The Power of the Gospel – Acts 16:11-15

by Roger McCay
7 June 2020
Scripture Passage: Acts 16:11-15
Link to Audio Version

For any masterpiece, there must be a first stroke of a pen or a key, a first note played, or a first dab of paint on a canvas. But in that first, there is great power.

Last week, we left Paul and his companions (Silas, Timothy, and Luke) having just stepped foot in Macedonia. G. Campbell Morgan describes the immensity of this event, writing:

How little the world knows of the Divine movements. Rome had small idea that day, that the van of the army of its ultimate Conqueror had taken possession of one of its frontal defences. On the day when Paul hurried from Neapolis, over the eight miles up to Philippi – and came into the city and made arrangements for his own lodging…the flag was planted in a frontier colony of Rome, which eventually was to make necessary the lowering of her flag, and the change of the world’s history.[1]

How little the world knows of the Divine movements.

So insignificant an event. Yet, the power of the gospel is such that it can change the world starting with one person believing in Jesus – the first. In our passage today, we see that one person is Lydia. Paul faithfully explained to her the good news about Jesus, she heard and believed, and, from there, the world was changed forever.

What if Paul had not gone down to the river that morning? Who knows but God?

Providentially, we see in Paul’s faithfulness a principle. It is to share the gospel with people regardless who they are or what the circumstances are and let God take it from there. Every Christian is called to be faithful, according to this principle.

Yet, there are so many things that try to get in the way of our proclamation of the gospel. It can be any number of outside influences, including social boundaries, pressure from government, peers, society, business, or just ourselves getting in the way.

Regardless, we are called to be faithful and share the gospel, crossing whatever boundaries the world may throw in our way. Besides, like we saw last week, as we followed the missionaries from Antioch to Troas and then to Philippi, (remember the map?) the Lord opens doors that might seem impossible for us. He leads the way. We are called to follow his lead.

Take a look at v. 13:

13 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.

You might be wondering why Paul went to the river looking for people. His normal pattern was to enter a town and first proclaim the gospel at the synagogue. Well, there was no synagogue in Philippi. It took 10 heads of Jewish households (men) to establish the synagogue, and the Jewish population was so sparse they had not yet established one.

Philippi was a place that those of us with military backgrounds would have found very comfortable. Due to historic events in the Roman Empire, Philippi had become a Roman colony directly under the emperor. In fact, Roman soldiers were encouraged to retire there, and they were exempt from taxes. So, it was a town full of military retirees and Roman Gentiles loyal to the emperor.

Now, here is Paul, (a Jewish Pharisee converted to Christ and called as an Apostle to the Gentiles), showing up, seeking to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, as I mentioned, there was no significant Jewish presence in Philippi and no synagogue. So, his normal method of bringing the gospel to a new location was stymied. Yet, despite what could have been a barrier, a closed door, the Lord had opened the door for the gospel in Macedonia, and Paul was looking for it. As a Jew, Paul knew the custom of Jews (along with God-fearing Gentiles), when there was no synagogue available. He knew that on the Sabbath, their custom was to meet beside a river or some body of water in order to pray and worship. So, following the Lord’s lead, Paul and his companions went looking to see if they could find any Jews or God-fearers to whom they could proclaim the gospel, taking a walk down to the Gangites River, which was about a mile outside the city gates.

Now, did Paul find there a group of devout Jewish men and their families, meeting together by the riverbank with whom to begin his proclamation? No, not at all. Rather, he found a group of women. We don’t know how many, but it was likely not very many.

Here was another possible barrier, a closed door, to the proclamation of the gospel. Why? Well, there was a serious social problem with Paul, a Jewish man and particularly a Pharisee, coming up to a group of women and establishing a conversation. In his pre-conversion days, such a thing just would not have happened. The circles and customs he was surrounded with held a woman’s social status as being quite low. Indeed, a known prayer of the Pharisees was “God, I thank you that I am not a Gentile, or a slave, or a woman.” … The Pharisees were really a piece of work, weren’t they?

Yet, due to the Lord’s grace, Paul had left such nonsense behind. Thus, we find Paul, in our passage today, seated beside the Gangites River, having a meaningful conversation about the good news of Jesus Christ with a group of women!

Paul was also following the Lord’s example, like when Jesus spoke with the woman at the well in John 4. Because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, prejudice between sex, race, or socioeconomic status had been done away with. A mixed gender (male and female) and mixed race (Jew and Gentile) conversation was not a problem for Paul, as it was not problem for the Lord. The Lord had blown through former barriers, providing a tremendous opportunity.

It was as Paul had previously written in Galatians 3:28,“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So, here he acted on this truth. With the door wide open for the proclamation of the Gospel, Paul went right through.

