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What God Saw in Cornelius

Cornelius and Peter

by Dennis Pollock

The story of how Cornelius and his household became the first full-fledged Gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit and become a part of the church of Jesus Christ is a dramatic one with which every Christian should be familiar. It is found in the tenth chapter of the book of Acts, and involves an angelic visitation and a spontaneous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, amazing even the apostle Peter, who had been divinely sent to share the gospel with this godly man and his family.

In this study we won’t take the time to look at the entire story, but will concentrate on a single verse which describes the man, Cornelius, and gives us the reason God chose him over all others to demonstrate to His people that the salvation which is in Christ Jesus is not for Jews alone. The Bible tells us that Cornelius was a centurion, leading a group of soldiers, and that he was:

“…a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.” (Acts 10:2)

There are several aspects of this account which may appear strange to many. First is the idea that a soldier may be thought of as devout. Many have the mistaken impression that the life of a soldier and the life of a man of God are so entirely contradictory, that never the two shall meet. They suppose that since soldiers sometimes must take part in battles and are taught to become proficient with weapons created specifically for killing people, it would be impossible for them to be considered godly. They assume that devout men and women continually read the Scriptures, light candles, sing hymns, barely speak above a whisper, and wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with a rifle. But such thinking is patently false. God has condemned many things, but He has never condemned soldiering, or fighting in defense of one’s country, as long as the cause is just and does not violate the conscience. The idea that all Christians must be pacifists does not spring from the pages of the Bible.

When John the Baptist was asked by soldiers: “What shall we do?” he did not tell them to leave the army and join a monastery. He simply instructed them: “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). And in the verse with which we concern ourselves today, Cornelius has both the descriptive words soldier and devout applied to him. Apparently his occupation and rank, even in pagan Rome’s army, did not bother God much at all.

Devout, but Unsaved

What is perhaps more surprising, especially to those who know the Bible well, is that Cornelius could be considered devout when he was not a Christian, nor even a convert to Judaism. At some point he had felt his heart drawn to the God of Israel. And when we are told that he gave alms generously “to the people,” it seems certain that Luke was referring to the Jewish people. But for some reason or another, perhaps having to do with his military situation, he had never become a proselyte to Judaism. He seemed to possess a strong faith in the God of Israel, but still he was a Gentile, uncircumcised in his flesh, and outside the covenant and fellowship of the Jews. Yet he was called devout!

I freely admit this is a little confusing. After all, we are clearly told in Scripture that we are all born with a sinful nature and that until we are regenerated through Christ, we are in a place of estrangement from God. Yet from this and a few other verses in the New Testament, it would seem that there are some individuals in their pre-Christ state that God considers His own. They are still in the need of the new birth, they still must receive Jesus or perish, but their fear of and respect for God is such that it places them in a unique position.

These may be the kind of people our Lord referred to when He said, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Note that Jesus does not say, “I will create many more sheep from the nations.” He says that He already has these other sheep; apparently it is just a matter of gathering them together through the gospel. Cornelius was evidently one of these “other sheep.” Although having never heard the gospel, and unsaved, still he walked with God in the only light he had and to the degree that he understood Him, and God honored that. Because God does not exist in time, that which is yet to come already is. These sheep whose hearts prove so open to God, and who respond instantly and joyfully to the message of Jesus Christ, are considered by God as already belonging to Him, even before hearing the gospel. This is no doubt what Jesus meant when he told Paul, “Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9, 10).

Man of Routine

As a devout man, Cornelius had two specific habits to which Luke feels led to call our attention: giving generously to the poor and prayer. But before we consider these two habits, let’s first consider the concept of routines and habits. A habit is defined as: a settled or regular tendency or practice. If you’ve gone water-skiing twice in your life, you cannot call this your habit. But if you go out waterskiing every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and have been doing this for the last twenty-seven years, you are unquestionably a habitual water-skier.  

Some folks pride themselves on being spontaneous, and always open to new things and new ways of doing things. But in reality we all, to a significant degree, fall into habits and routines that define our lifestyle. Some habits are terrible. Some men habitually cheat on their wives; some employees habitually steal from their employers, some people tell lies frequently, regularly, and zestfully. Some habitually lust over pornography and some crush the feelings of family members again and again.

