Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

Acts 16:9-15

Man of Macedonia (16:9-10)

It is at Troas that the apostle Paul has a strange vision. During the night he sees the figure “of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (16:9). (Luke doesn’t explain how Paul knows the person he sees in his vision is from Macedonia.)

This is a pivotal event, for Paul now understands that he is being given a divine call to evangelize Macedonia. This province lies west, across the Aegean Sea from Troas, which makes this seaport the ideal place jumping-off point for the mission. A short boat ride across the Aegean will bring Paul to Philippi, a chief port of Macedonia.

“We got ready” (16:10)

It is at Troas that the first of the “we” sections of Acts appears (16:10-17). Luke writes: “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (16:10). For the next several verses Luke unobtrusively inserts himself as the fourth member of the missionary team, including Paul, Silas and Timothy. This first “we” section ends in Philippi (16:17).

The next “we” section begins when Paul revisits Philippi after the third journey (20:5-15). (The other “we” sections are in 21:1-18 and 27:1-28:16.) It’s reasonable to conclude, then, that Luke stays at Philippi after Paul, Silas and Timothy make their way across Macedonia, and then go south into Achaia. Perhaps Luke is left there to build and organize the church.

The gospel in Macedonia
Acts 16:11-17:15

Sailing to Neapolis (16:11)

The missionary foursome (Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke) sail from Troas for the Macedonian port of Neapolis (the port city of Philippi), passing by the island of Samothrace. Like many other captains, the captain anchors his vessel overnight at the island’s port. The entire crossing of 125 to 150 miles usually takes two days. However, the ship Paul is on for his later return trip from Neapolis to Troas encounters rough seas and contrary winds. Because of this, it takes the missionary company five days to cross the Aegean on that occasion (20:5).

Philippi, a chief colony (16:12)

Neapolis (the modern Kavalla) is the port city; Philippi itself lies 10 miles (16 kilometers) inland on the Via Egnatia. This important highway runs east to Byzantium and west across the Balkan peninsula to Dyrrhachium on the Adriatic coast. Travellers reaching Dyrrhachium can then cross the Adriatic to Brundisium, on the Italian mainland. Here they can connect with another important highway, the Appian Way, which leads to Rome. Perhaps the thought crosses Paul’s mind that he might preach in cities along the Via Egnatia and eventually make his way to Rome.

There’s no indication that Paul preached at Neapolis. Luke hurries the missionaries to Philippi, which is a “Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia” (16:12).

“The Greek of this verse is confused, but the reading adopted by the Good News Bible probably represents what Luke intended, namely, that Philippi was ‘a city of the first district of Macedonia.’ It was certainly not ‘the leading city of the district of Macedonia’ (RSV) nor even of this particular subdivision (NIV). That distinction belonged to Amphipolis, and Thessalonica was the capital of the whole province.” (David J. Williams, Acts, New International Biblical Commentary, pages 280-281).

Philippi had become part of the Roman Empire in 167 B.C. After the second civil war in 42 B.C., when Mark Anthony and Octavian (Augustus) defeated Brutus and Cassius (assassins of Julius Caesar), many Roman army veterans were settled at Philippi, and the city became a Roman colony.

Colonies are governed by the emperor, rather than provincial officials. Roman colonies uses Roman law and have constitutions modeled on the city of Rome.

Apart from the deployment of army units throughout the Empire, the Romans strengthened their hold on the provinces by the creation of “colonies.” These were towns, strategically selected, whose inhabitants were given the rights of Roman citizenship, lived under Roman law and were governed by a Roman type of constitution; they were often used as settlements for retired soldiers of the Roman army, and thus were tantamount to garrison towns. Although these colonies presented the normal architectural features of Greek civilization…they were veritable “little Italies” transplanted overseas, with the Latin ethos and language much in evidence. (E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973], 181)

Philippi is the only city Luke names as a colony, though other cities appearing in Acts are also Roman colonies: Antioch of Pisidia (13:14), Iconium (14:1), Lystra (14:6), Troas (16:8) and Corinth (18:1). Philippi is an especially important center for Paul’s European mission. The Philippian church generously supports him financially in his work (Philippians 4:15-182 Corinthians 11:9). The church there has a “partnership in the gospel from the first day” (Philippians 1:5).

