free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion.
The record of the advance of the young Church gives in quick succession three typical conversions: first, that of the eunuch, a foreigner, but a proselyte to the Jewish faith; secondly, that of Saul, born and bred a Jew; thirdly, this of Cornelius, a Gentile seeker after God. Within the range of these experiences the whole world was compassed. The highest apostolic sanction for an unfettered gospel was the need of the hour.
I. The vision of the Roman (Acts 10:1-8). The home of Cornelius lay thirty miles north of Joppa. Built by Herod the Great in honour of Caesar Augustus, the seat of the Roman rule in the land of the Jews, a city of splendour, with spacious artificial haven, having a temple erected to the emperor that held his statue as Olympian Zeus, and lying, as it did, within the sacred territory, yet a centre of Grecian influence and plagued by the corruptions of a pagan worship, Caesarea afforded every possible phase of contrast to the age-long intolerance of Peter’s countrymen. Rome’s wide empire flashed before the eye of this true-born Italian, nor could he dream that faith in a Nazarene peasant would give the Cornelian name its truest honour. Yet he was one of those rare souls of whom not a few have illuminated the darkness of heathenism, whom heart hunger leads to the truth. He was a “devout” man. He “feared” God. The second word is simply a closer definition of his religious character. His “fear” was not a superstitious dread of the wrath of God, but a brave man’s dread of failing to do the will of God. Furthermore, his piety had power in it, and this, mingled with peace, won over to his faith “all his house.” No man’s religion can, without great hurt, fail to set forth the two sides of the character of his God. In the man who orders his household in the fear of God “mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Cornelius, constant in alms-giving and prayer, draws near to the kingdom of God’s Son. The kingdom is about to be entered. The order is, “Now send.” The time had come. The outlying Gentile world had grown sick at heart. The “middle wall of partition” was falling to the ground. Cornelius, for the pagan world, was to learn that the Cross was the centre of the circle, and Peter, for the Jewish world, that the circle was as big as the globe. The Divine direction is very exact. Both of the apostles’ names are given. Whether Cornelius knew it or not, Philip, a resident of Caesarea, might have been called to his side within an hour. But Philip was not the man for the occasion. Of all men Peter was best fitted to preach Jesus to Cornelius, of all men the one most needing the results of his preaching. “He will tell thee what thou oughtest to do.” These words emphasise two important truths:
1. They point to the value of human agency in the salvation of men. The value of human testimony to a historic fact was never lost sight of in the foundation of the Church. The answer to Hume and Strauss may be found in the meeting of these men. A man not a myth has entered our world, and God has committed to men first of all, not to books, nor papers, nor tracts, the publishing of the gospel. The true witness of true men is the surest way of redeeming China to God. A shipload of Bibles sent to Africa will, unaided, amount to little. Ten holy men turned loose will leaven it for the twentieth century, The man and the book together are invincible.
2. They point to Jesus as the consummate revelation of God. When He can be found all else is insufficient. And it was because He could be found that Cornelius was not, could not be, allowed to remain where he was. His devoutness was not enough. No one dare teach that faith in specific doctrines of Christianity is superfluous. The opening words of Peter’s sermon cannot be bent to prove that all religions are of equal value or that faith in the Redeemer is needless.
II. The vision of the Jew (verses9-20). God’s providences make a perfect fit. The messengers reached the tanner’s door not an hour too soon, not a moment behind time. Was the man on the house top ready? A great thing was about to happen. A huge prejudice had come to its death. Let us pause to scan the past life of the fisherman. He had been in part prepared for the nearing duty. A more scrupulous Jew would not have entered a tanner’s house. Peter lodged there. He had not been without much previous training. He had been taught, tried, had fallen, had been forgiven and restored to honour. Yet he was not ready for a worldwide need. The words of Jesus never took the place of the educating activities of after life. Peter had been called to be a “fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19). He had heard the centurion commended (Luke 7:7). He had learned how meats defile, and how they do not (Mark 7:18). Near the tragic close of his Lord’s life he had seen that certain Greeks sought Him (John 12:20), and that in them the Gentile world was welcomed. Yet he was not ready. Like his fellows, he saw in the direction of his prejudices. “It required the surgery of events to insert a new truth into their minds.” Yet he was God’s best man for this hour, for, as Bruce has well said, “Everything may be hoped of men who could leave all for Christ’s society.” To learn that spirit is more than form, and that God is not partial, was a great lesson. Through the opening in heaven a “great sheet” was let down, held “by four rope ends” (Alford), or “attached with four ends, namely, to the edges of the opening which had taken place in heaven” (Meyer). In it were all kinds of animals without exception, clean and unclean. From these Peter was told to choose. With old-time bluntness he refuses. He knows not who speaks, but calls him “Lord.” What did it mean? Little wonder that he was “perplexed.” The most outward mark of difference between Jew and Gentile had been set at naught. He knew why these regulations had existed (see Leviticus 11:1-47 and Deuteronomy 16:1-22). The descendants of Abraham were not alone in making distinctions of animals. Yet none others were so thorough as those of the Jews. “The ordinance of Moses was for the whole nation. It was not, like the Egyptian law, intended for priest’s alone; nor like the Hindu law, binding only on the twice-born Brahman; nor like the Parsee law, to be apprehended and obeyed only by those disciplined in spiritual matters. It was a law for the people, for every man, woman, and child of the race chosen to be a ‘kingdom of priests, an holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6).” He “thought” on. Was the “hedge” between races to be destroyed? Possibly. Was the vision meant for his own enlargement of privilege? Surely not. The sight, the order, shocked his sanitary creed, his patriotic sentiment, his conscience. It was hard for a Jew to yield even to a command from the skies. His “thought” may have taken in the city spread below. (R. T. Stevenson.)
Jesus Christ is the focus of all good tendencies in history. His light, lighting every man that cometh into the world, is their origin; His triumph is the conclusion toward which they move. The story of Cornelius and Peter shows the bringing together in Christ of two great religious elements--that of devout paganism and that of faithful Judaism. Both make sacrifices, for in Judaism as well as in paganism there is somewhat that is to be left behind. Yet in both there was imperfection. Cornelius had yet to put on the gospel life, Peter had yet to renounce the imperfect Jewish life. Both needed advancement more closely toward Christ, where they could meet as one.
I. Cornelius, the Gentile, is one of the noblest figures of pre-Christian life that we have. It has often been pointed out that the Roman centurions are always well spoken of in the New Testament. But Cornelius is more plainly set before us than either of the others.
1. As a man Cornelius is deserving of our admiration. We see in him a high religious longing. He was not a dabbler in speculation, such as he might have been if he had been a Greek, or a Roman of a hundred years later. He was one of the sort of men Archdeacon Farrar has called, “seekers after God”: men like Socrates, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius; men to whom the utmost heathenism could offer in the way of religiousness was unsatisfying (as God meant it to be) to the wants of the soul. The quantity of religiousness offered by the Roman religion was not at fault; there was an abundance of theory to appeal to the mind, plenty of supernatural legend about the gods, and a ritual elaborate enough to gratify the most ardent longing for the externals of worship. But there was not that quality in it all which could appease the cravings of the heart. It was not Divine. Cornelius longed for something better. He had been led to Judaism. Here were no idols, here were no debasing legends of deity, here was real spiritual religion. The purity and spirituality of the Hebrew monotheism, and the loftiness of its code of morals, must have come like a revelation to thoughtful hearts. They came so to Cornelius. The God of the Jews was a better God to him than Jupiter. Yet Cornelius made a discriminating use of Judaism. Cornelius penetrated to the eternally true elements of the Hebrew religion, and disregarded those parts of it which were merely typical and temporary and had no power to satisfy the soul. For his characteristics, named at some length, are spiritual and not ritualistic. He was “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house” (Acts 10:2). The word devout, it is true, says Lechler, “may be applied even to a strictly pagan form of devoutness.” It designates a worshipful bent of mind, full of reverence toward Heaven. But in Cornelius’ case this reverence was rightly directed, for it rose toward the true God. It is said also of Cornelius that he “gave much alms to the people (of Israel), and prayed to God always.” His religiousness was shown not only in devoutness, but in the outward life. “Because,” says Calvin, “the Law is contained in two tables, Luke in the first place commends Cornelius’ piety; then he descends to the second part, in the fact that he practised the duties of charity towards men.” That such a man should have no influence was impossible, above all in those days when the possibilities of the pagan religions were exhausted and men were reaching out after something more satisfying, after that, indeed, which Cornelius had found. We are not surprised, therefore, to learn that “all his house” joined him in his fear of the true God (verse 2). A man like Cornelius, reverent and thoughtful, cannot but influence others toward the same traits. And the reason for this was his strength of character. Roman soldiers were not, as a general thing, very reverent. Out of this same strength of character also, doubtless, came his patience. He had prayed earnestly to God, we know not for how long, but no unusual answer had come.
2. Such a man in himself is a delightful study in character; but he is much more valuable in this case because of his spiritual significance in relation to the gospel. He shows us plainly, by his obedience to it, the obligation of the universal law of living up to the light one has. Religious emancipation is by means of the principle of exhaustion. You use an imperfect form of religion faithfully, and you are led out of it into something better. So those who, like Paul, were zealous Jews were offering themselves to God as fit subjects for something higher still. Because all phases of belief have in them the potency of better things, men are rightly to be judged of God by their use of what they have. And no one need fear, whatever his present phase of belief Godward, that his aspirations toward something better are ever overlooked by God. The angel said to Cornelius, “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God” (verse 4). It is a comforting thought that not a single hope for religious advancement in any human soul is ever overlooked by God. Cornelius was a good man, a religious man. Even these, however, did not merit the gift of the gospel. The best of men can never claim anything at God’s hands, because even the best of men never use all their privileges and perfectly fulfil the will of God. But although Cornelius had not by his life come to deserve the gift of the gospel (which is impossible), he had by it prepared himself for the gospel, and plainly evinced to God his desire for it, although the knowledge of just what it was that he desired and craved for had not crossed his mind. To those who ask it shall be given, and by his good life Cornelius had shown himself to be one of those who ask. God gives grace in exchange for grace. Using what light we have leads on to the desire for more, until we are led to want Christ, who is the final and best gift of God.
II. Peter, the Jewish-Christian, gives us a study in advancing Christianity. Cornelius shows how Judaism helps to Christ; Peter shows how Judaism must be thrown off in order to reach Christ. The same thing which is set before us as a help in Cornelius is shown a hindrance in Peter. Do you wonder that a man’s early training should stay by him? Was it not intended so to stay? Peter’s prepossession against Gentile ways of living was fortified by the knowledge that Jewish life was founded upon Divine ordinances. The things unclean to Judaistic thought had not been made unclean by the Jews themselves, but by the very declaration of God. And yet it was narrow. It did not rise to the idea that God might be planning to displace even His own work. Peter could not see that a thing might be instituted of God and yet be temporary. He could not advance to the full conception of the possibility of progressiveness in God’s revelation. Not that there was anything defective, improper, or bad in any part of God’s ancient work. Bat He meant it for a certain purpose which was temporary. And it was a wonder so great that it took a miracle to dispel it. So hard is it for us to get away from our own set ideas of how God must work when He works at all. And yet God can do the difficult, even what seems the impossible. He can give a form of religion to men that seems perfect, and then He can displace it by another to which the former is but as night to noonday. Peter was to learn that a Gentile soul as such is as ready for the kingdom as a Jewish soul as such, if it is truly longing for salvation. And as this came to him it brought a lesson in humility, for he learned that the judgment of God was far better than his own. He had his prepossessions, founded in the very Word of God. He was asked to give these up by the same God. Here seemed inconsistency, impossibility. But Peter must yield. The ways of man must submit to the ways of God. Our conceptions of God, religion, piety, must all yield before God’s thoughts. And if He displaces His own revelations by better ones who shall say Him nay?
III. The general lessons of our study are apparent.
1. Cornelius and Peter, Jew and Gentile, both had visions granted by God. God is no respecter of persons. Some very ignorant, uneducated man, despised in our eyes, may find the truth as well as we.
2. Christ takes what is best out of all as the foundation of advance into new truth concerning Himself. God’s Spirit makes a preparatio evangelica everywhere.
3. All men need progress religiously--progress not beyond Christ, but progress deeper into the mysteries of the sublime truth given to us in Him. Let no one ever say he has no more to learn about the Son of God. (D. J. Burrell D. D.)
The subject of dreams and dreaming is a fascinating one. There have been many extraordinary dreams; but there is an element of mystery in all dreams. They are witnesses to our spiritual nature. They reveal the spirit that is in man. They give us glimpses of the inner life of the soul. Sometimes they may indicate our moral state. Some dreams are the children of an idle brain; others are shaped by the master passion of the soul. President Edwards entered all his dreams in his diary, and carefully examined them. He looked upon them as indicating the real bias of his waking thoughts. Good seeds sown in the day meant a good crop of dreams at night. Undoubtedly there is much truth in this view. Dreams are sometimes instruments of Divine teaching. The Holy Spirit speaks to men by dreams and visions. “Many of the inspired parts of Scripture came through that channel. Jacob, at Bethel, saw the ladder of mediation between heaven and earth in a dream. Peter received his commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles in a dream. The spirit world was unfolded to Paul in visions. He saw heaven, but not with his mortal eyes; and heard the language spoken there, but not with ears of clay. The panorama of the ages passed before John in Patmos while in a state of bodily unconsciousness. The Spirit of God can waken the resources of thought in man, and impress his mind without disturbing a single eyelash, or one beat of the heart.”
“For human weal Heaven husbands all events,
Dull sleep instructs, nor sport man’s dreams in vain.”
(G. H. James.)
1. Caesarea was situated on the Mediterranean, about thirty miles north of Joppa. It was built by Herod the Great, B.C. 22, and named after his imperial patron. It was a civil and military capital, the residence of the Roman procurator. It was garrisoned mostly by native soldiers, bat there was one cohort composed of volunteers from Italy, and over a division of that there was the centurion Cornelius. He belonged to an illustrious clan which had given to the state some of its most distinguished men; but greater than the glory of Sulla and the Scipios, who had made the Cornelian family everywhere renowned, is that which is conferred on this centurion in verse 2.
2. Cornelius was not a proselyte, for had he been Peter would have had no difficulty, and Acts 15:14 is decisive against it. He belonged to that large class of thoughtful men who had become weary of the worthlessness of paganism. He had outgrown idolatry, and perhaps made himself familiar with the Septuagint, and certainly was convinced that God was the hearer of prayer. He might have become a proselyte, and possibly was contemplating that step when he heard of Jesus, and being a genuine truth seeker he determined to wait for light. This will enable us to understand the object of his fasting and prayer. There had come to him the inevitable question, “What wilt thou do with Jesus, that is called Christ?” and in his anxiety as to the answer he cried to God for light. And not in vain (Acts 15:3-6).
3. In response to the Divine direction he dispatched two of his servants and a soldier to Peter; but God had gone before them, and was even now preparing His servant for their appearance (Acts 15:9-16), who received a symbolic revelation of the fact that the restrictions of the Mosaic law were removed, and that the distinction between Jew and Gentile was abolished. It indicated that creation itself had been purified, and rendered clean for our use by the satisfaction of Christ. But Peter did not understand it so, but was helped by the message of the servants of Cornelius, and putting the two together he determined to go to Caesarea. As a precaution he took six brethren with him. Convinced that some important event in the history of the Church was going to happen he desired to have Jewish witnesses: an action which shows that, in spite of his impulsiveness, he was not destitute of prudence.
4. On arriving Peter found a considerable assembly, and after a preliminary discussion and explanation delivered a sermon as remarkable as any recorded in the history. While he was speaking the Holy Ghost descended, which--
(1) Certified the truth of Peter’s words.
(2) Proved to Peter and his companions the genuineness of the faith of these Gentile converts.
(3) Indicated that those who received Him should be then and there admitted to the Church (Acts 11:17).
5. This was the Pentecost of the Gentiles, and so Peter opened the door for their admission as the Lord had promised him. Thus the infant Church took a new departure, and entered on that worldwide mission in which it is still engaged. Learn then--
I. That the way to get light is to act up to what we have and pray for more. Cornelius had not found Christ (Acts 11:14), but he had found something, and “whereto he had attained he walked by that rule.” This is a uniform method of God’s procedure (Deuteronomy 4:29; Psalms 112:4; Matthew 25:29; John 7:17; James 1:5-6). F.W. Robertson stayed himself up with this principle during that dark wrestle with doubt in the Tyrol. Everything else went from him, but he could hold by this: “It is always right to do right”; and in the acting out of that he regained his hold of Christ.
II. That in all spiritual matters we should be prompt.
1. Cornelius lost no time in sending for Peter; nay, after Peter came he took in all he said while he was speaking, and so received the Holy Ghost. Do, therefore, at once what is needed to secure your soul’s welfare. When Pharaoh was asked by Moses when he should entreat the Lord, he said, “Tomorrow!” and you marvel at his folly. You would have said, “The sooner the better”; but beware lest you condemn yourself. “Today, if ye will hear His voice,” etc. You need not send to Joppa, “The word is nigh thee” (Romans 10:8-9).
2. But the promptitude of Peter is quite as noteworthy (Acts 15:29), and we who have to deal with men about their souls should take a lesson. I once preached to an enormous audience in a circus. When I had finished I was quite prostrated, and while in that condition a man wished to speak with me about the way of life. I made an appointment for the next morning. But he never came. And I have written down that as one of the lost opportunities of my life, and its memory has been a spur to me ever since. “The King’s business requires haste.” Now--alike for preacher and hearer--is the accepted time.
III. That preachers and hearers are prepared for each other by God. Cornelius is led in a peculiar manner to send, and Peter to go: when they come together the result is blessing. It is the same now. The preacher is led through a special spiritual history; he is guided to the choice of a particular subject, to treat it in a peculiar way, to preach it at some distant place. The hearer is brought through circumstances of trial perhaps; he is led on a certain day to a certain place of worship, how he knows not, but there he hears the message God sends for him. It seems as he listens that the preacher must know his past life, and so speaking to his circumstances he is blessed in his conversion. This is no uncommon history. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)
The character and conversion of Cornelius
I. The character of Cornelius.
1. He was a devout man, and one who feared God. His morality was not of that mean character, or dwarfish stature, or unhallowed allowance, which satisfied the scanty requirements of paganism and idolatry. He had reverence for the demands, he had zeal for the glory, he had impulse from the love of God.
2. He was a charitable man. To heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, was his delightful employment.
3. He was a man of prayer. Here lay the great excellence of his character; here the grace which sanctified every other, implanted by the Holy Spirit in his heart; and here the secret of that mercy of which he was made a partaker. His supplication was no transient, hasty homage of the lip or knee, but the settled habit of his mind, the unwearied uninterrupted practice of his life.
4. He was a man of family religion.
II. The course of Divine dealing towards Cornelius. Lessons:
1. God is no respecter of persons.
2. What should be the character of ministerial labour and duty.
(1) The more earnestly and faithfully a minister of religion labours, the more certainly will he find cause to know that the way of God is not as his way, nor the thoughts of God as his thoughts.
(2) The more earnestly a minister is engaged in private prayer for himself, and for the success of the great cause of mercy and of man in which he is engaged, the more surely will he learn the mind of God, the more enlarged will be his views, the more certain his success in preaching the gospel. (R. P. Buddicom, M. A.)
We learn from the history--
1. That it is possible to live a life of piety under unfavourable circumstances.
2. That goodness, wherever found, is noticed and remembered by God.
3. That God gives more light to him who is conscious of his need of it and who humbly seeks it.
4. That in order to impart this greater light the human ministry of the Word has been appointed. (James Owens.)
I. He was a devout man. This takes him out of the ranks of those whose religion is not a religion of devotion. The religion of too many is a religion of fashion. They are expected to go to church, to pray and sing and hear while there, but they are glad when it is over, and that it will not have to be repeated for a week. As a devout man Cornelius was--
1. Thoroughly in earnest. Earnestness alone will never take a man to heaven, but no one ever got there who was not in earnest.
2. Impressed with the majesty of God. He had realised something of the glorious character of Him with whom he had to do. Are you overshadowed by the august presence of the Most High? If not, you are not in the same category as Cornelius.
II. He feared God with all his house. He took an interest in the well-being of his subordinates. He did not regard himself as a mere ruler. Too many officers treat their men as mere automata, made to stand before them in a line and go through their evolutions like machines. Is it a matter of solicitude with us that our servants should feel the power of God’s grace? How many ladies speak to their maids about their souls?
III. He gave much alms to the people. He was a man of large-hearted liberality. How many professing Christians would be startled if they asked the question faithfully, “What proportion of my income do I give to God?” Remember the generosity of the Pharisees, and our Lord’s declaration, “Except your righteousness shall exceed,” etc.
IV. He prayed to God always. How many are content with a few hurried moments of prayer, and think that a trouble.
1. He prayed for greater light. Many are perfectly satisfied with their attainments, or even with their non-attainments, and prefer darkness or twilight to light.
2. He prayed like a man who expected to receive the answer. Would anything surprise some of you more than if God were to answer your prayer?
3. When his prayer was partially answered, he took pains to secure the full blessing.
V. We have said a good deal in Cornelius’ favour: Now what do you think of him? Some may say, That is an excellence I cannot hope to attain. Stop! Cornelius, with all his excellence, was an unsaved man. Let me not be misunderstood. He had been faithful to the light he had, and if he had been called away he would have been judged according to that, and not by a standard that he was unacquainted with. Peter lays down this principle clearly in Acts 15:34-35. But Cornelius was so far unsaved that if when the gospel reached him he had rejected it, he could not have escaped condemnation (see Acts 11:14). You cannot save a man who is saved already. If so good a man could yet be a lost soul, what must be the case with many here? (W. Hay Aitken, M. A.)
Cornelius of Caesarea
1. In religious biography “army Christians” have a recognised place and honour for simplicity and thoroughness. To the soldier the very conditions of his life render compromise an impossibility. In discipline, in the habit of obedience, in the self-restraint and self-effacement required of the true man in arms, are also to be found true elements in the education of the man of God. In Bible history, many of those whom we most admire were warriors--the simple Joshua, the lordly Gideon, the “Sweet Singer” David, the pious Josiah; and in what book is more praise given to worth than is given to faithful Ittai, grateful Naaman, “My sergeant Cyrus,” the courteous Julius, and the nameless but immortal centurion of Capernaum?
2. When introduced to us, Cornelius is an officer of the Roman garrison stationed at Caesarea, then the civil capital of Judaea. His name at once attracts attention. What the name of Howard, or Russell, or Talbot is to English, or Douglas, or Gordon, or Stewart to Scottish history, that was the gens Cornelia to the City of the Seven Hills. A cadet of a noble house we may therefore conceive him to have been. The benign influence of noblesse oblige would be upon him and help to preserve a stainless name from stain. The regiment to which he was attached seems to have been one of special honour, and the position of an officer in it would be correspondingly eminent. Later on we encounter an officer of an “Augustan” cohort at Caesarea, Julius, the courteous custodier of St. Paul. It is quite possible that Cornelius and Julius may have been officers of the same regiment, which would readily account for the kindly feeling which the latter manifested towards his prisoner.
3. As regards the piety of Cornelius the narrative speaks enthusiastically (verse 2). This eulogy seems to describe a “proselyte of the gate.” The more exclusive Jews made the “gate” to be as high and forbidding as possible, but the Hellenists gloried in the tribute paid by every inquirer to the spiritual supremacy of the prophets, and encouraged them to study the Scriptures and to attend the synagogues. So it came that there was, more or less loosely, connected with the synagogues in almost every great centre, a floating body of students of all shades of opinion, from those who were merely attracted by the simple and central principle of the unity of the Godhead, on to those who were on the threshold of circumcision. Among these it is strange if we cannot find room for one to whom the terms applied to proselytes are given, “devout,” and “one that feared God”; who gave alms to Jews; observed the Jewish hours of prayer, and was manifestly familiar with the Jewish Scriptures.
4. The narrative at once lets us see that this man is thoroughly in earnest. He is one of those “violent” ones who take the kingdom of heaven “by force.” We find him spending a whole day (verse 30) in fasting and prayer. At the ninth hour (3 p.m.), the hour of evening prayer, the answer comes. He had heard about Jesus (verse 37, “Ye know”); his mind, enlightened by Jewish prophecy, and unobscured by Jewish prejudice, saw neither “stumbling block” nor “foolishness” in a suffering Saviour. The angelic visitor does not constitute himself the expounder of Divine truth; he only tells where such an expounder may be found. The miracle ceases, as it always does, at the earliest possible point.
5. There is a fitness in the Roman from Caesarea seeking the Jew at Joppa. For Caesarea was new-built and heathen; Joppa from time immemorial had been the port of Jerusalem, a town Jewish in all its history and relations, and associated with many of the most stirring events of Jewish history. It is still further fitting that the city of Jehovah should linger on, like the Jewish people, dejected but not destroyed, whilst that of Caesar has ceased to be.
6. But meanwhile a preparatory work had to be accomplished in the mind of the prejudiced fisherman of Galilee. It is impossible for one who has not encountered it to gauge the mastering tyranny of religious caste. Our class distinctions exist in spite of religion, under its mollifying influence, and, when they pass beyond certain bounds, under its ban. But in caste religion adds its sanction to the distinctions, and stereotypes and stamps them as Divinely appointed, permanent and necessary. Caste had crept into the Jewish Church. The Jews, instead of regarding themselves as Heaven’s instruments for the sake of others, had come to plume themselves on being Heaven’s favourites for their own sake. The atmosphere of such a caste pride is like a spiritual sirocco, drying up the moisture of charity, and parching into an unbrotherly Pharisaism. In such an atmosphere St. Peter had been born and bred. Then he and the other disciples are called of Jesus Christ. For three or four years they are within the sweep of His liberalising love. Then comes Calvary, the Resurrection, and thereafter Pentecost. On that day Peter expounded the prophecy: “I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh.” Surely the truth has now entered into him, and will never more leave room for caste. But no I It is in him still, living and strong, and He who “knows what is in man” has a feeling for His servant’s infirmity, and provides that special symbolic teaching which he needs before he may dare to enter upon the work whereunto he is now called.
7. Thus prepared the apostle goes with the messengers of the centurion. And now the two are face to face. It is a strange meeting--the servant of Christ and the soldier of Caesar. That Cornelius did not resent or recoil from such a teacher proves at once how truly religion had done its royal work within him. Two men more opposed as to race, birth, breeding, and habits, can scarcely be conceived; and it could not but be that there was much in the peasant calculated to rasp the Patrician, yet the soldier of Caesar deems it no dishonour to bow the knee before the legate of Jehovah.
8. We need not trace the interview through its details. The significant fact--one of overwhelming importance in the development of the idea of the Church--is that Cornelius and his household are received as Christians, not through the preliminary “gate” of circumcision, but directly through that of baptism. What the significance of that fact was it now concerns us to see. The infant Church was surrounded by dangers on all sides and far ahead. It had to face those which arose from the hostility of the world’s governments and from the contact of Oriental theosophies. But its nearest, and deadliest danger arose from the Church from which itself sprung. Springing forth from the bosom of Judaism, the Christians were, at the outset, regarded as a Jewish sect, amenable to Jewish ecclesiastical law and discipline. They worshipped in the synagogues and in the temple. In this aspect the danger was that the hierarchy might crush them. This was a danger that could be measured. But the Church’s friends were more to be feared than her foes. Those without might cruelly seek to destroy, but those within conscientiously sought to corrupt. Every Jew was brought up to believe that the Law was eternal in its minutest details, ceremonial and judicial. Other than Jews might enter the kingdom of God, but only by the entrance of circumcision. The majority of the Jewish Christians carefully dovetailed their conceptions of the Messiah into conformity with this fundamental requirement. The popular thought placed the law first; and the Messiah was to be gloried in as the magnifier of its scope and the extender of its authority. If we rightly understand this prejudice, so deeply bedded in the Jewish mind as to be with difficulty dragged out of the hearts of even apostles, we shall be in a position to understand the danger to the Church from the influx of Jewish converts. They came into the Church devoutly believing Jesus to be the Messiah; but they continued to believe that, first of all, He was a Jewish Messiah, and all the citizens of His kingdom must first become Jews. This was the position assumed by an active and aggressive party “they of the circumcision,” i.e., “Judaizing Christians.” The position taken up by the Church and by all the apostles, but most strongly by St. Paul, was antagonistic to this. The law was but a pedagogue to lead up to Christ; in all its ceremonial it was local and temporary, designed for a special purpose of preparation, which purpose was accomplished when the Saviour came; it was therefore no longer required. Here was the momentous issue, whether Christianity will shrink into a mere Jewish sect, or swell into the Catholic Church. When we consider the character of the danger, we cease to be surprised that Paul became a “chosen vessel” to bear the gospel to the Gentiles, free from all the demands of a ceremonial Judaism. Neither the training nor the temperament of St. Peter fitted him for the task; the cause was therefore taken out of his hands. In those of St. Paul it was safe. But let us not forget that the older and less qualified man was the instrument selected of God for the introduction of the first heathen into the Church. As was to be expected from the presence of such a party as I have described, his action was promptly challenged at Jerusalem. The defence was a simple narrative of facts. “What was I that I should withstand God?” The reply was satisfactory to the Church, and ought to have been final to all. But caste dies hard.
9. And so we have the noble Roman recognised as a member of the Visible Church. The baptism did not make him a Christian; it proclaimed a fact that already existed. God owned him first; man afterwards. (G. M. Grant, B. D.)
Cornelius; or, new departures in religion
Cornelius marks the beginning of a new epoch. Like the first flower of spring he is the sign and herald of the new forces at work changing the face of the whole earth. His history carries us to the final fighting ground of the “decisive battle” between the narrow and fettering forces of Judaism and the catholic energies of Christianity. He stands at the head of Gentile Christianity, and is to Saul of Tarsus what John the Baptist was to Jesus Christ. Coming up out of the darkness of heathenism, he bursts upon the vision of the Church like a flash of unexpected light. No prophet announces his advent; no visible teacher prepares him for his work. He is outside the “churches,” but in the kingdom. The building of the City of God offers room for the lowliest worker as well as demands the man of transcendent gifts. It welcomes the inconspicuous Ananias of Damascus not less than the famous pupil of Gamaliel, and advances to its perfection by the experience and toil of Cornelius, the Roman soldier, as well as by the practical wisdom of James, the chief pastor of the Christian flock in the holy city. Let each man, therefore, heed the light he now sees, do the duty that is next him, fill with unfaltering faithfulness his own sphere in the Divine will, and it is enough. God orders our way. If we know and do our own work all is well--its value, its near or far off results, we cannot estimate. In some callings men easily assess their gains, and take their true place in a graded scale of workers. We cannot. They know what they earn. We never do. Gold is easily counted; but where is the ledger account of new ideas disseminated, of spiritual renewals accomplished, of human justice and right established, of souls made true, and peaceful, and strong? Saul, unlikeliest of all the Jews to human seeming, will take up and advance the labours of the martyred Stephen; and Cornelius, unlikelier still, for he is not a Jew, will make the crooked straight and the rough places plain for the advent and ministry of the Apostle of the Gentiles.
I. Approaching in this spirit of trust and hope and ardour, the study of Cornelius, as he appears in Luke’s history, revealing the methods and movements of God in securing new departures in religion, we note first that Cornelius gathers into himself in cooperating fulness the chief providential forces of the age, and so becomes the fitting instrument for incarnating and manifesting the remedial energy and wide range of the religion of the Saviour. The historian compels us to see that Cornelius is a Roman. The whole atmosphere is Roman! How, then, could he whose chief business it was to trace in his two Gospels the gradual growth of Christian work from Nazareth to Rome, pass by this first Christian Roman of them all, as he is led into the clear radiance of “the light of the world.” Cornelius was not a proselyte. He is still within the circle of alienated heathendom, and yet by one step he passes into the school of Christ, and enters into living relations with Him, without being detained for a moment or a lesson in the training school of Moses. It is this which marks the crisis. Herein is the revolution. The germ of the Christian religion is planted in this uncircumcised, uninitiated Gentile, finds in his devout yearnings for God, loyalty to Christ, generous love of the needy, and beautiful largeness of soul, the appropriate conditions for rapid and sure development, and forthwith gives incontrovertible signs that though the planting may be Peter’s, yet the increase belongs first to the germ itself, and has been secured, in the Divinely-prepared soil, by the operation of the Spirit of God. Religious particularism is in Him exposed, condemned, and cast out for evermore. God’s great “universalities of love, provision, and ministry to souls” are manifest; Christianity has a new starting point, and henceforth pursues a new line of progress. As a river it had entered into human history in Nazareth and Jerusalem, and had made its channels deep and wide; here in Caesarea, at the borders of the non-elect world, it starts along a new course, cuts for itself wider and deeper channels, and makes everything to live whithersoever it comes. So the Judaism in which Christianity was born is left behind, and that transference of the religion of Jesus to the Latin world, by which it was to work as a regenerating leaven in the European races, is commenced. In Cornelius the centurion, the glorious gospel of the blessed God makes its auspicious start for the Great West. Now this, it must be remembered, is the first proof of the realisation of the world purpose of God in the gift of revelation. “The universe,” as Renan has said, “is incessantly in the pain of transformation,” and goes towards its end with what he calls “a sure instinct,” but with what we believe to be a Divinely-redeeming impulse; that end being the salvation of all men through a universal religion. The first fathers of the Hebrew faith caught a glimpse of that world-embracing aim, and the exile of Israel in Babylon lifted it on high, brought it into the life of the people, so cleansing their conceptions of God and man, and preparing them for their worldwide mission. Then the victories of Alexander the Great brought in their train the diffusion of the Greek language, Greek thought, and Greek culture, throughout the world. To these beneficent ministries were added the discovery of new routes to the East, the development of traffic, and the commingling of the different races of men; all to be perfected and crowned by the ascent to the summit of power of Roman Imperialism, and the shaping of the nations into that one political federation which became the basis for that universal civilisation which was the material condition for the reception and dissemination of a really universal religion. But for us, living in the midst of dreaded religious changes, the biography of Cornelius is not only an argument, but also a message of peace and hope. It bids us trust in the living God--the God who is a consuming fire, but whose fires only burn up the waste materials of old religions to make room for the building of the new and better edifice. The kingdom of truth and of redemption is His. He rules it, and all new departures in religion are under His sway. He prepares for its advances by processes out of sight, continues the succession of heroic souls, who free us from the tyranny of dead dogmas; who gather up the results of His manifold working in all the departments of life, scientific and social, political and religious, and who then, vitalising and unifying them all by the Spirit of Christ Jesus, lead the life of the world to higher and heavenlier places. Lessing says: “The palace of Theology may seem to be in danger through the fire in its windows, but when we arrive and study the phenomenon we find it is but the afterglow from the west which is shining on the panes, really endangering nothing, but yet for a moment or two attracting all.” Let us not fear. The God of Cornelius is the Father of Jesus Christ, and the Saviour of all men.
II. Advancing to a further point in the record, it appears that God perfects the spiritual education of Peter by Cornelius; ill short, He finishes the work that was commenced on and in the chief apostle by John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, by the agency of a saint of paganism. Peter was a dull scholar, and required to be converted a good many times. It was a hard task to surrender his Jewish exclusiveness. All his traditions and preferences were against the sacrifice. He could not see the bearing, and did not admit the far-reaching applications of the truths he proclaimed. Thus the soldier comes to the aid of the seer. So the saint of heathendom goads into bold and aggressive action the disciple of Jesus Christ. Christianity advances through vision and service; through prophets on the heights of meditation and warriors confronted with crowds of foes in the valleys of evil. Some men require arousal. They see, but they stand still; they know, but they will not do. They linger shivering on the brink, waiting for the leadership of a more venturesome spirit. We need one another. The men of intelligence require the men of action; the press cannot dispense with the pulpit, nor the pulpit with the press: even apostles may learn from the humblest inquirers. The Reformation, prepared by Erasmus and the Humanists, waits for the moral fervour and splendid courage of Martin Luther. Peter, leader and apostle though he was, owes an unspeakable debt to the God-trained soldier of Caesarea.
III. Truth, like a torch, the more it is shook it shines. The new light in the house of Cornelius sends out its radiance to Jerusalem, arresting the attention and arousing the opposition of the fathers and brethren of the new Christian society. Peter appeared before the Church and told his simple tale. The appeal was victorious. God was understood and glorified, and the verdict was given by the Church with heartiness and praise, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life.” Is not that the way God is working amongst us today? Is He not preparing a glorious future for the Churches by the work and experience of individuals here and there, in and out, of the Churches? Cornelius is a religious reformer. God puts into his experience the truths of His Gospels in their widest range, and thereby they are built into, and operate as part of, the working energies of the Christian system. The centurion himself, in the fulness of his spiritual gifts and achievements, demonstrates that God is not a respecter of persons and races, but of aims and faiths, of yearnings and character. The unit of the Christian theology is a Christian man; a man who has come to Jesus Christ as he was, with all God has done in him and for him, with all he has acquired, in intellect and character, at home and in contact with men; and has come through Jesus Christ to the possession of the ideas, motives, and powers of the Holy Spirit; and is by that Spirit made a new man. I adopt the language of Milton: “Now once again by all concurrence of signs, and by the general instinct of holy and devout men, God is decreeing some new and great period in this Church, even to the reforming of the Reformation itself.” Let us be hopeful and patient. No knowledge can be a menace to the truth of Christ Jesus. It must glorify Him. The wise men will bring their gifts and lay them at the feet of Christ. A new Cornelius--now outside the Churches not unlikely--will God give to His children who, himself freighted with the rich results of the intellectual, social, and spiritual activity of the century, will force us into the presence of God, to hear what He Himself has commanded His Peters to say to us; and He will fellow the preaching with such signs of salvation and power, that the Churches will gratefully say: “Then hath God granted unto the learned and scientific, and to the social outcast also repentance unto life.”
IV. Finally, the portrait of Cornelius, together with the glimpses we obtain of Peter, reveals the men in whom God preferably works for the truest spiritual progress of men.
1. Cornelius is a “devout man.” He cultivates communion with God. Strong impulses urge him towards the higher significance of life, prepare his spirit for visions of the unseen world, and open his soul for the larger faith he avers, and the sublime inspirations he receives.
2. With this intense spiritual yearning he blends a wise management of his house, as if himself consciously under God’s authority, and responsible for the well-being of those under him, so theft some of his soldiers catch the infection of his devoutness, and his domestics share his solitude to hear God’s messenger.
3. In him also is seen the Roman love of rectitude and fair dealing. He is a “just man.”
4. He has not taken advantage of his place to plunder, as too many others did. But he gave much alms to the people. His social sympathies were as strong as his religious. You cannot hope to take any helpful part in hastening the arrival of an era of purified and enlarged thought of God, of intenser love of God and men, of spiritual quickening and social regeneration, unless, conscious of your weakness and sin, you make it your business, whilst believing in Him “who is the propitiation for our sins,” to walk in the light as He is in the light, and so to have fellowship with men and experience that continuous “cleansing from all sin” which is the pledge and guarantee of Divine adequacy for faithful and fruitful work. (J. Clifford, D. D.)
Cornelius, an example of piety
Here is one man who is a truth seeker, and there is another who is a truth teacher. One has what the other needs; but they are unknown to each other, and separated by a great chasm. How can they be brought together? God commissions an angel to appear to Cornelius, and to tell him to send Peter. God appears to Peter, and shows him that “nothing that He has made is common or unclean.” The scholar and the teacher are soon face to face; and then, “while Peter spake, the Holy Ghost fell on those who heard the word.” This incident shows that every step in the work of conversion is known and arranged by God. The text affords a beautiful illustration of--
I. Personal piety. “Cornelius was a devout man, and one that feared God.” A devout man now is one that is devoted to the service and worship of God. This word seems originally, however, to have had the meaning of thoughtful, serious, and reverently inclined. Cornelius had not found “the pearl of great price,” the “one thing needful,” but he was an earnest seeker, prayerful, and, according to his light, sincerely pious. The Word of God--
1. Points out the necessity of personal piety. It affirms first that “we have all sinned, and come short of the glory of God”; and then, “that without holiness, no man can see the Lord.” Jesus said, “Except ye be converted,” etc.
2. Explains the nature of personal piety--a change of heart that leads to a change of life. Godliness is Godlikeness--in thought, and spirit, and life: “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature,” etc. It is possible to observe the outward forms of religion without experiencing its saving power, and to have a name to live, but to be dead. Knowledge, liberality, morality, prayer, cannot save us. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
II. Domestic piety. “With all his house.” We are not told how many members it contained, nor whether they were old or young; but we are told that they feared God. Cornelius not only renounced idolatry himself, but he taught his children to renounce it. If we want our children to give themselves to Christ, we must lead the way. Example is better than precept. Domestic piety adds very much--
1. To the general comfort of the family circle. In the most orderly households there may be much to disturb the peace and try the temper, but where the home atmosphere is pervaded by a devout spirit, there will be a kindliness of speech and a tenderness of spirit that will lighten the burdens of life.
2. To the spiritual welfare of the family circle. The “curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked”; but “the Lord blesseth the habitation of the just.” The poor man may not enjoy the dainties that are found on the rich man’s table, or the pictures that adorn his walls; but “the blessing of the Lord it maketh rich, and addeth no sorrow thereto.” Are we not more anxious about the mental culture and the social status of our children than about their spiritual growth? Do not our prayers pull one way and our lives another?
III. Practical piety. “Who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.” It is not every servant that has a good word for his master. If there be any defect in a man’s character, no one can detect it sooner than his servant. But Cornelius’s servant says, “His master is a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nations of the Jews.”
1. True piety manifests itself--
(1) In generous deeds. This was not a speaking, but a shining religion. He sounded no trumpet, but his light streamed forth, like the light from a lighthouse, far over the troubled sea of life. True piety must report itself. Benevolence is one of the natural fruits of piety. “Pure religion and undefiled before God,” etc.
(2) In a prayerful spirit. This combination is very beautiful. Work and worship; profession and practice; grace and generosity. (J. T. Woodhouse.)
The character of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to the faith of Christ
Although it seemed good to Almighty God, under the old dispensation, to separate for Himself a peculiar people, and to make Himself known to them in a wonderful manner, He gave frequent intimations that this knowledge should, in the fulness of time, be extended to the Gentiles also. In this incident, in the conversion of Cornelius, we behold the rise of that mighty stream which has poured its healing waters over so large a portion of the civilised world, fulfilling in its course the prediction of the evangelical prophet: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isaiah 9:2).
I. The character of Cornelius. He is introduced in the text as a Roman soldier, a centurion, an officer of considerable rank and distinction, in the cohort or regiment called the Italian band, quartered at Caesarea. He had been a heathen, but by the grace of God had been delivered from the vain and idolatrous worship of the gods of his own country to serve the true and living God. How, or in what way, this change had been effected, we know not with any certainty. It is not improbable that, in consequence of his residence in Judaea, the scriptures of the Old Testament had fallen in his way, and he had been led to study them in an unprejudiced and teachable spirit, and had become convinced that the gods of the heathen were no gods, and that the God of Israel He was the true and only God. He is introduced to us as “one that feared God with all his house.” And such must ever be the result of an honest fear or reverence of God, drawn from the Word of God, and wrought by the Spirit of God. It is the “beginning of wisdom”: it works in the mind of the individual to produce conviction. But conviction once produced, it stops not with the individual; it moves him to exert his influence for the benefit of others, and especially of those of his own household; and, if we are right in our conjecture that it was from the Holy Scriptures that the centurion had become acquainted with Israel’s God, there can be little doubt that these same Scriptures would be employed by him as the means of instructing those about him. If you, like Cornelius, fear God, are you not afraid to neglect His Word? Let me urge it upon you to assemble your children and the members of your house once at least on every day, and read aloud some portion of that blessed Book, and then conclude with a few words of supplication. But it is stated of Cornelius, whose conduct suggests to us these remarks, that he “prayed to God alway.” It may be, that whilst I have been urging on you once at least each day to gather your families together for a few minutes to read the Word of Life, you have been finding out excuses in your manifold engagements, and saying within yourselves, “It is impossible, it is utterly impossible: at such an hour I have to be at such a place, and at such and such a time to do such and such things: it is quite impossible.” Listen to me, if it be really and truly impossible, God may possibly accept the excuses you have been framing. But here the question naturally arises, Had Cornelius, concerning whom it is recorded that “he prayed to God alway,” no engagements? Had he, a Roman soldier, appointed to command at least a hundred men, and to communicate continually with the authorities at Rome concerning the conduct of the refractory Jews, at this time subjects to the emperor his master, had he nothing to do? Might he not easily have found excuses? But how, it may be inquired, could he, if thus fully occupied, how could he possibly pray to God alway? Listen to me whilst I endeavour to supply the answer. He feared God, felt reverently and gratefully His mercy in making Himself known to him; and he was afraid lest, if left an instant to himself, he might, at some time or other, relapse into his former state of idolatry and heathenism; and it was his aim, therefore, to live in a constant spirit of prayer, so that the fire might ever be burning on the altar of his heart: his very duties were so performed, and his mind so carefully regulated by continual meditation upon and intercourse with his heavenly Friend, that it was no exaggeration to say of him, “He prayed to God always.” Cornelius was a soldier--a profession, generally but too hastily, supposed unfavourable to the growth of grace in the heart. Undoubtedly some callings seem, from their very nature, to afford larger opportunities of the means of grace and association with God’s dear children than do others: but I should say, in general, that the state of all others the most unfavourable to vital godliness is a state of idleness and inactivity. God appoints us duties; and it is, I am thankful to be enabled to state from extensive personal experience and observation, quite possible diligently to attend to them, and yet sedulously to cultivate the paramount interests of the immortal soul; nay, more, so to perform things temporal that they may minister to the attainment of things eternal. In this view of the subject, let us stay a moment to see what the profession of Cornelius would teach him. First, then, his profession would teach one who prayed to God alway, faithfulness to his earthly sovereign, who had committed to him the overseership of that portion of the Roman empire; and thus such a one would be reminded of the fidelity and integrity which he owed to his heavenly Master, to his own soul, and to the interests of those who formed his household. Next, his profession, the very life of which is vigilance, would suggest the need there is of continual watchfulness, lest “the adversary, who goeth about seeking whom he may devour,” “should obtain an advantage over him.” I will mention only one other lesson which he would learn, referred to in pointed terms by the apostle in 2 Timothy 2:4 : “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath called him to be a soldier.” To sit loosely by all earthly matters. I might pursue the thought: and if you were each to tell me what are the occupations to which God has called you--whether you be one to whom God has committed the responsibility of wealth and influence; whether you be lawyer, physician, student, man of business, mechanic, handmaid, or domestic servant--it would not be difficult to make out before you how each particular department of your earthly calling might be made subservient to the growth of some spiritual grace, and to suggest the exercise of that blessed state of mind which possessed Cornelius, who “prayed to God alway.” But the Roman soldier did not restrict himself to his privilege of prayer; neither was he watchful only, as became him. We are therefore in no respect surprised to find it written of him that he “gave much alms.” He discovered a liberal disposition in relieving the distresses of the poor, as well as a peculiar fervour of mind towards God by the constancy and devoutness of his prayers. His benevolence and his piety were intimately connected, and they reflected a lustre upon each other. They who are always asking, and as constantly receiving, will not fail to be continually communicating. Other particulars are recorded of this most exemplary soldier which I can only cursorily glance at. In the thirtieth verse we read that it was “while fasting” that the “man in bright clothing stood before him”; in the twenty-second verse that he was a just man, and “of good report among all the nation of the Jews”; and this notwithstanding the hatred which they entertained towards the Romans, whose servant Cornelius was; so justly had he conducted himself, so “unspotted had he kept himself from the world,” that God had given him favour in their sight, and he was well reported of “amongst all the nation of the Jews.” How lovely and consistent is his character in the view of man! There is not a shade upon it to dim its lustre.
II. The reasons wherefore he was selected from the heathen world as the first convert to the faith of a crucified Redeemer. Some have thought it “vain for us to seek the reason wherefore he obtained this honourable preference,” and have contented themselves with the reflection that “God distributes His favours as He pleases.” This is indeed true: “He giveth not account of any of His matters” (Job 33:13); but I think a reason may be gathered from the history itself, viz., that “such was his amiable character before his extraordinary call, that he seemed less likely than many others to offend the prejudices, of the Jews.” I do not think this enough. I think the facts of the case supply a more probable and instructive reason. Something more was needed in the counsels of Jehovah than this bright and lengthened catalogue of gifts and graces. What I shall the man who is exemplifying in his daily walk and conversation an amount of excellence so near perfection that there is, perhaps, no merely human character in the New Testament which surpasses it--does he need to be “told words whereby he and all his house may be saved”? and shall there be no salvation for them without? It is even so. The Word which states the need informs us what it was which Cornelius needed, and which all have need to know as well as he. You will find it in the discourse addressed by Peter to Cornelius, and “his near kinsmen and near friends,” whom his piety had called together upon the occasion. Speaking to them of “Jesus of Nazareth”--of Him “whom God anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power”--the apostle says, at the forty-third verse of the chapter whence our text is taken, “To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” These were the words whereby he and all his house were to be saved: these were the “things” which “God” had “commanded” to be “heard.” These were the fundamentals of the Christian dispensation.
III. We must at this point seek to gather up from the entire subject some practical instruction, which may, by the gracious influence of the Holy Ghost that fell on all who heard the apostle’s word, be blessed to us. And first, let those who, like Cornelius, are just, devout, prayerful, liberal, self-denying, and of good report among the people, let them know assuredly that they are sinners as Cornelius was, and have need to learn, if they have not yet learned, “words whereby they must be saved.” All their virtues are inadequate to the blotting out one single sin. It must be confessed that the case of the Roman soldier, whose character we have been considering, is a very strong one; but if the view which I have taken of it be correct, it would seem to have been selected in order to lay the axe to the root of all self-righteousness, of all regard to and dependence upon works as the ground of men’s acceptance before God. But are there none, on the other hand, who profess to have laid hold upon Christ, to believe on Him, to depend on Him alone, who reject the merit of good works; are there none of these who are yet negligent to “adorn the doctrine of God their Saviour in all things,” in their tempers, in their moderation, in their freedom from selfishness? who possess but little of the energy and benevolence, the charitable, prayerful, estimable spirit of Cornelius? If such there are among ourselves, let them, let all of us, be stirred up by the example of the Roman convert to greater faithfulness and watchfulness and diligence and love. (G. Spence, D. C. L.)
Cornelius, a monument of the omnipotence of grace
A Gentile, a Roman, a soldier, a centurion: all barriers, one would think, to Divine grace; but it goes through them all. (K. Gerok.)
Cornelius the truth seeker
I. The scriptural portraiture of his character.
1. He was devout; he reverenced the Supreme Being. This he might do as a sincere pagan; and in this the pious heathen of all lands may put to the blush the irreligious man in Christian lands.
