies working often through violent and wicked men who direct all their energies to oppose the gospel of Christ and those who proclaim it. " 'Twas tribulation ages since: 'tis tribulation still". The loyal subjects of the kingdom of Christ are the butt of Satanic persecution, and Paul exhorts them, as citizens, to display their fealty to their Lord by suffering willingly for the Christ of the Gospel.

In the third chapter, the apostle grieves tearfully over some who, though professing to be heavenly citizens, were devoting their time and attention entirely to mundane affairs and forgetting their heavenly calling. To the loyal, heavenly-minded citizens with whom he associates himself he gives, in 3. 20, 21, the assurance of a glorious expectation which is the hope of all who are enrolled in heaven's colony. It is this: "The commonwealth of which we are citizens has its fixed location in heaven, out of which we are eagerly awaiting the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our humiliated body, conforming it to the body of His glory by means of the energy through which He is able to marshal all things unto Himself" (Wuest's translation).

This expectation, the "blessed hope" of all heaven's citizens on earth, is the parousia of the Lord Jesus, and the physical change that will take place at the rapture, 1 Thess. 4. 13-18; 1 Cor. 15. 51-54, when our mortal bodies become immortal. This transformation will be wrought in our bodies because we are now physically constituted for life on earth, and unfitted to live elsewhere in God's universe. The personality of the believer will undergo no change, for the new birth has fitted the saint spiritually, and the new life in Christ made us morally suited for the eternal bliss of heaven. The glorified body at the rapture will remove every hindrance to the heavenly citizen's complete translation from earth to mid-air and thence, with his Lord, to the Father's house on high. He'll give these bodies lowly a fashion like His own, And He, the pure and holy, will hush our every groan.