Christ and Cornelius (10)

800px-Jesús_y_el_centurión_(El_Veronés)Closing Thoughts (2)

The story of Cornelius’ salvation by Christ is of signal import because of its being the first Gentile conversion that was affirmed by the Church.  However, within the examination of Christian pacifism its meaning becomes all the more profound.  For, when God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, chose whom that first Gentile convert would be, it was a Roman soldier, a centurion.

Perhaps some could be persuaded to “pass by” this telling detail, were it an isolated case.  But, it most certainly is not.  In fact, this event is actually the third part of a Scriptural trilogy that leaves no reasonable doubt as to God’s teaching.

In “Part 1” we find John the Baptist proclaiming Christ’s coming and therefore calling all to repentance through baptism.  And, who should respond to his message but a group of soldiers.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Luke 3:14

Note that when the soldiers ask John what they must now do, he completely ignores their roles as war-fighters. This is a passing strange omission for the anointed Prophet who is preparing the way for Christ’s mission, particularly so if pacifism were to be a central principle of that mission.

In “Part 2,” Jesus Christ has arrived and is actively preaching the Gospel.  He is sought out by none other than a Roman centurion who’s servant is gravely ill.   As a consequence of this encounter Christ lifts up this man’s demonstration of faith, placing it far above that which He has seen in the nation of Israel.

When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  

Matthew 8:10,11

I simply point out that Jesus responds to the centurion’s faith without making so much as the smallest comment on his occupation.  Were Jesus intent on turning humankind away from any form of violence, it would be passing strange that Jesus did not add instruction about future conduct to His praise of the centurion’s faith.

Now in “Part 3,” the trilogies’ capstone, we find that God has also chosen a Roman centurion to be the vessel through whom His Church will welcome the Gentiles into Christianity!  And, within this world-shattering event, is this man’s occupation as a Roman soldier raised as a barrier to entry?  Not in the slightest!

No, the barrier to be overcome is that of the ceremonial Jewish law that demands separation from the Gentiles.  This issue, which applies to fellowship with any Gentile, be they soldier or not, is the only one raised and addressed!

We should have discovered an absolutely clear pattern by now. Soldiers were (and are) welcome in the Church without having to give up their profession. This is not to say that their Christian faith won’t have a powerful impact on their conduct. But, with all of these opportunities to send the message that their position as war-fighters was incompatible with the Christian faith passed up by John the Baptist, Christ Himself  and now the Apostle Peter, it is virtually impossible to conclude that this was their intention.

And finally note that this unmistakable trilogy is in addition to all the other clear Biblical evidence against pacifism.  Thus, I must conclude that the pacifist position cannot survive a complete, careful Scriptural study.

I understand that pacifism has a long and substantial place in Christian thought. However, clearly this is a consequence of powerful personal feelings being overlaid on Scripture’s teaching to create a false belief.  I am not here denouncing Christian pacifists.  For, who among us fallen, frail humans is uniformly immune from failure of this nature?  Certainly not me.  However, we should hope that all Christians, if provided compelling evidence of erroneous belief through Scripture’s  teaching would submit to Scripture.

Just because we can’t travel all the way with Christian pacifists doesn’t mean that we should ignore their counsel. Quite the opposite, their deeply held belief in peace compels the rest of us to more carefully test our own conclusions with regard to the use of force. However, in the extremity of danger, neither can their erroneous position force us to stand idly by while terrible evil is done (or is about to be done). Perhaps we can end this phase of the discussion with these words from Proverbs.

A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength; for waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers.

Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.  If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?

Proverbs 24:5,6; 11,12

Amen.

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Christ and Cornelius (9)

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout-Cornelius.Closing Thoughts (1)

Near the beginning of this series the hypothesis to be tested was defined as follows:

Therefore, were one a believer in Christian pacifism, then, beyond the primary issue of Gentile conversion, the secondary “scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome” must have been about the admission of a professional warrior into the pacifistic Christian community.

The means of testing this hypothesis was also defined, that being:

… by taking the radical step of submitting to what the Bible actually says as opposed to assuming what we would like it to say.

