Lydia is mentioned only twice in the Bible, in Acts 16; but her importance is greater than the length of her story would indicate. First, let’s read the text:
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. 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. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, 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.
So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
This occurs during Paul’s second mission journey. At this point, he has traveled with Silas, by land, from the great city of Antioch across the entire length of Turkey.
We can tell quite a bit about her from the short description. She was not Jewish. Women gathered at rivers for two reasons: to bathe and to wash clothes, and a devout Jew would have done neither of these on the Sabbath. (Lydia may actually have been there working — more on this below.) Instead, she is one of those odd Greeks who worship the God of the Hebrews.
Her home town, Thyatira, was in the Province of Lydia from which, no doubt, she took her name. This town was located in western Turkey (in fact, Paul and Silas might have stopped there) and was famous as a trade center for indigo and other dyes.
She is described as a dealer in purple goods, a trade she no doubt learned in her home town. The “goods” would have been almost exclusively dyed cloth. In her day, cloth could be dyed purple by two methods. The most famous today is the Tyrian purple of Rome, which could be worn only by members of the Emperor’s family and senators; any other person in Rome or its colonies who wore purple would have been fined and possibly jailed. Tyrian purple was made from a rare saltwater snail and was extremely expensive.
The second method of making purple dye involved combining two plants, indigo (a dark blue) and rose madder (red). This would have been a natural for someone from Thyatira, because it was known for its indigo. Making it required a lot of fresh water and was enormously malodorous; among other things, it required fermenting the source in urine! You can see why it was not produced inside towns. Production was done only by rivers or lakes outside town walls — so this might easily be the reason Lydia was found by a river outside Philippi. The inferior purple thus produced could be worn by commoners; people were as vain then as they are now, so even imitation purple, the color of the emperor, would have been in demand.
Lydia’s name, being the name of the province from which she came, indicates low origins. Generally, people named for places were slaves, or had been born to slaves. On the other hand, she appears to be at least somewhat prosperous — a person who knew how to make fake purple, and had an industrious nature, could make a living. We also know she had a decent-sized house and a household.
The composition of her household is not specified. No husband is mentioned; likely she was a widow with children, or even a single woman with employees or slaves, since she appears to be in charge of her household. A married woman would have needed her husband’s consent to invite men to stay at her house.
There seem to have been a fair number of people who were “worshippers of God” or “God fearers”.These were Gentiles (“Greeks”) who worshipped the God of the Hebrews. Actually becoming a Jew by conversion was difficult and sometimes inconvenient; Philippi did not even have a synagogue. But Judaism was an ancient religion even in 50 A.D. and the only enduring, well-established monotheistic religion. So many people who were called to worship God were, like Lydia, non-Jewish worshippers of the Jewish God. Another famous one was Cornelius, whom Peter baptized in Caesarea. (Acts 10) In fact, Job was called a “righteous gentile”.
This is the first reason Lydia was both remarkable and important. Her calling to worship the one true God was remarkable under the circumstances. She lived in a place where Jews residents were quite rare. She would have been exposed to Jewish merchants, but the contact would be brief. A Jew would not have taken a meal or entered the house of a Gentile woman. Her chance to receive meaningful instruction would have been minimal.
So Paul and Silas struck pay dirt when they met her. She was thirsting for God and ready to give her life to Him. For her to meet important disciples who could teach her and baptize her, telling her the good news about Christ, would have been a momentous occasion. And, by this time, the Council of Jerusalem had decreed that Gentiles could be full members of the new religion. She no longer had to live as an outsider to her chosen religion.
Thus, Lydia became the anchor of one of the great churches of the Apostolic Age. Paul would later applaud the importance of this church: “you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.” (Philippians 4:15)
Certainly, she was included as one who had been “sharing in the gospel from the first day”. (Philippians 1:3)
Philippi was hostile to Paul and Silas; they were publicly beaten and thrown into prison soon after their arrival. (Acts 16) Yet Lydia took them into her house; she fed and housed them, both when they first arrived and later, after they had been told to leave town. She had her entire household baptized, and her house became the meeting place and place of worship for the converts in Philippi. Public preaching and worship were inconvenient and dangerous; the availability of a house to potential converts is certainly one of the reasons the church at Philippi prospered, while the churches in other Macedonian towns struggled.
Lydia, in short, was instrumental in making the great church in Philippi. The importance of this church, as the seed church for all of Greece and Macedonia, was enormous. She was truly one of the great Christian pioneers.