The Work in Philippi: Part 2 of 14
by John Lowe
The “place of prayer” was by a small river, probably the Gangas (or, Gangites), which lies about a mile and a quarter from the city gates. The Romans were sometimes uneasy about foreign cults. Judaism was a recognized religion; but perhaps because there was no formally constituted synagogue, the women had to meet outside the city6. If there were no Jews present and all the women were Gentile “God-fearers” like Lydia, this may have made their gathering even more suspect in the city. In any event, the gathering of women was the closest thing to a synagogue at Philippi. An unofficial group met by the river to engage in prayer each Sabbath day. Paul made for this place on the banks of the Ganges River. We can picture the courteous introduction as Paul introduced himself and Silas, who being from Jerusalem would command a special interest. Then there were Timothy and Luke. The women would look curiously at Luke especially if he was obviously a Greek. Paul would have taken the posture a speaker assumed in a synagogue, sitting down, to address the women. Most likely the event took place in the open air beside the river. So, this was Paul’s first congregation in Philippi. Not a very promising one! All women and no men; no building to meet in; no prestige or influence in the city to count on. Nevertheless, it grew into one of the strongest, most generous of all the churches that Paul founded. It can be assumed that Lydia played a large part in its growth and development. If considering the small regard ancient Jews had for women as people to be taught, we are again reminded of how important a part women played in the story of Acts by comparison.
Before long the little group by the river would be held enthralled as Paul told them the story of Jesus. It was possibly only a small congregation. But here was an outpost of the empire to be stormed and taken for the kingdom of God. Paul never turned down an opportunity to present the gospel, however small and unpromising it might at first appear. Small things can grow into big things.
So Paul set about his first European conquest. It might not have been as large as he would have liked, but it would at least be a bridgehead on the mainland, and once secured, it could be enlarged.
14 And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.
And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira
Among the women gathered there, one stood out. Her name was Lydia (Her name means “woman of Lydia.”), the same name as the ancient territory in which her native city of Thyatira was located. She is described as a dealer in goods dyed purple, a likely occupation since Thyatira was indeed a center of the purple dye trade. Lydia’s business is not an incidental detail. It marks her as a person of means. Purple goods were expensive and often associated with royalty; thus the business was a lucrative one7. This capable woman was captivated by Paul’s message.
Which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.
Lydia above all was a deeply religious person. She had been drawn to the Jewish community because she found there an oasis in the midst of the spiritual and moral drought that prevailed elsewhere. Paul shared the Word (“spoken,” as it is used here means personal conversion, not preaching). God opened her heart to the truth, and she believed and was saved. This is another proof of the sovereignty of God in salvation. God chooses man for salvation, not the other way around (John 6:65; Ephesians 1:29; Colossians 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:13).
Lydia warmed to the story of Jesus. It rang true in her soul. It struck a responsive chord. It was the truth for which she had been searching, and her thirsty soul drank it in. In her hometown of Thyatira, she had responded to such truth as could be found in the synagogue, but it was incomplete and often inconsistent. The story of Jesus was the answer. All the precepts and prophecies found their terminus in Him. Her heart, which the Lord opened (Luke 24:45), went out to Him. This must always be the case. Without in any way diminishing the importance of repentance and faith and of preaching the faith of Christ, there can be no life in Christ unless the gospel comes “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).(Also see Ephesians 1:18). But Luke mentions it now perhaps to show that just as God had called them to this work, so he confirmed that calling by working with them—“On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). They had all “spoken to the woman” (v. 13), but Luke attributes Lydia’s conversion, insofar as it laid in human hands, to Paul, who was no doubt the chief speaker. The Spirit of God bore witness with her spirit. She listened earnestly to Paul’s words, and her whole soul responded with a glad “yes” to the gospel. She was both ready and responsive to the message.
Lydia was a “worshipper of God” (16:14), one of those devout Gentiles like Cornelius who believed in God but had not become a full convert to Judaism. There was an extensive Jewish community at Thyatira and she had perhaps first come to her faith in God there. As he had with Cornelius, God responded to her faith and “opened her heart” to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ which Paul proclaims. As always with divine grace, it was God’s Spirit moving in her heart that led to faith. The first convert which Paul made in Europe was a woman of Asia, a Jewish proselyte, perhaps, or a woman of true Jewish blood who had been born in Thyatira.
Paul spoke to that assembly of women, and that is a fascinating fact. Paul was a Pharisee who, through the long years of his early life, had daily repeated such words as these: “O God, I thank Thee that I am neither Gentile, nor slave, nor woman.” The man who wrote: “in Christ there is neither jew nor Gentile, bond nor free, male nor female,” (Galatians 3:28), thus contradicted the false view of the thanksgiving that had passed his lips for years. He now abandoned the Jewish and Pharisaic contempt for a woman. The apostle of Jesus Christ found no man in the place of prayer, but the old contempt had gone, and he spoke to the women assembled there. He dared to do so because the Gospel had changed his intellectual conception and entirely transformed him.
15 And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us.
And when she was baptized. . .
She not only believed, she boldly identified herself with Christ by being baptized—maybe then and there. One can well imagine the curious crowd that gathered quickly enough when they saw this well-dressed and obviously well-to-do woman step down into the river along with Paul or whoever it was who performed the actual ceremony. We can believe, too, that Paul lost no time in explaining to the onlookers what was happening and why. Lydia doubtless gave her own word of testimony, too. What an occasion a baptism should be to tell the world of One who died that we might die in Him, and be raised in Him to newness of life.
. . . and her household
Lydia’s testimony and example emboldened others, notably her own servants and dependents, to make a similar confession of their faith and submit to being baptized, so it was a good opportunity for Paul and his associates to teach them the Word and establish a local church. We can be quite sure that Paul would not consent to the baptism of any who did not have a clear-cut testimony for Christ. But it was Lydia’s bold step that prompted the public response by her attendants. Often one person standing up fearlessly for Christ will encourage others to do the same by the sheer force of example.
. . . .she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us.
A little time must have elapsed, enough anyway for Paul and Silas and the others to see that Lydia’s conversion was genuine, that her public testimony was continuing, and that her character and reputation were beyond reproach. There is no hint that Lydia was married. It would have been a reckless thing for four men to have taken up residence in a woman’s home were not her credentials above question. Such a move could have stained both her and them. The town gossips would soon have been busy, and we are to avoid even the appearance of evil. We can be sure that Paul carefully evaluated Lydia’s kind offer of hospitality before accepting it. She, too, was aware of the damage scandalmongers could do.