St. Philippian Greek Odyssey: Learning the Extraordinary Persistence of Paul
Written to follow the chronology of Paul
Traveling to Greece often evokes thoughts of an odyssey. Homer’s adventures of Odysseus’ decade spent “sailing the wine dark sea” longing to journey home to Ithaca remains a riveting tale. Odysseus endured storms and shipwrecks, encountered mythical gods and goddesses, monsters, witches, kings, and princesses.
Paul was treated monstrously in many places. He was driven out of cities, often barely escaping with his life. He was harassed by a woman possessed by a demon, a slave girl that some might have called a witch. As he recounted in his second letter to the church in Corinth: “Five times I received…the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” Paul suffered greatly, yet he endured. Paul persevered, holding fast to his single purpose, to share the good news of Jesus Christ and the hope of salvation.
Our St. Philippian jaunt, following in Paul’s footsteps, was tame by comparison. We certainly did not experience hunger as we feasted daily. Our only similarity was that a few of us were blown off course when someone opened Aeolus’ bag of winds, releasing raging storms, and diverting flights. Still, in spite of our modern conveniences and comforts, after two weeks, we were exhausted and sleep deprived, completely worn out. Our endurance was tested briefly. We gained an appreciation for Paul’s decades of endurance.
Paul persevered, and Paul pointed the way to Jesus. The Way is not easy, but Paul endured. Following in his path, it was vividly evident that he taught us all how to be followers of Christ.
Neapolis: The Odyssey Begins
We began our odyssey by flying into Athens, but Paul arrived first in northern Greece, in Macedonia, sailing into the sheltered harbor of Neapolis, today known as the port city of Kavala. We spent long hours on a bus traversing Greece to catch up to Paul. Our journey from Athens to Macedonia illustrated the challenges of travel in that rocky, mountainous country. Driving through Greece, even today, it is quickly apparent why the Greeks became sailors and established trading routes around the Mediterranean Sea and the ancient world. It was easier, faster, and often safer to travel under sail than over land.
We lunched at Neapolis/Kavala in a seaside restaurant, enjoying fruits of the sea while looking over colorful fishing boats in the port. On the crest of the hill above the town sat a medieval fortress facing the sea, a reminder of the ever present danger of invaders from the east. First it was Trojan raiding parties, later the mighty Persian Empire, and, by early medieval times, it was repeated attempts by Islamic hordes until all of Greece fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1458. Greece did not regain its independence until 1832, only to turn around and face the Turks again in the 20th century during World War I. Such fortresses found in every harbor town on the mainland and on each island throughout the Aegean Sea are a reminder that though it may wax and wane, in five thousand years of Greek history, the threat of invaders from the east has never disappeared.
When Paul landed on the edge of Europe, he was at a time in his missionary journeys that must have been frustrating. After earlier successes, Acts 16 describes how the Holy Spirit forbade him to speak the word in Asia, and towns were repeatedly closed to him. The lack of opportunities to share the Good News must have been discouraging, but there is no hint in the scriptures that Paul felt that way. Instead, he remained confident and pressed on, trusting that the Lord would bring guidance.
His time of waiting ended at Troas, on the eastern edge of the Aegean Sea, when he had a dream. In the dream, “a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” (Acts 16:9). Paul understood this was a call from God. What he could not have understood was how answering that call would forever change his world and a world that did not yet even exist.
Beyond the Gates of Philippi: The Baptism of Lydia
Paul came from the east, in the service of a foreign King, but his arrival in Macedonia was unremarkable, even though his message would eventually conquer Greece, Europe and the world beyond. He came as a simple servant of God. He stepped ashore in Neapolis, the harbor town that served the metropolis of Philippi. Philippi straddled the Via Egnatia, a major east-west road that ran from Rome to Byzantium. Anyone traveling overland to Rome passed through Philippi. It was a heavily trafficked, fertile region in which to share the gospel.