Of course, this hypothesis and means also describe the methodology of this blog.  That is, Christ’s saving act upon the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household is simply one event from the larger sweep of His purposes.  We are here considering how, if at all, God has chosen to deal with the issue of warfare and the humans who engage in it.  Be it David or Cornelius, a tribe, nation or empire, is God willing to incorporate human warriors within the bounds of His grace, and, are Christians prevented from engaging in warfare?  Therefore, I will expand the scope of these concluding remarks accordingly.

I have discussed the challenges associated with knowing who Jesus Christ is throughout numerous posts.  For example, how unexamined assumptions can blind us to what the Biblical text actually teaches.  I have also discussed how we can overcome this barrier.  The answer consists of being open to the entire Biblical record in combination with the application of orthodox Reformed doctrine and interpretative rules.

I then reviewed the Biblical record regarding the concept of pacifism at a high level.  Recall that while I fully embraced Christ’s teaching that we should always seek “peacefulness,” this was demonstrated to be distinctly differentiable from the ideology of “pacifism.”  This conclusion was reached by application of the general interpretative concepts discussed above to the specific issue of pacifism.

This foundation allowed us to examine the life of King David with minds un-befuddled by pacifistic cant.  This fresh study was necessary because our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ is tied in the most intimate manner with King David, a warrior and poet after God’s own heart.  Thus, failure to understand the human king who’s life and reign foreshadows Christ’s eternal Kingship utterly undermines our ability to fully comprehend the person and purpose of our Savior.

All of this has led up to Christ and Cornelius, which is obviously the capstone to the series’ argument, and which will be discussed in the next post.

 

Christ and Cornelius (8)

st_peter_preaching_in_the_presence_of_st_mark_big.jpgControversy in the Church

Peter’s Report to the Church (Acts 11:1-18)

For Peter and the Jewish Christians who accompanied him the evidence of God’s direction was both immediate and unmistakable.  But, for those Jewish Christians who were not privy to this compelling information the news must have hit like an earthquake.  There must have been extreme agitation and confusion throughout this small, vulnerable community of believers.

11 Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Note first that there is already at this extremely early time (i.e., the 30s A.D., or less than a decade after Christ’s resurrection) an identifiable “circumcision party” within the Church.  It’s natural to therefore assume that there was also something on the order of a party that did not cling so tightly to their Jewish heritage in existence.

The specific point of controversy was that Peter had violated Jewish ceremonial law by eating with Gentiles.  In fact, this was the only point of controversy.

But Peter began and explained to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, something descending, like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came down to me. Looking at it closely I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘No, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven.

Peter responds by first recounting his vision from God concerning once forbidden sources of food.

11 At that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesare′a. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’

Next Peter recounts the amazing sequence of events that brought him and the six brethren together with Cornelius and his household.  Here we find Peter including Cornelius’ vision and obedience as integral parts of the common experience of God’s leading among Jews and Gentiles.

Peter’s explanation may answer a mystery discussed previously, that being why Cornelius “fell down at his feet and worshiped him” (i.e., worshiped Peter, in Acts 10:25b).  As Peter recounted in Jerusalem, the angel who met with Cornelius said of Peter that “he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.”  Thus, it is reasonable to conjecture that Cornelius’ expectation for salvation originally but erroneously were attached to the person of Peter rather than to Jesus Christ.  However, this initial confusion in no way prevented God from achieving His providential purpose.

15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

Peter reaches the climax, where God’s purpose in all of this becomes so unmistakably apparent that the only faithful response is immediate and joyful obedience.  Note that Acts’ author, Luke, has chosen to recount virtually the entire story from Chapter 10 here in Chapter 11.  The fact of this complete repetition is strong evidence for the tremendous importance of this event to Church history.

18 When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”

I wonder if there were two distinct groups being here described, those who “were silenced” and those who “glorified God.”  For, in Paul’s letters and later in Chapter 15 of Acts, the “circumcision party” didn’t simply melt away.  Certainly some from the “circumcision party” could have been (and likely were) so convinced by Peter’s testimony that they completely and permanently changed their position.  However others certainly did not.