So, there they were. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke, coming upon this group of ladies worshipping on the side of the river. They stopped and joined in their worship. Perhaps the ladies were singing or praying, at the time. We don’t know. We do know, however, that at some point, the ladies invited Paul, the evident leader of this group of visitors who had gathered with them, to say a word. Jumping at the chance, and ever faithful, Paul explained to them the good news of Jesus Christ. Such was the first apostolic proclamation of the gospel to people in Europe—proclaimed to this small group of ladies.

Take a look at v. 14.

14 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.

We know nothing of any of the women there but one—Lydia. Lydia, this Gentile woman, heard Paul’s pronouncement, and was drawn to the words, drawn to the truth (the freedom that Jesus brings). She understood the wonder of the gospel that Paul was explaining, as the Spirit quickened her heart to believe.

How Lydia initially came to be a “worshipper of the God,” as the ESV puts it, we do not know. However, it is clear that Lydia already had a belief in God, from a Jewish point of view—what is called a God-fearer. Consistent with many Gentiles who were God-fearers, as one man explains, she was “behaving like a Jew without actually becoming one.”[2] This is why she, a Gentile woman, was at the riverbank worshipping like a Jewish woman. Perhaps, as another posits, since her hometown of Thyatira had “an extensive Jewish community… she had … first come to her faith in God there.”[3] If so, when she moved to Philippi, she brought her faith with her.

You may remember how Cornelius (whose conversion is recorded in ch. 10) was likewise a Gentile God-fearer, who needed to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that he might be saved. So, the Lord sent Peter to tell him the message, and he believed. With Cornelius, what once would have been an impassable barrier (the Jewish/Gentile divide) … what once would have been an impassable barrier was blown wide-open by God for Peter to pass through to proclaim the gospel.

Here with Lydia, that same door was blown wide-open for Paul, with the additional benefit that Lydia was a woman. Lydia heard what Paul had to say, she heard it and was glad. Tim Keller explains a bit of the dynamics going on with her life and the beauty the gospel would have held for her.

God-fearers left the emptiness of paganism. Yet when they came into religion, they came into the Old Testament, and they started saying, “We have to live according to the law of God.” They felt the burden …

So here are Lydia and the God-fearers. On the one hand, they’re trying to leave the emptiness of living for yourself, but then when they come into religion, they feel the burdensomeness of having to save themselves through their good works. [4]

And now, here was Lydia, caught between emptiness and burden, hearing about freedom and fulness of life in Christ. As Keller puts it,

Paul said, “Let me tell you something. I want to tell you about Jesus Christ, who lived a perfect life according to the law, the only One who ever did. Then he went to the cross and died for our sins. So he earned the blessing perfect obedience deserves, but then he took the curse disobedience to the law deserves. So when you believe in him, the curse for your disobedience falls on him, that means his blessing he earned for his obedience falls to you and you’re saved by grace.”[5]

The wonderful freedom that the gospel message conveys, freedom in Christ, was beautiful to Lydia. God had broken down even another barrier—that of her sinful heart—opening her heart to the gospel of Jesus Christ, bringing her to saving faith. Hearing the call to follow Jesus, she laid her burden down. As the Lord calls, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). So, she followed Jesus.

As for Paul, despite the inconvenience of having to change his missionary strategy and so moving outside his comfort zone; despite seeming barriers of customs concerning social, racial, and gender relationships; despite the barrier of a sinful heart … Paul pressed forward following the Lord’s lead, letting the Lord blow through every barrier. Thus, he found himself having a conversation with Lydia, a brand-new disciple of Christ, saved by faith in Jesus Christ.

We are told several things about Lydia in the text. She was from Thyatira—an immigrant to Philippi from a location across the Aegean Sea. She was a businesswoman, a merchant who sold “purple cloth.” Purple was associated with royalty, and she dealt in a lucrative trade. She was also successful at her trade, evidenced by her substantial household and property (v. 15), which would have included servants and family. So, as for her personal qualities, she was a remarkable woman. Lydia was intelligent, savvy, responsible, wealthy, and a cosmopolitan. 

Verse 15 tells us a little more:

15 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.

Having believed, the immediate next step for her was to be baptized, consistent with the practice of the apostles and the command of Jesus. Notice there is no wait time here. I’ve always wondered (and I have my theories) why it takes so long for people to get baptized when they believe these days. The consistent biblical model is that it is to be done ASAP. Anyway, we also see that, since Lydia was the head of her household, her entire household was baptized with her—just like with Cornelius and his whole household. Everyone was baptized—man, woman and child—whether they personally confessed Christ or not.

Think on that one for a while.

