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Good Words 1860
The Story of Cornelius


CHAPTER SECOND.

Is there an exception to the rule which is implied in the words of Jesus, ''Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you"? Of all the thousands who, in the course of centuries, have heard and followed this invitation, was there ever a single individual who could say, "I tested the truth of this promise, I asked, I sought, I knocked, but in vain"? No, not one. He may have asked for days, without receiving; he may have been a seeker for months, without finding; he may have anxiously knocked for a long period, without obtaining an entrance: like John Bunyan and Martin Luther, he may for a long time have languished in darkness and fetters; like Augustine, he may have made many unsuccessful efforts, and been thrown back again and again by the superior strength of the world and his unrenewed nature and Satan; he may have been held captive by the dazzling sophistry of human wisdom and philosophy, like many a sceptic in our own day,—but, whenever God implants in the soul of man the desire after truth, light, and peace, it cannot be otherwise but that finally the victory is won—the weary pilgrim, roused by God to leave the city of destruction, at last finds rest at the Cross of reconciliation. The history of Cornelius speaks comfort and encouragement to all sincere seekers, and tells them to wait patiently and pray perseveringly—"The Lord will perfect that which concerneth you."

Cornelius was prepared to hear the Divine message, but the servant of the Lord was not yet prepared to preach it to him. Peter, the apostle of the circumcision, was chosen by God to admit the first Gentile into the visible Church. It was through his instrumentality that the Jewish Christian Church had been founded in Jerusalem. The peculiar gifts which God had bestowed upon him, and which the Spirit had sanctified, singled him out to be the representative and leader of the apostles. We would naturally expect that the first Gentile should be instructed and baptized by Paul, who was appointed to labour, not so much among his kinsmen according to the flesh, as the other nations, and to whom was given such a clear insight into the counsel of God concerning Israel and the Gentiles. But, on a more thoughtful consideration, it will appear that it was in a manner meet that the admission of Cornelius into the Church of Christ should be brought about by him who had planted the churches of Judea.

This event was, as it were, the commencement of the times of the Gentiles. The dawn of the truth among the Gentiles, was synchronous with the approaching sunset among Israel; and there seems, if we may so express it, a deep and delicate significance and propriety in the fact of the apostle of the circumcision being chosen to introduce this important transition.

The Gentile reader of this day finds it not easy to understand the great difficulty which Jews, and even converted Jews, like Peter, felt, when the idea was presented to them, that the Gentiles were to be admitted at once, and without passing through Judaism, into the fellowship of Christ's Church.

Let us first remember, that the Old Testament is as universal as the New, and that the New Testament is as Jewish as the Old. The Old Testament speaks as much of the enlightenment, the conversion, and the blessedness of the Gentile nations, as the Gospels, Epistles, and the prophetic book of the New recognise the peculiar privileges of Israel, and the unchangeable purposes of mercy which God has concerning them. The universal character of the Old Testament meets us in the very first verse of Genesis; it is the constant theme of the prophets' praise and joy, that all nations and kindred and tribe3 will be blessed by Israel's God and Redeemer. How many beautiful glimpses into the Gentile world do the Ancient Scriptures give us, shewing us that the Lord had not forgotten them, and did not leave them without revelations of His truth and goodness! Do they not lead us to imagine that Melchisedec, king of Salem, was the centre of God-fearing believers? that there were devout worshippers of Jehovah like Job, in the land of Uz? can we conceive that Joseph in Egypt refrained from testifying for the God of his fathers? Do we not read of Jethro in the land of Midian as of one who was not without the knowledge of God? May not the case of Naaman the Syrian, who, through the words of the little maid, was led to the prophet of Israel, where he found health for his body, and peace for his soul, have been one of many instances of like nature? or that still more wonderful mission of Jonah to the Ninevites, and the influence of Daniel in Babylon - traces of which we find in the inquiry of the three wise men of the East about the new-born King of the Jews? It shews utter ignorance of the Old Testament to speak of it, as an exclusive book.