However, we must not lose sight of the primary point, that being that the Church in Jerusalem had overwhelmingly accepted the principle that Christianity is intended for all, Jew and Gentile alike.  In this they chose obedience to Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” over their Jewish heritage.  And, God’s providential promise to make Abraham’s offspring a blessing to all nations had, in His good time, come to pass in this fallen world.

Christ and Cornelius (7)

Peter and Cornelius

clouds_from_GodGentiles Receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48)

Note that it is God who continues to drive this encounter to its predestined outcome.

44 While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

Peter and “the believers from among the circumcised” (i.e., the Jewish Christians) knew from direct, personal experience what were the true marks of “the gift of the Holy Spirit [being] poured out” upon the elect.  The ideas that Cornelius and his household could have demonstrated this gift by chance or that they were acting with dishonesty are beyond absurd.  No, God had acted with unmistakable clarity to ensure this outcome.

Baptism_of_corneliusThen Peter declared, 47 “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Peter responds with faithful acceptance and takes immediate action.  Everything that has occurred, from Peter’s and Cornelius’ visions, to the circumstances of their meeting, to the proclamation of the Gospel and, finally, to Cornelius’ and his household’s receiving of the Holy Spirit, has provided iron-clad evidence of God’s leading to this point.  And so, these Gentiles, this Roman Centurion and his household, these elect souls are “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is thus Peter, not Paul, who has welcomed Gentiles into the Christian Church.  Peter, as is his wont, will eventually vacillate on this certain decision from God.  It will be Paul who both acts to bring the full harvest of Gentile souls into knowledge of this saving grace and who demands that the Church consistently submit to God’s sovereign choice.

Nevertheless, Peter’s act of trust and faith here, against two-thousand years of Jewish religious and cultural separation, unmistakably confirms Christ’s statement:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  (Matthew 16:18)

Christ and Cornelius (6)

Peter and Cornelius

peter-corneliusPeter Delivers the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10:34-43)

Some would argue Peter has reached that moment of truth in which he must decide if all that has previously transpired is the legitimate leading of God or something else.  However, from an orthodox Reformed theological perspective this moment had been ordained by God’s providential acts, which left no doubt as to the final outcome.  And yet, it is undeniable that both Peter and Cornelius (among others) have been exercising their own wills throughout.  Perhaps only an allegory can begin to square this circle.

34 And Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

Peter embraces all that has led to this moment as God’s sure purpose.  It remains unclear if Cornelius understood the meaning of Jesus Christ and His gospel prior to this encounter.  He certainly had embraced key aspects of the Jewish faith and culture that opened him to receiving the Gospel message.  There need not have been any pre-knowledge on Cornelius’ part, for “We love because He first loved us” (John 4:19).

36 You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

Yes, Peter does here state that Cornelius knew of Jesus Christ and the things He had said and done.  However, it is one thing to know of something and sometimes quite another to understand the true meaning.  From the previous passage (see Acts 10:33, we are assembled “to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord”), it appears that Cornelius was certain Peter was the person ordained by God to deliver the message while the content remained unknown.

39 And we are witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead.

Here we encounter the foundational explanation of Christ’s mission.  Although all of His teaching and miracles are of great importance, Peter focuses on the Passion and resurrection as of the greatest importance.  That is, the primary focus is on what Christ has accomplished for us.

43 To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Here in these twenty-one words we find the core of the Gospel.  This is a statement of that which is essential, though its fullness encompasses everything.  We sometimes make the essentials of Christianity far more complicated than they should be.

Finally, note the similarity between Peter’s statement here of the essential Gospel message and Paul’s from Romans.

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9 | NIV84

Christ and Cornelius (5)

peter-enters-the-home-of-the-gentile-large-608x406Peter and Cornelius

The Providential Encounter (Acts 10:23b-33)

Peter brings a delegation of Christian brothers along with him.  Cornelius had brought together family and friends to participate.  Surely each had their own reasons to include others in this momentous meeting.

The next day he rose and went off with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the following day they entered Caesare′a. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his kinsmen and close friends.