2. He was God-fearing. His character was not built upon any mere materialistic philosophy that makes all virtue spring from self-interest.
3. His influence was felt throughout his household. A man’s religion that does not affect his family is a very weak, sentimental thing, not worth the having. The religion of Cornelius made his very soldiers devout.
4. In him there was a happy blending of subjective piety and of objective goodness.
(1) He “prayed”--not merely the instinctive prayer of nature, nor the sentimental prayer of the naturalist. His was the intelligent cry of a personal soul to a personal God. And that not in some moment of distress, as does the terrified atheist whose fear overmasters his creed; but “always”--habitually. Herein does Cornelius rebuke the prayerless man.
(2) He “gave much alms”--not to his own kindred and friends alone, the limit of many a man’s benevolence, but to the despised Jews. There are many whose religion is all breath and no bread. The prayer of faith and the gift of love, like the two wings of a bird, bear the heart’s burden up to the bosom of the Infinite, and come back again like a white dove of peace, with a new blessing and a Divine strength. The alms of Cornelius had no merit in themselves; but, as an index of the heart’s longing and aim, they were acceptable to God.
5. He was sincere--a word signifying without wax and originally applied to pure honey. Applied to man it indicates the pure honey of honest desire and purpose without the wax of self-deception, prejudice, or pride. God loves a true, sincere man, though his head be enveloped in clouds of error and of doubt.
6. He was an honest seeker after truth. Paganism had not satisfied him; he wandered through the halls of philosophers, but the vision of truth came not to his weary eyes. With yearning of heart he had fled to Judaism, and in its clearer vision of God he had rejoiced; but even there he had not rested, for he felt that the revelation was not full. So he waited and longed for the completed vision as travellers on the mountains watch and wait for the rising of the sun.
7. He was susceptible and receptive. There is many a man, dissatisfied with old formulas and dogmas, calling himself truth seeker and progressionist, who yet has in his heart no open door for truth. There are many, like Pilate, whose intellects cry, “What is truth?” but whose souls have no eye to perceive it, and no welcome for it. Cornelius cried for it, hailed it, and was therefore led on by the angel into the fair kingdom of truth, down to its deepest mysteries, up to its gleaming heights.
II. God’s dealings with him.
1. Cornelius was praying when he saw an angel, who said, “Cornelius, thy prayers and thine alms,” etc. This was God’s response to the prayer of that devout, sincere thinker, and everywhere God seeks the soul that seeks Him.
2. But the angel does not preach the gospel to Cornelius. No angel ever preached Christ since that first announcement of His advent. Man preaches to his brother man--the sinner saved, to the sinner lost. To Peter shall be given the distinguished honour of gathering in this first Gentile fruit to the Christian Church. But even he is not prepared for so great a mission, and it required a miracle to induce him to open the door for Gentiles to come in. Prejudice is an evil spirit not easily cast out of the human mind. Hardly yet is the entire Church free from its pernicious influence. Are there not high walls surrounding sections of the Church today, outside of which there is believed to be no salvation? Each in his own way the radical, the sceptic, the free-religionist, and the agnostic is alike the bigoted slave of prejudice. Let us heed this Divine rebuke of all unscriptural distinctions in Christ’s kingdom. What is their basis? Wealth, social position, colour, and nameless other foolish dividing lines.
3. While Peter hesitated, the messengers from Cornelius arrived, and Peter returned with them, yielded to the heavenly teaching, declaring, “Of a truth,” etc. And preached Jesus; the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard, who were immediately received into the Church.
III. The great lesson concerning the sufficiency of moral excellence for the individual character, or of natural religion for the race. Let us be candid.
1. God does set a value upon moral excellence. Good works springing from right motives are good in His sight, and nothing is gained, but much is lost, when Christian teachers speak too disparagingly of moral virtues. Whether there be or be not a hereafter, it is far better to be moral than immoral.
2. True moral excellence is an important and hopeful foundation upon which to build. It is not a matter of surprise that men are alienated if they find themselves classed with criminals without a word of qualification. Let us, then, put a right estimate on moral character and good works. The misguided religionist says, “Good for nothing”; the moralist says, “Good for everything”; God says, “Good according to the spirit that prompts them.”
3. It is important that this whole matter should be better understood. The imputation of teaching a religion that does not fully recognise the value of morality is a libel upon Christianity. The Christian religion alone contains an absolutely perfect system of morals, inseparably connected with its facts and doctrines. And wherever Christianity has been faithfully presented the highest type of character has been its unfailing fruit. And yet it is quite possible that the moral element is sometimes less emphasised than the spiritual. But the religion of Christ is not chargeable with such confusion of ideas, or failure in application of Christian ethics. It is not only a gospel of grace, but a gospel of character. It does recognise all that is good in man; but in seeking his highest development it bids him beware of trusting his own deceitful heart, and of seeking to build his character on the sandy foundation of self-righteousness.
4. But there is nothing in this narrative to prove that simple morality is all that a man needs to fit him for heaven, and that the religion of nature is all-sufficient.
(1) Cornelius was no mere moralist; he placed no dependence on good works. He received the gospel under the influence of the first gospel sermon that he ever heard.
(2) The history teaches us that even this man’s character was not in its natural state sufficient, and could only find completeness in Christ. Were his condition and character all that could be desired, why did not God leave him as he was? This, then, is the prime thought that underlies this entire subject. There is no completeness of character, of happiness, or of life, apart from Christ. Grant that you are thoroughly moral, is it not better to be Christly too? What if in winter you say, “The air is crisp and bracing, the hearth fire is cheerful; I want no better climate than this”? Will you shut yourself in when spring comes? (C. H. Payne, D. D.)
Sir Thomas Abney had been accustomed to have family prayer at a certain time. Be was made Lord Mayor of London. His hour of family prayer being some time about the time of the banquet, he begged to be excused for a little, for he had an urgent engagement with a special friend. He then went and called his family together to meet with God in prayer. Do the same; if even a banquet should come down upon you, quit the table for the altar, and your guests for your God. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Cornelius, the truth seeker
I. His character. He was no mere moralist.
1. He acted up to the light he had, which the moralist does not.
2. His morality was only the outward proof of his devoutness.
3. He did not depend upon his good works, but sought something better.
4. He embraced Christ when revealed to him.
5. He impressed others with his devoutness.
II. The heavenly interest in him. This shown by angels, who take active part in the work of human recovery. This interest is seen--
1. In their minute acquaintance with our circumstances. Cornelius mentioned by name, and Peter, and the town, house, situation, host all indicated.
2. In their joy over repenting sinners.
3. In their ministry during the whole career of the heirs of salvation. Thus angels are our examples.
III. His human guide. Peter rather than the angel.
1. This is God’s plan. Man and man only employed to prophesy, give Divine news, to be a vehicle of Christ’s manifestation.
2. Salvation is a practical work. We need the living illustration of a human life. We need not only a teacher but a witness; one who can verify from experience.
3. It redounds more to the glory of God and Christianity. The greatness of the result is heightened by the feebleness of the instrument.
4. It confers honour upon and promotes unity among men. The most important work reserved for men.
IV. The obstacles removed out of his way. There were great barriers of race, rank, culture etc., but all were broken down (J. G. Hughes.)
Cornelius, or grace operating beyond the pale of the visible Church
I. The workings of redemptive providence are manifold and complex. Paul is converted, and is being trained for his future work. Peter receives a vision intended to break down exclusiveness. Cornelius receives Divine instructions to send for the apostle. Each is done separately and miles apart. Yet Divine power and wisdom unite them, and bring out of them the subjection of the Roman empire to Christ and the creation of modern Europe. How much depended on these three men, strangers to each other!
II. Divine grace operates beyond the pale of the visible Church. Cornelius a good man according to his light. Reverent and charitable, two indubitable marks of religion. Not a proselyte, but not counted common or unclean. Entered the kingdom of Christ without passing through the Jewish gate. Many like Cornelius at Rome and in Greece, and now in India, China, etc.
III. The limits and insufficiency of natural religion. The prayer and alms of Cornelius went up as a memorial to God; but these were not enough, or he would not have been bidden to send for Peter. But faithfulness to the light of nature led up to the Christian revelation.
1. A caution against latitudinarian indifference. There is no foundation for a belief in the sufficiency of natural light.
2. The breaking down of natural impediments to the progress of the gospel. “In every nation.”
3. Here is the ground of hope for humanity.
4. Here is the essential character of the provisions of the gospel. “There is none other name,” etc. (Preacher’s Monthly.)
Cornelius: a model for volunteers
1. How often Roman officers are honourably mentioned in Scripture. “I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof,” etc., was the humble language of one of them. “Truly this man was the Son of God!” cried another, as he witnessed the Crucifixion. How humane and prudent the chief captain who saved St. Paul from scourging and treachery; or the centurion who saved all the prisoners from execution at Melita, in order to secure the life of St. Paul! It says much for the discipline of the Roman army that men of such humanity and intelligence were promoted to places of authority, and partly accounts for the marvellous successes of that wonderful nation; while, again, it testifies to the power of Christianity, that men so much opposed to it should be induced to admire those in whom it was seen most conspicuously. Look now, however, at this centurion mentioned in the text. You, who have volunteered to buckle on the sword in defence of your country, may well contemplate the picture of this good soldier of Caesar and of Christ.
2. Note his bravery. Some say that Christianity and bravery cannot co-exist, Nonsense! The Christian is the only brave man in existence. Ungodly men are the cowards! Why is it that so many never enter the house of God, or make a profession of religion? Because they are ashamed to be taunted with the title of saint or Christian. Not so, Cornelius. He was valiant as a soldier serving beneath the Roman eagles. He was brave, too, as he showed his anxiety to enlist under the banner of the Cross!
3. He was also religiously brave, for he is described as “a devout man, and one that feared God.” He was at this period in a most interesting state of mind. He had come over from Rome a worshipper of false gods. While in Judaea, he appears to have become convinced that heathenism was wrong; and, in searching after truth, he was probably influenced by the proceedings of the devout among the Jews in Caesarea. He also became “devout.” How he reproves the careless talkers in Christian England, whose lips are often glib for the oath, and ready for the immoral jest!
4. The acorn contains the oak, and the hero may be often discovered in the recruit. It is beautiful to notice in the centurion the early germ which needed only the fuller light of the gospel to bring it into maturity. This “devout man” already “feared God.” It would require more moral courage than many who have been enlisted under Christ’s banner possess, to enable them to say, “I fear God.” It is a noble testimony when a man can “put down” the scene of godless hilarity and the foolish jesting of the scoffer by any such noble confession.
5. And now observe a yet more eloquent proof of the reality of the work which was proceeding in that man’s soul! Cornelius, if he had been a hypocrite, might have disguised the fact from his soldiers and from his neighbours; but he would hardly succeed with his household. What a testimony it is to this noble centurion, that he stood not alone in his family, while he avowed his creed in Jehovah as the Lord God of heaven and earth! “He feared God with all his house.” It may be one great cause why we have so few specimens of thorough family religion that the consistency which adorned this centurion is not found in modern professors.
6. And there is yet another testimony to his sincerity. It is usual for officers to select their attendants and servants from amongst the soldiers of their regiment. Cornelius did so, and when he was bidden to send for Peter, to whom could he look for ambassador on so important an enterprise? Does it not tell a tale that he found no sort of difficulty? He could look at home and find persons whose character fitted them to go, ay, and in the ranks of his own men as well (verse 7).
7. Notice further how excellently this truth seeking man endeavoured to live according to his profession. He “gave much alms to the people.” True religion is an active, living energy, which influences you in everyone of your proceedings. It enforces acts of self-denial; and in this list of self-denying deeds is the act of almsgiving.
8. “Thy prayers” too! I can remember when it was considered a soldier-like act to swear lustily. Happily that day is over; but the day has not yet arrived when a prayerful soldier, or indeed a prayerful civilian, is not exposed occasionally to scorn and derision for his piety. Conclusion: You who have come forward so nobly, when your queen and country were imperilled, aim to rival the Roman in bravery, and see that you are not outdone by him in the heartiness of your piety, and in your confession of Christ. (G. Venables, M. A.)
A good man’s conversion
I. God’s word treats all men as needing to be “saved.” It is interesting to notice how the language changes as the story runs on. In his vision Cornelius is informed that Peter “shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do” (Acts 10:6). When the man comes to relate it to others, he quotes it thus, “Who, when he cometh, shall speak unto thee” (Acts 10:32). But Simon declares that what he had been sent to do was to tell Cornelius words whereby he and all his house might be “saved” (Acts 11:14). It becomes evident, therefore, that this centurion was as yet an unsaved man And this is worth noticing, when we look at his character.
1. He was a thoroughly religious man (verse 2).
2. He was prayerful. That is a great felicity which in the New Revision changes our tame expression into, “I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house” (verse 30). It is likely that Cornelius had family prayers regularly.
3. Twice, also, it is stated that he was liberal in benefactions.
4. He was a useful man. There comes out a fact which is in many respects more impressive because of its artless form. His servants and orderly were religious. It might be conjectured that Cornelius had had something to do with the training of these people.
5. He was of good reputation among his neighbours (verse 22). What could anyone need more? Yet God’s inspired Word declares here that Cornelius was not “saved.”
II. God’s Word gives us to understand that all men can be “saved.” Simon Peter is dispatched on the errand of saving Cornelius. Just think, for a moment, of the disabilities of this man. If we should doubt anybody’s chance, we should doubt his.
1. He was a heathen from Italy at the start.
2. He was a soldier. His daily life led him constantly to be in the barracks, and among the followers of a legion of loose homeless creatures whose lives were apt to be immoral. Still, we must be fair: there are four centurions mentioned in the New Testament, and each of them has left behind him a most creditable record. One of them Jesus commended for his remarkable faith (Matthew 8:10). One of them bore witness to the divinity of the Lord Jesus on the Cross (Mark 15:39). One of them was of much help and comfort to the Apostle Paul at what was very nearly the lowest point in his fortunes (Acts 27:3). And this is the fourth one, and he certainly shows well. But war is a hard trade; piety in military life is pitifully like an alpine flower pushing up through the snow, and trying to blossom on a rock beside a glacier. And so it is the more beautiful when it succeeds in its pure purpose.
3. Cornelius was a government officer. That army of possession was in a sense political. It is natural always for the spirit of authority to generate arrogance; and true piety invariably demands humility and charity. As a matter of fact it is known now that Palestine in those days was a hot bed of corruption; the Roman officers oppressed and fleeced the conquered inhabitants unmercifully. All this was against Cornelius: he was once a heathen, military, politician. But it is edifying to learn that even he could be “saved” (verses 34, 35).
III. God’s word prescribes the conditions of every man’s being “saved.”
1. The two conditions which Simon Peter lays down plainly are faith (Acts 10:43) and repentance (Acts 11:18). There is a voluminousness in his argument that renders this quite clear.
2. It is of inestimable advantage for any teacher of the gospel that he should surrender all other dependences, and rely only on the pure gospel for the conversion of souls. It is manifestly of the highest moment that Simon Peter should have been intelligently informed, and now humbly possessed, of the doctrines of grace. We do not see how he could have made his speech and fulfilled his duty that day, if he had not felt precisely what the prophet Isaiah once said (Isaiah 50:4).
IV. God’s Word settles the conclusion that even a good man, if without Christ, cannot be “saved.”
1. One may be aroused in conscience, and yet remain unsaved. Suppose Cornelius had been mortified, and wounded, and grown petulant, and so refused to obey the angel’s command!
2. One may be diligent in religious routine, and yet remain unsaved. How exemplary this man appears to us now!
3. One may be virtuous in his life, and remain unsaved. Cornelius was “just” and “devout”; but he was yet “lacking.”
4. One may be counted excellent, and yet remain unsaved.
5. One may even be instrumental in saving others, and yet remain unsaved. Cornelius needed the whole gospel still. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
The conversion of the Gentiles
I. There are three dramatic chapters in the Bible that stand out with special prominence and significance. Take--
1. How worlds are made, and light is parted, and arrangements are completed as if some stupendous event were about to transpire! Something is going to happen! The secret is revealed in these words, and God said, “Let us make man.”
2.Matthew 1:1-25Matthew 1:1-25. The first of Genesis turned into human history. There again you have that movement, urgency, and great rapidity. The reading of the genealogical record means something. The secret is revealed in the statement that Jesus was born to save His people from their sins.
3.Acts 10:1-48Acts 10:1-48. What movement, what dreaming and visioning and singular combination of events! Having read the first of Genesis and the first of Matthew, I feel that all these visions and trances must lead to something. What is it? The secret is revealed in these words, “God is no respecter of persons,” etc. In all the three chapters, therefore, I find a result which explains the process and satisfies the imagination.
II. What unconscious preparations are proceeding in life!
1. We cannot tell what we do. No occasion ends in itself. We know not what a day may bring forth, but tomorrow will certainly bring forth the seed of today. Always know that you are being prepared for some Divine issue. Your coming to church today may be the making of you! The introduction to a friend this morning may change every aspect of your coming history! The grave you dug but yesterday may be the altar at which your first heart prayer was uttered!
2. How wondrously Peter was prepared for this marvellous outcoming of Divine purpose. We read in the preceding chapter, last verse, that he “tarried many days in Joppa with one Simon a tanner.” He has got so far on the road to the Gentiles. A Jew of Peter’s temper who could lodge with a tanner may tomorrow go to convert a Gentile. God fixes lodgings. An ancient Rabbi said, “It is impossible that the world can do without tanners, but woe unto that man who is a tanner.” The address is given--“whose house is by the seaside.” The reason being that the Jews would not have tanneries in the towns. If a man married without telling his bride that he was a tanner, she could instantly demand release. The law which provided that the childless widow was to marry the brother of a deceased husband was set aside in the event of that brother being a tanner. You see, then, how stubborn were the prejudices against tanning, and yet we read as if it involved no extraordinary principle that Peter “tarried many days with one Simon a tanner.” It means everything, there is a revolution in these words. This makes a breach in the wall, buttressed with the traditions of generations--a breach that will widen until the whole falls, and man everywhere hail man as brother!
3. The point to be observed is, how unconsciously men are being prepared for higher communications and wider services. God leads us on step by step. We do not jump to conclusions in Divine Providence. We go forward a step at a time, and we never know how far we have advanced until we come to the last step, and find that it is but a step. This is God’s way. This is how He trains you, dear children, for the last step which we now call death. Now in this early morning of your life you do not want to die. But little by little, day by day, suffering by suffering, trial by trial, loss by loss, a time will come when even you will say, “I have a desire to depart.” God deals thus gradually and gently with us. Sometimes His providences seem to be abrupt and even violent, but in reality they move along a gradation settled and adjusted by the tenderest love. Things that are impossible to you today will be the commonplaces of tomorrow. You do not speak to the farthest-off man at once; but you speak to the man who is next to you, and then to the one following, and so, a man at a time, you move on until the distance is traversed and he who was once far off has been brought nigh! Upon this daily and inevitable process rests your confidence that prejudice of the most stubborn kind shall be broken down, and one day we shall know that every land is home and every man is brother!
III. What mysterious combinations of experiences and events are continually taking place.
1. Cornelius saw in a vision an angel. Peter fell into a trance and heard a voice. That is our daily life. We cannot be shut up within the four corners of a vulgar materialism. God has still over us the mysterious reign of dreams. Why wonder if dreams will come true, when dreams are true? You should have spoken to the angel, and said, “What is it, Lord?” You should even have contradicted the angel, and said, “Not so, Lord,” and then further conversation would have ensued. Instead of that you continue to sleep, and in the morning ask if dreams come true! You had your chance and missed it. The night is full of crowds. In the infinite galleries of the night the angels walk, visiting the beloved of God. Dreams of your own causing are not the dreams we are now speaking about. Physical nightmare is one thing, spiritual vision is another.
2. But even apart from the ministry of the night we have in our day dreams events sufficiently spiritually mysterious to inspire the religious imagination. “How strange,” say we, “that it should have been so.” “How remarkable that our letters should have crossed.” “Why, at the very time I was doing this you must have been coming to me! How singular!” This is an irreligious way of talking about human history and Divine issues, I want to cleanse my life of all mere accidents, and to feel that my down-sitting and my up-rising, and my out-going, my in-coming are matters of importance in heaven--that the very hairs of my head are all numbered! Why do we belittle our experience and deplete it of everything that could give nobility, and enlargement, and apocalypse to our highest nature? Rather be it mine to say the vision was from heaven, and an angel spake to me, than to vulgarise the universe and to find in it nothing that I cannot mark with plain figures.
IV. Here we have a higher law swallowing up a lower one--“God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” It requires God to show that to some men. This is nothing short of a Divine revelation--to see the man within the creature. I see the poor clothing, the unkempt body--there is something behind! I see the roughness, rudeness--there is something behind. A man! Said the murmuring multitude respecting Zacchaeus, “Christ hath gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” But Jesus called the sinner “a son of Abraham.” Lord, open our eyes that we may see one another! Christianity has come to eat up and absorb all our little laws and to set us under a nobler legislation. Said Christ, “Who is My mother, and who are My brethren?” And turning to His disciples, He said, “Whosoever doeth the will of My Father that is in heaven, the same is My mother, and sister, and brother.” We are under the foolish notion that a man is a brother because we were born of the same mother. Nothing of the kind. There may be no greater stranger in the universe than the one born of the same mother. They are brothers who are one in soul, one in conviction, one in hope! (J. Parker, D. D.)
The providential guidance of the Church
The conversion of the Gentiles was no new idea to Jews or Christians, but it had been universally regarded as to take place by their reception into Judaism. A gospel of the uncircumcision however soon began to be recognised by some. Stephen, carrying out the principles of his own apology, could hardly fail to recognise it, and the Cyprian and Cyrenean missionaries of Acts 11:20 preached the Word to pure heathen certainly before the conversion of Cornelius. This state of things might have given rise to a permanent schism in the Church. The Hellenists, and perhaps Saul, with his definite mission to the Gentiles, might have formed one party, and the Hebrews, with Peter at their head, the other. But as Neander observes: The pernicious influence with which from the first the self-seeking and one-sided prejudices of human nature threatened the Divine work was counteracted by the superior influence of the Holy Spirit, which did not allow the differences of men to reach such a point of antagonism, but enabled them to retain unity in variety. We recognise the preventing wisdom of God--which, while giving scope to the free agency of man, knows how to interpose His immediate revelation just at the moment when it is requisite for the success of the Divine work--by noticing that when the apostles needed this wider development of their Christian knowledge for the exercise of their vocation, and when the lack of it would have been exceedingly detrimental, at that very moment, by a remarkable coincidence of inward revelation with a chain of outward circumstances, the illumination hitherto wanting was imparted. (Dean Alford.)
The supernatural preparation
This consisted in a miraculous communication--
I. To Cornelius. It required a special Divine interposition to prepare in the Gentile world an audience for a gospel sermon, and one occurred in the case of this heathen soldier. An angel--
1. Visited him.
(1) The form was human. Painters and poets give angels wings, the Bible does not.
(2) The appearance was appalling. The sentimental may talk about the beauty of angels, but to the sinner their manifestation is always connected with terror.
2. Encouraged him (Acts 11:4).
(1) Genuine goodness includes piety and philanthropy.
(2) The virtues of good men are recognised in heaven. What more encouraging than this?
3. Directed him (Acts 11:5). Why not tell him what to do thyself, angelic spirit? Because the gospel is to be preached by men, not angels. The supernatural communication answers the end. Cornelius is prompt to obey. What Abraham is to Jewish saints, Cornelius is to the Gentile Christians--the first called out miraculously by God, the moral father of the great family. The preparation of the heart for the reception of the gospel is a work of the Lord. When the Great Husbandman prepares the soil the seed will germinate.
II. To Peter. Observe--
1. His circumstances.
(1) His spiritual exercise. He had just been employed in prayer. He who would see heaven opened must pray.
(2) His physical state--hungry. Both soul and body therefore were craving, the one for communications from God, the other for food.
(3) His mental state--in a trance, a state of utter abstraction from all external objects. Then the vision came. There was a natural connection between his hunger and the creatures he saw. In God’s revelations the human often plays a conspicuous part. The vision was symbolic. The vessel may denote the human creation containing Jews and Gentiles: its descent from heaven the equal Divine origin of both; the command to kill and eat the advent of a dispensation to annul all that was ceremonial and narrow in Judaism. The vision teaches--
(a) The Divine origin of the race. “All let down” from heaven. Every birth is a Divine emanation. There is nothing new but souls.
(b) The great diversities of the race. “All manner,” etc. Great are the distinctions among men--physical, mental, and moral; yet all from heaven.
(c) The ceremonialisms which divide the race. They are to be killed by the apostles of Christianity.
2. His strong antagonism to the purpose of this wonderful vision (Acts 11:14). The fact that the vision occurred thrice plainly indicated how potent his religious antipathies were.
3. The providential agency by which this antagonism was removed. While Peter was in doubt, just at that point the centurion’s emissaries came. If our doubt is honest, as was Peter’s, Providence will send an interpreter. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.
Prayers and alms
I. The conjunction of alms deeds with prayer. Cornelius joined them, and he is therefore commended for “a devout man and one that feared God,” and God graciously accepted them. Therefore our Saviour (Matthew 6:1-5) joins the precepts of alms and prayer together. It was also the ordinance of the Church in the apostles’ times, that the first day of the week, which was the time of public prayer, should be the time also of alms (1 Corinthians 16:1). Which institution seems to be derived from the commandment of God in the law twice repeated (Exodus 23:15; Deuteronomy 16:16). The Primitive Church after the apostles followed the same precedent, and our own Reformed Church asks God “to accept our alms, and receive our prayers.”
II. The power and efficacy which prayer and alms have with God. God is said to remember our prayers when He grants them, our alms and good deeds when He rewards them, or, in a word, when He answers either of them with a blessing; as on the contrary He is said to remember iniquity when He sends some judgment for it (1 Samuel 1:19; Nehemiah 5:19).
1. Prayer. What is it that prayer hath not obtained? It hath shut and opened heaven and made the sun and moon to stand still. It is the key that openeth all God’s treasures. For spiritual blessings, Cornelius we see obtained thereby illumination and instruction in God’s saving truth (see James 1:5; Jeremiah 31:18-20; Psalms 32:5-6). Prayer also obtaineth corporal blessings. When heaven was shut and it rained not, Elijah prayed for rain, and it rained. Hannah prayed for a son, and she conceived. If we be sick, “the prayer of faith shall heal the sick.” Nehemiah prayed that he might find favour in the sight of King Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:11), and found it (Nehemiah 2:4). But some man will say, If prayer have such power and efficacy, how comes it to pass that many even godly men oft pray and yet speed not? I answer--
(1) We pray not as we ought, either--
(a) We pray not heartily or constantly (Luke 18:1).
(b) We rely not upon God (James 1:6).
(c) We make not God’s glory the end of what we ask (James 4:3).
(d) We may ask something that crosseth the rule of Divine providence and justice.
(2) We are indisposed for God to grant our request.
(a) When some sin unrepented of lies at the door and keeps God’s blessing out (Psalms 50:16; Proverbs 28:9; Joshua 7:10-12). Or--
(b) We appear before the Lord empty; we do not as Cornelius did, send up prayers and alms together; we should have two strings to our bow when we have but one. For how can we look that God should hear us in our need, when we turn away our face from our brother in his need?
(3) Add to all these reasons of displeasure a reason of favour, because we ask that which He knows would be hurtful for us. As, therefore, a wife and loving father will not give his child a knife or some other hurtful thing, though it cries never so much unto him for it: so does God deal with His children.
(4) Moreover, we must know and believe that God often hears our prayers when we think he doth not.
(a) When He changes the means, but brings the end we desire another way to pass (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
(b) When He defers it till some other time when He thinks best (Dan 9:1; 2 Chronicles 36:22; Revelation 6:10-11).
(c) When He gives us instead thereof something which is as good or better.
2. Alms. Not thy prayer only, saith the angel, but thine alms also are come up for a remembrance. For alms is a kind of prayer, namely, a visible one, and such an one as prevails as strongly with God for a blessing as any other (Psalms 41:1-3; Proverbs 19:17; Proverbs 28:27; Proverbs 11:25; Ecclesiastes 11:1). These are for corporal blessings, and of this life. But hear also for spiritual blessings, and those of the life to come (Psalms 112:9; Luke 16:9; 1 Timothy 6:17; Matthew 25:34-35).
III. The reasons why God requires them and why they are so pleasing unto Him: which reasons when they are known, will be also strong motives.
1. Prayer. The reasons why God requires this are these--
(1) That we might acknowledge the property He hath in the gifts He bestows upon us: otherwise we would forget in what tenure we hold them.
(2) That we might be acquainted with God (Job 22:21. Now acquaintance we know grows amongst men by conversing together. So by accustoming to speak to God in prayer we grow acquainted with Him.
(3) That our hearts may be kept in order. For to come often into the presence of God breeds an holy awe, and makes us to call our sins to remembrance with sorrow. Men are afraid to offend those into whose presence they must often come to ask and sue for favours; and if they have offended, the first thing they do will be to sue for pardon.
2. Alms. We are to offer alms--
(1) To testify our acknowledgment of whom we received and of whom we hold what we have. For as by prayer we ask God’s creatures before we can enjoy them; so when we have them there is another homage due for them, namely, of thanksgiving, without which the use of the creature which God gives us is unclean and unlawful to us (1 Timothy 4:4). Now our thanksgiving to God must express itself in work and deed; that is, we must yield Him a rent and tribute of what we enjoy by His favour and blessing; which if we do not, we lose our tenure. This rent is two fold: either that which is offered unto God for the maintenance of His worship and ministers; or that which is given for the relief of the poor, the orphan, and the widow, which is called alms.
(2) That we might not forget God (Matthew 6:19-20; Luke 12:33). The proper evil of abundance is to forget God and our dependence upon Him, the remedy whereof most genuine and natural is to pay Him a rent of what we have. (J. Mede.)
Prayer and almsgiving
1. Its nature--the ascent of the mind to God. When the soul lays aside the thoughts of all things else and converses only with God, then it prays.
(1) When we speak to so glorious a Majesty we ought to begin by confessing our unworthiness (Ezra 9:6-9; Psalms 51:1-5; Daniel 9:3-5).
(2) And as we are to confess our sins so we are to beg for mercy.
(3) And as we must desire of God what we want, so must we praise Him for what we have (Psalms 107:8).
2. The reasons why it is acceptable to God.
(1) In praying we come as near as we can to the principal end of our creation, which was to enjoy communion with God.
(2). Hereby we acknowledge His supremacy over and propriety in the world, by paying daily homage and tribute of thanks.
(3) Especially we give Him the glory due to His Name which is the ultimate end of His, and ought to be of all our actions (Psalms 50:23; Psalms 24:1).
3. How to perform it acceptably.
(1) You must know that it is a duty of that weight and moment that it is not to be undertaken without due preparation beforehand.
(a) Lay aside all earthly thoughts.
(b) Bethink yourselves of the mercies for which you should pray and those for which you should give thanks.
(c) Get your hearts possessed with a sense of God’s transcendent excellency.
(2) Having thus prepared yourselves set upon the work itself: and while praying--
(a) Remember what you are doing and carry yourselves with that reverence which becomes sinful creatures (Hebrews 12:28-29).
(b) Be sure to observe the wise man’s counsel (Ecclesiastes 5:2; Isaiah 66:1; Genesis 18:27-32).
(c) Have a great care to keep your thoughts and affections together (1 Corinthians 14:15).
(d) Pray in faith, desiring nothing but in the name of Christ (John 16:23).
(3) After prayer--that it may be accepted and answered--
(a) Recollect yourselves and consider the sins you have confessed that you may avoid them, and what mercies you have begged that you may expect them (Mark 11:24; James 1:5-6).
(b) Trust in Christ for the acceptance and answer of your prayers (Mark 11:24).
4. Its advantages.
(1) Such solemn addresses to the Most High will refine and enlarge your conceptions of Him, and so you will be more and more acquainted with Him, and in and through Christ ingratiate yourselves with Him (Job 22:21).
(2) This will also be an excellent means to keep our hearts in a continual awe of Him.
(3) This is the most powerful way to prevent all evil and secure all good. If we lack wisdom, by prayer we may get it (James 1:5). If we be sick, by prayer we may be recovered (James 5:15). If our sins be many and great, by prayer they may be pardoned (Psalms 32:5-6). If our graces be weak, by prayer they may be strengthened (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).
1. The nature of this duty--the supplying of others’ necessities to the utmost of our power whatever they may be--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, relieving the afflicted, being kind and liberal to all.
2. Its reasonableness.
(1) God, as He is the Maker, so is He the Owner of all things, and therefore we can have nothing but what we receive from Him. He is the Landlord, you His tenant, and He requires you to pay Him rent to be employed in His immediate service, or else for the relief of His poorer servants (Matthew 26:11).
(2) He has imposed this duty to make you always mindful of your obligations to Him. A confluence of earthly enjoyments is apt to make us forget Him (Hosea 13:6; Deuteronomy 32:15-18). Hence Agur feared riches (Proverbs 30:8-9).
(3) God requires this duty because this is the means whereby He has provided for persons who are destitute of other maintenance (Malachi 3:8; Proverbs 3:27). Seeing, therefore, God has strictly required this duty, and there being such reasons for it, it cannot but be acceptable to Him, and its neglect displeasing. What we do to the poor He regards as done to Himself (Matthew 25:40-45; Proverbs 14:31).
3. The manner in which it is to be performed.
(1) Purely out of obedience to God, for His sake who first gave.
(2) Universally--to everyone in need, i.e., not to our own friends only, nor only when we are in a good humour, or applied to, or likely to get credit.
(3) Not reluctantly (Deu 15:10; 2 Corinthians 9:7; Romans 12:8; Acts 20:35).
(4) Proportionably to what God has given us (1 Corinthians 16:2).
(5) Sincerely, and not to gain applause.
III. The connection between the two. Both went up to heaven together. There can be no true piety towards God that is not accompanied with charity towards our neighbour. This applies to all acts of piety. No man can fear, honour, obey, or trust in God who is not kind to his brother. As for its principal act--prayer--the teaching of Scripture is plain that it will not be accepted if severed from alms. Hence Christ joins the two (Matthew 6:1-6), and Paul (1 Corinthians 16:1-2), and Moses (Exodus 23:15; Deuteronomy 16:16-17). (Bp. Beveridge.)
Praying and almsgiving
1. Alms are the correlative of prayers, branches from a common stem--the moral law, which enjoins love to God and love to man. The man who really prays fulfils the first branch; the effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man, such as was Cornelius, is the expression of man’s duty to God. It is called “incense” partly from its reaching the Throne of Grace, as incense soars to the sky; partly from its spiritual fragrance and acceptability. And the man who acts in the true spirit of almsgiving equally fulfils the second branch. The act passes further than our neighbour; it comes before God as a memorial and finds also in the fragrant, soaring incense its Scriptural emblem (Philippians 4:18).
2. Thus prayer and almsgiving are coordinate, which alone lends a value to the latter. We have been suspicious of it as though we heard a legal ring instead of genuine gospel coin, a means of justification by the law, instead of faith in Christ. But almsgiving need be no more a work of human merit than prayer. Neither can justify the sinner; that is the prerogative of Christ’s atonement. But both “come up for a memorial before God” when offered in faith, even in such imperfect faith as that of Cornelius.
3. But as it is not every so-called prayer, so it is not every alms of which this can be predicated. In both the act has become detached from the spirit which alone can render it acceptable. Prayer is performed merely because conscience or She usages of society exact it. And alms are extorted reluctantly with the feeling that any petition for them is an importunity of which we would willingly be rid. In such cases neither are acceptable.
4. If either is to come up as a memorial before God it must be offered not on a casual impulse, the mere inspiration of a happy moment, but on principle. As regards prayer this is acknowledged. No one thinks he has acquitted himself of his duty unless he has prayed systematically. No one could satisfy his conscience by lifting up his heart to God only when he found himself in a happy frame. For--
(1) The duty which is left to a convenient season is sure to find no season convenient: he who is apt to defer sailing till wind, weather, and tide are all in his favour is apt to end in not sailing at all.
(2) Prayer is not simply the duty of the individual soul, but an act of homage to God: thus they must be offered systematically. All this is conceded as regards prayer, but as regards almsgiving how different the view generally taken. Instead of recognising a certain proportion of his income as being due to God, the modern Christian abandons himself for the most part to appeals, and helps those objects only when his sympathies are stirred. A charity sermon awakens a kindly interest, or there are cases of distress personally known, and he responds without the slightest idea of the proportion his alms bear to his resources.
5. Modern almsgiving being thus for the most part the result of impulse rather than principle, has adjusted itself to the sentiments of the majority. Money must be had for benevolence; and as it is not to be had upon principle, it must be had by an appeal to sensibilities, or even by more questionable methods. Inducements to give are held out by the showy oratory of the public meeting, the little dissipation of the bazaar, or the luxury of the public dinner. The least objectionable form is the charity sermon. But even this is not the true way. If the standard of Christian sentiment and practice at all resemble that of early days this would be unnecessary (1 Corinthians 16:1). The Primitive Church acted on this precept, and a trace of their practice is found in that office of the Holy Communion called the offertory. In the course of the liturgy, or service of communion, offerings of money, food, or clothing, were made by the congregation, which went to the poor, the bishop, the fabric of the church, and the subordinate clergy respectively. Chrysostom tell us that the Christians never entered church without giving alms; so deeply were the minds of our fathers imbued with the connection between alms and prayer. Now without enforcing the same form we may surely say that the methodical principle is as binding as ever.
6. All that is necessary in order to this is a little time, trouble, and moral courage. Let us settle what proportion of our income is due to works of piety or charity. The proportion will vary as it is subtracted from a very narrow income or a very large one; but that being settled, all that follows may be done with a small expenditure of time. A private account is opened showing on the one side all our receipts and on the other our charitable expenditure. This is examined periodically, and should it appear that the expenditure comes up to the proportion we have determined upon, well and good; should it exceed (a rare occurrence) the excess may be balanced by retrenchment; should it fall short it should be made a point of conscience to make it up at once. If everyone would act thus the resources of deserving charities would never fail.
7. But benefits of a much higher kind would accrue to the giver. It would greatly contribute to that peace of mind which is so essential an element of spiritual progress. And again the very satisfactoriness of the process would lead to a further advance in the same direction. He who has conscientiously given one-twentieth this year may be urged to give one-tenth next. The appetite for Christian liberality will grow when it is healthily indulged instead of being morbidly stimulated. And that wretched feeling that every fresh appeal is an exaction would cease.
8. The offerings made to God out of this treasury, if made with faith in His name are represented as memorials of us in heaven. The beautiful act of the woman in Simon’s house was rewarded in a similar manner. Do you desire that your name should be known in heaven? Aspire with devout prayers and seek Christ with devout sympathies in His representatives. Multiply acts of faith and love, and these will keep alive remembrance of you in the heavenly court, where no remembrance is without a requital. Cornelius was recompensed by the visit of an angel and an apostle, the glad tidings, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Dean Goulburn.)
Giving as an act of worship
I. What is worship?
1. It will be a sufficient answer to say that love, faith, and obedience are the graces chiefly exercised. We cannot worship whom we do not love, in whom we do not believe, or whom we refuse to obey. All these graces are implied in praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, and intercession, and where they exist we have all the essential conditions of acceptable worship.
2. But external acts are required as well as internal conditions. Under the Old Testament the offering of sacrifices, etc.; under the New, the sacraments together with such other forms as may be expressive of this required inward state.
3. That we may not hide our light under bushel--that we may give tangible form to our love, faith, and obedience; that God may be publicly glorified, and that those about us may be benefited, we are required to worship Him in the use of external and visible forms.
II. Are these essential conditions of worship ever found in almsgiving? Giving is a most natural expression of these graces. They are implied in the word “memorial”--that which brings to remembrance (Leviticus 2:2-16). The same Greek word in the Septuagint. Observe: All giving is not worship. If it is not unto God, if done grudgingly, if done with low conceptions of the duty, it may be offensive.
III. Advantages of giving as an act of worship.
1. It lifts the whole department of Christian duty to a higher plane. It removes it from the region of beggary. It no longer treats God as if He was some Lazarus seeking the crumbs that otherwise we would give to the dogs.
2. It makes giving a joyous service.
3. It makes giving a means of grace. (W. F. Beatty, D. D.)
Giving and praying
The venerable Father Sewall, of Maine, once entered a meeting in behalf of foreign missions, just as the collectors of the contributions were resuming their seats. The chairman of the meeting requested him to lead in prayer. The old gentleman stood, hesitatingly, as if he had not heard the request. It was repeated in a louder voice; but there was no response. It was observed, however, that Mr. Sewall was fumbling in his pockets, and presently he produced a piece of money, which he deposited in the contribution box. The chairman, thinking he had not been understood, said loudly, “I didn’t ask you to give, Father Sewall; I asked you to pray.” “Oh, yes,” he replied, “I heard you, but I can’t pray till I have given something.” (N. T. Anecdotes.)
Devotion and beneficence
A coloured Presbyterian deacon was in the habit of shutting his eyes, while he sang with great unction, “Fly abroad, thou mighty gospel!” and not seeing the contribution plate. “Oh, yes!” said the plate bearer; “but you just give something to make it fly.”
Prayer and gifts
A poor man who had a large family gave them a very comfortable support while he was in health. He broke his leg, and was laid up for some weeks. As he would be for some time destitute of the means of grace, it was proposed to hold a prayer meeting at his house. The meeting was led by Deacon Brown. A loud knock at the door interrupted the service. A tall, lank, blue-frocked youngster stood at the door with an ox goad in his hand, and asked to see Deacon Brown. “Father could not attend this meeting,” he said; “but he sent his prayers, and they are out in the cart.” They were brought in, in the shape of potatoes, beef, pork, and corn. The meeting broke up without the benediction. Nor did the poor fellow suffer during his whole confinement. The substantial prayers of the donors became means of grace.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The best almsgiving
S. Carlo Borromeo, the great patron of idle almsgiving, came hither (the palace and church buildings of Caprarolo) to see it when it was completed, and complained that so much money had not been given to the poor instead. “I have let them have it all little by little,” said Alessandro Farnese, “but I have made them earn it by the sweat of their brows.” (A. J. C. Hare.)
Men resemble the gods in nothing so much as in doing good. (Cicero.)
Beneficence known to God
A poor Irishwoman went to a venerable priest in Boston, and asked him to forward to Ireland her help for the famine sufferers. “How much can you spare?” asked the priest. “I have a hundred dollars saved,” she said, “and I can spare that.” The priest reasoned with her, saying that her gift was too great for her means, but she was firm in her purpose. It would do her good to know teat she had helped; she could rest happier thinking of the poor families she had saved from hunger and death. The priest received her money with moistened eyes. “Now, what is your name?” he asked, “that I may have it published.” “My name?” said the brave soul, counting over her money; “don’t mind that, sir. Just send them the help--and God will know my name.”
Beneficence recompensed by God
A poor man came one day to Michael Feneberg, the pastor of Seeg, in Bavaria, and bogged three crowns, that he might finish his journey. It was all that Feneberg had; but as he besought him earnestly in the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus he gave it. Immediately afterwards he found himself in great outward need, and seeing no way of relief, he prayed, “Lord, I lent Thee three crowns; Thou hast not yet returned them, and Thou knowest how I need them. Lord, I pray Thee give them back.” The same day brought a messenger with a money letter, which Gossner, his assistant, reached over to him, saying, “Here, father, is what you expended.” It contained two hundred thalers, or about one hundred and fifty dollars, which the poor traveller had begged from a rich man for the vicar; and the childlike old man, in joyful amazement, cried out, “Ah, Lord, one dare ask nothing of Thee, for straightway, Thou makest one feel so much ashamed.” (H. T. Williams.)
Beneficence, a Christian obligation
As the moon doth show her light to the world which she receiveth from the sun; so we ought to bestow the benefits received of God to the profit of our neighbour. (Cawdray.)
On the morrow … Peter went up upon the housetop to pray.
Retirement necessary for prayer
Have you noticed that if all day long there is not a knock at the door, there will be one if you retire to pray? It is wise to do as the Saviour says, “Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut to the door, pray to thy Father that seeth in secret.” That shutting of the door means that we are to seek secrecy, and to prevent interruption. A little boy, who was accustomed to spend a time every day in prayer, went up into a hayloft, and when he climbed into the hayloft he always pulled the ladder up after him. Some one asked him why he did so. He answered, “As there is no door, I pull up the ladder.” Oh, that we could always in some way cut the connection between our soul and the intruding things which lurk below! There is a story told of me and of some person, I never knew who it was, who desired to see me on a Saturday night, when I had shut myself up to make ready for the Sabbath. He was very great and important, so the maid came to say that someone desired to see me. I bade her say that it was my rule to see no one at that time. Then he was more important and impressive still, and said, “Tell Mr. Spurgeon that a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ desires to see him immediately.” The frightened servant brought the message; but the sender gained little by it, for my answer was, “Tell him I am busy with his Master, and cannot see servants now.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
1. When Cornelius, the Gentile, prayed in his house, it was at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer among the Jews; when Peter, the Jew, prayed, it was at the sixth hour, or noon, which was not one of the stated times. This is worthy of being noticed as occurring at a time when in far greater matters the Jews were about to become as the Gentiles, the Gentiles as the Jews. This is the second instance of the great honour put upon prayer. A praying Gentile is the first uncircumcised person admitted into the Christian Church. A praying apostle the instrument employed to bring about this happy consummation. And to each was his own blessing given at the very time when he was in the exercise of prayer. It is well for Christians to have fixed hours of prayer; and though they should not be in bondage to such hours, yet without good reason they should not depart from them. There is in our hearts such a backwardness to so spiritual a duty, that if we do not charge it upon our conscience to observe the hour, the world will find us other employment. Peter observed the time, and was careful also in selecting the place for prayer: in the temple at the stated hours, at other times in the best adapted part of the house. He affords in this an edifying example. The house of God is open to all: at the stated times the rich and the poor may repair thither; and, surely, on the Lord’s day, all, unless distance or sickness hinders, should offer both their morning and their evening sacrifice. As to private prayer, many have not the advantage of a private apartment. But men can accommodate themselves to circumstances. Noise is a disturber of sleep; but men who live in the midst of noise can sleep in the midst of it as if in the stillest solitude. And thus a poor Christian may pray with much collectedness in the midst of interruptions which would altogether discompose others, and what a man’s house does not afford the open field does.
2. But wherever a man is praying, the great point is to let prayer be his one business, to be absorbed in it. Peter, while he prayed, was in a trance; the world was altogether shut out from him. A man in prayer should have his senses, memory, imagination, closed against all other objects, and should converse with God alone. This would be the way to behold heaven indeed opened, and blessings of every kind descending upon him; for prayer is the key which opens heaven, unlocks its sacred treasures, and brings down the richest gifts both of providence and grace on the head of the supplicant.
3. Yes, every good and every perfect gift is from above, etc. And the vision of Peter affords a lively illustration of this truth. If, instead of buying what we know has been killed in the slaughter house, we saw a vessel descend from heaven, and if, after we had taken out of it what was sufficient for our repast, we saw it again taken up into heaven, we should feel that the food thus given was indeed sent down from God. But in that case the truth would not be more certain than it is now. For, whence came these creatures into being? Who gave them the properties which render them fit for meat? And who keeps up the successive generations of them from age to age? For a season, and to answer a particular purpose, a great restriction was put upon these creatures. But from the beginning it was not so. The grant to Noah is unlimited--“Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you, even as the green herb have I given you all things.” And now that the law with its ceremonies and carnal ordinances is abolished, to us this original grant is restored in all its fulness. We know that “every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” Oh, why do we not thus sanctify our meals? To do so would give a sweetness to the humblest fare, and exalt our ordinary repasts into means of grace. And surely, when all things are become lawful to us, and no other restraints laid on us than those of charity and temperance, our larger liberty demands from us more abundant thanksgiving. But the doing away of all distinction between clean and unclean in meats is a light matter in comparison of the doing away of all distinction between clean and unclean in persons. The Jews considered all but themselves unclean. To remove this prejudice, the vision significantly taught that God had cleansed them, in order to comprehend which we must understand two things. First, that He looked upon them as clean, as fit to be received into the covenant. Every person who is born into the world is really unclean--Jew and Gentile alike, for there is no difference. But hitherto God regarded the Jews as clean, and admitted their children by circumcision into His covenant, giving them the seal of righteousness by faith, while the Gentiles He accounted unclean, and such were not admitted without circumcision. But now men of every nation were accounted clean, and could be received into the Church by baptism on professing their faith in Christ; and the children of such parents were holy, and would be admitted into the Christian Church by baptism. But the gospel covenant not only cleanses from legal uncleanness; it provides also for inward cleansing and meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light. (J. Fawcett, M. A.)
The world has had seven birthdays.
1. The creation.
2. The day of the unfolding of redemptive purpose.
3. The call of Abraham.
4. Christmas Day.
5. Ascension Day.
6. The Day of Pentecost.
7. The day which banned the distinctions of race and creed and opened the kingdom to all.
I. The new revelation in its manner and method.
1. Peter had sought retirement for prayer. Prayer has a subjective influence. Perceptive faculties are refined and stimulated. Christ’s physical form was transfigured.
2. After prayer there was ecstasy. Intuition quickened by the Holy Spirit. Equivalent to the “opening” of eyes and ears. Not delirium or rhapsody. Men should cultivate “the faculty divine,” and expect the Spirit to “take the things of Christ and show them” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13).
II. The meaning of the vision.
1. The abrogation of the ceremonial law as of binding obligation (Romans 14:14; Romans 14:17).
2. The separations of men no longer lawful. The narrowness of old Judaism contrary to the all-embracing spirit of gospel grace. No class is to be favoured at the expense of another. Two great ideas are thus suggested.
(1) That of the Divine Fatherhood.
(2) That of the brotherhood of man. (Preacher’s Monthly.)
The Petrine vision at Joppa
There is something very restful in the picture drawn for us of St. Peter at this crisis. There is none of that feverish hurry and restlessness which make some good men and their methods very trying to others. St. Peter, indeed, did not live in an age of telegrams and postcards and express trains, which all contribute more or less to that feverish activity and restlessness so characteristic of this age. But even if he had lived in such a time, I am sure his faith in God would have saved him from that fussiness, that life of perpetual hurry, yet never bringing forth any abiding fruit, which we behold in so many moderns. It is no wonder such men’s fussiness should be fruitless, because their natures are poor, shallow, uncultivated, where their seed springs up rapidly but brings forth no fruit to perfection, because it has no deepness of earth. It is no wonder that St. Peter should have spoken with power at Caesarea and been successful in opening the door of faith to the Gentiles, because he prepared himself for doing the Divine work by the discipline of meditation, and thought, and spiritual converse with his risen Lord.
