Philippi—Place of Fountains
WE HAD been skimming just above the waves of the Aegean on our approach to Thessalonica. Suddenly, the airport runway loomed up at the water’s edge and rushed under us—so close to the aircraft that my wife thought we were already on the ground. “That was the smoothest landing we’ve ever had!” she said. Then, the wheels touched down with a bump.
Macedonia, Greece! I thought of the world of Alexander the Great and the later battle on the Plain of Philippi that decided the future of Rome. And I wondered how much influence they had had on the life and ministry of the Christian apostle Paul. As “an apostle to the nations,” Paul introduced Christianity into Europe at Philippi. (Romans 11:13) Would we see anything there that would enlighten us? Or had history swept across the plain without leaving a trace?
Two hours north of Thessalonica, our bus wound along the mountain road above the port of Kaválla. Although Kaválla is noted primarily for exporting tobacco, fishermen mending nets on the wharf created the sort of scene we imagined that Paul saw when Kaválla was called Neapolis.—Acts 16:11.
Although Paul did not stay in Neapolis, a few yards below us we could see the steep cobblestone road he traveled. Then we were through the narrow, wooded pass and got our first glimpse of what used to be the town of Philippi. We could make out the massive rock that marks the site, nearly halfway up the valley.
We were looking down on fields of ripening tobacco. Paul had looked on marshes, and the early settlers on dense forests. The apostle may have stopped to catch his breath from time to time during his descent. Yet, he must have hurried on, perhaps as excited as we were.
Fountains of Water
Philippi existed before Philip II came in 356 B.C.E. to clear the forests, enlarge the town, and name it after himself. Five years earlier, settlers from Thásos had come to work the rich mines of Asyla and Mount Pangaeus. They called their village Crenides, ‘place of small fountains.’ Why? Because springs of water well up everywhere, making the valley largely marshland.
Only recently has the land been successfully drained. But the springs are still there, and the streams still flow. At one place, the old Roman road crosses the Gangites River. The river had been special to Paul, and we wanted to see it.
Fountains of Precious Metals
Philip fortified Crenides to save the Thásian miners threatened by Thrace. He wanted Crenides as a military outpost. But most of all, he needed gold to finance his ambitious war plans. The gold mines enriched Philip and Alexander the Great by more than a thousand talents a year. When the gold was gone, Philippi fell into obscurity.
Fountains of Blood
More than a century passed. Greece gave way to the power of Rome. The Roman Empire demanded roads, and the Via Egnatia was built across Macedonia. Nine miles [14 km] from the coast, it cut through the middle of Philippi, awakening it with commercial and military traffic.
Philippi had become strategic. In 42 B.C.E., there was much blood spilled there in two furious battles between Rome and usurpers who sought control of the empire. But the Republican conspiracy failed and the Caesarean Empire was saved. As a memorial, the victorious Octavian made Philippi a Roman colony.—Acts 16:12.
Fountains of Life
No one lives in Philippi today. It is only an archaeological site. As we sauntered along the Via Egnatia, we examined wheel marks in the pavement. We roamed the marketplace and looked in on the 50-seat public latrine. At the library, there were no books, just as there were no wrestlers in the gym (actually a palaestra, or wrestling school). We saw the remains of Roman temples, Greek niches, and even an Egyptian sanctuary halfway up the acropolis. As we sat in the open-air theater, we marveled at the acoustics. We stood in the forum and visualized imperious magistrates emerging from their chambers, preceded by constables carrying bundles of rods strapped around axes—a sign of their authority. In our mind’s eye, we tried to recreate the Philippi of 50 C.E. that had become so Roman.
According to the Bible, Paul and his associates “continued in this city, spending some days.” (Acts 16:12) No exciting encounters are reported. Then one day Paul heard of a little group who followed neither old gods nor new and yet were said to be devout. They met beyond the colonial arch outside of town near the place where the road crossed the stream.
“On the sabbath day,” Luke wrote, “we went forth outside the gate beside a river, where we were thinking there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women that had assembled.” The discussion involved the hope of salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ. Especially “a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, . . . was listening, and Jehovah opened her heart wide to pay attention to the things being spoken by Paul.”—Acts 16:13, 14; compare Philippians 2:12, 16; 3:14.
After some days, Paul’s sojourn in Philippi came to a dramatic end. While walking the mile or so out to the place of prayer, he encountered a bothersome girl possessed by an evil spirit. When Paul expelled the demon, the girl’s employers were enraged at having their soothsaying business destroyed. With what outcome?
“They laid hold of Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the rulers.” ‘They are Jews,’ they charged. (Everyone knew that Claudius had just banished all Jews from Rome.) ‘They are disturbing our city very much by publishing customs that it is not lawful for us to take up or practice, seeing we are Romans,’ they added. The crowds clamored; the magistrates passed sentence. At that the constables unbound their rods and “inflicted many blows” upon Paul and Silas. Then they threw them into prison, bleeding and faint, and fastened their feet in the stocks. That very night a great earthquake led to the freeing of Paul and Silas and the acceptance of Christianity by their jailer and his household.—Acts 16:16-34.
The next morning, the rulers were oh, so sorry for any misunderstanding, but would the strangers please leave town? Paul and Silas first went to Lydia’s home to encourage fellow believers before they left for Thessalonica. Luke stayed behind to look after the fledgling congregation.—Acts 16:35-40.
Fountains of Generosity
“She just made us come” to her home, Luke wrote of Lydia. Even Paul’s jailer was very hospitable as soon as he correctly understood the situation. (Acts 16:15, 33, 34) During Paul’s stay in Thessalonica, the friends in Philippi twice sent him things he needed.
Later, when he was serving God valiantly in Corinth, the Philippians again sought him out. Even years later, when Paul was in prison in Rome, an envoy from Philippi came with gifts and an offer of personal service in the apostle’s behalf. Paul was touched. He knew that the Philippians did not have much in a material way. So he wrote: “Their deep poverty made the riches of their generosity abound.”—2 Corinthians 8:1, 2; 11:8, 9; Philippians 2:25; 4:16-18.
We lingered by the Gangites, and I swished my hand in the water. It was surprisingly cold. We looked around. Somewhere near here was the “place of prayer” where Paul and others met for worship.
But then I asked myself, What makes Philippi so special to me? Is it this place by the river? Could it be the marketplace with its empty library, vacant gym, godless temples, and shops without goods?
Is it the fountains? Indeed, Philippi really is a “place of fountains.” It still flows with water. Once it flowed with gold and, in a sad season, with blood. But there was also a good season when fountains of life, love, and generosity flowed from some very special people like Paul, Lydia, the jailer, and others. It’s the people, isn’t it? Those special people make Philippi special to me. They make me pensive. They make me reflective. I wish—my wife touched my arm. “Come on,” she said softly. “It’s time to go.”—Contributed.
[Map/Pictures on page 25]
Top left: “bema” (judgment seat) of ancient Philippi; top right: where the “Via Egnatia” crosses the Gangites; bottom: the forum
[Map of Greece/Philippi]
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