What was going through the minds of these two men, one an occupying soldier from the centuries-old Roman Republic; the other a simple fisherman from the millennia-old Jewish nation?  Did they have any inkling of the stakes involved, of the implications and consequences of this meeting?  Certainly they understood that God was doing something monumental, but did the actually know what ahead of time?  These are unanswerable questions, though still worth pondering.

25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.”

This first act by Cornelius seems to be inexplicable.  From a military and cultural perspective what could have been more demeaning than for a Roman officer to fall down in worship before one of the conquered nation’s peasants?  He certainly misunderstood Peter’s position in this encounter, somehow having assumed that he was more god than mere man.

Peter’s response indicates not the slightest reproach or disrespect, but rather is the simple truth plainly spoken.  However, Cornelius’ gesture could not but have made a powerful impression.  Perhaps the experience of utter humility by someone who wielded such power opened Peter’s heart to accept that what was soon to transpire was indeed God’s will.

27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”

Peter openly states the religious/cultural issue at play.  Yet, he also makes clear that God had opened a new door that he willingly walked through.  Peter is here placing his trust in God’s directing while setting aside centuries of Jewish law.  Surely this is one of Peter’s most faithful acts of obedience.

30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house; and behold, a man stood before me in bright apparel, 31 saying, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the seaside.’ 33 So I sent to you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”

And so, Cornelius, not yet knowing just what message Peter brings, also sets aside centuries of Roman power to walk through that same open door.  Praise be to God!es-vaxenum-em-mernel-u64347-1

 

Christ and Cornelius (4)

Peter and Cornelius

NGC2207+IC2163The Two Worlds Touch (Acts 10:17-23a)

God has providentially intervened in the Gentile and Jewish worlds, setting them on a collision course.  No human being could have possibly foreseen the implications of this act.  No human being was ready within context of their own experience to comprehend just what was occurring.  Only in hindsight can we prejudiced, faltering and foolish humans see a sliver of truth about what God has done.  However, without the revelation of Scripture even that tiny sliver would have been obliterated long ago.

17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men that were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”

The wonder of this narrative is that it pulls back the curtain and allows us mortals to observe God’s providential engagement in human history.  What we see is both beautiful and disturbing.  It’s beauty arises from the Fatherly love that engages with both Cornelius and Peter at their points of human frailty, gently leading each towards their eventual world-changing encounter.  Its disturbance arises from the at first vague, but ultimately explicit, realization that both Peter’s and Cornelius’ destinies were being directly determined by God.  This intricate but ultimately mysterious interplay between our own wills and God’s providential purpose has been previously explored in “God’s Acts of Providence.”

That significance flowed from God to them, as opposed to being sourced within them.  This too is a reproach to our modern, self-centered mind-set. We too often view our end as beginning and ending with our own desires. The notion that our end is by design to be subordinate to anything else, even the L ORD God, flies into the teeth of the radical individualism that under girds so much of our culture’s life.

But lest we too strongly stress humanity’s subordinate status, the amazing extent to which God apparently bends to accommodate our wills must be accounted. Yes, God’s will is inexorable. But it’s as if it’s inexorable within the context of our free wills.

Isn’t this story precisely that of God’s inexorable providential will intersecting with our one free wills?  I say, yes, without doubt.

21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house, and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he called them in to be his guests.

Note how the people within this story exercise their own wills.  The men sent by Cornelius don’t say that Peter must engage with them because of God’s inexorable command.  No, they rather make the very human case that he who sent them is “an upright and God-fearing man,” that is, someone who Peter should consider to be trustworthy.  

Thus, on one level this is a story about human beings from two separate worlds working out the terms by which they might meet in true fellowship.  However, at the deepest level it is the story of God bringing to pass in time that which He had decreed from eternity.

“and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:18)

Once again, I return to “God’s Acts of Providence” for the commentary.