I. The place.
1. Joppa has been from ancient times the port of Jerusalem, and is even now rising into somewhat of its former commercial greatness, specially owing to the late development of the orange trade, for the production of which fruit Jaffa or Joppa has become famous. Three thousand years ago Joppa was a favourite resort of the Phoenician fleets (2 Chronicles 2:16). At a later period, when God would send Jonah on a mission to Gentile Nineveh, and when Jonah desired to thwart God’s merciful designs towards the outer world, the prophet fled to Joppa and there took ship. And now again Joppa becomes the refuge of another prophet, who feels the same natural hesitation about admitting the Gentiles to God’s mercy, but who, unlike Jonah, yields immediate assent to the heavenly message, and finds peace and blessing in the paths of loving obedience.
2. It was with Simon, the tanner of Joppa, that St. Peter was staying. Tanners as a class were despised and comparatively outcast among the Jews. Tanning was counted an unclean trade, because of the necessary contact with dead bodies which it involved. Yet it was to a tanner’s house that the apostle made his way, and there he lodged for many days, showing that the mind even of St. Peter was steadily rising above narrow Jewish prejudices into that higher and nobler atmosphere where he learned in fullest degree that no man and no lawful trade is to be counted common or unclean.
II. The time. Joppa is thirty miles from Caesarea. The leading coast towns were then connected by an excellent road. The centurion’s messengers doubtless travelled on horseback, leading spare beasts for the accommodation of the apostle. Less than twenty-four hours after their departure from Caesarea they drew nigh to Joppa, and then it was that God revealed His purposes to His beloved servant. The very hour can be fixed. Cornelius saw the angel at the ninth hour, when he “was keeping the hour of prayer.” Peter saw the vision at the sixth hour, when he went up on the housetop to pray, according to the example of the Psalmist (Psalms 55:18). St. Peter evidently was a careful observer of all the forms amid which his youthful training had been conducted. He did not seek in the name of spiritual religion to discard these old forms. He recognised the danger of any such course. Forms may often tend to formalism on account of the weakness of human nature. But they also help to preserve and guard the spirit of ancient institutions in times of sloth and decay, till the Spirit from on high again breathes upon the dry bones and imparts fresh life. St. Peter used the forms of Jewish externalism, imparting to them some of his own intense earnestness, and the Lord set His seal of approval upon his action by revealing the purposes of His mercy and love to the Gentile world at the noontide hour of prayer.
III. The vision. To the mere man of sense or to the mere carnal mind St. Peter’s hunger may seem a simple natural operation, but to the devout believer it appears as Divinely planned in order that a spiritual satisfaction and completeness may be imparted to his soul unconsciously craving after a fuller knowledge of the Divine will. And if St. Peter’s hunger was taken up and incorporated with the Divine plan of salvation, we may be sure that our own wants and trials do not escape the omniscient eye of Him who plans all our lives, appointing the end from the very beginning. St. Peter was hungry, and as food was preparing he fell into a trance, and then the vision answering in its form to the hunger which he felt was granted. The hour had at last come for the manifestation of God’s everlasting purposes, when the sacred society should assume its universal privileges and stand forth resplendent in its true character as God’s Holy Catholic Church--of which the Temple had been a temporary symbol and pledge--a house of prayer for all nations, the joy of the whole earth, the city of the Great King, until the consummation of all things. (G. T. Stokes, D. D.)
The vision of Peter
1. “A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven” (John 3:27; James 1:17). As a single seed of corn cannot unfold itself without the quickening influence and care of God, so the immortal seed, through which we become “the first fruits of His creatures,” must be vivified by the Almighty! We do not see this influence descend; we only observe the unfolding after it is completed. We see the rose bloom, but not the act of blossoming; but how can we doubt the care of an Almighty hand, or the wafting around it of an invisible breath? All depends on God’s blessing (2 Corinthians 3:5). How could we come to God if God had not first come to us! He must bless our labour, and work in us both to will and to do. This work of God in us is a mystery, yet not altogether incomprehensible; it is like the visible and palpable influence of the sun. In order to exhibit this truth we have here a visible example of the invisible influence of God, and of the descent of His Holy Spirit. We may also be assured from the history that if we seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, all things that we need shall be added unto us.
2. The gospel history has depicted with peculiar openness the character of Peter. The Lord had given him the surname of “Rock,” not merely in reference to what he should become, but also to that which he was by nature. He was distinguished from the rest of our Lord’s followers by an impetuosity of temper which seems to have been born with him, and which showed itself by obstinately holding any opinion which the mind had once embraced. None of the disciples gainsaid our Lord so often as Peter. When Jesus told them of His approaching sufferings, he said, “Be it far from Thee.” When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, Peter withstood Him. In his fall also, in spite of his better judgment, he showed a stubborn obstinacy. He also subjected himself in Antioch to the severe reproof of Paul, when, to please the Jews, he once more came under the bondage of the Levitical law, to the offence of the Gentile Church. The Bible has never been silent with regard to the human weakness and errors of its heroes.
3. It appears to have been particularly difficult for the apostle to comprehend the counsel of God with regard to the calling of the Gentiles. Though he had announced at Pentecost that the Lord was about to call those who were afar off, yet he did not say this from himself, but from the Spirit of the Lord. The time and the hour, the grand moment of the second birth of the world, was now come. Our Lord had often alluded to it before, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold,” etc. On another occasion He praised and rewarded the faith both of a Canaanitish woman and a Gentile centurion. He had also commanded His apostles to go to all nations and preach the gospel to every creature. Peter, who found it so difficult to wean himself from the old covenant, had to begin the work of God among the Gentiles. The beginning, however, must first be made in himself.
4. Peter went up about midday to pray on the flat roof of the house. The Jews were fond of praying there under the open heaven, because they were here undisturbed, and could turn their face towards the temple. In this circumstance we may perceive how Peter continued faithfully to observe the rules and customs of Judaism, little aware that they were soon to cease, and give place to the worshipping of God in spirit and in truth. After he had finished his prayer “he became very hungry, and would have eaten,” but he must now be fed with other food. He was entranced, i.e., transported out of his natural state into a supernatural one; his outward senses were closed, but the eyes of his inner man were opened, that he might behold heavenly things. “He saw heaven opened,” etc. This was done thrice, to strengthen the impression of the Divine testimony. In this vision we behold the condescension of our Lord. The whole of revelation is a letting down, a humanisation of the invisible God; through it alone can man come to his heavenly Father and become His child. Almost all the Old Testament consists of types and similitudes. Even in this day of light we see through a glass darkly the secrets of the future and perfected kingdom of heaven; yet the time shall come when we shall see them face to face. Thus the Apostle Peter, like all the prophets who were before him, was led to a higher knowledge gradually. We see also in this vision that something entirely new was about to begin in the kingdom of God upon earth. The prophet had for ages foretold it; and our Lord Himself had ordained and predicted it; but the contracted view of the disciples could not distinguish it; therefore the thing itself was done, and they were led to comprehend it slowly and gradually. The lightning’s flash destroys the aged tree; but the gentle daylight develops a new life out of what seems passed away and decayed. This new light removed the old covenant and declared the new, by which all the Gentiles, without the law, were led into the path of grace.
5. The time of distinction and separation was now to cease (Ephesians 2:13-16). “Kill and eat,” said the voice; the same which commanded Isaiah to write, “They shall bring an offering unto the Lord out of all nations,” (chap. 66); the same which inspired Paul to say in Romans (chap. 15), “That the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.” The sanctification of the Gentiles has been going on, even to the present day, and will continue to go on until all be fulfilled which God has promised. Conclusion: We have visions and words from heaven no longer; we have both in our Bible; nor is there ever awanting a manifestation of the mind of God in daily occurrences, in providential events, and, above all, in the secret history of our souls; thus beholding God in everything, what is in itself common and unclean becomes purified and sanctified; and in this way is the grace of God revealed to all men. (F. A. Krummacher, D. D.)
An apostle dreaming
1. Aspiring! Hungering! Sleeping! Such manner of creatures we are; strange conjunctions of spirit and flesh, of heaven and earth; in whom “thoughts that wander through eternity” are stopped by needs and cravings identical with those of “all cattle and creeping things”; in whom are arms that reach after the Infinite, with the stomach and the appetites of the behest; one minute lost in lofty meditation, the next yawning for bed, or responding with moist mouth to the odour of baked meats. Yet, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” and there eating and sleeping are never wholly of the earth earthy. The meal refines more or less toward the grace of a sacrament, and again and again into the slumber heaven opens. There is an ethereal way of getting your dinner, in which the soul both gives and receives; and some men are greater often in visions than others in their intensest and most active wakefulness. The apostle who prayed, slept after a godly sort, was capable of being Divinely touched and taught through his dreams. There is a latent heavenliness in the flesh of an eminent saint, and there are heavenly possibilities in the saint’s sleep. He is more susceptible at all times to communications and impressions from the Lord.
2. Some men can hardly afford to stand at ease and unoccupied without running the risk of immediate invasions from beneath. An habitual downward bent leaves them open in their dreams to hell. But to the pure and lofty heart, its loose, lazy intervals are frequently among its most growing and nourishing times, when that which it loves supremely, and is accustomed to cultivate, visits it without being sought, when its very quiescence becomes a clear mirror, in which new Divine messages form and flash. If only we are earnest, thoughtful, and nobly aspiring, we need not be afraid in the least to pause and play now and then, nor imagine that such occasional abandonment must be fruitless in relation to our higher aims. We are revealed by that which flows in upon us in empty, unemployed moments; and blessed are they to whom in these moments the best has first and facile entrance, whose vacancies angels rush to fill, and with whose earthiest elements heaven can freely mix and blend.
3. But no heavenly susceptibility, however large and fine, will exempt us from having to ask at times, What is it? Is it phantom or reality? Is it God or devil? St. Peter was left wondering whether the strange scenery amidst which he had been moving in the land of slumber was really the shrine of a Divine communication, or merely a coloured vapour exhaled from the sensation of hunger. And how often, in our waking moments, have we been visited with mental glimpses or impressions that we could not understand! “Why,” he asked, “have I seen this thing, which yields to my inquiry no fruit of admonition or instruction?” Yet such fruit it was designed to yield him, and would, ere long; not, however, by continued brooding over it, but in the course of events. Let him wait until summoned to come down to men who are even now on their way to the tanner’s house, and then all will grow clear. Well, is it not often thus, that life comes in time to explain the Divine reason, concerning which we have wondered, perhaps fretfully, why we were submitted to them, and have thought that they might have been spared us without loss or detriment? And yet long afterwards, maybe, we have discovered that they were not for nothing. In some later crisis of life we have found them contributing to excite and strengthen us for it. We have lived to find in our life the fruit of some of those experiences, the Divine message of which we have been unable to read, have lived to learn that they were needful for us and could not have been spared. We have felt as, in listening to the deputation from Cornelius, St. Peter felt with respect to his mysterious dream. Ah! this is why they occurred; this is what they were intended to fit us for! (S. A. Tipple.)
And he save heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending.--
The comprehensiveness of the gospel
The gospel is here compared to--
I. A great sheet. A small sheet would not suffice to convey the truth God was about to reveal--that all nations were to be gathered into His Church. Judaism was only a small sheet, just big enough to cover Palestine. But Christianity was a “great sheet”--a clear hint as to its cosmopolitan character. Christianity as let down from heaven is larger than as reproduced inhuman creeds; as revealed by God it is larger than as apprehended by man. The tendency of man is to narrow the love of God, to contract the Divine sheet till it becomes no bigger than a pocket handkerchief. But just as the creation is larger than science, so is the Church of God greater than any one particular Church. Just as God is greater than man, so is the Divine revelation more comprehensive than any creed formulated by human wisdom. “Our little systems have their day,” etc.
II. Let down from heaven. The idea of the comprehensiveness of the gospel has come down from God.
1. You will not find it in heathenism. The idea of universal fellowship based on universal equality never occurred to any philosopher. True, there was a dark, unconscious feeling after it. Plato’s republic was a strenuous groping after the Christian kingdom of God; but it falls far short of it, because it places the ground of unity in the intellect instead of in the spiritual nature. That is only a republic among philosophers; the labouring classes are reduced to a condition of hopeless servitude.
2. You will not find it in Judaism. A few prophetic intimations were given in the Old Testament that the Gentiles would pay homage to the Messiah; but how they were to reap the benefits of redemption was not known. Now, however, the mystery is made known, but the majority of the believers utterly failed to realise it, and sought to discredit it. Upon this truth hinged the great controversy of the apostolic age; and so novel was it, so contrary to the current of thought of the age, that it took the whole lifetime of the apostles to establish it. A great truth is always slow to be apprehended by the masses of men. Take, for instance, gravitation. At the time of Sir Isaac’s death no astronomer above forty years of age believed in it. Take again the principle of Free Trade; today England is the only country which thoroughly believes in it, and not all England. But these truths were not by any means of the same consequence to society as the important truth taught Peter.
III. Knit at the four corners. The gospel is to extend its frontiers and to exert its influence over the four quarters of the globe.
1. God began with a family. He calls Abraham and separates him to Himself. In Genesis, accordingly, we find family religion the first step in the recovery of the lost world. In Genesis God has a cause, though not a kingdom--just a few worshippers, but no visible organisation.
2. After the family comes the nation. Out of Abraham’s posterity God formed a nation for Himself. That is progress. It would not do to take any nation. It was necessary to have a people whose fundamental characteristic was religiousness; and it was equally necessary to train them, else they would constitute a kingdom of the devil. Judaism was not a very spiritual kingdom, but it was the best which could be established under the circumstances, and served as a nucleus for a more spiritual kingdom to come. But this kingdom could only be continued on two conditions: that it be small in extent, and that it be fenced off from the rest of the world. If it were wide in area, the sense of oneness in the subjects would have been weakened, if not destroyed, in the early stage of spiritual education. If it were not partitioned off, there would be such a rush of world life into it that the Divine element would soon be quenched. The laws of this kingdom, however, as of every new kingdom, point to defensive, not aggressive, measures, which is as much as it can do for centuries in presence of the huge world powers; and in order to defence it must be consolidated in one country and one nation.
3. But as the family merged in the nation, so the nation must merge in the world. The text evidently points out that another bold move forward is about to be made. Peter is directed to go and convert Cornelius, an uncircumcised heathen. His conversion created more excitement than any single conversion on record, not because one more soul was added, but because of the new principle it embodied, the new policy it served to inaugurate. Circumcision was here declared to be nothing, and uncircumcision nothing, but to many they were then everything. This shows a marvellous change in the policy of the kingdom. Henceforth it is to act on the aggressive. It is no longer to be confined to one people--it claims all nations. “God shall enlarge Japheth, and He shall dwell in the tents of Shem.” Shem means concentration, Japheth expansion. Therein we have summed up the characteristics of religion among the Asiatics and Europeans.
IV. Containing all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. Peter is here taught that the distinction between clean and unclean is abolished.
1. We trace here the same progress. First, the family is made clean. Through the fall the whole creation had become common and profane. Is it to remain so? Is God to be forever cheated out of the world His hands had made? No; He resolves to reclaim it. Not, however, all at once. God will make a beginning by separating one family. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are each separated, made clean unto God.
2. Will God stop there? No; the order of His operation is progress. The Israelites, like all other nations, were by nature unclean, lying under the curse. But by the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant they were made clean. But this nation is the “first fruits.” Not only man had become unclean, but the irrational creation. Sin struck the universe with leprosy to its very heart. The animal creation, therefore, needs to be made clean. The clean nation must have clean food. God accordingly cleanses certain species of animals. Behold then a small proportion of the rational and irrational creation made clean by the establishment of the kingdom of God. In Genesis all the world, with the exception of one family only, is unclean; but in Exodus, one nation, at least, and a certain proportion of animals, have been made clean. That is progress anyhow.
3. Is the rest of the world to remain under the dominion of sin? No; the kingdom of God under the New Testament undertakes the task of cleansing the whole universe. The difference once established between the Jews and other nations is annulled, not because the Jews are made unclean, but because the Gentiles are made clean. The whole world was lying under the curse, and therefore unclean; but Jesus Christ was made a curse for the world, and consequently lifted it from men and animals. Since His sacrifice the world in its totality is clean, not morally, but judicially. What Judaism did ceremonially for one nation, Christianity has done efficaciously for all nations. The whole world is now clean. All mankind now virtually belong to the kingdom of God, and it is the paramount duty of the Church to take possession of them in the name of the Redeemer and make them so in reality. “What God hath cleansed call not thou common.” “Clean”--this is the keyword of the kingdom of God. Beauty was the keyword of Greek civilisation; strength of the Roman; but the keyword of Christianity is “clean.”
V. After the vision came the interpretation.
1. Peter thought on the vision. This truth of revelation was to become a truth of reason. The Church is to continue its study of the Divine Word till all the truths of revelation become at last truths of reason. Revelation answers its purpose only as it becomes the legitimate property of reason. Take, e.g., the existence and unity of God. When this truth was revealed to Israel, no man in the native light of reason had a clear perception of it. But the reason has at last been educated up to it. So again with the moral law--the eternal difference between right and wrong. When this truth was revealed to Israel it was in advance of reason. But the reason has been gradually educated up to it. The Incarnation is still in advance of reason. But then is it never to enter reason? It is no more unbelievable to Christians than the unity of God to the Hebrews; and as the latter has passed from the region of mystery to that of reason, so I believe will do the former. Take again the truth made known in the text--the equality of Jews and Gentiles. At the time it was made it was far in advance of reason. Peter thought on it and believed it; but his whole history shows he had never been able to think right into it and through it. To the last it was to him more of a truth of faith than a truth of reason. But this truth is gradually working its way into the universal reason.
2. But Peter was not left to unravel the meaning of the vision--the clue was afforded him by the arrival of messengers from Cornelius. God always explains His supernatural revelations by natural events. Providence is the best commentary on the Bible. Just when God was stirring large thoughts in Peter respecting the universality of the gospel, He was also working in Cornelius to send a messenger to the apostle desiring a fuller knowledge of salvation at his hands. God often brings about these secret correspondences. Hardly is there an important discovery made in science but two or three inventors, ignorant of each other’s designs, claim it as their own. (J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)
Creeping things.--The presence of “creeping things” in the sheet is a voice--
I. Manifesting God.
1. The largeness of His mercy. This sheet was a great sheet, and it included “creeping” things. Satan aims at contracting our views of God; at making us think that He has no room for us, or that He has no room for others.
2. The sovereignty of God’s grace. He makes as much of the creeping things hidden away, despised by men, as of the four-footed beasts. He sent His messengers out into the highways and hedges to compel the poor to come in.
3. The minuteness of God’s arrangements. The lesser were not lost to sight in that great sheet; they were presented to the apostle’s eye in their proper place, as well as the four-footed beasts.
4. The depth of God’s condescension. Proud man would have gathered into that sheet only what was of apparent value; it would never have entered into his mind to think about the creeping things at all--to tame a wild beast would be something, but what credit or honour or profit could he get out of “creeping things!”
II. Directive to ourselves. And this--
1. When we are oppressed with a sense of our insignificance and meanness. Satan, for his own purpose, helps on this thought. He says, “I can understand God caring about so and so, he is worth something; but who knows or cares about you?” Then we are troubled about the little capacity we have for glorifying God, and Satan marshals before our minds all our weaknesses, our unfavourable position, our want of intellect or wealth. And how shall we meet all this? Only by falling back upon God Himself. We cannot explain His making any account for us, any more than we can for His including “creeping things” in that great sheet let down from heaven. Then, again, the child of God is often tempted to have heart sinkings about the future; but let him remember that God has His eye on every particle of the believer’s dust. It is recorded of Lady Maxwell that she was at one time much troubled by the curious temptation that she was so insignificant she would be liable to be passed over hereafter. But we may meet all such temptations as Monica, the mother of Augustine, met the surprise of her friends at Ostia, when they expressed their wonder that she did not fear to leave her body so far from her own country. “Nothing,” said she, “is far from God, and I do not fear that He should not know where to find me at the resurrection.” The small, as well as the great, are remembered in the grand distribution of rewards.
2. When we compare ourselves with those who seem to have some pretensions. The creeping thing seems ready to shrink into nothingness when placed side by side with the four-footed beast. Very often we review the character of such and such a believer, and we say, “Oh, if only I were like this man, I might feel some comfort.” But remember the great beasts had no cleanliness, except from the solitary fact of being in the sheet, and so the safety and acceptance of small and great alike are due to the goodness of the Lord.
3. In forming our estimate of others we shall not exalt the great ones nor despise the weak ones if we remember well what there was in this sheet that Peter saw.
4. We have also the comforting thought that, however humble, we have our place. We may be small, and of no reputation, but the Lord thinketh on us, has a place for us, and this should be enough. And as regards our affairs, it is true that they are mere straws in comparison with the great affairs of others; we have only to do with shillings where they have to do with thousands of pounds; we have only to do with aches and pains, where they have to do with life and death. But He who fashioned the creeping thing knows its needs, and He who fashioned us knows ours. (P. H. Power, M. A.)
Rise, Peter; kill, and eat … Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.
Peter’s blunder: a lesson to ourselves
“Not so, Lord,” is a very strange compound. “Not so Lord,” is an odd jumble of self-will and reverence. We are not without fault in the matter of incorrect speech. In our utterances there has been faith mixed with unbelief, love defaced with a want of submission, gratitude combined with distrust, humility flavoured with self-conceit, courage undermined with cowardice, fervour mingled with indifference. Note here--
I. That the old man remains in the christian man. Though crucified, it is long in dying, and struggles hard.
1. Peter was Peter still. I think that if I had read Peter’s life in the four evangelists, and somebody had newly shown me the present text, and asked, “Who said that?” I should have been sure that it was Peter. The best of men are but men at best. And Peter, after the Holy Ghost has fallen upon him, is, nevertheless, Peter; the accent of his words still bewrays him.
2. Peter here shows how readily he fell, not precisely into the same sin, but into the same kind of sin. This Peter who said, “Not so, Lord,” is the same man who rebuked his Master, and said, “That be far from Thee, Lord.” It is the same man who at supper time refused his Master. When the Lord was about to wash the disciples’ feet, Peter said, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” And this is he who flatly contradicted his Master, and said, “Though all men shall be offended because of Thee, yet will not I.” He did this in his earlier days, but after the Holy Ghost had come upon him, yet he still tripped in the same place where he used to fall. What were your faults before conversion? Guard against them now. You notice about Peter, then, this thing still remaining, that he blurts out what he feels. Be it for bad or good, prompt deliverance of his mind is still the characteristic of Peter. He was always blundering because he was in such a hurry. I may be addressing young folk here who are very impulsive, and speak all in a hurry things which they afterwards are sorry for. Be on your guard against it. It is a strength if it be rightly managed. Give me the man who in a good cause does not think twice, but acts upon the warm impulses of a ready mind; but that same characteristic, if not kept in proper order by the Spirit of God, may lead you into a world of mischief. You cannot call back the words which now cause you to bite your tongue with regret.
3. Yet Peter as Peter still has good points, for he owns all this. Luke could not have recorded this incident in the Acts of the Apostles unless Peter had personally told him, and when Peter was brought up before the other apostles for what he had done, he confessed, “But I said, ‘Not so, Lord’”--always outspoken, honest, and clear as the day. In this let us be at one with him.
II. The old man generally fights gospel principles. This “Not so, Lord,” applied to--
1. The abolition of the ceremonial law. Peter was to know that those laws, which forbade the eating of this and that, were now to be abrogated. All of us are apt to err here, for we incline to attach undue importance to matters which are proper and useful in their places, but which are by no means essential to salvation. Where Jesus has made no rule we are not to make any. None are unclean whom He has cleansed. Yet this lesson is not soon learned by sticklers for propriety.
2. The equality of men before the law and under the gospel. An evangelist attracts the poorest and worst. This ought to be great joy, but in certain cases it is not. Many in effect say, “‘Not so, Lord.’ I do not like sitting next to one who smells so vilely, or to a woman of loose character.” Never let us set up the tyranny of caste, and rebuild the middle wall of partition which our Saviour died to throw down. We sprang of a common parent, and for men there is but one Saviour.
3. The gospel principle of free and sovereign grace. You war against this yourself when you are conscious of having done wrong, and therefore doubt the grace of God; as if God wanted some good in us before He would bestow His grace upon us. A diseased man is fit to be healed, a poor man is fit for alms, a drowning man is fit to be rescued, a sinful man is fit to be forgiven.
III. The old nature shows itself in many ways. “Not so, Lord,” is the cry of our unregenerate part against--
1. The doctrine of the gospel. Some persons do not believe the gospel because they do not want to believe it. They studiously omit to read all such parts of Scripture as would enlighten their minds. It is mine to believe what the Bible teaches; it is not mine to object, and cry, “Not so, Lord.”
2. Duty. We can do anything except the special duty of the hour, and as to that one thing, we say, “Not so, Lord.” Yonder young woman knows that according to God’s “Word she must not be unequally yoked together with an unbeliever. Now, she was quite willing to be baptized, to give her money to the Lord, and, in fact, to do anything except that one act of self-denial. Yet I do not know what sorrow you will make for yourself if you really break that salutary rule. Take you the precept, and knowing that it is God’s mind concerning you, never dare even for a moment to hesitate. “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it.”
3. Processes of sanctification. We are anxious to bear fruit, but we do not care to be pruned; we are glad to be delivered from dross, but not by the fire.
4. The dispensation of the kingdom. We like not that God should bless men by a sect to which we do not belong; we are envious for our own Moses, lest the irregular Eldads and Medads should eclipse him.
5. Our sufferings. Whenever you are called to endure trial, do not complain of the particular form it takes. Perhaps it is great bodily pain, and you say, “I could bear anything better than this.” This is a mistake. God knows what is the best for His child. Do not cry, “Not so.” “Oh, I could bear sickness,” says another, “but I have been slandered!” Thus our will asserts its place, and we pine to be our own god and ruler. This must not be. A dear sister had quarrelled with the Lord for taking away her husband, and she would not go to any place of worship, she felt so angry about her loss. But her little child came to her one morning and said, “Mother, do you think Jonah was right when he said, ‘I do well to be angry, even unto death’?” She replied, “Oh, child, do not talk to me,” and put the little one away, but she felt the rebuke, and it brought her back to her God, and back to her Church again, humbly rejoicing in Him who had used this instrumentality to set her right with her Lord.
6. Our service. The Lord says, “Go into the Sunday school.” “Not so, Lord; I should like to preach,” says the young man, and thus he misses his life work. Who would employ servants who, when they are told to do this or go there, should say, “No, sir; I prefer another engagement”?
IV. It is a great pity when this kind of wilfulness stands in the way of usefulness. In some things Peter was--
1. Too conservative. He says, “Not so, Lord,” and some read it, “Never, Lord, never, Lord, for I have never”; that is, “I must never do a thing I have never done.” Many are of this mind; they cannot advance an inch. Many will only act as others act; they must keep in the fashion, even though they fall asleep in the doing of it. This kind of routine forbids enlarged usefulness, prevents our getting at out-of-the-way people, and puts a damper upon all zeal.
2. Propriety hinders very many; decorum is their death. Shake yourself up a little. If you are too precise may the Lord set you on fire, and consume your bonds of red tape!
3. Some are hindered by their great dignity. We have seen very great little people, and very little great people who have given themselves mighty airs; but we have never seen any good come of their greatness. God seldom sends His Elijahs bread and meat by peacocks. If you go into the houses of the poor very finely dressed, and you “condescend” to them, they will not want to see you any more. Let I grow very small, and let J grow very great. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The idolatry of self-will
He that will not submit himself to nor comply with the eternal and uncreated will, but, instead of it, endeavours to set up his own will, makes himself the most real idol in the world, and exalts himself against all that is called God, and ought to be worshipped. To worship a graven image, or to make cakes and burn incense to the queen of heaven, is not a worse idolatry than it is for a man to set up self-will, to devote himself to the serving of it, and to give up himself to a compliance with his own will, as contrary to the Divine and Eternal Will. (John Smith.)
Whitefield, on arriving at Edinburgh, found great commotion among the Presbyters, who would not hear him preach unless he declared himself on their side. “I was asked,” he says, “to preach only for them until I had further light. I inquired why only for them. ‘Because,’ said Ralph Erskine, ‘they were the Lord’s people.’ I then asked were there no other Lord’s people but themselves; and supposing all others were the devil’s people, they certainly had more need to be preached to; and therefore I was more determined to go into the highways and hedges, and that if the Pope himself would lend me his pulpit I would gladly proclaim the righteousness of Christ therein.” (J. R. Andrews.)
Common and unclean things
Ruskin, in his “Ethics of the Dust,” calls our attention to the silent forces of nature, which never appear so grand as when they transmute baser materials into higher forms. We see the pool of slime transformed by the action of light and heat, repose and quiet, so that the clay hardens into blue sapphire, the sand into burning opal, the soot into flashing diamond. And even Jesus never appears so glorious in loveliness as when we see Him transforming the very filth and slime of society into gems fit to burn and shine in an immortal crown. (A. T. Pierson.)
The beautiful in the common brought out by cleansing
In Florence there is a fresco by Giotto that for many ages was covered up by two thicknesses of whitewash. It is only within a very few years that the artist’s hand has come and removed that covering, and the fresco has come out clear and beautiful. Sometimes we see a person whom we feel inclined to despise, and think of little value, but God comes to him, cleanses him by removing his sin, and reveals a beauty in him that we little dreamt of.
The ground of the antipathy between Jew and Gentile
The distinction between clean and unclean meats was one of the insuperable barriers between the Gentile and the Jew--a barrier which prevented all intercourse between them because it rendered it impossible for them to meet at the same table or in social life. In the society of a Gentile a Jew was liable at any moment to those ceremonial defilements which involved all kinds of seclusion and inconvenience; and not only so, but it was mainly by partaking of unclean food that the Gentiles became themselves so unclean in the eyes of the Jews. It is hardly possible to put into words the intensity of horror and revolt with which the Jews regarded swine. They were to them the very ideal and quintessence of all that must be looked upon with an energetic concentration of disgust. He would not even mention a pig by name, but spoke of it as “the other thing.” When in the days of Hyrcanus a pig had been surreptitiously put into a box and drawn up the walls of Jerusalem, the Jews declared that a shudder of earthquake had run through 400 parasangs of the Holy Land. Yet this filthy and atrocious creature was the chief delicacy at Gentile banquets, and in one form or other one of the commonest articles of Gentile consumption. How could a Jew touch or speak to a man who might on that very day have partaken of the abomination? The cleansing of all articles of food involved immediately the acceptance of Jews and Gentiles on equal footing to equal privileges. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
What God hath cleansed, that call thou not common.--
The cleansing of all meats by Christ
Doubtless Peter remembered that remarkable parable of Jesus (Mark 7:14-19) of which he and his brother disciples had once asked the explanation. Jesus in few words, but with both of the emphatic formulae which He adopted to arrest special attention, had said, “There is nothing from without a man entering into him which can defile him.” What He had proceeded to say--that what truly defiles a man is that which comes out of him--was easy enough to understand, and was a truth of deep meaning, but so difficult had it been to grasp the first half of the clause that they had asked Him to explain a parable which seemed to be in direct contradiction to the Mosaic Law. Expressing His astonishment at their want of insight, He had shown them that what entered into a man from without did but become a part of his material organism, entering “not into the heart, but into the belly, and so passing into the draught.” “This He said”--as now for the first times perhaps, flashed with full conviction into the mind of Peter--“making all meats pure,” as he proceeded afterwards to develop those weighty truths about the inward character of all real pollution, and the genesis of all crime from evil thoughts, which convey so solemn a warning. To me it seems that it was the trance and vision of Joppa which first made Peter realise the true meaning of Christ in one of those few distinct utterances in which He had intimated the coming annulment of the Mosaic Law. It is doubtless due to the fact that Peter, as the informant of Mark in writing his Gospel, and the sole ultimate authority for this vision in the Acts, is the source of both narratives, that we owe the hitherto unnoticed circumstance that the two verbs “cleanse” and “profane”--both in a peculiarly pregnant sense--are the two most prominent words in the narrative of both events. (Archdeacon Farrar.)
The transition from the Old to the New
1. We have here one of the great hinges on which history turns. Peter’s vision opened up a new era; and here, too, as in every act of the human life drama, is made visible the hand of God. He stood by man in the dawn of his personal history, and spoke to Adam face to face; in the dawn of the patriarchal era, and spoke to Abraham as the Father of the family relationship; in the dawn of political life, and spoke to Moses the head of the nation as the God of nations; at last, at the dawn of the world’s consciousness of its final vocation, God made the fact of the God-manhood the spring from which eternal progress should proceed.
2. The questions raised by the narrative are not met by the consideration of Peter’s narrowness, nor of the liberal teachings of the vision. The apostle’s views were narrow as the discipline of the school is narrow to the student, and that of the student to the man; but they were God’s handiwork, and Peter was only pleading God’s Word against another which seemed to be opposed to it. You will ever find some of the truest lovers of liberty among the partisans of ancient forms, while the man who throws up his cap and cries liberty is often the veriest tyrant at heart. Nathaniel was resisting the idea that good could come outer Nazareth when Jesus said, “Behold an Israelite indeed,” etc. Note--
I. The exclusions of the Mosaic law.
1. Here was the school in which Peter learned his prejudice (Leviticus 11:2-20; Deuteronomy 14:3-21). It is easy to speak of his proud and arrogant Judaism (Ezekiel 4:14 is a parallel case). But as we live and learn we get more distrustful of the so-called spirit of progress which cares not what it destroys, so that it may reach its Utopian goal. An intellect quick to seize novelties is mostly found in conjunction with a vain and shallow moral nature, and is sure to disappoint. The moral qualities are those which tell, and among the deepest of these is reverence; and one gets to bear with the slow movement of a reverent spirit for the sake of the great prizes it wins for mankind. The men who work most solidly at the construction of the new are men who are most deeply rooted in the old. You cannot build from balloons, but must have firm foundations.
2. Consider the philosophy of the Mosaic system. Man is a being of a double nature. An animal cannot go far wrong about food; he has an instinct which tells him what is good and what bad. But man is far more richly furnished with appetites, and with objects which gratify them. Why? Because God intended to teach him that appetite is not a sufficient guide, and that he must bring judgment into play. This remark applies far more widely than to matters of eating and drinking; our habits, associates, work, are to be by the elections of a will guided and governed by a reason which acquaints itself with the mind of the Creator. When man was in his first estate this was a simple “of course.” Hence the liberty of Adam (Genesis 2:15-17) and of Noah (Genesis 9:1-3). But man again corrupted his way, and the wanton indulgence of appetite became the great bane and destroyer of mankind. So God took the Jewish people, and instructed them in the art of discernment of moral choice. His way with their food is but a specimen of His way in all the education of their souls. And men had to ask about everything--“Is it lawful?” The aim of the discipline being that they should ask, “Is it good?” and make their election accordingly. Pork is a harmless thing to us; eaten freely in the East, leprosy results. But the real question is, Why does not the law put the prohibition on the simple ground--it is not for your good? This leads me to another principle.
3. In the early stages of human culture nothing is strong enough to curb man’s desires and to stimulate the exercise of discernment but religion. There is hardly one thing precious to man’s secular life which has not been won for him by the force which religion has brought to bear on his natural powers. The knowledge of letters was kept alive solely by the desire of man to read and understand the Word of God and religious books. The desire to calculate rightly church festivals began all the investigations and triumphs of modern astronomy. Monks established the truce of God, and only by the strong hand o! religion could the horrors of war be mitigated. The right of our dead to undisturbed repose was secured by the cross of the Church under whose shadow the ashes of our ancestors lay. And God began from the beginning with the Jews, and made the simplest matters of right or prudence matters of religion from the very first. They were to eat, and fulfil every function of life “because the Lord their God” would have it so.
II. The progress of society has tended to release men from these bonds, and to bring all that concerns man’s welfare under the influence of the special faculties which have charge of the separate departments of life.
1. Of old men wrote books for the glory of God; and the religious guardians of men judged whether they fulfilled that purpose and might be safely read. Now men write books simply to tell what they know, and it is left to the taste of society to read them or not. Of old men abstained from meats because they were an abomination to God; now He leaves them free to judge and to choose that which they find to be for their good. Peter might still practise an abstinence which a Roman might regard as idle, but Peter would not be suffered to let that stand in the way of the conversion of the world. The child full-grown was to judge for himself where his legal tutor had hitherto judged for him. Paul fully understood this (Romans 14:1-9). And so it is with all things. A man may eat in England not what he likes, but what he finds to be for his good. So with fast and feast days services, places, etc.
2. But is this use of the natural faculties a less sacred religious duty than was of old obedience to a religious law? Certainly not. The secular duty becomes sacred to the spirit, and the whole life is brought under the broad religious obligation of a freeborn son to a gracious God. “Shall we sin because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.” The progress of Christianity tends to place all man’s acts under the rule of his natural faculties given to him for this very end, and to make the right use of these faculties the most sacred duty of his life before God. First law, then liberty, in order to the discovery of the Diviner law, “the perfect law of liberty,” wherein to continue is to be blessed. God has made all life sacred. He gives up some, to claim the whole; but to claim it, not peremptorily as a Master, but lovingly as a Father, who seeks not your works, but yourself.
3. God hath cleansed all things to the godly, but to the ungodly nothing is clean. There is nothing common or unclean but a common and unclean soul and its life. That is essential uncleanness, and only one Fountain can cleanse it, only one Spirit consecrate it. (J. Baldwin Brown, B. A.)
Now while Peter doubted … the men which were sent from Cornelius … stood before the gate.--
The messengers of the centurion at Peter’s door
How proud heathenism knocks humbly at the gates of Christ’s kingdom.
I. The great gulf which had to be overpassed.
1. Roman pride.
2. Jewish prejudice.
II. The heavenly power which paved the way.
1. With the centurion, the drawing of the Father to the Son.
2. With the apostle, the emancipating Spirit of Truth, and the constraining love of Christ.
III. The propitious welcome.
1. On the part of the messenger’s humble request.
2. On the part of Peter’s friendly reception. (K. Gerok.)
Doubt: its cause and cure
Peter was a type of the better class of sincere, humble, open-minded doubters. There is no affinity between his case and that of the inveterate, conceited, and propagandist sceptic who airs his infidelities as symptomatic of genius, and bids thereby for leadership in modern thought. But there is considerable resemblance between the apostle and a large class who deserve from us what he received from God--sympathy and guidance.
I. The cause of doubt.
1. Prejudice arising from early education. Peter only held what he had been taught upon parental, ministerial, and even Divine authority. Much of modern doubt is a mere matter of prejudice. Ideas received as truths from others clash with what Christians believe to be Divine truths, and the former are preferred.
2. Habit. The ingrained custom of eating only “clean” meat, and conversing only with “clean” men, incapacitated Peter to conceive of the abandonment of ceremonial distinctions. And so there is a sceptical habit of thought which grows with indulgence, and which almost without any volition on the part of the doubter bars the entrance of Christian truth.
3. Narrow views of God’s dispensations and purposes. What God meant for a time only, Peter held He meant forever. So sometimes the sceptic fastens on some temporary act or partial principle of the Divine administration as types of the whole. He raises objections, e.g., against suffering, overlooking its disciplinary character, or against the immoralities of some of God’s agents, forgetting that God makes the wrath of men to praise Him.
4. Mental unrest. The vision was the cause of Peter’s doubts. His mind was in a state of chaos, as the foundations of all that he held dear and certain seemed to be undermined. All the convictions instilled by training, ingrained by habit, and deepened by narrow but intense thought, suddenly began to give way--a state of mind familiar to sincere doubters. The truth has not dawned, but all that justifies scepticism as a defensible intellectual mood has disappeared.
II. Its cure.
1. The illumination of the Spirit of God. Reason will not resolve doubt, hence the futility of mere controversy. Truth must be apprehended by the heart, and only He who made it, and knows what it needs, can reach that. Pray, and sooner or later the Comforter will guide you into all truth.
2. Promptitude and activity in duty. “Arise and get down.” Brooding over it will only intensify that morbidity of mind which is its most fruitful soil. Working will at least find an outlet for the imprisoned sentiments which knock so painfully at the interior walls of the soul. And get about some practical employment at once. Delays are weakening.
3. Obedience to Divine impulses. These are seldom still in the seeker after truth. What God’s Spirit did to Peter miraculously He does for us naturally by impressions, opportunities, strange feelings leading or driving us now here and now there. But as Peter’s going with the men led to the dissolving of his doubts, so if any man will do God’s will he shall know of the doctrine.
4. The cure is often effected by unexpected incidents, and in unlikely ways; but the man who prays, works, and is obedient to the light he has, will find these lying across life’s ordinary path. (J. W. Burn.)
While Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said … Arise.--
Devotion and action
The Spirit calls the apostle from prayer and meditation to action. The contemplative life is but the preparation for the active, as the active is strengthened by solitude and contemplation. The man of God needs both, and either without the other is a maimed and imperfect life. (Dionysius of Carthage.)
A Divine call to preach
I was present at the Rev. Peter Mackenzie’s oral examination. At the close the president said, “All may retire except Mr. Mackenzie.” When by himself he was asked, amongst other questions, “What led you to preach?” He answered, “After my conversion I was asked to address the Sunday School, and did so. Then two local preachers asked me to go with them to try and preach. I hesitated, and they said they would call for me. While praying upstairs that God would direct me, I heard them below asking for me. I got up from my knees, still undecided, and opened my Bible on these words: ‘While Peter thought upon the vision, the Spirit said unto him, Behold, three men seek thee. Arise, therefore, and get thee down, and go with them, nothing doubting, for I have sent them.’” This answer produced not only surprise, but something like a scene. Other questions followed, which he answered with such beautiful simplicity and naturalness that several members of the committee were moved to tears. (T. McCullagh.)
Ministry of men
In photography it is the sun that makes the portrait. There is no drawing of the outline by a human hand, and no shading of the figure according to rules of the painter’s art. The person stands up in the light, and the light lays his image on the glass. Yet in this work there is room for the ministry of man. Without the ministry of man the work could not in any case be done. A human hand prepares the plate for securing the picture, and adjusts the instrument for throwing the light at the proper moment on the prepared surface. Although in the real work of making the picture man has no hand at all, his place is important and necessary. A similar place under the ministry of the Spirit is given to the ministry of men. God does not send angels to make the gospel known. We learn it from men of flesh and blood like ourselves. Cornelius and his house will be saved, but Peter must go from Joppa to Caesarea and open up to them the way of salvation.
The humility of Cornelius
The Romans were quite as proud as the Jews, and the condescension of a man in the station of Cornelius, in sending to a tanner’s house for light from an obscure person of the common sort seems incredible in the ordinary course of Oriental thought and custom. To send to such a one for religious instruction is altogether incredible. No one among us, even in the face of cruel religionist riots, can conceive of the wall that exists between religious parties in the East, or the way that religious sects wield power and maintain their adherents. The truth is, that this lesson, with the passages that precede it, heralds one of the greatest Oriental revolutions that the world has ever seen, and one which gives the deepest view of the prophecy of Isaiah 52:13-15. (Prof. I. H. Hall.)
Get thee down, and go with them, doubting nothing.--
How may we know our work
“Doubting nothing”--that is the secret of liberty, efficiency, and success. You see it in the inventor who is certain of the combination of instruments by which he is to accomplish a result of value to mankind; in the teacher who knows that he has a truth to communicate which it is of importance to men to apprehend; in the soldier who knows, because he knows the commander, that the order which has been given is wise, practicable, needful; in the sailor who trusts his clock and his compass, and goes on his course, after his observation, doubting nothing, knowing where he is exactly. Everywhere this confidence is the condition of enthusiasm and of success, and in Christian enterprises it is a confidence not merely in the usefulness of the work, but in the Divine authority, care, affection, impulse, which attend us in our endeavours to perform it. It was precisely this that Peter felt. Except for the vision out of which this confidence was flashed, except for the voice of the Spirit which interpreted the vision, he would hardly have been ready to go. But, in consequence of this, he recognised the call which was made upon him by the centurion’s servants. They were not bearing merely a message from the Roman officer, but from the Author of the world and the King of the Church. Peter doubted afterward, in the characteristic reaction of his impetuous spirit, whether the Jew could receive a Gentile and eat with him. But at this point he went, doubting nothing, and made the world free to enter into the Church of Christ. There come often questions of duty to individual Christians or to Churches who wish that they could have instruction like that which was given to the apostle. The work to which they appear to be called by God is difficult and dangerous and costly. There are arguments for it and against it; and so they confuse themselves in perplexities, balancing the reasons for and the reasons against, until, perhaps, the opportunity has passed. Now we do not see visions or hear voices, but there are certain indications, when a work is appointed for us, which are as intelligible and impressive.
I. When the work is part of the plan God would have accomplished. When it concerns His glory properly it is then connected with His plan. Not that Christian duty is restricted to efforts for the religious instruction and conversion of men; there are multitudes of interests which are connected with this. Enterprises that seek the intellectual culture of mankind, the secular and social interests of the community; the public welfare in the matter of health, order, just and liberal government; all these are as obligatory upon the Christian as a duty as that which immediately concerns the instruction of men in religious truth. Every stone in the wall has its office to accomplish. A man who is building a cathedral cannot say, “I wilt make it all of statues, or spire.” And, therefore, Christian duty is never narrow. When any work, then, contributes to the plan of God and meets us directly in our path, we may be persuaded that it is a part of the work which God assigns to us.
II. When it is possible to be realised yet with effort and self- denial. We are not responsible for what we cannot accomplish; e.g., for preaching in tongues we do not know, for building churches and floating them over the seas to China and Japan. God’s errand is always a practicable errand, and in proportion to the effort and self-denial required, His authorship of the message concerning the work becomes more evident to the thoughtful Christian mind. We usually judge exactly the opposite. We say, “That is a good work, and I can do it in a minute; therefore that is God’s errand for me. It is a good work, and I can help it by a little gift which I never shall miss. That is evidently God’s plan.” No; God’s plan exactly reverses that. He makes duty the more obligatory the more difficult it is, for the development of Christian energy, generosity, patience. God does not need our help. Why, then, does He ask for it? Because thus He develops us. He applies not tests merely, but stimulants to whatever is best in us. The man who has given himself to his country loves it better, the man who has fought for his friend honours him more, the man who has laboured for his community values more highly the interests he has sought to conserve.
III. When the call for it comes unexpectedly and by no prearrangement of ours. We recognise God’s intervention in our plans, in part, by the suddenness with which the event occurred contrary to expectation, as when a friend is restored from sickness when all our hope had faded; as when a path is suddenly opened to prosperity and usefulness, where everything seemed hedged up and we could not contrive any way by which to reach the result. When the Bible Society was formed no man was expecting it. A Welsh missionary had distributed some thousand copies of the Welsh Scriptures, and went to London to get more and could not. He said to one and another, “Why cannot we have a society to print the Bible in Welsh?” They came together to see if it could be done, and one man, whose name had hardly ever been heard, rose and said: “Yes; but if for Wales, why not for all the world?” Sudden as a flash it came out of the clear sky, and instant was the response. Out of that came the Bible Society of England, of America, of the world. When a man contemplates God’s glory in the sanctification of men, proposes to us a work possible for us with effort and self-denial, comes to us without our prevision or prearrangement, it is God’s work.
IV. When the impression is burned in upon the mind, day after day, week after week, an ever-deepening sense of duty concerning that work--that is God’s voice to us. This silent influence of the Spirit was what wrought for us the Bible. This silent influence of the Spirit is the privilege of every Christian now. When that remains, deepening continually in you, becoming clearer and stronger, we must trust it as the discovery of God’s mind to us concerning our duty. No man who has once learned to trust it will ever trust anything else in preference to it. In the great crisis of life that is always the way. Hold the mind prayerfully in conference with God, unresistingly under the impression of His Spirit. When it points in a certain direction, then follow it into darkness or day; wheresoever that leads, go. We are certain of success; go, nothing doubting. When all those signs combine, then Peter may keep his vision and the voice of Zion which spoke in the air around him. I hear a voice within, and whosoever follows that voice follows God and follows Him into His glory. (Christian Age.)
Peter’s obedience to an unexpected intimation
Mr. Joseph C. Palmer, in the early days of California, was a member of a bank which did an immense business. Once a depositor called to draw £5,600 from the bank. Mr. Palmer’s consent was necessary, but he had been called away to attend some duty a mile or more from the bank. Thither the depositor hastened and made known his wants and the necessity of having them attended to at once. Mr. Palmer could find neither pen, pencil, ink, nor paper. But without a moment’s hesitation he picked up a shingle, borrowed a piece of red chalk, and with it wrote a cheque on the shingle in large and distinct letters for £5,600. This was promptly honoured when presented. It is probably the only instance on record of such a cheque being drawn and honoured; but in this case the paying clerk accepted the instructions of his principal, though conveyed in an unusual manner, without hesitation. Would that Christian men were as ready to obey the intimations of God’s will, even if they are revealed in unlooked for ways and are opposed to preconceived notions. The apostle Peter showed this readiness on one memorable occasion (chap. 10:10-23). (Christian Herald.)
And the morrow after they entered into Caesarea.
And Cornelius waited for them.
Model pastoral visitation
I. The preparation for it.
1. With the household, an earnest desire for salvation.
2. With the minister, a holy impulse honest exhibition of the state of their heart.
II. On the part of the pastor, a powerful testimony of Christ and His salvation.
III. The fruit thereof.
1. For the hearers; strengthening and vivification by the Holy Ghost.
2. For the minister; joy in the Lord over rescued souls and the increase of His kingdom. (K. Gerok.)
Peter and Cornelius
The incident before us teaches--
I. That christianity can eradicate the most inveterate habits. Until this hour Peter had not understood the world-conquering mission of Christianity, so that when the messengers of Cornelius met him he was the very embodiment of ceremonial sanctity. He must now feel the expansive power of Christianity--and run to the moral rescue of a branded Gentile! In achieving this eradication of habit, no compulsory agency is employed. Conviction is produced by illumination. How was it in the case of Peter? There was--
1. Visible revelation--the descending vessel was patent to his vision.
2. Oral communications. “What God hath cleansed that call not thou common.”
3. Concurrent personal evidence--“while Peter doubted himself, the men which were sent from Cornelius” stood at his door.
4. Divine instigation--“Get thee down, and go with them.”
5. In all this, however, there was nothing beyond moral suasion. Peter’s conviction was won, hence he avers, “God hath showed me.” Is aught so mighty as religious conviction? Has it not shaken thrones, convulsed dynasties, and made the history of humanity glorious? It is by the force of conviction that Christianity is to eradicate moral evil.
II. That the propagation of christianity has been devolved on human instrumentality (Acts 10:5-6). The angel might have been delegated and thus obviated the necessity of Peter’s ministry. But there are three all-sufficient reasons for the employment of human agency--
1. Man can practically attest the advantages of Christianity. He testifies to what he has experimentally realised. It is not a “thing of beauty” to his outward eye, but a reality and a power in his soul.