But notwithstanding that the prophecies concerning the Gentiles are so numerous and distinct, it was not strange that the believing Jews should expect that the Gentiles would require first to become Jews, and adopt the law of Moses, ere they could be received into the communion of the Church. It is difficult for us to understand a future dispensation or period in the history of God's kingdom. It is difficult for us now to realise the future, when Israel shall again be restored to its natural and divinely-appointed priority, (the very thing which Paul anticipated, Rom. xi., having to a great extent occurred—-viz., the Gentiles not understanding the mystery concerning Israel.) In like manner was it difficult for Peter and the believing Jews to understand the approaching period of the Gentiles. They were not actuated by pride, although they were not free from it; even as now the ignorance concerning Israel's future cannot be attributed to want of humility. But when the golden time has come, when not Israel without the Gentiles, nor the Gentiles without Israel, but both together shall know and serve the Lord, then shall we understand the manifold wisdom of God in the dispensations of His kingdom, and exclaim with thankful and adoring hearts, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!"

God taught Peter by a vision. The apostle saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, "Pise, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "Not so, Lord!" Header, meditate on this Not so, and learn to admire it. Peter cannot even obey a vision, which contradicts the written Word of God. He feels his conscience bound by that sure "Word which the Lord has given for the guidance of His people. (Compare 2 Pet. i. 16-19.) With firmness, and, at the same time, with the true humility of a child and servant, he said reverently, ''Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." The vision declared .—"What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." This was done thrice, in order to impress it solemnly on the apostle's memory and mind. The message appeared dark and mysterious. Peter doubted within himself, and meditated on its meaning, waiting for further light and direction from above. While in this state, 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 them." Peter could not fail to perceive that there was a connexion between the vision and the arrival of the strangers. After having heard their message, he welcomed and lodged them; and the following morning, accompanied by certain brethren from Joppa, he went with them to Cesarea.

There a solemn assembly was anxiously awaiting his arrival. Cornelius had called together his kinsmen and friends, for he felt that the most important and blessed event of his life was at hand. Oh, how earnest, and yet how joyful must have been the thoughts of this Gentile Simeon, waiting for the consolation of Israel! Yet there may have been fear mixed up with hopeful expectation; for can the timid heart of the sinner anticipate the peacefulness and joyousness of the Divine message?

When Peter entered, Cornelius, we are told, worshipped him. As the messenger of God, as the directly commissioned herald of the Divine counsel, Peter appeared to him worthy of more than ordinary veneration; but the apostle, as all servants of the Lord, shrinking back with horror from such homage, took him up, saying, ''I myself also am a man." We are God's ambassadors and heralds, but not God's representatives and vicars. He then explains the reason why he, a Jew, came to them who were Gentiles. It was on his way to Cesarea that the full meaning of the vision was disclosed to him. God's message often lies dormant within us, till in the course of providence, by meditation and prayer, it springs up, delighting us with its beauty and fragrance, and bringing forth fruit unto holiness. Cornelius replies by narrating the vision in which God had mercifully directed him to the apostle. How beautiful is his narrative in its unadorned simplicity, and how solemn the conclusion—"Now therefore are we all here present, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God!" This is a true description of a Christian congregation. They are assembled—and they feel it—before God, to hear not man's wisdom, but the message of the most High, a message sent expressly to them. O congregation of Christ, will not thy heavenly Father give thee daily bread, will He send His poor and hungry children empty away, will He not hear the prayers of the flock and the pastor, and lead them to green pastures and beside the still waters? Then Peter opened his mouth. Oh, how easy and delightful is it to preach God's truth to earnest, humble minds, who thus expect a message from God! Had we congregations like that assembled in the house of the Centurion, would not preachers like Peter be more frequent? Is it only in the preacher that prayer and meditation are necessary preparations for the sanctuary? If he is to preach with faith and love and power, and if he cannot obtain this without prayer, are not the people to hear and to receive the word with meekness? and is not the spirit of meekness a stranger except to praying and waiting hearts? Even a Paul beseeches the Ephesians to pray for him, ''that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel!" And not merely in their solitude and prayer-meetings ought people to send up fervent supplications, that God may send and bless the message; but during the sermon itself, preacher and people ought to be in the spirit of prayer, as before God, so that the Amen at the conclusion of the sermon may be not merely a formal but a real expression of the spirit of humble and expectant supplication which pervaded the service.

