The Cornelius Factor


At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
—Acts 10:1-8

I don’t normally reiterate here at Cerulean Sanctum what I hear in the previous Sunday’s sermon at my church, but my pastor mentioned a passing point that struck me, so I’d like to expound on it.

In the Acts 10 passage above, the Roman centurion Cornelius receives mention. Roman Soldier by Luigi BelliThe Scriptures describe three distinctives of this soldier:

  • He feared God (as did the rest of his household).
  • He gave generously to the needy.
  • He prayed continually.

Luke goes on to write that an angel appeared to Cornelius and prepared a way for his family to go down in history as the first Gentile believers. As a result, his name is forever enshrined in the Scriptures.

Let’s concentrate on those three distinctives of Cornelius. Because he proved faithful, God looked upon him and decided to use him in a special way to forever change the course of human history. This man’s dedication and humility marked him as the perfect choice for receiving the Holy Spirit apart from any Jewish lineage. It’s not hard to align the manner in which Cornelius conducted his life with this well-known verse:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
—Micah 6:8

Sounds like Cornelius, doesn’t it?

Note what caught the Lord’s eye about this man:

Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.

Prayers and giving to the needy.

I think we miss how easy it is to live out a life faithful to the Lord. We add rules and subtract others. We get sidelined in the kind of affairs that would never distract a true soldier of Christ. We can’t spend one hour in prayer. We can’t do without our wants so that others can receive their needs. We fear not keeping up with the Joneses, we fear what the neighbors might think, and we fear the wrong party will see their candidate become the next president, but we don’t truly fear God.

So we don’t receive visions. Angels don’t deliver messages to us. And perhaps God chooses to use a more faithful believer on the other side of the world to alter the course of history.

In the end, we say that visions are passe. Angels don’t come around anymore. The tongues that Cornelius and his family spoke were for another time, but not ours.

And our faith grows smaller for our dismissals.

Is it really that hard to fear God in America 2007? Or to pray continually? Or to put down the mail-order catalog long enough to meet the needs of someone dashed on the rocks by the vicissitudes of life?

Is it?

Lord, I pray that you would mold each and every person reading this into the kind of believer Cornelius was. Bless us as you did Cornelius, and use us to change the world.

9 thoughts on “The Cornelius Factor

  1. I think we miss out on how blessed our lives can be if we put the needs of others before our own wants. We live in an age of consumerism. And it consumes us. I’ve been attending a class at our church that features Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University.” One of the things that bothers me about the motivation given for getting out of debt is so that one can enjoy wealth later. There are other motivations given, including being able to give more, and I heartily agree with his argument that Americans are slaves to consumerism and the resultant debt.

    But, I cringe when Dave Ramsey gets that big smile on and goes on about getting those things he’s always wanted and now he can because he has the cash in hand.

    If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 1 John 3:17

    I have yet to see a world where none of our fellow believers are in some kind of need, and yet material possessions abound! But I think the kicker is in verses 18 thru 20:

    Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.

    We are all too often more loving in words and tongue than in actions and truth. The actions of Cornelius were a result of a life lived in actions (constant prayer) and truth (fearing God and alms). His reward was baptism in the Spirit, for him and his household.

    Peter was challenged to act in the same way, and he needed multiple reminders throughout his ministry to pull his head from his own sense of righteousness. (Just as a nod to yesterdays missive: Note the use of visions and dreams to accomplish these tasks) Then there is a promise to living faith in verse 21 and 22:

    Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.

    This is not to say that by giving to others we will get that big-screen TV from Amazon.God, but rather that our wants will change as we replace worldly desires with Godly ones. And we may be surprised at how content we are with the things God desires in our lives! As a final amen to how we know God is working in us, look at 22 and 23

    And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.

    Love God, and love others. There is nothing else.

    • David,

      When I was single and in my twenties, I used to be an early adopter of every new technology. But not anymore.

      I have a Minolta SLR I bought in 1982. Still works fine. (How I wish they still built things that well today!) But for years we’ve been getting pressure to go digital. So for my wife’s birthday a few weeks ago, I bought her a small digital camera—nothing fancy or expensive.

      Now I can tell you that most people in this country wouldn’t give two thoughts about buying a digital camera, but I sat here for weeks wondering if we should invest in something that for most people would be a buying reflex. We have a camera that works, albeit with “old” technology, and it’s not always “convenient” to lug around an SLR and a separate flash. Plus my flash hasn’t been reliable. And scanning hard copy prints really sucks down my time. I could go through all the justifications, and I did. In the end I decided that my wife’s been boggled trying to use my camera, and it was her birthday. We’ve been tight for a long time and her birthdays haven’t been noteworthy. So I bought it with some of our tax refund.

      As someone who’s keenly aware of our consumerist attitudes in this country, I don’t buy anything without thinking, “Do we truly NEED this thing?” We’re not rich by American standards, but we’re grossly so by Third World standards. I’m continually reminded that to whom much has been given, much will be required, so it troubles me that so few of us think twice about what we buy.

      We do without a lot of things some people have because we want to help others who have even less. People don’t understand that sacrifice. They tell us we should take yet another job or do whatever it takes to get those things others think we must have. The more I hear this coming from people’s lips, the more I realize we’ve made an enormous idol of our “lifestyles” we pursue in this country. It’s made us a colder, shallower people. We don’t know what it means to go without and we don’t understand the brutal, hidden cost of our constant striving for more. That shortsightedness just kills me. That’s one of the reasons I address those issues here at the blog.

    • Flyawaynet,

      If we were truly live a simplified faith, I suspect that more people would be attracted to the Christian message. But since we tend to wallow in the same overly-complex systems of theology as the rest of the world, we obscure the fact that Jesus said His yoke is easy and His burden light.

  2. Prayer and giving to the needy; looks like a great practical example of the greatest commandment to LOVE GOD and LOVE YOUR NEIGHBORS. We really do like to complicate the life of a Christ follower! Great post.

    • Paul,

      What I wrote to David and Flyawaynet works with your comment, too. I pray more than anything that we Christians find a way to break out of the rat race and get back to being the life-giving community the Lord intended.

  3. Mike

    Thanks for posting this, albeit I’m reading it a bit late! I wondered if you’d mind responding to something else happening in this narrative on Cornelius.

    Namely, the fellow is a centurion, and it occurred to me that this invitation to welcome Peter, all of the alms-giving & praying & fearing God: demonstrates a shift of allegiance from Caesar to Jesus, i.e., this is not only about Cornelius’ ongoing response to God, but also belonging to new community that has a completely different political horizon. Where the heck am I going with this? I don’t know!

    But, the God-fearing & praying & alms-giving are those unique callings of Christ’s community: it doesn’t happen, or at least very well, in Caesar’s community. There is “risk” littered all over this text: for Peter and for Cornelius…seems like Cornelius, with all of his political power, wasn’t part of the rat race, and he was certainly ready to participate in the life-giving community of the Lord.

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