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The Conversion of Lydia

This record of conversion is found in Acts chapter 16. There are many things of note in the particulars mentioned. And while here our first interest lies in noting and identifying what things, what necessary things, were performed to identify the person as a Christian, I would be remiss if I failed to mention some of these other details of interest.

This particular portion of the narrative takes place at the point where Paul and Barnabas are about to leave Antioch on their second journey purposed to visit the places where they had previously been, having made converts and having established churches where there had been none. After a disagreement it was determined that Barnabas and John Mark would go in one direction (beginning in Cyprus) while Paul and Silas (another prophet and teacher) would go through Syria and Cilicia ending up in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).

Once on their way, Paul meets a young preacher named Timothy who should become instrumental in his work from that point. Timothy joins the company as they go throughout the region teaching and working and the record states, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.” While forbidden to go at that time into Macedonia by the Holy Spirit, they continued moving through these Greco-Roman cities. In time the conditions for God’s work were right and they then entered Macedonia and began teaching there as in the other regions. So the record is of the first known entries of the gospel upon the European continent. The narrative itself also takes a turn now, as the writer (supposed to be the physician Luke) begins to record in the first person plural indicating an eyewitness account where previously he had been working from unidentified sources in the third person.

It is at this point, when they came to Philippi, one of the prominent cities of Macedonia and a Roman colony, that they came in contact with the convert of record, a textile merchant whose product was purple died cloth — Lydia of Thyatira. The record says nothing as to why this woman was living in Philippi at the time, but only that she was gathered with some women at a place near a river where prayers were regularly made, as there was no synagogue in the city. Lydia was Persian (as Lydia is a Persian name) and either had become a proselyte to Judaism, or was, as had been Cornelius, simply a worshipper of God. All the text states is that she “worshipped God.” (For the budding etymologists — Lydia is a transliteration of the feminized Greek form of Lud or Ludim the fourth son of Shem whose ancestors had settled the Tigris-Euphrates basin.)

The record of the events of her conversion is contained in a single paragraph.

And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she constrained us.

Here are listed the details: she listened to the words of the teacher — she heard the word of God. The record then says, “The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken…” Those insistent upon direct intervention of the Holy Spirit might here argue that it is on the Lord’s or through the Spirit’s direct intervention that Lydia’s heart was opened to the message. And while we have in these e-pages offered scriptural proofs repeatedly that such things did not and do not happen, I here will have to take up debunking this theory yet again.

The text states that Lydia was a godly person and that she was one of those who would seek out others in whose company she might worship. So upon the preaching of Paul and the others, now it states that the Lord had opened her heart, yet the text states that her heart was already fit for worshipping God, though she was not yet a Christian. Did she here have a revelation instructing her on what she should do or in demanding that she heed? Or is it that this phrase indicates that she acted, as Jesus would have her act, as He (through the apostle) would instruct her? How then did the Lord open her heart? Is this a different characteristic than we have previously encountered in these conversions?

If any of these contrary prospects are true, and her freedom of choice was somehow lifted or suspended, then I can surmise that God is not just. For he would make some to be obedient while he would leave others at the mercy of time and circumstance, or at the consideration of a whim. His mercy would then be rightly identified as arbitrary and capricious. It would also then be true that while the apostle states that “God is not willing that any should perish, but would that all men should come to repentance,” it would nonetheless be proven beyond reasonable doubt that God assigns those that should and should not heed and be saved, perhaps exactly as the student of Calvinism understands.

These two theories cannot exist in the same space, as they are mutually exclusive one of the other. Therefore, one must be absolutely correct while the other is absolutely wrong, and we either misunderstand the wording and its intent or we misunderstand the basics of salvation as we have been examining them in the last several essays. Upon identifying the correct answer hinges all of eternity. So, what would be the truth of this matter?

I thought it might be useful to look at some of the thoughts and comments of others on this and decided that J. W. McGarvey’s analysis might be useful and of interest to list at this point.