Peter opened his mouth and declared the counsel of God. He felt that he addressed a prepared people, and that it was his duty to preach to them the glad tidings of salvation. The sum and substance of the message Peter announces, (ver. 36,) is Peace by Jesus Christ. There is a peace of ignorance, of worldliness, of sin, of superstition, of sentimental self-made religiousness; but there is only one kind of true, lasting, and secure peace, even by Jesus Christ,—a peace which has its origin in the love of the Father, against whom we have rebelled—which is founded on the expiation of Golgotha—which is imparted by the Spirit, and which, therefore, passeth all understanding, and keeps our hearts and minds unto life everlasting. It is a peace in God which is disturbed and clouded by all sin, selfishness, and worldliness—which is from above, and can, therefore, prosper only when we live in heavenly places. It is a peace which is based upon righteousness, even the righteousness of Christ embraced by faith, and which leads to joy in the Holy Ghost. (Rom. xiv. 7.) It is a peace which the world, which aught flesh-born, cannot give, for it is spirit-born; and which the world cannot take away, for it is independent of all outward difficulties, trials, and privations. It is the peace of God, and therefore holy, pure, perfect, eternal. God, saith Peter, has preached peace by Jesus Christ. The Word of God made flesh—that is, Christ is peace. Jesus, the manifestation of the Father's inmost heart and thought towards sinful men, is the Father's message to the world, saying, Peace be with you. Write it then in thy heart, 0 sinner. When Jesus approaches guilty sinners, and says to them, Peace be with you, He is only saying what He has received of the Father, He is revealing to them the mind of God.

Peter unfolds the message, by setting before them:—

(1.) Christ's life and death. His life was the life of Immanuel, God with us, (ver. 38.) He brought the truth of God, and the power of God, enlightening and comforting and healing. The Anointed, full of the Holy Ghost, went about doing good. This is the simple description of His holy, spotless, righteous life. His death was the death of the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world. It revealed the depth of man's sin, hatred against God and His law, and alienation from His love. His death on the tree (ver. 39) points out that He was made a curse for us, He, who came out of infinite blessedness and glory. And as in His life He was Immanuel, so on the cross also it is the Son of God who is obedient unto death ; God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.

(2.) Christ's resurrection. God acknowledged Jesus as His Son, He accepted His sacrifice as an atonement for our sin, He set His seal to the exclamation of the dying Saviour—"It is finished," when He raised Jesus from the dead. Hence our salvation is sure and complete. In Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, we also are raised to newness of life, and to an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. The resurrection of the Covenant Head is the peace and joy of His people. Therefore, they commemorate it every week, and regard the day on which God made the stone which the builders rejected, the head stone of the corner, as a day which the Lord has made, in which they rejoice and are glad. And because Christ's resurrection is the ground of our hope, the risen Saviour appeared unto His disciples, condescended to the weakness and unbelief of Thomas, ate and drank with the apostles, (ver. 41,) and thus fitted them to testify with all boldness and certainty of the great fact.

