Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. (Acts 16:14, N.K.J.V.)
Roman emperors organized colonies/cities at strategic sites throughout the sprawling empire and ordered selected Roman citizens, especially retired military personnel, to live in these places. This was done in order to ensure that there were strong Roman settlements strategically dotting the map of the empire. As a reward for leaving their homes in Italy and settling down in these foreign lands, Roman citizens were granted certain privileges. In particular, they were made exempt from having to pay taxes.
The city of Philippi, which was located in the Roman colony of Macedonia in Greece, was one of these cities. As such, everyone who lived there was expected to be loyal to Rome. That meant obeying Roman laws and giving honor to the Roman emperor. Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy visited Philippi as part of what we now call Paul’s second missionary journey. The historical significance of this group coming to Philippi is that this was the gospel’s initial entrance into Europe. It was also Paul being true to “the Macedonian Call” vision he had recently experienced (Acts 16:6-10).
Paul’s usual method for beginning his evangelism in a city was to go to the city’s synagogue on the Sabbath and share the gospel with the Jews in attendance. In Gentile cities such as Philippi, however, there wasn’t a synagogue because Jewish custom required at least ten Jewish men to organize one. That meant that Paul and his group had to find another way to begin sharing the gospel at Philippi.
Somehow they learned that some of Philippi’s citizens regularly offered up prayers at a certain spot on the riverbank just outside the city. When Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy arrived at the site on the Sabbath day, they found a group of women meeting there and struck up a conversation with them (Acts 16:13). A woman named Lydia, who was originally from the city of Thyatira but now lived in Philippi, was one of that group. Since Philippi was the leading city of that part of Macedonia, she made a good living there by selling the expensive dyed purple cloth that her home city of Thyatira was famous for producing.
Luke (the writer of the book of Acts) says that Lydia, a Gentile, “worshiped God.” Evidently, that group of women who met to pray at the riverbank was a mixture of Jewish women and Gentile converts to Judaism. Why else would they have met for prayer each Sabbath day?
We might say that these women were doing the best they could to serve God by way of the limited spiritual light they had. Presumably, the Jewish women in the group knew the Old Testament, and we can logically assume that they had taught what they knew to Lydia and the other Gentile converts to Judaism. But none of the women knew anything about Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection. Those events had happened in another part of the empire, and the news hadn’t reached Philippi yet even though some twenty years had now passed. Therefore, what those women needed most was someone to tell them the story of Jesus. That’s where Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy entered into the picture.
You see, each of those women was an example of a worshiper/seeker. A worshiper/seeker was someone who was right with God as far as their revelation of Him had taken them. Such people did the best they could in obeying the limited spiritual light they had, but someone had to share the gospel of Christ with them if they were going to become all that God wanted them to be.
The book of Acts features several examples of such worshipers/seekers. The Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip led to Christ was such a person (Acts 8:26-39). The Bible says that he had come to Jerusalem to worship. Cornelius, a Gentile from Caesarea whom Peter led to Christ, was another such man (Acts 10:1-8). The Bible describes him as a devout man who feared God, prayed to God always, and gave alms generously to people. Apollos, an Alexandrian man who was learned in theology ranging from the Old Testament scriptures to the baptizing that John the Baptist had done, was another such man (Acts 18:24-28). It was the husband-and-wife team of Aquila and Priscilla who took him aside, explained the gospel to him, and led him to Christ.
As for Lydia, the Bible says that she worshiped God even before Paul and his group hit town (Acts 16:14). The capital “G” in the passage’s use of the word “God” clearly shows that she worshiped the true and living God (the God of Judaism, the God of the Old Testament). So, even though she was a Gentile, she had the right God. What she needed to hear was the story of how that God had left heaven, lived 33+ sinless years on the earth, died on a cross for the sins of the human race, and resurrected.
A good question to ask is, “If the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, Apollos, Lydia, and those other women in Philippi had died before hearing about Jesus and having a chance to believe in Him, would they have gone into the afterlife as saved people?” Frankly, that answer takes us into some hazy territory spiritually. I suppose a case could be made for either answering “Yes” or “No” to the question, and I’m more than happy to leave the verdict to God. Fortunately, in each of these instances, the individuals did receive the help they needed to move from being a sincere but ill-informed worshiper/seeker to being a full-fledged born-again Christian.
What I will say is that Lydia, like those other worshipers/seekers in Acts, wasn’t stubbornly refusing to believe in Jesus as Savior. To the contrary, like them, her sincere desire to know God and to worship God had her primed and ready to embrace Jesus as Savior as soon as she heard about Him. When Acts 16:14 says the Lord opened her heart, it’s not like He had to march right over the top of her freewill and take her from one extreme — being dead set against Jesus — to the other extreme — believing in Him as Savior. That’s why Lydia can’t be presented as a piece of slam-dunk evidence to support Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election in regards to salvation.
As a matter of fact, the same Greek word (dianoigo) that is translated as “opened” in Acts 16:14 is used in Luke 24:45 in reference to how Jesus opened the understanding of His apostles in order that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Those men, significantly, were already saved when Jesus did that opening. That might mean that Lydia was already saved when the Lord opened her heart to a fuller understanding of salvation. If she was, her salvation would be placed in the same category as that of the Old Testament era believers who were saved apart from a full knowledge of Jesus.
Whatever the exact details of Lydia’s salvation experience were, we do know that she beautifully evidenced her salvation in the wake of responding to Paul’s presentation of the gospel. For one thing, she got baptized. For another, her entire household got baptized. (Perhaps that refers to her family, but some commentators suggest that it refers to her household servants). For yet another, she insisted that Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy stay at her house while they were in Philippi.
Another thing we know is that the church of Philippi sprang from those humble beginnings of Paul and his group meeting with those woman at that riverbank. That church, for the record, was one of the best of the early churches. It was definitely one of Paul’s favorites, as even a casual reading of the book of Philippians will attest. And just think, that church’s roots could be traced back to a conversation that Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy had one Saturday with a group of women who had met on a riverbank to pray. It just goes to show that great things can come from small beginnings. All it takes are people who are hungering and thirsting to worship God and do His will, and a God who will open hearts to bring those people into the fullest possible revelation of Him and what He wants to do in their lives.