Lydia: A Champion of the Early Church

Posted on February 6, 2021


By David Ettinger

Based on the account of Acts 16:11-15; 40.

The First
Lydia had the distinction of being the first European the apostle Paul led to faith in Jesus.

Interestingly, Lydia was not her real name. Though the story of her conversion takes place in Philippi, we are told she was from Thyatira,[1] a city in the Roman province of Lydia. She was no doubt referred to by the place where she was raised.

Some commentators believe “Lydia” was actually Eudoia or Syntyche, two women of Philippi whom Paul pleaded with to stop disagreeing.[2] Despite their bickering, Paul also credited both women as having “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel” (Philippians 4:3). This would certainly describe Lydia.

One thing we know for certain about Lydia is that she was a very successful woman as evidenced by her house which was spacious enough to accommodate “the brothers and sisters” (Acts 16:40).

An Impressive City
Considering her upbringing in Thyatira, this is hardly surprising. Thyatira, a melting pot for many nationalities, was a city known for its commerce, its primary industry being purple and crimson dye.

Thyatira was situated near a body of water which was well suited for dyeing. The purple for dyeing came from two sources. One was a shellfish, the murex.

Because the process of extracting purple from the murex was so expensive, artisans were required to charge a steep price for purple-dyed garments in order to make the practice profitable. Because purple clothing was so costly, only royalty and the wealthy could afford it, making dyers and sellers very prosperous.

The second source for some purple dye, but mostly crimson, was the juice of the madder plant, a climbing herb. The dye from the madder was not as difficult to extract as that from the murex, and thus fabric tinted from madder extract was not as expensive.

Either way, the purple and crimson clothing Lydia sold was much in demand, enabling her to make a fine living.

A Woman of Faith
But even more commendable than Lydia’s livelihood was her faith. Growing up in a heathen city, Lydia at some point of her life found the worship of pagan gods useless and sought deeper spiritual fulfillment.

Thyatira had a thriving Jewish population and Lydia, perhaps invited by a client, attended a Jewish worship service and was captivated by the God of Israel. There is no reason to believe she converted to Judaism, but like many Gentiles, Cornelius being one of them,[3] embraced the true God.

Eventually, Lydia left Thyatira for Philippi. Because competition was fierce in Thyatira, perhaps Lydia sought a more opportune place of business and chose Philippi. It was a good decision.

As a colony of Rome, Philippi was a privileged city that housed some of Rome’s finest soldiers. As such, Philippi became more prosperous as its population of well-heeled active and retired military leaders grew. Such affluent citizens would provide Lydia with many buyers for her expensive wares.

One thing, however, that Philippi did not have, was a large Jewish population. In fact, it was quite small. To meet as a synagogue, at least 10 men – a minyan – were required. The Hebrew word minyan refers to an assembly of Jewish men needed for certain religious obligations.

Philippi, however, did not even contain this small amount of Jewish men. Therefore, the tiny Jewish population met at the banks of the Gangites River, since it was customary for Jews lacking a synagogue to gather for prayer at outdoor locations located near water for the purpose of purification rituals.

Among the Worshipers
It is no accident that Lydia was drawn to such a group, and no coincidence she was among a small cluster of women gathered by the river on the Sabbath day Paul came to speak. (We have no idea where the Jewish men of Philippi were at the time.)

Paul likely shared the message of eternal life through Jesus Christ, proving from the Scriptures that indeed Jesus was the Messiah. Lydia heard the message that day, accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, and even spread the good news to her household, all of whom were baptized.

This successful woman with a willing heart then invited Paul and his companions to stay with them, an invitation that eventually led to the birth of the church of Philippi.

Lydia’s openness to Paul’s message and her love for God brought her to faith in Christ. God, in return, used her for a great new work that would be a starting point for the spreading of the Gospel through Europe.

[1] Acts 16:14

[2] Philippians 4:2

[3] Acts 10