Peter having explained the Lord's salvation, applies the message, by declaring,

(3.) That Jesus is ordained of God to be judge of the quick and dead. On the one hand, this shews us the blessedness of all who trust in Him. Jesus, who loved us unto death—Jesus, who is touched with a feeling of our infirmity-—Jesus, who is not ashamed to call us brethren, the God-man full of sympathy and compassion; nay more, He, who is the Head of the Church, the Bridegroom of our souls, of whom we can say not merely that we are with Him or near Him, but in Him, He, according to the wonderful wisdom and mercy of the Father, is to be our judge ! On the other hand, shews that there is only one way of salvation and of escape, and exhorts us solemnly and urgently to behold the Lamb of God, to kiss the Son, to yield ourselves to Him in humble submission. But if there be any doubt still on thy mind as to His willingness to receive thee, Peter declares finally, that God has no other message to mankind, but that of forgiveness. All the prophets testify of Him, as of a Saviour and Redeemer. If this be the message entrusted to all prophets, then it follows, that by doubting this, you doubt the truth of all God's Word; and if you believe that God's Word is true, then you cannot doubt but that whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins. O thou suspicious heart, slow to believe all that God hath said through prophets and apostles concerning Christ, unlearn thy thoughts, (Isa. lv. 7, 8,) and learn God's thoughts, though they be heaven-high above thy hopes and anticipations. "Whosoever" believeth! Jew or Gentile, old or young; though his sins be many, and his guilt aggravated, and his past ingratitude and indifference exceedingly great. ''Whosoever," methinks is a wide gate; is there not room for thee to enter? "Whosoever," methinks is a strait gate. Proud self-righteous man does not like to enter merely on the strength of "whosoever." We like to be somebody, not am/body. It is a kind of pride, which makes the sinner wish to find something in the Bible about himself as an individual, over and above what refers to him as a sinner. Yet, Jesus says: If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. But blessed be God, He makes us come on the strength of whosoever. So came Paul, not as a Pharisee according to the law blameless, zealously working out his righteousness, obeying the precepts and commandments; but what he thought formerly gain, he counted but loss, and threw it aside, and came as "whosoever." So came the thief on the cross, and threw aside his past sin and guilt, and did not allow it to keep him back, for the Spirit explained to him "whosoever." O reader, whosoever thou art, where standest thou? Hast thou entered in at the strait gate, and has the Spirit ministered unto thee an abundant entrance into the kingdom of grace and truth? God forgives through Christ. Thou know-est it so well, hast heard it so often, couldst explain it thyself; I am almost afraid to weary thee with repeating it again, that God forgives fully, freely, presently, everlastingly; but it is not lost time, to ask ourselves: Have I received it? And am I living as one of God's forgiven children?

Such was Peter's sermon; and while he yet spake, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. Then they called Jesus, Lord, and magnified God. For the Spirit reveals Christ in His glory and beauty, so that the soul desires Him; in His mercy and love, so that the soul draws near with humility and courage. Then the word proves itself to be the power of God; the entrance of Thy word giveth light, it giveth understanding unto the simple; the Lord sends out His light and truth, to bring us unto His holy hill, and to His tabernacle, and to praise Him as God—our God. Then we believe the glad tidings and rejoice, and passing from darkness into marvellous light, from death unto life, we adore and bless the God of our salvation. "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." The apostle and his Jewish companions were astonished, and doubtless filled with gratitude and joy. Now they saw that the Lord had given His Spirit to the Gentiles, and there could be no doubt or hesitation in their mind, but cheerfully and with an adoring heart Peter commanded Cornelius and his friends to be baptized in the name of the Lord. The covenant was confirmed and sealed; they were solemnly dedicated to be Christ's.

Now Cornelius has received, has found, has entered. He has received light from God and found acceptance with Him; a perfect and sure salvation, an everlasting righteousness, a heavenly peace, a divine joy, which no man can take from him. He has found the pearl of great price, even Him in whom dwelleth the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and who of God is made to us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption; in whom, and through whom we have all things; of whose fulness we receive grace for grace. He has entered into the family of God, the Church of the first-born, the congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ; no longer an alien from the commonwealth of Israel, and stranger from the covenants of promise, but a fellow-citizen with the saints and of the household of God.

Blessed be God, that Cornelius persevered; that he did not rest satisfied until he had found God; that he did not make obedience, prayers, alms, his Saviour; that his soul panted after the living God. "Seek ye my face!" is God's gracious command and invitation. Hast thou seen God face to face, and is thy life preserved? Hast thou had thy Peniel? Jesus is the revelation, the countenance of God: to see Him is to live for ever. (Gen. xxxii. 30; John xiv. 9, xvii. 3.)


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