Philippians Background

History of the City

The city of Philippi was located on the Northern Shore of the Aegean Sea in the Western portion of modern Greece, south of Bulgaria near the town of Kavala. It currently exists only as an archeological site having been abandoned in the 14th Century after the Ottoman conquest.

Philippi was founded on the remains of an even older village in 356 BC by Philip II, the king of Macedon and Alexander the Great’s father, to gain control of gold mines in the area and a strategic position along the Macedonian Royal Road the Romans later reconstructed as the Via Egnatia. Philip eventually established a mint, after the discover of even more gold in the area.

After the death of Alexander and the disintegration of his Empire, the city experienced a significant decline. It was only a small town, perhaps 2000 inhabitants, by the time the Romans conquered the area in 167 BC and Philippi disappeared from the historical record.

It does not appear again until 42 BC when Mark Antony and Octavian fought the climatic battle in their Civil War with Brutus and Cassius that followed the murder of Julius Caesar on the plain just to the west of Philippi. With Octavian’s (Caesar Augustus) ascension to the Imperial throne, Philippi was made a Roman Colony and a retired Roman soldiers were given land there.


At the time of the New Testament, Philippi was an important stop along the Via Egnatia that linked Rome directly with its Empire in Asia Minor and the east. From Rome one went south on the Via Appia to the seaport of Brundisium (modern Brindisi) in the heel of the Italian boot, made a short sea voyage to Dyrrachium and then straight east over the Via Egnatia to Asia Minor.

It was placed on the Via Appia for exactly the same reason Philipp had created the city; its gold mines. But, because of the large number of retired soldiers, it was an especially loyal colony, ruled directly from Rome. Think of places in the US you know today that are smallish towns with conservative politics, large numbers of retired military personnel and vibrant economies and you will quickly get the idea of the type of place 1st Century Philippi was.

The Beginning of the Philippian Church

Philippi was the first place in Europe where the Gospel was preached and the story of the founding of the church there is told in Acts 16:6-40. Paul feels he is prohibited by the Holy Spirit from preaching in Asia Minor but experiences a vision of a man from Macedonia asking for help. As a result, he and his companions went to Philippi, the principal city in Macedonia. Because of its status as a Roman colony, there were few Jews and no synagogue, typically the jumping off point for Paul’s preaching. So they went looking for the spot near the river where the Jews went to worship and pray.

They found a group of Jews at the river, among them Lydia, who was evidently not a Jew but a Worshiper of God (and an interesting story in her own right) who became the first recorded convert in Philippi.

As they continued to speak with people by the river over the following days, they were often met by a slave girl possessed by a spirit who’s masters were making money using her to tell people’s fortunes. Paul delivered the girl from the spirit, but her masters, who had lost a source of income, dragged Paul and Silvanus before the magistrates and charged them with being un-Roman and teaching things Romans should not hear.

Paul and Silvanus were beaten and thrown in prison, then saved by a miraculous earthquake that loosened their chains. The fact they did not escape when they could kept the jailer from killing himself and he brought Paul and Silvanus to his home. That morning he received an order to release the two, but they refused to go insisting that the magistrates come themselves and escort them out. They would not be shuffled out of town quietly when their rights as Roman Citizens had been violated.

The magistrates were very disquieted to learn that Paul and Silvanus were Roman Citizens and came to the prison to try and appease them and get them out of town. Paul obliged but not before stopping at Lydia’s home to encourage the believers there.

The Reason for the Letter

Before nearly universal postal service existed, most letters intended to travel any distance were written whenever someone trustworthy was available to carry the letter, and so it was with the Letter to the Philippians. The best evidence seems to be that Paul was in Prison in Rome awaiting the outcome of his appeal to Caesar. The Philippians had heard of Paul’s imprisonment and had sent Epaphroditus to Rome with a gift and perhaps a letter. In, any event, Paul took advantage of Epaphroditus’ availability to send his thanks and encouragement back to the Philippian church.

There appear to be 5 major purposes for writing this intensely personal letter. 1) The usual sort of discussion among friends, Paul wishes to let the Philippians know how he is doing and what plans he has made if he is released. 2) Paul is looking to smooth over some division in the church and so Paul writes to encourage them in unity and humility. 3) He is looking to refute teachings of the Judiazers and antinomianists. 4) To introduce Timothy. 5) Another usual thing among friends, to thank them for their concern and gifts.