Updated: Aug 26, 2022
Last week we began a sermon series on Paul’s wonderful letter to the Philippians. I hope, as we begin to interact with the text of this letter, that you’ll commit to spending your own time simply reading and praying your way through it. As you read, and as you encounter the good news of Christ that shines forth from this letter, I pray that you will experience what Lydia did on that Sabbath day by the river in ancient Philippi. Acts tells us that the Lord opened her heart to respond to the message of Jesus. He’s knocking at the door of your heart too. Find yourself with the same posture Lydia did, humble and open, earnestly seeking, and he will do his work in your life as well.
In our previous lesson we rehearsed some of the wonderful sayings we have inherited from this little gem of a letter. For example, “Rejoice and again I say rejoice!” and, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me!”. And then we tried to step back and look at the context of those words a bit. We didn’t look at the literary context – we will insist on that in due time – but we sought to place Paul in his proper historical context as he wrote. And we remembered that Paul wrote, not from a place of ease, but a place of great trial.
Paul wasn’t sitting on the white sand beaches of the Mediterranean sipping margaritas as he wrote. He wrote from prison, a Roman prison where he was in chains for proclaiming the good news of Jesus. It was from there that Paul wrote this glorious little letter that has been giving life to believers in the Christ for the last two thousand years. I hope in last week’s sermon that you got a glimpse into how that one contextual truth has the power to change how we experience Philippians. For when Paul writes, “Rejoice, and again I say rejoice!” from a prison cell it sounds very different than if he had written it from the comfort of a lawn chair on the beach.
Today we will continue to spend time setting Philippians in its historical context. Last week we rehearsed the story of Paul’s first arrival in Philippi as Luke records it for us in Acts 16. I want to focus in on one verse in that context. We’re in the middle of Paul’s second missionary journey and we’re about to arrive in Philippi. It’s somewhere in the vicinity of 50-52AD, some 18 years after Jesus died and rose again, and some 15 years after Paul’s encounter with Him on the Damascus road. And now Paul, with his heart captured by Christ, takes the good news of Jesus onto European soil for the first time. In the terminology of Paul’s day, he took the gospel from the Roman province of Asia across the Aegean Sea into Macedonia. In modern terminology Paul crossed over from Turkey to northern Greece.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Broad_overview_of_geography_relevant_to_paul_of_tarsus.png (modified to include Troas)
User:Alecmconroy, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis . 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
Note that Luke describes the city of Philippi as a Roman colony in this text. I want to spend our time together today fleshing out what’s implied in that statement. It is easy to simply read past these words in our bibles, but they provide us an opportunity to venture back into an ancient world that in many ways was very different from our own. This was an ancient civilization that was very much alive with superstition; they worshipped the ancient gods of Zeus, Apollos, Artemis and a host of others. It sounds like a primitive culture in that sense. But this was by no means a backward society. In Philippi you would have experienced the cutting edge of technology. This was no handful of huts but a city! Philippi had a huge theater capable of seating tens of thousands.
If we make the journey today to see the site of ancient Philippi and gaze upon its ruins, it’s difficult for us to appreciate what it would have looked like in its heyday. Paul and company didn’t clamor down some dirt path and stumble across an archaeological dig! They strode down a superhighway and encountered the glory of Rome as they entered Philippi! Luke tells us that Philippi was a Roman colony. That means that it existed to be a beacon of Roman light into their world. It was a modern city; the great stone monuments we gawk at as tourists today were in pristine condition when Paul arrived. The city was bustling with activity, bursting at the seams with the glory of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known – the Roman Empire.
Paul and his traveling companions didn’t clamor down
some dirt path and stumble across a pile of ruins!
They strode down a super highway and encountered
the glory of Rome as they entered Philippi!
Philippi was situated on the famous Via Egnatia, a highway that crossed Macedonia, providing Rome with the means of rapidly deploying her troops to the far reaches of the Empire. It wasn’t a wagon trail across the prairies. It was a stone-paved testimony to the might and majesty of Rome; you can still walk down it today. In recent history (from Paul’s perspective) the Via Egnatia and the city of Philippi played prominently in the dawning of a new era in the history of Rome.
