There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,…
Jesus Christ is the focus of all good tendencies in history. His light, lighting every man that cometh into the world, is their origin; His triumph is the conclusion toward which they move. The story of Cornelius and Peter shows the bringing together in Christ of two great religious elements — that of devout paganism and that of faithful Judaism. Both make sacrifices, for in Judaism as well as in paganism there is somewhat that is to be left behind. Yet in both there was imperfection. Cornelius had yet to put on the gospel life, Peter had yet to renounce the imperfect Jewish life. Both needed advancement more closely toward Christ, where they could meet as one.
I. CORNELIUS, THE GENTILE, is one of the noblest figures of pre-Christian life that we have. It has often been pointed out that the Roman centurions are always well spoken of in the New Testament. But Cornelius is more plainly set before us than either of the others.
1. As a man Cornelius is deserving of our admiration. We see in him a high religious longing. He was not a dabbler in speculation, such as he might have been if he had been a Greek, or a Roman of a hundred years later. He was one of the sort of men Archdeacon Farrar has called, "seekers after God": men like , Seneca, , and ; men to whom the utmost heathenism could offer in the way of religiousness was unsatisfying (as God meant it to be) to the wants of the soul. The quantity of religiousness offered by the Roman religion was not at fault; there was an abundance of theory to appeal to the mind, plenty of supernatural legend about the gods, and a ritual elaborate enough to gratify the most ardent longing for the externals of worship. But there was not that quality in it all which could appease the cravings of the heart. It was not Divine. Cornelius longed for something better. He had been led to Judaism. Here were no idols, here were no debasing legends of deity, here was real spiritual religion. The purity and spirituality of the Hebrew monotheism, and the loftiness of its code of morals, must have come like a revelation to thoughtful hearts. They came so to Cornelius. The God of the Jews was a better God to him than Jupiter. Yet Cornelius made a discriminating use of Judaism. Cornelius penetrated to the eternally true elements of the Hebrew religion, and disregarded those parts of it which were merely typical and temporary and had no power to satisfy the soul. For his characteristics, named at some length, are spiritual and not ritualistic. He was "a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house" (ver. 2). The word devout, it is true, says Lechler, "may be applied even to a strictly pagan form of devoutness." It designates a worshipful bent of mind, full of reverence toward Heaven. But in Cornelius' case this reverence was rightly directed, for it rose toward the true God. It is said also of Cornelius that he "gave much alms to the people (of Israel), and prayed to God always." His religiousness was shown not only in devoutness, but in the outward life. "Because," says Calvin, "the Law is contained in two tables, Luke in the first place commends Cornelius' piety; then he descends to the second part, in the fact that he practised the duties of charity towards men." That such a man should have no influence was impossible, above all in those days when the possibilities of the pagan religions were exhausted and men were reaching out after something more satisfying, after that, indeed, which Cornelius had found. We are not surprised, therefore, to learn that "all his house" joined him in his fear of the true God (ver. 2). A man like Cornelius, reverent and thoughtful, cannot but influence others toward the same traits. And the reason for this was his strength of character. Roman soldiers were not, as a general thing, very reverent. Out of this same strength of character also, doubtless, came his patience. He had prayed earnestly to God, we know not for how long, but no unusual answer had come.
2. Such a man in himself is a delightful study in character; but he is much more valuable in this case because of his spiritual significance in relation to the gospel. He shows us plainly, by his obedience to it, the obligation of the universal law of living up to the light one has. Religious emancipation is by means of the principle of exhaustion. You use an imperfect form of religion faithfully, and you are led out of it into something better. So those who, like Paul, were zealous Jews were offering themselves to God as fit subjects for something higher still. Because all phases of belief have in them the potency of better things, men are rightly to be judged of God by their use of what they have. And no one need fear, whatever his present phase of belief Godward, that his aspirations toward something better are ever overlooked by God. The angel said to Cornelius, "Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God" (ver. 4). It is a comforting thought that not a single hope for religious advancement in any human soul is ever over. looked by God. Cornelius was a good man, a religious man. Even these, however, did not merit the gift of the gospel. The best of men can never claim anything at God's hands, because even the best of men never use all their privileges and perfectly fulfil the will of God. But although Cornelius had not by his life come to deserve the gift of the gospel (which is impossible), he had by it prepared himself for the gospel, and plainly evinced to God his desire for it, although the knowledge of just what it was that he desired and craved for had not crossed his mind. To those who ask it shall be given, and by his good life Cornelius had shown himself to be one of those who ask. God gives grace in exchange for grace. Using what light we have leads on to the desire for more, until we are led to want Christ, who is the final and best gift of God.
II. PETER, THE JEWISH-CHRISTIAN, gives us a study in advancing Christianity. Cornelius shows how Judaism helps to Christ; Peter shows how Judaism must be thrown off in order to reach Christ. The same thing which is set before us as a help in Cornelius is shown a hindrance in Peter. Do you wonder that a man's early training should stay by him? Was it not intended so to stay? Peter's prepossession against Gentile ways of living was fortified by the knowledge that Jewish life was founded upon Divine ordinances. The things unclean to Judaistic thought had not been made unclean by the Jews themselves, but by the very declaration of God. And yet it was narrow. It did not rise to the idea that God might be planning to displace even His own work. Peter could not see that a thing might be instituted of God and yet be temporary. He could not advance to the full conception of the possibility of progressiveness in God's revelation. Not that there was anything defective, improper, or bad in any part of God's ancient work. Bat He meant it for a certain purpose which was temporary. And it was a wonder so great that it took a miracle to dispel it. So hard is it for us to get away from our own set ideas of how God must work when He works at all. And yet God can do the difficult, even what seems the impossible. He can give a form of religion to men that seems perfect, and then He can displace it by another to which the former is but as night to noonday. Peter was to learn that a Gentile soul as such is as ready for the kingdom as a Jewish soul as such, if it is truly longing for salvation. And as this came to him it brought a lesson in humility, for he learned that the judgment of God was far better than his own. He had his prepossessions, founded in the very Word of God. He was asked to give these up by the same God. Here seemed inconsistency, impossibility. But Peter must yield. The ways of man must submit to the ways of God. Our conceptions of God, religion, piety, must all yield before God's thoughts. And if He displaces His own revelations by better ones who shall say Him nay?
III. THE GENERAL LESSONS of our study are apparent.
1. Cornelius and Peter, Jew and Gentile, both had visions granted by God. God is no respecter of persons. Some very ignorant, uneducated man, despised in our eyes, may find the truth as well as we.
2. Christ takes what is best out of all as the foundation of advance into new truth concerning Himself. God's Spirit makes a preparatio evangelica everywhere.
3. All men need progress religiously — progress not beyond Christ, but progress deeper into the mysteries of the sublime truth given to us in Him. Let no one ever say he has no more to learn about the Son of God.
(D. J. Burrell D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,