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"The Women of Philippi"

MESSAGE FOR MAY 8, 2011 FROM ACTS 16:11-15

CLICK HERE FOR WMA - Audio file of the sermon

This week, we move back into our series of messages from the book of Acts.  As we continue in chapter 16, Paul and Timothy are at the very beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey.  After visiting some of the churches they had planted on their first journey, Luke records that Paul received a vision.  “…a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  In response, Paul immediately changes his plans and heads for Macedonia. This brought them into what is now Eastern Europe as they crossed the Mediterranean Sea.  At this point, Luke is travelling with Paul so he gives a first-hand account of this journey beginning with Acts 16:11.  In light of this Macedonian call, Luke records, “11 So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. 13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. 14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.”

          One of the great things about preaching through a book is you are forced to preach texts that, if you were not going through a book, you would not be inclined to preach. At first glance, this story has very little “curb appeal” so you are forced to dig a bit to unearth the wisdom the Holy Spirit wants us to see.  At first blush, this is just an introductory story to Paul’s first mission to Macedonia where Luke, in a very matter-of-fact manner describes a lone woman who is converted to Christ.  It would be easy to pass by this account rather quickly as you anticipate the much more exciting story of the demoniac woman or the conversion of the Philippian jailer that follows.  Those accounts have everything!—demons and occult themes, earthquakes, the  account of Paul and Silas landing in Jail and the dramatic conversion of a Gentile jailer along with his family after he had resigned himself to suicide.  It’s easy to see why God included these account in Acts, but this story of a lone woman in Philippi who, without any fanfare or drama, hears Paul teach and is converted in a very understated manner.  That looks pretty vanilla compared to what follows.

          The truth is--when you dig into this story, it has some crucial truth that is very helpful and encouraging to us.  I see three very important insights into God here as Luke relays this account.  First, we get a very important window into: God’s strategy for winning lost people to Christ. As we move through the book of Acts, we clearly see that God didn’t just throw darts at a map to determine where his missionaries were sent.  There was a transparent strategy behind his working.  This strategy unfolds for us as we wonder:  Why did Paul stop in Philippi and not Samothrace or Neapolis?  He passes right through those places without so much as a “how-do-you-do.”  There were surely Gentiles in need of the gospel in Samothrace and Neapolis.  Samothrace was an island where a mystery cult was established to the twin gods Cabiri.  Cabiri was the name of an ancient fertility god whose name is still associated with the modern-day Shriners.  This was a demonic stronghold if there ever was one and for the gospel to have taken hold there would have displayed God’s power over the darkness in magnificent ways.  Why didn’t Paul stop there?  They also passed over Neapolis.  Neapolis was an important sea port in Macedonia—why doesn’t it rate an extended apostolic visit?  Instead, they move into Philippi, ten miles away. Why? There’s no mysterious, mystical reason why the Spirit led Paul to stop in Philippi and not these other places.  Actually, there were very practical reasons for choosing Philippi and missionaries and those who are serious about witnessing to the lost today use the same kind of prayerful, strategic decision-making process when they seek to reach the lost and unreached with the gospel.

          In verse 12, Luke calls Philippi “…a leading city in Macedonia and a Roman colony.”  We know that Philippi was a “leading city” in the sense that it was wealthy.  Underneath its very fertile soil were rich deposits of silver, gold and copper.[1]  It’s not that people with money are more important to God than anyone else, but they’re more likely to travel to other parts of the empire and when a convert travels he/she becomes a missionary bearing good news.  If you follow Christ and he relocates you into another community, God is sending you there for a purpose that goes well beyond your job transfer—there are people there who need to see Christ and hear his message through you.  Travel to and from Philippi was very easy because it was located at one end of what was called the Egnatian Way.  The Egnatian way was a military road that stretched for about 700 miles east and terminated in Philippi.  There were about 30 cities located on or near it and as new converts travelled from Philippi, they would be stopping in populous areas armed with the gospel.  We saw in Acts chapter eight that as persecuted believers fanned out to other parts of the empire, the gospel spread through them and most of that gospel expansion out from the main cities of the empire was not done through the apostles, but through the new believers. 

