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Good Words 1860
The Story of Cornelius



As a flash of lightning, which, in the darkness of night, reveals for a moment to the affrighted wanderer the desolate and perilous region in which he has lost himself; so did the Spirit of God in that midnight hour reveal unto the jailer his sin and danger, and he exclaimed, "What shall I do to be saved?" And as sometimes, after cold and stormy winter, spring, bringing life and joy, bursts forth suddenly; so did the glorious message, the gospel of the Lamb of God slain for sin, which Philip brought unto the Ethiopian, commence in his soul suddenly a new era of peace and gladness. To us it appears sudden, and in one aspect it is; but God prepares all things, not merely for years, but from all eternity, and even before the children whom He has chosen return to Him, and know and love Him —while they are still in Egypt, the house of bondage, or in the far country, joined to the citizen, who is a cruel and selfish master, or wandering in the wilderness in a solitary way, hungry and thirsty, their soul fainting in them. The Father watches over them and guides them; "It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps." Oh, let him whose conversion was sudden, reflect and think of the ways that God has led him, and remember all the gracious providences and deliverances, and all the influences, direct and indirect, of which he was the subject, and all the restraining mercies, and of all the messengers of truth and peace which must "needs" pass through his Samaria; and he will acknowledge that, though his turning to God was sudden, God's turning to him was not sudden, but prepared of old, even from everlasting. "Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee." But it is right to notice God's various ways and methods, that we may adore His manifold wisdom and goodness; and Scripture contains so many records of conversions, differing widely from each other, that encouragement and direction may thus be given to every sincere and anxious seeker of the truth. And therefore while we read of some who were enlightened suddenly, and brought to faith and peace and joy, while some, as the woman of Samaria, are found by Jesus, whom they did not seek or expect to meet, we read of others who, for a long time, were seeking God's light, and striving to obtain peace and consolation, and who had to wait patiently, till at length God inclined unto them and heard their cry. Some, when roused from the sleep of ignorance and godlessness, open their eyes upon a bright and smiling day; while others leave the City of Destruction before the sun has risen: "My soul waiteth for the Lord, more than they that watch for the morning." Thus was it with Cornelius. For a long time he asked, he sought, he knocked, and it was fulfilled unto him what is promised, "Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth."


"When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" And yet what are all God's works, great and glorious and wonderful as they are, when compared with the soul, which He has given unto man to know, adore, and love Him—when compared even with the feeblest and most imperfect manifestations of that life of knowledge and affection as we notice them in the helpless infant? Therefore out of the mouth of babes and sucklings has He ordained strength and praise to Himself, and revealed the glory of His kingdom, which is spiritual and eternal. And yet what were the glory of man, sinful and captive, but for Him who is called the Son of man, the Lord of hosts, Immanuel, who was obedient unto death, and is now, as our Saviour and Representative, crowned with glory and honour, appointed heir of all things, and unto whom is put in subjection the world to come, even that new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness? (Compare Ps. viii. and Heb. ii.) What is man, when compared with the angels and archangels, who surround God's throne? Man is but of yesterday, while theirs is the wisdom of centuries; they are strong, and pure, and holy, while man is frail, and sinful, and guilty. Yet even the greatest of the angels of God, that strong and mighty prince who contended with Satan about the body of Moses, and who shall stand up for the children of Israel in the latter days (Dan. xii.), is called Michael, "Who is like unto God?" Revealing thus an infinite distance between himself and the Lord Jehovah! Yet did the Son of God, unto whom none is like, take upon Him, not the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham. Oh, what is man?—we ask, with a feeling of holy awe and reverence—that the Son of God should become the Son of man!

Thou canst not think too much of the infinite distance which is between thee, the creature, and God, the Creator—between thee, the sinner, and God, the holy, righteous Father, Yet canst thou not wonder, and adore, and rejoice sufficiently, when thou beholdest the Man, the Man Christ Jesus, once crowned with a crown of thorns, and now on the right hand of the Majesty on high!

And it is in Him that God loved His people, and as the Father hath loved Him, so hath He loved us. How unspeakably precious is every ransomed soul to Christ! "A whole chapter devoted to the history of one man !" Yes, He knows His sheep, He knows His people by name; and to the history of one saved soul God devotes not merely a page in His book, but in His heart, and Christ bears every one of His people on His priestly breastplate, interceding for him within the Holy of Holies.