One of the trademarks of a man or a woman of God is the development of godly habits, and the shunning of bad habits. Our Lord Jesus could be said to be a Man of habit. The Bible tells us, “He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16). When Jesus would excuse Himself from His disciples and disappear into the brush for a few hours or for an evening, it did not come as a big surprise to them. It was His practice to get away from everybody and everything and pray to His Father in heaven. The Bible says “He often withdrew… and prayed.” In His ministry He was likewise prone to doing the same things over and over again. Matthew tells us, “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23). Had you seen Jesus ministering in one of the villages of Galilee, you would have seen Him focusing on three things: teaching the people, preaching the gospel, and healing the sick. And had you followed Him to the next village, you would have seen pretty much a repeat of what you had seen before: more teaching, preaching, and healing.

seasons

The truth is, God is a God of routines. In those regions blessed by four annual seasons, people experience spring, summer, fall, and winter. And once winter loses its grip, they do not need to wonder what will come next. They know they are in for yet another round of spring, summer, fall, and winter! Day is followed by night which is followed by day, which is… well, you get the idea! God never seems to tire of doing the same things over and over again. And neither should His people, when it comes to the good works Christ has called us to do.

Giving to the Poor

Cornelius no doubt had more than two good habits which he exercised, but the Holy Spirit felt that there were two specific ones we needed to recognize. The first one mentioned is the man’s regular and generous giving to the poor. As a centurion in the Roman army, Cornelius had a bit more disposable cash than the average man. And somehow, as he investigated the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he came to the wise conclusion that God expected those with more to share with those who had less. Perhaps he read in Proverbs, where it states, “He who gives to the poor will not lack, but he who hides his eyes will have many curses” (Proverbs 28:27). Or maybe he read Isaiah, who declared:

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens…
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily… (Isaiah 58:6-8)

Wherever he got his information, Cornelius got it right! He began to give money to the poor regularly. But more than that, he gave generously. He gave significant amounts of his income to help the poor and destitute in Israel. He did not do this on a trial basis for a couple of weeks, waiting to see if a huge check arrived in the mail. He simply made charitable giving a part of his lifestyle, knowing that this pleased this mysterious and awesome God of the Jews.

Prayer

The other habit of Cornelius that is mentioned is prayer. The Bible says that he “prayed to God always.” Once again he learned well from the Scriptures and the traditions of the Jews. His prayers were probably nothing too exceptional. He was not a Biblical scholar. He was not a master of languages. He was a soldier – accustomed to using brief words to convey precise directives to his troops. As he knelt before the Creator of the universe, he no doubt asked God’s help with his current problems and dilemmas, and thanked God for his blessings, without the flowery language of the professional theologians.

He did not pray to God occasionally; he did not pray to God on special occasions; he did not pray to God when times got desperate. The Bible tells us that he prayed to God always. We are not to suppose that he prayed non-stop 24/7. Nobody could do that, and God certainly doesn’t expect it of us. But for Cornelius prayer was a way of life. Just as he talked with his friends and conversed with his family, Cornelius talked to God off and on through the day, every day. He carried on a running conversation with his Creator.

Conclusion

God noticed. This godly soldier may not have been especially remarkable to others, but the eyes of the One who searches to and fro throughout the whole earth to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose hearts are loyal to Him observed a decent man who respected his God, and was doing what he knew to do to please Him. And one day, at about three in the afternoon, a heavenly messenger appeared to Cornelius and told him to send for Peter, who would tell him the next step.  The angel not only told him what to do, but explained why all this was happening to him specifically: “Your prayers and your alms have come up as a memorial before God.”

It is a remarkable story, especially considering that Cornelius was as yet unsaved. And if a man who had not yet received the Holy Spirit could be faithful to God in his prayer life and his giving to the poor, how much more should we who have been born again through faith in Jesus Christ, and who have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, be faithful in developing godly habits such as prayer, giving, reading God’s word, and encouraging the weak! May that devout man, Cornelius, be an inspiration to us all.

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