On the Sabbath (16:13)

Luke begins his account of the events in Philippi with the conversion of a woman named Lydia. Paul meets Lydia on the Sabbath day when he and the other missionaries go “outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer” (16:13). Luke is still signaling his presence by using the pronoun “we” (16:13, 16). The river, called the Gangites, is about a mile and a half west of the city.

Paul usually goes to a local synagogue on the Sabbath, where he can preach the gospel when he is asked to speak. But in Philippi, he goes to a river, suggesting that the city does not have a synagogue, probably because it does not have many resident Jews. Jewish law requires that at least ten male heads of households should be available for regular attendance before a synagogue is formed (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 1.6). If the minimum of ten cannot be met, a place of prayer is selected for an informal Sabbath gathering in some peaceful setting, either in a building or outdoors. Those present recite the Shema, pray, read from the prophets, and discuss their readings.

If that is the situation Paul encounters at the “place of prayer” near Philippi, then possibly only women are present (16:13). As a traveling Jewish teacher, Paul is allowed to speak some words of wisdom, offer some exhortation, and deliver a blessing. This is exactly what he does (16:13).

A woman named Lydia (16:14)

One of the women listening to Paul is Lydia, “a dealer in purple cloth” who was “from the city of Thyatira” (16:4). Thyatira is in the ancient kingdom of Lydia, which in Paul’s day is part of the province of Asia (Pliny, Natural History 5.10). Thyatira is renowned for its purple clothing dyes.

Some commentators suggest that since Thyatira is considered to be in the region of Lydia, Luke was speaking of the woman’s place of origin, not her real name. Some scholars propose that the real name of the “Lydian lady” is either Euodia or Syntyche of the Philippian church (Philippians 4:2). This is only a guess. We shall continue to call her “Lydia.”

Lydia may be the local representative or retailer for a guild in Thyatira, selling its wares in Macedonia. Purple dye and cloth was a luxury trade (Luke 16:19) and we can assume that Lydia is rather well-to-do. She is apparently either a single woman or widow. The fact that she owns her own home and can provide hospitality to the traveling missionaries underscores the point that she is a woman of means (16:15).

Luke calls Lydia a “worshiper of God” (16:14). Commentators suggest that the term is indefinite — she may be a pious Jew or a Gentile who worships the God of Israel as a proselyte or God-fearer.

Luke centers on Lydia as a person who is especially influenced by the gospel message. Since Luke writes some years later, perhaps Lydia is still influential in the church. Luke also identifies women as being prominent among the believers in the next three cities in which Paul preaches — Thessalonica (17:4), Berea (17:12) and Athens (17:34). (In the secular world, too, women have a more prominent role in Macedonia than in many other provinces.)

Opened her heart (16:14-15)

Luke says of Lydia that “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (16:14). Luke speaks of such “openings” elsewhere in his Gospel. The disciples’ eyes (24:33), their understanding of Scripture (24:32), and their minds (24:45) are opened by Jesus after the resurrection. Luke sees conversion as God’s action on human beings, opening their understanding to the message of salvation. In this he follows Paul, who says that people cannot believe the gospel because Satan darkens their minds (2 Corinthians 4:4). Their hearts have to be opened miraculously by the enlightening Spirit of God.

Lydia’s baptism seems to take place rather quickly after she responds to the message (16:15). But this is not unusual in Acts. She and her household (family, dependents and servants) become the first converts in Europe, so far as we know. After being baptized, Lydia invites the missionaries to stay at her house, which they do. She puts her Christianity to work, inviting the “strangers” to share in her goods (cf. Matthew 25:35).