But the Greco-Roman cosmopolitan city did not have enough Jews to start a synagogue, so, on the Sabbath, Paul and his companions went outside the gates, down to the river to pray. There they encountered some women and spoke to them, sharing Jesus. “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” (Acts 16:14). Lydia and her whole family became believers and were baptized. The first convert in Macedonia, the “man from Macedonia” turned out to be a wealthy woman. She, in turn, led her household to faith and ministered to Paul and the brothers in Philippi through her hospitality. Our group of St. Philippians was privileged to share in a teaching by Jeff Miller followed by communion led by Jim Lewis, and the chance to dip our feet in the rushing stream where Lydia was originally baptized outside the walls of Philippi.
As Paul and his companions walked through the streets of Philippi, they were followed for many days by “a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul…, crying out, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” (Acts16:16-17). Finally “Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.” (Acts 16:18).
Paul, Silas, and the Jailer
Unfortunately for Paul, driving out a demon spirit hurt the girl’s owner’s ability to make money from her fortune-telling. The owner and a mob of men attacked Paul and Silas; they were beaten and thrown into the inner prison. Walking through the ancient ruins of the city of Philippi, that stone cell of the prison, dug into the earthen side of a hill is still largely intact. Here, Paul and Silas, their feet in bonds, sang songs of praise to God late into the night while others in the prison listened. “Suddenly, there was a great earthquake, so the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.” (Acts 16:26). Thinking the prisoners had escaped, the jailer drew his sword to kill himself, “but Paul cried out with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’” (Acts 16:28). The jailer fell to his knees, believed on Christ, and he and his whole family were baptized that night.
The authorities asked Paul to leave Philippi, so he journeyed west along the coast to Thessaloniki, another major thoroughfare and port city. Thessaloniki today has tremendous outdoor statues of Alexander the Great and his father, King Philip II. Those great, worldly conquerors appear to be the city’s claim to fame. It is hard to locate the synagogue where Paul preached the Word. We wound up in a graffiti covered park, near the center of the city, the most likely site of the ancient synagogue. Paul’s teaching caused a jealous uproar in that city, and a mob violently attacked those associated with him. Paul and the brothers were accused before the authorities. “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…saying there is another king, Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7). Paul and Silas were forced to flee the city by night and go on to Berea. We, too, left the city by night.
Preaching the Word of God in Berea and a Poignant Reminder in Meteora
The ancient synagogue in Berea was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943 and the Jewish community expelled, but there is a small park with stunning mosaics commemorating Paul’s work in Macedonia and Greece. We paused there for a teaching. In the center stands Paul and to the left is a depiction of his vision of the man from Macedonia calling to him to come and help. On the right, Paul is shown preaching the Word, while the Bereans who “were more noble than those in Thessalonika…received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.” (Acts 17:11-12).
But angry men hold onto wrongs, and those in Thessaloniki learned that Paul was preaching the word of God in Berea. So “they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.” (Acts 17:13). Once again, Paul was forced to flee, sent off on a ship to Athens. This pattern is recorded over and over again in scripture. The word of God was preached. It caused division and dissension between those who believed and those who did not. This led to persecution, and apostles were forced to flee. Through it all, the gospel spread. Across history, this pattern of persecution, then growth, remains largely unchanged.
Between Athens and Berea, we diverted from Paul’s route to the monasteries of Meteora, against the Pindos mountains of western Thessaly. Meteora is overwhelming, both in its natural elements and its man made ones. Meteora means “suspended in the air” in Greek, and this collection of medieval monasteries truly is. Perched atop naturally eroded, enormous, sheer rock columns, monks first began seeking shelter in caves there as early as the ninth century A.D. By the 1300s, twenty-four monasteries were built as refuge against increasing Islamic invasions. The monasteries were accessible only by wooden ladders or rope nets that were let down the sides of the cliffs. Luckily for us, steps were carved in the rock during the 1920s, so we were able to walk up. Exquisitely detailed Byzantine frescoes were added in the 1500s, vividly depicting and preserving the orthodox Christian faith. Today, six monasteries remain inhabited.