But not merely as the history of a soul sought and found is this tenth chapter of Acts to be regarded, but as the history of


Yes, what Abraham is to Israel, Cornelius is to the Gentiles. He was the first Gentile who was admitted by the apostle into the visible Church of Christ; with him commences a new era in the Divine kingdom upon earth; from him we may date "the times of the Gentiles." Now the word of Jesus began to be fulfilled: "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold : them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd." Cornelius was not merely the representative and earnest of a great multitude which no man can number, who, besides the chosen number of Israelites, are to be gathered out of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, but his conversion, and the outpouring of the Spirit upon him and all who, with him, heard the word preached by Peter, were the events which formed a turning-point in the views and efforts of the apostles. It was the dawn of a day of light and joy for the Gentiles. As God chose and called and separated Abraham to be the father of Israel according to the flesh, so was Cornelius chosen to be the beginning of the Gentile Church. It is for this reason that his conversion possesses a world-historical character.


It was in the large city of Cesarea, on the Mediterranean, the capital of the province Syria, which embraced likewise Judea, a city which Herod had beautified, and on which he had conferred a new name in honour of the emperor, that Cornelius lived as centurion of an Italian band. The fact noticed by Paul, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called, was not confined to any particular age or country; and this general circumstance may, at first sight, incline us to think, that Cornelius (no name was more honourable at Rome than that of the Cornelian house) was a man not likely to be reached by the influence of the despised followers of Jesus. His calling, too, was one which many call, with peculiar emphasis, "worldly"—a calling in which, doubtless, there are many strong temptations, and in which it is difficult to remember the vanity of all earthly glory and strength, and to seek the hidden kingdom, into which none can enter who are not like unto a little child. And if these temptations and difficulties exist in the military profession in our day and country, there can be little doubt but they were much greater and stronger in the days of proud and godless Rome. However, whatever temptations and difficulties our different callings and occupations may bring with them, as they form no insuperable barrier to God's powerful and gracious influence, so they afford no ground of excuse for our indolence and negligence, for our sins and transgressions. In a calling which is in itself sinful we dare not abide; but believing firmly that. when God is against us, it is impossible that any real good should attend us, we ought to pray to God to give us strength, and to open up ways, that we may leave it forthwith; and in a calling which is lawful, it were sin and murmuring against God to maintain that in it we cannot serve God, and lead a holy life. God has His children and obedient followers among rich and poor—men who live in the glare of celebrity, and men who live in the shadow of obscurity; busy merchants and scholarly recluses; courtiers in the gay metropolis, and peasants on the quiet farm.

But while there are prejudices against, there are prepossessions in favour of the centurion; for do we not read of a centurion in Capernaum who asked Christ to heal his servant? What a noble, beautiful character was his! He had built the Jews a synagogue, and loved their nation—this was enthusiasm and generosity; he loved his servant, and was intensely interested in his welfare —this is true greatness and benevolence. What humility, that he thought himself not worthy that Jesus should enter his roof! what true knowledge of his sin and Christ's purity! What gigantic faith, that he recognised Christ as the King of an invisible kingdom, in which messengers and influences obey the word of their Divine Commander, as promptly and surely as soldiers yield obedience to their leader! Friend, are you not astonished at his faith? Jesus marvelled, and exclaimed, "Verily, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel." We read of another centurion, also at Capernaum, who obtained the Lord's help and healing for his sick child; and of a third, who witnessed Christ's sufferings on the cross, glorified God, saying, ''Certainly this was; a righteous man! "

