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Acts 16:9-15 Biblical Commentary:
This is Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (49-52 A.D.) as related in Acts 15:30 – 18:21 (see Acts 13-14 for his First Missionary Journey and Acts 18:22 – 21:16 for his Third Missionary Journey). Given the numerous place-names in this exegesis, it would be helpful to look at a map to trace Paul’s journey. If you don’t have a Bible atlas, check for maps in the back of your Bible. You can also find maps by Googling “Bible maps.”
Paul started this journey in Jerusalem and traveled north to Antioch of Syria (15:30), home base for his missionary journeys. He was accompanied by Silas after a rift with Barnabas concerning John Mark, whom Paul considered unreliable (15:37-38).
Paul and Silas then traveled west to Cilicia (15:41), the region where Paul’s hometown, Tarsus, is located. Cilicia is located on the Mediterranean coast in the south of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). This account doesn’t mention that Paul and Silas visited Tarsus, but it seems likely that they did.
Paul and Silas proceeded in a northwesterly direction to the towns of Derbe and Lystra, in the interior of modern-day Turkey, where they were joined by young Timothy (16:1).
The three disciples (Paul, Silas, and Timothy) then traveled through the regions of Phrygia and Galatia in west-central Asia Minor (Turkey). The Holy Spirit forbade them to proclaim the Gospel in Asia (16:6), so they decided to go to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there (16:7). The point is that Paul and his companions are not left to their own devices, but receive Godly guidance.
Paul and his companions then went to Troas (16:8), a port city on the northwest coast of Asia Minor (Turkey). Troas is located on the Aegean Sea (the sea that separates Asia Minor and Greece).
An interesting note: The Aegean Sea and a series of connected waterways (the Dardanelles Strait, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus Strait) separate Asia from Europe, with Turkey on the Asian side and Greece on the European side. Paul’s visit to Macedonia represents the introduction of Christianity to the European continent.
ACTS 16:9-10. COME OVER INTO MACEDONIA AND HELP US
9A vision appeared to Paul in the night. There was a man of Macedonia standing, begging him, and saying, “Come over into Macedonia and help us.” 10When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go out to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the Good News to them.
“A vision appeared to Paul in the night. There was a man of Macedonia standing, begging him, and saying, ‘Come over into Macedonia and help us’” (v. 9). While in Troas, Paul saw a vision of a man pleading for him to come to Macedonia, which constituted most of modern-day northern Greece. Just as Jesus and the Spirit directed Paul’s travels in verses 6-8, God continues to direct them here.
Macedonia was located between Achaia (modern-day southern Greece) and Thrace (modern-day Bulgaria plus the European portion of modern-day Turkey west of the Bosporous Straits). Three centuries earlier, Macedonia achieved world prominence when Alexander the Great served as its king.
The present-day Republic of Macedonia (located north of Greece) includes only a small portion of ancient Macedonia. It was part of Yugoslavia for many years, but achieved its independence in 1991.
Some have thought that the Macedonian man in the vision might be Luke, the author of the book of Acts (based largely on the “we” passages in verse 10 and elsewhere in Acts). Others have suggested that he might be Alexander the Great (based largely on the fact that Alexander was Macedonian). However, these opinions are sheer speculation and don’t deserve much attention. If it were important for us to know the identity of the Macedonian man, Luke would have revealed it.
“When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go out to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the Good News to them” (v. 10). Interpreting his vision as a call from God, Paul and his companions determine to cross the Aegean Sea to go to Macedonia.
“immediately we sought to go out to Macedonia” (v. 10b). This is the first of several “we” passages in the book of Acts (see also 16:11-17; 20:5-8, 13-15; 21:1-18; 27:1 – 28:16). Because Luke is the author of the book of Acts, many scholars have concluded that Luke joins Paul and his companions at this point. That, however, is uncertain.
ACTS 16:11-12. SAMOTHRACE TO NEAPOLIS TO PHILIPPI
11Setting sail therefore from Troas, we made a straight course to Samothrace, and the day following to Neapolis; 12and from there to Philippi, which is a city of Macedonia (Greek: prote meridos tes Makedonias polis), the foremost of the district, a Roman colony. We were staying some days in this city.
“Setting sail therefore from Troas, we made a straight course to Samothrace, and the day following to Neapolis” (v. 11). Samothrace is an island near the coast of Thrace (modern-day northeastern Greece). It is located about 20 miles (32 km) from the coast of Thrace—south of the city of Neapolis, a seaport on the coast of Macedonia (modern-day Greece). Neapolis serves as Philippi’s seaport.
With favorable weather, a ship could make the journey from Troas to Samothrace in one day and from Samothrace to Neapolis in one more day. A ship’s captain would usually lay over in Samothrace rather than trying to navigate these waters at night.
“and from there to Philippi, which is a city of Macedonia (prote meridos tes Makedonias polis), the foremost of the district, a Roman colony. We were staying some days in this city“ (v. 12). Philippi is located 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Neapolis in the eastern part of Macedonia (modern-day northeastern Greece). It is connected to Neapolis by the Roman road, “Via Egnatia” or “Egnatia Way.”
While in Philippi, Paul and his companions will be arrested and imprisoned after exorcising a spirit from a slave-girl (16:16-24), but an earthquake will open the doors of the cells and unfasten the chains holding the prisoners. However, Paul and his companions will remain in their cells and witness to their jailer, leading to the conversion of the jailer and his household (16:25-34). The following morning, the magistrates will offer to let Paul and his companions go free, but Paul will reveal that he and his companions are Roman citizens and will demand an apology for their beating and imprisonment—and the authorities will issue the apology (16:35-39). Paul and his companions will then go to Lydia’s house to encourage the new Christians there, and will then leave Philippi (16:40).