 In the end, we must understand along with Abraham that the human details are not the point. The point is that God in His infinite love, mercy and power has determined to bless all nations. He has also chosen to do so within the context of human will, with all of its frailty, foolishness and fickleness. But He chose to do so before the foundation of the world was laid, deep inside the mystery of His infinite mind. That is, though played out on the stage of history, this is the working out of a predestined plan. Though we may never fully understand we can, no, must worship such a wondrous God.

the-creation-of-man-by-michelangelo

 

Christ and Cornelius (3)

Peter and Cornelius

acts.10.PetersVision2_lgPeter’s Vision (Acts 10:9-16)

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Jewish dietary laws as revealed by Scripture in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.  Knowledge of and strict adherence to these laws was an absolutely central component of the Jewish identity in the first-century A.D.; as it continues to be for many Jews in the 21st century.

The spiritual/emotional power of these dietary and other laws was bound up within the concept of “cleanness.”  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible provides an explanation that may help us to appreciate the depth and power of this concept to a practicing Jew.

Old Testament laws of clean and unclean are applied to persons, foods, places, and objects.  Human beings become unclean principally by contact with the dead or with discharge of one of the body fluids, by the eating of tabooed foods, and by the disease of leprosy.  …

Hebrew priestly tradition regarded the laws of cleanness as a part of the Mosaic covenant, and essential to the survival of the nation, since violation of them was offensive to the holiness of God and estranged him from his people.

This discussion is a prelude to understanding how Peter, a practicing Jew and thus one who identified himself with the God of Israel, reacted when faced with the full implications of Christ’s words from Mark 7:18b,19: Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)”.

Prior to reengagement with the text, we must note that it is God who is taking the initiative at both sides of the Jew/Gentile divide.  So, the the promise made two-thousand years earlier to Abraham (Genesis 22:18) was now, by God’s faithfulness, being made visible in this fallen world.

The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”

The sheet contained all of the unclean animals that Peter had for his entire life avoided.  Here God is dealing with the central issue that would keep Jews and Gentiles in their separate worlds — the inability to come together in fellowship at a meal.

14 But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Peter’s revulsion and resistance is completely to be expected.  For, it is one thing to hear his Lord make the seemingly abstract statement that no food is unclean and quite another to put it into practice after a lifetime of carefully practicing the opposite!  But, God is here unmistakably decreeing that it is Peter’s Jewish heritage that must give way so that His promise to all nations may become a reality in the Christian Church.

Christ and Cornelius (2)

Peter and Cornelius

gods_son_centurion
Cornelius’ Vision (Acts 10:1-8)

This monumental event begins by God working within Cornelius.  We don’t know just how he ended up being assigned to the job of occupying and managing this small province of the vast Roman Empire.  Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea, which the Google Maps “Quick Facts” describes as follows.

Caesarea is a town on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. It’s known for Caesarea National Park, which includes a large Roman amphitheater and the historic port. On the site is an archaeological park with pillars and sculptures, and the remains of a hippodrome, with frescoes and stone seating. The ruins of the seafront Promontory Palace include the remains of a mosaic floor.

10 At Caesare′a 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 liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.

These two introductory verses describe a pagan man who has come into contact with the ancient culture of Israel, and, finding there something far deeper and truer than anything he had previously experienced.  We know now that what he experienced was the eternal God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — through engagement with the Jewish faith as revealed in their Holy Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament.

Thus, though this devout man was serving as an occupier for the Empire, he yet found within this subjugated nation that which his heart had been yearning for but was previously unable to find.  He may not have even been aware of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus Christ knew him, and, had saved him from within the mystery of eternal grace to which all Christians give thanks.

About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying 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 Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.”

God now takes the initiative again to bring Cornelius into knowledge of Christ’s unmerited saving act upon his behalf.  Cornelius’ response of respect and generosity to his Jewish neighbors has been a precursor to a fuller understanding of the true source for his blessed newfound faith.

Cornelius’ initial response of terror is not uncommon in the annals of interaction with God’s messengers.  Being a battle-hardened Centurion, there was likely little in the realm of flesh and blood that could elicit such a response.  But, proximity of frail flesh and blood to that which conveys God’s eternal holiness is another matter entirely.

The angel now introduces Cornelius to this seemingly insignificant Jewish man, “Simon who is called Peter,” who is to be invited into his Gentile home.

When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those that waited on him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

Cornelius obeys without hesitation or qualm.  Note that we are here told that Cornelius’ faith had spread beyond himself, with this “devout soldier” as the first of his household mentioned.

