The Book of Acts, according to tradition, was written by the apostle Luke from his personal experiences and those of people he knew. There are, however, academics that believe another source of authorship should be considered, but that is not our focus at this time. Our study will concern chapter 16 of Acts, which includes a journey of Paul, Silas, and Timothy to Macedonia. First, let us learn a little background information.
Paul had neither required Gentile converts to be circumcised, nor become Jews first in order to be Christians, and this attitude evoked a lot of criticism. At a formal debate in Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-21), he testified about how much God had blessed him, then Peter, the leading apostle, stated that salvation was by grace alone, for both Jew and Gentile, therefore they should not have to live by Jewish law. James, brother of Jesus and ruling elder of the Jerusalem congregation, reinforced Peter’s argument by citing scriptural proof for God’s inclusion of the Gentiles.1
Although Paul, Peter, and James did not believe Gentiles had to be circumcised or live by Jewish law, still “there remained a problem of fellowship. Jewish Christians lived by the Jewish food laws and Gentile Christians did not. How could they sit together at the same table? James therefore proposed a solution which [only] asked the Gentile Christians to abstain from certain food and to maintain sexual purity.”2
It was agreed that everyone be instructed, either by letter or word of mouth, to give this information, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well,” (Acts 15:28-29, NRSV).3 Abstaining from blood refers to meat from which the blood had not been drained, which was forbidden to Jews.4
The apostles and elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to send out members (Acts 15:22) with this new information. During the journey, Paul received a vision of a man of Macedonia pleading “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” (Acts 16:9b). Now, Macedonia was a Roman senatorial province, roughly corresponding to northern Greece of today.5 Separating from the others, Paul, Silas, Timothy, and some followers headed in this new direction.
Paul meets Lydia in Macedonia
They arrived in Philippi, a major city of the district of Macedonia, which was a Roman colony, and they stayed there for several days. Philippi (now Fílippoi, Greece), of Mark Antony and Octavian fame, was a hillside town overlooking the coastal plain and bay at Neapolis.6
On the Sabbath, Paul and his followers visited a place of prayer by the river that they had heard about. Finding a group of women, Paul engaged one of them, Lydia, in conversation. “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul,” (Acts 16:14b). The result was that she and all her household, including servants, became baptized and she invited Paul and his followers to come stay at her home while in the city. A short video about Lydia’s conversion is put to song and a link can be found in References & Notes at the end of this article.7
Lydia was originally from the city of Thyatira,8 but now a local dealer in cloth colored with dye known as Tyrian purple. A dealer meant someone who sold goods, but others in the family may have been the manufacturers. Cloth of this color was very expensive and desirable and materials colored with it were popular with rich and powerful Romans, because owning them was a symbol of status. Processing this Tyrian purple was a labor intensive and time-consuming job (and a smelly one, too), as it required the dye to be extracted from the glands from thousands of decaying Murex shellfish (actually a marine snail) and then baked into the fabric. Such coloring could last for a hundred years and fabric of this color was listed along with other treasured assets, such as silver and gold.9 This occupation indicates Lydia had some wealth, as well as many business contacts between professionals and politicians.
Although her marital status is not mentioned, that is no reason to assume Lydia was unmarried or widowed. Being a successful business woman, she was quite capable of making her own decisions and maybe her husband was away on business obtaining the materials or manufacturing the dyes necessary for their products. Or maybe she was divorced; we just don’t know. What we do know is that at that particular time, she seemed to be completely in charge of her business and household and that she was capable of making quick decisions without having to consult a man, be it a husband, father, or brother.
Besides having a sociable personality, her home must have been relatively spacious to invite so many strangers to stay there. Although there was a ‘prayer house’10 for Jews in the city, the new Christian church may have assembled at her home for worship. As author Marg Mowczko wrote, “Lydia’s hospitality and her benefaction of Paul and his ministry required courage. Having a group of foreign men stay in her house, might potentially cause scandal. Hosting meetings where they worshiped a new Jewish messiah, and not an emperor or any of the ancient and respected pagan gods, could have ruined her reputation and her business.”11
Paul expels a demon and lands in jail.
While still in Philippi, the group of Paul, Silas, and Timothy meet a slave-girl possessed by a spirit with the power of foretelling the future and her owners enjoyed the money she brought them by charging for her information. Now, this demonized woman followed Paul and his companions, annoying them by crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” (Acts 16:17b). One may think that this should not be very annoying, but because of the “lack of Jewish influence in Philippi, [it] means that the crowd surrounding Paul would likely assume that the girl was speaking about Zeus as the chief god of the Greek Pantheon.”12
After a few days of harassment, Paul addressed the demon and ordered it out of the woman’s body and the spirit obeyed. Obviously, the owners were not pleased. (For an article about demonic possession, see References & Notes at the end of this study.)13 They dragged Paul and Silas to city authorities and told the magistrates what the men had done and added that they were Jews advocating unlawful customs.
