Women of History: Lydia, Community Organizer

To recognize Women’s History Month, I am highlighting a woman from history every Wednesday during March. Many strong, intelligent women from the past have paved the way for us. However, I want to specifically look at the significant women from the Bible who are godly models for us today.

Her unique marketing niche made her profitable in the male-dominated business world. Bringing her craft from her hometown of Thyatira to Philippi was a prosperous move. As a widow, a fresh start in a new city wasn’t simply good for business but good for her soul.

A gifted craftswoman, she used the roots of madder plants she raised on family land in Thyatira to make a coveted indigo dye. Once the perfect color was created, she chose only the best cloth in the region to create luxurious purple fabric. Rich and powerful clients purchased her material so they could dress like royalty.

“The Seller of Purple” earned respect in the Philippi community due to her high-quality goods. However, we learn another part of her success story: her relationship with God.

We read about Lydia in the book of Acts. There is a reason her story is included in the Bible. As we learned from Deborah in last week’s post, she has many good qualities to imitate.

Luke, the doctor who traveled with Paul the Apostle, tells Lydia’s story. He chronicled Paul’s missionary travels across many regions, including those bordering the Mediterranean Sea, as they shared the gospel of Jesus with Gentile (non-Jewish) cities. In Acts 16, Paul is on his second missionary journey with Luke, plus companions Silas and Timothy. Luke writes:

We put out to sea from Troas and sailed a straight course to Samothrace, the next day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of that district of Macedonia, a Roman colony. We stayed in this city for some days. (Acts 16:11-12)

Philippi, a crossroads between Europe and Asia, was a busy, colonial Roman city in Macedonia that administered the laws of Rome and enjoyed a high status in the empire. For the Philippians, the Roman way of life also included the worship of many gods.

Paul’s ministry strategy when visiting a city was to first visit the local synagogue to speak with the Jewish men before preaching to Gentiles. However, Philippi was entirely secular, with no synagogue; there wasn’t enough male Jewish presence to establish one.    

Down By the River

On the Sabbath day, we went outside the city gate to the side of the river, where we thought there would be a place of prayer, and we sat down and began to speak to the women who had assembled there. (Acts 16:13)

When Paul and his companions reached the city and learned of no synagogue, any chance of finding worshippers of God would be outside the bustling city gates. On the Sabbath, they went to the banks of the Krenides River, where they found the women. And this is where we are introduced to Lydia.  

A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. (Acts 16:14)

Luke tells us that Lydia was “God-fearing,” meaning she followed God with reverence and devotion. However, we aren’t told if she was a Jewess. Considering the idolatry in Philippi, we could assume she was a proselyte (Jewish convert) or a Jewess who had moved to Philippi for commerce reasons. Regardless, she may have led this group of women at the Krenides River, sharing what she knew of the Scriptures.

When approached by the four men, deciding who was the group’s leader couldn’t have been difficult. Paul was a man of small stature who spoke with authority. He had a fire in his eyes but a heart that loved people. The women must have been delighted to receive his rabbinic teaching from the Scriptures.

The Lord opened her [Lydia’s] heart to respond to what Paul was saying. (Acts 16:14b)

Lydia and the women heard the gospel for the first time. From the Greek, it implies that Paul didn’t preach but presented the gospel in a conversational way. And because God opened Lydia’s heart, she understood and believed the gospel: salvation in Jesus Christ.

Immediately afterward, Lydia was baptized in the Krenides River. Her influence made certain her entire household learned and accepted the beautiful salvation message and were baptized too. She became beautifully transformed by a new faith in Jesus.

After she and her household were baptized, she urged us, “If you consider me to be a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us. (Acts 16:15)

Next, Lydia coaxes the men to stay at her home and doesn’t take no for an answer! She offers generous hospitality to Paul and his ministry team during their stay in Philippi.