Meteora was a poignant reminder of how much earlier Christians suffered, withdrawing into deserts or mountain aeries, just to keep the faith alive. The suffering, persecuted church often seems far away from our ease of existence today, both geographically and historically. Meteora highlighted how fragile our faith is and how easily it can be lost unless ordinary people are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to preserve it and share it.
Mars Hill in Athens and a Serpent in Corinth
In Athens, we climbed the acropolis and were amazed by the beauty of the Parthenon and the splendor of the various temples. Yet despite its glory, it was a site of ruins that once honored long dead beliefs. We descended and climbed the smaller rock outcropping of Mars Hill, devoid of buildings made by man. There Paul preached the living, resurrected Jesus to the Athenians, telling them for the first time that, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25).
Acts 18:1 says “After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.” So did we. It was in Corinth that Paul first met Aquila and Priscilla who left Italy because of Roman persecution of the Jews. Corinth was an international trading hub, perched on the isthmus between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. It was another vibrant Greco-Roman city with people from all over the ancient world coming and going. But straddling two seas and playing host to sailors on leave, it was also a city beset with sin. Paul stayed there a year and a half, and many came to believe. Later, after he left Corinth, he wrote two letters to the church there, reminding them of the ongoing spiritual battle, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Paul did this, using “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Eph. 6:17).
In case we 21st century pilgrims risk thinking that sin, such as the sin Paul repeatedly warned the Corinthians about, is all ancient history, we were given a sign that it haunts man still. Just as Jeff finished teaching in Corinth, a snake slithered through the grass at his feet and disappeared beneath a nearby marble slab. It reminded us, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field…” (Gen. 3:1). As Paul said, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith…” (1 Cor. 16:13).
Past the Aegean Islands to Ephesus
Like Paul, we too went to sea, boarding a cruise ship in the Athenian port of Piraeus to sail through the Cycladic Islands on the way to Ephesus in modern Turkey. These Aegean islands were thought to be the area where Odysseus outwitted the Cyclops, getting him drunk on wine, blinding him, then hiding the men under sheep to escape. It was Odysseus’ boastful pride in this deed that angered the gods and cursed him to wander for ten long years, unable to return home. Although pre-Christian, The Odyssey is a cautionary tale about the great danger of the sin of pride.
The first evening aboard, we stopped briefly at the island of Mykonos, sightseeing, shopping, and sampling delectable grilled octopus. Back aboard, we steamed through the night and reached Ephesus in the early morning, more swiftly than Odysseus or Paul could have imagined.
The vast ancient city of Ephesus was once a vibrant seacoast port. But coastlines change over time, and now the ruins of Ephesus lie more than three miles inland from the sea. Only partially excavated, Ephesus still astounds, and it is overwhelming to consider what a huge, bustling city it was in Paul’s day. Today, it is overrun with tourists and merchants reminding us that haggling over the price of wares is something that has been going on there for a long, long time. Modern merchants have thousands of years of experience in how to make a sale or fleece an unwary customer.
Paul spent two years in Ephesus, “so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 19:10). Many believed. Eventually, Paul ran afoul of the merchants of Ephesus. These merchants hawked statues of the goddess Artemis, as some merchants still do today. Demetrius, a silversmith, gathered the men against Paul, saying, “…this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.” (Acts 19:26). Paul’s teaching threatened to put the merchants out of business. Imagine, Christians having such an impact on the economy! Riots broke out, and Paul eventually left Ephesus, returning to Macedonia and Greece to encourage and strengthen the new churches.
