Lydia, the mysterious woman who sells purple dye... is she really that mysterious? What is so important about her that she is included in scripture? Lydia is discussed in Acts 16. I suggest reading the whole chapter, as the context matters. Lydia, herself, is in the middle of the chapter and the end. Believe it or not, even though there is very little written about her, there are many theological debates about her! So let's dive in and see what the Bible says.
The chapter starts off with Timothy joining Paul and Silas on a missionary journey (Luke was also with them in order to record what was happening). What's a missionary journey? Basically, travelling with the sole intent of telling others about Jesus. That is what these three men were doing. Now, we are told that the Holy Spirit forbade them from preaching the word in Asia. So the first part of their journey was not one of preaching. We also see that when they tried to go north, the Holy Spirit forbade that too. So they ended up in Troas, by the Aegean Sea. It was here that the Holy Spirit gave Paul a vision and they headed to Macedonia. After a stop on an island, and then coming into port, they ended up in Philippi. This is where they meet Lydia.
We can see on the map, that these men had to travel a long way without preaching the word. They started in Antioch (right side of map, above the word SYRIA). Follow the red link all the way to Mediterranean Sea and you will see they had to travel quite a ways without preaching. Keep in mind, this is the purpose of a missionary journey, to preach. And they basically travelled the width of Modern-day Turkey without doing it! They literally went AT LEAST 785 miles on a missionary journey and didn't preach the word of God! And it wasn't even the quick, most direct way! They also attempted to go North, and the Holy Spirit forbade that as well. It wasn't until they reached Troas (south of the famed city of Troy) that Paul received a vision/dream that they needed to head to Macedonia. So they stopped at Samothrace (an island) and landed in the port city of Neapolis. From there it was a ten mile walk to Philippi.
So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
Following their decision to stay with Lydia, the men come upon a slave girl who was possessed and God worked through them to free her from that oppression. This made her owners mad, as she made them lots of money through divination (fortune telling), so they had Paul and Silas beaten, put into prison, and placed in the stocks. They were miraculously saved from prison (you should definitely read about it) and the jailer became a believer.
So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
That's it! That's all scripture says about this woman Lydia. But there are some things that we can infer based on what we know in the Bible, what we know of geography and history, and what we know of customs from this time period.
What We Know From Scripture:
- Lydia is from Thyatira. This city is also mentioned in the book of Revelation. (Revelation 2:18-29)
- Lydia was a business woman who came to Philippi to sell purple-dyed goods.
- Lydia was observing Sabbath with other women.
- These women were praying by the river.
- Lydia was a worshipper of God, but not a worshipper of Jesus.
- The Lord opened her heart so that she could hear Paul.
- She was baptized, as was her household.
- She pressed upon the men to stay at her house and they did.
- The men made it a point to visit Lydia when they got out of prison.
What We Know From Extra-Biblical Sources (sources outside of the Bible):
- Thyatira is in Asia (the place Paul, Silas, and Timothy were forbidden to preach the word), which is modern-day Turkey. It is also in a region named "Lydia," so it is likely that Lydia was named after the region (this is a normal practice). This city is also known for its textiles.
- Five of the seven churches in Revelation are in the region of Lydia (Ephesus, Smyrna, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia).
- There has been a Jewish presence there for a long time. It is possible that the Lydians were of Jewish origin, although it cannot be certain. At the very least, they had a strong Jewish population throughout most of their history.
- Troas is south of the site of the Trojan War. Romans believed that they descended from the Trojans, so this was a city that garnered respect as it was the modern-day Troy for them. Also, it was the known boundary between Europe and Asia (both in mythology and in history)
- Purple dyed goods were very expensive and usually only the wealthy owned them. This is why it is the color of royalty.
- Scholars believe that it takes 10,000 crushed shell fish to make 1 gram of the purple dye.
- Philippi was 10 miles away from Neapolis
- Retired Roman military men came here
- Roman colony - its government was modeled after Rome
- Very few Jews there
- You had to have 10 married men to start a synagogue and there was no synagogue. Therefore, we know there were VERY few Jews there.
- Lydia had her own household. This could mean several things.
- She was a single woman with servants, freed people, or workers
- She was divorced and retained many of the workers in her household.
- She was widowed and retained all of her husband's property
- When Lydia's whole household was baptized, it does not mean they all believed (we don't know). It was common practice for those that served the leader of the household, to publicly convert when they did. However, if the change occurred in their heart, we do not know. What this signified was that Lydia's house was now a Christian household.
What We Can Deduce or Infer Based on What We Know:
- Paul and Silas most likely wanted to go to Asia. We can infer this because we have been specifically told that the Holy Spirit forbade them to go. Common reasoning would dictate that the act of forbidding would indicate a desire to go.
- Paul and Silas wanted to go North but the Holy Spirit said no.
- Lydia was likely a Gentile that prayed to the Jewish God because she was observing Sabbath. This was only a Jewish practice. She likely learned about the Jewish God in her hometown.
- It appears that she was the first European convert.
- It would seem that Lydia had two houses (or a house and a business): one in Thyatira and one in Philippi.
What Can We Learn?
- It would seem, from Scripture and inference, that God was ordaining the appointment between Lydia and the men. The men were kept out of Asia and sent to Philippi while Lydia left Asia for Philippi as well. We should be sensitive to the Spirit's calling as God has ordained appointments for us that may go against logic.
