by Roger McCay
13 October 2019
Sermon Passage: Acts 10:1-23
Link to Audio Version
The 19th century Scottish pastor, Alexander Whyte, in his 6-volume book called Bible Characters, gives a wonderful biographical sketch on Cornelius. Kent Hughes (a pastor/author I like), put me onto this gentleman—and I got all 6-volumes for my Kindle for only $2.99 in about a minute. The things we can do these days … Anyway, in the book, Whyte speaks to the Peter’s vision on the rooftop:
And the vision was this. Cornelius and all his soldiers, devout and indevout, and all his domestic servants, and all the Roman people, good and bad, and all other nations of men on the face of the earth; all mankind, indeed, except Peter and a few of his friends, were bound up together in one abominable bundle. And Peter was standing above them, scouting at and spitting on them all.
Peter, as a devout Jew, had presuppositions concerning Jews and Gentiles that had to be addressed, considered, and redirected. Such was necessary for him to understand and follow the Lord’s commands concerning the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. Peter had to radically move beyond his partiality against Gentiles, a hallmark of his race. As a Jew, his partialities had been ingrained in him from the time he was born. But we mustn’t waste time beating him up for this.
History has shown that mankind has been this way all along. There is a tendency for people to be partial towards their own kind to the exclusion of others. We all have this tendency to some extent. Like Peter, we may truly love the Lord, and be saved by grace. Yet, as sinners living in a sinful world, certain worldly tendencies still nag at us. And partiality, showing favoritism to a person or people due to external appearances, is right at the top of that list. This is why we are admonished in James 2:1: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Why? Verse 9: “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin.” Indeed, partiality is foreign to the Lord’s nature. Romans 2:11: “For God shows no partiality.”
The Spirit of the Lord is constantly working on us, sanctifying us. In various ways, he brings sinful attitudes we may not have even realized we possessed to the light. He reveals his will to us concerning them. And he helps us consider what the implications are. The Lord forgives us when we repent such sins, and he provides opportunities for obedience along these new lines of understanding.
This process of sanctification, this preparation for obedience, can take a bit of time—even a long time. Hence, Cornelius and Peter, who were prepared over time to one day come together as brothers in Christ.
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, an Army officer, stationed in Caesarea, a Judean city 70 miles from Jerusalem along the coast. His background was utterly pagan. Yet, along his lifelong journey, the Lord brought him into contact with the Jewish religion, turning his heart towards the living and true God. Cornelius had become a “God-fearer.” James Boice explains:
God-fearers were Gentiles who expressed interest in Judaism and attended worship in the synagogue but who, because they had not yet fully converted to Judaism by circumcision, had to sit in the back as observers rather than as full participants in the community.
While the Jews respected Cornelius, as he was on the right track, they would not have associated with him socially. He remained an uncircumcised Gentile, so, in their mind, he was unclean.
Yet, the Spirit of God was already working in Cornelius’ life, having brought him to worship the true God. Expressions of Cornelius’ faith were his giving of alms and prayer. These were, as the angel states in v. 4, “a memorial before God.” Such language hearkens all the way back to the language of the Torah concerning sacrifices to the Lord. Cornelius’ works were accepted as an offering to God that pleased God. So, he is affirmed here as a true believer and a true worshipper of the true God. Yet, Cornelius needed to take the next step. He needed the gospel of Jesus Christ—the fulfillment of his belief. Hence, Cornelius needed Peter, the Lord’s apostle, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus to him. As a Gentile, he needed Peter to use those keys to the Kingdom much like he used them in Samaria with the Samaritan Pentecost in Acts 8, when the Spirit of God came upon the believers there. Which is why, what follows in Acts 10 is often called the Gentile Pentecost.