There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,…
Although it seemed good to Almighty God, under the old dispensation, to separate for Himself a peculiar people, and to make Himself known to them in a wonderful manner, He gave frequent intimations that this knowledge should, in the fulness of time, be extended to the Gentiles also. In this incident, in the conversion of Cornelius, we behold the rise of that mighty stream which has poured its healing waters over so large a portion of the civilised world, fulfilling in its course the prediction of the evangelical prophet: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined" (Isaiah 9:2).
I. THE CHARACTER OF CORNELIUS. He is introduced in the text as a Roman soldier, a centurion, an officer of considerable rank and distinction, in the cohort or regiment called the Italian band, quartered at Caesarea. He had been a heathen, but by the grace of God had been delivered from the vain and idolatrous worship of the gods of his own country to serve the true and living God. How, or in what way, this change had been effected, we know not with any certainty. It is not improbable that, in consequence of his residence in Judaea, the scriptures of the Old Testament had fallen in his way, and he had been led to study them in an unprejudiced and teachable spirit, and had become convinced that the gods of the heathen were no gods, and that the God of Israel He was the true and only God. He is introduced to us as "one that feared God with all his house." And such must ever be the result of an honest fear or reverence of God, drawn from the Word of God, and wrought by the Spirit of God. It is the "beginning of wisdom": it works in the mind of the individual to produce conviction. But conviction once produced, it stops not with the individual; it moves him to exert his influence for the benefit of others, and especially of those of his own household; and, if we are right in our conjecture that it was from the Holy Scriptures that the centurion had become acquainted with Israel's God, there can be little doubt that these same Scriptures would be employed by him as the means of instructing those about him. If you, like Cornelius, fear God, are you not afraid to neglect His Word? Let me urge it upon you to assemble your children and the members of your house once at least on every day, and read aloud some portion of that blessed Book, and then conclude with a few words of supplication. But it is stated of Cornelius, whose conduct suggests to us these remarks, that he "prayed to God alway." It may be, that whilst I have been urging on you once at least each day to gather your families together for a few minutes to read the Word of Life, you have been finding out excuses in your manifold engagements, and saying within yourselves, "It is impossible, it is utterly impossible: at such an hour I have to be at such a place, and at such and such a time to do such and such things: it is quite impossible." Listen to me, if it be really and truly impossible, God may possibly accept the excuses you have been framing. But here the question naturally arises, Had Cornelius, concerning whom it is recorded that "he prayed to God alway," no engagements? Had he, a Roman soldier, appointed to command at least a hundred men, and to communicate continually with the authorities at Rome concerning the conduct of the refractory Jews, at this time subjects to the emperor his master, had he nothing to do? Might he not easily have found excuses? But how, it may be inquired, could he, if thus fully occupied, how could he possibly pray to God alway? Listen to me whilst I endeavour to supply the answer. He feared God, felt reverently and gratefully His mercy in making Himself known to him; and he was afraid lest, if left an instant to himself, he might, at some time or other, relapse into his former state of idolatry and heathenism; and it was his aim, therefore, to live in a constant spirit of prayer, so that the fire might ever be burning on the altar of his heart: his very duties were so performed, and his mind so carefully regulated by continual meditation upon and intercourse with his heavenly Friend, that it was no exaggeration to say of him, "He prayed to God always." Cornelius was a soldier — a profession, generally but too hastily, supposed unfavourable to the growth of grace in the heart. Undoubtedly some callings seem, from their very nature, to afford larger opportunities of the means of grace and association with God's dear children than do others: but I should say, in general, that the state of all others the most unfavourable to vital godliness is a state of idleness and inactivity. God appoints us duties; and it is, I am thankful to be enabled to state from extensive personal experience and observation, quite possible diligently to attend to them, and yet sedulously to cultivate the paramount interests of the immortal soul; nay, more, so to perform things temporal that they may minister to the attainment of things eternal. In this view of the subject, let us stay a moment to see what the profession of Cornelius would teach him. First, then, his profession would teach one who prayed to God alway, faithfulness to his earthly sovereign, who had committed to him the overseership of that portion of the Roman empire; and thus such a one would be reminded of the fidelity and integrity which he owed to his heavenly Master, to his own soul, and to the interests of those who formed his household. Next, his profession, the very life of which is vigilance, would suggest the need there is of continual watchfulness, lest "the adversary, who goeth about seeking whom he may devour," "should obtain an advantage over him." I will mention only