The church at Philippi will be generous in their support of Paul’s ministry (Philippians 1:5; 4:10, 14-18). Paul will later write them a letter from his prison cell—possibly from Rome (Philippians 1:7, 13-14).
“which is a city of Macedonia“ (v. 12b). It is difficult to know exactly how to translate prote meridos tes Makedonias polis. An alternate translation would be “a city of the first district of Macedonia.” If “a leading city” is intended, it might refer to Philippi’s prosperity. Thessalonica is the capital of Macedonia.
ACTS 16:13-15. LYDIA, WHO WORSHIPED GOD, HEARD US
13On the Sabbath day we went forth outside of the city by a riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down, and spoke to the women who had come together. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, one who worshiped God (Greek: sebomene ton theon), heard us; whose heart the Lord opened to listen to the things which were spoken by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and stay.” So she persuaded us.
“On the Sabbath day we went forth outside of the city by a riverside” (v. 13a). This is probably the River Gangites, more than a mile from town.
“where we supposed there was a place of prayer” (v. 13b). If this is where Jewish people go to worship on the sabbath, there must not be a synagogue in Philippi. A synagogue would require the presence of ten Jewish men to constitute a minyan (the quorum required for Jewish worship). Perhaps there are not ten Jewish men in Philippi.
“and we sat down” (v. 13c). Sitting would be the usual posture for a teacher.
“and spoke to the women who had come together” (v. 13d). “John Calvin noted a delicious incongruity.” Paul and his companions were called to Macedonia by a man, but in Philippi they encounter only women—”and the one woman who is converted is not Macedonian” (Gaventa, 236). As we will learn in the next verse, Lydia is from Thyatira, a city in Asia Minor (Turkey).
While the culture of that day strongly favored males, Luke features women frequently both in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. He often pairs a man and woman in a story or pairs a story of a man with a story of a woman (Luke 1:5-24, 26-38; 7:1-10 and 7:11-17; 8:26-39 and 8:40-56, etc.). Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna appear prominently in the beginning of his Gospel, and women were the first to learn of the empty tomb near the end of his Gospel. In the book of Acts, he several times mentions “men and women” (2:18; 5:14; 8:3, 12; 22:4).
People often think of Paul as a misogynist (woman hater), but that was hardly the case. Women play a prominent role in Paul’s ministry (17:4, 12, 34; 18:2), and he says that in Christ “there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).
“A certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, one who worshiped God (sebomene ton theon), heard us” (v. 14a). A number of scholars interpret sebomene ton theon to mean “God-fearer”—like Cornelius, the Gentile who was receptive to the Jewish faith (Acts 10:2).
However, Cornelius was described as phoboumenos ton theon, which clearly means fearing God, while Lydia is described as sebomene ton theon, which means revering or worshiping God. It seems a stretch to give Lydia the status of God-fearer based only on sebomene ton theon. It seems more likely that she is simply a devout woman—possibly a Gentile who favors the Jewish faith—but possibly Jewish.
“a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira” (v. 14b). Thyatira is located in Asia Minor (Turkey)—approximately 250 miles (400 km) southeast of Philippi. Thyatira is noted for purple dyes.
Purple dye was extracted from a particular kind of snail. The limited supply of these snails and the tedious process of extracting the dye made purple dye quite expensive. Only wealthy people such as royalty could afford purple cloth, so purple became associated with royalty. As a seller of a luxury item to wealthy people, it seems likely that Lydia is a prosperous woman. Commentaries often refer to her as wealthy, but it seems likely that there would be a significant difference between her affluence and the great wealth of her customers. Nevertheless, the fact that she deals in purple cloth and has a home large enough to accommodate Paul and his companions as guests suggests that she is quite well-to-do financially.
“whose heart the Lord opened to listen to the things which were spoken by Paul” (v. 14c). Note where the real action takes place. Paul tells Lydia about Jesus, but it is the Lord who opens her heart to listen and respond.
We need to keep that in mind for our own ministries. We must do our best, because Christian ministry deals with life-and-death issues—but we must also keep in mind that the really significant work takes place between the hearer and the Holy Spirit. We must proclaim the Gospel, for “how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Romans 10:14). But we must neither become prideful when the results are good nor depressed when the results are meager. God calls us to be faithful rather than successful.
We also need to remember that, when there is no apparent response to our preaching, that does not mean that there has been no response. We have planted the seed. Someone else will water it. God will bring the increase (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).
“When she and her household were baptized” (v. 15a). Apparently Lydia is the head of her household—meaning that she has no husband. We have no idea whether she is single, divorced, or widowed. Her household would likely include servants, and it might also include children. Those who practice infant baptism sometimes use household baptisms of this sort as justification for that practice. However, children are not mentioned in any account of a household baptism.
“she begged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and stay.’ So she persuaded us” (v. 15b). As noted above, the fact that Lydia has room in her home to accommodate Paul and his companions suggests that she is affluent. She prevails on Paul and his companions to accept her hospitality, and they do. Later, after being jailed and released, Paul and his companions will once again gravitate to her home—although that might just be a very brief visit (16:40).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Litwak, Kenneth D., in Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: I-Ma, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Rottman, John M., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
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