Up until the time of Julius Caesar Rome had been a Republic, her kings kept in check via two elected consuls and a senate . But when the popular and powerful Roman general, Julius Caesar, returning from the Gallic wars in 49BC, brought his armed troops across the Rubicon and into the environs of Rome itself, this signaled the end of the Republic. A civil war ensued, and Caesar came out the victor.
His grab for power was cut short however by a conspiracy among the senators, led by Brutus and Cassius, who assassinated him five years later on the Ides of March in 44BC. Once more chaos prevailed in Rome. Because Julius Caesar had shrewdly won the favor of the general population, Brutus and Cassius were forced to flee to the eastern part of the Empire where they amassed an army.
Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavian (who was later known as Augustus), along with his ally Marc Antony gained control in Rome and then went after Brutus and Cassius. The two forces met head-to-head on the Via Egnatia in Philippi in 42BC. In that historic battle, Brutus and Cassius were defeated, signaling that the days of Rome as a Republic were coming to an end.
11 years later, in the battle of Actium, Octavian eliminated all opposition when he defeated his former ally, Marc Antony. In 27BC it became official, the Roman senate granted Octavian overarching power, conferred on him the title Augustus (the exalted one ), and with that the days of the Republic drew to a close and the Roman Empire was born. Caesar Augustus was its first Emperor. This is the Augustus Luke makes mention of in his gospel as he introduces us to the birth of Christ.
From a democratic perspective the end of a Republic and the birth of an Empire sounds like anything but good news, but for a nation who had long grown weary of the internal strife that had marked the Republic, the reign of Caesar Augustus was glorious, good news. And there was no shortage of political will to proclaim this gospel far and wide.
Philippi itself was commissioned to be a bearer of the good news of Rome. This was why Roman colonies existed. Philippi, the scene of the decisive battle that signaled the end of the Republic and the birth of the Empire was settled with war veterans from Augustus’ recent battles. These veterans brought to Philippi an undying allegiance to the Empire; their presence bore witness to the glory and majesty of Rome and was a constant reminder that the might and power of Rome was never far away.
Greek was the common language of the Roman Empire, but in the Roman colonies, Latin became the official language. There were many advantages Philippi would have enjoyed with her newfound status; it would have been the source of great civic pride. Along with a great influx of Roman cash into the city, Philippi’s citizens also enjoyed various tax exemptions. In short Rome’s presence was stamped into the very fabric of the city, it existed to glorify Caesar Augustus and the birth of the Empire. When you walked into ancient Philippi it was unavoidable; the majesty and glory of Rome was front and center.
We don’t have specific evidence that when Paul, Silas, and company strode into Philippi for the first time that the rhetoric of the glory of Empire was posted on every billboard in sight. But we do have a record of that very thing chiseled in stone just across the Aegean from Philippi. The first and most complete of these ancient billboards, if you will, to be rediscovered was found in ancient Priene, just a stone’s throw from Ephesus (We know Paul spent significant time in Ephesus.) Others have been unearthed in other ancient ruins nearby . We don’t have the complete message, but we do have enough to give us a profound glimpse into how that ancient civilization regarded the recent advent of Caesar Augustus. Have a listen in on the distant past.
Priene Calendar Inscription From 9 BC
It is a day which we may justly count as equivalent to the beginning of everything - inasmuch as it has restored the shape of everything that was failing and turning into misfortune, and has given a new look to the Universe at a time when it would gladly have welcomed destruction if Caesar had not been born to be the common blessing of all men…Whereas the Providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…and whereas the birthday of the God [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings [good news/gospel] that have come through him…Paulus Fabius Maximus, the proconsul of the province…has devised a way of honoring Augustus hitherto unknown to the Greeks, which is, that the reckoning of time for the course of human life should begin with his birth.
Caesar Augustus, spoken of here in the language of divinity, is regarded as the common blessing bestowed upon all mankind, the perfect picture of human life, the savior, the one who brings peace and good news to all… I’m not making this stuff up! They chiseled it in stone.
