Down by the riverside


“You will be my witnesses,” Jesus had told his disciples, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NRSV). And indeed, that pronouncement could almost serve as a table of contents for Luke’s story. In the gospels, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus had taken place in Jerusalem; in Acts, the Spirit was given in Jerusalem. But the story and the movement of the Spirit quickly and relentlessly spread outward. With Luke’s emphasis on Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, the new home base became Syrian Antioch, and Paul’s travels took him further and further afield, to what Paul and his contemporaries would have considered the ends of the earth.

Luke likes to name people and places. It’s not just his attempt to be a good historian. It’s as if to say, “Look at all the different people and cultures Paul reached with the gospel.” He can’t, of course, tell us the story of every conversation and convert. But that just makes it more important to pay attention to the stories he does tell. Thus, as we read about Paul taking his new companions Silas, Timothy, and Luke to Macedonia — expanding the mission for the first time to Europe — it’s noteworthy that his first convert is a Gentile and a woman.

Paul and his companions set sail from Troas, across the north Aegean. They put in briefly at the rugged and rocky island of Samothrace, then continued to the Macedonian port of Neapolis. Ten miles inland was Philippi, the city named after the conqueror and king Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Some scholars believe that Philippi may have been Luke’s hometown. Whatever the case may be, the group remained there for several days.

On the Sabbath, Paul and the others went outside the city and down to the river. Paul’s normal practice would have been to visit the synagogue. But in all likelihood, Philippi had no synagogue because there weren’t enough Jews in the city to form one. More accurately, there were not enough Jewish men; it didn’t matter how many Jewish women there might have been.

There was, however, a group of Jewish women who met outside the city gates for their Sabbath prayers. They met by the river, where the water would help them perform their purification rituals. Perhaps Paul and his companions had asked around; perhaps they had a nudge from the Spirit. But somehow they knew to go down by the riverside that Sabbath.

And there they met Lydia.

Lydia was originally from Thyatira, a city in the Roman province of Asia from which Paul and his companions had just sailed. Thyatira was known for its many trades and professional guilds, and was particularly famous for its purple dye.

It may be a little hard to imagine in today’s mass-market consumer age, but purple cloth was once a prized commodity, because the dye-making process was laborious and expensive. Only the wealthy could afford it, and it was sometimes restricted to royalty (something similar could be said, historically, about the humble pineapple). Lydia, Luke tells us, was “a dealer in purple cloth” (Acts 16:14) — which means she was probably wealthy and connected. She was also the head of her own household, and thus probably a widow.

Luke describes Lydia as a “worshiper of God,” which suggests that she was a Gentile who had come to believe in the God of the Jews, probably during her days in Thyatira. That’s why she was with the women at the river. Moreover, she was earnest in her faith, ready to hear the message about Jesus the Messiah. Thus, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14), and she and her household were baptized.

An enthusiastic convert, Lydia made Paul an offer he couldn’t refuse: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home” (Acts 16:15). In many cultures around the world, it would be awkward and insulting to refuse such an offer of hospitality. And she had phrased her offer in such a way that to refuse would have been tantamount to saying, “Sorry, but we don’t think you’re faith is real.”

So Paul and the others agreed.

Not that Lydia would have taken no for an answer anyway.

They stayed in Philippi for some time. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Lydia’s home became the first Philippian house church (cf. Acts 16:40). She is not mentioned by name in Paul’s later letter to the Philippians, which may suggest that she had died by that time, or left the city.

But it’s easy to imagine that as Paul expressed his love and gratitude to the Philippians, praising them for their “sharing (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil 1:5), the image of Lydia came to mind.

A Gentile woman drawn to the God of the Jews. A woman of means, sharing her resources to support a ministry that tended to draw the poor. Hospitable and open-hearted, Lydia was a true partner in the gospel, a poster child for the expanding ministry to the Gentiles.

An auspicious and happy beginning to this leg of the ministry, indeed.

But one followed by a much darker story. More on that in upcoming posts.