In the city of Troas on the northeast coast of the blue Aegean Sea, Paul the apostle of Christ received the "Macedonian call". He saw a man in a vision saying "Come over to Macedonia and help us" (Acts 16:10). Paul and his preaching companions immediately sought passage to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called them to preach the gospel there. They sailed across the Aegean and made their way to Philippi, "which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia" (Acts 16:12). On the Sabbath day, they went out of the city to the riverside to a place where prayer was customarily made. They sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Here is the account of what happened next in the inspired words of one of the evangelists who was present:
"Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.' And she constrained us" (Acts 16:14-15).
Lydia became a Christian. She heard the gospel, the Lord opened her heart to heed the things she heard, and she was baptized. The account of her conversion must surely be consistent with other conversion accounts recorded in Acts. God is no respecter of persons; He shows no partiality in the matter of salvation (cf. Acts 10:34ff.). He did nothing to bring about the salvation of Lydia that He did not do for those on Pentecost, Simon the sorcerer, the Ethiopian eunuch, or the Philippian jailor. And He did nothing for them that He would not do for you or me.
This being true, one might well ask, "Does this mean the Lord will open the hearts of those outside of Christ today like He did in Lydia's case?" Consistency would seem to demand it. If so, the fundamental issue involves determining what was done in Lydia's case. We must ask, in what way was Lydia's heart closed or what was her condition before the Lord opened her heart? What was the result of her heart being opened? And, exactly how did God do it? These are the basic questions. The Bible gives good, basic answers.
Lydia "worshipped God" before she met Paul. In the original language of the New Testament, the particular word translated "worshipped" (sebomene) was used to refer to "pagans who accepted the ethical monotheism of Judaism and attended the synagogue, but who did not obligate themselves to keep the whole Jewish law" (Ardnt & Gingrich, 1979, p. 746). However, they "worshipped the only true God" and did so "in specific acts" (Kittell & Friedrich, 1971, p. 172).
Whatever God did to Lydia's heart, He did not have to force her to want to serve Him. She wanted that. She was already His worshiper, albeit in accordance with limited and outdated knowledge of His will. In Lydia's case, God did not directly overwhelm a rank sinner who had no inclination to do right in order to force a change of heart. Those who claim He does so today have no basis for it from this conversion account.
God did not have to open Lydia's heart to force her to listen to the evangelists' message either. A careful reading of the text shows this plainly. The first phrase of Acts 16:14 is, "Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us." This was before the Lord opened Lydia's heart "to heed the things spoken by Paul." Lydia "heard" the gospel before the Lord opened her heart in that she listened to the words spoken by Paul and gave them her mental attention. She did not "heed" or "attend to" what she heard until after the Lord opened her heart. There is obviously a difference in this text between hearing and heeding, or as the King James Version has it, hearing and attending. Appreciating this difference is crucial to understanding what God did and how He did it.
The words "heed" and "attend" accurately convey into English the sense of the word found in the ancient language of Acts (prosecho). These words (both English and Greek) sometimes mean simply "to hear," "observe" or "give mental attention to", while at other times they mean "to do" or tend to (cf. Wigram). For instance, Timothy was urged to command some in Ephesus not to "give heed to fables and endless genealogies which cause disputes..." (I Timothy 1:4). People should not give these things their "mental attention." On the other hand, Hebrews 7:13 uses the same Greek word in reference to priests giving "attendance at the altar"; here it is obvious that to "attend" means "to do" service or "tend to". In Lydia's case, "heed" must also denote "to do," because she had already "heard."
Clearly, when the Lord opened her heart to "heed the things spoken by Paul," Lydia was moved to respond to the gospel message -- to do what she had heard she needed to do. She heeded the things spoken by Paul "when she and her household were baptized" (Acts 16:15). Some of the better modern English versions of the Bible do a good job of showing this. The New International Version reads, "The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message," and the New American Standard Bible states, "And the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul."
Many believe that God opened Lydia's heart to hear Paul. We have shown that notion to be incorrect; God opened her heart "to heed." However, those in error on the point typically have another erroneous concept -- that God opened Lydia's heart by a direct and immediate operation of the Holy Spirit -- that He supernaturally altered Lydia's emotional processes to compel her to hear and obey.
Of course the God of heaven has many instruments at His disposal. We can imagine that He could choose to accomplish His will by many different means. The question is, what means has He chosen? How does He open the hearts of men and women to the obedience of faith? How did He open Lydia's heart to respond to the gospel? Was it through a supernatural means not mentioned in the text or was it through the word of God spoken by Paul?
It is a plain fact that there is no mention in Acts 16:13-15 of the direct working of the Spirit of God. To assert that God used that means to prompt obedience from Lydia is to inject something into the scriptures that just isn't there. What is there, plainly, is the gospel message "spoken by Paul."
God used the preaching of Paul and his fellow evangelists as the instrument to open hearts to the obedience of faith. On one occasion, Paul and Barnabas recounted to the church in Antioch "all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles" (Acts 14:27). In 2 Corinthians 5:20a Paul wrote, "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us.". The message of the gospel, proclaimed by God's people, is His tool in the hearts of men.
Today, as it was with Lydia so long ago, the gospel is "the power of God to salvation" (Romans 1:16). Only when people hear it can their hearts be opened to faith and obedience (cf. Romans 10:17; 6:17).
Ardnt, W. F. & Gingrich, F. W. (1979). A Greek lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kittell, G. & Friedrich, F. (1971). Theological dictionary of the New Testament (volume VII). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
McGarvey, J. W. (n.d.). Original commentary on Acts (ninth edition). Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation.
_______ (1973). New American standard Bible. Chicago: Moody Press.
_______ (1978). The holy Bible, new international version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers.
_______ (1985). The holy Bible, New King James version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Wigram (n.d.). Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. Wilmington, DE: Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc.
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