2. Man can sympathise with the peculiar difficulties which beset the human mind. The Christian has passed through the purifying process. Hence, having “passed from darkness to light” himself, he may guide others into the mysterious way. When he meets the doubter, the anxious inquirer, the tempted, he can sympathise with each phase of human experience, and thus is qualified to propagate the gospel.
3. Man can expose the delusiveness of sin. He has experienced its hollow and heartless treachery. This gives him power in reasoning with the Felixes of society. When they recount their pleasures, he can testify of their bitterness. These qualifications were combined in a superlative degree in Peter. Could not he attest the advantages of Christianity?
III. The true method of expounding christianity. Mark the directness of this sermon! Wherever the preacher travels he never loses sight of Christ. If he reverts to the “children of Israel,” he connects them with Jesus; if he traverses the Holy Land it is to track the footprints of the Saviour; if he refers to the Great White Throne of time’s final day, it is to point to the Redeemer Judge.
1. There are lessons for preachers here. The world is to be saved by the preaching of “Christ crucified.”
2. There are lessons for listeners here. For what purpose do ye assemble? Cornelius summoned the apostle “to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” Come for mental gratification and your hope may be turned to confusion--come to commune with the condescending Deity and answers of peace will refresh your soul!
3. Peter emphatically preached the gospel. His address was not an essay upon the gospel nor a dissertation upon any of its doctrines--it was a bold and powerful proclamation of “remission of sins” through faith in Christ. In modern days such a sermon might be termed commonplace--scholars might describe it as being fit for unlearned plebeians, and critics might charge it with want of finish: notwithstanding this, however, can we imagine anything more exquisitely adapted to the necessities of Cornelius and his fellow auditors? Adaptation, in fact, is the true secret of power. Paul could reason, Apollos could declaim, and Peter could present the gospel with condensation and comprehensiveness unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries. So, in the modern Church, every man must work in his own order; each, however, striving to exalt the Cross as being at once a pledge of infinite love and the medium of human salvation.
IV. The connection between human agency and Divine power (verse 44). This fact shows us--
1. That human agency is not self-sufficient as to spiritual results. It is not in man to raise the Lazaruses of society from their moral death. They may “roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre,” but God alone can relax the tyrant’s grasp.
2. That, apart from the delivered Word, there must be distinct Divine influence. The word had been spoken, and in addition to the oral message there was a distinct effusion of the Holy Ghost. While, therefore, we “search the Scriptures,” and give ear to the human ministry, we must implore the presence and benediction of the Eternal Spirit. Conclusion: Lingering near this house in Caesarea, one may overhear lessons vitally affecting our personal peace and destiny as well as witness the triumph of evangelical truth.
1. That spiritual perfection is an impossibility apart from Christ. Cornelius was an evidently religious man, yet he lacked the true light; something more was needed to purify and perfect his character.
2. That man’s worth is to be estimated by his moral condition. “In every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness.” The time will come when every man shall be estimated according to his character.
3. The transcendent honour connected with Christian usefulness. Was ever man crowned with higher honour than that of being the instrument of leading sinners to a knowledge of the true Saviour? (J. Parker, D. D.)
Peter and Cornelius
1. Surely this is put on record as a pattern of the Lord’s chosen way of doing His work, by making each one who receives His grace a centre for making his own immediate surroundings bright therewith. Cornelius “called together his kinsmen and near friends.”
2. When each agent in the Lord’s service obediently fulfils his own task “without gainsaying or tarrying,” all the manifold parts fit together in a wondrous completeness of success. It is one portion of a perfect design which the Master accomplishes when He works in you to serve Him. Another portion of the same design He is preparing elsewhere. Obedient faith brings the portions together.
3. When Peter received the Lord’s Word about “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” he little thought that it would be given to him to throw open the gates of the kingdom to the Gentile world. Glad surprises of result are given also to the humblest and weakest disciple, who simply takes each step of service, waiting on Jesus with dutiful love.
4. In the few full words of Peter here, we are made to feel how all the gathered riches of the old covenant are completed and freely given to all in Christ, so that “whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” This “the law could not do.” (G. S. Rowe.)
A man that is a Jew.
I can conceive of no object more profoundly interesting than this--“a man that is a Jew!” All that is venerable in antiquity, sacred in religion, rich in story, sublime in poetry, cleaves to this extraordinary race. But for such a man infidelity would have lost one of the most unanswerable proofs of her falsehood and her folly.
I. His common claims as a man. A recent pope was passing through Rome; a Jew, fallen in a fit, lay prostrate on the pavement; the people who saw him, like the priest and the Levite, passed by on the other side; but the sovereign pontiff, alighting from his carriage, ran to his help. “He is a Jew!” they cried, as if in horror of a contact so contaminating. “He is a man!” cried the pontiff; and, like the good Samaritan, he hastened to his relief, saw him safely conducted to his home, and sent his own physician to attend him.
1. He is a man as well as a Jew, although he is a Jew, and all the claims that humanity can present to the sympathy of the species belong to him. He, too, may make the appeal, so long urged in vain by the enslaved African, “Am I not a man and a brother?” You owe to him the performance of a brother’s part; and if you fail to render it the voice of your brother’s blood will cry against you.
2. He Is a man, the offspring of the same parent, the workmanship of the same Creator, as fearfully and wonderfully made as you are, the same life blood flows in his veins, the same heart throbs in his breast, and to all the ills to which flesh is heir, he is subject as well as you.
3. That man that is a Jew has a soul, precious as yours. God’s breath inspired it; His Spirit endowed it; and He who has emphatically said, “All souls are Mine,” claims it as His own. Think of the faculties with which it is endowed, its vast capacity of happiness or misery, the perilous circumstances in which it is placed under the curse and condemning sentence of God’s violated law, and the dread eternity it is destined to inherit if it pass into it unforgiven.
4. And was not the same precious blood shed for its redemption? On what other ground than this can you seek with any degree of propriety, or with any hope of success, the salvation of the Jews? And if it be so precious, what an argument does that consideration furnish for our best efforts to promote the salvation of the soul for whose redemption even that was not esteemed a price too great.
II. The claims peculiar to him as a Jew. He belongs to a race--
1. Venerable in antiquity. Who can boast of a heraldry or of a history like theirs? A heraldry whose emblazonment is from heaven, and a history whose records are written by inspired pens. The origin of other nations is veiled in obscurity and so blended with fable that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. But here is a people, all whose story is drawn out in lines of accuracy and in characters of truth. And is it not an affecting spectacle to behold a people, thus hoary with the accumulation of ages, treated with contumely, and left to perish?
2. Which once enjoyed the special tokens of the Divine favour. Now, indeed, they are trodden under foot of the Gentiles. But they were a great nation once. They, and they alone, could boast a pure theocracy, and laws given from heaven. Are a people, then, once thus signally owned and honoured by God, to be regarded with indifference or contempt? A people too, whose abandonment by God is not final, and whose restoration to His favour shall assuredly come. I am not sure that the tardy progress of the Christian cause may not be, in some measure, attributed to the unconcern which Christians have manifested towards Jews.
3. To which we are laid under the deepest obligation. There is nothing great or good that we possess but we are indebted for it to the Jews. The best of books, the best of gifts, we owe to them--the sacred volume and the Saviour of the world. Who is the most ancient and the most authentic of all historians--but a Jew? What poets can compare with theirs? Beloved they must be, for the fathers’ sake if not for their own; and though we may well despair of ever paying the debt due to them, still, by our efforts for their welfare, we will testify that we are not altogether unconscious of or unwilling to acknowledge it. And think how long this debt has been contracting, while scarcely a fraction of the interest has been paid. Societies there are expending hundreds of thousands on the distant heathen, but how few there are interested in the restoration of the lost sheep of the house of Israel!
4. To whose conversion prodigious advantage must accrue. If the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles, how much more their fulness? The Jews, in the event of their conversion, will become the most zealous and successful missionaries; while the Church herself, aroused by this event to a life and energy and unanimity unknown to former times, will take the field against the common foe in numbers compared with which all present figures will appear contemptible. Who can go forth and announce the faithful saying, “worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” and add, with the same emphasis as the Jew, “of whom I am chief”?
5. For whose salvation there has never been a period more favourable than the present. Already there seems to be a shaking amongst the bones in the valley of vision. The Jews begin to be weary of the long delay that attends the coming of their vainly expected Messiah. They have their misgivings as to the correctness of their views. They feel as though the system to which they have so tenaciously clung had waxen old and was ready to vanish away. Hope deferred begins to make the heart sick. They long for some better teaching than their Rabbins give, and for some more satisfying and sustaining influences than their Talmuds and their Targums yield. In this state of things their enlightened and intelligent men are more disposed to converse and argue upon the subject of the Messiahship of Christ in former times. And most assuredly when infidelity, under the guise of rational Christianity, is overspreading the continent, we shall do well to seek the conversion of the Jews. Infidelity can meet no antagonist more formidable than a learned, intelligent, and converted Jew. (T. Raffles, D. D.)
God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.--
A beautiful faith in the sparks of divinity in every human soul
I. Its good ground.
1. By creation.
(1) After the image of God.
(2) All from one pair.
2. By redemption.
(1) God will have all men to be saved.
(2) Christ sends His apostles to all nations.
3. By experience.
(1) In the heathen world.
(2) In the pastoral oversight of criminals.
II. Its beneficial influence.
1. For the Christian contemplation of the world and conceptions of history in general.
2. For Christian intercourse in daily life.
3. For the Christian ministry. (K. Gerok.)
The value of common things
A rich nobleman was once showing a friend a great collection of precious stones whose value was almost beyond counting. There were diamonds, and pearls, and rubies, and gems from almost every country, and had been gathered by their possessor at the greatest labour and expense. “And yet,” he remarked, “they yield me no income.” His friend replied that he had two stones which had only cost him five pounds each, but which yielded him a very considerable income, and he led him down to the mill and pointed to two toiling grey millstones. (W. Baxendale.)
Therefore came I unto yon without gainsaying.
Pastor and people
I. Concerning the true minister, I affirm that--
1. He is a special creation of Divine grace. The mantle of the prophet is not personal property; God is its owner, and He Himself must determine who shall be invested with it.
(1) The processes through which men reach the pulpit are diverse; but if true, each has been guided by the Divine eye. Some require years of mental preparation; others are summoned at once from obscurity. What then? Shall each question the Divinity of the other’s mission? God forbid! “There are diversities of operation, but the same Spirit.” He who spoke the universe into being can suddenly qualify men to bear the standard of the Cross. He also who has established the processes of creation may gradually train men. We must therefore test the Divinity of each man’s mission more by the results secured than by the discipline undergone. Every true minister is a special creation of Divine grace, just as every planet is a special creation of Divine power. He does not enter upon the publication of the gospel as a profession, but us a vocation. “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” You may as well attempt to arrest the whirlwind, or roll back the planets, as to silence the God-created minister. Kings and councils have attempted the task; but above the fury and clamour of hell this voice has sounded, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” Aye! that is one secret of the true minister’s power--he has “seen and heard” his Divine Master.
(2) The Divinity of this mission is in no wise affected by the variety of manner which may be adopted by individual ministers. Each man has his own style of working, and is never so effective as when he is natural. The whirlwind has a mission, and so has the zephyr; the summer sun and the wintry blast are alike useful; and so in relation to the spiritual ministry one man speaks in tones of thunder, and lays his grasp upon the pillars of the temple of sin. Another speaks in tenderness, and stretches forth a helping hand to those that “have no might.” One man is peculiarly qualified to make havoc among the ranks of infidelity; another is constructive, and builds up the Church in its most holy faith. In the Christian ministry you find the accomplished scholar, the eagle-eyed critic, the eloquent orator. But you must not expect in any one man a summary of qualifications; take each in his own sphere, and be thankful for what he is, rather than regretful for what he is not. Do you depreciate the sun because without fragrance? the rose because without light?
2. He seeks the highest spiritual culture of his auditors.
(1) The sanctuary is not an academy in which the sciences are courted, or in which learned predictions are to be delivered. Men are less anxious to understand a technical theology than to be brought into contact with the life-giving religion of Jesus. After the anxieties of life, after fellowship with men destitute of Divine sympathy, your spirits require something more than scholastic criticisms.
(2) There will be great diversity in the character of my hearers. I shall not address all in the same strain, nor always luxuriate amid the green pastures of doctrine, assurance, and promise. I shall erect the standard of eternal rectitude, and give men to feel their true moral stature. I shall tear the mask from the hypocrite, and lay hold on the prodigal and try to woo him to repentance.
(3) The power of the Church consists in its piety. There is force in genius; but, contrasted with the strength of piety, it is weakness. There is power in money; but the pauper whose heart glows with love to the Saviour is a mightier power than the millionaire. Holiness is power; with it we are valorous as giants--without it we are “reeds shaken with the wind.” Holiness is peace. The peace which exists apart from holiness is a treacherous lull. The mischief maker can secure no sympathy in a holy Church; every ear is closed to his slander, and every tongue ready to rebuke his impiety.
II. Concerning those who wait upon the ministry.
1. The pastor has a right to expect--
(1) Their punctual and regular attendance. This is necessary to enjoyment. The devotional part of the service is of the highest importance. And even, taking the lowest ground, there is something opposed to public decency and rectitude in late attendance.
(2) The exercise of a charitable judgment. While the enemy rages, let the friends unite! If you prove faithful, I shall calmly survey any external storm!
(3) An abiding interest in their prayers. Without prayer we shall perish. Prayer gives strength, elevation, self-oblivion.
(4) Their zealous cooperation. A minister feels himself strong just in proportion as he possesses the sympathy of his people.
2. The people must not expect--
(1) Uniformity in the mode of address. Ministers are but men. Their physical functions may be deranged, their social peace may be invaded, their souls may be distracted, and all such disturbances will produce an influence on their ministry. We must, therefore, be discriminating and sympathetic in relation to pulpit services, and must at all times endeavour to secure in worship what is lacking in meditation.
(2) A system of theology in every sermon. Some auditors are unreasonable enough to expect a preacher, in every discourse, to commence at the creation and end at the harps of heaven, paying special attention to intervening circumstances. My object will be to analyse each text, and to develop the meaning peculiar to it. I hold most tenaciously the great doctrines of Scripture; but it would be impossible to discuss these in connection with every Scriptural statement. At the same time it will be my aspiration ever to exalt Jesus as man’s only and all-sufficient Saviour!
(3) Periodical visitation. Much time will be required to prepare for the pulpit, and the calls of the sick, the dying, and the penitent shall secure my fullest attention. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The design of the Christian ministry
Let us consider the reasons under which a people ought to act when they seek the aid of ministers.
I. Personal salvation. The end of the ministry is the salvation of men--not the performance of ceremonies, nor the pronouncing of discourses. The forms and shadows of the Levitical priesthood have passed away; and disputation and laboured oratory have their places in the schools. Could we speak with the tongues of men and angels, or open to you mysteries, yet eloquence and learning would not be a reason why you should have sent for us. What is the harmony of periods, if all is to end in words? What are the researches of the study, if all is to terminate in the increase of your knowledge? The question with us is, how we may turn any talents with which God has endowed us to the account of your salvation.
II. Instruction in the truth. Salvation and truth are inseparably connected. Cornelius sent for Peter, that he might “hear words of him.” Words of Jewish tradition or Gentile philosophy? No; but “words whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.” You have sent for us, then, to declare the truth; but have you considered its nature and extent? And can you bear it? It is not all comprehended in the love of God. Can you bear to be slain by the law? Can you bear the ministry of the Baptist? Can you bear to be told that, virtuous as many of you may be, you must seek this salvation as sinners, and that, if any man will be Christ’s disciple, he must deny himself daily, and take up his cross, and follow his Lord? Can you bear to have it enforced upon you, “Be not conformed to this world,” and to be reminded that there must be no intermission in duty; that you must run with diligence the race set before you, and war a good warfare? If you have sent for us for this “intent,” you may say, “Thou hast done well that thou art come.” May you therefore so “purify your souls by obeying the truth,” that you may “know the truth, and the truth may make you free!”
III. Faithful and constant application and enforcement of truth. Ministers ought to be better skilled in Divine knowledge than the majority of their hearers; but it would be a false view that the ministry is appointed to teach us constantly some new thing. It is, on the contrary, no less important that we should apply and enforce known truth. For--
1. Conscience often sleeps, add needs another to awake it.
2. We are prone to judge others. The ministry is appointed to oblige us to judge ourselves.
3. We are liable to religious delusions; and we avoid those truths which would disturb us. The minister of Christ must declare the whole counsel of God; and the very truths you need are thus pressed upon you.
4. All sinful habits and passions raise a haze and mist about themselves; and it is for the Christian ministry to dispel that delusive atmosphere.
5. All temptation, too, places a bias on the judgment. You only see the fruit pleasant to the eye, and to be desired to make one wise. It is for the ministry to remind you that God hath said, “In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Or your temptation may be to discouragement and unbelief; and then it is for us to call your attention to the great and precious promises.
IV. The establishment or continuance of the ordinances and discipline of the Church. St. Peter here opens the Church to the Gentiles. They come in; and this was their mercy and their privilege; and so it ought to be esteemed by us. For a Christian Church is one of the most important institutions on earth. Its members are in special covenant with God. Sabbaths are observed, public assemblies are held; and in these the Divine presence is both promised and realised. Christian fellowship is enjoyed. The Church is an association formed to make war upon sin and error. Here the aged are comforted and strengthened; children are brought to Christ, and trained up for His service; and servants made free by the truth. In the Church there are holy rules of living and acting in force. Baptism is administered; and “by eating” of the sacramental “bread, and drinking of that cup,” the followers of Christ “show forth His death till He come.” Did you send for us to maintain or subvert this beautiful order? “To maintain it,” I know you say. We rejoice to meet you oil this ground. Well, then, be co-workers with us, or the end will fail. Conclusion:
1. If you have proposed important ends in sending for us, these impose important duties upon us, which we cannot perform but by special assistance. We shall need your candour, and, above all, your prayers.
2. Maintain the teachable spirit. Except a man receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he cannot enter therein.
3. Be “intent” upon growth and advancement in knowledge and piety. (R. Watson.)
And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting.
Peter at Caesarea
We welcome his revelation that the grace of God has so boundless a reach; that in His government men are accountable not for knowledge which they have not, but for what they have. It suggests certain practical lessons like the following:
I. It is our privilege to exercise a wide charity toward religions which differ from our own. We have the authority of Scripture for recognising the truth wherever found. No one of the apostles stands more resolutely for sound doctrine, for righteous living, than Paul; yet more than once he takes pains to quote from heathen writers opinions that are correct as far as they go. He believed that so far as they had any truth, it was the truth of God. We have a feeling sometimes that to acknowledge anything of good in one who is not a Christian, or in a Church with which we have no fellowship, or in a nation that is in spiritual darkness, is disloyalty to God; but we are really doing Him larger honour to believe that something of His image is left in His creatures everywhere; that, in the plenitude of His grace, His Spirit is working to some extent in all men the fruits of righteousness; that He only demands of His creatures, in Christian or in heathen lands, to follow the knowledge which they have; that “in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.”
II. We may be inspired by the virtues of the pagans. It is a part of charity not only to recognise virtue anywhere, but to be willing to copy it. That is a high attainment in the study of this grace. If a man is, in your judgment, a heathen or a heretic, it is humiliating to admit that he can teach you anything of goodness; but perhaps he can. He may have some excellencies that are far beyond yours in the same line. Why should you not make these a subject of study and emulation? Certainly it is not disparaging the Christian system; it is not reflecting upon God; they all came from Him; they are not the product of the human will; they are fruits of the Spirit, and in copying them you are but copying God. For example, the Stoics, who knew little of Christianity, had rules for right living as exalted in some particulars as those prescribed by Christian men in any age. One of their philosophers says of human depravity: “Let us first persuade ourselves of this, that there is not one of us without fault.” “If you wish to be good, first believe that you are bad.” That is as strong as the Saviour’s words: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” Another, writing of self-examination, refers to an old scholar who, when the day was over and he went to rest, used to ask himself, “What evil have you cured today? What vice have you resisted? In what particular have you improved?” That would be a good rule for Christians. Here is another precept: “What ought not to be done, do not even think of doing.” Virtues like these were taught by a few, at least, centuries before the Christian era. There seems ground for the opinion that the prevalence of these to such an extent helped to prepare the world for the gospel, as St. Augustine admitted that he had been led first toward Christianity by the stoical teachings of Cicero. A flower that springs up in a field of weeds and surprises you with its fragrance, is as really the work of a Divine Creator as that which grows in a gardener’s bed. Virtue is always Divine, and wherever she leads it is safe to follow.
III. We ought to be grateful for the light of christianity. But why, if there is so much to commend in the pagan philosophers? What need is there of the gospel? This simply: religion is something more than a system of ethics. If it be asked more definitely what was it that they lacked as compared with us, the answer is many sided; but this is its substance: they lacked Christ. Here, then, is a vast gulf between those sages and ourselves. They did not have the idea, as we do, of a personal God--a Father, a Friend. More particularly they did not know Jesus, did not have Him as a guide. With all their beautiful precepts, they had no example; they did not know of anyone who had ever obeyed these laws. One of them writes, “Follow the guidance of nature: that is the great thing.” What a rule for a weak human being! One of them speaks of waiting for death with a cheerful mind; but look back a sentence or two, and see what he means: “What, then, is that which is able to enrich a man? One thing, and only one--philosophy.” That is as far as their wisdom rose. That is why we have reason for gratitude that we know of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of men. He is “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” “Every man,” whoever, wherever, whatever he is. If anyone claims that he is sufficient in himself, and needs no Divine revelation other than that which comes from his own consciousness, he is making a fatal mistake; he cannot quote Cornelius as an example. (T. J. Holmes.)
Peter at Caesarea
Peter’s bringing of the gospel to Cornelius, and Cornelius’ subsequent baptism, seem very much matters of course to us; but they were revolutionary. They were like John Wesley’s ordination of men to preach the gospel in America. Thenceforth he knew he had violated the canons of the Church of England. Thenceforth Peter knew that he had repudiated Judaism as a necessary preparative to Christianity.
I. Cornelius’ preparation. No man can make himself worthy of God’s blessing. But one can so prepare himself for the Divine blessing, that it shall come more easily down and find a quicker acceptance. In this sense Cornelius had made ready for God. He says he was fasting at the time the special revelation came to him, and, indeed, it was at the very moment of prayer (verse 30). God’s ways of dealing with men conform to none of the laws which we might construct. We cannot say that religious exercises, in which Cornelius was engaged, offer the only occasions when God may come to men. We recall Balaam, addressed when on an ungodly mission; we recall Saul, converted while journeying to persecute the saints. But these revelations were not in congruity with the soul’s antecedents. They came by crushing down opposition. Yet we are safe in saying that such is not God’s usual way of granting insight into His truth. We cannot bind God by law; but conversely we can assert law of ourselves, and say confidently that prayer and all religious exercises are used by God in leading us into new visions of truth. The angel told Cornelius that his prayerful and upright life had commended him to God for His blessing (verse 31). What God remembered was not Cornelius’ worthiness of a blessing, but his fitness for a blessing, shown by the desire for it, witnessed to, by a prayerful and righteous life. Cornelius’ life commended him to God not as accomplishment, but as a sign of aspiration. A good man is one who wants to be better. For such God’s blessing is surely prepared. Being of such a temper of mind, it was natural that Cornelius showed an immediate acceptance of God’s revelation and an immediate obedience toward it (verse 33).
II. Peter’s address was the fuller form of God’s answer to Cornelius. The appearance of the angel, and the directions he gave, were only preliminary to something else. This was furnished by Peter; it was the revelation of Christ as a Saviour. Peter’s address divides itself easily into three parts--
1. The introduction (verses 34, 35) lays down the double statement that God is no respecter of persons, but that a good man, whatever his nationality, is accepted of Him. The special lesson needed by Peter and the other leaders of the Church then was that circumstantials make no difference to God. The passage has been immensely abused by misinterpretation. It has been supposed to teach that all religions are equally pleasing to God; from which has been deduced the inference that our duty is to let men alone in their religions, and not try to convert them to Christianity. But if Cornelius was already in the proper condition Godward, why did he need conversion? Again, the passage has been used to teach the doctrine that if one is a good man, and tries conscientiously to do his duty towards his fellow men, and reveres God, he is all right, is “accepted with Him,” and needs nothing more. Faith in Christ is thus not enumerated among the things necessary to reconciliation with God. But if to fear God and to work righteousness were enough in Cornelius, why did Peter preach to him the gospel? The truth is, “accepted” here does not mean accepted as all he ought to be, but accepted as a proper subject for that work of conversion which tends to make one what he ought to be.
2. The main part of Peter’s address describes the life and function of Jesus (verses 36-42). The external facts of His career are touched upon in such a way as to show the solid grounding of His supernatural work upon indisputable material fact.
3. The application of Peter’s address (verse 43) makes the doctrines concerning Christ which he has just stated practical and pointed. Christ is given to men that “whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” The other functions of Christ do not press so immediately upon us as His office as a Saviour. To miss this is to miss all that He would have us know.
III. The blessing from on high came while Peter was speaking. The Holy Ghost fell upon them (verse 44). No distinction of nationality was observed by the heavenly Visitor. (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
Cornelius and Peter
I. Ready to hear the Word. Cornelius was a Roman centurion--in modern phrase, heathen. How did he become ready to hear the Word?
1. By prayer. At the time the angel came he was engaged in prayer. This prayer was not a mere form.
(1) He had not stopped just when the ninth hour expired, but had persisted in his supplications “until this hour.” It is fair to infer from that, that he was in earnest about something. Such prayers only are effective. General prayers, that seek for nothing specific, get just what they seek, and no more. It is safe to take the mission of the angel as an answer to Cornelius’ prayer, and to deduce that Cornelius was praying that he might be shown the way of salvation (Acts 11:14).
(2) The angel came in response to his prayer. No celestial messengers are sent where the prayers are merely formal.
2. By a vision. His vision was not a dream or a trance. “He saw in a vision openly” (Acts 10:3). He was wide awake, as one engaged in earnest prayer could not help but be. “A man stood before me in bright apparel.” Cornelius tells how he looked. Luke tells what he was (Acts 10:3.) When Cornelius saw him, he was affrighted, and said, “What is it, Lord?” The celestial character of his visitor, the circumstances of his appearing, and the fear that sinful mortals must ever feel in the presence of sinless immortals, combined to compel Cornelius to accept without questioning whatever the angel might say.
3. By the angel’s words. They were--
(1) Words of assurance. “Thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance.” Faith now takes the place of an angel in assuring all who approach the throne of grace that their prayers have prevailed. Neither are their alms or good deeds forgotten. “God is not unrighteous,” etc. The declaration that his prayers and his alms were gone up for a memorial before God, gave comfort and prepared for further revelation.
(2) Words of direction. “Send therefore to … Peter.” Whatever Peter might say had celestial endorsement beforehand. Many hearts are Divinely made ready for the reception of the gospel, when the Spirit moves one to speak the words of life. But observe, the angel himself did not tell the story of the Cross to Cornelius. He left that to Peter. No one can tell the story of redemption so well as one who himself has been redeemed. That Cornelius was thus prepared to hear the Word is made evident--
(a) By his sending for Peter. He sent “forthwith.” He was in haste to hear.
(b) By his commendation of Peter. “Thou hast well done that thou art come.” Cornelius believed that Peter was about to do that which would show him that he was right in disregarding the ceremonial barriers between Jew and Gentile.
(c) By his declaration to Peter. “Now therefore we are an here present in the sight of God to hear.” Cornelius had improved the time while waiting for Peter to come (verse 24). He was in earnest to learn the way of life, not only for himself, but for all of his friends.
II. Proclaiming the word. We turn now from Cornelius to Peter.
1. The truth perceived.
(1) “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.” Until this moment, Peter had not known why he had been sent for, nor the real meaning of his vision. So far he had interpreted the vision to mean nothing only that he must not hesitate to associate with the Gentiles, to whom he was sent. But now he sees it meant a great deal more--spiritual as well as social equality. This was no new thought (Deu 10:17; 2 Chronicles 19:7; Job 34:19). But Peter and others had been thinking of this as true only as between Jews. He had not realised the truth he himself had declared (Acts 3:25).
(2) “But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to Him.” Mark here two things--
(a) Peter’s change of standards. His criterion for judging was outward no longer. He instantly dropped the notion that circumcision was necessary to salvation. All essentials were suddenly reduced to two--fearing God and working righteousness.
(b) That those two essentials were not enough. They made Cornelius “acceptable,” but not accepted. If anyone, by good works, could be saved, there was no need for Cornelius to hear about Christ the Saviour (verse 2). But his good works did not satisfy God, nor did they satisfy himself. Salvation cannot be purchased with good works. The only adequate price for that is the precious blood of Christ.
2. The truth preached. Note--
(1) That Peter did not tell anything new. His auditors were aware of the story of Christ. “Ye yourselves know.” It was “the old, old story” that was effective, and that will be effective to the end of time.
(2) That he verified what he did tell. He offered himself and the other apostles as witnesses of the death and the resurrection of Christ. He offered also the prophets as witnesses, and probably showed how the sufferings and atoning death of Christ were symbolised in sacrifices and foretold in prophecy.
III. Blessed by the word. “The Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the Word.” Notice--
1. The time. “While Peter yet spake.” There was no laying on of apostolic hands. The conferring of the gift was as direct from God to those Gentiles as it had been to the Jews on the day of Pentecost.
2. The abundance. “Was poured out.”
3. The manifestations. “Heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.” They were affected and endowed in the same way that their Jewish brethren had been. Thus this Pentecost of the Gentiles proved their right to an unquestioned place in the brotherhood of the saints--their baptism of the Spirit to baptism by water. (M. C. Hazard.)
Peter and Cornelius
Here we have a Conservative Jew and a Liberal Gentile. The Jew wants to keep things as they are. He is quite content to preach Christ to his countrymen. The Gentile, on the other hand, has come to feel that all truth is not confined to the systems of his fathers. He has heard of Christ, and wants to know more of Him. So the narrative shows how, in the providence of God, these opposite men meet at the Cross, and there forget their differences as they learned that God is no respecter of persons. Let us consider--
I. A good preacher.
1. Opinions greatly differ on what constitutes a good minister of Jesus Christ. Some say educate your men; others say you will educate all the fire out of them. Some say that the minister must take an active part in social movements; others, that he must do nothing of the kind. Some think he must give his strength to visitation; others, that he must be strong in the pulpit. Some leave a man’s ministry because he is too noisy; others, because he is too quiet. Some object to men who do not rush to the door to shake hands with everybody; others object to such familiarity.
2. But there was one thing about Peter that all may imitate--he was a man of prayer, as every good preacher, teacher, Christian must be. Christ Himself was. Nothing great or good can the man of God expect without prayer. While Elijah prayed the fire fell; in answer to prayer Joseph was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams; while the little Church prayed at Pentecost the Holy Ghost came down; while the disciples prayed Peter was released from prison; and as he prayed on the housetop God gave him the vision. You cannot preach, but you can pray, and that will make the weak strong.
II. The remarkable congregation (verse 33). Observe--
1. They were all in time. No notice was put up in the porch, saying, “You are requested not to enter during prayer.” No one disturbed the singing or preaching. We are not told that anybody came in knocking down half a dozen hymn books and attracting attention to the last new bonnet.
2. No one went to sleep. Judged by modern practice that was remarkable. Our fathers must have been wakeful people, for they would listen to sermons two hours’ length in straight-backed pews. Now the pews are so shaped and furnished as to invite sleep.
3. They were anxious to hear. That, too, was remarkable. How vastly different would be our worship if we came in that expectant condition! How helpful would be the preacher’s word! Once a week worship, empty seats, and deserted churches would be things of the past.
III. The very striking sermon.
1. It was very short; one could have wished it longer. The main objection to long sermons is that the quality is not in proportion.
2. It was full of Christ, although the Name appears only twice. We should not be always repeating the Name, but all our sermons and lessons should be as full of Christ as they can carry; and our daily life and conduct too. You need not forever carry a Bible in your hand. When your little one draws a cat she is obliged to say so underneath, or no one would recognise it; but by and by she will draw what will describe itself. So all should be able to recognise the Master in us. “Let your light so shine,” etc. So let it be with your lessons. Christ is to be your diamond; set it as you like, but be sure it is seen.
3. One which declared God’s impartiality (verses 34, 35). “God cares for lowly toilers,” etc.
IV. The glorious effects (verse 44). We learn that--
1. Peter did not labour in vain. He had immediate results; you may not; but wait God’s good time.
2. The people did not hear in vain. How could they, listening as they did. (G. Leach, D. D.)
The gospel to the Gentiles
The hasty and impetuous Peter had now become, under the influence of transforming grace, a considerate and self-governed man. But though he had lost his impetuosity and was fast losing his prejudices, he had not lost his vigour nor his readiness to give effect to conviction. After one night of calm reflection, diligent search, and earnest prayer, he was ready to set forth on his errand. At the door Cornelius meets him with an act of homage to the exalted character of his visitor, which was already familiar to a Roman in the case of his emperor, but which the apostle refused as an act of superstition. The minister of Christ, even if he be an apostle, is still but a man: in that identity of nature with his people lies as much his strength as his weakness. Compassed, like them, with every infirmity, he can both feel for the sins and the weaknesses of others, and also comfort them with the comfort wherewith he himself is comforted of God. Now, therefore, having come, he must know for what intent they have sent for him. Cornelius answers by recounting the story of his vision. Ten verses comprise the whole of St. Peter’s answer; the whole of that, revelation which was to be the eternal life of Cornelius and his house. Note that--
I. The gospel was a record of facts; and out of the facts grew the doctrines. It was not a mere lesson of morality. It did not say, Do your best and God will accept you, It did not say, Care not about opinion, or doctrine, if only your life is right. Cornelius, whose life was blameless and exemplary, still needed Christ, and the Holy Spirit for his salvation. His diligent use of the light he had, brought him more light: such is God’s rule: but it did not enable him to dispense with it. What showed God’s acceptance was, God’s teaching, God’s illumination; not God’s acquiescing in his condition, and leaving him as he was.
1. And when that teaching and illumination came, what was it? It was the account of a Person; of One who, though Himself man, had altogether changed and reversed man’s condition; had broken the yoke of sin and Satan in instances numerous and decisive enough to show that He could do it in all; had lived a life such as never man lived, and spoken words such as never man spake; had then given His very life as a ransom for many; had died upon the Cross to take away sin, and after dying had also risen again to be the living High Priest, the Mediator and the Advocate with God, of all who believe; to be both the Judge of human kind, and also the Atonement and the Propitiation for human sin. It was our apostles’ creed which formed the original gospel to the Gentiles.
2. And is it not so still? And has that gospel now lost its savour? Must we look out for some other because the first is worn out? So the world judges, and the Church has too much caught the infection. We fear that even Christian sermons are too much estimated now by their eloquence or their novelty, and too little by their proclamation of Christ Himself. God help us to come back to the simplicity and (with it) to the strength of St. Peter’s first sermon to the Gentiles!
II. God in a remarkable manner bare it witness.
1. While the narrative was proceeding, the gift of Pentecost was poured upon the hearers. The fire of the Lord fell, and attested the sacrifice. By an inversion of which we possess no other record in Scripture, the inward gift preceded the outward dedication. Elsewhere baptism went first, and the gift of the Spirit followed. God is a God of order, but He is not restricted by His own laws. Nothing less than the Pentecostal sign would have furnished an irresistible argument for this first Gentile baptism (Acts 11:17-18).
2. Yet, lest any should draw from this an argument against the importance of forms, it was required that the outward sign should follow. How presumptuous then, in later times, to say, Because the form is not all, therefore the form is nothing! if I have the Spirit, I may dispense with the baptismal water! God has been pleased, in His two holy Sacraments, to remind us that in this life we are body as well as soul, and that the two elements of our being are wonderfully and fearfully commingled. The body acts upon the soul; the soul, in all its volitions, must act through the body.
3. Those who talk slightingly of forms are seldom those who know most of the Spirit. Not without form, though not by forms only, can the work of Christ be carried forward in the world. If the doctrine of the gospel had been launched in the world without the institution of a Church, it might have waxed feebler, generation by generation, until at last it actually died and vanished away. The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. And we all know how much our faith owes to the possession of a house of prayer, regular seasons of worship, and a standing ministry to lead and to guide and quicken our devotion. Take away all these things, or any of these things, and where should we be? Destroy this temple, make its services rare or repulsive; let there be no one to exercise a regular ministration; let there be no visitation of the sick, no care for the poor, no catechising of the young; and who does not know how serious would be the loss to himself and to the cause of good? I know not whose faith would stand the test of an utter denial of all help either from public worship or from private ministrations; an absolute removal of that candlestick, the Church, which is not indeed, but which yet holds, the light of the Word, the lamp of the truth. Let us not lose, my brethren, by lethargy of soul, the advantages which God has given us. (Dean Vaughan.)
In the Garden of Plants at Paris a certain rare tree grew for many years. It was a thriving and mature plant. Year by year it was covered with blossom, and year by year the white blossoms were shed on the ground leaving no fruit behind. After every promise it remained barren still. At last one season, although nothing extraordinary had been observed, after flower came fruit; it swelled apace, and in due time ripened. The tree for the first time brought to maturity self-propagating fruit. They sought and found the cause. Another tree of the same species, but bearing flowers the counterpart and complement of this, had then for the first time blossomed in a garden at some distance. The small white dust from the flowers of that other tree, necessary to make the flowers of this tree fruitful, had been borne on the feet of bees, or wafted by the wind into their bosom, and forthwith they bore fruit. This in the natural department is the work of the same all-wise God, who prepared Cornelius for receiving Peter’s word, and brought Peter with the word to Cornelius. (W. Arnot, D. D.)
Immediately therefore I sent to thee; and thou hast well done that thou art come.--
Cornelius’s sending and Peter’s coming
I. Cornelius’ sending was--
1. The outcome of a felt want. Heathenism, Judaism, devotion, moral excellence, noble birth, popularity were insufficient to fill the void in this good man’s soul.
2. After prayer, or he might have sought the counsel of Jewish rabbi, Gentile philosopher or candid friend who would have directed him to ritual, wisdom or self-complacency, but never to one by whose words he might be saved.
3. By Divine direction.
(1) To an unlikely man.
(2) At an unlikely place. “God moves in a mysterious way.” but always in the right way.
II. Peter’s coming. Peter did well in coming, for thereby--
1. He conquered his Jewish prejudices. This was well for himself. Bigotry and exclusiveness are everywhere self-hindering and harmful.
2. He opened the door of the gospel to the Gentiles, thus anticipating and preparing for the worldwide mission of Paul.
3. He satisfied the aspirations of a genuine soul, and in doing so who knows what else? The influence of the converted centurion could not but have been felt in the army. Did Cornelius take the gospel to Rome?
4. He was the means of converting an entire congregation. What a phenomenon! (J. W. Burn.)
Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.--
A model congregation
I. Earnest, which is obvious from--
1. The religious character that was given to it. It was composed of Cornelius and his family. The centurion’s religion (verse 2) was--
(1) Domestic, “all his house.”
(2) Generous, “he gave alms to the people.”
(3) Habitual, “he prayed to God alway.” There were no frivolous spirits among Peter’s listeners.
2. The invitation they gave the preacher, “Immediately therefore I sent to thee.”
II. Solemn, “Before God.” The expression implies belief in--
1. The existence of God--they were neither atheists, pantheists, nor polytheists.
2. The presence of God, not merely His influence.
3. The claim of God. He is our Maker, Proprietor, Judge, demanding the homage of our souls.
4. This belief was grounded in such a consciousness that would sweep from their minds all that was secular, sceptical and frivolous, and fill them with a profound solemnity.
III. Inquiring. “To hear all things,” etc. They were assembled not as a matter of custom, not to sit passive and be acted upon by the preacher, not for a mere performance, but to inquire. In this inquiry they were--
1. Profoundly religious. They were in quest of the Divine, “Commanded thee of God.” They were not seekers after Peter’s private speculations, but after the Divine Will.
2. Thoroughly free, “To hear all things.” Their minds were untrammelled by prejudices, unbiassed by dogmas. They wanted to know the whole counsel of God. May not such a congregation be regarded as a model? Such a congregation would not have tolerated the pulpit crudities and priestly assumptions of modern times. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The model congregation
Is it true that it was composed of men who were neither Jews nor Christians, and that it met in the first century of the Christian era; yet there are many points in which it might be an example to nineteenth century Christian congregations. They were present--
I. Everyone. When was it ever said of a modern congregation, “We are all here present”? Naturally, all cannot be; but how many are absent, who might have been present, if animated by the spirit of Cornelius and his friends!
II. Punctually. When Peter arrived, Cornelius met him with the announcement, “We are all here.” Want of punctuality is an evil in our services. Some are always late. They lose part of the services; they disturb the minister and congregation. In many eases it is a mere habit, that could be overcome by a little attention.
III. With a definite purpose. “To hear.” How many motives influence attendance nowadays! Some are present to see, some to criticise, some from habit, some to while away the time, some from curiosity.
IV. With prepared hearts. “Now, therefore.” We are here expectantly. If the minister ought to prepare to speak, not less ought the people to prepare to hear. Our Lord solemnly warns us: “Take heed how ye hear.”
V. With reverent spirits. “Present before God.” This was an act of solemn worship. They did not come to sit at the feet of some popular preacher. “The worship of Dr.
will be resumed next Sabbath,” said an usher to some persons who were leaving the church, upon learning that their favourite minister was not to preach that day.
VI. With attentive ears. How many absent-minded men there are in our congregations! They could not say, “We are all present.” Wandering thoughts are servants of the devil. This congregation expected “to hear all things that were commanded of God.” There were, evidently, no sleepers among them. A parishioner, upon his deathbed, confessed to his pastor that he had not heard a sermon for years--his thoughts had habitually reverted to his business as soon as the text was announced. Worshippers ought not to have their bodies in the house of God, and their hearts, with the fool’s eyes, in the ends of the earth.
VII. With one mind. No divisions in this congregation. They were all, with one accord, in one place.
VIII. With a right idea of the preacher. They wished to hear the things that God commanded him to speak. They cared more for the message than the messenger. If some of our congregations would think more of God’s deliverance and less of man’s delivery, it would tend to their spiritual edification.
IX. To hear the whole counsel of God. They wished to hear all things that God commanded. A modern congregation must have some fortitude before it asks for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
X. With a spirit of obedience. The word which we translate “to hear” oftentimes, as in this case, means “to hear and obey.” It is well to be ready to hear all of God’s commands; better to be ready to obey them.
1. The gospel was faithfully preached (verse 34). Faithful hearers make faithful preachers.
2. The Holy Ghost was giver (verse 44). “Peter yet spake these words presence and the Word:--
I. The great fact and truth realised by Cornelius: “Now, therefore, are we all here present before God.”
II. The devout and sincere purpose of heart expressed: “To hear all things,” etc.
1. “Now therefore,” etc. Evidently spoken by a man who had before recognised and felt God’s presence in his life and ways. We are of a truth alway in God’s presence if we knew it: but there are times when the reality breaks forth with special power for special purposes. But there are other times and ways beside those in which we are met together for public worship, when we may be made feel that we are “present before God.” All time and place, thought and feeling, are sacred when this great and holy truth is impressed upon us, “the Lord God is there.”
(1) Have we never felt we were present before God, in our own soul and conscience? Have we never felt within, that there was another Presence besides our own, that penetrated and searched our inmost thoughts?
(2) We may feel we are present before God in His works.
(3) In the course of the Divine providence, its ways and dealings. Behind and above all these busy outward actors, scenes of engagement, there is the Divine Seer and Actor, and His hand is outstretched upon every man, woman and child. Were our eyes opened to see the greatest truth and reality of this scene of our existence and probation, we should feel no words were so true as these; “Now, then, are we all here present before God.”
(4) Again in the dispensation of truth and privilege vouchsafed to us, God is and comes very near to us. What in fact is Divine truth but the immediate touch, teaching, and reality of God?
(5) Our parents, specially if pious parents, are they not witnesses to us of God’s presence, authority and grace, seeing they are given and appointed to represent Him and lead us to Him?
II. We must have regard to the sincere devout purpose of heart expressed: “To hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” Here are three things to be noted: the preacher; his message and its source; the receptive state of mind and heart among the hearers.
1. The preacher was Peter the apostle, who, when Cornelius would have worshipped him, on entering his house, said, “Stand up, I myself also am a man” (verse 26). It has been well and wisely observed, not the angel but the man must preach the gospel to Cornelius. Even salvation itself came to us through the man Christ Jesus, God laying hold of us through the medium of our own nature. Peter had all the experiences of an ignorant, weak, failing, sinful man, and of a man forgiven, converted, transformed, consecrate, Divinely taught and led. Such experiences, with their vital, soul thrilling power, could never proceed from the tongues of angels.
2. Next Peter’s message and its source: “All things that are commanded thee of God.” Cornelius had no idea of any self-made or man-made gospel. We now come--
3. To the state of mind and heart in the hearers: “To hear all things that are,” etc., that are commanded us also, through thee as the Divine organ and representative. The mind of Cornelius was not passive, but as the whole chapter shows, was in intense action and engagement; and he knew and felt by the present living testimony of God’s Spirit and truth in his own spirit, that the things which Peter spake came from God and were commanded of God. It is God Himself who calls us to the obedience of His gospel. It is not man’s gospel, but His, commanding us in His name, on His authority. Let man stand aside, that God may be heard and obeyed. (Watson Smith.)
The ideal congregation
I. The ideal congregation will be present at the appointed place betimes. “Now therefore we are all here.”
II. The ideal congregation will never fail to have unanimity of representation as far as that is possible. “We are all here.” If it could be said truly, all who could be are here, we would have great reason to rejoice.
III. The ideal congregation will be reverent. “We are all here before God.”
IV. The ideal congregation will be attentive. “We are all here present before God to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” They do not come to see or be seen, but to hear; not to be gratified or entertained, but to be spiritually profited.
V. The ideal congregation will re sympathetic. There were some communities in which the Lord Jesus Christ could not perform mighty works. There are congregations so cold and unresponsive that the preacher’s thoughts are chilled in transmission. A man can’t be packed in ice without freezing. The Church has a great deal to do with making the minister. Many a sermon has caught its glow and power from the sympathies of those to whom it was delivered. A genial summer is not more effective in calling forth buds and blossoms, than warm hearts are in drawing out all that is best and noblest in a preacher’s soul.
VI. The ideal congregation will be receptive. Like nature in the spring time, with every tree and flower and grass blade open to receive the gracious ministries of heaven. VII. The ideal congregation will be unprejudiced. “We are all here before God to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” Prejudice is the hardest thing to cope with, for it is not amenable to conviction even when the evidence is overwhelming. “Argument cannot do the work of instruction any more than blows can take the place of sunlight.” Not what suited their tastes and harmonised with their preconceived notions, but all that was commanded of God. It would be well if congregations now came together with this absolute simplicity and guilelessness of disposition. VIII. The ideal congregation will be obediently disposed. “All that is commanded thee of God.” Nothing can be of real value in God’s sight which does not shape itself into obedience. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
The reciprocal duties of a minister and of his people
I. Let us consider the duty of a minister of religion, which, though not explicitly laid down, is nevertheless implied in the words of my text: he is to teach “all things that are commanded him of God”; not teaching for doctrines the commandments of men; not setting forth human tradition as of equal importance with the oracles of the living God, but, in humility and godly sincerity, declaring the truth as it is in Jesus. Let us now consider more particularly what the minister is commanded to teach.
1. He is commanded to remind his hearers that they are all “by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath”; that they are very far gone from original righteousness, and are of their own nature inclined to evil.
2. Having shown his hearers their state by nature, and their utter helplessness and inability to deliver themselves from this spiritual bondage as slaves of sin and Satan, he is authorised to point out to them a way of deliverance.
3. We are commanded to set before our hearers the precepts, as well as the doctrines, of our holy religion; to tell them plainly that profession without practice, that faith without works, will be of no avail to them (Matthew 8:20). I have dwelt on the duty of a Christian minister: permit me now to invite your attention--
II. To that of our hearers, which is implied in my text: “We are all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” “Take heed how ye hear.”
1. Receive the Word with an humble and a teachable mind. This is the disposition that was so exemplified in Mary, when she sat at the feet of Jesus, and listened to the sweet expressions that dropped from His lips. This is the disposition recommended by St. James in the following words: “Receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is able to save your souls.” It is to be feared that many of our hearers enter into the sanctuary strangers to this temper; more eager to judge than to hear; ever on the alert for an opportunity to condemn; putting every phrase to the rack, if it accords not with their notion of propriety.
2. Hear with faith. “The Word preached,” says St. Paul, “did not profit the Jews, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it”: it had no influence on their conduct, because they did not believe what they heard.
3. If ye would hear with profit, be constant in prayer, not only in the church, but in the closet. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” Remember “the preparation of the heart in man is from the Lord.” Paul may plant, Apollos water; but it is God only that giveth the increase.
4. Be ye practical hearers. St. Paul represents some as “ever hearing, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” “Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (J. Hughes, M. A.)
Congregations to be well fed with the truth
Dogs often fight because the supply of bones is scanty and congregations frequently quarrel because they do not get sufficient spiritual meat to keep them happy and peaceful. The ostensible ground of dissatisfaction may be something else, but nine times out of ten deficiency in their rations is at the bottom of the mutinies which occur in our Churches. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The best remedy for small congregations
Mr. Christopher Richardson, minister of Kirk Heaton, in Yorkshire, was much followed. A neighbouring minister, Whose parishioners used to go to hear him, complaining once to him that he drew away his flock, Mr. Richardson answered, “Feed them better, and they will not stray.”
Punctuality in attendance at church
An earnest minister once had the misfortune to succeed a tardy man who had had the congregation in charge for some years. He despaired of reforming them in great matters if he could not reform them in small. He found them in the habit of meeting at twelve o’clock, though the hour appointed and agreed upon was eleven. The preacher knew his duty, and began at the minute. The first day after his settlement, his sermon was well-nigh closed before most of his congregation arrived. Some actually arrived just at the benediction. They were confounded. He made no apology. He only asked the seniors if they would prefer any other time than eleven o’clock, and he would be sure and attend. A few weeks passed and the church was regularly full, and waiting for the minute. The preacher never failed in twenty years, except in a few cases of indisposition, to commence at the hour appointed. His congregation soon became as punctual and circumspect in other matters as in their attendance at church. (Cyclopoedia of Illustrative Anecdotes.)
A model congregation
This congregation may be held up as a model in three things.
I. Punctuality of Attendance. “Now therefore are we all here.”
1. All were present. No absentees.
2. All were present in proper time. They were waiting for Peter, and not Peter for them. No coming in during service, and disturbing both preacher and hearers.
II. Devoutness of spirit. “Before God.” Realised God’s presence. This would inspire--
1. Humility (Exodus 3:2-6; 1 Samuel 16:7; Genesis 18:27; Isaiah 6:5; Job 42:5-6).
2. Sincerity. Here, if anywhere, there should be truth (Isaiah 57:15; Psalms 51:6). Hypocrisy may walk the earth invisible to men, but not to God.
