From the time I was young I remember hearing Cleveland as being described as a melting pot of immigrants of different origins. In the late 1700’s the area was settled because people were attracted to the confluence of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. It was swampy, filled with mosquitoes and difficult to travel around at the time. But it held the promise of development, trade, and growth. Early settlers came from England, Scotland, and Ireland. As time passed and the area developed, the promise of work and a new life brought people to work in the lumber, iron, steel, and railroad industries. Many came from eastern Europe– from countries that would later become Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Russia. Others arrived from Italy, Greece, and Germany. An area with little history of its own soon became an area driven by the history and traditions of its inhabitants. The wealth of the area was actually its people.
Our own Cleveland area reminds me of another area that we are considering this month– Philippi. In Acts 16:12 Luke writes that Philippi was “a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia.” The Bible doesn’t give a lot of detail about the city. Historians generally believe that during Paul’s time Philippi was a sort of melting pot. Rome and its emperor saw the value of the city because of its position in the province. It was a crossroads for business and trade. Being in Macedonia, most of the residents were probably of Greek heritage, language, and culture. It is believed that about 80 years prior to Paul’s visit, the emperor provided land in the area of Philippi as lands where Roman soldiers of age and fitting service could have as their own to retire to. We don’t really know how many soldiers settled in Philippi. Commentator Peter Oakes believes that about 40% of the population were Roman citizens, with the majority being non-Roman citizens, but Greek speaking people of other origins. There was probably not a large Jewish presence. In Acts 16:13, Luke mentions that they went outside the city gate to find a place of prayer. If a synagogue had been in the city, they surely would have sought it. Jewish tradition in the Mishnah said that 10 men were needed to establish a synagogue. Were there not 10 Jewish men in Philippi? Possibly not, but we certainly don’t know for sure.
What kind of group of believers was there to be found in a Roman outpost over in Macedonia? From many of Paul’s comments that we will study in his letter, one that was very dear to him. He makes his opinion of them clear in Philippians 1:3-6:
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
What Paul appreciates as important is the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel. He doesn’t call out their Roman citizenship, social importance, wealth, or personal heritage. In chapter 3 he takes this principle even further when he talks about his own history and position. Even though he came from a Jewish history he could be proud of, and had the best credentials a teacher could have, he realized that those didn’t help him in his relationship with Christ. It is also important to remember at this point that Paul was also a Roman citizen by birth, and entitled to special consideration by the Romans. It didn’t bring him special consideration by God. More important to him was citizenship in Heaven (Philippians 3:20). Near the end of chapter 4 he thanks the believers for their contributions, support, and care for him in his ministry.
The believers in the Cleveland, Ohio area aren’t much different than the believers in Philippi. We are certainly separated by time, place, and the state of the world as we know it. As people and believers we are very similar. We are from a variety of places and heritage. We aren’t really politically important or powerful. We have a variety of occupations and experience that have brought us together in this area. We also worship the same God and Savior in Jesus. We try to make an impact through spreading the Gospel and serving Him and His servants. We are all sinners, but forgiven sinners. As we look to Philippians for inspiration, I pray that I (and we all) might bring satisfaction to Paul as well God Himself:
“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.” (Philippians 2:14-16)
Take heart and be encouraged!