God Uses Ordinary People: Lydia 

Acts 16:14-15

August 17, 2008 | Brian Bill

I thought I better get out ahead of something that happened to me in Mexico before my team members spill the beans.  During our first Sunday in San Juan del Rio, we attended the worship service at the Community Center.  The service lasts much longer than ours and I knew I wasn’t going to make it without getting up to use the restroom.  I was a bit nervous to do this however because the bathroom was located up near the front of the room where the service was held and it was going to be difficult to slip away unnoticed.  I was even more nervous when I got there because I realized that instead of a door into the bathroom there was just a shower curtain.

I hurried into the little room hoping that no one would walk in on me.  Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough because a young mother and her child opened the curtain and started to walk in.  They quickly left and I’m sure I heard some muffled laughter as they did an about face.  I was thankful they didn’t come all the way in but then I realized I had another problem.  A lot of people probably saw what happened and now I needed to walk back to my seat while they stared at me.  I decided my best bet was to just keep my eyes down and walk quickly.  I could feel my face turn bright red and when I was almost to my row I looked up, only to see two high schoolers laughing hysterically.  I tell you there’s no respect for the clergy nowadays.

I’ve come to appreciate the importance of doors and the locks that go with them.  This morning we’re continuing in our series called, “God Uses Ordinary People” as we take a look at how God used both closed doors and open doors to impact Europe with the gospel through a businesswoman named Lydia.  Please turn in your Bibles to Acts 16.  The apostle Paul is traveling with a team of servants to deliver the decisions made at a special council held in Jerusalem.  They’re moving from one city to the next and then all of sudden doors start closing.

God uses closed doors to put us in situations for His message to get out to the people He has already prepared to hear it.  In verse 6, we see that the Holy Spirit kept Paul and his companions from going into Asia.  Notice that they were “kept by the Holy Spirit” from preaching there.  In verse 7, the Spirit of Jesus “would not allow them to” enter another area.  Doors were closed twice and Paul didn’t understand why because it made good sense to go into these communities.  Have you ever been in a similar situation?  Sometimes things seem so clear to us but when we try to move forward the door is often slammed in our faces – the house sale doesn’t go through, the promotion dissolves, and the health report is not what we were expecting.  Instead of getting frustrated or angry, try to see that this is God’s loving way of redirecting us.

God often makes a way when we get out of the way

Now, instead of striving, Paul tries sleeping and in verse 9, God gave Paul a vision of a man from Macedonia who begged, “Come over to Macedonia to help us.”  After seeing this vision, they got ready “at once” to leave.  Their quick obedience brought the gospel to the continent of Europe, and it came one person at a time…like it always does.  Here’s the principle: God often makes a way when we get out of the way.  When we wait, God goes to work.  Psalm 38:15: “I wait for you, O Lord; you will answer, O Lord my God.”

Look at Acts 16:12: “From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia…”  Philippi was a colony of Rome even though it was separated geographically from Italy.  Paul and his team arrived in this town expecting to find the man who had appeared in the vision.  I imagine that they’re probably getting a bit anxious because they can’t find a believer anywhere and yet verse 12 concludes this way: “And we stayed for several days.”  This is a good principle when you’re waiting for a door to open.  Don’t be in such a hurry.  Wait for God’s timing.   Verse 13 tells us that on the Sabbath, they went outside the city by a river in order to find a place of prayer because they thought people would be congregated there.  Even in Babylon, God’s people would gather by a river when they could find no other place to meet.  Check out Psalm 137:1: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”

A bit of background is helpful here.  According to Jewish law, a synagogue could only be established if there were ten men who could commit to the congregation.  But since Philippi did not have a quorum of committed men, a group of women met near a river for prayer.  To further complicate the situation, there was an inscription on the arches outside Philippi with an inscription that prohibited bringing an unrecognized religion into the city.  That might explain why this prayer meeting was being held outside the city.