3. High expectation (Matthew 18:20). Here the Father is present (Romans 8:32). Here the Son is present (John 6:48-53; Matthew 23:26). Here the Holy Ghost is present (John 6:63; John 16:15). We should attend upon ordinances with diligence, preparation, and prayer. Come to God’s house fresh from the company of the gay and the thoughtless, and with no real seriousness of spirit, and is it any wonder if you are not benefited.
III. Practicalness of purpose. “The more part knew not wherefore they had come together” (Acts 19:32). Not so here. Had a clear, settled, well-understood purpose.
1. To hear. Sense of God’s personal interest and love (Romans 10:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; John 13:17).
2. To hear what was commanded of God. Looked above the messenger to Him that had sent him. Recognised the Divine authority of the truth. Without this there can be no real good (Exodus 3:13; Deuteronomy 5:27; Hebrews 4:2).
3. To hear all that was commanded of God. Law and gospel. The whole counsel of God. There should be fearless honesty both in speaking and hearing. (William Forsyth, A. M.)
A model audience
I. It was noted for punctuality.
1. A sense of the importance of the service. Men generally careful to secure a front seat at theatre, entertainment, banquet. Religion paramount.
2. It secures the whole of the service.
3. It is helpful to the preacher.
4. It makes the service enjoyable.
II. It was noted for reverence.
1. Conscious of the Divine superintendence.
2. Regard for the Divine dignity.
3. Awe of the Divine purity.
4. Engagement in Divine service.
III. It was noted for attention.
1. Unprejudiced attention.
2. Docile attention.
3. Practical attention.
4. Successful attention. They believed and obeyed. (B. D. Johns.)
Concerning audiences, preachers, sermons, and conversions
I. The audience.
1. Before the preacher began this “innovation” takes place--the audience spoke up to the preacher, the pew to the pulpit. It was a splendid audience, though not very large. How earnestly they came together! What a solidarity there was! No wandering thought or eye, but all was focused; calm and purposeful both in body and soul; so that ere the preacher began, one man could speak for all, “Now therefore are we all here present before God.” May this audience bring its contribution to the preacher, while it expects the preacher to bring his! The contribution he has a right to expect is, that the people should come united, full of expectation, led into the temple like Simeon by the Spirit of God, at the very moment when Jesus came. No chance, no haphazard in this gathering. We have not come here to spend an idle hour. When asked, “Where have you been this morning?”--it is wrong to answer “Oh, I dropped in to Regent Square.” You did not drop in nor drop out. The Lord’s providences for the whole of the week have been hedging up your way, and securing that you should be here. Fall in with God’s arrangement.
2. I like to dwell on the word all. The people were invited, and they came. This morning the very hour invites us. I know there are many excuses. You can tell me about young children, sickness, waiting on the sick, fogs, east winds, long distances, wet days, etc. In many families, at ten o’clock on the Sabbath morning, attendance at church is still an open question. It is no open question on the Monday morning, “John, will you go to work today?” “Oh,” said a farmer in Scotland, when a minister rebuked him for not attending church, and said, “You know, John, you are never absent from the market.” “Oh,” was the reply, “we maun gang to the market.” Unconsciously it came out. To come to the house of God was not so urgent. But when we look at this audience we see the benefit of setting ourselves the task of coming with a purpose to God’s house. It will need planning and self-denial. Some of you are here today only because you have trampled upon a hundred obstacles. And some are not here because they have given way to things which will not be allowed to stand in the way of tomorrow’s engagements.
3. And then when we all come--
(1) The Lord marks how we have pressed forward to meet Him. I think there is no sweeter sight to His holy eyes than to see the people wending their way to His house. “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is, and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
(2) And when you come in this expectant way, how it helps the reception of the sermon! How we have all suffered from coming to the house of God in a disorderly, hurried way, both as regards body and soul! Then you look up to the preacher and expect him to work miracles on your higgledy-piggledy soul.
4. “We are all here present before God.”
(1) Try to realise God’s presence; get past outward and temporal things, and call upon your soul to pass into the secret place of the tabernacle of the Most High. Compel your soul to grasp the thought--“Surely God is in this place”; and instead of saying, “I knew it not,” let us say, “We know it, and wait for a clearer revelation of His presence.” This is holy ground. Where you are sitting God has converted men ere now. Canst thou come where God has done His mightiest work, carelessly, heedlessly, and merely as a matter of custom and routine? Thou art occupying the room of men and women who today are before the eternal throne. This word is true: “We are all present before God”--and therefore let there be nothing unworthy of such a Presence and such a place.
(2) And how the thought of God’s presence will help to focus our attention; to take our eyes off each other, and off the preacher! How it will help to prepare us to receive God’s Word! How it will reduce to a minimum the over-critical spirit! Said a preacher to myself, “I notice when I give out my text, my people settle down and settle back; but, I am afraid, not so much to hear what I have to say as to watch how I get through.”
5. “To hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” They came to hear God’s Word. You know that today there is a tendency to say, “Hearing has been too much magnified. What I come to God’s house for is to worship. The preacher gets far too much space.” There may be something in that, but it is exaggerated. What was central here, and what must always be central in a gathering of saints or sinners is the preaching of God’s Word, and the attending thereto by the hearer. That is worship at its highest. All the powers of the soul get their highest use and their fullest freedom when God’s Word is faithfully and lovingly proclaimed. Faith cometh by hearing.
II. The preacher.
1. I have been speaking straightly to you, but now your turn comes. The pew has a right to say to the preacher, “Now, give us what God has told you. There are many things that might interestingly occupy an hour; give us, however, the thing that brought us here.” And this is needful, for we get so immersed in favourite lines of reading which unconsciously colour our utterances, so that we need from the audience--“Now, preacher, God’s Word and truth; all things from Him today, and nothing else. Never mind about reconciling science and revelation; we can get that in our magazines and read it at home. Give us today what really concerns us, ‘All things commanded thee of God.’” Peter needed that. He was a narrow, bigoted Jew, and he would never, of himself, have preached to Cornelius and his company the sermon they needed. At the best we are but men, and of narrowness and prejudice we have our share. Therefore there is tremendous need that the preacher should be in God’s hand, and come from God’s presence with his soul and voice attuned to a large, full, free, and glorious utterance of the gospel of the grace of God. Leave as to ourselves, and there may be some little glimmering light in our preaching, but only a little: there may be light from every quarter, to use the phrase of the day, save the Sun! The Lord blow out all our penny candles. His light has come. We need to come forth from God, He having poured into us something of the fulness of His mind and heart.
2. “Then Peter opened his mouth.” Do not run over that phrase and say, “Of course.” A number of us cannot open our mouths when we preach--it is the most piteous mumbling. Sabbath school teacher, preacher, “Open your mouth, and teach the people, as your Lord did and His chief apostle.” Let it be seen in the very manner of our speech that our mouth is open, for our heart is enlarged; that it comes, not feebly and faint and constricted, but glad and full and free, for the Lord is with us. Do not say, “I have no eloquence; I have a stammering tongue.” Who made man’s mouth? “Have not I the Lord? Open thy mouth; behold I put My words into thy mouth.” What does Isaiah say? “Lift up,” he says--and how much it is needed in this namby-pamby, over-refined, hypercritical age--“Lift up thy voice with strength, lift it up; be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God.” “Peter opened his mouth.” He lifted up his head, and let go! We put down ours, and hold on!
III. The sermon. It was the old gospel. It was new and fresh then. That is one thing that one does sometimes envy the first preachers for; for they had seen Him and His glory. Peter preached Christ, not theology, not a creed; but Jesus, sent for a particular purpose by God; how that, carrying out that purpose, He had died on the Cross and risen again, and that through Him is preached forgiveness of sins. That is where the gospel began then, and where it begins today--forgiveness of sins to a devout man, and one that feared God, and made prayers, and gave alms. People would have said today, “with an audience like that, what you want to do is not to take them to the Cross. Show them Christ, of course; but Christ as the great ideal and embodiment of all that is good, and a devout, God-fearing man like Cornelius will be enamoured with Him and make Him his Leader and Pattern.” “No,” says Peter; “We preach the Christ who died for sin to everybody.” A French officer, whose ship had been taken by Nelson, was brought on board Nelson’s vessel, and he walked up to the great admiral and gave him his hand. “No,” said Nelson; “your sword first, if you please.” That is the gospel.
IV. The result. There is a new name brought in here. I have talked of Cornelius, of Peter, of Jesus, of God the Father, but here is another name. While Peter yet spake these words about Jesus, “The Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the Word.” Cornelius possibly had heard of Jesus as a name of reproach and blasphemy. Now, Jesus leapt up into his heart as his Friend and Saviour, and God. That is the miracle of the Gospel. That is what the Holy Ghost does. If you know Jesus Christ, flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto you. Peter was there, as the preacher is here; and the sermon; but the Holy Ghost gives the increase and blesses the Word, and without Him fruit cannot be. (J. McNeill.)
Attending at ordinances enforced
We have here--
1. A call to Peter related--“I sent.”
2. Peter’s compliance with the call commended, “Thou hast well done that thou art come.”
3. An address made to Peter when he was come. In which take notice--
(1) Of a congregation, though small? yet well convened (verse 24).
(2) An acknowledgment of God’s presence in a special manner in religious assemblies, “We are all here present before God.”
(3) The great end of their meeting was their soul’s edification, to hear, i.e., to hear and obey. And here is what the minister is to preach and the people to receive: “what is commanded of God.” The extent of both is “all things.”
1. When God discovers His mind in any particular to a person or people, it is their duty presently to comply with it without delay. The contrary was the fault of Balaam, and of the Jews in Egypt (Jeremiah 44:1-30).
2. It is a blessed thing for a people to call that minister to whom God Himself directs and inclines them. Cornelius did not so much as know Peter by name (verse 5), but he goes to Gods and God directs him.
3. It is a commendable thing in a minister of Christ to comply with the call of God and His people, though it should be offensive to some, and not very agreeable to his own inclinations. The doctrine arising from the text is--“It is the duty of a people to attend on ordinances.” In discoursing from this I shall--
I. Give reasons why people should attend on and be present at ordinances, where God has set them up among them. Because--
1. God has commanded it (Hebrews 10:15). The Lord calls His people to be present there, wherever it is. Thus there was the tabernacle in the wilderness, and afterwards the temple, and the synagogues. It was the practice of Christ Himself to attend these places (Luke 4:16).
2. The public assemblies are for the honour of Christ in the world. They are where His honour dwells, where His people meet to profess their subjection to His laws, to receive His orders, to seek His help, to pay Him the tribute of praise.
3. These assemblies are the ordinary place where Christ makes His conquest of souls (Romans 10:14). The gospel is Christ’s net wherein souls are caught. And it is always good to be in Christ’s way.
4. They are Christ’s trysting place with His people, the galleries wherein our Lord walks (Exodus 20:24). What a disadvantage had Thomas by his absence from one meeting where Christ met with the rest of the disciples!
5. The delights of Christ and His people meet there; for ordinances are the heaven on earth. Christ delights to be there with His people (Psalms 86:2.; Luke 22:15). And they delight to be there with Him, and for Him (Psalms 84:1; Psalms 48:2; Psalms 27:4; Psalms 122:1).
6. The necessities of all that mind for heaven require it. Had the ordinances not been necessary, God would never have appointed them. Have not Christ’s soldiers need of them to clear their rusty armour? do not dead souls need them to quicken them? sleepy souls, to awaken them?
II. Show in what respects people are before the Lord at public ordinances. The Lord is everywhere present (Psalms 139:7). But we are before Him in a special manner in the public assemblies. He holds the stars in His right hand, and walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks. Christ is in the assemblies of His people--1, Representatively. He has His agents there, His ministers, who are the Lord’s proxies to court a wife for their Master’s Son (2 Corinthians 11:2); His ambassadors to negotiate a peace betwixt God and sinners (2 Corinthians 5:20; Matthew 10:40),
2. Efficaciously. The Word of the Lord is a powerful word. Christ is there giving life to some, strength to others, and death’s wounds to others (Micah 2:7; Psalms 45:5; Hosea 6:5).
3. As our witness. Men’s eyes and the devil’s eyes are upon us; but this country in regard to the public service of religion. Our forefathers put their clocks on the outside of their places of worship, that they might not be too late in their attendance: we have transferred them to the inside of the house of God, lest we should stay too long in the service--a sad and an ominous change. (R. Watson.)
Don’t grumble about the fodder
“Now, deacon, I’ve just one word to say. I can’t bear our preaching! I get no good. There’s so much in it I don’t want that I grow lean on it. I lose my time and pains.” “Mr. Bunnell, come in here. There’s my cow Thankful--she can teach you theology!” “A cow teach theology! What do you mean?” “Now, see, I have just thrown her a forkful of hay. Just watch her. There now! She has found a stick--you know sticks will get into the hay--and see how she tosses it to one side and goes on to eat what is good. There, again! She has found a burdock, and she throws it on one side and goes on eating. And there! She does not relish that bunch of daisies, and leaves them and goes on eating. Before morning she will have cleared the manger of all, save a few sticks and weeds, and she will give milk. There’s milk in that hay, and she knows how to get it out, albeit there may be now and then a stick or weed which she leaves. But if she refused to eat, and spent the time in scolding about the fodder, she, too, would ‘grow lean,’ and the milk would dry up. Just so with our preaching. Let the old cow teach you. Get all the good you can out of it and leave the rest. You will find a good deal of nourishment in it.”
A gentleman once said to Rowland Hill, “It is sixty-five years since I first heard you preach; and the sermon was well worth remembering. You remarked, that some people are very squeamish about the manner of a clergyman in preaching; but you then added, “Supposing one is hearing a will read, expecting to receive a legacy, would you employ the time in criticising the lawyer’s manner while reading it? No: you would give all your interest to ascertain if anything were left to yourself, and how much. Let that, then, be the way in which you listen to the gospel.”
Different kinds of hearers
There are four different kinds of hearers of the Word--those like a sponge, that suck up good and bad together, and let both run out immediately; those like a sand glass, that let what enters in at one ear pass out at the other, hearing without thinking; those like a strainer, letting go the good, and retaining the bad; and those like a sieve, letting go the chaff, and retaining the good grain. (T. Boston, D. D.)
Various kinds of hearers
One is like an Athenian, and he hearkeneth after news; if the preacher say anything of our armies beyond the sea, or council at home, or matters of court, that is his lure. Another is like the Pharisee, and he watcheth if anything be said that may be wrested. Another smacks of eloquence, and he gapes for a phrase. Another is malcontent, and he never pricketh up his ears till the preacher come to gird against some whom he spiteth; and when the sermon is done he remembereth nothing which was said to him, but that which was spoken against another. Another cometh to gaze about the church; he hath an evil eye, which is still looking upon that from which Job did avert his eye. Another cometh to muse; so soon as he is set, he falleth into a brown study; sometimes his mind runs on his market, sometimes of his journey, sometimes of his suit, sometimes of his dinner, sometimes of his sport after dinner; and the sermon is done before the man thinks where he is. Another cometh to hear; but so soon as the preacher hath said his prayer, he falls fast asleep, as though he had been brought in for a corpse, and the preacher should preach at his funeral. (H. Smith.)
Truth liked as a sentiment, but disliked as a law of life
A man comes to New York on an errand of fraud. He is seeking to take an estate away from the rightful heirs, because he has some little legal advantage. He has resisted his conscience, and suppressed all his reluctances, and his purpose is fixed. On arriving here he goes to the theatre--that school of morals!--and witnesses a play, the point of which turns on the defrauding of heirs by an old rich uncle--just the same thing as he is attempting. The various parts are gone through with, and everybody cries, and he cries, and he goes away feeling, “How mean it is for a man to supplant poor orphans in that way!” He cries over and denounces the very act which he is himself performing. You know that such things take place. There are hundreds of men that love to hear about temperance, and go and get drunk. There are many men that love to hear about truth, and lie like witches afterwards. There is nothing more common than instances which go to show that we like as a sentiment things that we do not like as an ethical rule. Oftentimes, when a thing comes to us as a rule of conduct, and lays its law on us, and demands our obedience, we resist it; but when, instead of that, it comes to us as on emotion, we like to lie upon its bosom, as a duck lies on a swell of water. Wicked men like to undulate on these moral elements. They like to go to sea on the gospel. They swing to and fro upon it with infinite pleasure. (H. W. Beecher.)
Hearing and its proper effects
When a man says he received a blessing under a sermon, I beg to inquire what effect it has produced. The Roman soldiers proved the effect produced by Antony’s sermon when they flew to avenge the death of Caesar. (J. Newton.)
Then Peter opened his mouth and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.
God the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him
I. To show by what marks we shall know whether we ourselves, and others, are sincere in the fear of God.
1. The first mark of sincerity in the concerns of religion is having carefully endeavoured to find our duty. For if we take a matter of this importance upon trust, and leave custom and fashion to choose our opinions, we must confess that we are very fortunate if we are in the right. Interest and indolence are always on the side of giving in to popular systems. If loss of esteem and authority attend embracing any opinion, men examine timorously, and are afraid of evidence; and when reason begins to strike, then they ask themselves, Have any of the rulers of the people believed on Him? They creep and fix their sentiments upon others, and like the ivy, never ascend higher than that which chance has given them for a support. But the foundation of Protestantism and Christianity is another method of examination: we must throw aside the world and all the consequences that may attend it, and have our thoughts wholly on our duty. We must empty our minds of every favourite prepossession, and receive the kingdom of God like little children; have no opinion of our own, and no desire that either this or that doctrine or action should be true and our duty; but only that we may know what is truth and our duty. No person can pretend that he has not abilities, because all that is required is that they use the abilities they have. If with an honest and teachable heart they desire to do the will of God, His promise and His goodness are engaged that they shall know the truth in everything, on which their everlasting happiness depends. And if we find difficulties in performing this duty, and ourselves liable to mistakes, it ought to fill us with modesty and diligence, with mutual forbearance and charity, and then our very errors may be useful.
2. The second mark by which we may judge whether we are sincere is by working righteousness, and doing everything we know to be our duty. The end of faith is practice, and the only thing valuable in knowing our Master’s will is that we may obey Him. We may therefore comfort ourselves with being sincere in our fear of the Lord, if we join a religious performance of the duties we know with our endeavouring to go on to perfection. And we religiously perform our duty if we are virtuous in secret, as well as in the eye of the world. We must perform the whole of our duty if we truly fear God, and not choose some darling folly to indulge in secret, and flatter ourselves that He hideth away His face and will not see it. We must throw aside at once all our vices, and caution most against that we are most willing to palliate and excuse, and be in every known instance obedient. It is true indeed that God has given us no commands but what is our interest and present happiness to obey; but if we perform them upon the low motives of convenience only, they are the actions of a man of prudence, but cease to be the offices of religion or Christian graces.
3. The third mark of sincerity in our fear of God is expressing our zeal for things in proportion to their real value.
4. Another mark by which we may manifest a sincere fear of God is our being charitable to those who differ from us in our sentiments.
5. The last mark I shall mention, by which we may know our sincerity in seeking for the will of God, is by the methods we use to convince others of the truth of what we ourselves embrace and believe
II. Which brings me in the second place to show why this virtue entitles us to the favour of God.
1. And first, it is all that we can possibly perform. The text tells us that God is no respecter of persons, and therefore He must have put it into every man’s power to please Him: but He hath given them nothing besides their whole abilities, and therefore, if these are employed with honesty and fairness, God can expect no more. The knowledge which is sufficient to recommend a poor man, obliged to take care by his industry for the subsistence of his family, may be inexcusably little in those who are raised above such low solicitudes and enjoy leisure and improvement.
2. The second reason why this is so pleasing to God is because it will improve our natures. God who created man to communicate happiness to him, must be pleased to see him advance to all the perfection and felicity He gave him capacities to enjoy.
3. The last reason why this sincere fear of God, expressed by diligently inquiring after His will, is so pleasing to Him, is because it will always teach us those things which are most truly useful and worth knowing. This discourse may be thought liable to one objection, viz., that if sincerity is the only thing required to make us acceptable to God--and that may belong to men of every religion--therefore all religions are equal. But to answer this objection, which would have never been thought so much as plausible, had it not of late been so often, and with so much delight, repeated, if it be granted that men may support their lives by herbs and acorns, would it not be a strange conchasten to infer from thence that we esteem a country which produces that food only equal to one flowing with milk and honey? Yet the case is exactly the same and exposes the absurdity of the objection.
III. The conclusion I would draw from what I have said, suitable to the design of the day, is this, that thence we may learn to soften our conduct toward all well-disposed men that differ from us. (Thomas Rundle, LL. B.)
God no respecter of persons
Here we have one of the many strong contrasts between God and man.
I. Why God is no respecter of persons as man is. Because--
1. Man’s estimate is of very limited compass as to the number of persons taken account of--God’s is universal. Men can take account of but very few persons for either respect or contempt. Look at the multitude of the inhabitants of a great city, or province, what a great majority of them we can have no individual estimate of at all! And then, think of a nation--and the whole world. There are, indeed, a few distinguished persons who have a character in the estimate of a great part of the civilised world, but what a diminutive number do these make! But God has His estimate of every person of the entire race.
2. The whole world of mere exteriors is as nothing to God. Man is the dupe and idolater of them all over the world. Nothing so mean or bad, but if a fine appearance can be thrown over it, it becomes as a god to him. But God estimates men in their intrinsic qualities. What an infinity of superficial shows part off from them under that inspection! What a different thing must man appear when all these are fled! And if men could be presented thus to one another, what would become of most of the human gods of human idolatry? The feebleness of our vision cannot do this entirely. But it is true, also, that we are far too willing to be imposed on by the delusive show of the world.
3. Men are respecters of persons from self-interest. They are looking up to certain men, and thinking what advantages they can confer. It were but trifling to show how the Divine Being can be under no such influence in His estimates.
4. Men respect persons because others do, without well knowing any other reason why. As a number of persons collected at a spectacle will quickly draw a multitude, so let an individual come to be accounted of importance by a portion of society, and the rest soon follows. God has no opinion in the universe to regard but His own. What is it to Him that one diminutive creature after another adds its slender intellect in affirmation of the judgment of a crowd? In every view, He is infinitely superior to the influence of all the causes by which men are made to be “respecters of persons.”
II. Contemplate this Divine superiority in reference to several of those things which command men’s highest respect. We all see how men are affected towards persons of--
1. Great wealth. What deference--what attention to what is said--what prompt compliance! Suppose the impression a man not known to be rich makes shall be simply that of his apparent personal qualities--his dispositions--his sense--his manners. And suppose it then to become suddenly known that he is very rich, what a difference! A very considerable degree of misconduct or vice does not put the rich down in society. They can at once defy opinion, and be sure of obsequiousness. What a state of human sentiments is this in the sight of God! He “is no respecter of persons.”
2. High station in what is called birth, rank, and power. In former times (and in many parts it is so still) the multitude have regarded this class as actually being of some mysteriously higher order of human nature. Still there is quite enough “respect” to gratify their utmost pride--pompous titles of honour, a vast parade of state and ceremony. The ground is cleared for them, in society, wherever they appear; their mere will, or caprice, is considered as authority, without requiring a reason; the worship of God itself is deemed to be vastly honoured if they deign to pay it some formalities of attention. Every conceivable palliation is adduced, by force, in their behalf, to extenuate the grossness of sin; and pompous funeral celebrations are given them when they die. Now turn the thought to God. Think! If He had any partiality like this, what would become of His government? What would then have been His dispensations in Egypt, in Babylon, in Judaea? What would then be the condition of the oppressed, when they cry and appeal to Him? He looks on all these distinctions as the mere transitory accidents of the mortal condition. He requires the same self-abasement, and repentance, from all these loftier persons, as by the meanest--or they reject them at their peril. And His great messenger, Death, makes, as it were, melancholy sport of all these robes of grandeur.
3. Great mental endowment. And this is different from the others, in being a more intrinsic quality. And from that cause, and from its being less obvious to vulgar apprehension, it has nothing like so many idolaters. Nevertheless, it has always been an object of perverted regard. Every epithet appropriate to divinity has been applied. There are, at this hour, many enthusiastic admirers of human talent, who are despisers of God! In behalf of men of great talent there has been and is a disposition to suspend or abrogate the most essential laws of morality. And short of such an extreme, respect of persons may be excessive. There are persons who have no relish for truth, but as displayed in the style of genius or eloquence; as if the grave matter were nothing, and the decorations were all. There are some who habitually indulge contempt for all who are not distinguished by mental superiority, of whatever excellence otherwise. But think of Him! What is all this in His sight? The Being whose intellect pervades all things. What is the greatest human intellect compared with the least angelic spirit? What may even that spirit be, compared to the most elevated created mind? What is that--what are all minds together, as compared with the mind of God? (J. Foster.)
God no respecter of persons
Here we note--First, Peter’s acknowledgment of his former mistake, in which are three things.
1. The preface. “Then Peter opened his mouth”--a Hebraism indicating that he is about to speak something weighty on mature deliberation (Matthew 5:2; Psalms 8:2; Psalms 78:2.)
2. The means of his conviction. “Of a truth I perceive”--a phrase used of those who are persuaded to change their opinion on full conviction.
3. The error that God was such a respecter of persons that He would not reveal Himself to any but Jews. Here we see--
(1) That God’s people may err. Peter had read the prophecies about the calling of the Gentiles, and had received Christ’s commission to disciple all nations. So we often hear the truth expounded and yet perceive it not. Therefore we had need to be careful lest we be ignorant of an obvious truth.
(2) That the godly, when convinced, confess their errors. Controversies would soon end if we could learn Peter’s modesty. Second. Peter’s positive assertion of the truth now learned.
I. What is respect of persons? Regard for that outward condition whereby one differs from another.
1. Gifts of the body. It is not the strong or the beautiful that are accepted of God, but the good and holy.
(1) He is strong in a spiritual sense, not that overcometh another man, but that tameth his own flesh (Proverbs 16:32) and vanquishes temptation (1 John 2:14).
(2) So not beauty but grace makes us amiable in the sight of God (1 Peter 3:3-4).
2. Gifts of mind. Learning, etc., may make us more serviceable in the world, but do not commend us to God (Genesis 3:1; 1 Corinthians 3:18).
3. Gifts of estate, rank, quality. The blood of the poor is of the same colour as of the rich (Acts 17:26). Social distinctions have no weight with God (1 Corinthians 1:26; Job 34:19; Revelation 20:12). So with bond and free (1 Corinthians 7:22; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25).
4. Nationality. Some peoples lie nearer the sun than others, but they are all alike near the Sun of Righteousness (Galatians 3:28).
5. Religious profession and privileges. Cornelius was a good man, but wanted circumcision, and was accepted, while many a carnal Jew was rejected (Romans 2:9-11). If by outward profession there be a people nearer God than others, they have the privilege to be first rewarded if they do good, but to be first punished if they do evil.
II. In what sense is this denied of God?
1. He is no respecter of persons in His government. This is forbidden to man (Leviticus 19:15); and so denied of God (1 Peter 1:17). God may be considered as a righteous Governor and as a free Lord. In the latter capacity He may do as He seeth meet. Hence of His free mercy He called the Gentiles, and gives the grace of His gospel to one and not to another (Matthew 20:15). We can plead no right either by merit or purchase. On the other hand God governs man by a law, and judges according to that law (Cf. Romans 9:16 and 1 Corinthians 9:24)
2. He is no respecter of persons in His gifts of grace (Matthew 11:27).
III. What is the meaning of this qualification? “That feareth God and worketh righteousness.”
1. Fear is the principle of obedience. Not that this excludes faith in Christ (John 15:5; Hebrews 11:6; Hosea 3:5).
(1) Holy fear is of two kinds.
(a) The fear of reverence, which is necessary that we may not offend God (Jeremiah 10:7; Revelation 15:4).
(b) The fear of caution, which is necessary to make us watchful against temptations (Hebrews 4:1; 2 Corinthians 10:12; 1 Peter 5:8).
(2) Why is this frame of heart pitched upon?
(a) That we may carefully abstain from what displeases God (Genesis 39:9; Philippians 2:12).
(b) Because it produces a diligent endeavour to approve ourselves to Him.
2. Working righteousness is the fruit of this sense of God upon our hearts. This is required--
(1) In respect of God that we may honour Him in the world: for our obedience makes our esteem of Him visible (2 Thessalonians 11, 12; Acts 10:2).
(2) It is for our own comfort. When we obey God it leaves an evidence in our consciences (1Jn 3:19; 2 Corinthians 1:12; Proverbs 3:17). Comforts are the rewards of obedient children (Psalms 11:6).
IV. The meaning of the privilege. “Is accepted of Him.” He that feareth God, etc.
1. Is sure of God’s favour and protection (Philippians 1:6).
2. God will increase this, for He delighteth to crown His own gifts (Proverbs 4:18; Proverbs 10:29).
3. God will perfect it and reward it (Psalms 15:2; Psalms 106:3). (T. Manton, D. D.)
God no respecter of persons
I. A point newly perceived. “Now.” That so great an apostle should confess this shows that his Roman chain was not yet made, and that his brother apostles (chap. 11) had no idea of his infallibility. Job in scorn said to some in his time, “You are the only men, you perceive all”; but Moses did not (Numbers 15:34), nor Elijah (2 Kings 4:27). But Caiaphas perceived all (John 11:49); not so Peter here, and Paul (1 Corinthians 13:9). Of a truth we perceive Peter comes not near his successor, who perceives all that is to be perceived at once, and gets Caiaphas’ knowledge by sitting in Peter’s chair. But it is not only this they differ in. For Peter took Cornelius up (verse 26); his successor lets Cornelius’s lord lie. The Samaritan woman said, “The Messiah when He is come will tell us all.” Yet when He came He said even to Peter, “What thou knowest not now” (John 13:7). I speak this for some who are far enough from Rome but think they perceive all God’s secret decrees. Luther well said that everyone has by nature a Pope within. Even they that believe it not of Rome are easily brought to believe it of themselves. “Of a truth I perceive” will bear two senses--“I perceive that I did not before,” or “I perceive that the contrary whereof I conceived before.” Not to perceive is only to be ignorant, but Peter had held quite contrary. Ignorance is but privative, this positive, and so an error--an error in the great mystery of godliness (1 Timothy 3:16), a part whereof was preached to the Gentiles. And this error he held in common with his brethren. This only we are to look to, that with Peter we be not wilful, but ready to repent, when shown our error. Then we may conclude that if we be otherwise minded God will show it unto us (Philippians 3:15).
II. What that point is.
1. Privative--that “God is no respecter of persons”--i.e., in Greek and Hebrew “faces” which show themselves first (1 Samuel 16:6). Under the face we understand the facing; under the person everything that personates and makes personable--country, condition, birth, riches, etc. Men respect all this, but it is nothing to God. Was Peter, then, ignorant of this? No, for Moses had said it (Deuteronomy 10:17), and Elihu saw it by the light of nature (Job 34:19). And so Samuel (1 Samuel 16:7) and Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 19:7). The answer is that Peter knew it before, but not as now. We know many things by book and speculation, which, when we come to an experience of it, we say, “Yea, I know it indeed,” as if we had never known it before. Experimental knowledge is knowledge in truth. Was this Peter’s knowledge? No; for he, as we, have experience of it daily. God deals His gifts of nature--outward: beauty, strength, etc.--inward: wit, memory, judgment--without respect of persons. He bestows them on the child of the mean as soon as of the mighty. So it is in wealth and worldly preferment (Psalms 113:7), and in God’s judgments. And no man had better experience of it than Peter, who, a poor fisherman, was accepted to be an apostle (Galatians 2:6). What shall we say then? Though he could not but know this general truth, yet he thought that there were exceptions, not of persons, but of nations, and that of all nations the Jews alone were accepted of God (Amos 3:2; Psalms 147:20). This had run in Peter’s head, but he perceives he was wrong, and that by Cornelius’ vision compared with his own.
2. Positive. “In every nation,” etc. Solomon in effect said as much long before (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
(1) “Feareth” and “worketh” jointly. Not the one without the other--neither fear which works not, nor works which do not come from God’s fear in our hearts. Pharisaic personations, Paul’s “mask of godliness” (2 Timothy 3:5), Peter’s “cloke” (1 Peter 2:16) God cannot accept. God Himself told Samuel (1 Samuel 16:7) that He “looks not as man looks.” Man looks upon the outside, God looks within. The inwards were God’s part in every sacrifice. He looks first at the heart, and in the heart to the affections; of all affections that of fear; of all fears that of God. How comes God to be feared? We fear evil, but there is no evil in God. Ans.: Not for any evil in Him, but for some evil we may expect from Him, if we fear not to offend Him, by doing that which is evil, which punishment is not evil but just. Paul, knowing the terror of this, persuades men (2 Corinthians 5:11). This fear to suffer evil for sin makes men fear to do the evil of sin or to forsake it (Job 1:1; John 3:5).
(a) First, fear--because it is first; “the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:10). It was the first passion that was raised in Adam (Genesis 3:10). Then he began to play the wise man and forethink of the folly he had committed. Fear is a bridle to hold us in or turn us from evil (Proverbs 3:7). Another reason is, fear is most general. It goes through all--heathens, as is shown in the case of Nineveh; beasts, as in the ease of Balaam’s ass. And this fear, if it have its full work to make us depart from evil, is wisdom complete (Job 28:28; Ecclesiastes 8:12); for of the seven spirits which are the divisions of one and the same Spirit, the last and chief is “the Spirit of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2). Regard not them who say that this is no New Testament doctrine, for even there it abideth. There it is the dawning of the day (Malachi 4:2). It is as the court is to the temple, as the needle that first enters and draws after it the thread that sews all together. Not to fear is the next way to fear. The work of fear is to make us cease from sin; ceasing from sin brings with it a good life; a good life carries with it a good conscience; and a good conscience casts out fear. This for the introduction, and ever after, when faith is entered it is a sovereign means to preserve (Php 2:12; 1 Peter 1:17; Matthew 10:28). So, then, this fear is not Moses’ song only (Revelation 15:3-4).
(b) But works also. Is God all for within? Accepts He of nothing without? He accepts a good righteous work too if it proceed from His fear in the heart. God would have us begin with “fear,” but not end there. For neither fear alone nor faith alone is accepted of Him. If it be true fear such as God will accept, it is not a dull, lazy fear, his fear that “went and digged his talent in the ground.” God will have his talent turned above ground, and not have religion invisible within. And observe that it is not “that doeth,” but “worketh righteousness,” i.e., that makes it a trade. “Learn it,” says Isaiah (Isaiah 1:17), as one would learn a handicraft to live by; learn it and make an occupation of it, after Christ’s example (verse 38). This “righteousness” is described in verse 2.
III. God’s acceptation.
1. He will take them--
(1) Where they be to take; but where they are not He cannot take. Our “alms,” alas! are shrunk up pitifully; “prayer” swallowed up with hearing, and feasting substituted for “fasting.”
(2) But it is said that there is no faith here, without which it is impossible to please God. But would Cornelius have spent his words and chastened his body without some faith? Would he have called upon a God in whom he did not believe? (Romans 10:14). Nay, he must have believed that God is, that He may be sought, and that He will not fail them that seek Him (Psalms 9:10; 2 Corinthians 8:12). The flax did but smoke, but Christ quenched it not, etc. He took him as He found him, and that in order to bring him nearer the ways of His salvation.
(3) But now, lest one error beget another, take this--that he was, and we shall be, accepted, gives us some heart; and that he was but accepted takes away all self-conceit. It is neither our fear nor our works, but God’s gracious acceptation. God counts them worthy and so makes them worthy. His taking our works of righteousness well in work is their worth. There was another centurion whom the elders of the Jews dignified highly; but he indignified himself as lowly (Luke 7:4-6). So with Job (1:8, 9:15, 10:15). See Ephesians 1:6. Our work is to get men to do well, but not to ween of their well-doing.
2. To what end accepted. The profession of religion by baptism. (Bp. Andrewes.)
God no respecter of persons
“Oh,” you say, “I am such a little plant; I do not grow well; I do not put forth as much leafage, nor are there so many flowers on me, as many round about me.” It is quite right that you should think little of yourself; perhaps to droop your head is part of your beauty. Many flowers had not been half so lovely if they had not practised the art of hanging their heads. But “supposing Him to be the gardener,” then He is as much a gardener to you as He is to the most lordly palm in the whole domain. In the Mentone garden grows the orange and the aloe, and others of the finer and more noticeable plants; but on the wall to my left grow common wall flowers and saxifrages and tiny herbs such as we find on our own rocky places. Now the gardener has cared for all of them, little as well as great. In fact, there were hundreds of specimens of the most insignificant growths all duly labelled and described. The smallest saxifage will say, “He is my gardener just as surely as he is the gardener of the Gloire de Dijon or the Marechal Neil.”
Prejudice is one of the greatest enemies to human welfare. Of all the train of mental ills with which we are affected it is one of the most difficult to be eradicated.
1. Prejudice has given protracted vitality to countless social abuses. One of the best remedies for this evil is to inspect closely the grounds of our cherished prepossessions, and to ask, Why do I do this? Why do I feel so?
2. The strongest prejudices are religious. What is given to us by tradition from our forefathers, familiarised to our earliest associations, we can hardly bring ourselves to question or examine, and we often hold as enemies those who differ from us even in minor points. As we generally feel more earnestly about religion, to our prejudices here we may trace all those religious feuds and bitter persecutions which have disgraced the page of history.
3. In the context we have a memorable instance of relinquishment of the strongest possible prejudice, so strong even in a good and noble man that direct Divine interposition was necessary for its removal. Notice--
I. Spiritual excellence, and not the accidents of external condition, alone avails with God. Take some illustrations confirmatory of this from--
1. The Scriptures: e.g., the choice of Abraham, Moses, etc.
2. The dispensations of Providence.
(1) Wealth and power are administered impartially.
(2) Health is equally shared by rich and poor.
(3) Genius: our poets, legislators, inventors, orators, and divines have more frequently emerged from the cottage than from the mansion.
(4) So with the blessings of happiness, life, and age. Death which spares not the hovel spares not the palace, just as the wind fades the cottage flowers as well as the productions of the conservatory.
3. The administration of the benefits of redemption. Not many mighty are called, yet there are some--Wilberforce and Bunyan. Only one door of mercy to all. “Whosoever will,” etc.
4. The day of judgment and its results. “We shall all stand before,” etc.
II. Why has God no respect of persons except in relation to moral goodness?
1. Accidents in condition seemingly great to us bear no such relation to Him. This world is like a grain in the balance of His mighty creation. Its revolving centuries are but “as yesterday when it is past.” He surveys all toils, plans, etc., serenely as the stars look with undisturbed light on mortal things.
2. They are not the essential elements of our being. They spring from birth, etc. They are not the man, and pass away with time.
III. Why does God supremely value spiritual excellence?
1. It is the true basis of worth in every intelligent creature. It is so of angels, and of man as man. “In every nation,” etc.
2. It is God’s own spiritual reflection, and therefore the true basis of friendship with Him. God’s moral nature must take cognizance of its kindred elements. Here, then, is consolation for all. None are too lowly or poor to be the accepted friends of the Lord of the universe. (J. Foster, B. A.)
On the reception of new truth
1. The main purpose of the Acts is to unfold the broadening spirit and form of the Church of God. It is a history of transition. On its first page the Christ ascends. As the heavens, into which He rises, overarch the whole world, so His gospel spreads its wings for its worldwide flight. Soon the Spirit breathes upon the apostles, and they begin to act under an inspiration as free and wide as the wind that typifies it. On every page some barrier gives way; with every line the horizon broadens. One feels as if sailing in a great ship, under a bounding breeze, out of a narrow harbour into the wide sea.
2. With this change of scene there is corresponding change of personal attitude; conversions not only in character, but in opinion; it is a record not only of repenting and turning, but of broadening. Valuable as this book is as a record of events, it is more valuable as introducing the life of the Spirit, and as showing how the faith of ages develops into liberty and the full life and thought of humanity.
3. The incident before us is a happy illustration of this in its assurance of possible sainthood outside of the Church, yet showing its hard conditions, telling us how the centurion’s devout aspirations carried him into the realm of vision, and brought upon him an inspiration greater than any that came upon his blind yearnings after righteousness. Here also is a somewhat similar experience of Peter. Sleep is not vacant of spiritual impression. Into that mystery the Spirit may come as unto its own, and say what it could not when the man is hedged about with wakeful and watchful powers. Shakespeare puts the deepest moral experiences of men into their dreams.
4. Notice how God not only enlarges and broadens the views of these men, but does this in the direction of Himself. For there is an enlargement of view that is mere breadth without height; it grows wise over matter and force, creeps but never soars, deeming the heights above to be empty. In preceding centuries the mind shot upward, but within narrow limits. There was no look abroad; nature was simply to be used as found, not studied for further uses. Hence, there was great familiarity with the lore of religion, but dense ignorance of the laws of matter and of human society. Today the reverse is true. It is interesting to note how this tendency pervades classes that apparently do not influence one another: thus the scientific class and the lighter literary class; neither reads the works of the other, yet in each we find the same study of matter and man, and the same ignoring of God and the spiritual nature. Or, compare the man of universal culture with the average man of the world, who reads the newspaper, and keeps his eyes open on the street: the latter knows little of the former, yet we find them holding nearly the same opinions about God and the faith, vague and indifferent; but both are very observant of what is about them. And all this is for some wise end. It had become necessary that man should have a better knowledge of the world, and of his relations to it and to society. Hence his attention is directed thither by a Divine and guiding inspiration, and no thinking man can be exempt from it. The only danger is lest the tendency become excessive, and we forget to look upward in our eagerness to see what is about us. It is the office of Christian thought to temper and restrain these monopolising tendencies and secure a proper balance between them. “God fulfils Himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
5. I have fallen into this train of thought by reflecting how God led Peter away from his small notions of religion, and brought him into a higher and larger conception of Himself. As we read the story we wonder at the readiness and ease with which Peter gave up old habits of thought and entered into new ones. What is the explanation?
I. It is in the nature of religious changes that they shall occur suddenly. There may be, there must be, long seasons of preparation, but the transition is instantaneous. Saul goes a-persecuting, and a light above the sun’s dazzles him into instant submission. The Holy Spirit comes like a rushing wind upon the disciples, and in an hour they are new men. The jailer hears and believes in a night. Luther, while toiling up the holy stairs, holding to salvation by works, drops that scheme on the way, and lays hold of the higher one of salvation by faith. Ignatius Loyola in a dream has sight of the Mother of Christ, and awakes a soldier of Jesus. It is often so. We do not so much grow into the possession of new spiritual truths as we awake to them. Their coming is not like the sunrise that slowly discloses the shapes and relations of things, but is like the lightning that illuminates earth and sky in one quick flash, and so imprints them forever on the vision. Character is of slow and steady growth, but the revelations of truth that inspire character are sudden. A new outlook is gained, and the man is changed, as, in climbing a mountain, it is some sharp turn in the path that reveals the new prospect which inspires the onward march. Some can affirm that it was in a moment that the charm of poetry, the pleasurable consciousness of thought, the passion of love, the dignity of manhood, the obligation of service, the sense of the Divine goodness, came upon them.
II. Peter got sight of larger and more spiritual truths than he had been holding. When what claim to be truths are of equal proportion, we balance them, or try one and then the other; but as soon as one asserts itself as larger and finer we accept it instantly. Peter had been used to believing that God was a respecter of persons, but when he caught sight of the fact that God has no partialities, his true-loving nature rushed at once toward the greater truth.
1. We have an appetence for new spiritual truth, and take to it readily. This does not imply that we are to go about peering into the corners of the universe to find new truths, nor that we are to sit down and manufacture them. Truth already exists; there is now all there ever will be. All we have to do is to take it; to hold ourselves open to it; to do God’s will, and we shall know it. The fundamental Christian idea is God seeking man, not man seeking God. We make but a poor figure when we attempt to think out a religion. It is not a search after God, but a revelation of God. We ourselves can find nothing. The main thing for us to do is to get out of the caves of sin and self-conceit into the open air, where the sun shines and the Spirit breathes.
2. There is also in such truth a self-attesting power that tends to secure instant reception. When one comes to me with a new machine, or a new theory of government, or of matter, or life, I hesitate; but when I see a new disclosure of the Divine love, or a fresh exhibition of humility and patience, or of some new adaptation of Christianity to human society, I at once believe. It is simply another candle brought into a lighted room.
3. This self-attesting quality goes farther and becomes commanding. Peter says, “God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” It is one of the subtle workings of all high truth that it vests itself, as by some instinct, with the Divine attributes.
4. I have had in mind thus far not any new truths, but rather a fresh and expanding vision of other sides of many-sided truth. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as new truth; but there is such a thing as fresh sight of the truth. We can hardly do anything worse for our moral growth than to hold it in such a way that it may not change its form. Not that one is to hold his faith as in a constant flux, or suffer himself to be blown about by every new wind of doctrine, but rather that he should attain the two-fold attitude of alertness and passivity: passive to the Spirit that is ever breathing upon us, and alert to note and follow the unfolding revelation of God in the world.
III. Having spoken generally, i shall now speak more particularly of some of these truths. To call attention to this intermingling of permanent and changing qualities.
1. Take that of the Trinity. It has another look today from that it wore a hundred years ago. It is the characteristic thought of God at present that He is immanent in all created things, yet personal, the life of all lives, the soul of the universe. With such a conception of God, it becomes easy to see how there should be a Son of man who is also the Son of God, and a Spirit everywhere present and acting--a paternal heart and will at the centre, a Sonship that stands for humanity, a spiritual Energy that is the life of men, and through which they come into freedom and righteousness. This conception of God may be brought into the category of science, and even be required by it.
2. So of the atonement: it has always been putting on new forms and yielding a richer life. It is the most elastic of the doctrines, and we are getting to understand it as containing the law and method of life for every man: “He that loseth his life for My sake shall find it.”
3. So also of regeneration. It has been held simply as a moral necessity, having its basis in sin; but we are beginning to see that Christ taught it also as a psychological necessity. We must be born again, not merely because we are wicked, but because we are flesh and need to be carried forward and lifted up into the realm of the spirit,--a constructive rather than a reconstructive process.
4. In the same way the doctrine of Divine sovereignty is resolving into the universality of law. Science, with its doctrine of an original, ultimate force, advances more than half way towards this assaulted truth.
5. Or take the doctrine of sin, its inheritance and its relation to the personal will. The doctrine of heredity as found in the pages of science, the doctrine of freedom as found in the pages of philosophy and the observation of life, yield nearly all we care to claim.
6. So, too, of the miracles. Modern intelligence has grown so wide that it embraces both law and miracle in one harmony. No one now defines one as the violation of the other. An assertion of “the reign of law” does not disturb us so long as we are conscious of the hourly miracles wrought by personality.
7. Take next retribution. It will never be denied so long as men have eyes to trace cause and effect. Just now we are finding out that it is not a matter of future time, but of all time; an eternally acting principle. The true preacher of retribution makes it clear that the wages of sin is death, and emphasises the two features of retribution that alone are effective, its nearness and its certainty.
8. Take the inspiration of the Bible. There is not now, and probably never will be, any generally accepted theory, simply because inspiration cannot be so compassed; as Christ said, “Thou canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.” It is the breathing of God upon the soul. We are getting to speak less of the inspired book, and more of the inspired men who wrote it. The revelation, therefore, will have a two-fold character: it will be Divine and human, the one conditioning the other; not an imperfection, but rather the only kind of revelation that could serve our needs, for the line of revelation from God to man must run through the human heart. But without a theory, we are reading the Bible with fuller faith than ever before. The more light we bring to it from nature and study and experience, the clearer its truths stand out; in such light it is becoming its own evidence, and no more needs an apologetic theory than a candle needs an argument for illumination.
IV. But a thoughtful mind will ask, how happens it that christianity has this two-fold feature of a permanent essence and a shifting form? The answer will take him into that world of thought recently opened, the main feature of which is the law of development. The timid may linger on the threshold, but once in, the atmosphere is found friendly. It is not something to be quelled, but an ally to be pressed into service. What it does for every other department of thought it may do for the faith--open another door between the mystery of the external order and the human reason. Recognising this principle, we can read the Old Testament, and need no other explanation or apology than it affords. The sayings of the Christ become principles and revelations of eternal truth. The mustard seed, the leaven, etc., not only fall in with the principle, but attest Christ’s absolute knowledge of it. It will be noticed that the reception of new truth has been spoken of in two ways that are apparently contradictory: one as quick and as by instant revelation; the other gradual, a growth or development. They are not inconsistent, but represent the two-fold nature of truth as having a Divine source and element and a human ground and element, and the two-fold nature of man as spirit and mind. These methods play into each other. One prepares the way for the other. One is slow, and keeps pace with the gradual advance of society and a like development of the individual. The other is quick, is allied to the mysterious action of the Spirit, which knows not time nor space, and accords with the loftiest action of our nature. I gain knowledge slowly; I gain the meaning of knowledge instantly. (T. T. Munger.)
The outside saints
When we assume the certain exclusion from God of all born subjects of false religions, is not Peter’s vision as truly for us as for him? The Old Testament denounces idolatry, it is true, but these denunciations were not made to the idolaters, but to God’s own people dwelling in a clearer light. So when we say, “There is none other Name,” etc., do we not fall into the mistake of not observing that it is those who have heard of the name of Christ, that are put under this ban, and not Pagan people who have never heard of Him? If in every nation he that feareth God, etc., is accepted of Him, how many may there be who never heard of Christ, to whom God is an unknown God, who yet are so far right with God as to be fitly joined with us in the common hope! They compose a Church beyond the Church who, without a gospel, have learned to walk in God’s private light. A glance at certain great first principles would induce the hope that many more than one commonly suspects are harvested for the kingdom.
(1) That God loves all men impartially, having the desire to be loved by all.
(2) That He is never afar off from any, but is putting in them a desire to seek and to find Him.
(3) That the Spirit of God is going through all minds, drawing their inclinings towards the inborn grace that will be in turn His finding of them. My present object is to show how God finds access to outsiders, and engages them in a felt devotion to His friendship, by an examination of Bible examples.
1. Take Enoch. There was no Scripture or Church in his day. He lived a solitary life of walking with God. He was probably derided by his contemporaries, which made it his necessary comfort to live “in the testimony that he pleased God.” And this was not audible, but was the witness of the Spirit who came in the door of nature set open wider by his faith till finally he became so leavened by the Divine affinities that he was translated.
2. Noah was a preacher of righteousness without a Bible, and there was no person out of his own family who had any care for religion. And the oracle that found him so verified itself as to put him on building the ark; for God, by a process which he could only trust, and not understand, was preparing him to be the father of a better age.
3. With Abraham the Church begins, and yet he is prepared by an outside training. He had no written revelation or organised religion. But he came out a profoundly religious character, from amidst idolaters, so that he could receive a life call at first hand, and take the necessary guidance in that call.
