There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,…
1. In religious biography "army Christians" have a recognised place and honour for simplicity and thoroughness. To the soldier the very conditions of his life render compromise an impossibility. In discipline, in the habit of obedience, in the self-restraint and self-effacement required of the true man in arms, are also to be found true elements in the education of the man of God. In Bible history, many of those whom we most admire were warriors — the simple Joshua, the lordly Gideon, the "Sweet Singer" David, the pious Josiah; and in what book is more praise given to worth than is given to faithful Ittai, grateful Naaman, "My sergeant Cyrus," the courteous Julius, and the nameless but immortal centurion of Capernaum?
2. When introduced to us, Cornelius is an officer of the Roman garrison stationed at Caesarea, then the civil capital of Judaea. His name at once attracts attention. What the name of Howard, or Russell, or Talbot is to English, or Douglas, or Gordon, or Stewart to Scottish history, that was the gens Cornelia to the City of the Seven Hills. A cadet of a noble house we may therefore conceive him to have been. The benign influence of noblesse oblige would be upon him and help to preserve a stainless name from stain. The regiment to which he was attached seems to have been one of special honour, and the position of an officer in it would be correspondingly eminent. Later on we encounter an officer of an "Augustan" cohort at Caesarea, Julius, the courteous custodier of St. Paul. It is quite possible that Cornelius and Julius may have been officers of the same regiment, which would readily account for the kindly feeling which the latter manifested towards his prisoner.
3. As regards the piety of Cornelius the narrative speaks enthusiastically (ver. 2). This eulogy seems to describe a "proselyte of the gate." The more exclusive Jews made the "gate" to be as high and forbidding as possible, but the Hellenists gloried in the tribute paid by every inquirer to the spiritual supremacy of the prophets, and encouraged them to study the Scriptures and to attend the synagogues. So it came that there was, more or less loosely, connected with the synagogues in almost every great centre, a floating body of students of all shades of opinion, from those who were merely attracted by the simple and central principle of the unity of the Godhead, on to those who were on the threshold of circumcision. Among these it is strange if we cannot find room for one to whom the terms applied to proselytes are given, "devout," and "one that feared God"; who gave alms to Jews; observed the Jewish hours of prayer, and was manifestly familiar with the Jewish Scriptures.
4. The narrative at once lets us see that this man is thoroughly in earnest. He is one of those "violent" ones who take the kingdom of heaven "by force." We find him spending a whole day (ver. 30) in fasting and prayer. At the ninth hour (3 p.m.), the hour of evening prayer, the answer comes. He had heard about Jesus (ver. 37, "Ye know"); his mind, enlightened by Jewish prophecy, and unobscured by Jewish prejudice, saw neither "stumbling block" nor "foolishness" in a suffering Saviour. The angelic visitor does not constitute himself the expounder of Divine truth; he only tells where such an expounder may be found. The miracle ceases, as it always does, at the earliest possible point.
5. There is a fitness in the Roman from Caesarea seeking the Jew at Joppa. For Caesarea was new-built and heathen; Joppa from time immemorial had been the port of Jerusalem, a town Jewish in all its history and relations, and associated with many of the most stirring events of Jewish history. It is still further fitting that the city of Jehovah should linger on, like the Jewish people, dejected but not destroyed, whilst that of Caesar has ceased to be.
6. But meanwhile a preparatory work had to be accomplished in the mind of the prejudiced fisherman of Galilee. It is impossible for one who has not encountered it to gauge the mastering tyranny of religious caste. Our class distinctions exist in spite of religion, under its mollifying influence, and, when they pass beyond certain bounds, under its ban. But in caste religion adds its sanction to the distinctions, and stereotypes and stamps them as Divinely appointed, permanent and necessary. Caste had crept into the Jewish Church. The Jews, instead of regarding themselves as Heaven's instruments for the sake of others, had come to plume themselves on being Heaven's favourites for their own sake. The atmosphere of such a caste pride is like a spiritual sirocco, drying up the moisture of charity, and parching into an unbrotherly Pharisaism. In such an atmosphere St. Peter had been born and bred. Then he and the other disciples are called of Jesus Christ. For three or four years they are within the sweep of His liberalising love. Then comes Calvary, the Resurrection, and thereafter Pentecost. On that day Peter expounded the prophecy: "I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh." Surely the truth has now entered into him, and will never more leave room for caste. But no I It is in him still, living and strong, and He who "knows what is in man" has a feeling for His servant's infirmity, and provides that special symbolic teaching which he needs before he may dare to enter upon the work whereunto he is now called.