By the way, the Bible is filled with examples of women who were greatly used by God – Deborah, Hannah, Esther, Ruth, Elizabeth, Mary, Tabitha, Priscilla, just to name a few.  In that culture women were treated as property or second-class citizens but Christianity elevated women to a higher status.  Paul declares this strongly in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Look now at the first half of verse 13: “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer…”  It was important to be near water because Jewish people would ritually wash their hands before prayer.  These women gathered to recite Scripture, to read from the Law and the Prophets, to discuss what they read, and to pray.  Friends, don’t minimize what happens when we pray.  When we’re in an attitude of expectancy, God will open doors for us.  These small groups were always open to listening to a traveling teacher offer an exposition or exhortation from the Scriptures.  That’s exactly what Paul and his team does in the last half of verse 13: “We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.”  That’s exactly what happens in a small group Bible study – people sit down together and speak the Scriptures to each other.  I encourage you to join one of these groups this fall.

Verse 14: “One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God.”  Lydia was from a town that was famous for making purple dyes and was probably in charge of a branch office in Philippi.  Purple was the color of royalty and these cloths were in high demand because they were status symbols.  It would be like an Armani suit or Tommy Hilfiger clothes today, like wearing a Rolex watch of carrying a Gucci handbag..  To most Jews however, her job would have been scandalous because the purple dye came from a shellfish, which was considered unclean.  The process involved crushing thousands of crustaceans just to make a yard or two of purple cloth.

While this traveling trader was no doubt a successful businesswoman, she was “one of those listening,” which meant she was plugged in. The word “listening” indicates a continuing process which shows that she was investigating spiritual matters. I love how attentive you are when God’s Word is taught.  When we listen carefully, we will hear what God has to say.  When we daydream or get distracted we may lose what it is that God is trying to say to us.  Note also that she was a “worshiper of God.”  This meant that she was a Gentile who had decided to follow Judaism and was sincerely seeking spiritual truth.  She was religious but not yet redeemed.  She knew of God but didn’t really know God.  She was praying but had not yet discovered God’s purposes for her life. 

Friend, if you want God to become more real to you, then prioritize the importance of prayer and of corporate worship

Let me make the obvious point that Lydia, a busy businesswoman, did not give up meeting with other believers on a regular basis.  She could have slept in because this was her “only day to sleep late” or she could have done paperwork in her office or headed to the beach.  Instead, she followed the admonition of Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage on another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  And it was in the meeting with others that she was about to meet with God in a very real way.  Friend, if you want God to become more real to you, then prioritize the importance of prayer and of corporate worship.

As she was listening to the words of these messengers, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”  This word “opened” means to thoroughly open, much like what happens when a first-born enters the world.   I love the relationship here between God’s work and human responsibility.  It was God who opened the door of her heart, but He did so as she listened to His Word.  It’s always about God, isn’t it?  We make a mistake when we say that we decided to follow Jesus.  We would do nothing of the sort if it were not for God opening our hearts to respond.  Check out John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Paul and his partners were faithful in following the Father as they searched for those who were open and located Lydia, who was who was seeking spiritual truth.  God made all this happen, and yet He chose to utilize messengers who would communicate His message so that a religious woman could become a member of His family.  

God is sovereignly at work behind the scenes, even when we’re not aware of it.  Think with me about how God put Lydia and Paul together.  She was from Thyatira, in western Turkey and God brought her to Philippi.  Paul tried to go to Turkey but was prevented from doing so and was led to Philippi.  God orchestrated an encounter by a river so that Lydia could hear the message from Paul and get saved.  

God is the ultimate evangelist, isn’t He?  Several years later, when Paul wrote to the church that Lydia helped launch, he stated very clearly in Philippians 2:13: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”  Our responsibility is to simply share the Word of God whenever we have the opportunity.  It’s God’s job to open hearts.  And He will purposely position us to be with people who are searching for purpose in their lives.  Do you know any “religious” people?  Tell them that God is more interested in a relationship than He is in us being religious.  There are people all around us who are searching for God and they’re not finding Him in religious ritual.  Speak to them.  Serve them.  Sit down and talk with them.  Intercede for them.  Invite them to join your small group.  There are some religious people here today who have not yet begun a relationship with Christ.