Patmos, Rhodes, and Islamic Invaders
We left Ephesus, diverting from Paul’s route. We continued through the islands, passing Samos, and stopping at Patmos, where we visited the Grotto of the Apocalypse, the cave in which John received his vision and transcribed it into the book of Revelation. The next day we made port in the harbor of Rhodes, boarded a bus and drove to Lindos for a steep climb up the acropolis. We toured the magnificent ruins of the 4th century B.C. temple of Athena, and gazed down the rocky coastline to the small Bay of St. Paul. Legend says that Paul was either shipwrecked and came ashore here, or his ship put in to the tiny bay to ride out a storm. Whether such history is correct or not, it is plausible. The floor of the Aegean Sea is littered with shipwrecks dating back to the Bronze Age and is notorious for high winds, churning seas, and storms. If Paul’s ship did find itself in trouble, the white marble temple high atop the Lindos acropolis would have been a beacon seen far out upon a heaving sea and might have directed them to safe harbor.
Rhodes also served as a forward fortress against eastern invasions. The island was first captured by the Islamists in 650 A.D. Control went back and forth between the Greeks and the Muslims for hundreds of years. It was fully retaken from Islamic control in the 1st Crusade and eventually became a stronghold for the Knights of Jerusalem as they defended against the Turks. The Castle of the Knights Hospitaller is vast, and the walls of the city immense and heavily fortified. Rhodes held out against repeated Islamic invaders until it finally fell once more, this time to Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522. The Knights retreated to Malta, renaming themselves the Knights of Malta. Rhodes was not reunited with Greece until 1947. The history of Islamic conquest and rule is still visible in the city and remains fresh in the minds of the Rhodians and Greeks as they face east across the sea.
The First Church in Crete and the Volatility of Santorini
Our final ports of call were Crete and Santorini. We went ashore in Heraklion on the northern coast of Crete, visiting the Church of St. Titus. Titus traveled with Paul, and it is said that he was sent by Paul to found the first church in Crete. He served as the first bishop of Crete. On his journey to Rome, Paul’s ship sought safe harbor in Fair Havens on the southern shore of this large island. “We sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, and as the wind did not allow us to go farther, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone. Coasting along it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens,” (Acts 27:7-8). It is likely that Paul used his time ashore to spread the good news of Jesus.
Our final island was Santorini. While there are no scriptural accounts of Paul stopping at Santorini, it is a remarkable geological island and one that is deeply orthodox Christian. The white villages that line the peaks and drape down the steep hillsides abound with blue and white domed churches, small and large. Santorini’s villages line the slopes and crest of an ancient volcano. The harbor is the caldera, and is unfathomably deep, descending to the interior of the earth. The island’s nickname is “the black pearl” of the Aegean due to its black lava islets and dark, volcanic soil. Colonized as early as 4,000 B.C., volcanic eruptions have continually buried its civilizations. The last partial eruption was in 1956. One village was almost completely demolished. Dramatically beautiful, with awe-inspiring sunsets, Santorini invites her inhabitants to live in the moment but to think for eternity.
The Extraordinary Persistence of Paul
Leaving the ship, some pilgrims flew home to America, while a small group continued on to Mt. Parnassus and Delphi, site of the Oracle of Apollo. The final stop of our odyssey was the Byzantine Monastery of Hosios Lukas. Exquisitely hidden and defended in a fertile draw on Mt. Helicon, built in the 10th and 11th centuries, it was another example of courageous men who forsook all to protect and preserve the Christian faith, keeping it alive for future generations. Such men were and are the spiritual descendants of Paul.
There is more to say concerning the ways in which for centuries, God had been preparing the Greeks for Paul’s arrival, preparing them to hear the Word, the ways in which He plowed the fields of Greek minds and hearts, making the soil ready for Paul to sow the seeds of the word. Additionally, there are so many ways to compare our world today with that of the Greeks at the time of Paul’s arrival. There are lessons from Paul that apply to our modern day. Those musings, however, must wait for another time.
For now, may we reflect upon the extraordinary persistence of Paul. May that persistence, and the fruit that followed, inspire us to “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15). By so doing, may we all journey safely home.
Painting by Charles DuPre DeAntonio