And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down…
That simple account is the first record of the preaching of the gospel in Europe. We are standing at the well head of a great river. The little silver thread, over which a shepherd might step without asking it to stay its progress, broadens out into a great expanse, and the Christendom of a civilised world is developed from those simple words spoken that Saturday morning. Thus gently and unobtrusively stole into Europe the great words which were to shatter and remould its institutions, and to be the starling point of its liberties.
I. THE APPARENT INSIGNIFICANCE AND REAL GREATNESS OF CHRISTIAN WORK. It was the biggest thing that was done in the world that day when Paul talked to that handful of women. Well now, the same temptation, to judge of acts by their external aspect, and to underrate their value, besets us all in our Christian work. The greatness of an action depends on three things — its motive, its sphere, and its consequences. Anything that is done for God is great. You take a pebble and plunge it into a stream and all the veins become visible, which you failed to detect as it lay on the shore, and so it is with Christian work, cast it into the stream of holy motive — let it be done for God and it is sanctified and ennobled. And so it is as to the relative greatness of the sphere of our actions; what is done for material well-being and physical life is distinctly at the bottom. What is done for the understanding is higher, and if the lightest word of a great thinker is more than all material magnificence, then decisively, by the very same reasoning, we must exalt above the mere thinker's words the words and deeds which touch the heart, and that sway the will, that cleanse and invigorate, and instruct, and invest with sovereign power the life and conscience; and the preaching of Christ's name is that which does all these things. Therefore high above all other forms of Christian benevolence and munificence is this setting forth of the name that Paul spake by the riverside that morning. But deeds are classified according to their consequences. The longer they last, the wider they reach, the deeper they go — the greater the act which sets them in motion. Go and ask about the length of time the consequences of that sublime morning's discourse will endure. When all the flaring gas lamps and rush. lights are out, "they that be wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever."
II. THE LAW OF GROWTH IN CHRIST'S KINGDOM. The seed sown at first was but little, and though eighteen centuries have passed, and it has grown to a kingdom, it is obviously a long way from the term of its growth. So I may draw one or two lessons upon which I would touch for a moment or two. First: That the law of Christ's kingdom is found in minute and unobtrusive beginnings — noise and prominence are no parts of its power, and have little part in accomplishing the great things that are done for Him. The noisiest things are generally the little things, and the quiet things are the strong ones. Look how Jesus Christ stole into the world, into a corner of a remote little province, and went about silently doing good, and passed out of it again, and "the world knew Him not." And so don't let us be ashamed of little beginnings. They are in the line of God's way of working, and side by side with that there is the other thought, slow progress is unobtrusive and steadfast. The length which any organism takes to come to its maturity is the measure of its duration, and the man outlasts a million generations of moths, and the oak waves its unchanging branches alive many, many generations of reeds that spring and wither at its careless feet; and if eighteen centuries have but begun the development of the forces which were set loose in Europe for the first time that morning, how long is it going to be before decay sets in upon that which has taken so long to grow? A long, long duration must belong to that kingdom, the consolidation of which has been the work of all these centuries, and that must be an unsetting day, of which these years are but as a watch in the morning twilight. God works leisurely and invisibly. Treading most closely in the footsteps of Him who waited over a thousand years to send His own Son with that small beginning and slow advance, they commenced their work of the founding and building of the kingdom of Christ.
III. THE SIMPLICITY OF THE FORCES TO WHICH CHRIST ENTRUSTS THE PROGRESS OF HIS KINGDOM. It seemed a most unequal contest into which the apostle and his little band had gone, led by the vision which they interpreted as the Divine monition. Think of the opposition, the antagonisms that were ready against them. There was Greece over the hills with its proud philosophies. There was Rome all active, ready to change its toleration for active persecution. They had to meet storms of heathenish idolatry, round which the superstitious dread of untold centuries gathered, and which was ever menacing with consummate obstinacy. They had to confront ordered systems of able philosophic teachers with their unlettered message. Did Cartes, landing on an unknown shore, with an unsubdued and barren beach in front and his burning ships behind, embark on a more apparently desperate venture than these men? And what were the weapons that made them victorious? First and foremost the message that they preached, the plain gospel — to which the heart and conscience of men will respond, when it is put before them as Christ meant it to be — the message, "That God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing unto them their trespasses." That was Paul's gospel, as he tells us, and that was the weapon with which he fought, which was, "the power of God unto salvation." With this most beneficent intention they fronted the universe with one word, and with that word they took the world; and you and I have it, and if we will be faithful and will use it, we shall have the same issues and results as they. Their power in the next place came from the earnestness with which they preached the truth. Convictions are contagious. You may reason with a man until Doomsday, and if you hammer an iceberg to powder it will be ice still, but melt it, as you can by having your own soul aglow with love and loyalty to Jesus Christ, and you can turn it from ice to sweet water. The last element of power is the presence of the abiding and indwelling Christ. The Word, mighty as it is, is vain without the mighty power and inspiration of the Spirit. As we read that verse lower down, what do we find? "Whose heart the Lord opened, that she should attend to the things that were spoken of Paul." In the measure in which we are true to Him, and yield ourselves in glad surrender to His power and presence, we carry Jesus Christ with us, and He works through us, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, which are indeed the acts of the risen Christ in the apostles. The gospel is as much the power of God unto Salvation today as it ever was, and the earnestness of our personal conviction is as deep as ever, and the presence and power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ is as real as ever, and the closer we keep to Christ and the more exclusively and unreservedly we trust Him the more assured will be our results. God's Church has no need of wealth. Jewels on the hilt of a sword are often in the way of getting a good grip of it, and the gilded scabbard adds nothing to the keenness of its edge. The Church has no need of worldly help. David was almost throttled in Saul's armour, he was better without it. Let us then get the old proved weapons which have been tried through many generations; we have more reason to trust them than Paul had, for we have eighteen centuries of experience to fall back upon, which he had not; and if we cleave to them, as I pray God we may, we shall find that the weapons of our warfare, not being carnal, but spiritual, are mighty through God to the pulling down of the strongholds of sin and Satan. And so I venture to commend to your sympathies the claims of the Foreign Missionary enterprise. I am sure of this, that no Church is in a healthy condition that does not lend a helping hand in the great work of foreign missions. The lamp that is placed in the window gives no less light in the room because its rays are illuminating the darkness outside.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.