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Lectures on the Acts of the Apostles.
« Prev Lecture XIII. The Conversion of Cornelius. Next »

LECTURE XIII.

THE CONVERSION OF CORNELIUS.

Chap. x.

THE conversion of Cornelius, who was the first-fruits of the Gentiles, is supposed to have taken place about seven or eight years after the ascension of our Saviour. Yet, before he left his disciples, he gave them a commission to go “into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” The terms in which it was expressed were perspicuous; and as there could be no dispute about their duty, so there ought to have been no delay in performing it. During all this time, however, the Apostles confined their labours to their own countrymen, and to the Samaritans. If they did not understand their commission, we see a remarkable instance of the power of prejudice in preventing the mind from perceiving what is perfectly obvious; if they understood, but did not execute it, their conduct shows with what difficulty inveterate opinions and habits are renounced. To whatever cause we impute the delay, it is manifest, that although we should venerate the Apostles as ambassadors of Christ, and gratefully remember their pious labours, the benefit of which we at this moment experience, yet we are not indebted to their liberality for the interest which we possess in the new dispensation. The comprehensive scheme, which associated the Gentiles with the Jews in the enjoyment of the divine favour and the blessings of redemption, was not suggested by their enlightened benevolence.

But the prejudices and the reluctance of men cannot defeat the purposes of heaven. The gospel had now been fully preached to the Jews, and the foundation of the Church had been laid among the children of the covenant. The time was come, when the designs of mercy to those who were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel,” should be accomplished. To ensure the execution of the plan, extraordinary measures were adopted. By a new revelation, that Apostle, who was chosen to break down “the middle wall of partition,” was prepared for the service; and all the circumstances were disposed in such a manner as to remove the scruples which he felt, in consequence of his national and religious habits.

Of the person, whom divine grace selected to be the first among the Gentiles who should receive the knowledge of the truth, the following account is given in the beginning of the chapter. “There was a certain man in Cesarea, called Cornelius, a centurion of the band, called the Italian band, a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.” By birth he was probably a Roman; by profession he was a soldier; and he resided in Cesarea, with the part of the army under his command. Among military men, examples of piety are rare. They are too commonly distinguished by their irreligion and profligacy. The precariousness of life, amidst the dangers of war instead of exciting them to prepare for eternity, is grasped at as an argument to justify a course of dissipation. “Let us eat and drink: for to-morrow we die.” Too thoughtless to reflect upon any serious subject, and too much the slaves of their passions to submit to the discipline of virtue, they acknowledge no law but the law of honour, which does not refrain from baseness, but resents even to blood the imputation of it; permits without reproach the seduction of the innocent, the desolation of families, and the murder of a friend, who, in an unguarded moment, has offended them; prescribes the exterior forms of politeness, and leaves the heart polluted and degraded by the most odious vices.

Cornelius was an honourable exception; for “he was a devout man, and one that feared God.” He appears from this account to have been a proselyte of the gate, which was the designation bestowed by the Jews upon a heathen living among them, who acknowledged and worshipped the God of Israel, but did not subunit to circumcision. Such proselytes were still Gentiles in the estimation of the Jews; whereas proselytes of righteousness who were circumcised, and kept the whole law, were incorporated with the nation. The character of a devout man, given to Cornelius, is illustrated and confirmed by several particulars. “He feared God with all his house.” The pious sentiments which he entertained towards Jehovah, he was successful in inculcating upon his family. Although not a descendant of Abraham, he imitated his example, which God so highly commends. “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord; to do justice and judgment.” The personal religion of that man may be justly suspected, who suffers his children and domestics to live in ignorance and vice, without using his best endeavours to instruct and reform them. “ He gave much alms to the people.” This circumstance is the more decisive in favour of his character, as he was by birth and education, a Gentile, and consequently had not been trained to sentiments of kindness and compassion. Among the ancient heathens, the claims of the indigent and afflicted were little regarded. Corrupt nature had hardened the heart and a vain philosophy could not soften it. The charities. which are now so common in Christian countries, that they scarcely excite any admiration, result directly, or indirectly, from that principle of love to man which revealed religion alone inculcates and inspires. “He prayed to God alway.” It is almost unnecessary to remark, that nothing more is meant than he prayed frequently, or at the stated hours of the Jews, who offered up their supplications and thanksgivings, in the morning at mid-day, and in the evening. Thus Daniel ''prayed and gave thanks before his God three times a day;” and the Psalmist says, “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.”

