There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,…
I. THE SCRIPTURAL PORTRAITURE OF HIS CHARACTER.
1. He was devout; he reverenced the Supreme Being. This he might do as a sincere pagan; and in this the pious heathen of all lands may put to the blush the irreligious man in Christian lands.
2. He was God-fearing. His character was not built upon any mere materialistic philosophy that makes all virtue spring from self-interest.
3. His influence was felt throughout his household. A man's religion that does not affect his family is a very weak, sentimental thing, not worth the having. The religion of Cornelius made his very soldiers devout.
4. In him there was a happy blending of subjective piety and of objective goodness.
(1) He "prayed" — not merely the instinctive prayer of nature, nor the sentimental prayer of the naturalist. His was the intelligent cry of a personal soul to a personal God. And that not in some moment of distress, as does the terrified atheist whose fear overmasters his creed; but "always" — habitually. Herein does Cornelius rebuke the prayerless man.
(2) He "gave much alms" — not to his own kindred and friends alone, the limit of many a man's benevolence, but to the despised Jews. There are many whose religion is all breath and no bread. The prayer of faith and the gift of love, like the two wings of a bird, bear the heart's burden up to the bosom of the Infinite, and come back again like a white dove of peace, with a new blessing and a Divine strength. The alms of Cornelius had no merit in themselves; but, as an index of the heart's longing and aim, they were acceptable to God.
5. He was sincere — a word signifying without wax and originally applied to pure honey. Applied to man it indicates the pure honey of honest desire and purpose without the wax of self-deception, prejudice, or pride. God loves a true, sincere man, though his head be enveloped in clouds of error and of doubt.
6. He was an honest seeker after truth. Paganism had not satisfied him; he wandered through the halls of philosophers, but the vision of truth came not to his weary eyes. With yearning of heart he had fled to Judaism, and in its clearer vision of God he had rejoiced; but even there he had not rested, for he felt that the revelation was not full. So he waited and longed for the completed vision as travellers on the mountains watch and wait for the rising of the sun.
7. He was susceptible and receptive. There is many a man, dissatisfied with old formulas and dogmas, calling himself truth seeker and progressionist, who yet has in his heart no open door for truth. There are many, like Pilate, whose intellects cry, "What is truth?" but whose souls have no eye to perceive it, and no welcome for it. Cornelius cried for it, hailed it, and was therefore led on by the angel into the fair kingdom of truth, down to its deepest mysteries, up to its gleaming heights.
II. GOD'S DEALINGS WITH HIM.
1. Cornelius was praying when he saw an angel, who said, "Cornelius, thy prayers and thine alms," etc. This was God's response to the prayer of that devout, sincere thinker, and everywhere God seeks the soul that seeks Him.
2. But the angel does not preach the gospel to Cornelius. No angel ever preached Christ since that first announcement of His advent. Man preaches to his brother man — the sinner saved, to the sinner lost. To Peter shall be given the distinguished honour of gathering in this first Gentile fruit to the Christian Church. But even he is not prepared for so great a mission, and it required a miracle to induce him to open the door for Gentiles to come in. Prejudice is an evil spirit not easily cast out of the human mind. Hardly yet is the entire Church free from its pernicious influence. Are there not high walls surrounding sections of the Church today, outside of which there is believed to be no salvation? Each in his own way the radical, the sceptic, the free-religionist, and the agnostic is alike the bigoted slave of prejudice. Let us heed this Divine rebuke of all unscriptural distinctions in Christ's kingdom. What is their basis? Wealth, social position, colour, and nameless other foolish dividing lines.
3. While Peter hesitated, the messengers from Cornelius arrived, and Peter returned with them, yielded to the heavenly teaching, declaring, "Of a truth," etc. And preached Jesus; the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard, who were immediately received into the Church.
III. THE GREAT LESSON concerning the sufficiency of moral excellence for the individual character, or of natural religion for the race. Let us be candid.
1. God does set a value upon moral excellence. Good works springing from right motives are good in His sight, and nothing is gained, but much is lost, when Christian teachers speak too disparagingly of moral virtues. Whether there be or be not a hereafter, it is far better to be moral than immoral.
2. True moral excellence is an important and hopeful foundation upon which to build. It is not a matter of surprise that men are alienated if they find themselves classed with criminals without a word of qualification. Let us, then, put a right estimate on moral character and good works. The misguided religionist says, "Good for nothing"; the moralist says, "Good for everything"; God says, "Good according to the spirit that prompts them."
3. It is important that this whole matter should be better understood. The imputation of teaching a religion that does not fully recognise the value of morality is a libel upon Christianity. The Christian religion alone contains an absolutely perfect system of morals, inseparably connected with its facts and doctrines. And wherever Christianity has been faithfully presented the highest type of character has been its unfailing fruit. And yet it is quite possible that the moral element is sometimes less emphasised than the spiritual. But the religion of Christ is not chargeable with such confusion of ideas, or failure in application of Christian ethics. It is not only a gospel of grace, but a gospel of character. It does recognise all that is good in man; but in seeking his highest development it bids him beware of trusting his own deceitful heart, and of seeking to build his character on the sandy foundation of self-righteousness.
4. But there is nothing in this narrative to prove that simple morality is all that a man needs to fit him for heaven, and that the religion of nature is all-sufficient.
(1) Cornelius was no mere moralist; he placed no dependence on good works. He received the gospel under the influence of the first gospel sermon that he ever heard.
(2) The history teaches us that even this man's character was not in its natural state sufficient, and could only find completeness in Christ. Were his condition and character all that could be desired, why did not God leave him as he was? This, then, is the prime thought that underlies this entire subject. There is no completeness of character, of happiness, or of life, apart from Christ. Grant that you are thoroughly moral, is it not better to be Christly too? What if in winter you say, "The air is crisp and bracing, the hearth fire is cheerful; I want no better climate than this"? Will you shut yourself in when spring comes?
(C. H. Payne, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,