In the reading from Acts offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday, we have a curious selection of verses (Acts 16:9–15). We start at verse 9, in the midst of a story (16:6–10) which recounts how Paul undertakes a highly significant geographical shift, moving from Asia Minor (Phrygia and Galatia, 16:9—that is, modern-day Turkey), across the northern Aegean Sea, into Macedonia (16:10—that is, modern-day Greece).
1 A call to cross over
The earlier verses not included in the lectionary (16:6—8) are important for setting the context of what follows. The move that takes place, from Troas, in Asia Minor, across to Macedonia, is highly significant. In these verses, there is a concentration of references to God, which demonstrate that this move is completely in accord with the plan of God. Paul’s separation from Barnabas and co-option of Timothy will continue his earlier work and will open up new avenues for fruitful work.
Three injunctions are given; each one is from a divine source. The first of these, an instruction not to speak in the southern region of Asia, comes from the holy spirit (16:6). The second direction, a prohibition against any attempt to head north and enter Bithynia, comes from the same spirit, here described as “the spirit of Jesus” (16:7).
The third divine interjection takes place at Troas, where a vision is seen in the night with a petition to “come across into Macedonia” (16:9). Being guided by the spirit and seeing visions are common occurrences in Acts. The nature of such phenomena has already been established as divine in origin (2:14-21); the move into Macedonia is thus in accord with the divine will.
This understanding is explicitly underscored as the transition ends with the succinct statement that “God has called us to preach the good news to them” (16:10). Events still to follow are thus introduced in as strong a manner as possible through the use of explicit language about God.
2 The ‘we sections’ of Acts
This statement (16:10) begins the first of the so-called ‘we-sections’ of Acts, which are narrated in the first person plural. Three of these are but brief notes concerning journeys (from Troas to Philippi, 16:10-17; from Troas to Miletus, 20:5-15; from Miletus to Jerusalem, 21:1-18). Each of these passages contain lists of the places visited and the means of travel (16:11-12; 20:5-6,13-15; 21:1-3,7-8,15) and small vignettes concerning one incident that took place on the journey (16:13-15; 20:7-12; 21:4-6, 10-14).
The fourth ‘we-section’ encompasses the extensive series of journeys by which Paul travels from Caesarea to Rome (27:1-28:16). It also includes mention of places and means of travel, as well as a number of particular incidents.
Scholarly opinion over the historical value of the ‘we sections’ is divided. Some have argued that there is evidence for an ancient literary convention, by which an author can alternate third person (“he”, “they”) and first person (“I”, “we”) narratives. In this view, Luke makes use of the first person narrative to strengthen the sense of unity felt between author and audience, and the characters in the events narrated.
However, others have criticised this claim and argued that the use of “we” indicates that these passages, at least, must go back to an eyewitness. The likelihood of ever being able to prove that the author of Acts was himself present with Paul in these journeys is low; at best, we might conclude that Luke had available to him a very brief source which may possibly have had its origins amongst Paul’s fellow travellers. (See also 20:5).
3 Paul in Philippi
The group crosses over into Macedonia, an ancient province of Greece which had been the dominant political power four centuries earlier. They arrive in Philippi (16:12), a city founded by Philip of Macedonia in 356 BCE, taken under Roman rule in 167 BCE, and declared a Roman colony (as Luke accurately notes) in 31 BCE. The group proceeds, in typical fashion, to find a place of worship on the sabbath (16:13)—not, as expected, a synagogue (see 13:5), but “a place of prayer” (16:13) for some women.
One of this number, Lydia, is singled out for attention. Lydia is a godfearer (16:14), as was Cornelius (10:2) and probably the Ethiopian (8:27). Lydia is the first individual convert identified once Paul, Silas and Timothy, under divine guidance, have crossed over into Macedonia (16:6-10). She presents a paradigm for the process of conversion and leadership; as the first convert in Europe, she models a faithful response to the message that Paul proclaims.
Lydia is one of a number of significant women in Acts who are presented as positive models of faithfulness. These include Tabitha of Joppa, who was raised from the dead (9:36–42); Priscilla, who with her husband, Aquila, teaches Apollos in Ephesus (18:26); and the four female prophets in Caesarea (21:9). Each of these women exercise a leadership role in the early church.
What takes place as Lydia encounters Paul is directly interpreted as an act of God, for “the Lord opened her heart” (16:14) to listen eagerly to Paul’s words. The “opening of her heart” (16:14) echoes the discoveries made by the archetypal disciples on the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:31,32) and by the larger group of followers gathered in Jerusalem later that day (24:45). Her “eager listening” (16:14) repeats the response evoked by Philip in Samaria (8:6).
Lydia is judged as being “faithful to the Lord” and, with her household, is baptised (16:15), in accord with the programmatic declaration of Peter’s Pentecost exhortation (2:38-39). The baptism of her household follows the pattern already seen in Caesarea (10:24-48; 11:13-16) and foreshadows a pattern which will be repeated soon in Philippi (16:31-33), and subsequently in Corinth (18:8).
Her belief leads to the offer of hospitality (16:15), as was also the case with the Gentiles in Caesarea (10:48); this same pattern follows in the story of the conversion of the Philippian gaoler and his household (16:34). Belief, baptism and table fellowship have also been linked in the accounts of the conversion of Saul (9:18-19), Cornelius and his household (10:24-48) and the events on Pentecost in Jerusalem (2:41-47).
Lydia’s role as a patroness echoes that of Mary, the mother of John Mark, in Jerusalem (12:12) and prefigures that of Priscilla (with Aquila, 18:13). Paul will encounter, and convince, other women of relatively high social status later in Thessalonika (17:4) and Beroea (17:12). And women, often of high social status, figure also in the letters of Paul (Rom 16:1-2, 3-4, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 15; 1 Cor 1:11; Phil 4:2-3; and see Gal 3:27-28).
See https://johntsquires.com/2022/01/27/lydia-dorcas-and-phoebe-three-significant-strategic-leaders-in-the-early-church/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-1-the-positive-practices-of-jesus-and-the-early-church/
See also https://margmowczko.com/wealthy-women-roman-world-and-church/
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).