One of the hours of prayer was the ninth hour, or three o'clock in the afternoon, when the evening sacrifice was offered. At this time the piety of Cornelius was rewarded with a divine communication, by which we are encouraged to imitate his example, in the hope of enjoying fellowship with God. “He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day, an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius.” Some of the visions recorded in Scripture, were representations made to the mind in sleep, but with such characters of their celestial origin, as easily distinguished them from the wild creations of fancy. When Cornelius saw this vision, he was awake. The objects which he beheld, had a real existence, and the words which he heard, were actually pronounced. The minister of the divine will was an angel, who entering into the place where the good man was pouring out his soul before God, saluted him by his name. The suddenness of his appearance, his majestic form, and that consciousness of inferiority and guilt, which man is apt to feel when any event takes place out of the ordinary course, agitated and alarmed him. “When he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord?” The question proceeded from reverence and fear. “Have I offended? or hast thou any command to deliver? Here I am, ready to obey.” The angel immediately relieved his anxiety, by saying, “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.” In the Levitical law, the incense burnt before the Lord, and the handful of fine flour for a sin-offering, which the priest threw into the fire of the altar, are both termed a memorial. By applying the same designation to the prayers and alms of Cornelius, the angel signified that they were spiritual sacrifices, with which God was well-pleased. Cornelius was not a Jew, nor even a proselyte of righteousness; but he believed in the true God, and this faith rendered his religious services acceptable.

But if the prayers and alms of the devout centurion ascended as incense, what more did he want? Was there any defect to be supplied in his religion, by which he already enjoyed the divine favour? It cannot be doubted, that Cornelius was at present in a state of salvation, and that, if he had resided in Rome, or in some other distant place, where the gospel was not published, he might have lived and died in peace and safety, without ever knowing that Jesus Christ had come into the world. His faith in the Messiah was sincere. But he was now in the country, which had been the scene of the incarnation, miracles death, and resurrection of the Son of God; and it was not fitting, that in this situation, any good man, who was waiting for his manifestation should have remained ignorant of that important event. An angel, therefore descended from heaven, as on another occasion a star had appeared, to conduct, this pious Gentile to Christ. Besides, by the knowledge of the Saviour, his views would be enlarged, and his spiritual joy would be increased; and this stranger who although a fearer of God, was excluded by uncircumcision from the communion of the Jewish Church, would be admitted by baptism to be a fellow-citizen of the saints. The angel therefore gave the following direction. “And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter. He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the seaside; he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do.” Cornelius might have received this information from one of the disciples, whom providence could have introduced to his acquaintance; or an Apostle might have been sent to Cesarea, to preach the gospel to the centurion. But the case required an unusual procedure. It was a new era in the history of the Church. No longer bounded by the circumscribed limits of a small country, it was to extend “from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” To this change, which could not be accomplished without the abrogation of the ancient law, even the believing Jews would with difficulty be reconciled. An angel, therefore, was employed to direct Cornelius to send for one of the Apostles, that he might, with full confidence, engage in his new and unprecedented mission, and that others might be prevented from objecting to his conduct, which God himself had expressly authorised.

It is worthy of observation, that, although God was pleased, for wise purposes, to deviate from his ordinary plan, in order to warn Cornelius of his duty; yet he was, at the same time, careful to maintain the authority and honour of his own institution for the conversion of sinners. The angel did not preach the gospel to Cornelius, but informed him where he should find a person who would preach it. God has not employed as the messengers of his mercy, superior beings whose greatness would have made us afraid, and to the charms of whose eloquence the success of his word might have been ascribed. “He hath put the treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of men.” We are addressed by mortals like ourselves, to whom we can listen without terror, and who being sinful, weak, and imperfectly enlightened, can be considered only as instruments of the divine operations. This contrivance, so admirably calculated to secure glory to God in the salvation of men, no dispensation proceeding from himself, will ever disparage. Angels may sometimes summon sinners to hear the joyful tidings, but they will be proclaimed by one of themselves. The expectation of immediate revelations to awaken the careless, is not justified by any promise of Scripture, or any recorded example; and it could not be realized without weakening the authority, and diminishing the importance, of the ministry of reconciliation.

As soon as the vision was past, Cornelius called two of his servants, and a devout soldier, who waited upon him continually; and having related the message of the angel, in which they were all interested, he despatched them to Joppa. Let us observe in what manner Peter was prepared to comply with the invitation of Cornelius.