After Lydia’s conversion, verse 15 tells us that she and the members of her household were “baptized,” probably at the river where they were meeting.  At its most basic level, baptism is a public declaration of an inner decision.  After being saved, she wasted no time in identifying herself with her Savior.  

When you open the door to Christ there will be outward evidence of inner change.

  • Profession of faith in baptism
  • Provision of hospitality

I love her modesty in verse 16: “If you consider me a believer in the Lord…”  Because the Lord opened her heart to believe, she publicly identified herself as a believer through baptism and then she opened up her home for hospitality when she said, “come and stay at my house.”  Do you see that once her heart is opened, the door to her house also opens?  She received the message in her heart and now receives the messengers into her home.  Luke adds that she “persuaded” them to use her house as home base so she could provide rest and refreshment to the traveling team.  This was Paul’s way of saying that she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  Hospitality was a strategic ministry back then and it remains so today.  When God opens our hearts, we must open our homes.  Can you think of a way that you can open your home to people?  

One pastor points out that he word “hospitality” is similar to the word “hospital.”  Just as a hospital is a place for healing and wholeness; so too our homes should be a place for refreshment.  If poetry is love illustrated, hospitality is love demonstrated.

Note: Check out Acts 16:40 where we see how Lydia used her home as a place of ministry: “After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and encouraged them.”   Where did these “brothers” come from?  They weren’t there when Paul first arrived in Philippi, were they?  God had used Lydia’s life-change to reach others as Lydia opened her home to reach hearts.  She was concerned about the unconverted and used her connections to share Jesus with people and then utilized her home as tool for ministry.  Are we doing the same?

One of the things that greatly moved me in Mexico was the excitement of the Christians. They sang loudly, they jumped up quickly to give testimonies during the church services and they were passionate about sharing the good news of grace with others.  I loved it but I also wondered why we’re sometimes not as enthusiastic about our faith.  Lydia leveraged her relationships with other business people and used her home as a launching pad for ministry.  We can all do the same.  Use what you have to serve Christ.  Walk through the open doors that are before you and don’t worry too much about those that are closed.

Lessons from Lydia

I see two lessons from Lydia’s life.  One is for those of you have not yet received Jesus and the second is for those of us who have.

1. When God opens the door of salvation to you, go through it.

Friend, have you been trying to live a “religious” life but you’re not sure if you have a relationship with Jesus?  Listen to the Lord, and when He opens your heart, respond to Him.

You are here right now at this exact time because of some open doors.  Perhaps you’ve been transferred to this community because of work or you’re here for some other reason.  It’s time to receive redemption right now.

2. When God shuts a door, go through the one He opens. 

God will make a way when we get out of the way.  By closing one door, another one opened and Paul and his team went through it.  Notice three things about how they did this. They were…

  • Intentional.  They went to where religious people were.  Look for ways to purposefully be with people who don’t know Jesus.  That might involve joining a club, hanging out with other parents, or not being so quick to leave work so you can talk to someone.
  • Relational.  They “sat down” with the women.  Later this team took the time to stay in Lydia’s house where they were able to disciple the new believers.  
  • Conversational.  They “spoke” with them.  Notice that they didn’t preach at them or argue politics or try to correct her customs.
  • Christological.  They could have talked about a number of things but they focused on Christ.
  • Familial.  Don’t miss what can happen in an entire family, and even an extended family, when just one person comes to Christ.  I think that’s what happened when the missionaries stayed in her house – they got to know other family members.  I pray that as we seek to help families that entire homes will come to Christ and follow His ways.

Man from Macedonia cried for missionaries to come.  What crying are you hearing today?  Do you hear it in your co-workers?  Your neighbors?  In the members of your own family?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?