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. Acts 16:14
Several of Paul’s teachings are not popular in the church world today, particularly regarding women and church office (I Cor. 14:34; I Tim. 2:11-12). Any issues one may have with Paul’s instruction regarding the role of women in the church simply reveals a lack of understanding of the inspiration of holy Scripture. As an apostle, Paul’s message was the Holy Spirit’s message; therefore, we may not play multiple choice with the inspired writings of any apostle. Scripture reveals God’s clear and wise design regarding the role of women in the church, and yet repeatedly declares the gospel message that men and women are spiritually equal through the purchased blood of Christ.
Paul was no male chauvinist; rather, he consistently expressed his belief in the value and importance of women in support of the gospel ministry. The New Testament gives many examples of prominent, selfless, and spiritual women whom the Lord used in the spread of the gospel (Acts 18:2; Rom. 16:1-2; II Cor. 1:11; Phile. 2; II Tim. 1:15). These women played a vital role in the growth of the early church.
Paul’s first missionary journey led him to establish church communities on Cyprus, then in Pamphylia and Galatia. Each time he was led by the Spirit to the synagogues in order to reason with a mostly Jewish audience. Reactions were mixed, sometimes violent; yet, God blessed the work of the missionaries and planted churches in those areas.
When the second missionary journey brought Paul to a crossroads, he was led away by the Spirit through the vision of the Macedonian man from Asia to Europe (Acts 16:6). Unchanging to this day is that the Aegean Sea separates Europe and Asia; therefore, Paul, along with Silas, Timothy, and Luke, were led into Europe to a Roman colony in Macedonia. Philippi was a city known more for military influence than for being a commercial boomtown like the nearby capital, Thessalonica.
There was no synagogue in Philippi; therefore, no passionate appeals to the crucified and risen Christ to Jewish males were given. Clearly Jews were hated and despised in Philippi, as was evident later when Paul and Silas were flogged and thrown in prison after exorcising the demon of the slave girl (Acts 16:16-18). As magistrates of a Roman colony (18:2), the accusers of Paul and Silas emphasized their Jewish nationality (16:20), revealing their hatred.1
And so at the outset the missionaries were directed not to a synagogue, but to the riverside. There they found a group of women in prayer, and engaged them in the message of the gospel. Luke writes that a woman named Lydia “heard us,” and “attended unto the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14).
Lydia was the first fruits of God’s work through Paul in the first century, but not the first Christian in Europe. There was a Christian community in Rome prior to Paul’s entrance into Macedonia (Acts 2:10; Rom. 16). Nonetheless, there is significance in the fact that Lydia was Paul’s first contact in Macedonia, hence the first convert in Roman Europe through Paul’s labors.
The significance of this is found in a present reality. Consider the testimony of Scripture in bringing the gospel to Europe in light of your own family history. In God’s providence, in the early AD 50s, Paul and his companions were led to a group of women, soon to be a church plant in Philippi. Not much distinguished Europe and Asia in the Roman world; yet, the gospel of the risen Lord was brought to this continent and spread like wildfire. As Reformed Christians today, we recite our gratitude for the time of the Protestant Reformation; yet, we can look back with thanks another sixteen centuries to the time when Gentiles first received the gospel.
Here we stand, in the twenty-first century, as God’s people living throughout the world, richly blessed by the spread of the gospel to our land, wherever that is, through our ancestors from all directions (Is. 43:5-6). All of this, the unfolding of God’s covenant plan in history. Nothing left by chance, but a firm promise to gather them out of all countries, and yet maintain the covenant formula: “I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Jer. 32:37-38).
And its early beginnings are with a seller of purple, originally from Thyatira, and a God-worshiper.
Thyatira was located in Asia Minor, and was known for its purple-dying industry, a fascinating process involving precious dyes from the murex shellfish. These shells were crushed, loaded with salt, and then left in the sun so that the secretion would turn purple.2 The dye was then worked into textiles, primarily as clothing for royalty and as draperies in idol temples.
Few women at this time would choose to sustain a prominent business; therefore, Lydia was likely a widow, carrying on her husband’s trade.3 Because of this, Lydia needed resolve and commitment for her work in textiles. In a culture when many women were given fewer rights than men, Lydia was successful in the business world, and she managed her household well.
Lydia learned her craft in Thyatira, but at some point packed up her business and transferred to the region of Macedonia, also known for being rich in textiles. What motivated her to relocate is unknown; however, in Macedonia women did have a greater prominence and role in public affairs, coinciding with their important spiritual role in the Macedonian churches.4
Interestingly, however, the city of Thyatira, Lydia’s original residence and one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2:18-29, was once the capital of an ancient region known as Lydia. The Lydian region, holding influence from around 1200- 546 B.C., is referenced twice in the Old Testament (Jer. 46:9; Ezek. 30:5). Not surprisingly, the context of these passages is the judgment of Jehovah on the heathen nations. Lydia from Lydia is certainly a coincidence, but significant in that the Lord called her out of darkness into light, through His grace.