“On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the house-top to pray, about the sixth hour. And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance.” In the eastern countries, the roofs of houses are flat; and this is a circumstance necessary to be known, in order to understand several passages of Scripture. They afforded a convenient place for prayer, being removed from the noise and interruption of the family. At the sixth hour, or noon, which was one of the hours of prayer among the Jews, Peter having retired to the house top, and being hungry, while they made ready some food for him, fell into a trance. A trance, or ecstacy, signifies a state of mind, in which a person is so much engaged with a particular subject, that the exercise of his senses is suspended, and he is insensible to every thing which is passing around him. Whether the objects which Peter saw had any real existence, or were merely represented to his mind, it is impossible to determine. We are certain, that the vision was not the offspring of imagination, but an effect of the power of God, and an authentic revelation of his will. He beheld “heaven opened,” or an appearance as if the heavens had parted asunder, and a vessel, “like a great sheet,” let down, which contained all sorts of quadrupeds, tame and wild, and reptiles and birds. At the same time, he heard a voice saying, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.” As many of the animals were such as were forbidden by the law of Moses, he objected to the command, saying, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” He probably considered it, not as authorising him to transgress the ceremonial law, but as a trial of his respect for it; for it does not appear, that at this time, either he, or any of the Apostles, expected a change of that law. “But the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” The prohibited animals were not unclean from any natural impurity, but in virtue of a positive institution, in consequence of which an Israelite could not use them for food without contracting defilement. They were cleansed when the institution was revoked; and might henceforth be eaten without any other scruple than what arose from a regard to health, or to taste. “This was done thrice,” for the same reason that the dream of Pharaoh was doubled, “because the thing was established by God, and God would shortly bring it to pass.”

That we may understand the import of this vision, it is necessary to reflect, that the Jews were a holy people, separated from the nations of the world, and consecrated to the service of God. The separation was in part effected by circumcision, which was a token of the covenant of God with the seed of Abraham; but the same rite was practised by the Arabians, the descendants of Ishmael, and adopted from them, or from the Jews, by some other tribes. A more complete distinction was made by the laws respecting meats, and is, in fact, assigned as the intention of those laws. “I am the Lord your God, which have separated you from other people. Ye shall therefore put difference between clean beasts and unclean, and between unclean fowls and clean; and ye shall not make your souls abominable by beast, or by fowl, or by any manner of living thing that creepeth on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine.” In consequence of this injunction, it was impossible for a Jew to mingle on familiar terms with the Gentiles, without contracting pollution, because at their tables he would meet with some kinds of food, which his religion taught him to hold in abhorrence. While Jews and Gentiles retained their peculiar usages, they were objects of mutual aversion and contempt. The voice from heaven, declared, that the distinction of meats into clean and unclean was; abolished; that every animal proper for food might be used with a, good conscience; and, consequently, that the principal ground of separation between Jews and Gentiles was removed. For it is evident, that the intention of the vision was not merely to declare, that under the new dispensation the precepts concerning meats had ceased to be obligatory, but to show, that these being repealed, the separation, which was the ultimate end of them, was also repealed, and the Jews might now freely associate with the Gentiles. Hence Peter says in the twenty-eighth verse, “Ye know, how that it is unlawful for a man that is a Jew, to keep company, or to come unto one of another nation: but God hath showed me, that I should, not call any man common or unclean.” The vision was admirably contrived, in all its circumstances, by divine wisdom. Occasion, was taken from the hunger of Peter to represent to him an assemblage of all sorts of animals which might be used for food; and the command to eat any of them at pleasure implied such a change of system, as allowed the Jews to keep company with the: Gentiles, of whose entertainments they might now partake without any danger of impurity.

The literal meaning of the vision was obvious. How much soever Peter was surprised, he must have understood it to be the will of God, that the precepts with regard to things, clean and unclean, should be abrogated; and that the disciples of Jesus should not be burdened with a yoke, which had been so uneasy to the disciples of Moses. But the ultimate design of it would not so readily occur to his mind. To a Jew it was not a natural thought, that the Gentiles should no more be considered and treated a impure. It was therefore necessary, that the Apostle should be farther enlightened on this new and important subject; and this was done by the arrival of the messengers of Cornelius, and by a suggestion of the Spirit. “While Peter doubted in himself, what this vision which he had seen should mean,” messengers came to invite him to visit a Gentile, and instruct him in religion, and “while he thought on the vision, the Spirit said unto him, Behold, three men seek thee. Arise, therefore, and get thee down, and go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent thee.” Thus he learned, that what God had cleansed, no man should call common, whether the subject were an animal or a man. The Gentiles were cleansed by the repeal of those laws, which distinguished them from the people of God, and excluded them from the communion of the Church.