4. Moses was brought up as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, separated from his race, and trained in all the learning of the Egyptians, a training which shows itself in all his politics. Then in Midian Jethro, an outside, but grandly religious man, comes to help him in his religious development. So Moses was a virtual outsider till his call in the burning bush.
5. Then take Balaam, the beauty and evangelical richness of whose oracles are inimitable. He was a soothsayer, but while divination had been forbidden to the Jews, it had not been forbidden to the Mesopotamians. And therefore it was only natural that he should mix enchantments with his oracles--just as our astrologers and alchemists sought religious light with mixtures of incantation. He was certainly faithful to his convictions, against the blandishments employed to win his consent.
6. Job is not a Jew, and his book not a Jewish book. Its piety is real, but out of all connection with Bible history. And thus you have one of its most remarkable books of Scripture, a theodicy for after ages, the work of an outsider.
7. Cyrusis one of the best characters of ancient history, and the reason of his conduct towards God and His people is given by Isaiah, who declares that God unseen has holden his right hand, and raised him up in righteousness.
8. At the very opening of the New Testament we encounter the Magi, religiously related to Cyrus, priests of the Merle-Persian religion, watching the stars to spell God’s oracle, and becoming so spiritualised in habit as to be not unfitly honoured by the guidance of a star to Christ.
9. The Syrophoenician woman, whose faith was so heartily commended, was Pagan born, but by some heavenly guidance went to Christ for help.
10. The case of the centurion was like that of Cornelius, about whom Christ says, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” And He did not stop there, “I say unto you, that many shall come from the east,” etc.
11. I might turn off here to such as Numa, Marcus Aurelius, Plotinus, Plato, and Socrates, and look directly into the workings of the religious nature in many thoughtful men outside revelation, and see their notions of God, their expressed longings for a revelation, their gropings, and almost findings. Their yearnings sometimes put them in a state in which they lay hold of Christ at the very first discovery, even as a starving man of bread.
12. And if we go apart still further--among the savage tribes, we find many traditions that seem almost to have the sanctity of a revelation, and now and then a character assuming the distinctions of genuine piety. So we see that God has had His witnesses in every age of the world apart from His covenant and the institutions of His grace. From all this we may learn the following lessons:
I. We are not to judge that the mere possibility of a revelation outside the Bible supersedes the want of it. That was not the opinion of God when He sent His angel to Cornelius to put him in the way of one who should teach him Christ. The souls most enlightened have sighed for a veritable revelation. Having gleams, almost visions of God, they wanted it the more. Christ, the Bible not wanted! Just as well to be without a revelation! What could show the unsupportable destitution of such a state better than the gropings and only casual findings of hungry millions?
II. Let no one turn the blame upon God that what is so much wanted everywhere is not everywhere given. Doubtless God might rain Bibles, but He must also rain written languages, and the power to read them. And then the readers would want to know how the book grew to be a book, the revelation how revealed. If a Bible could be got up mechanically as showers in the sky it might justly be concluded that all men ought to have it. But it has first to be incarnated, and so revealed through humanity; for truths must be enunciated in persons. Bibles could not be made faster than men are good enough to have revelations made through them.
III. We are not to push the dissemination of this gospel by any false argument that dishonours God. Tell us not that every man ignorant of Christ must perish. Why should we push ourselves to this work of gospelling the world, by putting it on that He has given no possibility of life to millions? Rather let us tell what God is doing for them, what possibilities He opens for them, and how certainly He sometimes gains them to His love. Then as we are so gloriously privileged let us give them our privilege.
IV. Let us have it as one of our most sacred duties to the Bible, not to use it so as to shut ourselves and all that have it away from God’s immediate revelation by it. The external revelation is not given to be a substitute for the internal, but a guide into it. We are to find God after all by an immediate knowledge like all the outside saints, only with the help of the Bible which they had not. The Bible is received only when spiritually discerned: i.e., when it brings us in where God is, to know Him by our faith and love, and have Him in a first-hand knowledge, even as Abraham had, or Job, or Cornelius. If we desire to know Boston, the map of the way will not show it, but will only take us thither, and let us get the knowledge for ourselves. The Bible in like manner tells us how others found God, that we may find Him also. Conclusion: Let us cast a glance into that future life, in which all righteous souls are gathered. Many of them will belong to the class of inside saints, some to the class of outside; the former will have known Christ all their lives and been fashioned by His Gospel and character; the latter will now meet Him perhaps for the first time, and will salute Him as the unknown Friend they had always with them. To meet with these outside saints--outside no longer--how blessed it will be! And what a beautiful variety they will give to the general brotherhood! “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold,” etc. (H. Bushnell, D. D.)
The law of Christian enlargement
I. It has been made an objection to christianity that it involves a system of religious privileges limited, for some two thousand years, to a single nation: and although the New Testament proposes a more catholic plan, still it makes itself responsible for the Old. How is this consistent with the benevolence of a God whose love is wider than the world?
1. Long before this separation of Israel, God declared that it was not a permanent law. At the very moment when the selection began, an explicit prediction was carefully annexed to it that it would be expanded into a grand brotherhood of the world. Abraham, in whom the special calling began, was the very man to whom the Lord said, that among his descendants there should be a “seed,” a certain wonderful Son, in whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed. That mysterious Shepherd-king of the whole human flock was to have a Hebrew mother (Galatians 4:4), so as to connect the special preparation with the universal blessing: but that He might be free of every possible human restriction, His Father was to be the Father of all that live. The promise in Genesis is as broad and as catholic as the preaching in the Acts.
2. Is there anything in this selection that justifies it? Why does a missionary gather in a score or two of children, out of hundreds, into a school, leaving the rest for the time untaught? When a Christian merchant wants to benefit paganism, why does he choose out one or two native youths of bright parts and send them to England for an education, instead of scattering spelling books among the heathen houses? When you want to introduce into a manufacturing interest an improved machinery, why do you send a single student to the best engineering school instead of exhorting the agents and masters of the mills to improve themselves in that department of science? The principle is that of selection and concentration, for the sake of a general benefit, and such is the nature of the human mind and of human society that practically this is the better and shorter way. Now, when Moses was lying all unconscious of it in the little rush basket in the Nile, the great problem was how to stop the race from going any further wrong, and how to turn it about, and get it ready for the setting up of a Divine order. And this was to be done not by thrusting in of an arbitrary revolution which would simply set the outward works all right, but would leave the springs of spiritual life--love, choice, energy, faith--all untouched. The thing wanted was to bring in and set up these grand interior holy forces in the soul. God took, therefore, the practical way. He chose out one nation, and sent it to school to learn the prophetic rudiments of Christianity and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. This is the key to the scheme. Was not the plan magnificent? Can the best critic or the shrewdest objector suggest a wiser? And when we take a view of the whole Old Testament history, with all its strange incidents, its erring heroes, and faulty saints, intermingled with its splendid virtues, its sublime loyalty, its eloquence and poetry, and its supernatural prophecies, is it not a very poor thing indeed to carp at an unexplained passage here and there, or to sneer and cavil at some half-veiled feature in the majestic working out of the design? And all this while the original intention was never forgotten. When the Jew should have been drilled and taught, the Gentiles would be gathered in. No sidereal motion in astronomy, no regularity in celestial cycles and orbits wilt be more sure than the rising, in the due time, of the Epiphany star--“A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of My people Israel.”
3. Another explanation to relieve the alleged narrowness of the Jewish religion is its constant progress as it goes on. With the intensest hostility to everything foreign; with an intolerance and superciliousness all the more tenacious because bound up with their religious scruples, there was ever a mighty hope of the breaking down of all international walls, and the gathering in of all to an equal share with themselves in the peace and glory of the Messiah’s dominion. The strain grows louder and more confident all along till, in Malachi, we have it resounding in that sentence, to which the famous saying of the great orator, where the morning drum beat of the British Empire circles the earth, is but a feeble figure: “From the rising of the sun, even unto the going down of the same, My name shall be great among the Gentiles,” etc.
II. Give a few moments to a use of St. Peter’s words which will bring them down to ourselves. “In every nation he that feareth God,” etc.
1. The sense here is not theological, but popular; so that they are wide of the mark who suppose that the apostle means to take back all that he preached of every man’s need of repentance and faith. He means this:--In every nation, now that Jesus Christ has come, there is an equal access to the open door for every tongue and tribe and people. The Pentecostal signs mean nothing less. There are no external disqualifications, and no internal incapabilities for being saved. “Fearing God and working righteousness” is the ground of acceptance, not meritoriously, into heaven, but into the privileges and helps of the Church as the school for heaven. Christ died for all. The Church is Catholic. And while St. Peter spoke, “on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
2. So the Word and Spirit of Christ go on constantly filling out our small measures of charity and hope--breaking up our petty judgments, enlarging our sympathies for all classes. We have a great many personal and private limitations.
(1) The circle of our own purely personal interests. Christ, by the Cross of His sacrifice, makes a constant remonstrance against these; and unless we catch His spirit, and give up self for service, we can be none of His.
(2) The circle of the family. This is a little wider, but often only a little. We may only see ourselves, and love ourselves, in our children. But our doctrine requires us to see whether our absorption in our own domestic pleasures restricts our sympathies for strangers.
(3) The circle of our own social set--a very dangerous as well as subtle enemy to true spirituality and nobleness. All the mutually admiring and complacent members just reflect each other’s prejudices, study to please each other’s whims, and so, of course, must stop growing in all that constitutes greatness of heart. Then there is the circle of business engagements, where the slave of mercantile ambition, or routine, sacrifices home, church, and his higher life for the poverty that is starving him.
(4) The circle of patriotic attachments. Scarcely yet--Christian as we claim to be--has the idea of the brotherhood of nations entered into the statesmanship, much less into the politics and legislation, of even civilised man.
3. We are not to suppose that Epiphany signifies to us a mere sending out of a few missionaries to foreign countries. Done earnestly and heartily, that is worth doing, and, the more we do it, the more Christian-like we become. Men may say they prefer to give their missionary money nearer home, where they see what becomes of it. But remember that it is by setting up standards and beacons, Christianising a few here and there, even when results look small, that a great testimony to Christ is finally given. (Bp. Huntington.)
He that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.--
Piety and virtue both required by the gospel
Religion consists of two constituent branches--faith and practice.
1. The fear of God, in the most extensive sense of it, denotes the whole of piety; all those devout affections of soul, reverence, love, gratitude, and truth; and all those external acts of worship, prayer, and praise, which we are bound to pay to the Supreme Being.
2. Righteousness, in its most general meaning, signifies the whole of moral virtue; and to do works of this kind is not barely to abstain from acts of injustice and oppression, but to abound in offices of kindness and humanity.
I. Piety without virtue, faith without morality, falls short of the christian character, and will not be accepted by the Supreme Being. There is no part of religion more binding upon mankind than justice and beneficence. From our situation in society, in the midst of our fellow creatures, dependent on one another, we are taught to cultivate humanity as the most useful virtue in life. From our Christian obligations we are bound to practise universal benevolence, not merely as an ordinary virtue, but as the distinguishing quality of a true Christian. What, then, shall we think of the immoral devotee, the man of prayers without good works? He wants the most godlike disposition of heart, and the most substantial virtues in life. He wants the distinguishing character of a Christian, and an indispensable qualification for eternal glory. His devotion is either a hypocritical appearance assumed to impose upon the world, and to serve his own ends; or it is only a transient glow of devotion raised occasionally in the mind, which, like the morning cloud and the early dew, soon passeth away; or, which is oftener the case, it is the superstitious observance of a mistaken and corrupted mind, which would substitute a form of godliness in place of virtue. True piety is a principle which regenerates the heart and reforms the life.
II. Morality without piety, good works without faith, a regard to society without the fear of God, is equally insufficient to salvation. There is no sentiment of mind which is more deeply founded in nature and reason than a sense of God and of religion. Devotion is no enthusiastic rapture. It is only the exercise of affections which form a part of our constitution, and are essential to the human mind. We are formed by nature to admire what is great, and to love what is good. You treat great men with marks of respect. And is no reverence due to the greatest of all beings, to the King of kings, and the Lord of lords? You profess esteem for worthy characters, and have you no regard to the infinite perfections of the Divine nature? To remain unmoved at the view of infinite goodness implies the utmost degree of corruption. Such a person must, indeed, be far from the kingdom of God. Depravity of heart, however, is not the only crime of the mere moralist, the man of good works, without faith. His discharge of the moral duties, upon which he values himself, must be exceedingly defective. A sense of what is right, a regard to honour, and the instinct of benevolence, may work upon men’s minds, and engage them to do many good actions. But those natural principles are too weak to resist the force of corrupt passions. Such is our propensity to vice, and so numerous the temptations to sin, that far stronger restraints are necessary. Accordingly, the man of mere morality is always inconsistent in character. If it be fair on one side it is strained on the other. Though he practise some virtues which deserve to be applauded, he is guilty, at the same time, of vices which tarnish his reputation; and thus, while he is confessedly devoid of piety to God, he is defective in justice and charity to men.
III. The sufficiency when united. The union of these amiable qualities forms the character, not only of the respectable man, but of the true Christian. Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. The true Christian, the man who fears God, and works righteousness, is not merely entitled to acceptance through Christ. He is also qualified for the enjoyment of future glory. His charity joins him to man; his piety unites him to God. (A. Donnan.)
Acceptance of God
There is no argument here in favour of heathenism.--it is rather an argument in favour of Judaism. Cornelius’s character was not the result of classic culture, but of classic culture supplemented by Divine revelation. Seeing, then, that he was accepted of God before his conversion, why not let him and others like him alone? Simply because they cannot let themselves alone. They are still conscious of a painful void in the heart, which only God in Christ can fill. To be “accepted of God” is not the only desire of the heart; man wants to be perfected. Judaism would enable a man to be accepted; but it could not “make the comers thereto perfect.” “For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did.” This, then, is the reason why Cornelius needed the gospel--the gospel alone could fill the desires of his heart and perfect him in goodness. And what aspect of the gospel did Peter present to him? First, that God in Christ came to seek man, to do him good. In this Christianity differed from all the heathen religions. The latter always represent man seeking God but never finding. One of their own writers was at last obliged So exclaim--“Man cannot find God, God must therefore find man.” Read the Bible and you discern in every page, not man seeking God, but God seeking man. But Peter not only spoke of the Saviour’s life, he dwelt also upon His death. Other religions declared what man ought to do for God; this religion declares what God has done for man. The preaching of the gospel thus tended to revolutionise the world. The world, so to speak, is thrown off its centre. In ancient astronomy the sun revolved around the earth: in modern astronomy the earth revolves around the sun. We see a corresponding change in the science of religion. Compare the end of the chapter with the beginning. The beginning tells us what Cornelius did for God--he prayed, he fasted, he gave alms:--that is the groundwork of all ancient religions. The end tells us what God did for Cornelius--He sent His Son Jesus to live and die, “that through His name whosoever believeth in Him should receive remission of sins”: that is the groundwork of the Christian faith. (J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)
The glorious doctrines
I. The absolute impartiality of God. The words “God is no respecter of persons”--
1. Do not teach--
(1) That God pays no regard to men. The deist would have us believe this; reason, consciousness, analogy, and the Bible, however, refute it.
(2) That God looks upon men indiscriminately--regards them merely in the mass. No; He looks on each individually.
(3) “That God bestows blessings on some which He denies to others; although this is true, for He has given to each some distinguishing blessing of mind, body, or estate.”
2. They do teach that God does not respect persons--
(1) In the same sense that man does. Man’s respect for persons is--
(a) Very limited. How little man knows of his race. God knows the millions.
(b) Very superficial, whereas God looks at the heart.
(c) Selfish, whereas God’s is beneficent.
(d) Popular. Man respects those whom the multitudes applaud.
(e) Adventitious. It is because of what man has rather than what he is.
(2) In the sense of disturbing for any the settled conditions of happiness. The conditions of physical, mental, and moral health are the same to all.
(3) In the sense of limiting His salvation to any particular class. This is what the apostle means here. God’s provisions of mercy are for the world.
(a) The merits of the atonement are sufficient for all.
(b) The force of moral motive is adapted to all.
(c) The agency of the Spirit is available to all.
II. The necessary element of moral goodness. “He that feareth God,” etc.
1. The fear here, of course, is not the servile, but the filial; it is the fear of a love which casts out all slavish feeling. The word stands here, as elsewhere, to represent that state of mind which God requires from every man. It is a fear that worketh righteousness. It must be of such a character as inspires and secures right conduct in relation to God, man, and the universe. There is a fear toward God that worketh nothing. It just touches the soul occasionally and goes off in a sigh. There is a fear that worketh wrong--a superstitious feeling that leads to an unnatural and intolerant life. The fear that worketh right is alone the genuine thing; it is the essence of moral goodness.
2. This is that in a man which God respects and accepts wherever found. He does not accept a man because of his birth, country, or particular form of worship, or because of his Judaism, Gentilism, or Christianity. He that is right, whether he be a Socrates or a Paul, a Cornelius or a Peter, is accepted of Him. The Bible is full of this truth (2 Kings 22:19; Psalms 34:18; Psa 52:15-19; Deuteronomy 10:12; 1 Samuel 15:22; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8; Matthew 5:8).
III. The mediatorship of Christ (verse 36). The Word, i.e., gospel, is God’s instrument to generate this rectitude of soul. Peter shows that Christ’s mission--
1. Was Divine in its origin.
2. Was redemptive in its purpose.
3. Was universal in its aspect.
4. Involved His death on the Cross, and His resurrection from the dead. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
God’s plan, and our part in it
To study the unfolding of the Divine plan is one of the greatest occupations that can engage the mind of man. It engages the student of nature. It is the pursuit of the devout historian, to whom the track of human history appears spread out as a river from its source to its mouth. It is above all the study of the Christian, who, Bible in hand, loves to muse on that wonderful development of the Divine plan which, through page on page of psalm, and prophecy, and history, has wrought out the wealth of meaning that lay enshrined in that earliest promise given to man between his fall and his expulsion from the gate of Paradise. The chapter Item Which our text is taken possesses extreme interest because it records a marked stage in the development of the Divine plan.
I. The Divine plan is coincident with human need. “While Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said unto him, Behold, three men seek thee, arise, get thee down, and go with them.” The point to notice is that these three men were representatives of the great heathen world--etc., they were not acquainted with what is known as revealed religion. One was a devout soldier, the other two were household servants of a Roman officer, who commanded one of the choicest regiments in the Roman army. We are thus confronted with the whole question of the heathen needs. There are men whose goodness is unquestionable who reason thus, “The gospel is the ordained means of salvation and the only means; now it is clear that the heathen, having never heard the gospel, cannot believe it, therefore they cannot be saved.” Now, this line of reasoning cannot be true. Even if it were argued as consistent with God’s justice, it could not be shown to be consistent with His pitiful goodness, to condemn them to suffer for the ages of the ages, if there were no way of salvation for them but the holding of definite convictions about the person and work of One who had never been revealed to them.
1. Nationality is of no account to God. The Jew thought that salvation was for him alone.
2. It is also clear that God deals with men according to their light. Our Lord drew a clear distinction between the servants that knew and those that knew not their Lord’s will.
3. It is also clear that God can give credit for the quality of man’s moral attitude. After, on one occasion, upbraiding the cities in which His mighty works had been done, our Lord went on to say, “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” He here tells us what would have been. Now, this intimate knowledge of the moral condition of man, of the quality of the soul, and of the way in which it would act, is an essential qualification of the Judge of all men. It enables Him to deal not with the results or manifestation of character, but with its essence. I go into the market, and on a barrow I see some spring flowers. An experienced friend says, “Buy them.” On inquiring I find the price enormous. “What!” I whisper to my friend, “Are they worth so much?” “Yes,” he replies, “if you plant them in your hothouse, or beneath a sunny wall, they will bloom and fruit thus and thus.” His knowledge of what they may do under certain conditions justifies me in buying the unsightly bulbs at an extravagant figure. Now, it is so that our Lord deals with men. He thinks, not so much of their creed, or even of their actions, but of their moral nature, and of what they may or might become, if favoured by certain soil, and sun, and rain. And if in the twilight of heathenism the soul has yet attained but a sickly growth, the Lord will still set a high value on it, and if He sees that in the full light of the gospel it would have equalled the moral nature of the best, He will put it on a level with them. We cannot too much insist on this, that our Master knows the moral nature of each, and what it would do under more favourable circumstances, and He judges us not by what we say or do, but by what we are. He knows how much of our failure to put to the credit of ignorance, and how much to the essential stupidity and stubbornness of our hearts.
4. It is also clear that God has not left Himself or His truth without witness in the heathen world.
5. It is also clear that no man is saved apart from the death of Christ.
6. It is clear also that the acceptance of men, whether Jew or Gentile, is only possible to faith.
7. But if this be the case with the heathen, why send them the gospel? For two reasons. First, because what they have cannot satisfy the noblest spirits. Cornelius is said to have prayed to God alway. For what did he pray? Evidently for what he had not got, for light and grace and power, for the fulness of God’s salvation. Outside of Christ there is no certain knowledge of the love of God, of forgiveness of sin, or of eternal life; the heathen can only guess at the best; he longs to know that God is love, that sin may be forgiven, and that there is a future life. And for further light and teaching on these momentous subjects, the heathen world sends its representatives to knock at the door of the Christian Church. But there is a yet more imperious demand which sends them there, referred to in the expression, “Words by which thou shalt be saved.” Great as is the yearning to know, there is a still stronger one to be. The one demand of the noblest souls was for power--power to salvation, power to resist sin, power to fulfil the noblest yearnings of the soul. And this is the burden of our message to the heathen today. We do not deny to them visions of God, intuitions of truth, lofty unselfishness, morality, prayer; but we affirm that they lack power, power unto salvation. But, secondly, the heathen for the most part are not represented by Cornelius. They have not faith. They do not live up to their light. They fail to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. They do not fear God and work righteousness. They are sunk in sin, from which they show no inclination to arouse themselves. In this case they have to be saved from the results of their own evil choice. They must be awakened, convicted of sin, led to repentance. There is no doubt, therefore, as to the need of man, and we adore the grace of God that His plan has been coincident with it. It is always so. Nature and Providence work as a double hinge. The fish do not seek insects in the summer afternoon, which do not flutter over the silver surface of the pool. Birds do not seek for fruits and berries which are not strewn through the woodlands.
II. The Divine plan can only be wrought out through human cooperation. In each stage of its unfolding it has been so. When from amid the recreant race of man God was desirous to select one family to become the depository of the sacred trust, He called Abraham from kindred and country, and prepared him by special trials for his high commission. When the progress of the Divine purpose seemed to be arrested by the captivity in Egypt, He took up the broken thread in Moses, the faithful servant. And at each successive crisis there was a David or a Hezekiah, an Ezra or a Nehemiah to carry it forward; as in the torch bearing of the old Greek games. And thus it has been in all subsequent ages, as the plan of God has taken some new phase there has ever been a Paul, an Augustine, a Luther, a Wesley, a Carey, through whom it has wrought. By men the will of God has been done on earth, as it is in heaven. This is the one passionate yearning of all true hearts, to know whether they are carrying out God’s plan. There is plenty of work which is being done in the world which is abortive. Great beginnings, poor endings. This line of thought suggests some very serious reflections. It is clear that God’s plan is not as yet realised. And what sort of men are they through whom He will work? Ah, Peter shall furnish the illustration. There was plenty of human nature about him. But with all the peculiar idiosyncrasies that marked this foundation stone from all the rest in the foundations of the New Jerusalem, there was that devotion to the Lord and Saviour, that love for prayer, that openness of heart to the Divine Spirit, that willingness to obey, that absence of assumption, which lifted the prostrate soldier to his feet with the words, “Stand up, I also am a man”; which are the prime notes of any soul to whom God will reveal His purpose, and by whom He will effect it. Is this thy state of heart? Then wait at Joppa, however obscure the place, and tiresome the delay. Nourish thy heart with prayer and meditation. Dare to wait though all men bid thee begone. If the vision tarry, wait for it.
III. The evolution of the Divine plan is always accompanied by the outpouring of the holy ghost. Plan and power always go together. “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the word.” There is no need to expatiate on our need of the Holy Ghost, and that need is two fold, first as respects His influence on the worker, then as respects His cooperation in the work. There is a mysterious something in the worker who is endued with the Holy Ghost, which you can neither define nor imitate (F. B. Meyer, B. A.)
The individual not overlooked in the mass
This is not an answer to the question, Are there few that be saved? It only states the conditions of being acceptable to God. This is not a saying which the profane and prayerless may take comfort in, for it speaks of the acceptance only of those who are reverent toward God. It is not a message of peace to any who are selfish, unjust, or immoral, but to those only who work righteousness toward their fellow men. It does not say there is no difference between religions; that Christianity and the worship of heathen temples are just alike in the sight of God. It simply says that God is indifferent to national lines, and accepts an obedient heart and life in one nation as readily as in another. It does not follow that men are just as likely to be devout and righteous in one land as in another. Race, training, associations, occupation, do influence character. God never overlooks the individual in the mass of which he is a part. God regards biography more than history. If your son or daughter has gone to some new region or strange city, you are more concerned in your child’s welfare than in the history of the place. General and individual forces appear everywhere interworking in human life, yet can be broadly distinguished everywhere. History occupies itself with general movements under the impulse of physical conditions, or tides of public feeling. Biography is concerned with the development of individual character in the midst of these general forces. History is vaster than biography. Social life makes individuals part of an organisation. History is more and other than the sum of the lives of its actors, as a twisted rope has more strength than the sum of its strands. History is vaster than biography. Yet on the other hand we cannot explain the character and lives of individual men and women by the social and physical conditions into which they are born and among which they develop. In the later centuries, at least, race has been a stronger element than climate in determining the course and development of history, the English stock showing its superior vigour in all the zones, though not, it must be confessed, in all the arts. The superiority of race to physical conditions is not, however, the highest point of man’s dignity. Peter saw a more glorious sunlit summit of truth when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the family of the Gentile Cornelius. He saw that the individual is more even than race and environment, more than the fated development of inherited characteristics under the influence of these or those external conditions. Each soul is a living unit, responsible to God and under God’s particular regard. Race, climate, and the movements of surrounding life affect every individual. Yet is the individual supreme. Shall Joseph because he is in Egypt say, It avails nothing to worship the God of my fathers in this strange land? If Joseph had taken the colour of his surroundings, where had been his honour as the deliverer of his people, and who had saved Egypt from the famine? If Moses had become a courtier in Pharaoh’s court, or a hermit in Arabia, who had led Israel out of Egypt? That God is thus a Father and never overlooks the individual in the mass, is a truth of the greatest practical importance to us. God never uses men as a chess player does his pawns--to win a victory for himself without regard to the pieces used. The chess player moves his pieces here or there for the sake of the game. God rules and overrules the affairs of history for the sake of individuals. The earth was made for man. Institutions, as the family government, and the like, have been established of God, not for their own sake but for their share in promoting the welfare of individuals. No individual need ever be in despair because the drift of life about him is toward evil and the multitudes are swept on by the current toward ruin. Fear God and work righteousness, and you shall be acceptable to God. The evil drift of life about us is never a sufficient excuse for evil living or neglect of Christian duty on our part. We may not be responsible for the general tendency of life in our time or community, but we are responsible for the way we individually behave in the current. The ship master must sail for his port whichever way the currents run. The more adverse the currents, the more resolutely must he hold the helm. The chance for a Cornelius to be acceptable to God, while in the brutal army of Rome, lay in the individual power to be different from his surroundings. It does not signify much in respect to individual character to be swept along in general movements, whether of religious fervour, of temperance enthusiasm, or of patriotic zeal. What most signifies both in manifesting and developing character, is the individual movement apart from that which is general. We are of such high estate in God’s image that every individual can be more than his surroundings. It is just in such times that righteousness most shines out in contrast with evil-doing, and the strength of reverent faith grows stronger by the very lack of anything short of God to cling to. The hope of religion in the world, the hope of every reform and of all progress, lies in the superiority of the individual soul to its surroundings, in the vital power of individual character. If men must be formed by their surroundings, no generation could ever break away from the corruptions of the past. But men are individual centres of power. So you and I are called to fear God and work righteousness, whether others hear the Divine call or forbear. We may make our own calling and election sure, and we may by God’s blessing turn the current of the time to piety and righteousness. (W. E. C. Wright.)
The Word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ.
St. Peter at Caesarea to a Gentile company
1. Christ gave to Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”--not keys of heaven, not keys of the Church, militant or triumphant, but keys of the kingdom of heaven on earth. St. Peter used one at Jerusalem to open the kingdom of heaven to the Jews; a second at Samaria, to open it to the Samaritans; a third at Caesarea, to open it to the Gentiles. We know that the Lord designed Saul to be His apostle to the Gentiles, but there was obvious advantage in the employment of Peter to open the door. He was known to all as a strict Jew; and if he was satisfied of the extension of God’s grace to the Gentiles, that would go far to abate the prejudice of the Hebrew Christians.
2. At Caesarea Peter did not make the occasion for his speech. It was made for him by Jesus, who was now directing from heaven the activities of His servants in the foundation and extension of the Church.
3. At Jerusalem the apostle began by removing a misconception from the minds of those whom he addressed; at Caesarea he acknowledged the removal of a misconception from his own mind. The definiteness and decision which marked his address were admittedly suited to a military audience. He also showed both tact and fairness in putting his statements on ground which was common to all. At Jerusalem he had spoken to Jews, and therefore rested on the ground of the Old Testament. But at Caesarea, though Cornelius was doubtless acquainted with the Septuagint, the ancient Scriptures were not to Gentiles what they were to Jews. Such adaptation is in harmony with common sense, and must be practised if justice is to be done to religious truth. To missionaries it is indispensable. A missionary to the Jews must reason from Moses and the prophets. But to the Gentiles it is not of much consequence to learn how the gospel is related to “Moses’ law.” What they need is to hear of One who has come “to destroy the works of the devil,” and to transfer men “from darkness into marvellous light.” This principle of adaptation shows itself clearly in Peter’s train of thought. His speech was--
I. A rehearsal of facts of which the audience was already cognisant (Acts 10:36-39). Though Jesus had never visited Caesarea, its inhabitants could not be unaware of the facts of His life and death. The fact that He had been accused before Pilate of high treason, and had been crucified as King of the Jews, must have attracted the notice of military men. St. Peter affirmed that this Jesus was no revolutionary agitator, but a preacher of good tidings of peace; though, as the apostle happily observed in a parenthesis, He was Lord, not of Israel only, but of all mankind. He did not touch the imperial rights of Caesar, and yet at the same time He was far above all the Caesars. The word and authority of Jesus had been attested by good deeds and works of healing; and these again were accounted for on this ground--that God, who had sent Him, was with Him, and anointed Him with the Holy Ghost and with power. If there was any hesitation to believe this, Simon Peter and his companions were ready with personal testimony; and although the speech was not interrupted by any question, we can well suppose that in the “certain days” which he spent at Caesarea, St. Peter told many an incident which his own eyes had seen in his Master’s career. Such a Prophet, such a Healer, the Jews had slain. The fact was already known, but the apostle saw fit to lay emphasis on the entire innocence of Jesus. He did so in order to remove any impression which may have lurked in the minds of an Italian officer that One whom the Roman governor had sentenced must have in some measure deserved His fate.
II. The announcement of a new fact, which changed the whole aspect of the case (Acts 10:40-41). God had raised up Jesus from the dead on the third day. No allusion to the 16th or 18th Psalm meets us here. Quotations from these were for a Jewish, not a Gentile, audience. What they cared for was sufficient proof; and the apostle adduced the proof with an exactness admirably suited to the occasion. He said, not that his Master was seen to rise, but that He was seen after He had risen; not that He was seen by as many as saw Him crucified--for the Christ-rejecting Jews were to see Him no more--but that He was Been by duly qualified witnesses, chosen by God. And in what way can any historical fact of an unusual nature be more sufficiently proved? If any allege that not even God can raise the dead, we have no argument with them here. But grant that the thing is possible with God, and then say what conditions of evidence would satisfy the mind. All mankind could not be present, so that it is a question of sufficient evidence. Now, in regard to Christ’s resurrection, note that--
1. The witnesses were sufficiently numerous--men and women, apostles and less prominent disciples; one at a time, then two, then eleven, then seven, then “five hundred brethren at once.”
2. They were of unblemished character. The rulers despised them as unlearned, but could never prove deceit. One of them, James, was honoured of all classes in Jerusalem as “the Just.”
3. They were Christ’s close companions, and could not have mistaken any other for Him.
4. They had ample opportunity to identify Him; for they not only saw and heard Him, but “did eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead.”
5. They told the story from the beginning, and at the greatest possible risk to themselves. They laid on it at once the whole weight of the cause which they maintained; if it was a lie or an illusion, the Church would fail.
6. They adhered to it till their last breath; and not one of them could be induced to modify the statement that the Lord had risen.
III. A statement of the power and glory of the risen Jesus (verses 42, 43).
1. “This is He who is ordained of God to be Judge of the living and the dead.” St. Peter had touched on this at Jerusalem, when he spoke of the “time of restitution of all things,” addressing Jews, and confining himself to the sphere of Jewish expectation. But now he stated it in the way most suited to impress Gentiles. There was a special fitness in the first announcement of this to Gentiles being made to a Roman officer. The Romans were men of the sword, the sceptre, and the judgment seat. The Emperor was looked up to by the world as lord of all. And he, too, was judge of all, for appeals went up from all regions of the known world to the supreme throne of judgment at Rome. The apostle Peter had a startling statement to make to those men, which involved no treason against Caesar, and yet made the Emperor’s glory pale.
2. “Through His name everyone that believeth on Him shall receive remission of sins.” This came in well after the previous announcement. He who will be the Judge is now the Saviour. To this truth St. Peter said that all the prophets were bearing witness. Not the prophets of the Old Testament, which would have no significance for Roman soldiers, but prophets of the new age, as foretold in the ancient oracle of Joel (see Acts 11:27; Acts 13:1). As in music one does well to end on a full clear note, so the apostle did well to close with this abundant testimony to the blessing of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Good news to the Gentiles! It was such an assurance as none of their prophets, priests, or philosophers could give. And then this blessing was to be obtained on so simple a plan as faith in His name. He had not time to call on them to believe, for he was gloriously interrupted in his address. Soon as the good tidings of pardon fell from his lips, the audience was suffused with spiritual tenderness--“The Holy Ghost fell on all of them.” Mark what power resides in one short, clear sermon on Jesus Christ, when God has prepared both preacher and congregation. A hearty, straightforward preacher, brethren with him who are in prayerful sympathy, and an audience penetrated by the feeling that they are all assembled “before God”--what may not such a combination secure! That day was the Pentecost of the Gentiles. It is inaccurate to pray for another Pentecost, because the dispensation of the Spirit cannot begin again. But it is a constant duty to pray that the Spirit may continue to demonstrate to the hearts of men that word of salvation which is preached. (D. Fraser, D. D.)
The Messiahship of Jesus
Peter places foremost--
I. The prophetic office of Christ. God has proclaimed peace by Him; hence the message of peace, the Word, the doctrine of Christ, comes into the foreground. Next come the works of Christ (verse 38)--the deeds harmonised with the Word. The Word proclaimed, the deeds effected, peace and salvation. The deeds corroborated the Word; and if Christ were now to cease to bestow salvation, freedom, peace on enslaved souls, His Word of the gospel would find no more belief.
II. The priestly office of Christ.
1. In His death (verse 39).
2. In His resurrection, by which the atonement was completed and accepted.
3. In His bestowment of the virtues of His atonement--remission of sins through faith.
III. The kingly office of Christ.
1. He is Lord of all (verse 36).
2. He is Judge of quick and dead (verse 42).
He is highly exalted, the Lord of all men, Jews and Gentiles, so that all are bound to honour and obey Him. The climax of this glory is that Christ is appointed Judge of the world, even of the dead; so that His kingly power embraces even the lower regions, and generations long since dead, as well as those who are still unborn. (G. V. Lechler, D. D.)
I. This peace, which was not only preached to the Jews by Christ, but was procured for all by His life and death, was--
1. Peace with God, through the blood of Christ offering atonement for guilt and removing the ground of enmity.
2. Peace within--the ceasing of the conflict of earthly passion through the subjugation of the will.
3. Peace between man and man, between Jew and Gentile, through the breaking down of the middle wall of partition.
II. As the gift was peace, so are the means by which this is assured to mankind.
1. The ministers of the gospel are messengers of peace. They were neither Roman centurions nor Roman legions, but Peter and Christian disciples.
2. The weapons by which this peace is procured are weapons of peace (Galatians 5:22-23)--gentleness, goodness, meekness. In this the mildness of the gospel is contrasted with the stern punitive character of the Mosaic law.
III. This Preacher of peace is Lord of all. His sceptre is one of peace, for those who yield obedience to His law will not fear man (1 Peter 3:13). His sceptre is an almighty sceptre, so that where He bears rule no enemies can hurt (Romans 8:31). (W. Denton, M. A.)
Negotiations for peace
I. Reasons why those are not reconciled to God should desire peace with Him.
1. It is not commendable to be at enmity with any of the wise and good; but when it comes to opposition to God, who in his right mind can do other than bewail it, and desire to see it ended by a gracious peace? Strife against evil, injustice, and tyranny is honourable, but no possible benefit can arise from a conflict in which we are on the wrong side. “Acquaint thyself,” then, “with God, and be at peace, for thereby good shall come unto thee.”
2. The war in which you are engaged is an unjust one. It never ought to have been begun; and what ought never to have been begun had better be dropped as soon as possible. Sin is war against right, love, happiness. To love evil is dishonourable, wrong, unfair, and the conscience of man tells him it is so. What evil hath our Creator done us that we should go to war against Him? Doth He not command His sun to rise upon the evil as well as the good? If He were a cruel tyrant, I could understand your warfare; but the Lord is full of mercy, and His name is love.
3. He who began it has been terribly defeated. Our first parents were the dupe of an older rebel. Apollyon, once an angel, would fain have become equal with his Maker, but he was banished from heaven, and then resorting to this lower region, seduced our race. Little has he gained, by this stratagem, overwhelming has been his defeat. Jesus has led captivity captive. He whose heel was bitten by the old dragon has broken the serpent’s head. Revolt, then, against him. What right has the devil to reign over you? He neither made, preserved, or blessed you; evil only, and that continually, will he do unto you. Strike for your freedom at once, and shake off his galling yoke. The wages of sin will be death; why continue in so unprofitable a service?
4. The force which is brought against you it is utterly impossible for you effectually to resist. It is well when we contemplate warfare to see whether we are equal to the combat. Who with one thousand can meet him that cometh with twenty thousand? Consider ye this, ye that forget God. Can your puny arm hope to rival the right hand of Jehovah? As well might you seek to dry up the Atlantic, or bid Niagara leap up the rock instead of down! Let not the wax contend with the fire, nor the stubble with the flame. A man stands in the way of a steam engine rushing on at express speed; he knows that according to the laws of nature its weight and velocity effectually prevent his staying its course. Do you call it courageous on his part that he stands on the track and defies the iron horse? It is madness, suicide. God will not alter His laws for you. They are just and right; wherefore should He change them? Fire will burn, and if a drunken madcap persists in thrusting his arm between the bars of a furnace, shall fire cease from its nature to secure him immunity from his folly? If a man expose himself to the rush of an avalanche, can he expect the rolling mass to suspend itself in mid air for him? If a mariner will go to sea in a vessel worm-eaten and unseaworthy, will the waves pity the barque? If a man will act contrary to natural laws, he must suffer for it; and it is just so with moral laws--certain results follow from sinful courses of action. Yield, then, to the Divine wisdom which has rightly ordained the consequences of sin. Do not necessitate your own destruction.
5. Any resistance which you may be able to offer will be carried on at a very fearful price. You will have to bear the expenses of the war which you foolishly prolong. Even if you should yield ultimately, you will regret rebellion as long as you live. Even when they are forgiven, your iniquities will be a source of danger; for though God heals the wounds, we shall carry the scars to our graves. And if you should not receive God’s saving mercy, these rebellions are noted against you; and when the Great Judge comes, you shall be made to feel the weight of His terrible hand.
6. Your total defeat is absolutely certain sooner or later. No man ever did set himself against God and prosper for long. Look at Pharaoh. O sinner, thy fate may not be to be drowned in the Red Sea, but worse than that--thou will be shut in forever where hope is shut out.
7. It will be altogether to thine advantage to be at peace with God. It will be for thy present happiness, and thy eternal welfare. Were there no hereafter, it is profitable to have God for our Friend; but when we think of the eternal future, the most superficial consideration suffices to convince us of the necessity of being reconciled to God.
II. The terms on which peace may be negotiated. Wouldst thou have peace? Then learn--
1. The great sine qua non is, that peace be made through an Ambassador nominated of God--namely, His Son. “Preaching peace by Jesus Christ.” There will be no peace between God and any man who despises Christ. Reject that name, and there is no other whereby you can be saved. This Jesus Christ is God, knowing the mind of God, and able to negotiate with Divine authority. But He is also man, and therefore fitted to deal graciously with man. He is fit to be a daysman, and arbitrator, since He has sympathy with thee and equality with God.
2. The great difficulty is put away which might have prevented peace, for the justice of God which thou hast provoked has been satisfied by Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Jesus has made recompense for the injury done by human sin. God asks no price of thee. If thou hadst the wealth of the Indies, the Lord would despise such a bribe. He asks no suffering from thee. It would be no satisfaction to Him to see thee suffer, for He delights in happiness. Neither does He ask thee to achieve merits. Thou couldst not if He should demand it. God, therefore, graciously tells thee that He is full of mercy, delighting to forgive; and all He asks of thee is to trust unfeignedly in His only-begotten Son. Then down with thy weapons of rebellion; confess that thou hast erred. Now, is this hard? Nay, man, look to the Cross, and hate thy sin; for sin nailed the Well-beloved to the tree.
III. The claim which ought to be urged wherever the gospel is preached. “He is Lord of all.” This means--
1. That Jesus Christ, who died on Calvary, is Lord of all mankind. Because Christ has “power over all flesh,” we preach the gospel to all flesh. You are not ruled so much by the iron sceptre of an absolute God as by the silver sceptre of the Mediator. “Kiss the Son lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little.”
2. If Christ be Lord of all, then I may with safety rely upon Him. Oh, then, trust Him, for all power is His. He is exalted on high to give repentance and remission of sins.
3. Because Jesus is Lord, I pray you to yield Him reverence and serve Him. He is your liege Lord and sovereign. History tells us that the Welsh could not bear the yoke of an English king, but wanted a native prince; and therefore their English conqueror brought before them his own son, born in their own principality, and they accepted him as Prince of Wales. God reigneth over us, but that we may love His reign He has anointed His own Son our own Elder Brother, King of kings and Lord of lords.
4. Be it also known that Jesus the Saviour must be received as Lord in the souls of those whom He redeems. You must obey Him, or your trust is hypocrisy. If we trust a physician we follow his prescriptions; if we trust a guide we follow his directions; and if we fully rely on Jesus, we obey His gracious commands. The faith which saves is a faith which produces a change of life, and subdues the soul to obedience to the Lord.
5. I do not put this to you as a matter of choice; I demand of you that you obey Him, and receive Him as the Christ of God. Do you refuse the summons that I give you now as His officer tonight? Then take heed what you do, for as the Lord liveth you shall answer for this in the great day of His appearing. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Peace through Christ
When the Romans by conquest might have given law to the Grecians at Corinth, in the solemn time of the Isthmian games, their general by a herald unexpectedly proclaimed freedom to all the cities of Greece. The proclamation at first did so amaze the Grecians that they did not believe it to be true; but when it was proclaimed the second time they gave such a shout that the very birds flying in the air were astonished therewith, and fell dead to the ground. But if you will have a better story, take that of the Jews, who, when at first they heard of Cyrus’s proclamation, and that the Lord thereby had turned the captivity of Sion, they confess that, at the first hearing of it, they were like men that dreamed; but afterwards, their mouths were filled with laughter, and their tongues with singing. Now, the peace that the Grecians and the Jews had was but the peace of a people, or a nation, and a great blessing of God, too; but how much more reason is there that our affections should be strained to the highest pitch of joy and thanks, when we hear of the proclamation of the peace of conscience--that peace which is not of our bodies, but of our souls? (J. Spencer.)
He is Lord of all.--
Lord of all
I. By right, as the Creator.
II. By merit, as the Redeemer.
III. By sift, as the only-begotten of the Father. (St. Bernard.)
Lord of all
I. The claim here made.
1. This claim is made by the whole Bible; notably by Paul (Ephesians 1:21), by Peter (1 Peter 3:21), by John (Revelation 1:17-18; Revelation 19:16).
2. Christ is Lord of all, and the telescope has not revealed a star, nor the microscope an atom, that is not subject to Him. The spirits of darkness cannot elude His Lordship, and the spirits of light glory in it. We too are subject to it, whether we will or no. But Christ wills to connect us with Himself by other ties than that of His irresistible control. He wants us to choose to be bound to Him by ties of faith and love, and then we shall delight to follow Him, and find the most perfect union with Him.
3. If you reject this claim, whom will you serve? Self? You cannot make a worse choice.
(1) Put the reins in the hands of your senses, and you know whither they will drive you.
(2) You will fare no better, though more respectably, if you bow your neck to covetousness--the ambition to be rich.
(3) The love of applause and honour is only less injurious; it may inspire in soldiers heroism, but it substitutes man’s judgment for God’s law and conscience.
(4) The love of power is just as bad a master. See what it made of Alexander and Napoleon!
II. What yielding to this claim will do in and for you.
1. It will bring you to your knees in humble acknowledgment of your guilt, and in grateful recognition of God’s love in offering reconciliation. Christ does not come suing your heart and service as blameless. You are “His own,” but you have not acted as His own. He finds you in a state of rebellion, and the first word He speaks to you is “Repent.” It was by the way of the Cross that Jesus went to the throne, and you must go the same way.
2. It will place you under a law the most beneficent and pure; one which will make your heart and life unselfish. It will not make a man in any sense effeminate, but will inspire manliness with grace.
3. It will bring you aids and influences without which you will find yourselves unable to overcome the evil or attain the good. The road is a difficult and perilous one, and you have neither the wisdom nor the strength to avoid the dangers or to overcome the hardships. It should be good news that Christ gives both.
III. What have you to object to this claim?
1. You want to be left alone and not be troubled. Is this manly? Happily for you, you don’t act on this principle elsewhere. When you are in want of a situation, you search for one till you find it. You go to work at the set hour, and keep at it till it is finished. How, then, can you suppose that it will be well with you in the higher concerns of your soul, if you fold your arms and commit yourselves to the care of chance? The ship, if left to itself, will founder; the soul, how can it escape destruction if left to drift where it may?
2. The rule of Christ is too exacting and too wide. But what would you think of a law which would make purity, truth, and honesty contingent on circumstances? Christ demands the whole of your being, that He may bless body and soul to all eternity, and prohibits all compromise with sin because sin is everlasting ruin. (J. Kennedy, D. D.)
Jesus Lord of all
I. What? “Lord.”
1. Jehovah, demanding our worship. Jesus claims Divine honours, and His servants gladly render them.
2. Sovereign, demanding our homage, loyalty to His throne, pride in His name; zeal, valour, and activity in the extension of His realm.
3. Master, demanding our service. A good subject has not only to defend his sovereign’s dominions in war, but to build up their prosperity by persevering industry. Our work is to grow in grace and to promote that growth in our fellow Christians.
II. What of? “All.”
1. In the widest sense, of all creation, from the most colossal world down to the minutest molecule. All matter, and all the laws by which He permits matter to be influenced, are His, and He does with them according to the pleasure of His will.
2. In a narrower sense, of all created intelligences. He is Lord of angels, who obey Him willingly; of devils, who obey Him unwillingly; of men, who are divided into two classes--
(1) Those who disobey Him, but whose disobedience is overruled to serve His purposes.
(2) Those who gladly obey Him, and find in their obedience an exceeding great reward.
III. By what right?
1. An original right, as God. “All souls are mine.”
2. A filial right, as Son of God. “Heir of all things.” “All power is given unto Me.”
3. A redemptive right, as Saviour. “Ye are not your own, ye are bought with a price.”
4. A victorious right, as Conqueror.
5. A donative right, by the glad surrender of the will of those constrained by His love. (J. W. Burn.)
How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth.
The ministry of Jesus
I. Its nature and characteristics. It was--
1. Active--“went.” He did not sit passively and receive applicants: like many nowadays, who are either indolent, or think it sufficient to satisfy a claim when made, or else are afraid of encountering too many claims.
2. Incessant--“about.” Not to one place, but everywhere; not in the straight line of duty or circumstances, but in, out, and around. Much of modern charity is partial, and confines itself to “deserving” cases, or those who have superior claims on the ground of kindred, neighbourhood, nationality, etc.
3. Inquiring--“went about.” Jesus “sought” that He might save. Many of the objects of His compassion were those who lay outside the beaten track and had to be found.
4. Practical--“doing,” not simply “speaking,” although sympathetic words are helpful: but a little assistance is worth a good deal of pity.
5. Really beneficent--“good.” It is to be feared that much of so-called charity does more harm than good.
6. Victorious--“healing all that were oppressed of the devil.” Destruction has often to precede construction. The devil has to be vanquished before good can be done.
II. Its sanction. “God anointed Him with the Holy Ghost.”
1. This was fore-announced (Isaiah 61:1-3); and when the prophecy was so abundantly fulfilled nothing but the blindness of criminal unbelief could refuse to see it.
2. This was abundantly given to Christ and claimed by Him.
3. This demonstrated His Messiahship. He was the anointed--
(1) Prophet--to declare man’s need. All need is not conscious. Men have to be convinced of the existence of their deepest requirements. How many are bound by the fetters of sin, and yet are senseless to their slavery.
(2) Priest--to provide for man’s need. Through His mediatorial work Christ becomes the grand storehouse of God’s riches.
(3) King--to supply man’s need. “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth.” “He is able to do exceeding abundantly.” He received gifts for the rebellious.
III. Its power. Christ was anointed with “power.”
1. He was equal to every emergency. When the wine failed He turned the water into wine. Those whom physicians gave up as incurable He healed with a touch. When the disciples were in danger of perishing in the storm He rebuked the winds and the waves. When Lazarus was dead He recalled him to life. And all this without delay and without exertion.