As it was, Lydia believed, and her loyalty, her allegiance, and all those to whom she was responsible (men, women, and children) were committed to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even more, Lydia invited the four missionaries to come and stay at her house. Notice she urged them, and she prevailed upon them. She was persistent, and her strong personality was showing. I can imagine it:

“Now don’t give me any excuses. You are all going to come and stay at my house. Don’t argue with me. Paul. Don’t argue with me. It’s the least I can do. Young man, Timothy, is it? Gather up these gentlemen’s stuff, and ya’ll come with me.”

For her, this was a way she could demonstrate to the missionaries that she truly had converted—exercising hospitality, which must have been a spiritual gift for her. Talk about not waiting around to use a spiritual gift! Anyway, I’m sure this turned into a great time of discussion and teaching, fellowshipping, and breaking bread together in communion with one another and the Lord.

Later, we’ll see, she continued to exercise her spiritual gift of hospitality in Acts 16:40. Her house had become a gathering place for the Christians in Philippi. This remarkable woman’s home became the first church in Europe (of which we know).

Jesus’ command to us—his disciples—in the Great Commission was this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Paul’s faithfulness to the Lord’s commission led him to this beautiful situation with Lydia.

What possible Lydia’s are out there that you come in contact with every day who don’t know Christ? Perhaps you have been faithful and shared Christ with them. Praise God if that is so! But if not, what boundaries keep you from obeying Christ in this area and sharing the gospel with those who need to hear it?

Some boundaries that come to mind might be various selfish interests, or perhaps personal hang-ups, definitely, though, there is the pressure of others to keep our mouths shut about Jesus. Do we let these and other pressures keep us from being obedient to the Lord’s command?

Are any of your friends unbelievers? Have you shared with them the good news of Jesus Christ? You know, don’t you, that if they are not believers then they are separated from God with hell looming over them—right? So, how are you their friend if you don’t tell them about Jesus so that they might be saved?

Perhaps you have told them time and again, praying for them, and doing your duty there. Praise God for your faithfulness! May he open their hearts to Christ.

But, if you haven’t shared the gospel with them, why is it difficult to do so? What barriers do you face in obeying God in this? Are these barriers valid reasons to not be obedient to Christ? What do you consider a valid reason to disobey Christ? There are none, of course.

You know, nearly all the apostles were killed because of their faithfulness to the Lord in sharing the gospel with others. Yet, even the threat of death was no barrier to them.

The reality is that any authority, politically correct pressure, peer pressure or whatever that leads you to not share Christ is not a real barrier to sharing the gospel. It is only a barrier if you let it be (or, of course, they physically stop you). At the heart of all this is Christ’s demand that those who would follow him deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). So, the only real power any supposed barrier has over us is found in our preservation of self. It’s a choice—a choice to refuse to deny oneself and follow Jesus.

Christ’s command trumps all human commands and the pressures of the world upon us. It trumps our own discomfort or social and cultural boundaries. Christ’s command also trumps any laws that might be passed by the government to hinder the proclamation of his gospel. Christ is King and he rules over all. Anyone or any organization that would counter his command is in rebellion against him. His command trumps all others. The Scriptures are clear on this fact.

A method, perhaps, to use when potential barriers present themselves against sharing the gospel, might be to think of Paul. Ask yourself, “What would the Apostle Paul do?” Well, from what we know about him, Paul would forge right ahead and tell people about Jesus regardless the personal sacrifice it took to do so. He’d also be smart about his methods, like Jesus says, “wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove” (Matt. 10:16). So, we find a model of obedience in Paul.

Also, remember, it is not by our power that the proclamation of the gospel is even effectual. It is the power of God working in the heart and mind of the hearer of the gospel that brings a person to belief and salvation in Jesus Christ—like what happened here with Lydia (v. 14). We are simply called to be obedient.

Luke’s account of Lydia’s conversion is an encouragement to us, as we seek to be faithful to the Lord.

Ladies, the first convert in Europe was a woman, and the first church in Europe (of which we are aware) was in her house. What does this tell you? It tells me that the Lord uses faithful women as a powerful force in his Kingdom. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But Lydia would not have been that force if someone (in her case Paul) had not been faithful to the Lord’s command to go and make disciples, following the Lord’s lead as the Lord blasted down any barrier that stood in the way.

If you are a disciple of Christ, you are called to do this. Tell people the good news about Jesus! Because the gospel is the power of God to salvation for all who believe, we must faithfully proclaim the good news.


[1] R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996), 212, quoting G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1924), 249.

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 263.

[3] John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 349.

[4] Timothy J. Keller, “How the Gospel Changes Lives—Part 1 (Acts: The Gospel in the City),” preached April 21, 2013, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2012-2013, (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).

[5] Ibid.