Not knowing that they were Roman citizens, Paul and Silas were stripped and flogged, then thrown into prison. The jailer was instructed to keep them secure, so he “put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks,” (Acts 16:24). An interesting note is that the word ‘stocks’ (ξύλον, xulŏn), is the same word sometimes used for the cross; it literally means ‘timber’.14
At around the midnight hour, an earthquake occurred, “so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened,” (Acts 16:26). It was dark and, supposing that the prisoners had escaped, the jailer wanted to kill himself — why?
“According to Roman law, if a prisoner escaped, the jailer who had charge of him was compelled to suffer the penalty that was to have been inflicted on the prisoner. This accounts for the despair of the jailer in this case. He preferred death by his own hands to the death by torture, which probably was the fate awaiting some of the prisoners whom he thought had escaped.”15
After calling for a flame of light, the jailer found that Paul and Silas did not run off; that they were still inside and alive and uninjured, and he believed it to be a miracle of their god. “At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God,” (Acts 16:33-34).
The next day, while still in custody, the officials sent word to release them, but Paul refused saying, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves,” (Acts 16:37). His reasoning was that Roman law forbade the binding or beating of a Roman citizen.16 Upon hearing Paul’s demand and fearing Roman retribution, the magistrates personally apologized and requested that they leave.
Before departing the city of Philippi, they returned to Lydia’s home to say their farewell. Although his jail stay here was brief, by the end of his life, Paul would be well acquainted with prison life, for he wrote the books of Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians, and 2 Timothy while imprisoned.
The founding of a Christian congregation in this city was a miracle and the woman, Lydia, was instrumental in its establishment. “Philippi was a Roman colony and an important city in Macedonia, seen as the gate to Europe for trade and commerce, but when it came to the gospel moving into Europe it was a woman named Lydia who was the gateway.”17
Because all these events took place in what is now Europe, Lydia is considered the first European Christian convert.18 She was not distrustful or ashamed of the foreign strangers preaching of this unknown man named Jesus, either before or after their imprisonment, and she gladly invited them into her home. In spite of all her secular obligations, she found time to first worship God as a Jew then, after meeting with the journeying apostles, learn about Jesus and accept him as her savior.
Women sometimes seem to be just minor characters in the Book of Acts, but careful and critical interpretation “reveals that it is the women, not the apostles, who draw the focus in the passages in which they appear.”19 Although only a few lines tell her story, just the fact that she is mentioned by name is proof of her importance.
Copyright © 2019, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- Dockery, David S., (Ed.), Holman Bible Handbook, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), p. 650.
- Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Dockery, David S., (Ed.), Holman Bible Handbook, (see above).
- Toussaint, Stanley D., “Acts,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Ed. by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, p. 398.
- “Philippi,” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 6 November 2019), https://www.britannica.com/place/Philippi-Greece
- “Lydia’s Conversion,” music and lyrics by Col Johnson, from Our Gospel in Song Collection, uploaded 18 December 2017 – VIDEO, https://youtu.be/EHEaJY55YuU
- Note: Thyateira was the name of an ancient Greek city in Asia Minor, now the modern Turkish city of Akhisar. It is about 50 miles (80.5 km) from the Aegean Sea.
- Cartwright, Mark, “Tyrian Purple,” (Ancient History Encyclopedia, 21 July 2016), https://www.ancient.eu/Tyrian_Purple/
- Note: prayer house – Since no synagogue was mentioned, it is reasonable to believe that the Jewish population was small. By Jewish custom, a quorum of at least ten men was required to have a synagogue. A smaller prayer house would have served as a meeting place for the women, and possibly a few men.
- Mowczko, Marg, “Lydia of Thyatira: The founding member of the Philippian Church,” (Marg Mowczko: Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism, 30 November 2017), https://margmowczko.com/lydia-of-thyatira-philippi/#_ftn2
- Barry, John D., et al., Faithlife Study Bible, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Acts 16:17.
- Hermann, Ray, “What are Demons and the Nephilim? — and that Mayhem before the Flood of Noah?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 29 October 2019), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/what-are-demons-and-the-nephilim-and-that-mayhem-before-the-flood-of-noah/
- Vincent, Marvin Richardson, Word Studies in the New Testament, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), vol. 1, p. 534.
- Freeman, James M. and Chadwick, Harold J., Manners & Customs of the Bible, (North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998), p. 528.
- Ibid., p. 529.
- Saxton, Jo, “Lydia: A Bold Believer,” (CT Women, Christianity Today Newsletter, August 7, 2016), https://www.christianitytoday.com/women/devotions/2016/influence-your-world/lydia-bold-believer.html
- “Lydia of Thyatira,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 27 October 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_of_Thyatira
- Calpiino, Teresa, “Biblical Views: Tabitha and Lydia—Models of Early Christian Women Leaders,” (Biblical Archaeology Review, Biblical Archaeology Society), vol. 24, no. 4, July/August 2016, p. 20.