2. His power was acknowledged by all: nature, men, devils.
IV. Its reward. “God was with Him.”
3. Rendering effectual. (J. W. Burn.)
Who went about doing good.--
The first philanthropist
Here, then, it is necessary to consider to whom St. Peter was addressing himself. Before him stood the centurion Cornelius, probably a few comrades, and certainly some Jews, who on an occasion like this would not have had the largest place in the apostle’s thought. The persons of whom St. Peter was chiefly thinking were Cornelius and the other soldiers present, above all Cornelius. The band to which Cornelius belonged consisted of Italian levies, and Cornelius, as his name shows, belonged to an old Roman family, and when St. Peter says that our Lord, during His earthly life, went about doing good, he knew perfectly well that such an account of that life would have appeared anything but tame, commonplace, inadequate, to those whom he was especially anxious to influence, because it was so sharply contrasted with anything that they had left behind them at home. For that great world in which Cornelius and his comrades had been reared must indeed have made the men and affairs of Palestine, generally speaking, seem by comparison petty enough--as we would say, provincial. Everything outward at Rome, the world’s centre, was on a splendid scale. The public buildings, the temples, the baths, the public shows, everything connected with the army, everything connected with the machinery and the apparatus of government, was calculated to impress, and even to awe the imagination. But there was one overshadowing defect, in that great world which would have come home with especial force to the minds of the class from which the rank and file of the Roman forces were chiefly recruited. It was a world without love. It was a world full of want and suffering, and the whole of the great social and political machine went round and round without taking any account of this. Commenting on this fact nearly three centuries later, Lactantius, after describing the salient features of heathen life, adds: “Compassion and humanity are peculiar to the Christians.” Now, isolated efforts to relieve suffering, gifts to the needy, liberality of the orators and the inscriptions, these largesses to the people, these public works, these costly entertainments, as Cornelius and his friends knew well, were not the outcome of love. They were forms of an expenditure which was essentially selfish. The main object of such expenditure was to secure that sort of popularity which means political power. It was repaid, if not in kind, yet substantially. The Roman people, under the system of imperial largesses and entertainments, increasingly hated work. It cared only for such ease and enjoyment as it could wring out of its rulers. It became utterly indifferent to everything in its rulers except their capacity and willingness to gratify itself. In order to do real good, the eye must rest not on what is prudent in, or on what is expected of the giver, but on what is needed in the recipient. And thus mere liberality, if active, is blindfold, while charity seeks out its objects with discrimination and sympathy; liberality has no eye for the really sore places in the suffering and destitute world. Nothing was done systematically in that world with which Cornelius and his friends were familiar for classes or for individuals who could make no return. There was no sort of care for widows or for orphans. And if here and there there were schools, like those under Severus, their main object, when we come to examine them closely, appears to have been to provide recruits for the Roman army. And all this was in harmony with principles laid down by the great teachers of the ancient world, such as Plato and Aristotle. In Plato’s ideal state the poor have no place, beggars are expelled or left to die, as injuring the common prosperity. In Aristotle’s account of the virtues, the most promising, from a Christian point of view, is generosity; but on examination, generosity turns out to be a prudential mean between avarice and extravagance. The generous man, we are told, gives because it is a fine thing to give, not from a sense of duty, still less at the dictates of love for his fellow creatures. It is no wonder that, when these were governing principles, there were few efforts in that old world, to which Cornelius had belonged, that deserved the name of doing good. When, then, Cornelius heard from St. Peter of such a life as that of our Lord, and had further, in all probability, asked and received answers to the questions which St. Peter’s description suggested, he would have listened to a narrative which had all the charm, all the freshness of a great surprise. Those poor lepers, and paralytics, and fever-stricken peasants, could make no return to their Benefactor, and He did not ask for any. And this, Cornelius would have observed, implied nothing short of a new ideal of life and work. The highest and greatest good which He did was done for the souls of men. To have done everything for man’s bodily frame and leave his spiritual being untouched would have been a poor and worthless kind of doing good in the estimation of Jesus Christ. The lessons by which our Lord brought men to know and to love the Father and Himself, the pardon which He won for them on the Cross, the grace which He promised them after His Ascension, were His chiefest benefactions. But besides this He did abundant good in the physical, material, social sense. It has been said that Christ our Lord was the first Social Reformer. If by social reform be meant the doing away with all the inequalities between classes, or even the removal from human life of the permanent cause of a great deal of physical suffering, it cannot be said that this description of Him is accurate. He showed no wish whatever in any sort of way to interfere with the existing structure of society. He insisted on Caesar’s claims to tribute, He prescribed obedience to the Scribes and Pharisees who sat in Moses’ seat. His real work was to point to truths and to a life which made the endurance of poverty and distress for a short time here so easy, as to be in the estimate of real disciples comparatively unimportant, but at the same time He relieved so much of it as would enable human beings to make a real step forward towards the true end of their existence. If our Lord was not, in the restricted modern sense, the first social reformer, He was undoubtedly, in the true and ample sense of the word, the first philanthropist. He loved man as man, He loved not one part but the whole of man, He loved man as none had ever loved him before or since, He died for the being whom He loved so well. And when our Lord had left the earth the spirit of His work became that of a Christian Church. It, too, after its measure, went about the world doing good. The New Testament guides us through the first stage of the subject. The wealthier Churches of Greece were directed to lay by small offerings every Sunday, so that when the apostle came by to fetch the collection the money might be ready for the poor Churches in Palestine. The poorer members of the Church were regularly supplied with food at the Agape or love feast.
Widows were especially provided for. It would be impossible here and now to notice the various activities of Christian work in the primitive times which followed the Apostolic age. Early in the third century, if not in the second, there were houses for the reception of poor widows; orphans were brought up at the expense of the Church by the bishop, or by some private person. Thus, for instance, after the martyrdom of Leonidas at Alexandria, his boy, who became the celebrated Origen, was brought up by a pious woman who lived in the city, and an excellent man, Severus, is named as having devoted himself in Palestine to the education of all children--they were a considerable number--whose parents were martyrs. In the middle of the third century the Roman empire was afflicted by a pestilence which, according to the historian Gibbon, destroyed not less than half the population. It broke out at Carthage while St. Cyprian was still alive. There was a general panic, all the heathen that could do so fled; they avoided contact with infected persons, they left their own relations to die alone. Corpses were lying unburied about the streets, and there were rogues who seized the opportunity of making horrible profits. Cyprian summoned the Christians to aid him in doing all that could be done. He was everywhere encouraging, advising, organising, helping the sick and dying with his own hands, and each man under him had, and knew that he had, his appointed task. Some of the Christians were anxious to confine their aid to their fellow believers, their feelings against the heathen had been irritated by a recent persecution, and they knew that another persecution was impending, but they received no countenance from their bishop. “If,” exclaimed St. Cyprian, in a sermon preached at this crisis, “if we only do good to those who do good to us, what do we more than the heathen and the publicans? If we are the children of God, who makes His sun to shine upon the good and the bad, and sends His rain on the just and on the unjust, let us now prove it by our own acts, let us bless those who curse us.” One class of persons who were especial objects of primitive Christian charity were those who were sent to work in the mines. They were almost naked; they had the scantiest supply of food; they were often treated with great cruelty by the inspectors of public works. We find from the letters of St. Cyprian these poor people were special objects of his attention; he regularly sent them supplies by the hands of a trusted sub-deacon; and he wrote to them continually, assuring them of his sympathy and his prayers. And another work of mercy in which the primitive Church especially interested itself was the improvement of the condition of the prisoners. The prisons in old Rome were crowded with persons of all descriptions--prisoners of war, especially after the barbarian inroads; prisoners for the non-payment of taxes and for debt--subjects on which the Roman law was very severe; prisoners for the various kinds of felony; and, when a persecution was going on, prisoners for the crime of being Christians. These unhappy people were huddled together, it is little to say, with no attention to the laws of health or to the decencies of life, and one of the earliest forms of Christian charity was to raise funds for the redemption of prisoners by payment as a specially Christian form of mercy. Cyprian raised large sums from his flock to purchase freedom for prisoners of war. It would be impossible within our limits to do any sort of justice to this vast subject--the manner in which the ancient Church of Christ carried on, both in the higher and the lower senses of the term, her Master’s work of doing good. The most unshowing and unromantic methods of doing good may be the most acceptable. To work at a night school, to keep the accounts of a charity, to get up Sunday breakfasts for poor people, may mean more in the eyes of the Infinite Mercy than to dispose of immense charitable resources, or even to be a great teacher or ruler in the Church. The vital condition of doing good, whether it be spiritual or physical good, is that simple unity of purpose which springs from disinterestedness, and this can best be learned at His blessed feet, who remains the first and the greatest of philanthropists, since in life and in death He gave Himself for us, that whether we wake or sleep we might live together with Him. (Canon Liddon.)
The model life
He “went about doing good”--
I. Because He was God manifest in the flesh.
II. As the one great aim of His life. The painter or sculptor gives himself up to days and nights of arduous, patient labour, it may be for years, over some favourite piece of art; his soul is inspired, cheered, sustained by the motives which his own genius and the art which he worships supply. The philanthropist pursues his scheme for the amelioration of human misery with an intensity that brooks no delay, with an absorbing interest which robs him of his sleep by night, and fills all his waking thoughts by day. But what is all this devotion to an earthly object compared with the Divine intensity of Christ in the prosecution of His life works and that in the midst of perishing multitudes? His life work was not that of delineating the human form on the glowing canvas, or the breathing marble, but the work of bringing back a lost world to peace, of reproducing the Divine life and the Divine image in the soul of man--not a mere work of fancy, but of faith, not a mere display of genius, but of goodness, not the redressing of a wrong, or the lessening of human suffering, but nothing short of a new creation in the soul that was dark and dead, sunk in trespasses and sins.
III. With a constancy and devotion that never failed. Notwithstanding all the hostility that met Him, He continued with unabated ardour.
IV. To all WITHOUT exception. Like the stream that loves to linger amid its village homes, nestled amid the shadows of mountains, and the embowering foliage of ancestral trees, where there is little to disturb the even tenor of daily life, it was the special delight of our Lord to move amongst the homes of the poor and the lowly, and pour the riches of His grace around their humble dwellings. But like the rill that will not rest from the moment it bursts on its way, but travels onwards to the sea in ever widening course, and passes on through quiet villages and sweet homesteads till it becomes a great river, bearing on its bosom the mart of nations, the blessings of commerce, and making everything glad and beautiful where it flows, the stream of Divine goodness in the life of Jesus, beginning first in the mountain home at Nazareth, amid the village retreats of Galilee, went forth from that seclusion to carry its rich dower of blessings to villages, towns, and cities, and to pour its treasures at the feet of all classes and conditions of men. He was free to all, as the light of the sun, the air of heaven, the waters of the deep, broad river. His sympathies for man and all his concerns were strong, pure, enduring.
V. By His instructions, as well as by His works of healing. These miracles live in history as great, godlike facts, His words live in the heart, and by sanctifying the inner, bless and dignify the outer life.
VI. As an example to His followers in all time coming. (Alex. Wallace, D. D.)
The Christian’s encouragement to seek and do good
I. Illustrate the view of Christ’s character given in the text.
1. The kind of good which He dispensed.
2. The extent of good which He thus dispensed.
3. The great diligence which He exercised in doing good.
4. The spirit of compassion with which He did all this good.
5. The unwearied patience and perseverance with which He continued to do good.
1. You are thus instructed and encouraged to seek good from Christ.
2. You are thus instructed and engaged to do good as Christ did. The shortest description and the surest mark of every true Christian is this, to be a doer of good. (James Brewster.)
The life beneficent
There is in this Scripture furnished for life a test, an enterprise, a habit.
I. A test. Christ went about doing good. By precisely this question, whether your life is beneficent, are you to test your life.
1. Test your speech by it. Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying.
2. Test your amusements by it. Do they do you good in the way of recreating you for better toil; do they exert no harmful influence upon others?
3. Test your business by it. Is the general outcome of your business beneficent; and do you carry it on in beneficent fashion?
4. Test your use of time by this question. Are you putting your time to high and holy uses?
5. Test your position and culture thus: Are you the readier to serve the higher you get up?
II. There is here suggested an enterprise for life. Christ went about doing good. He personally did it--did not content Himself with doing good by proxy. Christ went after the chance of doing good; did not simply wait for the chance to come to Him.
III. There is suggested also here a habit for life. Christ was not intermittent in this matter. It was the habit of His life to go about doing good. Oh for Christians of such pithy pluck that they will habitually keep hold of duty! (W. Hoyt, D. D.)
The benevolent conduct of Jesus
I. The conduct of Jesus. He “went about doing good.”
1. Jesus did good to the bodies of men. He opened the eyes of the blind; He gave hearing to the deaf; and He raised the dead (Matthew 11:5).
2. He did good to the souls of men. The ignorant were instructed y Him in the essential doctrines and duties of religion (Matthew 5:1-2; Luke 19:47; John 8:2). He strengthened the weak and wavering, and comforted mourning penitents (Matthew 5:4; Matthew 11:28).
3. Our Lord went about doing good. He was an itinerant preacher. And to accomplish His merciful designs, He frequently visited large and populous places, and places of public resort.
4. The motives of our Lord in doing good were pure and perfect. He was moved by the transcendent goodness of His nature to acts of kindness.
5. Jesus persevered in doing good. It was His constant employment, and He was never weary of it.
6. In all the works, and in all the ways of our Saviour, His lovely temper and amiable conduct shone with resplendent glory. How unlike the renowned conquerors and tyrants of the world, whose glory has been acquired by blood and slaughter!
II. We should endeavour to imitate the conduct of Jesus.
1. That we may do so, let us study the character and conduct of our great Exemplar. To this end we should carefully read His public and private discourses, examine His temper, and weigh His conduct.
2. But those who copy after His blessed example, must have the mind which was in Him (Philippians 2:5).
3. Having acquired the mind of Jesus, let us endeavour to imitate His conduct. We cannot imitate His miracles; the attempt would be presumption; but we should endeavour to copy His benevolent actions.
4. Let us proceed in these works of love, as the Lord may enable us. More than this is not required; and less than this will not be accepted.
5. This conduct will please the Lord, who is good to all, and whose tender mercies are over all His works (Psalms 145:9).
He blesses us that we may be a blessing (Genesis 12:2).
1. In the world, and in the visible Church, we have many bad examples; but we must not follow a multitude to do evil (Exodus 23:2).
2. There are a few in the Church who may be followed in some things; but whatever their excellencies are, we cannot safely follow them in all their ways.
3. But we have a perfect example in the conduct of our Saviour; and we are bound by the most sacred ties to walk in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). (Theological Sketch book.)
Going about doting good
We have all heard of the celebrated Cook, the circumnavigator who went round the globe. Wherever Cook landed he was noticed by the boatmen to go up away from them a bit, and he was seen to take little packets out of his pockets and keep on going round, throwing them out of his hand and circulating them. He belted the whole world with English flowers. He took packets of our seeds, and at those places where he landed he took care to walk a little bit away and sow some of the seed where most likely it would grow. Hence other navigators have been surprised to find that English flowers were growing where they never could have dreamt of seeing them. That is how we ought to do--get some of the precious seed into your own soul, and carry it with you wherever you go. Have it with you on the trip to the seaside, or even to Switzerland, or have it when you stay at home. Always sow the seed of kindness and true happiness, above all the gospel of Jesus Christ, for in this you will be following Christ, of whom it is written, “He went about doing good.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The ways of doing good
(children’s sermon):--When we hear of any great man we always want to know how he lived, and what he used to do--General Washington, e.g., Benjamin Franklin, Christopher Columbus, Alfred the Great, etc. But you may put all great men together, and, compared with Jesus, they are only like stars compared with the sun. “Jesus went about doing good” because He was so able to do it. He hadn’t much money; for though He made the world, when He was here, He said, “The foxes have holes,” etc. But though He had no money to give away, He could do good in hundreds of other ways. Then, again, He went about doing good to show us how to live (1 Peter 2:21). And this is what I wish to talk to you about, viz., four ways in which we should all try to do good.
I. By becoming christians ourselves. True Christians are the most useful people in the world. Many of our houses have iron rods running from above the top of the chimney down into the ground. Those lightning rods carry the lightning off and prevent it from doing any harm. And true Christians are like lightning rods. When God is angry with the wicked, He is often kept from punishing them on account of the good Christians who live among them. You see this in Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah. You know how useful the light is. Well, Jesus said to His disciples, “Ye are the light of the world.” If we were travelling along a dangerous road, the light would show us the road, and how we might keep out of the pits. Now, this world is a road full of dangers. But true Christians see them and know how to avoid them. And if we would be lights in the world, showing people their danger and how they may escape, we must become true Christians. Here is a watch, a very useful thing. The inside is full of works, and in the midst is the mainspring: that makes the watch go and keep good time. But suppose the mainspring is broken, will it keep time? No. So I must take it to the watchmaker, and get a new mainspring. Now, our hearts are like a broken mainspring, and we must take our heart to Jesus, and ask Him to change it; to put a new mainspring in the broken watch of your soul. Then it will be ready to keep time, to do good.
II. By trying to make others christians. Suppose you were travelling through a desert with a company of friends. You have no water, and are almost perishing from “thirst. You separate and go in different directions searching for water. Presently you find a spring. You kneel down and take nice long drink. And then of course at the top of your voice you would cry out--“Come this way; where is water!” And this is just the way we should feel when we become Christians. A little heathen girl was taken from New Zealand to England to be educated. She became a Christian. Before this she was so pleased with England that she didn’t care about going back. But as soon as she learned to love Jesus, she said: “Do you think I can keep the good news to myself? No; I want to go home and tell my friends there about Jesus.” Some time ago an old man became a Christian, and asked himself how he could be doing good. He made out a list of his old associates, which contained one hundred and sixteen names. Some of these were the worst men in the town. He began to pray for these. He talked to them and gave them good books to read. Some refused to listen, and others made fun; but still he went on praying and working for them. And what was the result? Why, within two years, one hundred of them had become Christians too! That was doing good indeed! A Christian gentleman while travelling on a steamboat, distributed some tracts. Many read them carefully. But one gentleman took one of the tracks and doubled it up, and then cut it into little pieces and scattered them over the side of the boat. But one of the pieces stuck to his coat. He looked at it a moment before throwing it away, and found on one side only the word “God,” on the other the word “Eternity.” He threw it away; but these two solemn words--“God” and “Eternity”--he could not get rid of. They haunted him wherever he went, and he never had any comfort till he became a Christian.
III. By helping the sick and poor. Jesus was always especially ready to help the poor. He told His disciples that whenever they did a kindness to one of His poor He would consider it as done to Himself. And James tells us that true religion consists in “visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction.” We find poor people everywhere, and children can do good in this way as well as grown-up people. Mary Parsons was a bright, happy little girl, because she was always trying to do good. One day a lady called in to see her mother. This lady had just been visiting a poor old woman eighty-six years old, who lived by herself in a dark, damp cellar. Mary listened with great interest while the lady was speaking, and then she said, “Oh, mother, please let me carry her over some breakfast and dinner every day: we have so much left.” Mary was so earnest about it that her mother said she might do it. No matter how anxious her little sisters were for Mary to play with them; no matter whether it was hot or cold, wet or dry, Mary never got tired. Sometimes she would read the Bible and sometimes take her doll’s frocks and sit down by her side, and chat away merrily to amuse her. And the poor old woman speaking about her one day, her eyes filled with tears, said, “Oh, she brings a ray of sunshine with her every time she comes, and it seems to brighten my dark room long after she is gone. God bless her! She is one of the dear lambs of Jesus, I am sure.” Now Mary was only eight years old when she began to do this. Is there no poor old woman, or sick and hungry child, in your neighbourhood to whom you can take food from your table that would not be missed?
IV. By being kind to all. Jesus was all the time speaking kind words and doing kind things. Read what He said to the widow of Nain, and what He did for her. Two ragged barefooted boys were going along one of the streets of New York. One was perfectly happy over a half-withered bunch of flowers which he had just picked up. “I say, Billy,” said he, “wasn’t somebody real good to drop these ‘ere posies just where I could find them--and they’re so pooty and nice? Look sharp, Billy, mebby you’ll find something bime-by.” Presently the boy exclaimed, “Oh jolly, Billy, if here ain’t ‘most half a peach, and ‘tain’t mush dirty neither. ‘Cause you hain’t found nothin’ you may bite first.” Billy was just going to take a very little taste of it, when his companion said, “Bite bigger, Billy, mebby we’ll find another ‘fore long.” What a noble heart that poor boy had in spite of his rags and dirt! He was “doing good” in the fourth way that we are speaking of. (R. Newton, D. D.)
The example of Jesus in doing good
I. His great work and business in the world was to do good. What He did, and we in imitation of Him ought to do, I shall reduce to two heads.
1. Doing good to the souls of men, and endeavouring to promote their spiritual and eternal happiness.
(1) By good instruction. And under instruction I comprehend all the means of bringing men to the knowledge of their duty, and exciting them to the practice of it; by instructing their ignorance, and removing their prejudices, and rectifying their mistakes, by persuasion and by reproof; and by making lasting provision for the promoting of these ends.
(2) By good example. And this our blessed Saviour was in the utmost perfection. And this we should endeavour to be. For good example hath a secret influence upon those with whom we converse, to form them into the same disposition and manners. It is a living rule that teacheth men without trouble, and lets them see their faults without open reproof. Besides that, it adds great weight to a man’s persuasion, when we see that he advises nothing but what he does, nor exacts anything from which he himself desires to be excused. As, on the contrary, nothing is more insignificant than good counsel from one that does not follow the advice which he is so forward to give to others.
2. Procuring their temporal good, and contributing to their happiness in this present life. And this was a great part of Christ’s business in this world. And though we cannot be beneficial to men in the miraculous manner that He was, yet we may be so in the use of ordinary means; we may comfort the afflicted, and vindicate the oppressed, and do a great many acts of charity which our Saviour, by reason of His poverty, could not do without a miracle; we may take a poor child and bring him up in the knowledge and fear of God, and put him into a way wherein, by his industry, he may make a fortune, and be able to relieve hundreds of others. Men glory in raising magnificent structures, and find a secret pleasure to see sets of their own planting to grow up and flourish; but surely it is a greater and more glorious work to build up a man, to see a youth of our own planting take root in the world, and to shoot up and spread his branches so that we, who first planted him, may ourselves find comfort under his shadow. And those who are in the lowest condition may do great good to others by their prayers. For “the fervent prayer of righteous man availeth much.”
II. His diligence in this work. This will fully appear if we consider--
1. How unwearied He was. He was not only ready to do good to those that gave Him opportunity, and besought Him to do it, but went Himself to seek out objects.
2. How self-denying He was. He neglected the ordinary refreshments of nature, that He might attend this work. He was at everybody’s beck and disposal. Nay, He was willing to deny Himself in one of the dearest things in the world--His reputation and good name.
3. Consider the malicious opposition and sinister construction that His good deeds met with. For His casting out of devils, He was called a magician; for His endeavour to reclaim men from their vices, “a friend of publicans and sinners”; for His free and obliging conversation, “a wine bibber and a glutton.”
4. How cheerfully, notwithstanding all this, He persevered! It was not only His business, but His delight; “I delight (says He) to do Thy will, O My God.”
Conclusion: The subject will be of excellent use.
1. To show us our defects. How does this blessed example upbraid those who, instead of “going about doing good,” are perpetually intent upon doing mischief? And those likewise who, though they are far from being so bad, yet wholly neglect this blessed work of doing good? And this too under a pretence of being employed about other duties, They are so taken up with prayer, and reading and hearing sermons, and sacraments, that they have scarce any leisure to mind the doing of charitable offices. Others spend all their zeal about some controversies in religion; and therefore think it but reasonable that they should be excused from those meaner kind of duties, as those who serve the king in his wars used to be exempted from taxes. But “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.”
2. To persuade us to the imitation of this blessed example. Let us “go and do likewise.” The work itself is such that men should not need to be courted nor urged to it. But dwell upon these considerations.
(1) It shows an inclination and desire to have others happy as well as ourselves. Those who are of a mean and sordid disposition love to contract themselves within themselves, and like the hedgehog, to shoot out their quills at everyone who comes near them. But the noblest and most heavenly dispositions think themselves happiest when others share with them in their happiness.
(2) It is the most pleasant employment in the world. This Cato boasts of, as the great comfort of his old age--“that nothing was more pleasant than the conscience of a well-spent life, and the remembrance of many kindnesses done to others.” Sensual pleasures are not lasting, and leave a sting behind them. But the pleasure of doing good remains, and the reflection upon it afterwards does forever minister joy.
(3) It is to imitate the highest excellency and perfection; it is to be like God, who is good and doth good, and to be like Him in that which He esteems His greatest glory, and that is, His goodness.
(4) It is one of the greatest and most substantial duties of religion; and, next to the love and honour which we pay to God Himself, the most acceptable service that we can perform to Him. It is one half of the law, and next to the first and great command, and very like unto it: in the excellency of its nature, and in the necessity of its obligation.
(5) It will give us the greatest comfort when we come to die.
(6) It is attended with the greatest consideration I shall offer to you--which is reward both in this world and the other. (Abp. Tillotson.)
The example of Christ
I. Look at the life of our Lord as here described.
1. That life was very short, three and a half years at most; but it was long in point of action; it was filled up with works which will stand forever. No one ever made such a mark on the earth as our Lord.
2. Here is one of the great “notes” that no infidel can explain--Who Christ was, whence Christ came, why Christ did what He did, and left the mark upon the world that He certainly left. Had He money wherewith to bribe the world and make men follow Him? He was poor in every way. Had He power to turn men to follow Him as Mahomet had? His followers were a few publicans and fishermen. Whence, then, the power that Christ had? How account for the effect that He produced on the world? There is no accounting for it all, but on the Christian theory that Christ was God manifest in the flesh.
3. When we look on the life of our Lord, how unlike it is to the conquerors who have shaken the world! Run your mind over the long list--Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, etc. What mark their victories? Death, wounds, poverty, sorrow, ruin. Then turn to the life of that King of kings, and Lord of lords. See the amazing contrast. He brought life and immortality to light; He opened up to men hopes for the present and for the future; the way of peace between God and men. He did good--
(1) To bodies. No disease was too loathsome for Him to show kindness to.
(2) By His words. Think how they have travelled through the world for eighteen hundred years, and wherever they have gone, they have been the comfort and peace of those who have received them. Think how a text, dormant it may be for many long years, has revived when the time of trial and sickness comes.
(3) Continually. Wherever He went He brought blessing with Him.
(4) By His witness against sins and superstitions of the generation among which He lived.
(5) By His patience. “When He was reviled, He reviled not again, when He suffered, He threatened not.”
4. Learn here--
(1) The wickedness of human nature. Think for a moment how this wonderful Person was treated.
(2) What constitutes greatness in the sight of God. He is the good man, not who had the highest title and greatest position, and the largest amount to pay for income tax, but he who does the greatest amount of good. Our Lord says, “He that will be great among you, let him be as your minister.”
II. The duty of christians to follow his example.
1. I doubt whether that is as much looked at as it should be. We seldom look at more than one thing at a time, for men are so occupied. When they first feel their sins they think only of Christ as a Saviour, and they are apt to forget that He is our Pattern and Example. Yet Christ and the apostles ever insisted upon it. We ought to ask ourselves continually, “Is there anything of Christ ever seen in my tempers, efforts, conduct, home, business?” Am I walking in Jesus Christ’s steps? Am I, like Him, endeavouring to do good?
2. You and I were never meant to be idle, nor to be always trying to get good for ourselves. Many, however, run from place to place; hear sermon after sermon, are always thinking of getting; but we are not meant to be always receiving; we are meant to be doing for Christ and for Christ’s cause.
3. Men may say, “What can I do?” There is always something that everyone can do. There is no one who has not some influence upon some one or other. If you have a single grain of influence throw it into the scale of good, and not into the scale of evil. Parents can do good to their children; masters and mistresses to their servants.
4. To labour for this does ourselves good. Little by little we find graces grow in proportion as we try to exercise them. And it helps forward the cause of Christ in the world. The eyes of many are upon you, and if the watching, envious world sees you a mere idle Christian, thinking only of your own enjoyment, but never trying to do good, the world will think little of your religion. But when they see you walk in the steps of the Saviour, striving to make all around you happy, it sets the world thinking. There is no book or set of lectures, which ever does so much good to sceptics as a Christ-like life.
5. This was the way of the old Christians; their ways and manners made the heathen think. This was the conduct of the followers of old John Wesley. It was part of that wonderful man’s first principle to impress the necessity Of doing good. “Now, then, what are you going to do? We do not want any drones in our hive; we want everyone that becomes a member of our body to do something for the glory of God, for the benefit of man.” (Bp. Ryle.)
Christ our Example
We ought to follow Christ in taking all opportunities of doing good.
I. What are the good works we should do in imitation of Christ?
1. Works of piety.
(1) Internal (John 4:24).
(a) Love (Matthew 22:37).
(b) Fear (Proverbs 23:17).
(d) Trust (Proverbs 3:5).
(e) Submission (Luke 22:42).
(2) External; as praying, hearing, etc.
2. Works of equity (Micah 6:8).
(1) Distributive (Romans 13:7; Matthew 17:27).
(2) Communicative (Proverbs 3:27-28; 1 Thessalonians 4:6).
3. Works of charity (1 Timothy 6:17-18).
(1) To pity others in misery (Matthew 15:32; Matthew 20:34).
(2) To pray for their felicity (Luke 23:34).
(3) To supply their necessities (Matthew 20:34). Consider--
(a) Without this there is no true religion (James 1:27).
(b) By it we imitate God (Luke 6:36).
(c) Whatsoever we have more than is necessary is given for this end.
(d) God, notwithstanding, will repay it (Proverbs 19:17).
II. What things are necessary for our imitation of Christ in doing good?
1. Exerting the utmost of our power in doing it (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
2. Managing all the circumstances aright.
3. Doing it constantly (Luke 1:74-75).
(a) Not for the applause of men (Matthew 6:1).
(b) Nor to merit anything from God (Luke 18:10).
(a) Subordinately for our own safety (1 Corinthians 9:24; 1 Corinthians 9:27).
(b) Ultimately for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).
III. In what sense are we always to be doing good.
1. So as never to do evil (1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5).
2. So as always to be designing good.
3. So as to embrace all opportunities for doing good (John 4:7-8; John 6:25).
IV. Why should we be always doing good?
1. We are commanded (Luke 1:74-75; Psalms 34:13).
2. We are always receiving good.
3. Our beings were first given, and are now continued to us, that we might always be doing good (Isaiah 1:2-4).
4. When we are not doing good we are doing evil (Psalms 37:27). (Bp. Beveridge.)
Our great example
“Who went about doing good.”
1. Such was the recollection of one who was amongst the nearest and dearest companions of Jesus. Peter had in recollection the aims and habit not of one day, but of every day.
2. We are living in times when “many run to and fro, and knowledge is increased.” All classes are restless; the facilities of travelling are inducements to that restlessness. We do not grudge what science has done to annihilate distance and make moving to and fro easy.
3. But here, as elsewhere, are dangers. Facilities for evil may be made out of what God intended only to be facilities for good. “Some people,” says Pascal, “wish to move about the more, only that they may just talk the more. For the mere pleasure of seeing, without the pleasure of telling, would have little force upon many.” Let us remember, in these days, when so many of us are about to part company for awhile in the excursions of the summer, that we have a Christian rule to walk by in all our journey--a rule which has its example in Jesus, “who went about doing good.”
4. The text describes what was the very law of the Redeemer’s nature. He was shown to be the Son of the living God in the active, unwearied beneficence of His life. God’s providence over this world is active. It is not beneath the dignity of the Almighty to regulate particular events. And the history of Divine interference and legislation is told in these words--“He went about doing good.” The active beneficence of the Divine Being is concealed from our eyes behind the curtain of matter; but is exhibited to us in the person of Jesus. And I may go a step further. If active benevolence was a necessary feature in the perfect character of Jesus, because of His relationship to His Father, so active beneficence should be a necessary feature in the real Christian, because of his relationship with Christ. And now think a little of His sphere of active benevolence. It took in the whole range of human distress. And His ministrations of mercy were equally to the evil and the good. And the labour was incessant too. His very rest was devoted to the relief of spiritual and bodily want. And yet the humanity of Jesus wanted calm recreations, still retirement, just as yours and mine does. Note, too, another circumstance. We are all ready to be beneficent when we are sustained by large sights, and great occasions; but how was it with our Divine Master? The isolated case, which no eye saw but His own, His mind and heart were as much absorbed in it as if the appeal of a multitude was before Him. Amongst the poorer sort He was always found comforting, healing, feeding, teaching.
5. That we may be Christlike in active beneficence, we must seek more of that faith which works by love, and is careful to maintain good works. This is the only principle of Christian obedience. Having faith in Him, let us adopt Him as our example. Let each one, then, ask himself, “Am I living for myself or for my Saviour? Does my faith show itself in works of active beneficence?” All have some talent. Only one thing is wanted--unselfish love. If you are converted, you can go and tell others what conversion is. If you pray, you can go and tell others what prayer is. If you have a sick neighbour, you can visit him. You could take a class in the Sunday school; or fill up one of the many chasms in the District Visiting Society. And, my poorer brethren, because you are no scholars, do not think that you cannot imitate your Master, and go about doing good. You may speak a word in season to your poor neighbours, and you may shine as a light in the world. (C. J. P. Eyre, M. A.)
The Saviour’s active benevolence
He went about doing good--
I. By His miracles, which not only compelled attention to His instructions, and demanded assent to His claim of being Divinely sent, but were all deeds of mercy. Not one of them was a useless or vengeful display of power. His first miracle contributed to the social enjoyment of a festive occasion; and His last was the healing of a man whom one of His own disciples had wounded. Objection has, indeed, been made to two of our Lord’s miracles on the ground that they were not of a merciful and useful character. One is that by which the demons were sent into the herd of swine. Here, it is said, an injury was inflicted on the owners. But it may be answered that the first and main object was merciful--the restoration of the lunatics to their right mind. Secondly, the injury inflicted was not done revengefully, but punitively. To keep swine was contrary to the Jewish law. The other miracle is the withering of the barren fig tree. But the tree probably stood in the highway, and was therefore no one’s property; and on the other hand, the occurrence, was one of great profit to the disciples.
II. By His instructions. In an age when the art of printing was unknown, and when manuscripts could come into the hands of but few, the oral mode of communicating knowledge was the only way in which instruction could reach the multitude. How indefatigably Jesus went about, “teaching in the synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom.” That His teaching was altogether good His recorded precepts are abundant proof. If He stirred up the people, it was with admiring wonder to hear the words of grace and truth which He spake; it was to repentance and holiness, to faith and obedience, to love and piety.
III. By his example. His conduct was a clear and holy commentary on His words. His life transcended, if possible, His instructions; because it is so much more difficult and rare to live unexceptionably than to instruct wisely. His character was tried in many scenes and under diverse circumstances; and in all appeared pure, like gold tried seven times in the fire. And they who know the power of example, and the efficacy which practice gives to preaching, and the great part which being good is of doing good, will perceive that our Saviour’s example is an inseparable portion of His benevolence. Conclusion: If the benevolence of His miracles did not make its due impression on the Jews, let us not be likewise insensible to that mark of their truth and divinity. If but few of them were converted by His doctrine, let not us also blindly refuse the proffered light and salvation. If they were not affected by the bright consistency of His example, let us give it more attentive heed ourselves, and transfer it with more exactness to our own conduct. (F. W. P. Greenwood.)
The Life of Christ
Here is the life of our Lord comprehended in a single sentence. Note--
I. The business which our Lord followed. As all ordinary men have their callings, so our Lord had His. It was none of those occupations by which the gains of this world are acquired; it was the holy business of “doing good.” One part of this was the “doing good”--
1. To men’s bodies. And what a list might be enumerated of His benefactions! How many blind eyes were opened, etc. None applied to Him in vain. None were sent from Him unrelieved.
2. To men’s souls.
(1) By His holy ministrations. What a preacher of righteousness was He, and in what a variety of ways did He address the hearts of men!
(2) By His death. Our case was such as all the preaching in the world could not have rectified. We were dying sinners. We wanted a salvation to be wrought for us; and the only way of doing us effectual good was to provide us one. So Christ crowned all His other acts of goodness by the goodness of His Cross.
II. The way in which He carried on His business. “He went about.” Just as the trader goes about with his wares, and is unwearied in pursuit of gain, so Jesus “went about” upon the business of blessing man. The great enemy “goeth about seeking whom he may devour,” and the Great Friend went about seeking whom He might do good to; and literally, for whithersoever the blessed Jesus travelled, He was a traveller on foot. I know not a more striking illustration of our text than is contained in Matthew 9:1-38, which contains the story of a day spent by Him.
III. What improvement can we make of the text? Let me ask you--
1. Do you want to have good done to you? If so, behold your Benefactor! He that “went about doing good” when upon earth, is now as ready to do good to you from heaven.
2. Are you copying His character? Jesus is set forth not as the Saviour only of His people but their Pattern. We may do good--
(1) By our examples.
(2) By our exertions; watching for opportunities of usefulness, and endeavouring to be a help and a comfort, both in spirituals and temporals, to all about us and around us. (A. Roberts, M. A.)
The matchless life
Christ went about, not like a Pharisee, to make a show; not like the Romans, to parade military prowess; not like the Greeks, to display worldly wit and wisdom; but to do good to the bodies and souls of men. During the great work of creation, God, in each step, pronounced it “very good”; and when God entered upon the work of human redemption He did good, and at its close He exclaimed, with perfect satisfaction, “It is finished.” He did not go about getting good, or becoming good, but dispensing good. He did good because He was good. By laying emphasis upon each of the five words before us, we shall see their beauty and feel their power.
I. The life of Christ was full of benevolent effort--who went about doing “good.” How different this from what it might have been! He might have performed miracles of vengeance, as Moses did; He might have come as a judge, to condemn. He remembered mercy, He dealt not with men after their sins. He did good to all, at all times and under all circumstances. His goodness was pure, unmerited, and free. He went about, not to get to Himself a name, not to climb to positions of worldly influence and power, nor to serve His own ends, but to show by His own example the beauty and blessedness of His precept, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The benevolent acts He performed for the bodies of men were symbols and types of what He would do for their souls. In His gospel Jesus still goes about doing good, for Christianity is philanthropic in its spirit.
II. Practical effort--“doing.” He was no dreamy, sentimental philanthropist, imagining Utopian plans, nor did He spend His life in pronouncing eulogiums upon goodness, and in endeavouring to stimulate others in that direction. He became, not the president or secretary of a society to do good, but He went about doing the good Himself. Societies are good, but they must never supersede individual effort. Christ did good with His own hands--earnestly, heartily, personally, perpetually; not by proxy, but enjoyed the luxury of being His own almoner. What an example for us to go and do likewise!
III. Extensive effort--“about.” Not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Galilee. His miracles were not performed among a select company, but out and about among all sorts and conditions of men, in secular as well as in sacred places. What an example for the Christian Church; His followers are to begin at Jerusalem, but they are to go out also into all the world. The blessings of Christianity are not to be kept within select limits, or enjoyed by one class. The catholicity of the benevolence of Christ should lead us to regard every living man as our neighbour.
IV. Willing effort--“went.” God sent His Son, but it is equally true that Jesus Christ came. It was from no compulsion, but from choice. It is interesting to notice how many of the benevolent acts He performed for men were done unsolicited. He went to those who could not and to those who would not come to Him, that they might be blessed.
V. Personal effort--“who.” When we remember the Deity of Christ, we see that it was the great Creator going about and doing good to His creatures; the Lord of life and glory condescending to attend personally to the wants and woes of fallen men. He might have sent angels, who would gladly have gone about upon so merciful a mission; but He came Himself. (F. W. Brown.)
The model home mission and the model home missionary
Our Lord’s ministry was a home mission. “I am not sent save to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Afterwards there sprang out of His home work the foreign mission, when they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the gospel. And herein we see His wisdom, for it will be of little avail to attempt much abroad unless there be a solid basis at home, in an earnest sanctified Church, affording a fulcrum for our lever. When England is converted, then shall she become the great herald of Christ’s gospel to other lands. We have before us--
I. A model home mission.
1. Christ selected as His great instrument the preaching of the gospel. He would have His followers depend upon the same agency. Other godly efforts are not to be neglected; but first and foremost it pleases God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
2. In connection with His preaching we find the Master forming a seminary for the training of ministers. After He had called Peter and John, and others, He at first admitted them, as it were, into His evening classes; for they pursued their ordinary business, and came to Him at fitting seasons for instruction. But after awhile they separated themselves from all the pursuits of business, and were continually with their great Teacher. They learned how to preach as they marked how He preached. He even taught them to pray. Now this has been too much forgotten. When Calvin and Luther exerted an influence over Europe, it was not only through their preaching or writings, but through the young men who swarmed at Wirtemburg and Geneva to listen to the great Reformers’ teaching, and then afterwards went forth to tell abroad what they had learned.
3. The Master also connected with His preaching and His college the invaluable agency of Bible classes; indeed, the whole machinery of a Church can be found in embryo in the doings of Christ. He “expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” If any home mission would see its work established, the converts must be trained in the knowledge of the Word.
4. Our Lord’s mission work did not overlook the children. Our Sunday school work is not only justified, but even enforced, by “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven”; and also by His saying to Peter, “Feed My lambs.”
5. Of late there has been frequently used by evangelists the plan of free teas, breakfasts, and dinners, at which the poorest persons are affectionately exhorted to seek salvation. It is remarkable that this method has been so long disused, because it is, with a small difference, a plan adopted by our Lord. Though many, no doubt, followed Him because they did eat of the loaves and fishes, yet I do not doubt that some who were first attracted by the earthly food remained to eat of the bread of heaven.
6. A mission would also find great strength in imitating Jesus by combining medical aid with religious teaching. Our Lord was a medical missionary. True, we cannot work miracles, but we may do what is within human reach in the way of healing, and so we may follow our Lord, not with equal footsteps, but in the same track. I pray for a closer connection between the surgeon and the Saviour. May there be many who, like Luke, are both physicians and evangelists.
7. Our Lord also associated with His mission work the distribution of alms. A poor man was found in the street one Sunday morning as he was about to commit suicide. Two of our brethren met him, and led him to this Tabernacle, but first they took him to a coffee shop. I had a far more likely hearer in the man whose hunger was relieved than I could have had in the poor famishing sinner. Then, after the sermon, they gave him a good dinner, and so detained him till they brought him here again in the evening, and God was pleased to bless the Word to him.
8. Our Master’s mission was carried on very largely through open-air preaching. All over England there are tens of thousands who never will hear the gospel while open-air preaching is neglected. It is altogether a mischievous thing that we should confine our preaching within walls.
9. Our Lord also set an example to home missionaries, in that He had pity on the villages. Small villages are often thought to be too insignificant for the founding of churches in them. But the villages help to make the large towns, and the character of London depends upon the character of village homes.
10. At the same time the Master also gave much attention to the towns.
II. The model home missionary. The success of a work depends very little upon the system; almost everything rests, under God, upon the man. There have been men who, with systems unwise and imperfect, have accomplished noble results, while others with admirable organisations have done nothing.
1. The man who is to serve God as a leading missionary must be a man of teaching power and of personal influence. It is of no use to send out a man who cannot speak. If you want a man to spread the gospel he must be one who can preach. Our Lord had this grand capacity in the highest degree.
2. Our Lord as a missionary fraternised with the people. How many of us, if we had seen a poor harlot coming to the well, would have remained purposely to converse with her? He was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, but He was the friend of publicans and sinners. And we must be one with those whom we would bless; we must not be ashamed to call them brethren.
3. Our Lord was a man who could toil. He never preached a sermon without weaving His soul into it. His life was a scene of unrivalled labour. Now, if the Church would see souls saved, the work will never be achieved by agents who are half asleep.
4. For a home missionary we want a man who can pray as the Master prayed. He was as great with God in prayer as He was with man in preaching. If we prevail with God for men, we shall prevail with men for God.
5. And if we are to secure useful men and women we must choose those who can weep. I do not covet that moistness of the eye which is the result of effeminacy, but manly weeping is a mighty thing. Our Lord, when He beheld the city, could not restrain the water floods, His great soul ran over at His eyes. If He had not been a man who could weep Himself, He could not have made others weep.
6. To crown all, our Lord knew how to die! Love of life must yield to love of souls. Christ revealed the great secret when it was said of Him, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save.” In proportion as a man saves himself he cannot save others.
III. Let us hear His call and imitate Him.
1. It is your privilege to be a worker together with God, therefore keep close to the footsteps of the great Master worker.
2. Remember that before He went to work He was Himself personally obedient to that gospel which He had to preach. He did not bid others believe and be baptized, and neglect to be baptized Himself.
3. This being done, let me say to you, Is there not some department of mission work at home that you could undertake? Most probably you could not do all those things which I have mentioned as having been done by Christ, but you know that young artists will often be instructed by their masters to sketch, not the whole of a great statue, but one single limb, an arm, a hand, or a foot. Just so it shall be enough to teach you service if, being unable to attempt the whole of the great scheme, you will undertake zealously to labour in one department of it.
4. But whatever you do, do it thoroughly, do it heartily.
5. Take one word which is often used by Mark as a motto for yourselves. Mark is always saying of Christ that “straightway” He did so and so. Now, if you have work for Christ before your eye, straightway hasten to do it. Do something tonight before you go to bed, if it be only the giving away of a tract.
6. There is an all-sufficient power which you may obtain for this service. Our Lord is declared in this very verse to be one who was anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power. That same Holy Ghost is given to the Church, and that same power lingers in the assemblies of the faithful. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The great Itinerant
The text is an exquisite miniature of Christ. There are not many touches, but they are the strokes of a master’s pencil. The portrait cannot be mistaken for anyone else. Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon went about destroying. Prophets who professed to have been sent of God have compassed sea and land to make proselytes, but the good which they accomplished none could see. What Peter here draws in words, God’s grace drew, in some measure, in lines of real life in the case of Howard and some other followers of Jesus; still, in the highest and fullest sense, these words are applicable to none but the Master. His is the model, and theirs the humble copy. He did good, and good only: but the best of men, being men at the best, sow mingled seed.
I. Consider him.
1. His object. “He went about,” but His travel was no listless motion, no purposeless wandering. O man of God, have a purpose, and devote thy whole life to it! Be not an arrow shot at random, but choose thy target. Christ’s object was “doing good:” This was--
(1) His eternal purpose. Long before man was formed Jesus was set upon doing good. He did good among the angels, for the heavenly harps owe all their music to His presence. Among the devils there was no room for positive good; but even there restraining goodness bound them down in iron bands, lest their mischief should grow too rampant. On earth, however, was the widest scope for goodness in its largest sense; for that goodness which descends to sin-stricken mortals, to set them upon the throne of glory.
(2) His practical object. His presence in the manger did good, as it cheered both rich magi and poor shepherd with the knowledge that God had come down to men. His childhood did good, for it has become the mirror of childhood’s obedience to this day. Ye know how His after life was one practical carrying out of this solitary object.
(3) His official prerogative. He received the name of Jesus, “For He shall save His people from their sins.” He was named “Christ,” because the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him, etc. Mention any name you please, and you will see that it is incumbent upon Him, ex officio, to go about doing good. Shepherd, Husband, Friend, Lion, Lamb.
(4) His actual performance. He did good in all senses--physically and spiritually.
2. His mode.
(1) He went about. Personally. He might have sent out His apostles to do good in His stead; but when He sent them out, it was not as proxies, but as heralds, “whither He Himself would come.” The evangelists constantly tell us that He touched the leper with His own finger, that He visited the bedside of the sick, etc. I would that much more of benevolence were performed by men themselves. Why should you not go and give away your guinea lovingly and tenderly? It will be better than letting somebody else pare it down to fifteen shillings, and giving it away coldly and officially. So much depends upon the way of doing good. The look, the word, the prayer, the tear, will often be more valuable to the widow than that half-crown which you have given her. The Saviour’s very presence did good, apart from the blessings which He bestowed.
(2) He went about with incessant activity. He did not only the good which was round about Him, which was brought to Him, but He “went about.” He could not be satisfied to be still. Scarcely a village or a hamlet which had not been gladdened by the sight of Him. Oh! the creeping, crawling manner in which some people serve the Lord!
(3) He went out of His way to do good. You must not be content to do good in the regular circle of your movements. Break through the bounds of propriety every now and then, and do an odd thing. That was a quaint expedient of those who brake up the roof to let down a palsied man that Jesus might heal him.
(4) He went far in doing good. The district of Palestine was not very large, but He went to the limit of it. He was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But He went to the verge of it. And I admire the Lord’s going about not simply for the miles He travelled, but for the space of character over which He passed. It is nothing wonderful that He went as far as Tyre and Sidon, but it is much that He went as far as publicans and sinners. A minister once announced to his congregation, “I am going on a mission to the heathen.” The good people thought their minister was going to leave them, and felt sad at the bare idea of losing him. “But,” he added, “I shall not be out of town.” If you want men who have gone far in sin, great foreigners in that respect, you need not leave London.
(5) No doubt Christ’s perseverance is intended, for when rejected in one place, He goes to another.
(6) The unity of His purpose is also hinted at. He does not go about with two aims.
(7) And the success is here intended. He went about, and not only tried to do good, but He did it.
3. His motive.
(1) He did good partly because He could not help it. It was His nature to do good. All the good things which God has made are diffusive. There is light; the clouds; air; fire.
(2) His grand motive no doubt is the display of the Divine attributes. He is the manifestation of Godhead. Poor troubled sinner, cannot He glorify God in you? You need pardon: you will be an illustrious instance of God’s grace if He should ever save you.
II. Consider ourselves.
1. As to the past. There are some in all callings who either do positive harm, or at any rate cannot imagine that they are doing any good. Let them repent themselves. But you who are saved, have you done all the good you could?
2. As to the future. The old question comes up, if any man says today, “I am resolved to go about doing good”--is he able to do it? And again, the reply comes, we must first be good, or else we cannot do good. The only way to be good is to seek to the good Master. Then whatsoever our hand findeth to do, let us do it. Let us not ask for greater abilities. If we can get them let us do so; but meanwhile let us use what we have. Go, thou housewife, to thy house, and from the lowest chamber to the top go thou about doing good. Go, thou teacher, to thy little school, and let thine example tell, and there is range enough for thee. You domestic servants, the kitchen is sphere enough for you. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Seeking to do good in little ways
Mr. Harvey was riding slowly along the dusty road, looking in all directions for a stream, or even a house where he might refresh his tired and thirsty horse with a good draught of water. While he was thinking and wondering, he turned an abrupt bend in the road, and saw before him a comfortable-looking farmhouse, and at the same time a boy ten or twelve years old came out into the road with a small pail, and stood directly before him. “What do you wish, my boy,” said Mr. Harvey, stopping his horse. “Would your horse like a drink?” said the boy, respectfully. “Indeed he would, and I was wondering where I could obtain it.” Mr. Harvey thought little of it, supposing, of course, the boy earned a few pennies in this manner, and therefore he offered him a bit of silver, and was astonished to see him refuse it. “I would like you to take it,” be said, looking earnestly at the child, and observing for the first time that he limped slightly. “Indeed, sir, I don’t want it. It is little enough I can do for myself or anyone; I am lame, and my back is bad, sir, and mother says, no matter how small a favour may seem, if it is all we are capable of, God loves it as much as He does any favour; and this is the most I can do for others. You see, sir, the distance from Painesville is eight miles to this spot, and I happen to know there is no stream crossing the road that distance, and the houses are all some distance from the road, and so, sir, almost everyone passing here from that place is sure to have a thirsty horse.” Mr. Harvey looked down into the grey eyes that were kindling and glowing with the thought of doing good to others, and a moisture gathered in his own, as a moment later he jogged off, pondering deeply upon the quaint little sermon that had been delivered so innocently and unexpectedly. (Christian Age.)