And God used her past to prepare her for work in His church. Unlike Philippi, Thyatira had a large Jewish population which undoubtedly influenced Lydia to become a God-worshiper. Some Gentiles, like Lydia, were attracted to the Jewish belief in one God and their strong moral compass. However, the term proselyte described a stricter group of such Gentiles who united themselves fully with the people of Israel. Lydia likely falls into the second class of Gentiles of this similar sort, often referred to in the book of Acts as devout, God-fearers, or God-worshipers. These men and women had not become full Jews, but had accepted many of the teachings of Judaism.5
This was no doubt what led Lydia to “attend unto the things spoken by Paul.” What governed her desire to listen to the missionaries is what the Lord had already done for her, for the phrase that directly precedes this truth is that Lydia is described as one “whose heart the Lord opened” (Acts 16:14). How absurd that some would deny Scripture’s clear teaching on the work of sovereign grace in the hearts of His elect people! No hint in the verse of any foreknowledge that she would open her heart herself.
But God did that for her. He changed her heart, and opened her eyes to the beautiful reality of the death and resurrection of Christ. For her.
How fitting, then, for a woman whose name means “beautiful one.”
She was indeed beautiful. But do not merely imagine a woman named Lydia who sold beautiful purple garments, and donned them to expand her business (Prov. 31:22). Rather, picture the virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31:30, “Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.” Lydia’s beauty was inward, for the Lord graciously and powerfully changed her heart.
Therefore, as a sign and seal of the Lord’s beautiful work in that heart, Lydia was baptized with her household (Acts 16:15). This is the first example in Paul’s ministry of a household salvation, but many others are recorded (Acts 16:33; Rom. 16:10-11; I Cor. 1:11; 1:16, 16:19; Phile. 2). In Philippi, Lydia’s household received the sacrament confirming what the Lord had done for them through Christ. This led her to reply, “If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there” (Acts 16:15). Of this Paul and his companions were “constrained” (or persuaded), and accepted the invitation as a place of lodging, hospitality, and comfort (16:40).
Paul was hesitant to accept the invitation because he did not want to give the impression that he was using the gospel message for any personal advantage.6 This was one of the reasons he labored as a tent-maker, to remain unburdened on the churches. No prosperity gospel here, for that would be another gospel. His desire was to remain blameless in preaching Christ crucified, so God used Lydia’s hospitality to supply the needs of the missionaries (II Cor. 11:8-9).
Therefore, hospitality was an important aspect of the New Testament age. The word literally means “a love for strangers,” and that was certainly what motivated Lydia. She recognized that expressing a love for the missionaries was an expression of love for the One who sent the missionaries. This concept of hospitality was so important (as it is today) that it is recorded in Paul’s pastoral letters as a qualification for officebearers (I Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:8). Lydia’s genuine desire was to show the love of Christ to God’s servants.
So, as the Lord opened Lydia’s heart, she opened her home to Paul and his companions. And in the midst of this hospitality, and through the Lord’s gracious work, she desired to “attend unto the things spoken of Paul.”
What things? Twenty years earlier, Martha had the experience of being admonished by the Lord to pause, listen, and desire the one thing that was more important than anything else to be done in the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42). She was instructed to hear the Son of man speak the beautiful truth of God’s loving relationship established with her. And the fulfillment of that love sat right in the living room!
“One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). That was Lydia’s desire—to behold His beauty!—as one who was declared beautiful in His sight. No rebuke for Lydia by the riverside, for her priority was a longing to hear the gospel message as one of the Lord’s chosen, and nothing could take this personal reality from her. What a beautiful truth!
This salvation worked in her the spiritual desire to carry out her calling willingly, to work with her hands, to rise when it was yet night, to bring meat to her household, to gird her loins with strength, to stretch her hands to the poor, to make fine linen and sell it, and to open her mouth with wisdom and kindness (Prov. 31).
Her good works flowed out of the work of God’s grace in her heart, revealing her gifts of spirituality, hospitality, and industry.
Great in man’s eyes was the Roman colony of Philippi, but greater was the work of God in the heart of Lydia. Only He opens the heart and turns us, when by nature we will not be turned. What beautiful, regenerating grace, flowing from the mountaintop of God’s goodness.
And that goodness comes to each of His people, for God’s census calls each one of us by name.
Lydia may mean “beautiful one,” but all of our names are beautiful because they are written in God’s eternal book of life. Every name, because of the One who wore the purple robe, endured shame and death, and emptied Himself of all dignity—for us. “And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe, and said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands” (John 19:2-3).
Is your name not beautiful?
Are you not beautiful, like Lydia, as one who has been numbered with the One who has a name above all other names?
For as you stand before Jehovah God on the judgment day, He will declare to you face to face what He declared in all eternity: “You are beautiful and righteous. Regality is yours because of the death and resurrection of my dear Son. Wear the kingly robe for all eternity, and enter into my rest.”
“Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house; So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him” (Ps. 45:10-11).
Lydia’s purple garments: worn with the stain of sin in this life, but transformed into a robe of righteousness. For she was a daughter of the King.
1 Louis Berkhof, Introduction to the New Testament (Oxford: Benediction Classics, 2009), 160.
2 Ralph Gower, Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1987), 162.
3 Francis VanderVelde, Women of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1957), 236-237.
4 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 58.
5 J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 41-42.
6 Don Doezema, Upon This Rock, Vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, MI: Protestant Reformed Sunday School Teachers Association, 2003), 227.