The citizens of Rome were envisioning that their long, long story had at last reached the glorious destiny to which it had been pointing all along. The poets of this era envisioned that the 500 previous years of the Republic was to be properly described as a stretching forward toward and a preparation for the future which had now arrived in Caesar Augustus. With Caesar came hope, salvation, and worldwide peace (the Pax Romana) – good news for the world! 
It’s impossible as Christians not to hear the echoes of our own proclamation in this ancient declaration. And there’s more. The imperial rhetoric of the day hailed Caesar as Lord, KURIOS, the very same manner in which we hail Jesus. Augustus was also described as ‘son of god’. Augustus, we remember, was the adopted son of Julius Caesar who was assassinated in March of 44BC. In July of the same year when Octavian(Augustus) returned to Rome to celebrate the games in honor of his adopted father a comet conveniently appeared on the occasion. This was a sign, so it was interpreted, that Julius Caesar had ascended to join the gods in heaven. In death, Julius Caesar attained the status of a god. This made Caesar Augustus ‘son of god’, a title that was then passed on down the line from Emperor to Emperor.
Tiberius Caesar, the son of Augustus, who ruled during Jesus’ lifetime had the words stamped on the coins that bore his image. At the close of Jesus’ ministry, when he was cornered in the temple courts and asked to weigh in on the matter of whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar or not, he asked for a coin, a denarius to be exact. The coin Jesus was handed had stamped on it around the image of Tiberius, AUGUSTUS TIBERIUS CAESAR, SON OF THE DIVINE AUGUSTUS.
Image by DrusMAX, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The story of Rome envisioned as reaching forward to a grand conclusion, arriving at a great utopia of world peace and justice was not the only story being told in Paul’s day. There were competing stories. Israel, as a nation, told herself a different story. They were the people of the one true God, chosen through Abraham for the sake of the world. And one day when Messiah arrived the world would be flooded with his glorious rule. Paul grew up nurtured on this story and with his Jesus encounter on the Damascus road, the gospel he proclaimed was one of Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Savior of the world.
You don’t need a degree to recognize that you can’t embrace both stories. They stand in contradiction to one another. It’s either Caesar or Jesus, and in Paul’s mind the verdict was in. Jesus by virtue of the resurrection had been declared both Lord and Christ. A new era in the history of humanity had therefore arrived and everywhere Paul went he proclaimed this gospel and urged everyone to get on their knees before the King, Lord Jesus. Once you get a bit of a glimpse into the story of Rome and as a consequence the very counter imperial rhetoric that Paul proclaimed it’s no surprise that Rome eventually sought to remove his head.
When Paul brings the good news of Jesus to the Roman colony of Philippi there is a collision of stories, these two competing perspectives clash. This conflict plays out in real life for Paul and Silas when the magistrates of Acts 16 seek to give these two a little demonstration of the authority and power of Lord Caesar. Paul and Silas, undeterred celebrate in song the authority of Lord Jesus. And when the jailhouse shakes and the chains fall; when the jailer bows his knees, confesses with his tongue, and puts on Lord Jesus in baptism we know whose authority is supreme. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
It ought not to surprise us that Rome’s authority is made manifest via the magistrate’s ruthless beating and that Jesus’ authority is displayed through Paul and Silas’ bleeding backs. Such is the strange and profound gospel of the cross of Christ.
When Paul brings the good news of Jesus to
the Roman colony of Philippi there is a collision of stories.
And so, with that, we have another piece of the historical context that Paul’s letter to the Philippians was set in. But we won’t content ourselves this morning with history. We will do more than look back at an ancient pagan world that followed Caesar. It is easy for us to recognize today that while Caesar’s empire lays buried in the dust of ancient history, the dominion of Jesus remains. But it’s not like the Jesus story is without competition in our day.
