The Oasis

Writings from the ministry team

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Sermon notes Easter 10.   Lydia (Acts 16:9-15)


Sometimes a passage in the Bible raises more questions than answers – especially about people.  Who were they?  Why were they significant?


A clue about the important people is when their names are given.  Let’s understand the way the gospel message, the good news, was passed around in the 1st century.  It was mainly by word of mouth.  People talked.  They told others what had happened to them.  If you have ever been involved with a revival meeting – you will have noticed that people are always giving a testimony.  “I came to Christ on this day, in that way…”   That is very reminiscent of the 1st century.  At the start they said, “I met this man, Jesus.  He did this, he did that. I was involved in this way, that way…”  One person telling another, what has happened to them, what they had seen, heard, experienced.  Then gradually, it became second hand news.  “My friend John met this man Jesus, and this happened, that happened…” 


And then third hand information, “I heard of this woman and when she met Jesus” …etc, etc…


The Good News of Jesus spread like wildfire, very far and wide, and very quickly.  You can imagine – but the danger when news passes on quickly is that it can become distorted, subtly altered, changed a bit.  So it soon became very important to write things down, so that accurate records were kept.  Writing was an expensive hobby; a professional scribe was usually employed, because, although most men were literate to some extent, they could read scripture and maybe write a little, it was not common practice to write much. Then there was the cost of parchment, animal skin quite often and the ink.  If I tell you that Paul’s letter to Philemon – or John’s 2nd and third letters probably filled one sheet of parchment – you can get an idea of the size and cost of producing a whole gospel.  But those early Christians did just that.  About 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Mark had written the first Gospel and the others soon followed.  They were written, faithfully copied, circulated and ensured an accurate record of events.


By the time of Paul’s journeys, written records were essential and we know that Luke joined Paul on his journeys and kept a written record. As well as his gospel, Luke wrote down what happened in the record that we know as the Acts of the Apostles.   We know that Luke, if he did not experience something himself, asked questions of those who were there.  And he produced a first rate chronological narrative that is easy to read and understand. 


So this woman Lydia.  She obviously told Luke what happened to her.  Or Paul himself told Luke about her.  Or, as is most likely, Luke was there when this encounter happened.  But why is she so important?  After all, there were lots of people who came in contact with Paul and were baptised in the spirit and became dedicated followers.


I think that the clue is that she is a woman. 


We do not know much about her, but we can make a lot of assumptions. 

We know where she came from and where lived.  Paul and his entourage had gone to Philippi.  We glibly say that, but it was a big emotional step for these early missionaries.  They were entering Europe! Philippi was a major port, a long established and settled seaside town in Macedonia – modern day Greece.  It had good trade links and a nice climate.  It was popular with retired Roman officials as a settlement.  There were very few Jews (not enough men to have a synagogue). So it was a significant place to live and a place where there was a reasonable amount of prosperity due to trade.


Lydia is described as a ‘dealer in purple’. Purple dye was rare and expensive.  It was used for the garments of the very wealthy, royalty, religious leaders and the like.  Just owning and wearing garments dyed purple would tell the world that you were rich and important.  The production of this dye-colour was a long and laborious task. The liquid used to create it came from a gland on a tiny Mediterranean Sea Snail. Each snail produced only a single drop of the necessary fluid. To produce one pound of dye, they needed about four million molluscs.  This is why it was so expensive.  Lydia would have had to work hard, but she was in a profitable business.  She would have had good and influential connections around the area and in the Roman Empire, patronage was everything.


We know more than that about her.  We know she worshipped God.  She may have been a Jew, but there were very few Jews in the town, so it is likely that she was a converted Gentile. She certainly knew something in advance of Paul’s teaching.  We can learn a very valuable lesson here.  Never pass up an opportunity to tell people about God.  You may not make a convert, but if they know something already, you have opened the way for them to learn more.


The words in the text are rather lovely, aren’t they? “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (vs14).  If you pray for unbelievers, (especially if they are your family members) this is the prayer to make – that their hearts are opened to God. That is the simplest prayer to make and the most effective.


Lydia and her whole household are baptized, making her the first Christian convert on the European continent (vs. 15); this mention of her whole household implies a lot of things.  She is in charge of her household.  She may have been a widow or just unmarried; no mention is made of a male head of the house!  A household in those times would have included immediate family, extended family, the economically dependant, servants, slaves and other workers.  This could have been a lot of people (nothing like a 21st century ‘nuclear family’).  Compare this, though, nowadays to the contacts we make through social networks – our circle of ‘friends’ can be enormous.


Lydia, surprisingly or unsurprisingly (?) offers a gift of hospitality.  Paul did not usually stay with his converts when he planted a church.  He preferred to be independent and not a burden - we hear of him in other places settling down to his old trade of tent making.  But here, he accepts her hospitality; perhaps he is impressed with her industry and business-like attitude, a fellow-feeling.  She is certainly special - Lydia is the first convert in Europe; could we also say she is the first female church leader?  It is in her house that the church is planted - and grows. 


Our reading today stops at this point.  But if you continue reading the chapter (next week’s exciting instalment), Paul and Silas are arrested and put in prison.  They are beaten and put in the stocks. But God opens the prison doors and unlocks their chains.  They do not, however, escape. They stay, firstly to convert the jailer and his household (after they had all been baptised) and then to be released legally the next day.  It is not in the interest of the spread of the gospel for them to be fugitives.  And then they go back to stay with Lydia. 


I can imagine how she was worried for them, how she and her household – her church group – how they must have prayed.  And imagine their joy when Paul and Silas returned. Now, if we read verse 40 of this chapter, we find that Paul and Silas met “the brothers and sisters” there and encouraged them.  Once again a tantalisingly short sentence saying so much – because now, this is not a women-only church plant.  Men have joined, possibly the household of the jailer, who knows?  Already it has grown!  And Paul and Silas encourage them.  The baby church at Philippi is planted, is fed and watered and is growing already. 


Encouragement.  Many times over, I hear how we need to evangelise, tell others about God.  I say it to you myself. But here is another message and a worthwhile instruction to us all.  Encourage others.  Encourage all believers to continue in faith.  Christians who are struggling, are persecuted, are lonely and even just a bit wobbly – Christians need the encouragement of other Christians.  Give it to them and accept encouragement from others.


That’s the story of the first church in Europe.  Like Jesus himself, Paul used unlikely people for his task.  God, to use modern parlance, ‘thinks outside the box’.  Not for God and not for his followers are the constraints of traditional thinking.  We planted this church here La Manche from small unlikely beginnings.  God used a bunch of what could be called ‘Old Age Pensioners’.  Who would have thought that a suitable group to start with?  But God grew this church; he has called people to follow him, to teach for him and to help us to worship him.  Each of us has a job to do for God.  Each of us has a calling, a mission, a job.  Do not be afraid to step out in faith.  In a couple of weeks we will hear how the Holy Spirit comes and gives power to God’s people.  God always helps us.  Alone we are weak, but with Him we can be amazing.