Acts 16:9-15 A common criticism of biblical Christianity is that it is patriarchal, outdated, and antagonistic towards women. And my response when I hear this criticism is always the same: why don’t you actually open up and a Bible and read it.
When you do so, what any honest student of the Bible will find is that God tells the story of his love for the world not just in the lives of Adam and Abraham and Joseph and Paul and the Twelve--but also in the lives of Eve and Sarah and Mary and in the faithful women of the cross and empty tomb.
The story of God’s love and grace and forgiveness is a story that embraces all people—including women-- and that the gift of God’s Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is for: slave and free—Jew and Gentile—men and women.
We see how true that is in the Book of Acts. Not only does God use Paul, the Hebrew scholar and free Roman citizen, to accomplish his mission—but he also uses the gentile Timothy and the slave Onesimus and the woman Lydia to share the Good News of his salvation with the world.
We can rejoice to see how Christian wives and mothers and daughters and church workers and businesswomen have changed the lives of those around them for the better—for time and eternity. We see these biblical truths vividly portrayed in the story of Lydia—an early Christian believer. Luke writes:
A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 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. 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.
Every time you hear someone tell you how terrible and oppressive the church has been to women, and how women have been short-changed by bible-believing Christians, I want you to remember how, from the very beginning, the church has reached out especially to women with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We read this story about Paul and Silas and Timothy and Luke purposefully seeking out the place where the women of Philippi gathered for prayer so that they could speak to them about Jesus-- and two thousand years later we say, “well of course—why wouldn’t they?”
But what we don’t see (because the world and humanity has changed so dramatically in the intervening years) is what a radical act this was on the part of these Christian men—how different their attitudes toward women were than the prevailing societal views. Rabbinic Judaism of that day regarded women as second-class citizens at best and beasts of burden at worst.
But the leaders of the early church knew and believed something totally different about women: they knew from the Lord’s own example that women were objects of God’s love and concern no less than men—they knew that that women’s souls were eternally valuable to God—they knew that that God wanted all people, men and women, to have a life with him through faith in his Son.
This attitude of God towards women was beautifully modeled by the Lord Jesus during his earthly ministry. Women were his followers. Women were his students. Women supported his ministry. Women were used as positive examples in his teaching again and again.
Where men of his day refused to acknowledge women as fully human—Jesus sought them out and taught them and welcomed them and made a place at this table for them and engaged them in conversation again and again.
Where men abandoned our Lord in his moment of deepest need at Calvary-- it was faithful women who were found at the foot of the cross.
And where men were hiding out in fear after the resurrection-- it was the faithful women who were charged by Jesus with the first apostolic mission of taking the Good News of the resurrection to the disciples.
Paul and Timothy and Silas and Luke knew the example of the Lord and his love and concern for women and modeled that same kind of love and concern as they took the Good News about forgiveness in Jesus out into the world.
And that there were just a few women gathered together for prayer that day in Philippi made no difference—those few women were just as important to them as the thousands of pilgrims that had gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost- and the hundreds of learned scholars assembled on Mars Hill- and the emperor himself in Rome.
The Good News for us is that the love of God in Christ is meant for all people and would be taken to all people—including women. Luke writes about one of these women:
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.
Every time you hear someone complain that Christianity is hostile to women I want you to remember that the very first convert to Jesus Christ in Europe was a woman that even modern people two thousand years later can recognize.
We know from ancient Roman history that, at this time, Philippi had a corporate guild of dyers and Lydia was no doubt a member of that guild-- and because purple was the most sought after color of all in the ancient world we know that Lydia was capable, successful, and wealthy.
The fact that Lydia had an economic life outside the home is a special comfort for modern, Christian women.
The majority of Christian women today work outside of the home and I know that this is not done without some degree of guilt. Most of us were raised by moms who were able to stay at home and be full-time homemakers and many women today wish that they could do the same. But the world has changed- and now many women work and feel guilty about it- wondering if they are doing the right thing by their families.
There are some parts of the church that are not particularly helpful to women in this—some preachers and teachers—and other women—who add to working moms self-imposed guilt by almost equating being a stay at home mom with being a true Christian and a working mom as coming in a distant second in their piety. These folks are wrong.
The love and mercy of God in Christ did not pass Lydia by because she was a working woman—but was given to her too. Luke writes that: The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.
Before her conversion to Christ, Lydia was a Gentile believer in the God of Israel. She would have known that a Messiah had been promised but she did not know that the Messiah had taken on flesh and bone and was named Jesus.
If she were to be saved and have a life with God, she still needed to hear that Good News that the apostles were sent to bring and so she listened to what they had to say. Paul wrote in Romans chapter ten that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.”
That is how conversion worked in Lydia’s life and it is how conversion works in every believer’s life. The Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the power of God unto salvation and the Word of God is sent into the world and does not return to the Lord without accomplishing the saving purpose for which it is sent.
That is exactly what Lydia experienced that day as she heard for the first time the Good News about Jesus who was crucified and raised for her salvation.
Lydia’s conversion is a picture of every conversion—no ranting of some wild-eyed preacher to work up his subject—no manipulative altar call with soft music in the background to get us to come to the front—no emotionally agitated decision on the part of the hearer.
Simply the still, small voice of the Spirit of God powerfully working in our hearts through the Good News about Jesus and giving us the faith to say: “I believe”—just like with Lydia. Luke writes that, after hearing the Good News: she was baptized, and her household as well,
When Jesus gave his church the Great Commission he said:
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.
Now it is self-evident that in the word “nations” Jesus was not talking about baptizing geographic areas delineated by physical boundaries and ruled by some particular form of government. He was talking about the people in the those areas—all the people without restriction--and so Lydia, a gentile woman, was baptized-- and so were those in her household—no matter their age or gender or ethnicity.
The Good News about Jesus-- and Holy Baptism-- and the gift of the Holy Spirit is that God intends them for all people and Lydia wanted to make sure that her family and friends heard about Jesus and believed in him. Luke writes:
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.
In Lydia’s example of taking the Gospel to her home, we see a beautiful picture of Christian womanhood that has repeated itself countless millions of times over the last two thousand years of the church’s history: faithful Christian women, making it their first priority in life that everyone in their homes knows Jesus as well.
There is simply no way to calculate the spiritual good that Christian women have accomplished over the course of salvation history for the eternal welfare of their friends and families through their Christian lives and through their witness to Jesus Christ and the Good News that his love is for all people—including women. Amen.