Commentary on Acts 16:9-15
According to Acts, first the Holy Spirit and then “the Spirit of Jesus” prevented Paul and Silas from speaking in Asia and from entering Bithynia, respectively, resulting in their arrival in Troas (Acts 16:6-8; cf. 15:40).
It is in Troas (situated in Asia at the shore edge of the Aegean Sea and facing Macedonia), on the opposite side of the Sea, that Paul sees in a vision a Macedonian man (aner); the man summons them to cross over and help them (16:9-10). Convinced by the vision that God had called them to preach good news in Macedonia, without hesitation they cross the border over into Europe (16:10). Luke has constructed the narrative so that the trinity (Holy Spirit, Spirit of Jesus, and God) conspire to get Paul and Silas across the border.
It is important to remember that Silas is traveling with a Jewish man who is also a Roman citizen. Paul will play this card, which carries political and social privileges, later in the narrative. Scholars argue as to whom the “us” in the vision refers; it quite possibly refers to Lydia and her household (Acts 16:13-15) as well as to the jailer and his household (16:27-32). Paul and Silas’s encounter with both result in household conversions. In patriarchal households (male dominated domiciles wherein the father/husband is master/lord [Greek: kurios] over all subordinated members), the subordinate members must submit, with felicity, to the wishes of the master, whether they desires to or not.
Lydia is the head of her household, it appears. She is an independent business woman; we need not assume that she is a widow. Lydia is also a worshiper of God (sebomene ton theon) who leads her household in worship on the Sabbath (Acts 16:13-14). Other Gentile worshipers of Israel’s God in Acts include the Ethiopian eunuch (8:27, 37) and the Roman centurion Cornelius (10:2). Both hear good news in their own contexts and request or submit to baptism.
Paul and Silas arrive in Macedonia and join Lydia’s prayer gathering or synagogue (proseuche) worship by the river, which may or may not be the same location or space as her house. Lydia and her household, we can presume are colonized peoples living in the Roman colony of Macedonia (Acts 16:12). Paul’s status is more complicated; his people, the Jewish people, have been conquered and colonized, but Paul as previously stated is a Roman citizen. He enjoys privileges that Lydia and her family may not, presuming she is not a citizen of the Empire. In his book Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman aptly wrote that if a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he (unlike Paul) would be just another Jew in the ditch.”1 It is important that we recognize our privilege in relation to others; that we do not use our privilege to further oppress others. It is equally important that we don’t always equate our privilege with special divine favor.
It is as a Jewish male and as a Roman citizen that Paul stands before Lydia’s household to preach the good news. We do not know what Paul preached; we just know that the audience gave him their eager attention and responded as expected by being baptized (Acts 16:14; cf. 2:37-38). However, unlike the mixed crowd at Pentecost, there is no mention of repentance. This absence could be because Lydia and her people are already worshipers of the God of Israel (but not necessarily monotheistic). Perhaps, that which Lydia considers good news is partially demonstrated in Paul’s gracious administration of the baptism ritual without burdensome stipulations.
The absence of any mention of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit may also be an acknowledgment that the Spirit was already operative in Lydia’s life and ministry. In Acts God’s Spirit moves as it choose, inhabits whom it will, and is not confined to a particular routine or pattern. Sometimes the Spirit falls on Gentiles before they are baptized as with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:44-45). God’s Spirit precedes us; God is omnipresent. God looks upon and hears all people; his attention, power, and compassion are not limited to those who call themselves Israelites or Christians.
God’s Spirit falls upon, fills, moves human beings as and when God desires. Some of us have often heard people say that they don’t feel the Spirit in certain places because the theological rhetoric does not match what they’ve been taught or they disagree with something that is being taught. Our emotions, be they feelings of annoyance or disappointment (cf. Acts 16:16-18), do not determine the Spirit’s presence with others. God’s Spirit is not submissive to our feelings. Our biases against others who worship, speak, look, or live different from ourselves, should not be taken as proof of the Spirit’s absence or presence.
It appears that Lydia wants Paul to view her submission to baptism as proof of her faithfulness to the Lord (kurios), Acts 16:15. Based on her proven faithfulness, she prevails upon Paul to accept her hospitality and visit for a while. We might imagine that during Paul’s stay with Lydia and her household, on some Sabbaths Paul was blessed to hear Lydia preach the good news (16:16a). Everybody needs to hear good news from time-to-time. Quite possibly, Lydia’s hospitality included a mutual sharing of the gospel. Good news is not the spiritual and intellectual property of males only or of a particular religion. And true discipleship or learning involves dialogue, mutuality, and humility. We might see Lydia as a disciple like Tabitha (9:36–43) who has taught her house gathering how to worship God in word and by acts of kindness.
1 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the disinherited (Boston: Beacon, 1976), 33.