And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold…
We welcome his revelation that the grace of God has so boundless a reach; that in His government men are accountable not for knowledge which they have not, but for what they have. It suggests certain practical lessons like the following:
I. IT IS OUR PRIVILEGE TO EXERCISE A WIDE CHARITY TOWARD RELIGIONS WHICH DIFFER FROM OUR OWN. We have the authority of Scripture for recognising the truth wherever found. No one of the apostles stands more resolutely for sound doctrine, for righteous living, than Paul; yet more than once he takes pains to quote from heathen writers opinions that are correct as far as they go. He believed that so far as they had any truth, it was the truth of God. We have a feeling sometimes that to acknowledge anything of good in one who is not a Christian, or in a Church with which we have no fellowship, or in a nation that is in spiritual darkness, is disloyalty to God; but we are really doing Him larger honour to believe that something of His image is left in His creatures everywhere; that, in the plenitude of His grace, His Spirit is working to some extent in all men the fruits of righteousness; that He only demands of His creatures, in Christian or in heathen lands, to follow the knowledge which they have; that "in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him."
II. WE MAY BE INSPIRED BY THE VIRTUES OF THE PAGANS. It is a part of charity not only to recognise virtue anywhere, but to be willing to copy it. That is a high attainment in the study of this grace. If a man is, in your judgment, a heathen or a heretic, it is humiliating to admit that he can teach you anything of goodness; but perhaps he can. He may have some excellencies that are far beyond yours in the same line. Why should you not make these a subject of study and emulation? Certainly it is not disparaging the Christian system; it is not reflecting upon God; they all came from Him; they are not the product of the human will; they are fruits of the Spirit, and in copying them you are but copying God. For example, the Stoics, who knew little of Christianity, had rules for right living as exalted in some particulars as those prescribed by Christian men in any age. One of their philosophers says of human depravity: "Let us first persuade ourselves of this, that there is not one of us without fault." "If you wish to be good, first believe that you are bad." That is as strong as the Saviour's words: "They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick." Another, writing of self-examination, refers to an old scholar who, when the day was over and he went to rest, used to ask himself, "What evil have you cured today? What vice have you resisted? In what particular have you improved?" That would be a good rule for Christians. Here is another precept: "What ought not to be done, do not even think of doing." Virtues like these were taught by a few, at least, centuries before the Christian era. There seems ground for the opinion that the prevalence of these to such an extent helped to prepare the world for the gospel, as St. admitted that he had been led first toward Christianity by the stoical teachings of . A flower that springs up in a field of weeds and surprises you with its fragrance, is as really the work of a Divine Creator as that which grows in a gardener's bed. Virtue is always Divine, and wherever she leads it is safe to follow.
III. WE OUGHT TO BE GRATEFUL FOR THE LIGHT OF CHRISTIANITY. But why, if there is so much to commend in the pagan philosophers? What need is there of the gospel? This simply: religion is something more than a system of ethics. If it be asked more definitely what was it that they lacked as compared with us, the answer is many sided; but this is its substance: they lacked Christ. Here, then, is a vast gulf between those sages and ourselves. They did not have the idea, as we do, of a personal God — a Father, a Friend. More particularly they did not know Jesus, did not have Him as a guide. With all their beautiful precepts, they had no example; they did not know of anyone who had ever obeyed these laws. One of them writes, "Follow the guidance of nature: that is the great thing." What a rule for a weak human being! One of them speaks of waiting for death with a cheerful mind; but look back a sentence or two, and see what he means: "What, then, is that which is able to enrich a man? One thing, and only one — philosophy." That is as far as their wisdom rose. That is why we have reason for gratitude that we know of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of men. He is "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." "Every man," whoever, wherever, whatever he is. If anyone claims that he is sufficient in himself, and needs no Divine revelation other than that which comes from his own consciousness, he is making a fatal mistake; he cannot quote Cornelius as an example.
(T. J. Holmes.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing,