20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.
– Acts 16:20-21
When Paul found himself in Philippi, he found himself on the wrong side of the cultural majority. Philippi was a place that had been established as a retirement village for Roman soldiers who had served with honor and distinction. This was one of the ways that Rome motivated its soldiers (many of whom did not have citizenship rights). Do something extraordinarily important for the empire, and you might get citizenship. Serve faithfully for a long time, and you might be able to retire quietly in a place like Philippi. This is the story of the Roman jailer that Paul and Silas interact with in Acts 16. He was a former Roman soldier just trying to live the rest of his days out in peace while being duty-bound to the empire. The short story is this, Philippi was a community established by the empire for duty-bound people; anything perceived as anti-Roman would not be tolerated. Enter Paul and Silas from stage left.
See, the accusation against Paul and Silas was not the same one Paul would ultimately face in Jerusalem. There he would be called a heretic, someone who had abandoned the faith of their fathers and declared a false messiah (Acts 21:28). Here in Philippi, the punishable offense was that Paul, Silas, and their message was anti-Roman and was ultimately going to undermine all that was held dear in their Roman culture. Again, this would not be tolerated. Paul and Silas are arrested, beaten, and jailed.
There is a primary question for us as a modern audience in this passage. That is the question of distinctiveness. If Paul were to come and preach the gospel in our communities today, would we react like the people of Philippi? Would we dismiss him for not adhering to the prevailing culture, political system, or national identity? Or, perhaps, we should ask it this way, is there something so distinctive about us as Christ followers that our very lives point to the kingdom of heaven more than the kingdoms of earth? See, these are questions that aren’t just applicable to us in America, but they are applicable to all believers in all places and at all times. The life of Christ was distinctive in Paul so much so that it could be seen and heard from him.
Why was that?
Because of the hope that resided within him. Paul will say it this way, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)
We live in a cultural moment that is clamoring for any number of distinctives (labels, identifiers, and markers) to be the ones we are known for. But, for the Christian, the ultimate distinctive has always been and will always be Jesus.
Lord Jesus, would your life be an increasingly seen, heard, and felt distinctive for your people today?
After all, Jesus is the one who died and came back to life (Rev. 2:8), and his kingdom will never pass away (Dan. 4:3).