The Church in Europe
“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”” (Acts 16:9)
The account of the birth of the church at Philippi is one of the most extensive accounts of church planting in the New Testament. Paul had intended to devote his second missionary journey to Asia. However, when Paul and his companions had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the Word in Asia,” and when they tried to go into Bithynia, “the Spirit did not permit them” (Acts 16:6-7). As they came to Troas, “a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”” (Acts 16:9)
The history of the church would bear out similar examples of God either forbidding in one direction, or, on the other hand, constraining in another direction. Famously, before arriving in Africa, David Livingstone wanted to go to China as a medical missionary. However, the political friction between Britain and China due to the opium war prevented that. Similarly, Adoniram Judson, the American missionary to Burma, first travelled to India, but was driven out as American evangelism was not welcome.
The Gospel Reaching Europe
Through a series of open and closed doors Paul concluded that the Lord was calling them to take the Gospel westward into Europe, and, with that, they arrived in Philippi, Macedonia.
It may have been the case that the Gospel had reached Europe prior to the arrival of Paul and Timothy in Macedonia. Amongst the crowds on the day of Pentecost, as Peter preached to the multitudes in Jerusalem, were “visitors from Rome” (Acts 2:10). It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Gospel may have reached Rome as a result, although this is not recorded in Scripture. Either way, Paul and his companions’ arrival in Macedonia was a major milestone in the fulfilment of the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:20).
The First Church in Europe
As God guided Paul and his companions to Macedonia, specifically to Philippi, a number of individuals were brought to faith through the preaching of the Gospel. Here, in Philippi, the first church in Europe was established.
The first convert in Philippi seems to be Lydia, who as a businesswoman sold purple fabrics. In response to the Gospel which Paul proclaimed, we are simply told that the Lord, “opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Lydia immediately evidenced the fruit of her conversion by insisting that they stay at her home. The significance of this may be lost on us, but in such a circumstance, where Paul and the others were preachers in a strange country, Lydia’s hospitality provided them with both comfort and a measure of protection.
They then encountered a demon possessed slave girl, who “brought her masters much profit by fortune telling” (Acts 16:16). She followed Paul and his companions, crying out and alerting all within earshot as to who they were: “these men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). In response we read: “But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour” (Acts 16:18). The slave girl was delivered from her bondage. Though she may have rejoiced, her owners did not. Their whole business had collapsed and they had lost considerable wealth. In response, they had Paul and Silas seized and cast into prison.
Finally, as Paul and Silas were in prison for preaching the Gospel, at midnight an earthquake shook the prison and opened all the doors, and everyone’s chains were loosed (Acts 16:26-27). The jailor, expecting all the prisoners to have fled, was convinced that this meant not merely the end of his job, but of his life. He was about to kill himself. Then he heard Paul’s words: “do yourself no harm, for we are all here” (Acts 16:28). The famous exchange of words followed as the jailor asked “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Hearing the good news in response: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31). The jailor rejoiced and believed, washed their wounds, and brought Paul and Silas to his house.
What can we learn from the establishment of the church in Philippi? The three Philippian converts had very little in common. The first was a Jew, the second a Greek, and the third a Roman. Yet the unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the foundation of the church in Philippi, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).
Furthermore, the church in Philippi was established through an emphasis on the Word of God. Much of the modern church has lost confidence in the Word of God, choosing to water it down, remove the offense, and place their emphasis on gimmicks – at the expense of the preached Word. Paul and his companions were powerful, Spirit-filled men who spoke with conviction, boldness, confidence and assurance. They didn’t spend their time engaging in social events or working on strategies to make the Gospel more palatable. Rather, they boldly and unashamedly proclaimed the Gospel, knowing that the Gospel of Christ is “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16). They knew that His word would not return unto Him void (Isaiah 55:11) and that it is Him who that gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:7).
The Effects of the Gospel Reaching Europe
Having reached Philippi, the Gospel would eventually spread throughout Europe. The Gospel not only reached our own shores, but in turn reached throughout the world through missionaries who went to proclaim the Gospel in places such as Africa, China and India. This is something we should be profoundly thankful for.
On this point John Stott commented: “With the benefit of hindsight, knowing that Europe became the first Christian continent and was until fairly recently the main base for missionary outreach to the rest of the world, we can see what an epoch-making development this was. It was from Europe that in due course the gospel fanned out to the great continents of Africa, Asia, North America, Latin America and Oceania, and so reached the ends of the earth.” (1)
The Church in Europe Today
Were you to take a tour throughout Europe, you would find many beautiful, historic church buildings. Tragically, many of these churches are either no longer places of worship or no longer proclaim the Gospel. The church at large in Europe has over many years become increasingly liberal, as liberal theology has greatly hurt and hollowed out the church.
Europe was the birthplace of the Reformation and the centre of Christian influence for hundreds of years. However, the attainments of the Reformation have been lost to the point that the Reformation is largely seen as having been unnecessary, or even a negative development. Indeed, many consider there to be little meaningful difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.
Having said that, God has His faithful remnant in his Church throughout Europe. No doubt, there are many small but faithful gatherings of his Church, unbeknown to us. Whilst thankfully the Gospel is experiencing growth in Asia and Africa, it is no exaggeration to say that Europe has become a spiritual wilderness experiencing a famine of the Word.
A Vision for Europe
When the man of Macedonia appeared to Paul in the vision he was crying out for the Gospel. In much the same way, the Church today ought to have a vision for that same Europe in great darkness and in much need of the Gospel.
What spiritual and practical support can we offer to the Church in Europe? We ought to pray that the Gospel and the preaching of it may have free course throughout Europe once again so that the Lord would set up lights throughout this dark continent. Furthermore, we ought to pray that the Lord establish the work of the hands of the faithful churches that do exist throughout Europe (Psalm 90:17).
Whilst Europe is currently experiencing a period of great political and economic turmoil its greatest need is the Gospel faithfully taught throughout its length and breadth. The Church needs to embrace and preach the same Reformation doctrines which impacted the world all these years ago. The lost need to hear the same Gospel of Jesus Christ which Lydia, the slave girl and the Jailor heard, that sinners would cry out with the blessed jailor: “what must I do to be saved?”
(1) Stott, John, The Message of Acts, p. 28