LYDIA: WILLING SERVICE

 

Week of May 21, 2006

 

Bible Passage:  Acts 16:11-15, 40; Philippians 1:3-11.

 

Biblical Truth:  Godly devotion reveals itself in willing service to God and His church.

 

Background: Lydia is best remembered as the original convert for the gospel in Europe. She was the first person on record ever to respond to the message of Christ during the apostle Paul’s original missionary journey into Europe. Ironically, however, Lydia herself was not European. Her name was also the name of a large Asian province, which was probably the region of her birth. Lydia’s actual hometown was the city of Thyatira which was home to one of the seven churches of Revelation [Revelation 2:18-29]. Significantly, Thyatira was located in the very region of Asia Minor where Luke tells us Paul, Silas and Timothy were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word [Acts 16:6]. God sovereignly led the missionary party into Europe by means of a dream in which a Macedonian man pleaded with Paul to come over to Macedonia and help us [Acts 16:9]. Macedonia, in those days, was the name of a Roman province that covered much of the upper peninsula of Greece, extending from the Adriatic to the Aegean. The area where Paul ministered lies in modern-day Greece. The ironies are many. Instead of reaching Lydia in the region she regarded as home, the gospel pursued her to Europe, where she was engaged in business. Although Paul saw a Macedonian man in his vision, an Asian woman became the first convert on record in Europe. Lydia was a remarkable woman who appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in the biblical narrative, reminding us that while God’s sovereign purposes usually remain hidden from our eyes, He is always at work in secret and surprising ways to call out a people for His name.

 

Get Started Now: 16:11-15.

 

[11] So putting out to sea from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and on the day following to Neapolis; [12] and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia, a Roman colony; and we were staying in this city for some days. [13] And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. [14] A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. [15] And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.  [NASU]

 

Lydia’s story is brief but compelling. It is told in just a few verses near the start of Luke’s narrative about the apostle Paul’s second missionary journey. This was an extended missionary trip whose description spans Acts 15:36-18:22. Paul’s main companions on that long journey were Silas and Timothy. Luke apparently joined them just before they crossed the narrow strait from Troas (in Asia Minor) into Macedonia (entering Europe). Luke’s enlistment in the missionary team was signaled by an abrupt change to second-person pronouns, starting in Acts 16:10. From that point on, Luke wrote as an eyewitness. It was at that very point Lydia’s story came into play. The sovereign hand of God’s providential guidance was evident to Paul’s entire group. Luke didn’t explain all the circumstances, but by some means they had been forbidden by the Spirit of God to journey into the heart of Asia Minor. Every other door of ministry in Asia was also closed to them [16:6-8]. That’s when Paul received a revelation calling him across to the European continent. God had made it perfectly clear to all that there was just one way ahead: Macedonia.

 

Paul’s normal evangelistic strategy was to take the gospel first to the local synagogue, because if he went to the Gentiles first, the Jews would never listen to anything he had to say. Philippi, however, was a thoroughly Gentile town with no synagogue. There were a few Jews in Philippi, but not enough to support a synagogue. In order to start a synagogue in any community, Jewish custom required a quorum of at least ten Jewish men. According to the tradition, in communities without synagogues, Jewish women could pray together in groups if they liked. But men had to form a legitimate synagogue before they could partake in any kind of formal, public, communal worship – including prayer, the reading of the Torah, or the giving of public blessings. Paul and his group learned the place where Jewish women gathered to pray on the Sabbath, and they went there to meet with them. Apparently, the small group of women who gathered there constituted the only public gathering of Jews anywhere in Philippi on a typical Sabbath day.

 

Ironically, the one woman who responded most eagerly was not Jewish at all. Lydia was a Gentile, an active seeker of the true God who had not yet become a formal Jewish proselyte. She was a businesswoman who sold purple dye and fancy purple cloth, manufactured by a famous guild in her hometown of Thyatira. The mention of a household in Acts 16:15 would indicate that she maintained a home in Philippi, most likely with household servants. All of this confirms that she was a wealthy woman.

