There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,…
Cornelius marks the beginning of a new epoch. Like the first flower of spring he is the sign and herald of the new forces at work changing the face of the whole earth. His history carries us to the final fighting ground of the "decisive battle" between the narrow and fettering forces of Judaism and the catholic energies of Christianity. He stands at the head of Gentile Christianity, and is to Saul of Tarsus what John the Baptist was to Jesus Christ. Coming up out of the darkness of heathenism, he bursts upon the vision of the Church like a flash of unexpected light. No prophet announces his advent; no visible teacher prepares him for his work. He is outside the "churches," but in the kingdom. The building of the City of God offers room for the lowliest worker as well as demands the man of transcendent gifts. It welcomes the inconspicuous Ananias of Damascus not less than the famous pupil of Gamaliel, and advances to its perfection by the experience and toil of Cornelius, the Roman soldier, as well as by the practical wisdom of James, the chief pastor of the Christian flock in the holy city. Let each man, therefore, heed the light he now sees, do the duty that is next him, fill with unfaltering faithfulness his own sphere in the Divine will, and it is enough. God orders our way. If we know and do our own work all is well — its value, its near or far off results, we cannot estimate. In some callings men easily assess their gains, and take their true place in a graded scale of workers. We cannot. They know what they earn. We never do. Gold is easily counted; but where is the ledger account of new ideas disseminated, of spiritual renewals accomplished, of human justice and right established, of souls made true, and peaceful, and strong? Saul, unlikeliest of all the Jews to human seeming, will take up and advance the labours of the martyred Stephen; and Cornelius, unlikelier still, for he is not a Jew, will make the crooked straight and the rough places plain for the advent and ministry of the Apostle of the Gentiles.
I. Approaching in this spirit of trust and hope and ardour, the study of Cornelius, as he appears in Luke's history, revealing the methods and movements of God in securing new departures in religion, we note first THAT CORNELIUS GATHERS INTO HIMSELF IN COOPERATING FULNESS THE CHIEF PROVIDENTIAL FORCES OF THE AGE, and so becomes the fitting instrument for incarnating and manifesting the remedial energy and wide range of the religion of the Saviour. The historian compels us to see that Cornelius is a Roman. The whole atmosphere is Roman! How, then, could he whose chief business it was to trace in his two Gospels the gradual growth of Christian work from Nazareth to Rome, pass by this first Christian Roman of them all, as he is led into the clear radiance of "the light of the world." Cornelius was not a proselyte. He is still within the circle of alienated heathendom, and yet by one step he passes into the school of Christ, and enters into living relations with Him, without being detained for a moment or a lesson in the training school of Moses. It is this which marks the crisis. Herein is the revolution. The germ of the Christian religion is planted in this uncircumcised, uninitiated Gentile, finds in his devout yearnings for God, loyalty to Christ, generous love of the needy, and beautiful largeness of soul, the appropriate conditions for rapid and sure development, and forthwith gives incontrovertible signs that though the planting may be Peter's, yet the increase belongs first to the germ itself, and has been secured, in the Divinely-prepared soil, by the operation of the Spirit of God. Religious particularism is in Him exposed, condemned, and cast out for evermore. God's great "universalities of love, provision, and ministry to souls" are manifest; Christianity has a new starting point, and henceforth pursues a new line of progress. As a river it had entered into human history in Nazareth and Jerusalem, and had made its channels deep and wide; here in Caesarea, at the borders of the non-elect world, it starts along a new course, cuts for itself wider and deeper channels, and makes everything to live whithersoever it comes. So the Judaism in which Christianity was born is left behind, and that transference of the religion of Jesus to the Latin world, by which it was to work as a regenerating leaven in the European races, is commenced. In Cornelius the centurion, the glorious gospel of the blessed God makes its auspicious start for the Great West. Now this, it must be remembered, is the first proof of the realisation of the world purpose of God in the gift of revelation. "The universe," as Renan has said, "is incessantly in the pain of transformation," and goes towards its end with what he calls "a sure instinct," but with what we believe to be a Divinely-redeeming impulse; that end being the salvation of all men through a universal religion. The first fathers of the Hebrew faith caught a glimpse of that world-embracing aim, and the exile of Israel in Babylon lifted it on high, brought it into the life of the people, so cleansing their conceptions of God and man, and preparing them for their worldwide mission. Then the victories of Alexander the Great brought in their train the diffusion of the Greek language, Greek thought, and Greek culture, throughout the world. To these beneficent ministries were added the discovery of new routes to the East, the development of traffic, and the commingling of the different races of men; all to be perfected and crowned by the ascent to the summit of power of Roman Imperialism, and the shaping of the nations into that one political federation which became the basis for that universal civilisation which was the material condition for the reception and dissemination of a really universal religion. But for us, living in the midst of dreaded religious changes, the biography of Cornelius is not only an argument, but also a message of peace and hope. It bids us trust in the living God — the God who is a consuming fire, but whose fires only burn up the waste materials of old religions to make room for the building of the new and better edifice. The kingdom of truth and of redemption is His. He rules it, and all new departures in religion are under His sway. He prepares for its advances by processes out of sight, continues the succession of heroic souls, who free us from the tyranny of dead dogmas; who gather up the results of His manifold working in all the departments of life, scientific and social, political and religious, and who then, vitalising and unifying them all by the Spirit of Christ Jesus, lead the life of the world to higher and heavenlier places. Lessing says: "The palace of Theology may seem to be in danger through the fire in its windows, but when we arrive and study the phenomenon we find it is but the afterglow from the west which is shining on the panes, really endangering nothing, but yet for a moment or two attracting all." Let us not fear. The God of Cornelius is the Father of Jesus Christ, and the Saviour of all men.
