Commentary on Acts 16:9-15
Acts 16 offers a compelling portrait of ministry for our consideration.
This chapter begins with Paul choosing Timothy as his companion. This is a significant reminder that ministry is not a solo endeavor; it requires companionship. Paul’s concern for the believers is also noteworthy. At the end of Acts 15, Paul informs Barnabas of his intention to “return and visit believers in every city where they had proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing” (15:36). Paul desires to see the fruit of his labor and so the journey begins. As they travel, there are places where the Spirit forbids them from speaking the word and there are places where the church grew and its faith is strengthened. The trials and triumphs, joys and disappointments of ministry are reflected in the summary of these travels. I would imagine many ministers have had similar experiences. With the Spirit as their guide, they continue.
While traveling, Paul has a night vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him to come and help them. Paul is convinced that God is calling them to proclaim the good news to the people of Macedonia. As such, they stop in Philippi, a city the author describes as a leading city and a Roman colony. While in Philippi, on a sabbath day, they go to where they assume they will find a place of prayer — they go outside the gate by the river. Here they find women gathered.
It is by the riverside that Paul and company encounter Lydia and a group of women. They anticipate that they will find a place of prayer here and indeed they do. Lydia is described as a worshipper of God. The women who had assembled there listen to Paul and his companions. The text describes the scene thusly, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Lydia and her household are baptized and she offers Paul a place to stay. An open heart results in open doors. Lydia tells Paul: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” She extends hospitality to Paul and his companions.
There is a lot that is left to our imaginations in this passage. What do they talk about? Who are these other women and what happens to them? What we do know is that Lydia’s open heart leads to her extending hospitality to Paul and those accompanying.
Although they meet in Philippi, Lydia is from Thyatira. Since she is living in Philippi, it seems that Lydia is away from a place she once called home, a place with which she is still affiliated. Perhaps this made her particularly attuned to the needs of the group of men travelling declaring the word of the Lord. Lydia is described by the work that she does; she is a dealer in purple cloth. As a business woman, she is both able and willing to support the ministry of Jesus Christ by providing shelter to ministers. She welcomes strangers in a place where she once was a stranger. Clearly, the growth of the church is a team effort, an effort that requires the extension of hospitality and generosity.
It is important to remember that this hospitality and generosity may be found in the expected places, coming from those who we do not anticipate will extend it. Paul sets sail looking for a man to share the good news with in Macedonia. Instead, he encounters a group of women.
While in Philippi, Paul goes back to the place of prayer and he is followed by an enslaved girl, performs an exorcism, and ends up before the magistrate for disturbing the peace. Paul and Silas are beaten and are put in prison. After the prison break, the jailor and his family come to believe and are baptized, they open their hearts to the message of Jesus Christ and then they open their home to Paul and Silas. They attend to Paul and Silas’ wounds and feeds them. In the morning the magistrate sends a message to Paul and Silas that they are free to go in peace. It is not likely that the news of the jailbreak has spread that quickly.
I wonder if Lydia and her family came to the rescue of her house guests? We cannot be sure. Acts 16 ends with Paul and Silas returning to Lydia’s home. It states: “After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” Lydia serves as a bookend for Acts 16 and I would suggest that she is also a signifier. Lydia signifies the support that ministry needs in order to grow and thrive.
Ministry is often equated to those individual and things that are visible — the ministers, the sacraments, the choir and ushers. However, ministry is made possible by those who often are not seen and at times are not named. Despite our tendency to want to identify a hero or personality, this text reminds us that it takes a team for the ministry to be effective. All are co-laborers. Paul was not alone, he was there with Silas, Timothy, and likely whoever it is that is recounting the story. The church is strengthened, then and now, by those who demonstrate their faithfulness in both their words and deeds and by those who extend generous hospitality. The proclamation of the word opens the heart and open hearts result in open doors. Let us welcome all who would come.