Lydia was from Thyatira, a town in Asia Minor. The second part of her name “Purpuraria” was not really her name, but we call her this because it means “merchant of purple”, a person who traded in luxury purple dyes and fabrics for which the city of Thyatira was noted. Purple goods were part of a high value industry and were used only by royalty and rich and important people; emperors, high government officials, and priests of the pagan religions. Dealing in luxury goods, Lydia would have owned a nice big house and had the means to support the Christian cause.
Tradition relates that she and her husband may have been involved in this business. At some point Lydia and her household moved from Asia Minor to the city of Philippi in Macedonia. The reasons she moved may have been business related as Philippi was a Roman colony on the major east-west trade route, the Egnation Highway, between Rome and Asia. Also, she may have been a Jewish convert who no longer could worship in the custom of the Thyatirans.
The words of The Acts quoted below describe Lydia’s meeting with the Apostle Paul on his second missionary journey about the year 50. Paul and his companions started their journey visiting the established churches in western Asia Minor when he answered a vision in which he saw a man dressed in a Macedonian manner calling upon him to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.“
Paul’s custom was to find local synagogues in which he would preach. But, apparently the Jewish population in Philippi was not sufficient to allow holding Sabbath Services for the Jewish men. Thus, Paul’s party walked out of the city following the Gangites River (now called the Angista River) when they came upon a group of women praying in the manner of Jews, along flowing water. After greeting the women, Paul and his companions sat down and shared the good news of Christ’s salvation with them. Lydia, among the women, had listened attentively and took the message to heart.
And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, one that worshipped God, did hear: whose heart the Lord opened to attend to those things which were said by Paul. And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying: If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us. – Acts 16:14-15
Thus, Lydia became the first person in Europe to become a follower of Christ.
Whatever her marital status, Lydia’s home was relatively spacious. It was large enough to accommodate Paul and his fellow missionaries (who included Silas, Timothy, and possibly Luke and others) as well as her own household. Her home was also large enough to hold church meetings. It was in Lydia’s home that the church at Philippi first gathered (cf. Acts 16:40).
Lydia’s hospitality and her benefaction of Paul and his ministry required courage. Having a group of foreign men stay in her house might potentially cause scandal. Hosting meetings where they worshipped a new Jewish messiah, and not an emperor or any of the ancient and socially-respectable pagan gods, could have ruined her reputation and her business.
As Acts notes, Paul and his companions were well received by Lydia as they stay at her house after their release from the Philippi prison. Receiving Paul and Silas into her home after they were released from prison and asked to leave town was brave. Surely, during their imprisonment, Lydia and those who assembled in her home spent the night in prayer for the release of Paul and Silas, making her home the first Christian Church in Europe.
Paul and his party may have spent several weeks staying with Lydia (cf. Luke 10:5-7). During that time, she would have received (directly and indirectly) a theological and pastoral education from the apostle so that she was equipped to care for the church when Paul moved on to bring the gospel to other Macedonian cities. Furthermore, she seems to have been a spiritually receptive person. We know “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart” (Acts 16:14b NIV), and so it is probable the Spirit gave her spiritual gifts and abilities to help her in ministry (cf. Acts 2:18; 1 Cor. 12:4ff).