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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
CORNELIUS had been sent out from Rome to Cæsarea very much as our English officers are sent out to India. The Romans both despised and hated the Jews, as we, with all our proverbial pride, neither despise nor hate any of our subject races; and, sharing both that despite and that hatred, Cornelius had come out to his centurionship in Cæsarea. But Cornelius was no ordinary Roman centurion, and he soon discovered that the Jews of Cæsarea were no ordinary tributary people. The wide and deep contrast between Italy and Israel soon began to make an immense impression on Cornelius's excellent and open mind. Israel's noble doctrine of Jehovah and His Messiah; the spotless purity of Israel's morality, with the sweetness and the sanctity of its home life; its magnificent and incomparable literature, even to a man fresh from Athens and Rome; and its majestic and overpowering worship;-all these things immensely impressed Cornelius, till, by the time we are introduced to him, Cornelius is already a devout man, and one that fears the God of Israel, and prays to the God of Israel always.
It was one of the conspicuous characteristics of Cornelius that all his servants, both domestic and professional, stood on such a friendly footing with their master. His family religion, as we would call it, was one of the most outstanding and attractive things about Cornelius. Long before Cornelius was a baptized man at all, this mind of Christ was already found in the centurion. "I call you not servants," said One whom Cornelius did not yet know. "For the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth; but I have called you friends: for all things that I have learned of my Father I have made known unto you." So did Cornelius. Cornelius was already one of those Christian gentlemen who hold their commissions in the army less for their own sake than for the sake of their soldiers; and their landed estates less for their own sake than for the sake of their farmers, and gardeners, and coachmen, and grooms; and their factories less for their own sake than for the sake of their factoryhands; and their offices less for their own sake than for the sake of their clerks; and their shops less for their own sake than for the sake of their shopmen and their shopwomen; and their houses at home less for their own sake than for the sake of their children, and their domestic servants, and their ever-welcome guests. Of all holy places in the Holy Land, few places, surely, were more the house of God and the gate of heaven in those days than just the Roman castle of Cæsarea, where the centurion of the Italian legion lived in the fear of God with all his household, and with all his devout soldiers, who were daily learning more and more devoutness from the walk and conversation of their beloved and revered centurion.
Well, one day Cornelius was fasting and praying all that day till three o'clock in the afternoon. It must have been some special and outstanding day in his personal life, or in his family life, or in his life in the army. We are not told what anniversary-day it was; but it was a day he had never forgotten to commemorate in prayer: and he has never forgotten it in alms nor in thanks-offerings since: no, nor ever will. It had just struck three o'clock in the afternoon, when an angel descended and entered the barrack-room where Cornelius was on his knees. For are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? "What is it, Lord?" said Cornelius, looking up in holy fear. "Thy prayers and thine alms," said the angel, "are come up for a memorial before God." We have no Bible dictionary on earth that is able to explain to us the language of heaven, and thus we are left to compare Scripture with Scripture in this matter of a memorial, "This shall be told for a memorial of her," said the Master of angels, when the woman poured the alabaster box upon His head. And this remarkable and unique word stands in the text in order that we may exercise some understanding, and imagination, and encouragement, in our alms and in our prayers in our day also. There was joy in heaven-this is part of what a memorial in heaven means-over every good deed that Cornelius did, and over every good word that Cornelius spake, both to God and to man. They had their eyes upon Cornelius, those angels of God, because he had been pointed out to them as one of the heirs of salvation. And, you may be sure, they did not keep Cornelius's alms and prayers to themselves; but, the holy talebearers that they are, they sought out the prophets and the psalmists who had prophesied concerning the salvation of the Gentiles, and told them that the great work had begun at last in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch and the Roman centurion. And it was not left to their winged visits up and down with the last news from Cæsarea; but there were great books kept also, and one of them with Cornelius's name embossed on the back of it, with all his prayers, and all his alms, day and date, times and places, opportunities and people, with all their other circumstances and accompaniments. The memorial books are kept with such scrupulous care in heaven, because so much already turns there, and will afterwards turn there, on things that we might quite overlook down here. And those great volumes, kept with such insight and truth, lie open before the throne of God for a memorial, for the instruction of His angels, and for the joy of all the already saved. How it was decreed from all eternity that Cornelius should be a centurion; should be commissioned by Cæsar to Cæsarea; should be an open-minded man; should open his mind to the Old Testament and to the temple; should begin to pray, and should sometimes fast that he might the better pray; and should be always waiting to see what he ought to do;-all that was written in the book of his memorial concerning Cornelius. And, as time went on, Cornelius's memorial-volume grew till there was written in it how Peter came to him, and how he was baptized, and how he finished his course, and kept the faith, first at Cæsarea, and then at Rome, till it was said to him, that, as he had been faithful over a few things in Cæsarea, so let him come up to where his memorial was written, and he would be set over twelve legions of angels. "For," says John Calvin on Cornelius, "God keeps a careful memorial concerning all His servants, and by sure and certain steps He exalts them till they come to the top."