As an apostle, Paul’s church plants lit a gospel fuse in the form of new, strategically-placed believers and through them the gospel exploded into other people’s lives in every direction.  That progression of the gospel was not an accident.  It was intentional and strategic and it was based on the assumption that once people received the gospel, they would be anxious to share it with unbelievers.  Why should Paul stop on the island of Samothrace when he knows the future Philippian believers had to stop there on their way to Galatia?  Luke also tells us that Philippi was a Roman colony and that meant it was under Roman law and was well connected with Rome—the absolute strategic center of the Roman empire. 

Paul liked to plant churches in Roman colonies. Pisidian Antioch, Lystra and Corinth were also Roman colonies. Again, there is nothing complicated about this strategy—go to populous, influential and easily accessible cities that were seaports or on well-established roads and plant churches there.  In a few years the gospel will spread out as believers either visit or move to other places.  It wasn’t that the souls of the people in Philippi were more important than the souls of the people in other Macedonians cities.  It was simply a place that, when the gospel took hold there, it would more rapidly spread to other areas.  That communicates a valuable insight into God’s strategy for reaching the lost.  As you seek to reach your workplace or your neighborhood for Christ have you sought out God for his strategy?  It’s probably wise to ask God to show you who are the people with the most influence and who he knows are open to the gospel.  God is not limited to this strategy, but there’s a reason we see it so consistently in the book of Acts.

A second valuable insight from this text is especially pertinent to us on this Mother’s Day and that is that it highlights God’s use of women in the ministry of the gospel.  This is a remarkable story in this respect.  Look at verse 13 again.  13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.”   There must have been a very small Jewish population in Philippi because there was no synagogue there and you only needed 10 Jewish men to start a synagogue. With no synagogue, Paul walks down to the riverside where Jews and the Gentiles who worshipped the God of the Old Testament would frequently gather for prayer.  For a man to approach a group of women in this culture where women were marginalized was not at all common and would have been awkward,  if not frowned upon.  It wasn’t seen as immoral—it just wasn’t done in a society where women were not typically seen as worthy of a man’s special attention.  Paul sees that these women are obviously having a prayer meeting and he joins them because he is bound by the gospel, not the prevailing cultural norms.  He begins to speak with them about the Lord and obviously he gives the gospel.  So, the church in Philippi, which probably gave Paul more joy than any of his churches, was started in a women’s prayer meeting.

Verse 14 continues, “14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” God makes Lydia the first convert in Philippi.  Lydia was a business woman from Thyatira where expensive purple cloth was manufactured and was affordable only to people who had money.  The scholars tell us Lydia would have almost certainly have been a widow with some wealth and we see this later when she gives support to Paul’s ministry.  She was baptized and her household as well.  This means all her household—her children, along with her servants.  They too were converted and baptized.  Lydia is only one of a great number of women who played very significant roles in the New Testament.  The fact that many women were significantly used by God in the New Testament, in a world where women were often denigrated and did not have anything close to the status of men, tells us that God places equal value on men and women. 

Women were important to the ministry of Jesus.  His mother Mary and Elizabeth were very important in his birth narrative and that pattern of female involvement continued throughout his life.  Luke chapter eight tell us that women regularly followed Jesus as he taught.  These included Mary Magdalene, from who he had cast seven demons “and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”  These women gave money to the ministry of Jesus as well as provided for other needs.  When we move into Acts, women again play significant roles.  Luke is careful to tell us that the apostles waited on the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter one, “together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus….” [1:14] The Spirit fell on women as well as men at Pentecost.  In addition to Lydia here in Acts, Luke mentions in chapter 21 that Philip had “four unmarried daughters who prophesied.”  That is, they spoke words that came from God through the Spirit for the encouragement of the body.

Women figure prominently in Paul’s letters too.  In Romans 16:6 he tells the church at Rome to “Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.”  Mary is involved in the ministry in some way.  Six verses later, Paul says, “Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa.”

Earlier in verse three, Paul says “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in the Lord.”  It was in their house that the church in Corinth met and later they were with Timothy helping out in Ephesus with the church Paul had planted there.  They helped Apollos more clearly understand the gospel of grace.  Junia was another woman Paul greeted in his letter to the Romans.  He calls her “my kinsman and my fellow prisoner...” She had suffered for the gospel.  We know from First Timothy chapter three that women were deacons in the church and we know that it was a woman named Chloe and her associates who reported to Paul the trouble that was brewing in the church at Corinth that prompted his first letter to them.  Finally, in Philippians chapter four, Paul tells us that Euodia and Syntyche “labored sided by side with me in the gospel.” 

