Lydia was known as the first convert to the Christian faith in Europe, in the colonial Roman city of Philippi (Acts 16:11-15), during Apostol Paul’s second missionary journey.
Lydia was from the city of Thyatira, a city in the western province of Lydia in Asia Mino. Her name originally might have been the designation of her home, “a woman of Lydia.”
As a seller of purple garments-among the most expensive articles of ancient commerce-Lydia was no doubt a woman of considerable wealth. She was one of the a few famous women in the Bible who owned a business.
Lydia was not by birth a Jewess, but a proselyte, as the phrase ‘who worshipped God (seboménē tón Theón)’ imports.
The Roman Colony of Philippi
Lydia was living in Philippi when she met Paul on his second missionary journey. She was a seller of purple cloth, which Thyatira was famous for, being a center of indigo trade. She was doubtless staying at Philippi for the purpose of her trade.
Philippi was a leading city or principal city of Macedonia on the European continent, perhaps because it was considered a crossroads between Europe and Asia.
Philippi was administered according to the laws and constitution of the city of Rome and enjoyed the highest status a provincial town could have. All in all, it would have felt very Roman. The city’s religious life followed the imperial cult and was a center for the worship of a variety of gods.
The Conversion of Lydia
Paul’s missionary strategy included visiting local synagogues (cf., Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1), but there was no synagogue in Philippi, perhaps due to a lack of Jewish men there. However, there was an informal place of prayer attended, it seems, exclusively by women (Acts 16:13). Among the worshippers was Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.
Lydia was also a worshiper of God or a God-fearer (Acts 16:14), and, when Paul found her, she was honoring the Sabbath. She was gathered with a group of other women on the Sabbath at a place of prayer near the river outside of Philippi.
Paul, Silas, and Luke “sat down” (the usual attitude of teachers) to speak to the assembled women. Lydia was one of the listeners (eekouen ), and “the Lord opened her heart (compare Luke 24:45; Psalms 119:18; Psalms 119:130) to pay attention to what was said by Paul”. The Greek (elaloumen ) implies conversational speaking rather than set preaching. Her modesty and simplicity beautifully come out in the narrative. She heartily yields to her convictions and is forthwith baptized, the waters of Europe then first being sacramentally used to seal her faith and God’s forgiveness in Christ.
She leads her “household” to believe in, and be baptized as disciples of, the same Savior. This is the first example of that family religion to which Paul often refers in his epistles (1 Corinthians 1:11; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 1 Corinthians 16:15; Romans 16:5; Philemon 1:2).
After Lydia’s conversion and baptism, she insisted that Paul and his friends come to stay at her home, if they judged her to be “a believer in the Lord” (Acts 16:15). Luke says that “she prevailed upon us,” which indicates the fervency of her desire to be hospitable. The missionaries did indeed judge Lydia to be a true believer, and they stayed at her home while in Philippi.
Significance of Lydia’s Conversion
Lydia’s conversion marks the start of a new epoch in the Bible. Up to that point, the gospel had not gone further west than Asia Minor. In fact, on this journey, Paul’s original intention had been to stay in Asia, but God had changed his plans. The Lord sent Paul a vision calling him westward across the Aegean Sea and into Macedonia (Acts 16:6–10). Lydia, although a native of Asia Minor, is the first person recorded to have been saved in Europe.
First came her faith, then her leading all around her to Christ, then her and their baptismal confession, then her love evidenced in pressing hospitality (Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9; 1 Timothy 5:10), finally her receiving into her house Paul and Silas after their discharge from prison; she was not “ashamed of the Lord’s prisoners, but was partaker of the afflictions of the gospel.”
Through Lydia also the gospel probably came into Thyatira, where Paul had been forbidden to preach it at the earlier time, for God has His times for everything (Acts 16:6; Revelation 2:18). Thyatira being a Macedonian colony had much contact with Philippi, the parent city. Lydia may have been also one of “those women who labored with Paul in the gospel” at Philippi (Philippians 4:3).