A Divine Appointment

Luke shares this interaction with Lydia because it was a divine appointment. Earlier in Acts 16 (verses 6-10), Paul had a dream where a Macedonian man urged him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”  That vision prompted Paul and the team to immediately go to Macedonia to proclaim the Good News. Once they arrived in Philippi, their first meeting was with the women at the river, and Lydia became an answer to spreading the gospel in Macedonia.

Ten years later (approximately 60-62 AD), when Paul writes his letter to the Philippian church, Lydia is not mentioned. She may have died by this time; however, we know that a church was established in Thyatira, her hometown. (Revelation 2:18). With her enthusiasm for the gospel, there is a possibility she eventually moved back to her hometown of Thyatira to be active in the church there. Or, in her later years, she may have returned to be under the care of her hometown church. (1 Timothy 5:10)

What we can learn from Lydia

As a successful businesswoman, Lydia probably enjoyed prominence as a wealthy commoner in Philippi. Yet, we should not just look at her profitability in business as something to emulate. She would have used her influence in some circles, especially with women, and shared her knowledge of God and the Scriptures. Once she accepted salvation through Jesus Christ, she became a light for the gospel she embraced.

She opened her heart.

Lydia exemplifies how God can work through someone when they open their heart. Beginning at the riverside, she showed a humble, trusting spirit with Paul to know more about Jesus. Because of her love for the Lord, He was faithful in bringing the gospel of His Son, Jesus, to Lydia.

Opening our heart to the Holy Spirit who indwells in us as believers is vital. Through the Holy Spirit, we receive our direction for following God’s plans for us. When Paul wanted to go into the province of Asia during this second missionary trip, he listened to the Holy Spirit when told he was not to go. (Acts 16:6-8) Rerouted, Paul and his team visited Philippi, and as a result, had the divine appointment with Lydia.

She gave generous hospitality.

Finding out that Paul and the team had just arrived in Philippi, Lydia convinced them to stay at her home. Offering this type of hospitality wasn’t uncommon in Jewish circles. The Jews helped each other by providing meals and places to stay, not just to family and friends but also to other Jewish travelers passing through their area. But for Lydia, this kindness was part of her nature. Because she was quick to offer comfortable lodging to the four men, it allowed them to stay and preach in Philippi for some days (Acts 16:12). It was easy for Lydia not to “withhold good from those who need it when you have the ability to help.” (Proverbs 3:27)

She had influence.

We are told that when she accepted salvation, she was instrumental in leading her household to Jesus. (Acts 16:15).

With community status, Lydia shows herself as a leader and an inspiration to women, including anyone she would have employed. After giving her heart to Jesus, she could continue to be an effective tool for spreading God’s love, hope, and encouragement.

She was charitable.

Lydia may have been a significant supporter of the newly established church in Philippi, with her resources to supplement Paul’s ministry. Her house may have become a base of operations in Philippi because we learn in Acts 16:40 that she welcomes Paul and Silas after their release from prison. When they saw the brothers (fellow believers) at Lydia’s home, Paul and Silas encouraged them before departing.

Lydia knew her wealth and assets were gifts from the Lord (Ecclesiastes 5:19), and it was a blessing for her to help others (Proverbs 22:9)

Modeling Lydia in Our Lives

Because of her willingness to be open to God’s service, Lydia became an essential part of the gospel story. Her enthusiasm and love for Jesus are shown in her generosity toward God’s servants. Her influence helped in the sharing of the gospel with others.  

Wherever we are in life, God can also use us for His service. Lydia brought her entire household to Jesus, the seed of the new church of Philippi. God used her enthusiasm, kindness, and love for others, including the benefits of her occupation. We can also be influential with our family and friends by sharing Jesus. Open your heart to the Lord and ask Him to show you where you can serve Him. Follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and you will be amazed at the divine appointments He may have planned for you!

Bible Portal

1. Illustration: “She Worketh Willingly with Her Hands” is by artist Elspeth Young. Visit Al Young Studios for more information and to purchase.

2. All Scripture is taken from the New English Translation unless otherwise noted; Scripture references are linked to BibleGateway for the reader’s convenience.

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