- The Holy Spirit prepared Lydia's heart to hear the word. This is important. We need to remember that conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit. God may work through us, but it is God doing it. None of it is from us.
- Lydia was working outside of the home. This did not seem to be a problem for anyone.
- Despite not having a place of worship, Lydia made the effort to gather with others to worship.
- Despite being a busy businesswoman, Lydia made it a priority to follow Scripture, by observing the Sabbath.
- Lydia was not called out of her profession. God does not have everyone working in the church. He wants the Holy Spirit to be directing our lives. We can stay in our professions and be used by him.
- It is not enough to worship God. We MUST believe in Jesus Christ. As soon as Lydia heard the gospel, she realized this and became a believer.
- Do not put off obedience to Jesus. As soon as Lydia understood the gospel, she immediately was baptized. She didn't put it off. This does not mean the baptism saved her. It shows that we should be quick to be obedient. We should be quick to follow our Lord.
- Hospitality is a great way to serve. We are to be servants of God and we are to serve others. Lydia's hospitality is a great example of this type of servanthood.
Theories About Lydia
Lydia as a deacon
Some people use Lydia as an example of a female deacon. A deacon is someone who serves another person. That is the basic definition of the word. The Bible does not give us a specific outline of what deacons do like it does for elders, teachers, etc. (a description of who is eligible can be found in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 and Acts 6:1-6). However, we know that the word itself indicates that they would serve the church and God's people. Was Lydia a deacon? We cannot know for certain. People who advocate for this view look at the fact that she was serving the missionaries. They also point to verse 40 that says the missionaries "visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed." They state that this shows the brothers were at her house. Therefore, she was providing her house as a meeting place for Christians as well as showing hospitality while they were there. In the minds that adhere to this view, she is performing the duties of a deacon.
Where is the line between being an official deacon and portraying the characteristics of a faithful Christian? Most would say that the difference is whether you are doing the actions on behalf of the church or on your own. Being there was not a church in this city yet, Lydia would not fit this definition. However, the church as a whole was in its infancy and offices of the church were still being hashed out. As someone who was providing food/drink and a place to meet, she was definitely portraying the characteristics of a deacon. However, these types of characteristics should be present in all believers. So the question comes down to, was she operating in an "official" capacity for the church, or for the missionaries?
Was Lydia a deacon? We do not know. Lydia did show kindness through her efforts of hospitality. As Christians, we need to serve others. Hospitality is one way of doing this. The Bible makes clear that serving others is a central tenant to our faith.
Lydia as an elder/pastor/overseer/bishop
Some people see Lydia as an example of a female elder/pastor/overseer/bishop. It is important to understand the meanings of these terms. In the Bible, these positions have the same responsibility. They are those that are responsible for the spiritual growth of the church's members. They are responsible for making sure doctrine stays Biblical, false prophets/teachers are not within the flock, advising on proper Biblical conduct, and other like matters. Where deacons focus on physical needs, these people are more focused on the spiritual. (There is a debate about whether teachers count as someone with spiritual authority. I am not dealing with that here).
The people who see Lydia as someone with spiritual oversight would point to her being the leader of her household. They would also point to the fact that she likely had a role in the church at Philippi because she was the first convert. She had means to start a church and as the first convert would have been involved in the spiritual aspects of the church. This is speculation. Could it have happened? Sure. Did it happen? We have no indication one way or the other.
Some would draw the connection between Lydia being from Thyatira and that city growing a church. This church would eventually be mentioned in Revelation 2. These people think that Lydia converted in Philippi and then took the gospel to Thyatira. From there, they say, she would have helped establish a church. Her preaching/teaching in her hometown would make her someone with spiritual authority and would place her in this type of position. Could it have happened? Yes. Did it happen? We have no indication one way or the other.
So was Lydia an elder/pastor/overseer/bishop? We simply do not know. What we do know is that she quickly shared her testimony with others. Sharing one's testimony and having spiritual authority are not one and the same. They are very different. If she was involved in the discipleship of other believers, we could argue that she may have been. This argument would be stronger if she was the one who started the church in Thyatira. But the fact is, the scripture does not indicate that she did this. So although it is interesting to think of these possibilities, it is not a good argument for females having spiritual authority over believers.
Lydia proves women can work outside of the home
Those who see Lydia as proof that women are allowed to work outside of the home have a strong case in Lydia, but not a conclusive one. As we can plainly see, Lydia, without a husband, was running a business selling purple dyed goods. She was wealthy. She was a believer and was not (to our knowledge) asked to quit working once she became a believer. Her work made her stand out, but it does not seem that her work was condemned in any way.
The fact is, we do not know all the circumstances around Lydia and her work. We don't know what happened after the missionaries left her house. Was she convicted later to get married and stop working? Did she use her business to further the gospel? Was she an exception to the norm? We have no idea. Because of this, Lydia is a strong argument for women working outside of the home, but she is not conclusive.
The account of Lydia marks the spread of the gospel from Asia to Europe. It exemplifies that God's salvation is for everyone. It shows us that the wealthy can be believers. We see how the Holy Spirit prepares hearts to receive the gospel; it is not of our own doing. Lydia shows how quick obedience is the way to follow Jesus; don't wait. She also shows us that when circumstances seem to prohibit us from worshipping God, find another way; never let circumstances get in between you and God. Through her actions, we can see that having a servant heart is imperative to our faith.
Although we can speculate many things about Lydia (and it can be fun to do so!), we learn a lot from the little Scripture does tell us.