 

Luke recorded that Lydia was listening [Acts 16:14]. He used a Greek word that meant she was listening intently. She did not merely absorb the sound, but she was carefully attentive to the meaning of the words. She listened with rapt attention and understanding as Paul and his companions explained the gospel message. Her heart was truly open. She was a genuine seeker of God. But notice Luke’s whole point: it was not that Lydia opened her own heart and ears to the truth. Yes, she was seeking, but even that was because God was drawing her. She was listening, but it was God who gave her ears to hear. She had an open heart, but it was God who opened her heart. Luke expressly affirms the sovereignty of God in Lydia’s salvation: The Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul [16:14].

 

A lot of people struggle to come to grips with this truth. It is a difficult idea. But if it were not for God’s sovereign work drawing and opening the hearts of sinners to believe, no one would ever be saved. This is the very thing Paul has in mind in Ephesians 2, after stressing the utter spiritual deadness of sinners, when he says salvation is a gift of God [Eph. 2:8-9]. All believers, like Lydia, must confess that it was God who first opened our hearts to believe. The language is significant. A lot of people imagine that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty has Him somehow forcing people against their wills to believe. Grace doesn’t push sinners against their wills toward Christ; it draws them willingly to Him – by first opening their hearts. It enables them to see their sin for what it is and empowers them to despise what they formerly loved. It also equips them to see Christ for who He truly is. Someone whose heart has been opened like that will inevitably find Christ Himself irresistible. Luke’s description of Lydia’s conversion captures it beautifully. The Lord simply opened her heart to believe – and she did. God’s sovereign hand is seen clearly in every aspect of Luke’s account. The Lord clearly orchestrated the circumstances that brought Paul to Macedonia. It was a similar providence that brought Lydia there and drew her to the riverside on a Sabbath morning with a seeking heart. It was the Spirit of God who sovereignly opened her heart, gave her spiritual ears to hear, and gave her spiritual eyes to see the irresistible appeal of Christ. For her part, she responded instantly. God’s sovereignty does not leave the sinner out of the process. Lydia heard and heeded. She willingly embraced the truth of the gospel and became a believer that very morning. Lydia’s faith immediately was evident in her actions. Lydia was quick to show hospitality to the missionaries. According to Luke, she begged them to be her guests. Moreover, the real cost to Lydia was potentially much higher than the monetary value of room and board for a group of missionaries. Remember that Philippi was where Paul and Silas were beaten badly, thrown in jail, and clamped in stocks. They were ultimately freed by a miraculous earthquake, and the jailer and all his household became Christians in the process. But if preaching the gospel was deemed a jailable offense, Lydia was exposing herself to possible trouble – a loss of business, bad will in the community, and even a prison sentence for herself – by housing these strangers and thus giving them a base from which to evangelize.

 

Partner with Other Believers: 16:40; Phil. 1:3-8.

 

[40] They went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed. [Phil. 1:3] I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, [4] always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, [5] in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. [6] For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. [7] For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. [8] For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.   [NASU]

After the conversion of the jailer, when Paul and Silas were finally freed, they went back to the house of Lydia where Luke says that when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed. This indicates that they had been in Philippi long enough to found a fledgling church. Apparently, a number of people had responded to the gospel. Naturally, their first meeting place was Lydia’s home. By opening her home to the apostle Paul, Lydia had the honor of hosting in her own home the earliest meetings of the first church ever established in Europe. She gained that honor for herself by showing such warm hospitality to this team of missionaries whom she barely knew. She epitomized the kind of hospitality Scripture demands of all Christians.

