Commentary on Acts 16:11-15
Following on his vision of the young Macedonian man, Paul and his companions decide to cross over from Troas and head towards the town of Philippi.
On the way they passed through Samothrace (a place made famous by the magnificent marble sculpture of Victory on display in the Louvre at Paris) and Neapolis (= New City, a name it shares with Naples among other places).
Samothrace was actually an island in the north-eastern Aegean Sea, lying just half way between Troas and Neapolis. It was a convenient place for boats to anchor rather than risk sailing at night.
Neapolis was the seaport for Philippi, about 16 km (10 miles) away. Today it is known as Kavalla.
Philippi, as Acts tells us, was a major town in the principal district of the province of Macedonia; it had become a Roman colony and was a completely Latin city, its administration modelled on that of Rome. It was “a city… named after Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Since it was a Roman colony, it was independent of provincial administration and had a governmental organisation modelled after that of Rome. Many retired legionnaires from the Roman army settled there, but few Jews.” (NIV) Its name was further enhanced by Paul writing one of his most beautiful letters to the Christian community of the town. Hence, a place, then as well as now, steeped in history, both secular and religious.
Paul and his companions spent some time in the city. On a sabbath day they went outside the city to find a place to pray. With so few Jews in the city, there was probably no synagogue so, as was not uncommon, they chose an outdoors venue near running water. In this case it would have been the bank of the Gangites River. By choosing such a place they could also carry out the necessary ablutions before prayer. (It is clear that Paul the Pharisee maintained many of his old religious customs.)
There they met some women and among them was one called Lydia, a dealer in purple goods from Thyatira. She may have been called Lydia because she came from the district of Lydia. Thyatira, situated in the Roman province of Asia, 33 km (20 miles) southeast of Pergamum (in the Hellenistic kingdom of Lydia), was famous for its dyeing works, especially royal purple (crimson). Later there was a Christian community there which is twice mentioned in the book of Revelation (1:11; 2:18). As purple-dyed goods were expensive and only worn by the wealthy, we can take it that this woman was fairly well off. And we remember that the rich man in the parable of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ was clothed in fine purple (Luke 16:19-31).
But Lydia was also a “worshipper of God”. In other words, though a Gentile she believed in the God of the Jews and followed the moral teachings of Scripture. She was not, however, a full convert to Judaism. But, being well disposed, she “opened her heart” to what Paul was saying and accepted the Gospel message. Like Cornelius before her, she and her whole household (family members and servants) were all baptised.
She then invited Paul and his companions to share the hospitality of her (probably large) house, if they truly regarded her as “a believer in the Lord”, and would brook no refusal. The wording suggests that Paul was not altogether willing to stay in such a place; in general, he tended to boast that he supported himself from what he earned by his work. In this case, he may have regarded Lydia’s place as too grand or he remembered the instruction of the Master about not moving from house to house but to stay in the first place which offered hospitality. But Lydia – as rich ladies can often be! – apparently was a woman who would not take ‘No’ for an answer. A place like hers, in fact, would make an excellent house church where the community could gather. So it seems that in this one case Paul did accept and it is a compliment to Lydia’s charity and of the other newly baptised Philippian Christians.
Philippi then shares the distinction of really being the first European centre to hear the Christian message. It was to be the beginning of a glorious history which was to transform the continent not only in the area of religion but also in culture, the arts (painting, sculpture, literature, music), social and political development – a movement which still continues.
Paul, of course, was not to know any of that. As he was to say himself, “One man sows and another reaps.” He saw himself primarily as a sower. The same is true of each one of us. But it is important that we sow the seed; otherwise there is nothing to reap.