God keeps his promises. Often not as soon as we’d like. And often not in ways we anticipated. The beginning of Paul’s ministry in Philippi serves as a perfect example of an answer that may have looked at first like a disappointment.
Acts 16:1-15 describes the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey. He had begun it by visiting the churches he had founded on the first journey.
The chapter begins with Paul in Lystra and Derbe in the province of Galatia (part of Asia Minor, or modern Turkey).
From there he and his team planned to start new churches in the neighboring province of Asia. It was conveniently located and culturally familiar.
Somehow, God let them know that he didn’t want them to preach in Asia. He also vetoed Mysia and Bithynia. Paul and his companions found themselves in Troas, at the very western edge of the peninsula.
The vision of a Macedonian man
In Troas, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia asking for his help. He took it as divine instruction to go to this very foreign and unfamiliar new culture.
Leaving Troas, the team traveled to Philippi, the nearest important city in Macedonia. King Philip of Macedonia had renamed the ancient city for himself. It had recently become a Roman colony.
Philippi suited Paul’s general practice of evangelizing important cities and letting his converts fan out to the surrounding countryside. According to his ordinary custom, he wanted to visit the local synagogue on the Sabbath. Philippi had no synagogue.
It required ten Jewish men to establish a synagogue. So there weren’t ten Jewish men in Philippi. If there were any Jews at all, where would they worship? A river flowed just outside the city gate. Observant Jews would find the running water useful for their purification rituals.
So on the Sabbath, Paul went looking for them. Remember that in his vision, Paul saw a Macedonian man. He only found women praying at the river.
It may have looked at first like the team had missed God in going to Philippi. How could good Jewish men approach a bunch of women?
Ancient culture had no regard for women. But God always thinks differently from humans. He frequently chooses to work through outcasts and people little regarded by society. Remember, he chose a woman as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection.
Our modern feminist-leaning church regards Paul as a misogynist, someone sharing his society’s dim view of women. It’s hard to justify that opinion from careful reading of Scripture. Paul set aside whatever disappointment he might have felt at not finding Jewish men by the river. He sat down with the women and shared Jesus with them.
The reality of an Asian woman
The account in Acts identifies only one of those women as receptive to the gospel. She wasn’t even Macedonian. Apparently widowed, she came from Thyatira (a city in Asia) to sell that town’s famous purple cloth.
Some translations give her name as Lydia. Thyatira was located on the border of a part of Asia called Lydia, so other translations say, “woman of Lydia.”
In any case, Paul had intended to preach in Asia, but couldn’t. After his vision, he expected to preach to Macedonian men. He wound up converting an Asian woman living in Macedonia. She was wealthy enough to own a home and have servants.
After she and her household received baptism, she insisted that Paul and his team stay at her house. It gave him a base of operation to found the church in Philippi. It was a church he came especially to love and enjoy, and one that supported him more than any other.
And the Lydian woman? If her name wasn’t Lydia, she may have been either Euodia or Syntyche, mentioned in Philippians 4:3 as women who had contended for the gospel at Paul’s side.
When Paul started his work in Macedonia, nothing worked out according to his expectation. Until he realized he had established a thriving and personally special church and gained a lifelong friend.
Sometimes it takes some time and some imagination to realize that God has, in fact, answered a prayer and fulfilled a promise.