Christ and Cornelius (1)

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout-Cornelius.

Vision of Cornelius the Centurion – Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1664)

Opening Thoughts

Background

Christ unambiguously decreed that His Church would include all nations in The Great Commission (Matthew 18:18b-20).

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

However we, looking back over two millennia of Gentile dominated Christianity, find it difficult to comprehend the height of the barrier that the original Jewish Christians were being asked to traverse.  For, people raised Jewish at that time had within themselves the religious and cultural heritage of two millennia of Jewish separatism.  Thus, the idea that Christ’s command could be easily obeyed in actual practice is deeply naive.

Given this background, the conversion of the first Gentile to Christianity must have been viewed by the primitive Church as a pivotal moment of the greatest importance.  We would therefore expect such a moment to be a major focus in the Book of Acts, which chronicles the rise of the Church from Christ’s ascension in circa A.D. 30 to Paul’s preaching in Rome, circa A.D.68.  And, this expectation is surely met.

The First Gentile Convert to Christianity

Although there is some debate regarding who was the first Gentile convert to Christianity, the overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion points to the Roman Centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:1 — 11:18).  The other possibility is the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).  An excellent summary of the considerations involved in this conclusion is found in G. H. C. Macgregor’s exegesis on Acts 8:26-40 in the Interpreter’s Bible.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is most vividly told, very much in the style of a narrative from the books of Samuel and Kings.  Was the eunuch a Jew or a Gentile?  Eusebius refers to him as the first Gentile to embrace Christianity; so this Ethiopian has sometimes been regarded as an uncircumcised heathen, and his baptism as the first departure from the principle that Christianity was only for Jews, either native or proselyte.  But there is nothing in the story to suggest any such far-reaching innovation.  The fact that the Ethiopian was a pilgrim returning from Jerusalem, and that he was reading Isaiah, indicates that already he was at least a Jewish proselyte.  Luke evidently regards not his case, but that of Cornelius, as the first admission of an uncircumcised Gentile.  The stress laid on all the details of Cornelius’ case, on the scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome, and on the controversy that the incident precipitated at Jerusalem —  all this proves that Luke is describing what he considers to be the first case of the baptism of a heathen.

Additional evidence for Cornelius as the first Gentile convert is the fact that it is Peter, Christ’s “rock” who is led by God to take this decisive step.  If we look into the number of words used by Luke to describe important conversions in Acts we get the following results (counts from the NIV text):

  • Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: ~347 words
  • Saul on the road to Damascus: ~733 words
  • Peter and Cornelius: ~1456 words.

It is a striking result that Luke spends almost twice the number of words on Peter and Cornelius than he does on what many consider to be the most important conversion in Christianity, that being Saul’s!  Clearly Luke sees the conversion of Cornelius to be of the greatest importance to Christianity’s history.

Who was Cornelius?

Cornelius was “a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment” who had become “devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”  The Apostle Peter was called to seek out Cornelius by God’s direct intervention, through recurring and vivid visions.

A “centurion” in the Roman army is well described as:

centurionThe centurion, or centurio in Latin, has become the most famous officer in the Roman army, and his experience and valour were indeed a crucial factor in maintaining order on the battlefield and ensuring Rome‘s military successes spanned over centuries. Commanding a unit of around 100 legionaries, he was also responsible for assigning duties, dishing out punishments, and performing various administrative duties, which ranged from distributing camp passwords to the escort of prisoners. Centurions could also rise to higher administrative positions within the empire, but the name centurion would forever be associated with the grizzled veteran who, emblazoned with decorations, led by courageous example on the battlefield.

Thus, Cornelius was a seasoned warrior who had certainly proved himself in bloody battle on multiple occasions to have risen to such an important position in the Roman army.  Therefore, were one a believer in Christian pacifism, then, beyond the primary issue of Gentile conversion, the secondary “scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome” (see G. H. C. Macgregor’s above exegesis) must have been about the admission of a professional warrior into the pacifistic Christian community.

This hypothesis will be tested by taking the radical step of submitting to what the Bible actually says as opposed to assuming what we would like it to say.