The verb translated I thank my God contains the idea of thanksgiving. All of verses 3-8 modify that one main verb. Verses 9-11 express Paul’s more specific petition. These verses contain one long sentence in Greek. In verses 3-8, Paul is dealing with thanksgiving to God on behalf of the Philippians. In verses 3-5, we see that his thanksgiving was joyful and expressed in a prayer. The basis of his joy was their participation in the Gospel. The word translated participation is the Greek word for fellowship which is a major theme of this letter. It referred to the believers’ involvement with Paul by sending a gift to support his work and spread the Gospel. In verse 6, Paul tells us that his thanksgiving was confident. This confidence was based on the working of God in their midst, not in his own ability or persuasiveness: He who began a good work in you will perfect it. Paul saw the Philippians’ generosity as evidence of the grace of God in their lives. Their giving evidenced the maturity of their thought and action. Paul makes two emphases: sanctification was an ongoing process and the process would continue to the end of the age. Paul gives three reasons for his attitude of thankfulness in verses 7-8. First, he has them in his heart. Second, they are partakers of grace, meaning that they are sharing in his apostolic ministry. And third, the deep affection that he has for them. Long and affection indicate strong emotions that Paul has for them.

 

Do What Really Matters: Phil. 1:9-11.

 

[9] And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, [10] so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; [11] having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.   [NASU]

 

These verses give us Paul’s specific prayer which consists of two petitions. First, Paul prays that their love may abound. For Paul, love emphasized the self-sacrificial love of Christ. Paul prayed for their Christlike attitude of self-sacrifice to continue as it had been demonstrated earlier in their giving. The dynamic growth of love is presented in two ways. First, the verb abound, which means to be present in abundance, occurs in the most dynamic of expressions possible. Their love was to keep on abounding. Second, the adverbial expression more and more stresses the dynamic of love. The expression builds layer upon layer. After describing the nature of this growing love, Paul goes on in the latter part of verse 9 to describe the proper environment of a growing love. A growing love abounds in real knowledge and all discernment. Thus love has the ability to apply what is known to the practical aspects of life. It has the depth of insight, the moral discretion and the correct judgment in order to do the “loving” thing. Paul’s thought here is that there are countless decisions in life where it is not a question of making a straight-forward decision between right and wrong. What you need is the extraordinary discernment that helps you perceive how things differ, and then make the best possible choice. These two terms, knowledge and discernment, provide a collective environment which fosters growth in love. Knowing and living go hand in hand. Failure in either area hinders the growth of love. In the first part of verse 10, Paul explains the result (so that) of a growing love. These excellent things are nothing less than all the elements characteristic of maturing Christian discipleship, and we cannot discern and approve them unless our lives abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight. Approve has the meaning of test by trial, and the term excellent emphasizes the result of that testing. The words suggest the ability to discern moral conduct and values so that life and energy are not misdirected. A growing love, fed by proper knowledge and moral insight, enables one to see the best way to live in light of the day of Christ.

 

Paul’s second petition is for complete character [10b-11]. This mature character consists of being sincere and blameless which is produced by the fruit of righteousness. Paul is praying that the Philippians live in such a way that Christ can work in them the harvest of morality and righteousness which would be acceptable at the day of Christ. Paul is making a comparison here between a tree and our Christian lives. Just as a living, active tree will be full of fruit that agrees with its nature so we should be full of the fruit of righteousness which comes through Christ. The ultimate goal of Paul’s prayer is the glory and praise of God. Our abounding in love, our growing in real knowledge and discernment, our approving things that are excellent, our sincerity and blamelessness; our being filled with the fruit of righteousness are all for the purpose of bringing glory and praise to our God.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.   Describe Lydia’s conversion. How do you see God at work controlling the circumstances in order to bring the Gospel to Lydia at the right time for her to have her heart opened in order to respond in saving faith? How was this true in your own conversion?

 

2.   Why is it important for love to abound in true knowledge and all discernment? What happens to love when these elements are missing? How can you pursue greater knowledge and discernment?

 

3.   Examine the content of Paul’s prayer (compare also Ephesians 1:15-21 and Colossians 1:9-12). Compare Paul’s prayer with your own prayers for others. What are the differences? Why do these differences exist? What percentage of your praying is for things of eternal value? What can we learn from these prayers to help us to pray?

 

References:

Twelve Extraordinary Women, John MacArthur, Nelson Books.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter-Varsity Press.

Philippians, Richard R. Melick, Jr., NAC, Broadman.