Where Prayer Was Customarily Made

[Note:  This is the prepared text of a sermonette that was given at the UCG congregation in La Centre, Oregon on July 23, 2016.]

Imagine a Sabbath not unlike this one in a city near the contemporary border of Greece and Macedonia.  If you were Paul, in the first century, and you were traveling to a new city, where would you spend time on the Sabbath?  When we read the book of Acts, we regularly read of Paul attending the synagogue and speaking regularly there before being made unwelcome there and going on to another city.  One of the neglected aspects of the Book of Acts for many professed Christians [1] is the consistent pattern of Sabbath and Holy Day observance for Paul and others.  Today I would like to talk about some of the deeper insights we can gain about the worship practices of the early Church of God and that of the Jewish background they came out from a single passage in Acts that is easy to read over quickly without pausing to reflect upon its depth and its surprisingly rich meaning.

Let us turn to the passage we would like to focus on, which can be found in Acts 16:11-15.  This passage discusses Paul’s arrival in the city of Philippi, the first city where Paul preached in what is now Europe.  Acts 16:11-15 reads as follows:  “Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony.  And we were staying in that city for some days.  And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there.  Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us.  She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God.  The Lord opened her heard 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.”  So she persuaded us.”

There is a lot of depth to this passage if we will take a look at it closely.  Perhaps the most obvious question to ask is:  where is the synagogue of Philippi?  The obvious answer is, of course, that there was not a synagogue in that city, even though it was the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, as Luke records in his knowledgeable fashion.  And why not?  The answer to that is not so obvious.  If you would place a marker in this passage, because we will shortly return, let us turn to one of the most famous contrasts of prayers in the Bible, and one that has surprising relevance to the passage we are looking at in Acts 16.  Let us turn to Luke 18:9-14, which gives a well-known parable about the prayer of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Luke 18:9-14 reads as follows:  “Also He [Jesus Christ] spoke this prayer to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

What do these passages, both written by Luke, have to do with each other?  The Talmud, in Menahot tract 43b, records a rather controversial and provocative blessing that is a part of the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, which contains the following provocative blessing:  “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a goy [Gentile], a slave, or a woman.”  This is a startling prayer, and it sounds very much like the self-satisfied prayer in Luke 18 that is rejected by Jesus Christ, thanking God for what we are not, rather than showing an appreciation for what we are.  Let us note, for example, that Paul in Galatians 3:26-29 directly rejects this line of thinking, and his behavior during his ministry lives up to the ideals he speaks of there in Galatians 3.  What does this sexist prayer have to do with the situation of the women Paul and his entourage was speaking to at Philippi, though?  Quite a lot—let us return and note that Acts 16:16:13 tells us both that prayers on the Sabbath were customarily made on the riverside outside of the city, and that it was women who could be found there.   This is not a coincidence.  In Judaism, both in Paul’s time and in our own, it takes ten men to make a quorum for holding services in a synagogue.  Ten Jewish men and no women and children under the age of thirteen could hold services in a synagogue, but nine Jewish men and one hundred women and children were not sufficient for Sabbath services in a synagogue to be held.  Like Abraham in Genesis 18:32, there were not ten righteous men to be found in the city of Philippi, or at any rate not ten observant Jewish men, and so it was that Paul spoke about the truth of God to a group of women who worshiped there, and whose minds had been opened by God and who formed the nucleus of the congregation there.  However prejudiced the average Pharisee was against women, Paul had no doubts about the ability of the women of his audience to understand and respond to his message about God’s kingdom and the truths of scripture.

This also ought not to come as a surprise.  If any of you visit the holiest site for Judaism, the wailing wall in Jerusalem at the base of the temple mount, you will see a striking and unusual sight.  About two thirds of the wall is set aside for men to worship wearing their skull caps, whether of cloth or, for those who have no yarmulke of their own, one of paper construction, and the other third is set aside for women.  Yet at the wall, two thirds of the worshipers are women, who crowd into their third of the wall while each man who worships at the wall has several feet of personal space.  Even to this day, just as it was in Philippi for Paul, it is often easier to find women interested in the truths of God than it can be to find men who are so interested.  And yet, in the eyes of many men both then and now, it is the number of men alone that matters.  And yet just as Paul had a worthwhile Sabbath in Philippi, so too we have a worthwhile Sabbath here in a situation not unlike that which Paul experienced in Acts 16:11-15.  Indeed, Paul was willing to stay at the home of Lydia, and baptize her household, something which would have been unheard of for many Jews of his time.

Let us notice one more aspect of this passage.  Lydia and her whole household were baptized, and Lydia shows herself to be the head of the household.  There are likely two ways this would have happened—either Lydia was the daughter and heiress of a father who had been a seller of the Tyrian purple dye she sold, from whom she had inherited the business, or she was the childless widow of a merchant who had sold the purple.  Either way, for a woman in Roman society to inherit a business and lead a household as she did, she must have inherited the business from someone else.  At any rate, she is given one of the Bible’s more striking examples of the tendency for belief among a head of household to lead to baptism for the whole household.  Here in Acts 16, we see another example of this, in Acts 16:25-34.  In Acts 16:25-34, we read about the conversion of the Philippian jailor and his household, which reads as follows:  “But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.  Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.  And the keeper of the prison, awakening from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself.  But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”  Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.  And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes.  And immediately he and all his family were baptized.  Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.”  Here too we see an unusual situation, but one where Paul’s behavior and message help lead to the conversion of an entire household in unusual and striking circumstances.

What can we learn from this passage we have been discussing in Acts 16 today?  For one, we see a clear example of Paul’s commitment to worshiping with others on the Sabbath, whether they were men or women, young or old, Jews or Gentiles.  In contrast to many people today, he was not prejudiced about the identity of fellow believers.  Hopefully the same may be said about us.  Even if we are praying and singing by the riverside, or in a prison, whether we are with men, women, or children, let us honor and praise God and speak the truth and act with respect and honor towards anyone we happen to be around.  After all, one never knows when, like Paul, we will have an opportunity to show those who are not used to be honored and respected how God views all of His offspring whom He wishes to bring into His kingdom.

[1] See, for example:






About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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8 Responses to Where Prayer Was Customarily Made

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