          The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that among the Gentiles, tremendous numbers of women were attracted to Judaism—far more than men.[2]  Because Paul found his most fruitful ministry among these God-fearing Gentiles who believed in the God of Abraham, it is safe to say that there were probably more women converts in the early church than men.  Though there are role distinctions in the Bible between men and women, we should never allow that fact to lead us to believe that women have not and will not continue to be indispensible for the ministry of the gospel here and to the nations. On this Mother’s Day, I believe God wants to affirm you women and challenge you through the example of all these women to look at your life and ministry.  Are you doing all that God has called you to do in his Kingdom?  On the other hand, the fact that women have been and will continue to be active in ministry should not cause the men to sit down and let the women do the work.  That was a real problem 20 years ago and we must never allow the willingness and servant hearts of the women to cause us men to think that we are free to shirk our crucial role of serving and leading in Christ’s church.  Men, if your wife is active in ministry and you are not, how can you be fulfilling your God-given responsibility to be the spiritual leader of your household?  Repent of your sin and begin ministering to the Lord in some way—in or out of the church.  Lydia is a powerful encouragement to believing women today.

          A third insight into God is seen in Lydia’s salvation, specifically God’s sovereignty in the sinner’s salvation.  This account of Lydia’s salvation speaks powerfully to the sovereign, irresistible grace God gives in salvation.  Look again at verse 14.  One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God.  The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  It’s important to remember that Lydia was already a worshipper of the God of Abraham--she met to pray with other women and worship God.  She had not formally converted to Judaism, but she believed in God and judging from this text, was devout in her worship.  If salvation were a simply a matter of hearing the news and, on your own, making a “decision for Christ”—apart from God’s sovereign, regenerating work in a person’s heart, there would have been no need for Luke to state this account as he did.  He could have said, “As Paul spoke, Lydia, a worshipper of God opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  That is, Lydia (with her “free will”) could have simply reasoned that this message was consistent with the God she had been worshipping from the Old Testament and, from her own power of reason, chosen to accept Christ.  She is the active one in that scenario.  She hears the gospel and willfully chooses to accept Christ with no sovereign intervention by God.

          But that’s not at all how Luke words this conversion account.  He says, “…Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God.  The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  That word translated “opened” means to “enable someone to perceive” or “make understanding possible[3]  to “open what has been thoroughly closed[4]  Why would Luke use that word to describe what happened in Lydia’s heart if she is able to respond on her own in saving faith?  There would be no reason to describe this that way unless Luke is trying to make a point that it is God who is sovereign over salvation and not the so called ‘free will” of humanity.  The reason why Lydia—even though she worshipped God had to be “enabled to perceive” or “made to understand” what Paul said is because even though she was a worshipper of God, she could not perceive or understand the gospel in a way that would save her.  God had to do that work in her.  This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks after God.”  It’s because no one savingly understands the gospel that God must enable them to understand by actively opening their heart to the gospel.  The reason no one understands is because, as Paul tells the believers in Ephesus in Ephesians 2:11…and you were dead in the trespasses and sins…”

          You can talk to a corpse until you are blue in the face and it will not understand or perceive one thing you are saying because dead people don’t understand.  Lydia’s example tells us that, even if these spiritually dead people worship the God of the Bible, they cannot savingly perceive or understand the gospel unless God first makes them alive—opens their heart.  Paul says it this way in Second Corinthians chapter four.  He writes,  6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  Again, why did Paul say it that way?  Why didn’t he say, “At one point, we saw the light and knew Jesus?  That makes the sinner the active participant, but Paul again puts sinners in the passive role—as the ones in whose hearts God shines the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  The reason why God has to shine in our hearts to give “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”—the gospel—in the face of Jesus Christ is because—apart from his active, illuminating work in our hearts, they are completely darkened spiritually.  He says by implication that the sinner is in the same condition as the creation was before God said, “Let the light shine out of darkness.”  Paul says--that’s how dark our hearts are—like the creation before God spoke light into it—total darkness—no light—no capacity to respond to the gospel unless God shines it into the darkness of our hearts.   It is as possible for the darkened hearted sinner to independently respond to the gospel as it was for the creation to be illuminated apart from the light-inducing voice of God.  That’s what Paul is saying.

