“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. 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.” (Acts 16:11-15 ESV)
Last Sunday, my wife and I celebrated forty-one years of marriage. I am absolutely certain that there were some folks at our wedding who thought it probably wouldn’t last 4 years and certainly not 41 years. I can tell you that 41 years of marriage to the same woman has taught me a few things. For example, rarely do our actual experiences live up to our expectations or dreams. I have also come to realize that some people put far more work, time, effort and money into their wedding day than they do their actual marriage. They might spend months or even years saving, planning and preparing for that one day and then they put very little into sustaining their marriages. Simply put, they’ve gotten their priorities backwards. If they would put that same work, time, money and effort into strengthening and sustaining their marriage then it would last a lifetime and provide the love and support they so desperately crave.
But what does any of that have to do with today’s focal passage? We often come into situations and circumstances with preconceived expectations and outcomes. If you look back at our story from the past few weeks, it would be hard not to approach Paul’s arrival in Macedonia with some high expectations. God had been working for several weeks or longer at getting Paul and his team across Asia Minor and into Western Europe. There’s little doubt, following Paul’s vision in Troas of the “man of Macedonia,” that God was intentionally moving them in this direction. I am also certain that Paul was likely anticipating a harvest of souls from that area.
Last week we looked at how God closed some doors to Paul and his team to preach the gospel in Asia and this week we will begin to see why. As the team (Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke) set sail from Troas, they were crossing over from the Asian continent and onto the European continent. Most of what was ancient Macedonia is a part of modern day Greece. The team made their way across the Aegean Sea, stopping at the island of Samothrace, and then on to the port city of Neapolis. From there they made their way to Philippi, a Roman colony and a leading city of that region.
Luke states that they remained in Philippi for “some days” and on the Sabbath they began to seek out any Jewish presence in that area. It appears that a synagogue did not exist in Philippi (to form a synagogue required at least 10 Jewish men over the age of 13), so the team went in search of the “place of prayer” that would be used by any Jews in lieu of a synagogue. They knew to look near a river or flowing body of water since this would be needed for the ritual washing that was be performed prior to worship. It also appears that no Jewish men existed in Philippi, at that time, because only a group of women have gathered on the Sabbath.
At the riverside place of prayer, Paul encounters Lydia who is a “God fearer” or a non-Jew who worships the Lord. Lydia was a prominent business woman from Thyatira, a city in Asia Minor. As she listened to Paul speak about Jesus, the Messiah, and the gospel of grace, her heart was opened by the Lord to Paul’s words. If God had closed the doors for preaching the gospel in Asia, then surely the vision Paul had in Troas and the opening of the door into Macedonia meant that God was planning an incredible harvest in Philippi, right?
Unrealistic expectations and assumptions? Apparently… In this instance, Paul encounters only one interested person at the riverside prayer place and it is a Gentile business woman from Asia Minor. Not exactly earth shattering results. Certainly not anything worth writing home to Tarsus about. You might be thinking, I don’t see where Paul or Silas stated any unrealistic expectations about the work in Macedonia. Well, we don’t always state ours, do we? But we certainly have them, don’t we?
We often bring unrealistic expectations and assumptions into our relationship with God. I know pastors often do. But it isn’t just pastors who do this. I know I have and I’m pretty sure that you have, too. We make assumptions that our obedience will result in some material blessing or we make assumptions about God’s will regarding our life choices. While God often blesses us through our obedience, it is seldom in the material sense that we expect or assume.
It is important to note here that Lydia’s heart was opened by the Lord to the words of Paul. In fact, Paul makes note in his second letter to the Corinthians of the fact that some considered his presence as weak and his speaking skills as lacking…
For they say, “His (Paul’s) letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Corinthians 10:10 ESV)
So, why is it necessary for the Lord to open Lydia’s heart to the gospel? Why aren’t Paul’s sermon and oratory skills sufficient? If Paul’s skills are insufficient for the purpose of producing saving faith in his audience, are our skills and the actions of the church insufficient to produce faith in those who visit our churches today? Great questions…
There’s a common misunderstanding regarding the role we play in our own salvation as well as the role we play in the salvation of others. First, let me state emphatically that the salvation of men’s souls is entirely based on the grace, power, work and will of God. In fact, Jesus stated it this way…
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (John 6:44 ESV)
“You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John 15:16 ESV)
While He does use the “foolishness” of preaching (see 1 Cor. 1:20-25), the true power of the salvation comes only through the work of the Holy Spirit.
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV)
So, what’s my point in all of this? Lydia heard the good news of Jesus as Paul met with these women that morning near the river, but her heart was open to receiving the message because of the working of His Spirit in opening her heart to Paul’s words. Is God opening your heart to the message of the gospel, today? If He is, then turn to Christ and let His grace and forgiveness flood your life with hope and love.
On the other side, have you been sharing the good news with someone and have you been disappointed in the outcome because you had unrealistic expectations? We can only proclaim the message. God is responsible for the outcome.
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7 ESV)
But, what an outcome… Lydia is baptized and her entire household. Imagine the results if Paul had arrived that morning (with preconceived expectations) at the “place of prayer” but had turned away disappointed because there was only a group of women. Only a group of women… see what I mean about expectations and assumptions.
We often do the same thing, don’t we? We look at the small Sunday School class and see only a few children but God looks and sees a young Noah or Moses who are ready to grow in their faith. We look at a handful of teenagers and see only their struggles and bad attitudes but God sees a teenage Joseph who will walk faithfully with Him. We glance out at the small congregation listening to our message and see only the empty seats that we blame on the cultural struggles we face but God sees four young Hebrew boys (Daniel and his three friends) who are ready to challenge their culture through obedience to God.
I would have likely looked on those women that day and saw only a small group of Gentile women, but God saw Lydia who was ready to open her heart to God’s love and her home for the first church on the European continent.
God always sees more than we do. What does He see coming from our obedience? Let’s find out!