And ever since there have been many gallant soldiers, brave and fearless warriors, who fought also the good fight of faith, and served the King of kings, and in this higher warfare strove manfully, and overcame, and obtained the crown of righteousness, and have entered into the city of peace. Cornelius, like the centurion mentioned in Matt. viii., had come to a knowledge that the gods of the nations were dumb and dead idols, who could not give light, peace, and life to his heart; and he worshipped the God of Israel. The knowledge of God's revelation had reached many Gentiles; especially during the Greek monarchy, many Jews settled in distant countries; and, in the providence of God, the Old Testament Scriptures had been translated into Greek two centuries before the advent of our Saviour. Thus it is likely that Cornelius came to the knowledge of God,—the Word of God is usually the instrument used to enlighten and instruct men. He was devout—that is, he not merely knew that there was a God, a constant witness of his thoughts and feelings, of his words and acts, but he strove to realise this fact, and to live as before the Lord, his heavenly King and Master. It seems that, though his knowledge was defective, and his privileges scanty, and his opportunities limited, he made use of the little which was entrusted to him. Ob, if we know only the simplest and most elementary truths,—as God is good and righteous—God is everywhere— I ought to please Him — He wants me to love Him, and to love my neighbours—to be pure in thought, word, and deed,—if we used these simple truths, trying to remember them and to live them, would not the Lord reveal more to us? nay, would He not instruct us in His mysteries, as it is written, ''The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him?"

He feared God, with all his house; he felt that, as a parent, as a master, he was entrusted with the welfare, temporal and spiritual, of his household; that as he was responsible for his band to Caesar, so and much more was he responsible for his children and servants to God; and therefore, like Joshua, he resolved, that as for him and his house they would serve the Lord. It appears from a subsequent statement in the chapter, that he spoke to his household servants and attendant soldiers, as a friend, a fellow-pilgrim to an eternal world, remembering that they had a common Master in heaven.

And this fear of God, as it was in his heart, as it manifested itself in the instruction and example he gave to his family, so it led him also to works of charity and kindness. He gave much alms; liberally, as one who owed much and loved much, as one who remembers that he is a steward in God's house; he gave much alms to the people— that is, Israel—as if he felt that it was a little thing to minister unto them in temporal things, when through them he had received the invaluable treasure of God's word.

But the depth of his piety is described in the concluding words,—he prayed to God alway. He had been taught by the Spirit to lift up his soul unto God and to speak to Him; in prayer he found access unto God, who alone was able to supply his wants out of His riches in glory. He delighted in prayer : not merely publicly did he acknowledge God, but in secret, where no man saw and. witnessed it, he poured out his soul before God. He prayed alway,—not merely in times of danger and perplexity, not merely in hours of anguish and sorrow, not merely in hours of joy and gratitude, but at all times, and amid all circumstances, he lived before God, and with God.

What a beautiful character! Fear and reverence; trembling at God's word; worship and adoration; confession of His name before men; making mention of His glory before all who were around Him; a life of purity and devotion, of kindness and benevolence, of meditation and prayer. Such was Cornelius.


There are many, who, knowing the gospel of Christ, and professing to believe it, must feel ashamed when they compare themselves with the centurion,—of whom it cannot be said that they are devout, that they fear God with all their houses, that they give alms to the people, and pray to God alway: but of whom it must be said, They are worldly and forget God, and train not their children in the knowledge and fear of God, and treat their servants as if they had no souls, and give scarcely anything to help the poor or advance God's cause, and do not pray in secret and at all times. Alas that there are such! And, doubtless, a man like Cornelius would be thought by many as too strict, and austere, and gloomy—an extreme man, no doubt,—meaning rude,—but whose intellect is not in such vigorous exercise as his feelings and sentiments. While others, and they form the greatest number, say, What more do you want or require of a man? Is he not as perfect as it is possible for man to be? If he and such as he are not fit for heaven, who is? Surely, a more religious man we cannot imagine!