          Lydia—even as a worshipper of the Hebrew God, had a closed heart to the gospel until God opened it.  That way, God gets all the glory.  If fallen humans play an active role in their salvation, then they absolutely have something to boast about.  Mutual cooperation in salvation brings mutual credit for salvation.”  If salvation is a mutual effort between God and the sinner, then the sinner has to get some of the praise.  This is a beautiful picture of the grace of God that opens hearts that, apart from him, would remain closed due to sin.  Luke’s account here of Lydia’s salvation puts God’s sovereign role on display.
            Let’s now think about some application from this text.  First, this text reminds us that we are responsible to spread the gospel here and to the nations.  I don’t want to labor this too hard because we heard a message on our role as ambassadors of Christ last week.  Let me ask you—what have you done this week in response to last week’s reminder of our privilege and responsibility in evangelism?  Has it impacted the way you pray or look at sinners?  As you have thought about it, (if you have thought about it?) are you more burdened to reach the lost people around you?  Did you take advantage of an opportunity God may have given you to talk about spiritual things to a lost person?  Beloved, we must be careful about coming into church on a Sunday morning as a spectator—listening to the message—giving it a score—whether it was good or ok or bad and when the service is over, you immediately turn around and talk to a person near you about your week, completely shelving what we have just heard.  When we do that, the grace of God is not active in our lives. When we do that, that should frighten us because the eternal, inerrant, authoritative Word of God was spoken into an area of our hearts that needed to hear it and within moments of the last phrase, it was filed away without any serious thought to whether or not you would respond to it.
          As we’ve seen here in Acts 16, God’s strategy for missions and evangelism assumes that believers will share their faith to others.  The apostles couldn’t do it all and neither can the evangelists or pastors.  We are ALL to be salt, carrying the life-giving Word to others whose lives are rotting in sin.  We are ALL to bring the light of the gospel, so that God can shine it into the hearts of lost people.  Jesus Christ came to this earth and died on a cross because we are sinners and the wages of sin is death. God in his love chose to place that death sentence on his Son who died in the place of all those who trust in his Name.  Those who trust in Christ are forgiven of their sins and given a right standing with God.  The message is not hard.  Any believer can give it out and we must ask ourselves: “Why, if we know the message, are we not as anxious and willing to give it out to others as the early church was when the gospel spread like wildfire as the apostles reached the strategic cities and the believers spread it throughout the Roman empire as they spoke the gospel to others?”
          Second, we must understand that you can be a worshipper of God and be totally lost.  We know this because Luke specifically states that Lydia worshipped God.  She was a God-fearer.  She had rejected the Roman pantheon of pagan Gods and embraced the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…AND her heart was closed to the gospel and God had to supernaturally open it for her to be born again.  One of the deepest burdens of my heart is that this church, like every other church, has Lydia’s in it.  Those who outwardly worship the God of the Bible, but who don’t love him--those who pray to a God they do not personally know--those who mentally comprehend the gospel, but have not been changed by it--those who have a Christian outer veneer, but who are dead on the inside--those who talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk--those who are regularly in church, but who will not be in heaven.  The example of Lydia should sober all of us.  It’s possible to be a worshipper of God and be totally lost and without Christ—in spite of whatever testimony we might be able to give.  Perhaps the most frightening words in all the Bible are Jesus’ statements at the close of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew seven.  21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”  These were people who were doing amazing, supernatural things FOR JESUS and he tells them that they were totally deceived and that he in fact never even knew these people who were doing so many things for Jesus.

If you need to be sure of where you are with Christ, there are those who will pray with you and minister to you in that area.  May God give us the saving, heart-opening grace to savingly believe the gospel, give out the gospel and be active in the ministry of the gospel, whether we are male or female.

[1] Bock, ECNT, Acts, 533

[2] IVP Background to the New Testament—electronic version commentary on Acts 16:14.

[3] BAGD , dianoigo p. 187.

[4] Strong’s 1996, dianoigo electronic version


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