Acts 16:6–15 (ESV)✞: The Macedonian Call, The Conversion of Lydia
I’m combining a couple of short passages together for this post.
First, in verses 6-10 (ESV)✞, Paul and his cohorts are prevented by the Spirit from preaching the Gospel in the province of Asia—see below about what is meant by “Asia” here—so they attempt to go to a place called Bithynia instead but the Spirit doesn’t allow them to go there either so they end up in Troas. While they’re there Paul gets a vision of a man in Macedonia asking Paul to come help the Macedonians, so they conclude that this is a prompting by the Spirit and get ready for a trip to Macedonia.
From the ESV Study Bible notes, on the route they took:
Acts 16:6–10 Paul Is Called to Macedonia. Through divine direction Paul was led to the town of Troas, where he received a vision directing him to witness in the Greek province of Macedonia.
Acts 16:6–7 Paul’s route is not altogether clear. After revisiting his earlier field, undoubtedly traveling on the Via Sebaste (a Roman military road), he proceeded farther west into Phrygia. Had he continued in that direction he would have traveled through Asia with its prosperous coastal cities like Ephesus. The Spirit of Jesus prevented this, and he went north through Mysia. He was also prevented from witnessing in Bithynia.
ESV Study Bible
For the next section of the passage, verses 11-15 (ESV)✞, they are in Macedonia, where they set up in Philippi, which is a major city there. There they meet and convert a woman named Lydia:
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. 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. 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.
I sometimes feel like a broken record, but this was yet one more passage that seemed, on the surface, to be a simple series of events—sort of an “in between” passage, giving some detail before getting back to an “important” passage—but then as I thought about it I ended up with a bunch of questions. I feel I managed to come up with reasonable answers for some, and guesses for the others.
Why Not Asia?
The passage starts with a shocking statement:
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.
First, I should note that the “Asia” spoken of here is a Roman province called Asia, not the continent currently known as Asia, nor is it the region that was called “Asia Minor” at the time. The Roman province of Asia being discussed here is approximately where modern-day Syria exists. From BibleVerseStudy.com:
How did a Roman province in Turkey end up being named “Asia”?
ασιαν (asian), the original Greek word translated “Asia,” originates from “Assuwa,” the name of a confederacy of small states that occupied the western shores of what is Turkey today, directly east of Greece across the Aegean Sea. Over time, Greeks and the rest of Europeans came to call “Asia” all lands east of Europe.
But that’s not the shocking part, it’s just a side note1. The shocking part is that the Spirit prevented Paul from preaching the Gospel in a certain part of the world! Doesn’t that run counter to everything we know about the Gospel? Isn’t the intent to preach the Gospel everywhere, to all people? Why would the Spirit say no, not this place, I don’t want the Gospel preached there?
My original hypothesis was that maybe God didn’t want to save the people in that region. There were times in the Old Testament when He told the Israelites they were to enter and conquer certain lands because the sin of the people living there was so bad that they needed to be punished, so I thought it was possible that that was what was happening here; maybe God was saying that the people in the province of Asia were so sinful that He wasn’t going to save them at this time.
I think the ESV Study Bible notes have a better suggestion, though, that God was only preventing Paul from preaching there, not everyone:
Acts 16:6 having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. From Antioch in Pisidia Paul and Timothy traveled far northward, and then westward. Natural human wisdom would have led them to think they should preach the gospel in all the cities that they passed through, but instead the Holy Spirit directed them on a 400-mile (644-km) journey by foot to Troas (v. 8). They must have had a strong sense of the Spirit’s direct guidance and concluded that he would guide others to preach the gospel in the northern regions of Asia and in Bithynia (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1, where Peter writes to churches in that region).
That last part, about others preaching in Asia, stood out to me: since Peter later writes to churches in that region it means that someone preached the Gospel there, it just wasn’t Paul and his companions.
The “Spirit of Jesus”?
Verse 7 (ESV)✞ says that Paul and his companions weren’t able to enter Bithynia because “the Spirit of Jesus” didn’t let them. This is the Holy Spirit, and we’ve already seen Him working throughout much of Acts, so why is Luke calling Him “The Spirit of Jesus” in this passage? Why the change in nomenclature?
I don’t think it’s actually anything to get worked up about; I think Luke just changed things up by saying “the Spirit of Jesus” instead of “the Spirit” or “the Spirit of God” or something. I do think it’s valid to consider this another allusion to the Trinity in the New Testament writings, but I don’t read it as something that Luke is specifically trying to make a point about.
With all of the traveling happening in this passage I also found myself wondering why Paul and his companions had to travel to Troas in order to get his vision about going to Macedonia? Why would the Spirit make Paul go to a certain city before giving him the vision – couldn’t he have been given this vision anywhere? But when I look at a map, I think I get a clearer picture of what’s going on; this / this is a good example.
Paul’s journey took him up through the northern part of the province of Asia, towards Bithynia, but, as we’ve already discussed, God had plans for people other than Paul to preach the Gospel there. So instead their journey took them along the northern border of Asia, not really crossing into Asia, until they ended up at Troas – right across the Aegean Sea from Macedonia. So regardless of where Paul thought he might be going—they seemed to be heading right toward Bithynia before they were prevented from going there—the Spirit was leading him to his true destination.
The Spirit still could have given Paul this vision right from the start; at the beginning of the journey He could have told Paul, up front, “go to Macedonia.” But I think most Christians know that that’s not typically how God works: He doesn’t tell us everything we want to know right up front and allow us to make our plans accordingly, He prefers us to trust Him instead – trust that He knows what He’s doing rather than trusting in our own planning.
The final question I have on this passage is why we’re specifically told about Lydia’s conversion. I’m sure many people were converted during this journey, but I don’t know why Luke specifically chooses to highlight her.
My assumption is that it’s because Luke is a human, and that’s something we all do! We go on a journey, we do a lot of things and meet a lot of people, and we come away from it with some memories that are stronger than others. It’s not necessarily the things that were most important that stick in the mind. For example, I went on a trip to China with my family in 2018 and I have a strong recollection of a moment when we looked down and noticed how the roads were paved differently than how roads are paved back home; perhaps one of the least important things that happened on that trip, but it stuck in my mind. We also visited the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City, and Tienanmen Square, and the Summer Palace, and a lot of other amazing locations, and I have memories of those places too, but among those memories I also remember this moment of looking down at the pavement. And the time we were at a local food court and my wife finally got her opportunity to have dumplings. And how every city we went to had a different brand of beer that all tasted exactly the same.
It’s possible that, when recalling this journey and writing it down, Luke had stronger memories of Lydia than of others who were converted, so he mentioned her. She doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Scriptures; she’s mentioned here and at the end of Chapter 16 when Paul and his companions are let out of jail (spoiler alert) and visit her once more, and that’s it.
I’ve heard it mentioned that she was probably well off—the fact that she was selling “purple goods” is not an incidental detail; this would have been very expensive material she was selling—but I’m not assuming that she was the only well off person who was converted. I think she just stuck in Luke’s mind, so Luke decided to mention her when he was chronicling his journey. (This isn’t an opinion I’d hold too strongly if someone has an alternate theory.)
- Maybe it’s shocking to some people, if they didn’t realize that the “Asia” in the New Testament is different from the modern continent of Asia. ↩