We meet Lydia in the book of Acts. Her meeting Paul on the riverbank outside of her town could be described as a “random” encounter or divinely appointed one. We’re not privy to the details of her early life but we discover that she worships God and follows godly principles in managing her household. Most importantly, God opens her heart to hearing and receiving the good news of Jesus. She embraces her new life in Christ, confidently becoming a member of this new faith community.
Background: Lydia claims her place in the Christian community
Lydia is introduced in the book of Acts, chapter 16 when she meets the apostle Paul during his trip to Europe with Silas and other disciples of Jesus. She’s described as a “dealer in purple” from Thyatira, a Greek city known for its trade in purple cloth. Further, Lydia is a worshiper of God, having adopted the Jewish faith though technically a Gentile.
Paul and Silas encounter Lydia at a community meeting place for prayer, along a riverbank outside of Philippi, also a Greek city and a Roman colony. Prior to this encounter, the apostles had been led away from Asia to Europe by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13 and Acts 16:6). While they’re in Thyatira, they go where people gather. There, they speak with a group of women, which includes Lydia, who becomes a Christian. She and her entire household are baptized, publicly acknowledging their faith as well as illustrating Lydia’s influence on her family and employees.
Soon after her conversion, Lydia claims her place among the Christian community, inviting Paul and Silas to her home. She persuades them by saying “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and stay.” Several days later, Lydia welcomes Paul and Silas to her home again, after their imprisonment for casting out a demon in a servant girl.
Historical sources suggest that Lydia is Europe’s first convert to Christianity. In addition, she was likely instrumental in founding the church at Philippi, which Paul addresses in his letter to the Philippians. The idea that she started the church comes partly from the mention of her name in the Bible, rather than a nonspecific reference such as “the woman on the riverbank” or “a God-fearing woman from Greece.” Further, Paul and his companions spend time at her house, which gave them the opportunity to provide instruction to Lydia. She appears to learn quickly. In addition, her confidence, wealth, and generosity equip her with the means and desire to organize a faith community.
Lessons and How-To: Being part of a community is a privilege and responsibility
I’m fascinated by Lydia, mainly because she convinces Paul and Silas to accept her hospitality. I speculate that there may have been initial resistance from the disciples because she argues that “if” she’s judged faithful, “then” the logical response is a visit. She may have combined her effectiveness as a confident businessperson requiring selling and negotiating skills with lessons from Paul’s reasoned, persuasive presentation of the good news about Jesus.
What’s possibly more important than this conversational exchange is Lydia’s understanding that she’s now part of the Christian community — with the right and privilege to expect visitors and obligation to take care of them. She realizes that she’s an integral part of a faith family in which all members have rights and no one is marginalized. Further, the Holy Spirit may have convinced Paul to accept her invitation; being open and responsive to this prompting often plays a role to welcoming others to the community.
Lydia bears similarities to the Proverbs 31 woman, also a dealer in purple cloth. Certainly, they are both savvy businesswomen. But just as significant, they honor God with their business practices. They grasp the importance of recognizing their own worth and treating people in their household and community well. They trust that God’s ways are best for them and their communities.
Studying Lydia gives me ideas on how she thrived and what I can learn from her. Here are a few more lessons from her life:
Lydia takes initiative and makes sound decisions promptly, influenced and guided by the Holy Spirit.
The sixteenth chapter of Acts offers examples of her willingness to take action. She moves to a new city (Thyatira to Philippi), possibly because of a more vibrant trade compared to her hometown. While there, she shows up at the gathering place of the people of God, despite not having been born into this religious tradition. She invites Paul and his companions to her home.
Soon after Lydia hears and accepts the gospel message, she and her household are baptized. It’s unclear whether her entire household accompanied her to the gathering place and heard Paul’s talk or whether Lydia shared with everyone in her home. Either way, she seems to have influence over other people, which she exercises in a positive way.
Pursue deep understanding
I’m making an educated guess that Lydia pursues deep understanding because her business and household run effectively. She generates enough income to offer hospitality on the spot after her first meeting with Paul and, again, spontaneously when Paul and Silas are released from prison. Further, Lydia grasps Jesus’s role in reconciling the people to God and each other. Her knowledge and insights equip her to act quickly, smartly, and confidently.
Lydia’s confidence seems to blossom naturally and grow as a result of her relationship with God. Again, she runs a business and household successfully, travels to the riverbank to pray boldly, and speaks persuasively.
She’s both confident in and reliant on God. Her confidence appears to be a gift of God. This assuredness continues to grow as she witnesses how treating all people well regardless of status can build a thriving community.
Reflections: Lydia’s expression of community is replicated in the church’s DNA
When I read about the church at Philippi in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I get a sense of Lydia’s confidence and generosity that infused this community of faith. I mention these characteristics because I’m reminded of a point made by Mike Slaughter at a conference I attended many years ago. He said that when we look at the faces of the people on our church councils, we see the future of the church. In other words, the church becomes like the people who are selected for its leadership so it’s important to choose (and lead) wisely.
Here are a few excerpts from Philippians that show how Lydia’s personality may be reflected in the church at Philippi:
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and servants: Grace to you, and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God whenever I remember you, always in every request of mine on behalf of you all making my requests with joy, for your partnership in furtherance of the Good News from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 4:1-6 (WEB)
Paul writes of the church’s partnership in spreading the Good News. Lydia takes her partnership with Paul and her fellow believers seriously. She desires to be part of the community as early as her conversion and extends her resources to Paul and Silas when trouble comes to the apostles just days later.
In addition, Paul expresses confidence in God’s work. The contagiousness of Lydia’s confidence bears witness to God’s activity in her life and encourages others as they pursue maturity in Christ.
This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that you may approve the things that are excellent; that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 4:9-11 (WEB)
This passage reinforces the concept that applying knowledge and discernment is compatible with and supportive of expressing love of God and community members. Similarly, Lydia’s story indicates that engaging our intellect and godly wisdom can be beneficial to furthering our spiritual growth and bringing glory to God.
However you did well that you shared in my affliction. You yourselves also know, you Philippians, that in the beginning of the Good News, when I departed from Macedonia, no assembly shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent once and again to my need. Not that I seek for the gift, but I seek for the fruit that increases to your account. But I have all things, and abound. I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the things that came from you, a sweet-smelling fragrance, an acceptable and well-pleasing sacrifice to God.” Philippians 4:14-18 (WEB)
In this passage, we learn that the Philippians were the only ones who gave to Paul at this time in his ministry. Lydia’s generosity to Paul and Silas after their first meeting and release from prison syncs with the church’s generosity during Paul’s imprisonment. Perhaps this particular group of people recognized the injustice more than others; they may have also been influenced by Lydia’s ties to Paul and her desire to support him and his ministry financially.
Lydia in Acts offers a portrait of a godly woman embracing Christian community. She responds to God’s call on her life and influences her church through her faithfulness, boldness in claiming her position as a fellow believer, fair treatment of all people, generosity, and pursuit of growth to maturity. Her confidence in God helps to spread the faith and build up the Christian community.