The church at Philippi was the first Christian church in Europe, planted by the apostle Paul on his second missionary journey around AD 50 or 51. The initial converts of the church at Philippi were Gentiles, and the congregation developed into a predominately Gentile fellowship. Women also played an essential role in the life of the church at Philippi.
The city of Philippi was located in ancient Greece on the eastern border of the Roman province of Macedonia, about 10 miles inland from the coast, directly northwest of its nearest port city, Neapolis. A strategic area in ancient times, Philippi sat on a fertile plain through which passed the Via Egnatia (Egnatian Way), a trade highway that linked the Aegean and Adriatic Seas. Many travelers passed through Philippi on their way to Rome.
Originally founded by immigrants from Thrace, the city of Philippi was famous for its abundant gold mines and plenteous springs of water. From these springs, the town received its name Crenides, meaning “fountains” or “springs.” Later, around 359 BC, the city was renamed Philippi after Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Under Alexander, the city rose to become the capital of the Greek Empire. By New Testament times, the city had come under Roman rule with a diverse population of native Thracians, Greeks, and Romans. A famous school of medicine existed in Philippi, where the gospel writer Luke may have studied.
Extensive archaeological and historical research has been done at Philippi, uncovering ruins that include the forum, agora, streets, gymnasium, baths, library, and acropolis. Also, the site contains what may be a 400 BC temple of Apollo and Artemis, along with numerous inscriptions and coins.
While in Troas on his second missionary journey, Paul was called by God in a vision to go to Macedonia: “So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:8–10). Paul traveled to Philippi accompanied by Silas, Timothy, and Luke.
Paul’s custom was to go to the synagogue whenever he first arrived in a new city, but in Philippi, apparently, there was no synagogue, and he went to the river where he knew that Jews would be worshipping (Acts 16:13). There Paul met Lydia, a Gentile who became the first Christian convert in Europe: “One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us” (Acts 16:14–15).
Lydia’s conversion was the first of three significant events associated with the beginning of the church in Philippi. The second was the exorcism of demons from a slave girl, which resulted in Paul and Silas being thrown into prison (Acts 16:16–24). The third important event was the conversion of the Philippian jailer and his family (Acts 16:25–40).
Paul visited the church at Philippi again on his third missionary journey, and the believers there gave generously to support Paul’s ministry (Philippians 4:15; 2 Corinthians 11:9) as well as the church in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8:1–5). While Paul was imprisoned in Rome, the church at Philippi sent Epaphroditus to minister to him. In return, Paul sent Timothy to the congregation at Philippi.
From the time it was established, the church at Philippi was healthy, strong, and generous, becoming a model church that only experienced minor problems of disunity (Philippians 4:2–7). After the apostolic age, the early church father Ignatius traveled through Philippi, and Polycarp wrote a famous letter to the church there.