II. Advancing to a further point in the record, it appears that GOD PERFECTS THE SPIRITUAL EDUCATION OF PETER BY CORNELIUS; ill short, He finishes the work that was commenced on and in the chief apostle by John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, by the agency of a saint of paganism. Peter was a dull scholar, and required to be converted a good many times. It was a hard task to surrender his Jewish exclusiveness. All his traditions and preferences were against the sacrifice. He could not see the bearing, and did not admit the far-reaching applications of the truths he proclaimed. Thus the soldier comes to the aid of the seer. So the saint of heathendom goads into bold and aggressive action the disciple of Jesus Christ. Christianity advances through vision and service; through prophets on the heights of meditation and warriors confronted with crowds of foes in the valleys of evil. Some men require arousal. They see, but they stand still; they know, but they will not do. They linger shivering on the brink, waiting for the leadership of a more venturesome spirit. We need one another. The men of intelligence require the men of action; the press cannot dispense with the pulpit, nor the pulpit with the press: even apostles may learn from the humblest inquirers. The Reformation, prepared by Erasmus and the Humanists, waits for the moral fervour and splendid courage of Martin Luther. Peter, leader and apostle though he was, owes an unspeakable debt to the God-trained soldier of Caesarea.
III. TRUTH, LIKE A TORCH, THE MORE IT IS SHOOK IT SHINES. The new light in the house of Cornelius sends out its radiance to Jerusalem, arresting the attention and arousing the opposition of the fathers and brethren of the new Christian society. Peter appeared before the Church and told his simple tale. The appeal was victorious. God was understood and glorified, and the verdict was given by the Church with heartiness and praise, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life." Is not that the way God is working amongst us today? Is He not preparing a glorious future for the Churches by the work and experience of individuals here and there, in and out, of the Churches? Cornelius is a religious reformer. God puts into his experience the truths of His Gospels in their widest range, and thereby they are built into, and operate as part of, the working energies of the Christian system. The centurion himself, in the fulness of his spiritual gifts and achievements, demonstrates that God is not a respecter of persons and races, but of aims and faiths, of yearnings and character. The unit of the Christian theology is a Christian man; a man who has come to Jesus Christ as he was, with all God has done in him and for him, with all he has acquired, in intellect and character, at home and in contact with men; and has come through Jesus Christ to the possession of the ideas, motives, and powers of the Holy Spirit; and is by that Spirit made a new man. I adopt the language of Milton: "Now once again by all concurrence of signs, and by the general instinct of holy and devout men, God is decreeing some new and great period in this Church, even to the reforming of the Reformation itself." Let us be hopeful and patient. No knowledge can be a menace to the truth of Christ Jesus. It must glorify Him. The wise men will bring their gifts and lay them at the feet of Christ. A new Cornelius — now outside the Churches not unlikely — will God give to His children who, himself freighted with the rich results of the intellectual, social, and spiritual activity of the century, will force us into the presence of God, to hear what He Himself has commanded His Peters to say to us; and He will fellow the preaching with such signs of salvation and power, that the Churches will gratefully say: "Then hath God granted unto the learned and scientific, and to the social outcast also repentance unto life."
IV. Finally, the portrait of Cornelius, together with the glimpses we obtain of Peter, reveals THE MEN IN WHOM GOD PREFERABLY WORKS FOR THE TRUEST SPIRITUAL PROGRESS OF MEN.
1. Cornelius is a "devout man." He cultivates communion with God. Strong impulses urge him towards the higher significance of life, prepare his spirit for visions of the unseen world, and open his soul for the larger faith he avers, and the sublime inspirations he receives.
2. With this intense spiritual yearning he blends a wise management of his house, as if himself consciously under God's authority, and responsible for the well-being of those under him, so theft some of his soldiers catch the infection of his devoutness, and his domestics share his solitude to hear God's messenger.
3. In him also is seen the Roman love of rectitude and fair dealing. He is a "just man."
4. He has not taken advantage of his place to plunder, as too many others did. But he gave much alms to the people. His social sympathies were as strong as his religious. You cannot hope to take any helpful part in hastening the arrival of an era of purified and enlarged thought of God, of intenser love of God and men, of spiritual quickening and social regeneration, unless, conscious of your weakness and sin, you make it your business, whilst believing in Him "who is the propitiation for our sins," to walk in the light as He is in the light, and so to have fellowship with men and experience that continuous "cleansing from all sin" which is the pledge and guarantee of Divine adequacy for faithful and fruitful work.
(J. Clifford, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,