On his second missionary journey, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to work there and he and his companions set out immediately (Acts 16:9-10). Ironically (considering his vision), when Paul arrived in Philippi, the Macedonian capitol, he found neither men to preach to nor synagogue to preach in so he began preaching to women by a riverside (Acts 16:12-13). Among the congregation was a woman who responded to the message named Lydia, a resident of Thyatira and “dealer in purple cloth” (Acts 16:14 NASB). She insisted that Paul and his associates stay at her home and they did until they departed the region (Acts 16:15, 40). This peddler of purple is considered the first Christian convert in Europe (Acts 16:14-15).
Lydia was a self sufficient woman. Strikingly, no husband or father is used in identifying her. She was a working woman who evidently possessed an independent spirit as she fearlessly sought a religion outside the established pagan brand of the empire.
She had a unique occupation. She is described as a porphuropolis, the only time this word appears in the New Testament. It is feminine and a compound of porphura (the purple fish, a species of shell fish or mussel ) and poleo (“to barter, to sell”). While most translations add the word “cloth” (CEV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV) or “goods” (ESV, RSV), the ASV, KJV and NKJV stick closely to the Greek and read simply that she was a “seller of purple”.
What is the significance of Lydia selling purple? If you had to put into one word what you sell, what would it be? What color do you most associate with yourself?
Lydia was in a lucrative business. Though dye extraction is no longer a viable commercial venture as modern dyes are synthetic, in Lydia’s time they were natural and purple was especially expensive. Purple was a commodity and status symbol as the costly fabric was reserved for the elite. Only the emperor wore a toga made entirely of purple cloth. The luxury item was also big business.
Purple dye was expensive because of the difficulty in extracting it. Thousands of mollusks were required to dye a single yard. Purple dye was derived from the mucus of the hypobranchial gland of the Murex shellfish. This snail was especially prominent in Lydia’s home town of Thyatira (Acts 16:14; Revelation 1:11, 2:18, 24), a city 250 miles southeast of Philippi in the Roman province of Asia (modern day Akhisar, Turkey). Murex produces a deep blue violet dye that, unlike others, is colorfast and permits the washing of garments.
This celebrated purple dye is cited in texts dating as early as 1600 BCE. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Pliny the Elder (23-79) document that snails were gathered in autumn or winter and kept alive until a huge quantity had been collected as each shell produced only a single drop of dye. The dye was extracted by crushing smaller shells and piercing larger ones. The milky fluid was then put into brine where vinegar was added and was then left in the sun until the color gradually transformed from a yellowish hue to a deep purplish red. It was then boiled down to further concentrate it. It took approximately 12,000 shellfish to extract 1½ grams of pure dye. One gram of purple dye was valued more than ten grams of gold and a pound of wool dyed with a favored purple could be sold for 1,000 denarii, a sum that would take a laborer three years to earn. A whole cloak of such material might cost three times that amount.
Lydia’s involvement in this business explains how she had the resources to host Paul and his companions during their lengthy stay (Acts 16:15, 40). Lydia and Paul met on a riverside at a “place of prayer” which appears to have been a space or enclosure in the open air consecrated for this purpose, not an edifice (Acts 16:13-14). Lydia challenged Paul to have faith in her: “If you consider me a believer in the Lord ...come and stay at my house (Acts 16:15, NASB).” Paul trusted Lydia and her home provided a structure where the Philippian church could meet. Even while Paul was imprisoned, she did not abandon him (Acts 16:22-40).
Why did Lydia open her home to Paul and his companions? How can your home be used to serve Christ?
“I read somewhere, in an article on monastic spirituality, that only people who are basically at home, and at home in themselves, can offer hospitality.” - Kathleen Norris (b. 1947), Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, p. 267