Down by the River

Acts 16:11-15

~ Joni Butler

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Unbeknownst to her, Lydia’s heart was ready. A transplant herself from further east, she identified with the Jewish minority in her adoptive city of Philippi by joining them for worship and observing the Sabbath. She would have known just enough of the truth to know in the deep places of her heart that holiness that would satisfy this god, the one God, the creator God she now worshiped could not be achieved by her attempts to observe the laws he had given. Long before the question formed in her conscious mind, God was planning the complete fulfillment of the longing she had in her heart.

Paul and his companions had been visiting the churches they had established when their course was redirected to Macedonia by a vision in which Paul saw a man of Macedonia pleading for help. Paul, Silas and Luke made their way toward Macedonia and the first city they came to was the Roman colony of Philippi. They passed a Sabbath there in Philippi, and, following their instincts, went outside the gate of the city to the river where they imagined there would be a place of prayer.

They were not disappointed. Lacking a temple in Philippi, a group of women were gathered there for prayer on the Sabbath. Lydia, whose heart the Lord had prepared for this moment, believed the words spoken by Paul and was baptized, the first convert to the Gospel in Europe. She immediately insisted that the missionaries stay with her for the remainder of the time they were in town. It’s interesting that Paul’s vision was of a man pleading for him to come to Macedonia, but it was a woman whose heart was ready that received the message first!

Lydia was a woman of means, owning her own house, supporting a household, and able to host several men for an indeterminate length of time. She sold a highly desirable product, purple cloth, a specialty of her hometown Thyatira, which would have been considered precious and exotic. She reminds me of the shrewd businesswoman of Proverbs 31: She perceives that her merchandise is profitable…Her clothing is fine linen and purple… She looks well to the ways of her household. This businesswoman would become a woman of stature in the community of new believers.

How encouraging for Paul and his companions to encounter a willing heart so early in their journey. And considering they were directed there by a vision, the confirmation of that first believer must have assured them that they were on the right path. And then to be offered a comfortable place to stay… It might have seemed too good to be true, necessitating Lydia’s emphatic request that eventually prevailed upon the road-weary missionaries. Tradition suggests that it may have been Lydia Paul was referring to when he opened his letter to the Philippians with this warm greeting: “I thank God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you making your request with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now.”

During their stay in Philippi, the missionaries went down to the river often to pray and talk to the Jews gathered there. More and more followed Lydia in accepting their message of reconciliation, and accepted Lydia’s invitation into her home. When Paul and Silas were imprisoned later, it was there that the new church gathered to pray for their safety, waiting though the night for any word from their friends. They would have been shocked the next morning to see their friends returning, their wounds bandaged, with the most amazing story on their lips!

In obedience to the holy vision that reroutes our plans, in obedience to the holy questioning of our present understanding, and in obedience to a holy longing for more, our hearts are guided like Paul’s and Lydia’s by the Spirit to the life He intends for us, to take our place in history.

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