The blessedness of doing good
A Piedmontese nobleman, whom I met at Turin, had not long before experienced its efficacy; and his story, which he told me without reserve, was as follows: “I was weary of life, and, after a day such as few have known, and none would wish to remember, was hurrying along the street to the river, when I felt a sudden check. I turned and beheld a little boy, who had caught the skirt of my cloak in his anxiety to solicit my notice. His look and manner were irresistible; not less so was the lesson he had learned. ‘There are six of us, and we are dying for want of food.’ ‘Why should I not, said I to myself, relieve this wretched family? I have the means, and it will not delay me many minutes. But what if it does?’ The scene of misery he conducted me to I cannot describe. I threw them my purse, and their burst of gratitude overcame me; it filled my eyes--it went as a cordial to my heart. ‘I will call again tomorrow!’ I cried. Fool that I was to think of leaving a world where such pleasure was to be had, and so cheaply!” May many a reader of these lines find in the true romance of London a relief for all hypochondriacal and dyspeptic sorrows. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Doing good as a remedy for seal depression
Richard Cecil went to preach at Bedford Road Chapel, London, and one day a person came up to him about a certain lady, a great professor of religion. He represented that she was quite out of spirits, unhappy and miserable, and that Mr. Cecil ought to go and try and do her some good. He went to the lady and found her sitting by the fire, with her feet on the fender and looking very miserable, with a great shawl on her back, while the sun was shining in at the window. She asked Mr. Cecil to sit down; but he said,” I will not sit down; I know what is the matter. Get up, put on your bonnet, and go out and try and do some good. Within a few hundred yards of this very house there are people dying, and persons that want help. Go out and do something, and try and do good in the world.” She took his advice, and went out and tried to do some good, and when he called on her two or three weeks after, he found her quite an altered person. Her voice was altered, she looked cheerful and happy, and her low spirits were all gone. She said, “Oh, Mr. Cecil, you could not have done me a greater favour than ask me to try and do some good.” (Bp. Ryle.)
It is said of a certain New England Congregational minister that when he was young, “in the college and at the seminary he loved to spend his strength in doing that kind of good which other men neglected--and that remained his characteristic through life.” In his parish work he was sure to be after the “one sheep” which had been given up as lost. Norman M’Leod, the great friend of the Scotch poor, was industriously maligned in all quarters, although on the day when he was carried out to his burial a workman stood, and, looking at the funeral procession, said: “If he had done nothing for anybody more than he has done for me, he should shine as the stars forever and ever.”
Doing good within our sphere
Christ spent His life in doing good within the sphere in which He lived, and to the objects within His reach. Thus He has taught us irresistibly that, instead of consuming our time in wishes to do good where we cannot, the true dictate of universal goodwill is to do it where we can. (T. Dwight.)
Good not to be done by deputy
Not one of the least remarkable features of the present age is, the system of doing those things by deputy which our forefathers did for themselves. Provided a man has plenty of ready money, he may recline on the sofa, or loll in the easy chair the greater part of the day, and still be a most active Christian by deputy. Does his heart yearn to provide for the orphan, or to comfort the widow, to clothe the naked and to feed the hungry? He has no longer to seek them out as of old; he is not compelled to visit the scenes of destitution and misery; he has but to subscribe a few guineas to some half dozen institutions to qualify himself as a “life governor”; and for the remainder of his days he is freed from the obligations of Christian benevolence, by discharging the mere peppercorn rent of signatures to tickets and proxy papers. Benevolence peripatetic:--Genuine benevolence is not stationary, but peripatetic; it goeth about doing good. (Dr. Nevins.)
A long life of benevolence
Eighty-seven years have I sojourned on this earth, endeavouring to do good. (John Wesley.)
And we are witnesses of all things which He did.
The apostolic testimony
I. Its substance.
1. Christ’s miracles. “All things which He did.” These miracles were--
(1) Declarative of His Divine power, and thus credentials of His Messiahship.
(2) Symbols of His saving influence. As there was a miracle in every parable, so there was a parable in every miracle. Thus, when Christ opened blind eyes, it typified the restoration of spiritual sight; when He healed disease, it showed His power over the paralysis and leprosy of sin; when He raised people from the dead, it proclaimed His ability to raise from the death of trespasses and sins.
2. Christ’s crucifixion. “Whom they slew.” This was the central fact of all apostolic testimony. It was the burden of Peter’s earliest message and latest epistle, and the ruling theme of all Paul’s ministry. This was not only
(1) Martyrdom for truth, or
(2) An example of self-sacrifice, but also
(3) Atonement for sin. As the preacher afterwards testified, “He bore our sins,” “He died the Just for the unjust,” and redeemed us with His “precious blood.”
3. Christ’s resurrection (Acts 10:40). This was declarative of--
(1) His Divine Sonship.
(2) His victory over death and the grave.
(3) The acceptance of His atonement.
(4) Our resurrection, of which His was a pledge and type.
4. His second coming (Acts 10:42). This was a matter of revelation, not of eyewitnessing, but it was the inevitable outcome of all they saw. Christ was to come--
(1) As Judge, and assert openly His universal Lordship.
(2) As Raiser of the dead.
5. Remission of sins through faith in Christ (Acts 10:43). Thus we have in the first sermon to the Gentiles the whole gospel in substance, and the main articles of the Christian creed.
II. Its authority.
1. The testimony of their senses. They were trustworthy men. They could see, and actually saw, and had no inclination or inducement to make a false report; and their clear knowledge and full conviction gave body and strength to their testimony.
2. The Divine choice and command. They were selected because they had seen, and were commanded to tell what they saw. Hence they were not lecturers on history, which they would have been without a Divine call, but missionaries of a gospel.
3. Their own sanctified impulse. They could not but, out of the love of Him who had died for them and rose again, declare the things they had seen and heard.
III. Its method.
1. It was not simple declaration. Merely to say that they saw Jesus, etc., would have excited interest, stimulated inquiry, imparted information, and perhaps have founded a school, but would never have converted a soul or established a Church.
2. It was persuasive preaching. Their aim was not merely to secure belief in certain truths, but to save souls; and so “it has pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.” How faithful, earnest, telling, and successful this preaching was these early sermons testify.
IV. Its rearing on ourselves.
1. We are not eyewitnesses, but we may be heart witnesses. We have not seen Christ’s physical miracles, but we may be the subjects of His spiritual miracles. We have not seen the crucifixion, but we may receive the atonement. We are not witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, but we may feel its power.
2. Being heart witnesses, we are bound to testify what we feel. (J. W. Burn.)
St. Peter’s boldness, delicacy, and candour
1. We look for boldness in St. Peter; and we find it in those words, “We are witnesses,” etc. He takes upon himself and his colleagues all the responsibility; they are prepared to stand by the truth of the facts which they allege. We feel the value of this emphatic announcement; miracles, to be believed at all, must be believed on testimony which is beyond suspicion and which cannot be shaken.
2. Then, for his delicacy, we find it in the suppression of all reference to the part which Romans took in the crucifixion of our Lord; no word of Pontius Pilate, or Roman soldiers, or sentinels over the tomb. Any one who read the account for the first time would conclude that none but Jews and dwellers in Jerusalem had a hand in His death; especially as the nailing to the Cross, which was essentially a Roman punishment, is softened down to the expression, “hanged on a tree,” which was as essentially a Jewish. He might well spare the feelings of such men as he saw before him; men in spirit, as well as in fact, utterly guiltless of the blood of Jesus.
3. And for the apostle’s candour, we trace it in his assertion that God had shown the risen Saviour “not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us.” “An announcement,” as Paley remarks, “which no impostor would ever have made.” (E. T. Marshall, M. A.)
Him God raised up the third day, and shewed Him openly; not to all the people, but unto witnesses.--
The privacy of Christ’s resurrection no argument against the truth of it
There is no article of the Christian faith more necessary to be embraced, more undeniably to be proved than that of Christ’s resurrection. But our modern unbelievers have been at the woeful pains to furnish the world with arguments against this fundamental article of the Christian faith, the overturning of which they too well know would be no less than the entire extirpation of all religion. Happy had it been, say they, for the Christian cause in general if the proof of Christ’s resurrection had been made a little more public. For whatever may be said in apology for St. Thomas’s incredulity, it cannot be doubted but that, had our Lord appeared personally to the high priests and rulers after He was risen, made an open entry into Jerusalem, and frequented the temple and other places of public concourse, that every eye might see Him, He would have given the world fuller satisfaction than in remitting us to the testimony of His apostles, who were all His own creatures, and consequently evidences against whom we may make a just exception. But let us answer this vain objection, and see whether the privacy of Christ’s resurrection was not more agreeable to the majesty of the Almighty, and also no less convincing to those who were in any tolerable disposition to be satisfied.
1. And there is no one will deny but upon the certainty of Christ’s resurrection lies all the stress of the Christian religion, and likewise that all necessary means of convincing the world of the truth, and confirming them in the reality of it, were highly expedient; but then it should be remembered that Christ now, after His resurrection, was not to condescend to any action beneath the majesty of His Divine nature, which He had then more fully assumed. And, besides, of all men living, none ever had, or could render themselves more unworthy of this extraordinary, I had almost said unnecessary, way of conviction than the unbelieving Jews and chief priests. Another thing let me observe to you. They had long rejected all the evidence our Saviour had given them, and when they could not directly deny the truth of any of the miracles He wrought, they rather chose to impute them to the assistance of darkness; and can it with any justice be urged that such men should again be favoured with such a visitation, especially after His summoning Lazarus from the grave, which was so far from removing their prejudice that they after even waxed more inveterate against Him.
2. Again, let us suppose that our Lord had made His personal appearance before the high priests and rulers after He was risen, yet, if you remember, how little they were moved and affected with the relation of the centurion at His death, and with that of the soldiers at His resurrection, with the shock the whole frame of nature felt, and when everything else was moved, except themselves, can you imagine they would immediately have been convinced, and worshipped what they so lately had scoffed and crucified.
3. Suppose, then, He had made this public entrance, and they had been convinced of His Divinity, what sort of creatures must we conceive them to have been, able to sustain themselves under this shock? Something more inhuman than we can imagine them. Could flesh and blood behold the glorified Son of the Most High, whom just before it had arraigned, condemned, and executed, and live? The more of majesty and terror He had appeared in, the greater, and more insupportable, must have been their dread, and the more of love and compassion the greater and more abundant their confusion.
4. Now the method which our Saviour took, and the account the Scriptures give us of it, was neither attended with any of these inconveniencies, which would otherwise have happened, nor any ways defective to procure our assent. He neither exposed Himself to fresh insults nor laid the Jews under a necessity on the one hand of adding still to their sin by denying Him in His glorified Person, nor endangered their lives on the other by exhibiting to their view the reproach that a late crucified, but then eternally crowned Jesus, would have been to them. As to that expression used by our modern unbeliever, wherein he calls the apostles creatures of our Saviour, and consequently evidences against whom exception might justly be taken, I say it is unfair and ungenerous. Every circumstance proves they actually were as St. Peter, in the words of my text, styles them, “Witnesses chosen before of God,” and they not only called themselves so, but likewise were enabled to confirm the same by undeniable demonstrations of such power as could only be given them by Him whose witnesses they were. (S. Eccles, M. A.)
Witnesses of the resurrection
Why did not our Saviour show Himself after His resurrection to all the people? Why only to witnesses chosen before of God? Because this was the most effectual means of propagating His religion through the world.
I. Consider what would have been the probable effect of a public exhibition of His resurrection. Suppose our Saviour had shown Himself as openly as before He suffered crucifixion, preaching in the temple, talking to His disciples, etc., the people would perhaps have shouted hosannas once more, but the impression would soon have passed away; and then only a few of the multitude would have had an opportunity of testing the reality of the fact that He had risen. In all probability they would have denied the miracle.
II. He showed Himself to a few, because, humanly speaking, only a few could be made instruments. No one could become witnesses of the fact of His resurrection who did not know Him intimately before His death. The apostles alone had this knowledge.
III. Every great change is effected by the few, and not by the many. By satisfying the few, the many would be influenced. The few, thoroughly convinced, become convincers of the many. This is always the case. The twelve apostles overturned the powers of darkness, and established the kingdom of righteousness. (J. H. Newman, D. D.)
It is He which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead.--
The Mediator--Judge and Saviour
I. Our Divine Mediator’s position involves two offices. We are not now living under the immediate government of God, but under the reign of the Mediator. Jesus as Mediator has become--
1. Our Judge. “The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son.” “To this end Christ both died, and rose, End revived, that He might be Lord both of the dead and living, for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.” In this capacity Christ has judicial authority over all men, and He will try all of us at the last, as He is even now sitting in judgment upon all our acts and thoughts and intents. We shall each one appear before His great white throne, and if any are condemned, His lips shall say, “Depart, ye cursed”; if any are glorified, from His lips shall proceed the sentence, “Come, ye blessed.” That judgment will be authoritative and final.
2. A Saviour. “That through His name whosoever believeth in Him should receive remission of sins.” He has the sovereign right of condemnation or justification. He has authority to pass by transgression, His atonement has made it possible for Him to do this in perfect consistency with tits character as Judge. And the same universality which pervades the Mediator’s dignified proceedings as Judge is to be seen in His condescending operations as Saviour. He is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by Him. Let the two offices dwell together: “He is a just God and a Saviour.”
II. Both these offices regard men as sinners. I am sick to the death of hearing men talk about the goodness which is latent in human nature. The case of Cornelius makes it evident that the best natural religion needs to be illuminated by revelation, and instructed by the doctrine of the Cross.
1. Christ comes to judge because there are sinners to be judged. If you find me a nation which has no tribunals, no punishments, it must either be the scene of utter anarchy, or else a nation where all obey the law, and such a thing as a criminal is unknown. The setting up of the last great assize, and the making of that assize to have reference to all men, and the appointment of the supremest Person in existence to conduct that assize--all these facts imply guilt somewhere, and abundance of it.
2. Christ comes to save because there are sinners to be saved. He comes to remit sin; but there can be no remission of sins to those who have never transgressed. However wide the “whosoever” is, so wide is the guilt: the remedy measures the disease.
3. Putting the two things together, the very fact that there is a Mediator at all regards man as fallen. God could have dealt with us immediately, without an Intercessor, had we been as the first Adam was before his fall. It is by reason of sin’s influence upon the race that it became necessary that there should be a “Daysman that might lay His hand upon both,” and deal with God in His Divine Person, and yet deal with fallen man in His humanity.
III. The qualifications required by our Lord as Judge materially comfort us in looking at Him as Saviour.
1. As Judge, Jesus--
(1) Has full authority: He is fully commissioned of God to acquit or to condemn. Oh, then, if He gives me pardon through His blood, it is a free pardon under the King’s own hand and seal.
(2) Possesses the amplest knowledge. A judge should be the most instructed, or he is not fitted to decide in matters of difficulty and importance. Jesus Christ as Judge is incomparably fit to judge men, for--
(a) He knows men thoroughly. He is Himself a Man, and knows all about us by experience as well as by observation.
(b) He knows the law. Hath He not said, “Yea, Thy law is within My heart”? No one knows the law of God as Jesus did, for He kept it in every point.
(c) He knows what sin is. He has lived among sinners as a Physician, making a specialty of the disease of sin. Though He had no sin of His own, yet all sin was laid on Him.
(d) He knows the punishment of sin. A judge must know what penalties to award. Jesus knows this well enough, for He Himself also hath once suffered for sin, the Just for the unjust, to bring us to God.
2. Inasmuch as Christ is qualified to be Judge, it equally qualifies Him to pardon. For--
(1) He knows thee thoroughly, and can cleanse thee thoroughly. He knows the law, and therefore He knows how legally to acquit, so that no further question can be raised. Since He knows the penalty, because He has borne it all, He will take care that none of it shall ever fall on us. Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect since God hath justified?
(2) All the personal qualifications of our Lord as Judge remarkably tend to make the pardon of His people the more blessedly clear, for as a Judge He is very just. “Thou lovest righteousness and hatest wickedness.” Well, then, when He forgives it must be just to forgive.
IV. Our knowledge of the first office of the Mediator is necessary to our acceptance of him in his second capacity. This was why Peter preached it; this was why Paul before Felix reasoned concerning righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come. This is why the Holy Spirit Himself convinces the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. If you do not believe in Christ as your Judge, you never will accept Him as your Saviour.
V. The saving work of Christ’s mediatorial office is that which concerns us most at this present time.
1. Note the words, “Shall receive remission of sins.” What is this? It is the causing of sin to cease to be. God in wondrous mercy is prepared to forget your sin, to blot it out, to cast it behind His back, to cast it into the depths of the sea.
2. Note that this is to be done in Christ’s name. There is no other name in which pardon can be bestowed.
3. This is to be had through faith.
4. This blessed news has reference to everyone in the whole world that will believe in Jesus. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Jesus, the Judge
I. The message.
1. This begins with the assurance that there is a moral government. There is a Judge over the race of men. Men are not permitted to do whatsoever is right in their own eyes. The race is not left to anarchy: Jesus Christ is Head of all.
2. We have to go on to say that there will be a judgment. Consider--
(1) The character of God. Being the Ruler of the world, He must do justice. We should count any man a miserable counterfeit of a monarch if he never administered justice. And “the Father who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s works” will not permit offenders to insult His laws with impunity.
(2) The character of man equally involves a judgment, for he is evidently a responsible being. We count not the cattle of the hills or the fish of the sea responsible; no one blames the wolf that he ravens, or the lion that he devours; but when we come to think of man, we regard him as a creature whose actions have a moral quality about them, and are either right or wrong. Surely, where there is responsibility there is a law, and where there is a law there must, some day or other, be rewards for well-doers and punishments for malefactors.
(3) The present tangled condition of the world’s history requires that there should be a day of rectification at the end of time. We often see the wicked prosper, while the righteous are abased. The Judge of all the earth must do right; and how can this be but by a final adjustment in which it shall be clearly seen that, though the wicked prosper for a while, they are as bullocks fattening for the slaughter; and though the righteous suffer for a while, it is but as the gold suffers in the furnace, that it may come forth purified?
(4) Moreover, there is in the consciences of most a testimony to a coming judgment. I will not say of all men, for I believe that some manage so to drug their self-consciousness as at last to quiet all their fears; but yet the most of men believe in a judgment to come, and in their more thoughtful moods are alarmed thereat.
3. This judgment will be conducted by the Man Christ Jesus. He will be thus enthroned, I suppose, partly because it is involved in His mediatorial office, in which the Lord hath put all things in subjection under His feet. But specially remember that the Judge is the Man Christ Jesus. There must be special reason for this honour done to the manhood of our Lord, or it would not be so continually insisted upon (Daniel 7:13; John 5:22; John 5:27; Matthew 25:31-32; Matthew 13:41). Be ye sure, then, of His impartiality. He is God, yet Man, having an intense sympathy both with the King and with the subjects.
4. This judgment will concern all mankind. He will judge the quick and dead; that is, those who will be alive at His coming He will judge, as well as those who have already died. The summons will exempt no man. Here and there a criminal escapes the vigilant eye of human law; but there shall be no such instance at the coming of the Lord.
5. A few words concerning this judgment. It will be--
(1) A very eminent one. It will be a judgment fixed by the peremptory ordinance of God, for the text saith that He hath “ordained” Jesus to sit as Judge. The whole trial will be most solemnly conducted (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
(2) Very searching, into deeds (2 Corinthians 5:10); words (Matthew 12:36); every secret thing (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
(3) Very exact. It will proceed upon evidence and documentary testimony, and slander and hearsay will not be mentioned there. “The books were opened.”
(4) Very severe; for things will not be judged by their outward appearance, but put to thorough test and trial.
6. The sentences will be so just as to be indisputable, and even the condemned will own the justness thereof. That verdict will be final and irreversible. When Jesus has once pronounced it, there will be no appeal, no suing out of a writ of error, no reversal of the decree. “These shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”
II. The evident importance of this message.
1. This may be gathered from the text.
(1) “He commanded us.” Then God must know that there is a great necessity for its being declared.
(2) “To preach”--to herald, to proclaim. Lo, we this day precede the great Judge, as the trumpeters go before our judges on assize day, and this is our cry, “He cometh! Jesus, the Judge of quick and dead!”
(3) “To testify.” Having given the proclamation, we are then to bear witness solemnly, and to speak the fact over and over again for God, adding our own belief that it is surely true.
(4) “Unto the people”--not to some few, but to all.
2. There is importance in this from other reasons.
(1) It sheds a great light upon the future of the ungodly.
(2) It reflects great glory upon Christ. Ye may despise Him, but He is your Master after all.
(3) It has a beneficial effect upon our everyday life. I constantly hear people say, “Tell the people about something that has to do with today--about cleanliness and honesty, and all that.” But if I want men to live righteously, I know of no motive that can have greater weight than this. You are stewards; you will have to give in your account. Will anybody tell me that this is unpractical? If God will judge men at the last, it behoves men to see how they live today.
(4) It has a convincing and awakening power. Men tremble when they hear of judgment to come, and they are led to cry,” What must we do to be saved?” This is the plough which makes furrows for the good seed; the surgeon’s knife which prepares for the reception of the healing balm. Years ago a gentlewoman had been spending an afternoon at cards, and the evening at a ball. She came home very late, and found her maid servant reading a book. “Ah,” said she, “are you still poring over your dull books? They make you moping and melancholy.” The lady retired to her chamber, but she slept not. In the night she was troubled, and fell a-weeping. She tossed to and fro; and at length she called her maid. She said, “Madam, what ails you? I thought I left you very merry and well.” “Oh,” said she, “but I looked over your book, and I only saw one word, but that word stings me: I cannot sleep; I cannot bear it!” “What word was it, madam?” “It was that word ‘eternity.’ Oh, maid,” said she, “it is very well for me to sport and play and waste my time as I have done; but oh, eternity, eternity, eternity! How can I face eternity?” And so that night was turned to prayer. I could wish the like might happen now to many of you. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Christ’s coming to judgment
This last act of Christ is a special part of His exultation and honour, bestowed upon Him because He is the Son of Man (John 5:27). Wherein we have four things to be distinctly considered--
1. The subject of it, Christ. Judgment is the act of the undivided Trinity. The Father and Spirit judge in respect of authority and consent, but it is the act of Christ in respect of visible management and execution.
2. The object. The quick and dead--i.e., all that at His coming do live, or ever have lived. This is the object personal, and in this is included the real object: viz., all the actions (2 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 2:16).
3. The fountain of this authority is God the Father; for He hath ordained Christ to be the Judge.
4. The infallible truth, or unquestionable certainty of all this. He gave us commandment to preach and testify it to the people. We had it in charge from His own mouth; and dare not hide it. This truth, that our Lord Jesus Christ is ordained by God the Father, to be the Judge of quick and dead, stands upon the firm basis of Scripture authority (John 5:22; Acts 17:31; Romans 2:16). Three things will be opened here.
I. First, the certainty of a judgment. This is truth of firmer establishment than heaven and earth.
1. As the Scriptures aforementioned (with 2 Corinthians 5:10; Ecclesiastes 12:14; Matthew 12:36, etc.) do very plainly reveal it: so the justice and righteousness of God require it should be so (Genesis 18:25). Righteousness requires that a difference be made betwixt the righteous and the wicked (Isaiah 3:10). But no such distinction is fully made in this world (Ecclesiastes 7:15; Habakkuk 1:13; Ecclesiastes 3:16-17; James 5:6-7).
2. Man is an accountable being. His actions have a relation to a law (Romans 14:12; Matthew 25:14-15).
3. What need we seek evidence of this truth, further than our own conscience?
II. The nature and manner of this judgement.
1. It will be a great and awful day (Jude 1:6). Three things will make it so.
(1) The manner of Christ’s coming will be awfully solemn (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
(2) Much more the work itself. For it is to judge the secrets of men (Romans 2:16). To sever the tares from the wheat. To make every man’s whites and blacks appear.
(3) And no less the execution of the sentence.
2. It will be a critical and exact judgment, every man will be weighed to his ounces and drachms. The name of the Judge is the Searcher of Hearts. No hypocrite can escape. Justice holds the balances in an even hand.
3. It will be a universal judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:12; Revelation 20:12).
4. It will be a judgment full of convictive clearness.
5. It will be a supreme and final judgment, from which lies no appeal.
III. This judgment makes for Christ’s honour. For--
1. This act of judging pertaining properly to the kingly office; Christ will be glorified as much in it as He hath been in either of the other. We find but some few glimpses of the kingly office, breaking forth in this world. Now that office will shine as the sun in the midst of the heavens.
2. This will be a display of His glory in the highest, before the whole world (2 Thessalonians 1:10).
3. This will roll away forever the reproach of His death,
Inferences: Is Jesus Christ ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead?
1. How great then is the security believers have, that they shall not be condemned in that day. Who shall condemn, when Christ is Judge?
2. How miserable a case will Christless souls be in at that day! They that are Christless now will be speechless, helpless, and hopeless then.
3. How are all concerned to secure their interest in Christ, and therein an eternity of happiness to their own souls, by the work of regeneration?
4. Then look to it, all you that hope to be found of Him in peace, that you avoid those sins and live in the daily practice of those duties which the consideration of that day powerfully persuades you to avoid or practise.
(1) See you be meek and patient under all injuries and abuses for Christ’s sake (James 5:7-9).
(2) Be communicative, public-hearted Christians, studying and devising liberal things for Christ’s distressed members (Matthew 25:34-35).
(3) Be watchful and sober, and see that you be not overcharged with the cares and love of this present life (Luke 21:34-35).
(4) Improve all your Master’s talents. Take heed of the napkin (Matthew 25:14; Matthew 25:18).
(5) But above all, be sincere in your profession (Luke 12:1-3). (J. Flavel.)
The certainty and circumstances of a future judgment
I. There is a judgment ordained by God and to be declared to men. The Holy Scripture teacheth us--
1. That God hath appointed a determinate time for this judgment. “A day in which He will judge the world in righteousness.”
2. That in order to this judgment all the actions of men are with greater exactness registered in books. “The books were opened.”
3. That, in order thereto, there shall be a general resurrection of all persons, both just and unjust.
4. That then all persons so raised shall be presented at the bar of our Lord, to answer and undergo their trial.
5. That then and there every thought, word, and work of men shall be thoroughly disclosed and discussed; so that it, together with its due quality and desert, shall plainly appear.
6. That on each man, according to the true quality of his doings, a definitive sentence shall pass, whereby he shall be acquitted or condemned.
7. That according to the purport of this sentence a discrimination shall be made; and to one party a gracious reward; to the other, a sore punishment.
8. That all this shall be transacted in a regular, public, and most solemn manner, in open court, in the face and audience of all the world, before angels and men.
9. That the judgment shall pass to the full conviction and entire satisfaction of all that are present; so that each one concerned therein shall be forced in conscience to acquiesce in his doom, as most just and equal.
II. The judge ordained; Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. Why it should be so, many reasons may be assigned.
1. It was requisite that the judge should be visible, and audible; such whom the parties concerned might discern and converse with, in order to their clearer and fuller satisfaction, or conviction: such our Lord, the Son of man, clothed with glorified flesh, will be.
2. This Judgeship is a good part of that regal office which God did confer on Christ; giving Him a power over all flesh, all authority in heaven and earth.
3. It is an office of too great eminence to be imparted to any other. “Worthy is He alone to receive the book.”
4. He alone also capacities proper for this judicature: that Divine faculty of searching men’s hearts; wisdom to know all matters of fact that ever were, and to discern the right in every case; absolute goodness, perfect equity and immutable love of right, and that exact temperament of affection toward men which is requisite to the distribution of equal justice toward them, according to due measures of mercy and severity.
5. By this designate on the glory of God is especially promoted: His wisdom appeareth in constituting one so in all respects most fit to discharge the office; and His goodness, for since it was requisite that a judgment should pass on us, how could the terror thereof be better allayed than by putting it into the hands of His Son? How also could He exhibit a more illustrious instance of His justice and love to righteousness than in advancing Him to so glorious an office, who, out of perfect compliance to His will, did freely stoop so low, and gladly undergo so much?
6. Just it likewise was that to Him should be consigned a power to reward His friends and do Himself right on His enemies.
7. This appointment is conducible to our edification.
(1) It is apt to raise in us a high reverence of our Saviour; and consequently to dispose us to the observance of His laws and imitation of His example.
(2) It is a matter of special comfort and encouragement to consider that hence assuredly we shall find a fair and favourable trial; since it is no enemy, but our best friend.
III. The objects, or the extent of the judgment ordained. All, without exception.
IV. Application: The doctrine is calculated--
1. To make us circumspect and vigilant; for, since we must render an account of every thought, word, and action, what exceeding reason have we, with most attentive and accurate regard, to mind whatever we do!
2. To beget and preserve sincerity in us. What a folly is it to delude men with false appearances, or rather by them to abuse themselves; seeing they soon will be rightly informed, and we grievously disgraced for it!
3. To render us serious in all our thoughts, opinions, affections, actions; suppressing all proud conceits, all admiration of these transitory things, all wanton joys; for--
(1) Why should any apprehension of worldly state, of any endowment, puff up our minds, seeing the day is near at hand which will quite level men?
(2) Why should we value those splendid toys, or that sordid trash, which men here do so eagerly scramble for; which then evidently will be discountenanced?
(3) Why, having affairs on foot of such vast importance, should we amuse ourselves with trivial matters?
(4) How shall we dare to embrace the serpent of sinful excess?
(5) And how can we be easily transported into wild merriments, if we consider how infinitely serious business lieth on us; how nearly our everlasting welfare lieth at stake?
4. To engage us carefully to improve all the talents by God’s providence and grace committed to us. Hath God bestowed--
(1) Wealth on us? this will engage us so to use it in God’s service.
(2) Power? this should induce us to use it moderately and fruitfully.
(3) Any parts, wit, knowledge? this should move us to employ them in drawing men to the practice of virtue and piety.
(4) Honour or credit among men? this may oblige us to use it as an instrument of bringing honour to God.
5. To induce us to the observing strict justice and equity in all our dealings. “Let no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter, because God will judge and avenge for all these things.”
6. To breed charity in us; in giving, in forgiving, in judging and censuring of men.
7. To support and comfort us, as against all other wrongful dealing, so against all unjust and uncharitable censures, groundless slanders and surmises, undeserved reproaches of men; for that assuredly at that judgment right will be done, and innocence cleared.
8. To preserve us from being deluded and poisoned by the more favourable opinions of men. For “God seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but God looketh on the heart.”
9. To encourage us to “judge ourselves so that we be not judged,” or not condemned with the world.
10. To guard us from infidelity and from impatience in regard to the providential dispensation of affairs here. “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” (I. Barrow, D. D.)
Whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.
Forgiveness of sin
I. The blessing conferred--“Remission of sins.” Remission is to remove the guilt of sin, that the punishment of it may not be inflicted upon the sinner. God alone can fully forgive sins in this way; and He does it eminently, so that not a vestige of it remains. Remission implies--
1. An offence, and consequently an offender. We have offended God.
2. A sovereign act. It is a pure act of grace and love.
3. A complete and perfect act. He does not forgive the greater offences and omit the smaller ones; neither does He forgive the smaller and leave the greater ones unpardoned.
II. The unlimited nature of the blessing. “Whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.” The qualification necessary in the recipient of the blessing is to believe. This includes penitence for the past offences, and a full reliance on Christ for pardon. There is no respect of persons--“Whosoever.” This may be regarded alike in respect to nations, in respect to class, and in respect to moral character.
1. The Jews were still “slow of heart to believe” that the Gentiles were to be partakers of the grace of the gospel. There is no distinction of race or colour of skin. “Whosoever believeth” among all nations, and languages, and tribes, and shades of mankind, shall receive remission of sins.
2. As the blessing of forgiveness is applicable to all nations, so it is also to all classes.
3. Moral character does not exclude from the blessing. Some have run to a greater “excess of riot” than others; still there is no distinction made.
III. The medium through which the blessing is conveyed--“Through His name.” God could not, consistently with His justice and holiness, forgive sins without atonement.
IV. The universal testimony borne by the ancient prophets to the fact that sin must be forgiven through Christ--“To Him give all the prophets witness.” Soon after the entrance of sin it was intimated that it should be remitted through the Saviour. The door of hope was opened when God said, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman.” We refer to some of the prophecies on this point. Isaiah tells us--“He was wounded for our transgressions … and with His stripes we are healed.” “He shall see of the travail of His soul, and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall My righteous servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities.” Jeremiah says--“This is His name, the Lord our Righteousness.” We see, then, that Christ is the medium of communication between God and man. If we shall be reconciled to God it must be through Him. (Homilist.)
The universality of the gospel
It was John Berridge who thanked God for “that blessed word ‘whosoever,’” in the gospel invitations and promises. “If it had been written, ‘John Berridge may come,’ there might have been a doubt as to who was meant by it; for there may be a hundred John Berridges in the world. Rut with that word ‘whosoever’ just there, there is no room for questioning.” Whosoever will, may come. Whosoever comes, shall receive. If you or yours are without remission of sins, whose fault is it?
Way to accept remission of sins
To accept pardon and its peace, not from any perception of God’s power to pardon, but from the conviction that love carries pardon with it; to accept it as the inevitable consequence of gratitude and growing affection; to accept it, feeling the preciousness and sweetness of the Divine paternal love; to accept it, and by it to be led through sickness and trials of every kind; to accept it, and find that it is enough for every emergency; to accept it, and feel that it is all, and in all--if that does not fashion the character more potently than conscience and reason, then character is no more the effect of a cause, and cause and effect are disjoined.
Christ, the preacher’s great theme
The best sermon is that which is fullest of Christ. A Welsh minister, when preaching at the chapel of Jonathan George, was saying that Christ was the sum and substance of the gospel, and he broke out into the following story:--“A young man had been preaching in the presence of a venerable divine, and after he had done he foolishly went to the old minister and inquired, ‘What do you think of my sermon, sir?’ ‘A very poor sermon indeed,’ he replied. ‘A poor sermon! it took me along time to study it.’ ‘Ay, no doubt of it.’ ‘Why, then, do you say it is poor: did you not think my explanation of the text to be accurate? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Were not the metaphors correct and the arguments conclusive?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why, then, do you say that it was a poor sermon?’ ‘Because there was no Christ in it.’ ‘Well, there was no Christ in the text, we are not to be preaching Christ always, we must preach what is in the text.’ So the old man said, ‘Don’t you know, young man, that from every town, village, and hamlet in England, there is a road to London?’” and so from every text in Scripture there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures--that is Christ, and my dear brother, your business is, when you get to a text, to say, “Now, what is the road to Christ?” then preach a sermon running along that road to Him. ‘And,’ said he, ‘I have never yet found a text that had not a plain and direct road to Christ in it; and if ever I should find one that had no such road, I will make a road, I would go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master.’” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the Word.
I. The effects of Peter’s preaching. It--
1. Converted Gentiles. Peter preached the gospel (Acts 10:34-43). And the gospel thus proclaimed is never in vain. Man’s oratory may please the ear: it is the Word of God, applied by the Holy Spirit, which alone can convert the heart. God often works suddenly and unexpectedly. A thoughtless sinner enters a church, pays no attention; but all at once some word strikes his ear. It is an arrow from the Divine quiver. He quits the Church converted. It was thus with this congregation. “While Peter yet spake,” intending, probably, to say much more, “the Holy Ghost fell”--just as while Ezekiel was prophesying the dry bones moved.
2. Astonished Jews (verses 45, 46).
(1) The proof that Peter’s preaching was owned of God, was the gift of the Holy Ghost. The converts spake with tongues, and thereby showed their qualifications and willingness to go as missionaries in foreign lands, and at once used their tongues to magnify God. And this is ever the effect. Whether the convert speaks in his own or foreign language, he will glorify God by telling others of Christ’s pardoning love and redeeming grace.
(2) The astonishment of the six Jewish disciples who had come from Joppa with Peter arose from prejudice. It probably gave them some uneasiness, because that “upon the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.” They conceived that these blessings belonged exclusively to their own nation. Had they understood their Scriptures, they would have known that this event had been long ago predicted. Beware, therefore, not only of prejudice, but also of ignorance of the Scriptures. How many are being carried away by all kinds of delusions from this neglect of the Word of God! Some are settling down in a dependence upon the outward ceremonies of religion, because forgetful that a man may have “the form of godliness” without its “power.” Some are trying to combine the love of the world with the service of Christ, forgetful that “No man can serve two masters.” Some are panic struck at the existence of infidelity, forgetful that “In the last days scoffers shall arise.”
II. Peter’s acknowledgment of the holy spirit’s work (verses 47, 48). This inquiry of Peter shows us--
1. How unsound are the views of the Society of Friends, who affirm that the baptism of water is unnecessary, if we have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We must never forget, however, that it is an ordinance of Christ. We admit that, like the thief upon the Cross, a believer may enter Paradise without baptism; still, our Lord’s own words are--that “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” The same remarks apply to the other sacrament. Many approach those emblems with devout joy and gratitude and experience the richest blessing. But others turn their backs upon that precious ordinance, which was appointed by none other than our Lord Himself.
2. How erroneous are the views of those who hold that baptism is invariably accompanied by the gift of the Holy Ghost. These converts received the Holy Ghost first, and were baptized afterwards. It was with them as it was with Abraham. Abraham first believed and then was circumcised. And our Church says that before an adult is baptized he must have repentance and faith; both which are the fruits of the Spirit working in the soul. These we could not have as infants; bat we must have them now, otherwise our infant baptism is a delusion. How wrong, therefore, is it to speak of regeneration accompanying, by necessity, infant baptism! Jewish children, at eight days old, were admitted into covenant by circumcision; and we conclude that the children of Christian parents should be brought into the Christian covenant by the rite of baptism: but then, to dogmatise upon the effects of infant baptism is to dogmatise where the Word of God is totally silent.
3. How wrong they are who exalt baptism at the expense of preaching. Peter felt (as Paul) that his grand commission was not so much to baptize as to preach the gospel; for “he commanded them to be baptized.”
III. The anxiety of the converted soul for spiritual instruction (verse 48). Peter, in another place, describes believers as “newborn babes,” desiring “the sincere milk of the Word, that they might grow thereby.” These converts gathered themselves together, as in the presence of God, to hear Peter preach; and after they had received saving instruction, by the blessing of the Holy Ghost, they were anxious to obtain further benefit from Peter’s ministry. Learn that those of you who have received the Holy Ghost need the further ministry of the Word. It is a sure proof that there is spiritual good going forward when we perceive this thirst for larger acquaintance with the love and the work of the Saviour. (C. Clayton, M. A.)
The direct results of Peter’s sermon
I. The effusion of the holy spirit.
1. It came to those who heard the Word. The gospel is the channel through which the Holy Spirit in His regenerating influences flows into the soul; the chariot on which the Divine Conqueror goes forth to crush the soul’s enemies, and to bring it forth to freedom, light, and glory. True, He works through all nature for various purposes, but for salvation He works through the Word.
2. It produced miraculous as well as moral effects. The recipients spoke with “tongues.” In what language they expressed their gratitude we are not told. Now as at Pentecost new thoughts and emotions require a new dialect. Change the thoughts and feelings of the world and you will change its language.
II. The administration of baptism (verse 47). From this we conclude that baptism is--
1. A symbol of the Spirit’s action on the soul; not only perhaps in His cleansing influence, but in the mode of communication--“poured out.”
2. A ceremony of easy observance, “Can any forbid water?” which implies--
(1) That the water was in the house.
(2) That water could be brought. Christianity is an universal system, and any ordinance that cannot be attended to anywhere and always has no vital connection with it.
3. A service of subordinate importance. Peter does not baptize; He has a higher work. Christ baptized not (John 4:3), and Paul said, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Preaching and success
“How comes it,” demanded a bishop of Garrick, “that I, in expounding Divine doctrines, produced so little effect upon my congregation, while you can so easily rouse the passions of your auditors by the representation of fiction?” The answer was short and pithy--“Because I recite falsehoods as if they were true, while you deliver truths as if they were fiction.” (Clerical Anecdotes.)
The Holy Ghost given
There are two things we may notice concerning Peter’s discourse--
I. The important topics it embraced. “While Peter spake these words.” What words? Christ was the theme of this sermon; and is the grand subject of our ministrations. We tell you of Him, in the dignity of His person, the perfection of His character, the fulness of His grace, and the suitableness of His salvation. In Peter’s address there are five things he mentions respecting Christ.
1. His mediatorial qualifications (verse 38; see also Isaiah 61:1).
2. The activity of His life. “Who went about doing good.”
3. The fact of His death (verse 39).
4. The power of His resurrection (verse 40).
5. The extent of His dominion (verse 42).
II. The Divine Influence With Which It Was Accompanied.
1. Its import. “The Holy Ghost fell on all,” etc. There are three principal things He does: He--
(1) Enlightens the mind.
(2) Convinces the conscience.
(3) Sanctifies the soul.
2. Its objects. Those “which heard the Word.” “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of the Lord.”
3. Its extent. “On all them that heard.” What vast numbers were converted to God in the first ages of Christianity!
Two reflections naturally arise out of this subject--
1. The importance of the Christian ministry.
2. The necessity of the Spirit’s agency. (E. Temple.)
The descent of the Holy Ghost
I. Some circumstances that preceded this descent.
1. The time of the miracle--“While Peter was speaking.” The Holy Ghost cannot go at a slow pace; it is the devil in the serpent that creeps, but the Spirit as a dove flies. As regards the centurion we may say, “When God teaches, how fast a godly man learns.” Christ did His miracles in an instant. It is true that there is a growth in knowledge, and ignorance is overcome by degrees; but when the Holy Ghost takes a man into His school, He deals not with him as a painter who makes an eye, an ear, etc., and passes his pencil a hundred times over every muscle and hair, and in many sittings make up one man, but He deals as a printer that in one strain delivers a whole story. The time, then, was when Peter prepared by the Holy Ghost was to prepare others for the Holy Ghost. “When he spoke,” i.e.
2. Preached to them. For to him who has a spiritual taste no honey is so sweet as the Word of God preached according to His ordinance. If a man taste a little of this as Jonathan did, though he think his eyes enlightened, it may be to his death (1 Samuel 14:27). If a man read the Scriptures a little, superficially, he ‘thinks he sees everything clear as the sun: but he may find wormwood in this honey,’ because he finds “the wages of sin is death,” and he will take no more of the honey, viz., that “when a sinner repents he shall find mercy.” As the Essential Word, the Son is Light of light, so is the written Word--one place takes light of another: and if thou wilt so read and hear that thine affections mislead thee; if thou hear sermons so that thou art glad when sins are rebuked that thou art free from, and art deaf when thine own sins are declaimed against, thou wilt take so little of this honey that Jonathan’s case will be thine. The Scriptures are made to agree with one another, but not to agree with thy particular humour. But yet the counsel is good on the other side too (Proverbs 25:16). Content thyself with reading and hearing what is clear and profitable, and perplex not thyself with those things which God has not revealed.
3. “Whilst he yet spake.” The Spirit did not leave them to future meditations, but spoke at once to their consciences. As a gardener takes every bough, and places it against a wall where it will produce most fruit, so the Holy Ghost places the words of the preacher, one upon an usurer, another on an adulterer, another on an ambitious person, another on a briber, when the preacher knows of none of these.
4. Nay, it is not only “whilst he was yet speaking,” but as St. Peter says in the next chapter, “As I began to speak.” It was then when, whilst, and as soon as, he preached; but Peter had some preparation as we know from the vision, and with the subject of his preaching he was well acquainted (verse 43). So while his manner was extemporal, his matter was prepared.
II. The descent itself.
1. The Person who fell. As the Trinity is the most mysterious part of our religion, so in the Trinity the Holy Ghost is the most mysterious Person. But these mysteries are not to be chewed by reason, but to be swallowed by faith. We professed the three Persons in one God at our baptism, and have sealed that contract in the other sacrament: and this is bur eternal life. There is a Holy Ghost, and He falls down on those who hear the Word.
2. It is as wonderful that He should fall down from heaven and yet be in heaven. “How art thou fallen” (Isaiah 14:12) was asked of a being who should never return. But the Spirit fell so from, that He remained in heaven. This Dove did more than that which was sent from the ark (Genesis 8:7).
3. But there is more than a descent, even an earnest communication, a throwing, a pouring out of Himself. He falls as waters that cover that it falls on, as an army which conquers and governs that on which it falls. But He falls otherwise on the ungodly; on him He falls like hail, and leaves him in impenitence because be hath despised the Holy Ghost. But when the Spirit puts on the nature of a dove, and a dove with an olive branch, and that in the ark--i.e., testimonies of our peace and reconciliation with God, in His Church--He falls as that kind of lightning which melts swords and hurts not scabbards--He shall melt thy soul, and not hurt thy body.
4. Further, this falling of the Holy Ghost was not such an insinuation that He conveyed Himself into these particular men for their salvation, but such a powerful and diffusive falling as made them work for others. A great doubt was removed by them whether it were lawful to receive Gentiles. So this falling was not an infusion of justifying grace merely, but also such an infusion of gifts as might edify others. Good hearers, then, became good preachers. (J. Donne, D. D.)
The outpouring of the Spirit
I. What it is. “The Holy Ghost fell,” i.e., “descended”--
1. As lightning, flashing conviction suddenly, startlingly, effectually.
2. As rain, gentle, refreshing, fertilising.
3. As cataracts and water floods, destroying and bearing away all obstacles.
4. As fire consuming stubble, purifying dross, and turning the true metal into its own nature. The Holy Spirit thus convinces of sin, prepares the heart for the Word, vanquishes unbelief and self-will, consumes sin and inspires enthusiasm.
II. What it accompanies. The preaching of the Word. “While Peter yet spake.”
1. The Spirit honours the instrument of His own making. “Holy men of old spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,” and what they said He reinspires, and makes the gospel the power of God unto salvation. Sometimes He works directly, sometimes with other instruments--prosperity or adversity, sickness or restoration, the commonplace or extraordinary events of life, life or death, for “the wind bloweth where it listeth”; but usually it is by the Word.
2. Let men not dishonour this instrument.
(1) The tendency is to disparage preaching and exalt devotion, but without preaching there will be few converted worshippers, although there may be many who draw near with their lips whose hearts are far from God.
(2) If preaching is to be tolerated it must be short. But this usually comes from people who can sit out three hours at a concert or a play, whereas they tire with half an hour of the “words of eternal life.”
3. The preacher’s duty is to declare the whole counsel of God, whether men will hear or not. But let him so preach as to win the ear; then he may expect the same results as Peter had. “My Word shall not return unto Me void.”
III. With what it is followed.
1. On the part of the beholders--astonishment.
(1) It was astonishing in itself. It ought not to have been in the case before us, for we have the record of three similar manifestations, of which these spectators must have heard from Peter, if they were not actual witnesses. Let us not blame them, for nothing would surprise an average church today more than a revival, although “we have heard with our ears and our fathers have told us,” etc.
(2) It was astonishing in the subjects of it. Yet it ought not to have been, for it had been clearly predicted, as Peter announced at Pentecost. But we must not judge them harshly, for the Church today, with a wider knowledge, throws up its hands in wonder at the conversion of any one of more than ordinary depravity.
2. On the part of the subjects.
(1) Testimony. They spoke with tongues--miraculously endowed in this case. But when the Spirit comes, does He sanctify the heart and not the tongue? Our modern proprieties permit the use of every other instrument, but lay an embargo on the tongue. But the Scripture saith, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”
(2) Praise. They magnified God the Author of this good and perfect gift. If conversion does not lead to rapturous thankfulness, it may well be suspected.
(3) Baptism--obedience to Christ’s particular requirement, and involving all else in the way of duty.
3. On the part of Peter--
(1) Continuous instruction (verse 48).
(2) Vigorous defence of his policy (Acts 11:1-18). (J. W. Burn.)
Holy Spirit: His workings inscrutable
What is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit? It is the doctrine of the interworking of the Spirit of God upon the souls of men. I have no philosophy about it. All I say is this--that God knows what is the secret way in which mind reaches mind: I do not; you do not. I do not know why words on my tongue wake up thoughts corresponding to those words in you. I do not know why the soul of man, like a complex instrument of wondrous scope, is played upon by my words, so that there are waked up in it notes along the whole scale of being. I do not understand why these things are so; but, unquestionably, they are so. I do not know how the mother pours her affection on the child’s heart; but she does. Two stars never shone into each other as two loving souls shine into each other. I know it is so; but I do not know why it is so. I do not know how soul touches soul, how thought touches thought, or how feeling touches feeling; but I know it does. (H. W. Beecher.)
The Holy Spirit needed for effective preaching
Mental power may fill a chapel; but spiritual power fills the Church. Mental power may gather a congregation; spiritual power will save souls. We want spiritual power. We know some ministers before whom we shrink into nothing as to talent, but who have no spiritual power, and when they speak they have not the Holy Spirit with them; but we know others, simple-hearted, worthy men, who speak their country dialect, and who stand up to preach in their humble sanctuary, and the Spirit of God clothes every word with power; hearts are broken, souls are saved, and sinners are born again. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The Holy Spirit needed for regeneration
It may be that during a sermon two men are listening to the same truth; one of them hears as attentively as the other, and remembers as much of it; the other is melted to tears or moved to solemn thoughts; but the one sees nothing in the sermon, except certain important truths well set forth; as for the other, his heart is broken within him and his soul is melted. How is this? I reply, because the mysterious Spirit of the living God goes with the truth to one heart and not to the other. Yonder sinner only feels the force of truth, and that may be strong enough to make him tremble, like Felix; but this man feels the Spirit going with the truth, the Spirit causes him to pass into the state of salvation. This change takes place instantaneously. It is as miraculous a change as any miracle of which we read in Scripture. It may be mimicked, but no imitation of it can be true and real. Men may pretend to be regenerated without the Spirit, but regenerated they cannot be. It is a change so marvellous that the highest attempts of man can never reach it. We may reason as long as we please, but we cannot reason ourselves into regeneration; we may meditate till our hairs are grey with study, but we cannot meditate ourselves into the new birth. This is worked in us by the sovereign will of God alone. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Holy Spirit needed to make ordinances effectual
In vain do the inhabitants of London go to their conduits for supply unless the man who has the master key turns the water on; and in vain do we think to quench our thirst at ordinances, unless God communicates the living water of His Spirit. (H. G. Salter.)
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Acts 10". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29