The scruples of the Apostles being in this manner removed, he descended from the roof of the house, and welcomed the messengers of Cornelius, although it is probable, that they also were uncircumcised. On the morrow, he set out with them for Cesarea, where the centurion waited for him, having assembled his kinsmen and friends, to hear the good news of salvation. “And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him. But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man.” From the simple relation of this fact, it cannot be determined, whether Cornelius intended to offer religious worship, or civil homage, to Peter, because among some nations, both were expressed by kneeling, or by prostrating one’s self upon the ground. He seems to have been overpowered by a strong sentiment of veneration for the Apostle; and was unable, in this state of mind, to fix with precision the boundaries of respect. It is evident that he was guilty of some excess; and, although we can hardly conceive him to have honoured Peter as a God, because this Gentile was not a polytheist, but a worshipper of Jehovah, yet the reverence which he felt for him was greater than was due to a mere man.

There is one feature in the character of all the Apostles, which must attract the notice of every attentive reader of their history, namely, their disinterestedness. We discover, on no occasion, any symptoms of selfishness. Advantages they undoubtedly enjoyed, in the admiration and zealous attachment of their followers, for personal aggrandizement; but they never yielded to the solicitations of ambition. The glory of their Master, and the salvation of souls, were the great objects which they steadily pursued. They were content to be overlooked and forgotten; and if they sometimes magnified their office, their sole purpose was to promote the ends of their ministry. Instead of encouraging, they immediately checked, a disposition in others, to fix upon them that admiration which was due to Jesus Christ, from whom their miraculous powers, and all their talents, were derived. How marked is the difference between them and their pretended successors at Rome, who, by a long train of artifice and hyprocrisy, rose to a proud domination over the Christian world; or Mahomet, whose imposture rewarded him with an empire? Their disinterestedness is an evidence that they were sincerely persuaded of the truth of the gospel, and the gospel must therefore be true; for as the circumstances in which they are placed, rendered it impossible that they should themselves have been deceived, so it is manifest, that they could have no intention to deceive others. After this seasonable admonition to Cornelius, Peter conversed with him in a friendly manner, and went into the house, where he found a large company assembled. He was aware that the Gentiles would be surprised at his conduct, which was so different from that of his countrymen, and was forbidden by the Jewish religion. He informed them, therefore, that God himself had abolished the distinction between the Jews and other nations. “Therefore,” he says, “came I unto you, without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for: I ask, therefore, for what intent ye have sent for me.” In return to this question, Cornelius related his vision; and concluded by declaring to the Apostle, that they were met to receive, with entire submission, the word of God from his lips.

“Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation, he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” These words have been grossly perverted. They have been represented as a declaration, by the highest authority, that men may be saved without revelation, if they worship the true God, the Maker of heaven and earth, and practise virtue according to the dictates of conscience. It is manifestly supposed, we are told, that persons fearing God, and working righteousness, may be found in every nation. For the refutation of this pernicious comment, we need go no farther in quest of arguments, than the passage itself, viewed in connexion with the preceeding verses. Cornelius, we have seen, was directed by a vision to send for Peter, who would tell him “what he ought to do.” Can we believe, that the first words that the Apostle speaks, are, in fact, a declaration, that the gospel, which God had interposed in a miraculous manner to make known to the centurion, was not necessary to him because there were other means, by which the divine favour might be obtained? Surely, there never was so imprudent a missionary as this man, who, with his first breath, disappoints the expectation of his audience, by informing them, that the great end of religion may be accomplished without his instructions. Besides, Peter evidently refers to the case of Cornelius, who was not a heathen, left to the conduct of the light of nature, but one, who living in Judea, and having access to the Scriptures, had learned from them “to fear God, and work righteousness.” Before the words can be applied to mere heathens, it must be proved, that a person, by unassisted reason, may acquire the knowledge of the true God, and, without the aid of supernatural grace, may perform such works as the unerring Judge, “by whom actions are weighed,” will accept. He who should prove this, would overturn the whole scheme of Christianity.

