Lydia of Philippi, Acts 16:11-40
Have you ever wondered what your destiny is? Sometimes it seems like people really know – like the missionary who has “a heart” for a certain people group ever since she could remember, or the person born with a great talent, and a great passion to go with it. But what about the rest of us? Why are we here? What did God have in mind when He created you and me?
What gives life meaning, anyway? Isn’t life about self-fulfillment, and following your bliss? Everybody, across the board, longs to be known and loved, and longs to contribute something lasting and significant in life. Don’t you just need to basically be a good person?
I mean, these are open-ended questions people have been weighing in on for thousands of years, so, clearly, there’s no short and easy answer, no formula that wraps it all up. But one thing we can know, is that whatever else our destinies may hold for us, being made in God’s image makes us personal, moral and spiritual beings, and God’s purpose for people is all about love and purity, all about eternity and glory, and relationship. We have significance and worth already, because we were made in love, and made for love, forever.
Honestly, knowing we're loved, and of eternal worth, makes having destiny gravy, when you think about it! But, we get that, too. God has something particular and unique that He’s given every person to contribute to the earth, and to the world, and no matter what happens, you and I are not going to get robbed of that…even though we may not know what that is till we look back at the end of life and view our sojourn on earth from God’s vantage point.
Still, you and I are probably not going to get a heavenly missive wafting down to us on the wings of a dove, with the whole plan outlined for us. Much more likely, God will lead you to your destiny one step at a time. The process will shape you, and make you ready for your destiny, as God molds you into the kind of person you need to be to fulfill what He has planned for you.
That’s what God was doing with Lydia in ancient Thyatira. In her day women did not usually wonder what their destiny would be. Depending on their station in life, they would become someone’s wife, and the mother of their husband’s children, or they might be sold into slavery. Very few women were able to pull off what Lydia did, joining a guild, becoming a master in a trade, and establishing her own household.
Lydia was an outlier.
Lydia was most likely born into a Greek nobleman’s home. She was raised in the wealth and bustle of Thyatira, a Turkish city world-renowned for its dyes and textiles trade. In fact, Thyatira was home to more artisans and guilds than any other city of its day, including the dyes guild, of which Lydia undoubtedly later became a member.
An outlier in her time, Lydia made a name for herself in the dye trade, establishing her own business and household, and enjoying a level of independence only a small minority of women were able to experience.
It’s possible Lydia thought she was pursuing her destiny as a successful merchant and business woman when she branched out from her home in Thyatira and moved to the wealthy retirement community of Philippi. Here she would enjoy the fruits of her labors, with less competition from the bustling artisan and guild trade she had left behind.
Meanwhile, somewhere along the line, Lydia must have come in contact with some of the many Jews who lived in Thyatira, for she developed a longing to know the one true and living God. When she moved to Thyatira, she may have looked for a place to worship Him in Philippi, knowing that as few as ten Jewish men and women could start a synagogue.
It’s my guess that when Lydia found no synagogue in her new hometown she was the one who eventually urged and encouraged the Jewish women she met to form a prayer group by the river. God had worked into Lydia the kind of bold courage and ‘can-do’ spirit which had made her an outlier in the first place, and which the godly women of Philippi needed, to do the unusual by coming together for worship, without any men at all.
What do you think God is working into your character? What do you have that others may not even realize they need?
Lydia may have thought she had everything she had ever dreamed of. She was wealthy, a successful businesswoman, and skilled at her trade. She owned her own home, and ran a large household of slaves and servants. In her day, the wealthy and influential were sought after for their patronage. She would have had a seat on the city council, her advice would have carried a certain amount of weight, and her ability to protect and sponsor those who sought her favor, would have been significant.
Lydia would have had a dense constellation of connections, tradespeople, businesses, wealthy private clients, noble families, vendors, and the list goes on. Because of her wealth and status, this network of people would have asked her to confer with them on such matters as legal representation in court, loans of money, influencing business deals or marriages, and supporting a client's candidacy for political office or a priesthood. In return, the clients were expected to freely and generously offer their services to their patron as needed.
But the destiny God had in mind for Lydia included so much more than even these matters of consequence. God had eternity in mind for Lydia.
This is how God works in our lives, one step at a time. God intended for Lydia to receive the gospel. Little did she know that God had been working on her behalf by sending the apostle Paul a dream that would draw him to her very city.
Meanwhile, Paul had been praying for guidance from God. He knew the Holy Spirit was preventing him from heading east, though he longed to go in that direction. But, Paul also knew with confident faith that
“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:15-16).
The very night Paul asked for God’s guidance he had a vivid dream holding the impact of a vision. The next morning he had no doubts he and his team were to head west.
God's goal was to bring the gospel to Lydia, to save this woman whom He had made in His image, because of His tender, personal love for her. The destiny God had planned for Lydia was to receive the gospel, becoming the first believer in Europe, open her home to these missionaries, and use her wealth and influence to establish Europe’s first church in her spacious house.
As an outlier, Lydia was the perfect person to begin this church. She knew what it took to think outside the box, to push boundaries, and to accept unusual people.
Mature faith accepts God's crossing up of normal conventions.
Lydia’s story gives me courage to lean into my own destiny, whatever that is. Sometimes it feels safer to just do the things we know, don’t make waves, stay within the cultural norms, let someone else do the pioneering. But Lydia rose to challenges.
Paul must have just loved her strength, her courage, her perseverance, and yes, her patronage. One thing I am getting to learn about Paul, he loved powerful women, and he included them whenever he could in God’s great work.
All passages taken from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.