one other lesson which he would learn, referred to in pointed terms by the apostle in 2 Timothy 2:4: "No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath called him to be a soldier." To sit loosely by all earthly matters. I might pursue the thought: and if you were each to tell me what are the occupations to which God has called you — whether you be one to whom God has committed the responsibility of wealth and influence; whether you be lawyer, physician, student, man of business, mechanic, handmaid, or domestic servant — it would not be difficult to make out before you how each particular department of your earthly calling might be made subservient to the growth of some spiritual grace, and to suggest the exercise of that blessed state of mind which possessed Cornelius, who "prayed to God alway." But the Roman soldier did not restrict himself to his privilege of prayer; neither was he watchful only, as became him. We are therefore in no respect surprised to find it written of him that he "gave much alms." He discovered a liberal disposition in relieving the distresses of the poor, as well as a peculiar fervour of mind towards God by the constancy and devoutness of his prayers. His benevolence and his piety were intimately connected, and they reflected a lustre upon each other. They who are always asking, and as constantly receiving, will not fail to be continually communicating. Other particulars are recorded of this most exemplary soldier which I can only cursorily glance at. In the thirtieth verse we read that it was "while fasting" that the "man in bright clothing stood before him"; in the twenty-second verse that he was a just man, and "of good report among all the nation of the Jews"; and this notwithstanding the hatred which they entertained towards the Romans, whose servant Cornelius was; so justly had he conducted himself, so "unspotted had he kept himself from the world," that God had given him favour in their sight, and he was well reported of "amongst all the nation of the Jews." How lovely and consistent is his character in the view of man! There is not a shade upon it to dim its lustre.
II. THE REASONS WHEREFORE HE WAS SELECTED FROM THE HEATHEN WORLD AS THE FIRST CONVERT TO THE FAITH OF A CRUCIFIED REDEEMER. Some have thought it "vain for us to seek the reason wherefore he obtained this honourable preference," and have contented themselves with the reflection that "God distributes His favours as He pleases." This is indeed true: "He giveth not account of any of His matters" (Job 33:13); but I think a reason may be gathered from the history itself, viz., that "such was his amiable character before his extraordinary call, that he seemed less likely than many others to offend the prejudices, of the Jews." I do not think this enough. I think the facts of the case supply a more probable and instructive reason. Something more was needed in the counsels of Jehovah than this bright and lengthened catalogue of gifts and graces. What I shall the man who is exemplifying in his daily walk and conversation an amount of excellence so near perfection that there is, perhaps, no merely human character in the New Testament which surpasses it — does he need to be "told words whereby he and all his house may be saved"? and shall there be no salvation for them without? It is even so. The Word which states the need informs us what it was which Cornelius needed, and which all have need to know as well as he. You will find it in the discourse addressed by Peter to Cornelius, and "his near kinsmen and near friends," whom his piety had called together upon the occasion. Speaking to them of "Jesus of Nazareth" — of Him "whom God anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power" — the apostle says, at the forty-third verse of the chapter whence our text is taken, "To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins." These were the words whereby he and all his house were to be saved: these were the "things" which "God" had "commanded" to be "heard." These were the fundamentals of the Christian dispensation.
III. We must at this point seek to gather up from the entire subject SOME PRACTICAL INSTRUCTION, which may, by the gracious influence of the Holy Ghost that fell on all who heard the apostle's word, be blessed to us. And first, let those who, like Cornelius, are just, devout, prayerful, liberal, self-denying, and of good report among the people, let them know assuredly that they are sinners as Cornelius was, and have need to learn, if they have not yet learned, "words whereby they must be saved." All their virtues are inadequate to the blotting out one single sin. It must be confessed that the case of the Roman soldier, whose character we have been considering, is a very strong one; but if the view which I have taken of it be correct, it would seem to have been selected in order to lay the axe to the root of all self-righteousness, of all regard to and dependence upon works as the ground of men's acceptance before God. But are there none, on the other hand, who profess to have laid hold upon Christ, to believe on Him, to depend on Him alone, who reject the merit of good works; are there none of these who are yet negligent to "adorn the doctrine of God their Saviour in all things," in their tempers, in their moderation, in their freedom from selfishness? who possess but little of the energy and benevolence, the charitable, prayerful, estimable spirit of Cornelius? If such there are among ourselves, let them, let all of us, be stirred up by the example of the Roman convert to greater faithfulness and watchfulness and diligence and love.
(G. Spence, D. C. L.)
Parallel VersesKJV: There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,