The true meaning of the passage is so obvious, that it is not easy to conceive how any person could have missed it. To respect persons, is to be influenced in our treatment of them; by partial considerations, and not by a fair and equitable view of their case; showing favour to one on account of his nation, his parentage, his rank, or his relation to us, and rejecting another equally worthy, because his circumstances are different. “I perceive,” says Peter, “that in this sense God is not a respecter of persons; for although he chose the Jews to be his peculiar people, yet if any man be found among the Gentiles, who fears him, and works righteousness, he is accepted. Piety and holiness are equally pleasing to God in the uncircumcised as in the circumcised.” Of this impartiality the case of Cornelius was a proof. He was not one of the seed of Abraham; but his prayers and his alms went up as a memorial before God. The Most High did not reject his offerings, because he could not boast of a descent from tile patriarchs. His Gentile extraction was no obstacle to the success of his religious services, since they proceeded from a pure heart, which alone God regards. There is not a single word spoken with respect to the acceptance of virtuous Gentiles, who have not enjoyed the advantages of revelation. This question was not at present before the Apostle. The only subject of inquiry was, whether the gospel might be preached to the Gentiles, and they might be received, without circumcision, into the fellowship of the Church. God himself had given a decision, by approving of Cornelius in an uncircumcised state, and sending Peter to instruct him in the way of salvation.

After this introduction, the Apostle proceeds to give a summary of the gospel, which it does not fall within the design of this Lecture to consider. I shall therefore pass on to the last part of the chapter, which records another miraculous interposition, the manifest intention of which was to obviate all objections to the admission of the Gentiles to a full participation of the privileges of the new covenant.

In the first age of Christianity, the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit were frequently bestowed upon the disciples of Jesus; and they were usually imparted, after baptism, by the ministry of the Apostles. In the present case, the order and the mode were changed; for the Holy Ghost fell upon Cornelius and his company before they were baptized, and without the imposition of hands. “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.” We cannot tell, whether this new event was necessary to remove some remaining doubts in the mind of Peter himself; but we may presume, that if he had proceeded, without this interposition, to baptize and lay his hands upon the Gentiles, the Jews who accompanied him would have remonstrated; and their brethren in Jerusalem, who afterwards called him to an account, would not have been so easily satisfied. So unexpected was the event, and so contrary to their narrow notions, that “they of the circumcision which believed, were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.” As the case now stood, all objections were precluded. God himself had baptized the Gentiles with the Holy Ghost; and who, then, could hesitate to admit them to the baptism of water? The question of Peter must have carried conviction to the most prejudiced Jew who was present. “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” “Shall the sign be denied to those, to whom the thing signified has been already granted? Shall any of us dare to exclude from our communion, persons between whom and us God has made no difference, by imparting to us all the same spiritual gifts?” The acquiescence of the Jews was testified by their silence; and Peter commanded Cornelius and his company to be baptized in the name of the Lord. “And thus by revelation God made known the mystery, which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it was now revealed unto his holy Apostles and Prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ, by the gospel.”

How happy was the change which now took place in the condition of the Gentiles! Their own writings contain many melancholy proofs of the ignorance and profligacy into which they had fallen. In genius and taste they may be allowed to have excelled; but a peasant, in a Christian country, is more enlightened, upon the subject of religion, than the wisest of their philosophers, and any illiterate man who sincerely believes the gospel, surpasses them all in the knowledge and practice of virtue. Nothing can be conceived more childish and corrupt than their superstitions; nothing more abandoned than their manners; nothing more cold and unprofitable than their most refined speculations. In this situation, “the day spring from on high visited the heathen world, to give light to them that sat in darkness, and in the shadow of death.” The altars of idolatry were overthrown; the hopes of the guilty were revived by the revelation of a Saviour; the prospect of immortal happiness beyond the grave was opened; the soul was purified by faith; and, in the beautiful language of the prophecy, “the wilderness and the solitary place was made glad, and the desert rejoiced, and blossomed as the rose.” We should never think of the call of the Gentiles, without the most lively gratitude. God hath remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

Let us Gentiles be careful to improve the privileges which have been transferred to us from the Jews. “The kingdom of God was taken from them, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” In these words it is intimated, that God intended to form a people, who should make a better return for his favours than the Jews; and we know with what faith and joy the gospel was received by the Gentiles. But, if they shall prove as perverse as the Jews, is there any reason to expect that they shall be treated with greater lenity than the seed of the patriarchs? We are certain, indeed, that they shall never be cast off in a body; but there is no promise ensuring the continuance of the gospel in any particular nation. Remember the once flourishing Churches of Asia and Africa, which are now extinct, or retain a faint existence amidst ignorance and superstition, under the dominion of their Mahometan oppressors. Our privileges infer an awful responsibility. An account will be demanded by him, who is “no respecter of persons, and will not suffer his grace to be despised with impunity.” Let these words sink down into your ears. “Thou wilt say, then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear; for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold, therefore, the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but towards thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness; otherwise thou shalt be cut off.”

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