7. Thus prepared the apostle goes with the messengers of the centurion. And now the two are face to face. It is a strange meeting — the servant of Christ and the soldier of Caesar. That Cornelius did not resent or recoil from such a teacher proves at once how truly religion had done its royal work within him. Two men more opposed as to race, birth, breeding, and habits, can scarcely be conceived; and it could not but be that there was much in the peasant calculated to rasp the Patrician, yet the soldier of Caesar deems it no dishonour to bow the knee before the legate of Jehovah.
8. We need not trace the interview through its details. The significant fact — one of overwhelming importance in the development of the idea of the Church — is that Cornelius and his household are received as Christians, not through the preliminary "gate" of circumcision, but directly through that of baptism. What the significance of that fact was it now concerns us to see. The infant Church was surrounded by dangers on all sides and far ahead. It had to face those which arose from the hostility of the world's governments and from the contact of Oriental theosophies. But its nearest, and deadliest danger arose from the Church from which itself sprung. Springing forth from the bosom of Judaism, the Christians were, at the outset, regarded as a Jewish sect, amenable to Jewish ecclesiastical law and discipline. They worshipped in the synagogues and in the temple. In this aspect the danger was that the hierarchy might crush them. This was a danger that could be measured. But the Church's friends were more to be feared than her foes. Those without might cruelly seek to destroy, but those within conscientiously sought to corrupt. Every Jew was brought up to believe that the Law was eternal in its minutest details, ceremonial and judicial. Other than Jews might enter the kingdom of God, but only by the entrance of circumcision. The majority of the Jewish Christians carefully dovetailed their conceptions of the Messiah into conformity with this fundamental requirement. The popular thought placed the law first; and the Messiah was to be gloried in as the magnifier of its scope and the extender of its authority. If we rightly understand this prejudice, so deeply bedded in the Jewish mind as to be with difficulty dragged out of the hearts of even apostles, we shall be in a position to understand the danger to the Church from the influx of Jewish converts. They came into the Church devoutly believing Jesus to be the Messiah; but they continued to believe that, first of all, He was a Jewish Messiah, and all the citizens of His kingdom must first become Jews. This was the position assumed by an active and aggressive party "they of the circumcision," i.e., "Judaizing Christians." The position taken up by the Church and by all the apostles, but most strongly by St. Paul, was antagonistic to this. The law was but a pedagogue to lead up to Christ; in all its ceremonial it was local and temporary, designed for a special purpose of preparation, which purpose was accomplished when the Saviour came; it was therefore no longer required. Here was the momentous issue, whether Christianity will shrink into a mere Jewish sect, or swell into the Catholic Church. When we consider the character of the danger, we cease to be surprised that Paul became a "chosen vessel" to bear the gospel to the Gentiles, free from all the demands of a ceremonial Judaism. Neither the training nor the temperament of St. Peter fitted him for the task; the cause was therefore taken out of his hands. In those of St. Paul it was safe. But let us not forget that the older and less qualified man was the instrument selected of God for the introduction of the first heathen into the Church. As was to be expected from the presence of such a party as I have described, his action was promptly challenged at Jerusalem. The defence was a simple narrative of facts. "What was I that I should withstand God?" The reply was satisfactory to the Church, and ought to have been final to all. But caste dies hard.
9. And so we have the noble Roman recognised as a member of the Visible Church. The baptism did not make him a Christian; it proclaimed a fact that already existed. God owned him first; man afterwards.
(G. M. Grant, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,