The statement that the Lord opened the heart of Lydia (and) that she attended to the things spoken by Paul is generally assumed by the commentators as a certain proof that an immediate influence of the Spirit was exerted on her heart, in order that she should listen favorably to the truth. Their interpretation of the words is expressed in the most orthodox style by Bloomfield, thus: “The opening in question was effected by the grace of God, working by his Spirit with the concurrent good dispositions of Lydia.” Dr. Hackett says her heart was “enlightened, impressed by his Spirit,” and so prepared to receive the truth.

Whether this is the true interpretation or not, may be determined by a careful examination of all the facts in the case. First: The term open is evidently used metaphorically, but in a sense not at all obscure. To open the mind is to expand it to broader or more just conception of a subject. To open the heart is to awaken within it more generous impulses. What exact impulse is awakened, in a given case, is to be determined by the context. Second: The impulse awakened in Lydia’s heart was not such a disposition that she listened favorably to what Paul said, but “that she attended to the things” which he spoke.

The facts, in the order in which they are stated, are as follows: l) “We spoke to the women.” 2) Lydia “was listening” 3) God opened her heart, 4) she “attended” to the things spoken. The fourth fact is declared to be the result of the third. It was after she “was listening” that God opened her heart, and after her heart was opened, and because of this opening, that she attended to what she had heard.

What the exact result was, then, is to be determined by the meaning of the word “attended.” The term attend sometimes means to concentrate the mind upon a subject, and sometimes to practically observe what we are taught. The Greek term προσξχω here employed, has a similar usage. It is used in the former sense, in Acts 8:6, where it is said the people “attended to the things spoken by Philip, in hearing and seeing the miracles which he wrought.” It is used in the latter sense in 1 Tim. 4:13, where Paul says, “Till I come, attend to reading, to exhortation, to teaching;” and in Heb. 7:13, where to attend to the altar means to do the service at the altar. That the latter is the meaning in the case before us is clearly proved by the fact that she had already listened to what Paul spoke, or given mental attention to it, before God opened her heart so that she attended to the things she had heard. Now, in hearing the gospel, she learned that there were certain things which she was required to attend to, which were, to believe, to repent and to be immersed. To attend to the things she heard, then, was to do these things. That immersion was included in the things which Luke refers to by this term is evident from the manner in which he introduces that circumstance. He says, “And when she was immersed” etc., as if her immersion was already implied in the preceding remark If such was not his meaning, he would not have used the adverb when, but would simply have stated, as an additional fact, that she was immersed.

Having the facts of the case now before us, we inquire whether it is necessary to admit an immediate influence of the Spirit in order to account for the opening of her heart. We must bear in mind, while prosecuting this inquiry, that the opening in question was such a change in her heart as to induce her to believe the gospel, to repent of her sins, and to be immersed, thereby devoting her life to the service of Christ…

(Excerpted from A Commentary of Acts of Apostles, by J. W. McGarvey, Chapter 16)

Therefore, from my understanding, based on the text here and others of similar import, I must consider that it is likely that Lydia’s heart had been opened by the Lord in exactly the same manner that Pharaoh’s heart in the time of the exodus had been hardened by the same.

I also must conclude by noting that there is no baptism of the Spirit, no overwhelming of the presence of the Lord or of the Spirit, no miracle, no sign, and no mystery involved in any of these listed events. The plain record states the she heard and listened to the apostle’s words and was obedient to the precepts he had taught.

I wonder what it is that you and I should also do to be saved? If it isn’t that we must hear the word of God, believe it and it alone, that we must repent and confess Christ, that we must be immersed for remission of our sins, and then continue to be obedient, then I may have missed what must be done to accomplish salvation. If you cannot see the truth in these observations, you may have missed it too. Then as I noted when I commenced this set of essays, if your conversion does not incorporate these elements, and does not mirror the steps contained in these examples as given in the Word of God: the greater the danger to your soul. For the closer we come to identifying and following the steps taken and listed, the better our state. If these things are not true, why is it that they are not?

The next record that we will visit is also found in this same chapter. There we will come upon the third time that the most important question ever to be asked appears in this book of acts and conversions. That question is “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” At that point we will examine the answer as it was given then and how it may have differed (if at all) from the answers when it had been asked and answered the previous two times. We will also again examine how the answer given on that day differs from the multitude of answers that may be given today.