Our society's counter story is manifest at every turn. You can’t walk into our cities without seeing it on every billboard. It’s prevalent and it’s persuasive. It’s pervasive and yet for that very reason many of us are unaware of its influence on our thinking. Rome was not the only society that told a story in conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our modern myth, and it’s every bit as pagan as ancient Rome’s myth, is the myth of Progress. “The world was once a dark place,” we believe, “but no more. We now live in the modern era, the era of reason, enlightenment, and the glorious advances of science. We have transitioned from The Dark Ages through The Renaissance via The Enlightenment and are now firmly placed in the modern world.
Ignorance is in our rear-view mirror, glory is in our future.” We intrinsically believe that with but a bit more technology, a bit more science, a bit more democracy that we will at long last arrive at the utopia we dream of; world peace, the day when foolish and ignorant ideas have been long laid to rest, the day when our scientific advances have freed us from sickness and disease, perhaps even death itself.
Somewhere just around the corner in the next display of genius, we will discover the solution to world hunger, prosperity and abundance will be had by all, and the human race will reach out and touch the distant stars. Sure, little hiccups will hinder us from time to time (like the two devastating world wars in the last century) but no one will persuade us that the goddess of Progress will not ultimately redeem us.
This myth is zealously promoted everywhere we look in our world. It dominates our advertising industry and permeates every aspect of our lust for entertainment. Progress is what has us all chained at the hip to the latest technological gadgetry. We are infatuated with it; it consumes us. We believe that very soon what our fathers thought was beyond possibility will become reality; virtual reality will sweep into the gaming industry; artificial intelligence will rush from the future to meet us. Soon, Progress tells us, we’ll all be Treking across the universe with Captain Kirk at the speed of light, proclaiming our glory to the ends of the universe.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have no interest in returning to the pre-scientific world. I am not advocating the abandonment of modern medicine. Praise God that we have found the cure to thousands of diseases and will find the cure for many more! We should thank God that we are capable of interacting both with the world of microbiology and gazing into the far reaches of the universe. Our scientific advances are a gift from God to the human family and should be pursued as such.
But such gifts are not to be worshiped. The advent of modern science did not signal the coming moment through which all wrongs will be put to right and the human family will reach its full glorious potential. That moment was signaled in the person of Jesus Christ. He, not Lord Caesar, and not Lord Progress, will one day right all the wrongs and bring us to a glorious future. The moment in history that launched hope for the human family has been identified by the Christian gospel as the Cross of Jesus Christ.
But our world, just as surely as Paul’s world, tells a different story. Technology is our Savior, Science our Redeemer. Our greatest faith is in ourselves. We believe in Lord Progress as sure as ancient Philippi believed in Lord Caesar. And until we realize that these competing stories cannot both be true, we will be ill-equipped to proclaim the gospel Paul proclaimed.
I wonder if Paul walked down one of our superhighways into one of our cities, reading our billboards along the way, what he would think? How would he confront the gods we bow down to? How would he overthrow our stories that compete with the good news of Jesus? And if he got in the face of the machinery of our world that proclaims Lord Progress, would he wind up being prosecuted by our authorities? And if there was a moment when God intervened and shook things up a bit as he did in the jailhouse of ancient Philippi what would that look like?
I think these things are worthy of our consideration. Perhaps as we journey into the world of Paul through his letter to the believers in Philippi, we, like they, might find new encouragement to celebrate Lord Jesus Christ, even in the midst of a world where the competing gospels seem to hold absolute sway.
One day someone will be rooting around in the ruins of our civilization and will examine the gods we bowed down to. Progress will be among them. And somewhere among the rubble, someone will find our testimony. What will it be? On our faces prostrate before Lord Progress, or in the strange but glorious way of the cross, professing our undying allegiance to Lord Jesus?
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Republic . See also Wright, N. T. (2013). Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Vol. 4, p. 285). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  Wright, N. T. (2013). Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Vol. 4, p. 288). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  Wright, N. T. (2013). Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Vol. 4, p. 326). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  The Priene Calendar Inscription as quoted from: Garland, D. E. (1996). Mark (pp. 19–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calendar_Inscription_of_Priene  Wright, N. T. (2013). Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Vol. 4, p. 298ff). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  Wright, N. T. (2013). Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Vol. 4, p. 317). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  Mark 12:13-17