But ask himself and he will tell you that, and why, he is not at rest. ''I pray, but I have not yet obtained; I seek, but I have not yet found; I knock, but the gate is not yet opened. I seek God, for what am I without Him? But is He mine, and am I His—with my sins, of which I see daily more in my life and conduct, in my thoughts paid imaginations—with my selfishness and impurity, which His own Word reveals to me so clearly? Tell me not to be at peace; I have no peace. Tell me not to be satisfied and to hope the best; God will surely not allow me to remain in such vague uncertainty, and amidst such tormenting doubts and misgivings. He will shew me what to do, He will reveal to me that one thing which I am seeking, and which will bring peace to my soul!" Yes, he did lack one thing. To fear and. reverence God, to try to obey His commandments, to be kind and helpful to our fellow-men, to meditate on God's truth, and lift up our hearts unto him in prayer;—all these are goodly pearls, but the soul feels they are not the one precious pearl of which the possession is all-satisfying. Seeking God, is not the Saviour; the Saviour is no act of ours—no frame of mind, no virtuous exertions; He is a living Person, He gives Himself, and the soul has rest. One thing he lacked—for it is possible for a man to speak with the tongues of men and of angels, to have the gift of prophecy, and to understand all mysteries and all knowledge, to bestow all his goods to feed the poor, and give his body to be burned—and yet, for the lack of one thing, to be a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, and to be profited nothing in the sight of God, and on that day. Oh, that shallow and hypocritical advice, that a man is to be satisfied with praying, and doing his best!—as if prayer was not means to an end—as if the man who really prays, did not look for the answer—clearly and unmistakeably God's answer—to whom he has cried. That man who is satisfied with praying, has never prayed aright; the man whom God teaches to pray, cannot rest until he has—God.


The prayer was heard. He had offered up many petitions, he had prayed for many blessings, and yet was it only one prayer—one request. (Compare ver. 30.)

"One thing I of the Lord desired,
And will seek to obtain."

The soul may not be able to interpret its longings and desires—they may appear to be many and various; but there is one leading, central, all-pervading, all-absorbing desire in the roused and quickened soul. What is it ? To see God's glory. To see Christ's beauty. To hear the Father's forgiveness. To be freed from the burden. To quench the burning thirst. There are so many ways of expressing it, it has so many aspects, it is myriad-sided—and yet one thing—

"One thing I of the Lord desired,
And will seek to obtain."

It is that glorious, precious pearl of great price. It is a forgiving, loving God, revealing Himself, and giving Himself to the soul. It is God in Christ, made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. Knowest thou this one thing? One thing is needful. Hast thou chosen that good part which cannot be taken from thee?

The angel is sent to announce to Cornelius that his prayer is heard; but the angel is not to preach the gospel of Christ. God, in His love and compassion, has ordained it, that men, saved themselves from sin, death, and hell, and animated by the constraining love of Christ, should be His ambassadors, and declare, with all authority and certainty, and yet with tender sympathy and pity, the salvation which is in Christ. The chosen messenger of peace, the angel informs Cornelius, is one "Simon, whose surname is Peter; he lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea-side." Cornelius may have been astonished at this direction. Not a Pharisee or scribe, not one of the priests or Levites,—but one Simon, whose surname is Peter. He is to send, not to Jerusalem and its temple, not to the synagogue, not to Gamaliel or one of his disciples—but to Joppa, to a man lodging with a tanner. What beautiful circumstantiality! What poet would have dared to put such minute local directions into the mouth of an angel? And why not? Because poets do not dare to be as poetical as God's ways and truths are in reality. Yes, it is the highest poetry, and, blessed be God, the truest fact, that God knows, and sees, and remembers all; that the house where Mary dwelt, and Martha, and Lazarus—the homes of all His people, however poor and obscure they may be, are well known to Him: the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous; He sends peace and light into their dwellings. And as God's angel departed, Cornelius immediately obeyed; and, having declared all these things unto his faithful attendants, he sent them to Joppa, to hear further what God the Lord will speak unto him.

Will it be peace? "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth." This had been the attitude of Cornelius for many days. And now the Lord is about to speak; what message will He send? Will it be mercy? Oh, was it not Mercy which sought thee and brought thee to the knowledge of God's existence and holiness, of His kingship and glory, of His truth and justice, of thy duty to Him as thy Father and Master? Was it not Mercy which touched thy heart, and filled it with love and reverence, with fear and trembling—which roused thy conscience, which led thee to seek God? Was it not Mercy which built thy family altar, and which brought thee into thy closet, there to pray unto Him that seeth in secret? Was it not Mercy which enabled thee to pray? Broken, imperfect, feeble, sin-polluted prayers—confused, scattered, contradictory; yet, O Cornelius! prayer to God, one prayer, one request—

"One thing I of the Lord desired,
And will seek to obtain."

Was it not Mercy that sent the angel, and the assurance that thy prayer and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God?

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