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Women Of The Bible: Lesson #28 – Rhoda, Prominent Women, Lydia, The Philippian Slave Girl

RHODA

Scripture reference:  Acts 12:13–16

In Jerusalem, houses were set side by side with their outside walls facing the street. The doors in these walls were kept closed, ensuring the family’s privacy and safety. The door had no windows or peepholes. Instead the doorkeeper was expected to recognize the voice of family friends and open the door only for friends.

These verses in Acts accurately depict this situation. Rhoda, the servant girl, answered a knock on the door and was stunned to recognize Peter’s voice.

One other element of this description is worth noting. The company inside suggested that what Rhoda really heard was Peter’s “angel.” First-century Jews believed that each person’s guardian angel closely resembled him or her. If Rhoda really heard Peter’s voice, perhaps it was Peter’s angel speaking rather than Peter himself!

Even though Rhoda is mentioned only briefly, we know several important things about her. Rhoda was a “girl.” The Greek word used suggests that she was probably around twelve years old, but she participated in the prayer gathering. While Rhoda may have been a servant girl, she was deeply involved in the life of the Jerusalem congregation. When she heard Peter’s voice, it was “because of her gladness” (v. 14) that she ran back without opening the door. She was excited and thrilled and eager to share the news with those inside.

Rhoda was also a persistent girl. She didn’t let the doubts of those inside sway her. She “kept on insisting” (v. 15) that Peter was really there. While those inside argued, Peter kept on knocking. Finally several persons went out, opened the gate, and were astonished when they saw Peter. Rhoda had been right!

 

PROMINENT WOMEN

Scripture reference:  Acts 13:50

Acts 13 is a transitional point. From this chapter on, the focus leaves Jerusalem and Judea and ventures into the wider Greek world. The missionaries traveled in an empire where Roman law and Greek culture had created conditions quite different from those in the Judea. In the Roman world it was much more common for women to hold wealth in their own right, and women of the social elite were by definition well to do.

Acts 13:50 reports that in Pisidian Antioch “the Jews stirred up the devout and prominent women and the chief men of the city” to persecute Paul and the missionaries. In Thessalonica, however, “many . . . believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men” (Acts 17:12).

In the end it was not social class that determined a person’s response to the gospel. The Gentile church encompassed the elite and the poor, the free and slave, men and women.

What made persons prominent in the Greco-Roman world was not only the possession of wealth, but its expenditure for the public good. An inscription in Corinth dating to a.d. 43, memorialized one of Corinth’s prominent women in these words: 

A woman of highest esteem . . . who with full measure and generosity aided many of our citizens from her own means, and welcomed them in her home, and in particular never ceased benefiting our citizens regarding any favor asked, the majority of the citizens have met in assembly to give testimonial on her behalf. In gratitude our people agreed to vote to commend Junia and to give testimonial of her generosity to our native city and her good will, and declares that it urges her to increase her generosity to our city, knowing that our people too will not cease in their good will and gratitude to her, and will do everything for the excellence and glory she deserves. For this reason—may good fortune abound—it was decreed to commend her for all that she has done.” (David Gill, The Book of Acts in Its First-Century Setting, 116)

 

LYDIA

Scripture references:  Acts 16:13-15  and  16:40

Despite the fact that Lydia is mentioned in only these four verses, we know quite a lot about her.

Lydia was a successful businesswoman. The Scriptures cite considerable evidence of Lydia’s success.  The purple of the first century was a color that shaded from blue to red, and was associated with high rank and great wealth. Purple dye was obtained from the shells of the murex, an ocean mollusk. Because it was difficult to produce, the dye and garments of that color were expensive. As a dealer in purple, Lydia would have made a good living. The usage of the word oikos (household) encompassed both family and slaves. The reference to her “and her household” indicates both that Lydia was unmarried, and that she possessed a number of slaves. Scholars have debated whether she was a widow, divorced, a married woman who had her own business and property, or perhaps a freed woman [ex-slave] who had never married. At any rate, Luke makes it clear that it was “her” household.

Her house was large enough to put up the entire missionary party. As Paul typically traveled with a rather large team, the size of Lydia’s house is another indication of her success.  When Paul was about to leave the city he met with the believers who were assembled at Lydia’s house. We do not know how many converts there were in Philippi at that time, but we do know that they chose Lydia’s house as their place of meeting.

Lydia was a spiritual leader. While Lydia may not have held any church office, she was a spiritual person to whom others looked. That there was no synagogue in Philippi meant that there were few or no Jewish families in the city. However, there were women who worshiped God in Philippi, and they met for prayer on the Sabbath by the river.Lydia is the only one named; she may have been the leader of the group.

While Lydia most likely was not Jewish, Lydia knew and worshiped the God of the Old Testament. This is not surprising, as many non-Jews in the first century were attracted to the God of Judaism and to the Old Testament’s high moral standards. These people, often called God fearers, were recognized as adherents of Judaism who had chosen not to go the route of full conversion or for some reason were prohibited from a full conversion. The apostle was convinced that Lydia’s faith in Christ was real and strong. He not only baptized her but accepted her hospitality.

 

THE PHILIPPIAN SLAVE GIRL

Scripture reference:  Acts 16:16–19

We know little about the girl other than three facts. First, she was a slave. Second, she was possessed by a “spirit of divination,” a demon. And third, her owners exploited her plight.

Like other slaves in the Roman Empire, this girl had no right to choose what was best for her. She was bound by her legal position to do whatever her owners determined was best for them. But unlike most slaves, this girl was also subject to a demon who, like her human masters, used her for its own purposes. However miserable the girl might feel about her situation, her owners were delighted by her affliction. They collected money from those who paid to gain some insight into the future or help in making a difficult decision.

When Paul and his missionary team entered Philippi, the demon took possession of the girl’s faculties so that she was forced to follow them. As she did, the demon shouted out through her, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation” (Act 16:17). After a number of days Paul, “greatly annoyed,” commanded the spirit in the name of Christ to leave the girl. “And he came out that very hour” (Acts 16:18).

The incident raises two questions. Why would a demon apparently support Christian missionaries? And why would Paul be “greatly annoyed” at the additional testimony? The answer must be that the cries of the demon did not support the missionaries’ efforts but harmed them.

For one thing, the slave’s girl’s “support” clearly linked the missionaries with the demonic. Yet the gospel message promised salvation, and salvation included the release of God’s power to break the bonds of demons. By publicly supporting the missionaries, the demon undercut their message.

There may also be other reasons for the demon’s “support.” By shouting loudly and continuously the demon made it difficult for Paul to speak to people. And by making such a public show, the demon drew the attention of onlookers away from Paul and his message. What Philippi was talking about was the strange phenomenon of the well-known slave girl’s behavior rather than the content of the gospel Paul preached.

What may be a greater puzzle is why Paul waited “many days” before he cast the demon out. That is a puzzle we cannot resolve. Perhaps Paul suspected that casting out the demon without being asked to do so would lead to the results that it did. When the demon had been cast out, the girl no longer had any value to her owners. The angry owners, “their hope of profit . . . gone” (Acts 16:19), seized Paul and Silas and dragged them off to the authorities.

What happened to the slave girl? We do not know. Her masters apparently ignored her to seize Paul and Silas. Whatever they might have done to the girl later, she had been freed from an oppression more grim than any human master might impose. Jesus Christ had torn her from the grip of the dark powers.