Down By The Riverside

Cumberland Falls fall river view vThis past Wednesday I led a Bible study on Acts 16.  In the story of Paul’s second missionary journey he and his partners pay a visit to Philippi.  When Paul entered a new city he would typically begin his work by speaking at the local synagogue.  Philippi did not have one so we read, “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer.”  What Paul found was a group of women praying.  From this group would emerge the church of Philippi—the recipients of the Book of Philippians.

I find it interesting that Paul and his companions “expected” to find a place of prayer down by the riverside.  Why?  What was it that led him to believe this?  Apparently it was not uncommon in that day for people to gather by a river to worship.  In the case at Philippi it may have been that the river “outside the city gate” provided some protection from local authorities who might not understand this group’s beliefs.  Still, we know that others in different locations also gathered by rivers to worship.  Why?

Rivers play a prominent role in the Scriptures.  In numerous instances it is by a river that God makes Himself known to someone.  People such as Jacob, Joshua, Ezekiel, and Daniel could testify to this, as could Jesus.  It was by the River Jordan that Jesus heard God say, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  

In that time, rivers came to represent the source of life for many.  This makes sense considering most of the biblical narrative unfolds in an arid region.  Rivers have also long been associated with cleansing.  Most of the world’s religions have rituals involving water and usually they imply cleansing.  Christianity is no different.  Later some came to see rivers as symbolic of God’s ever-flowing love and mercy.  For others, a place to lay down their burdens as suggested by the song, Down By the Riverside.

Perhaps people have gathered near rivers to worship simply for the beauty and peace they find there.  For the way that God seems nearby in His Creation.  I’m certainly glad we have beautiful sanctuaries to worship in today, but like those in the Scriptures, I often find myself drawn to a riverside, a forest or a mountain to worship my God and Savior.  I cannot help but believe that there is good reason to do so.

–Chuck

(The picture above is of the Cumberland River at Cumberland Falls State Park, Kentucky.)