There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,…
The record of the advance of the young Church gives in quick succession three typical conversions: first, that of the eunuch, a foreigner, but a proselyte to the Jewish faith; secondly, that of Saul, born and bred a Jew; thirdly, this of Cornelius, a Gentile seeker after God. Within the range of these experiences the whole world was compassed. The highest apostolic sanction for an unfettered gospel was the need of the hour.
I. THE VISION OF THE ROMAN (vers. 1-8). The home of Cornelius lay thirty miles north of Joppa. Built by Herod the Great in honour of Caesar Augustus, the seat of the Roman rule in the land of the Jews, a city of splendour, with spacious artificial haven, having a temple erected to the emperor that held his statue as Olympian Zeus, and lying, as it did, within the sacred territory, yet a centre of Grecian influence and plagued by the corruptions of a pagan worship, Caesarea afforded every possible phase of contrast to the age-long intolerance of Peter's countrymen. Rome's wide empire flashed before the eye of this true-born Italian, nor could he dream that faith in a Nazarene peasant would give the Cornelian name its truest honour. Yet he was one of those rare souls of whom not a few have illuminated the darkness of heathenism, whom heart hunger leads to the truth. He was a "devout" man. He "feared" God. The second word is simply a closer definition of his religious character. His "fear" was not a superstitious dread of the wrath of God, but a brave man's dread of failing to do the will of God. Furthermore, his piety had power in it, and this, mingled with peace, won over to his faith "all his house." No man's religion can, without great hurt, fail to set forth the two sides of the character of his God. In the man who orders his household in the fear of God "mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other." Cornelius, constant in alms-giving and prayer, draws near to the kingdom of God's Son. The kingdom is about to be entered. The order is, "Now send." The time had come. The outlying Gentile world had grown sick at heart. The "middle wall of partition" was falling to the ground. Cornelius, for the pagan world, was to learn that the Cross was the centre of the circle, and Peter, for the Jewish world, that the circle was as big as the globe. The Divine direction is very exact. Both of the apostles' names are given. Whether Cornelius knew it or not, Philip, a resident of Caesarea, might have been called to his side within an hour. But Philip was not the man for the occasion. Of all men Peter was best fitted to preach Jesus to Cornelius, of all men the one most needing the results of his preaching. "He will tell thee what thou oughtest to do." These words emphasise two important truths:
1. They point to the value of human agency in the salvation of men. The value of human testimony to a historic fact was never lost sight of in the foundation of the Church. The answer to Hume and Strauss may be found in the meeting of these men. A man not a myth has entered our world, and God has committed to men first of all, not to books, nor papers, nor tracts, the publishing of the gospel. The true witness of true men is the surest way of redeeming China to God. A shipload of Bibles sent to Africa will, unaided, amount to little. Ten holy men turned loose will leaven it for the twentieth century, The man and the book together are invincible.
2. They point to Jesus as the consummate revelation of God. When He can be found all else is insufficient. And it was because He could be found that Cornelius was not, could not be, allowed to remain where he was. His devoutness was not enough. No one dare teach that faith in specific doctrines of Christianity is superfluous. The opening words of Peter's sermon cannot be bent to prove that all religions are of equal value or that faith in the Redeemer is needless.
II. THE VISION OF THE JEW (vers 9-20). God's providences make a perfect fit. The messengers reached the tanner's door not an hour too soon, not a moment behind time. Was the man on the house top ready? A great thing was about to happen. A huge prejudice had come to its death. Let us pause to scan the past life of the fisherman. He had been in part prepared for the nearing duty. A more scrupulous Jew would not have entered a tanner's house. Peter lodged there. He had not been without much previous training. He had been taught, tried, had fallen, had been forgiven and restored to honour. Yet he was not ready for a worldwide need. The words of Jesus never took the place of the educating activities of after life. Peter had been called to be a "fisher of men" (Matthew 4:19). He had heard the centurion commended (Luke 7:7). He had learned how meats defile, and how they do not (Mark 7:18). Near the tragic close of his Lord's life he had seen that certain Greeks sought Him (John 12:20), and that in them the Gentile world was welcomed. Yet he was not ready. Like his fellows, he saw in the direction of his prejudices. "It required the surgery of events to insert a new truth into their minds." Yet he was God's best man for this hour, for, as Bruce has well said, "Everything may be hoped of men who could leave all for Christ's society." To learn that spirit is more than form, and that God is not partial, was a great lesson. Through the opening in heaven a "great sheet" was let down, held "by four rope ends" (Alford), or "attached with four ends, namely, to the edges of the opening which had taken place in heaven" (Meyer). In it were all kinds of animals without exception, clean and unclean. From these Peter was told to choose. With old-time bluntness he refuses. He knows not who speaks, but calls him "Lord." What did it mean? Little wonder that he was "perplexed." The most outward mark of difference between Jew and Gentile had been set at naught. He knew why these regulations had existed (see Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 16). The descendants of Abraham were not alone in making distinctions of animals. Yet none others were so thorough as those of the Jews. "The ordinance of Moses was for the whole nation. It was not, like the Egyptian law, intended for priest's alone; nor like the Hindu law, binding only on the twice-born Brahman; nor like the Parsee law, to be apprehended and obeyed only by those disciplined in spiritual matters. It was a law for the people, for every man, woman, and child of the race chosen to be a 'kingdom of priests, an holy nation' (Exodus 19:6)." He "thought" on. Was the "hedge" between races to be destroyed? Possibly. Was the vision meant for his own enlargement of privilege? Surely not. The sight, the order, shocked his sanitary creed, his patriotic sentiment, his conscience. It was hard for a Jew to yield even to a command from the skies. His "thought" may have taken in the city spread below.
(R. T. Stevenson.)
Parallel VersesKJV: There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,