Now, the main point is, what about your memorial and mine? What about your alms and your prayers and mine? What about your fastings, and shut doors, and mine, in order that we may have a day now and then of undistracted, and concentrated, and self-chastening prayer? Has there ever been joy in heaven over your prayers and your alms and mine? Real joy in heaven among the angels and the saints of God? And do the faces and the wings of those messenger-spirits shine as they carry the latest memorial that has come up to heaven concerning us to tell the news of it to those in heaven who loved us on earth? Let us pray more, and give alms more, if only to add to the joy of God's angels and saints who remember us and wait for news about us in heaven.
But, a man of prayer, and a benevolent man, and a man with a memorial in heaven, as Cornelius was, he had still much to learn. He had still the best things to learn. He had still to learn Christ. And the difficulties that lay in the Roman centurion's way to learn Christ, you have simply no conception of. Till you read the Acts of the Apostles, as not one in a thousand reads that rare book; nay, till you have to teach that rare book to others, you will never at all realise what the centurion had to come through before he could be a complete Christian man. Ay, and what Christ's very best apostles themselves had to come through before they would have anything to do with such an unclean and four-footed beast as Cornelius was to them. It was twelve o'clock of the day at Joppa, and it was the very next day after the angel had made his visit to Cornelius about his memorial. And Peter, like the centurion, was deep that day in special prayer. Now, Peter must surely have been fasting far too long, as well as praying far too earnestly, for he fell into a faint as he continued to pray. And as he lay in his faint he dreamed, as we say; a vision was sent to him, as Scripture says. And in his vision Peter saw heaven opened above him, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners and let down to the earth. Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter, kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord: for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. And scarcely had the sheet been drawn up to heaven, when three of Cornelius's servants knocked at the tanner's door, and asked if one Simon Peter lodged here. And when Peter saw the three men, and heard their message from Cornelius, he at once comprehended and fully understood the heavenly vision. And the vision was this. Cornelius and all his soldiers, devout and indevout, and all his domestic servants, and all the Roman people, good and bad, and all other nations of men on the face of the earth; all mankind, indeed, except Peter and a few of his friends, were bound up together in one abominable bundle. And Peter was standing above them, scouting at and spitting on them all. All so like ourselves. For, how we also bundle up whole nations of men and throw them into that same unclean sheet. Whole churches that we know nothing about but their bad names that we have given them, are in our sheet of excommunication also. All the other denominations of Christians in our land are common and unclean to us. Every party outside of our own party in the political state also. We have no language contemptuous enough wherewith to describe their wicked ways and their self-seeking schemes. They are four-footed beasts and creeping things. Indeed, there are very few men alive, and especially those who live near us, who are not sometimes in the sheet of our scorn; unless it is one here and one there of our own family, or school, or party. And they also come under our scorn and our contempt the moment they have a mind of their own, and interests of their own, and affections and ambitions of their own. It would change your whole heart and life this very night if you would take Peter and Cornelius home with you and lay them both to heart. It would be for a memorial about you before God if you would but do this. If you would take a four-cornered napkin when you go home, and a Sabbath-night pen and ink, and write the names of the nations, and the churches, and the denominations, and the congregations, and the ministers, and the public men, and the private citizens, and the neighbours, and the fellow-worshippers,-all the people you dislike, and despise, and do not, and cannot, and will not, love. Heap all their names into your unclean napkin, and then look up and say, 'Not so, Lord. I neither can speak well, nor think well, nor hope well, of these people. I cannot do it, and I will not try.' If you acted out and spake out all the evil things that are in your heart in some such way as that, you would thus get such a sight of yourselves that you would never forget it. And, for your reward, and there is no better reward, like Peter, you would one day come to be able to say, 'Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons. But in every nation, and church, and denomination, and party of men, and among those I used to think of as four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, God has them that fear Him, and that work righteousness, and that are accepted of Him.' And then it would go up for a memorial before God, the complete change and the noble alteration that had come to your mind and to your heart. For you would be completely taken captive before God by that charity which vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, thinketh no evil, believeth all things, hopeth all things. And now abideth faith, hope, charity; but the greatest of these is charity.
Such are some of the lessons it is intended we should take to heart out of the story of Cornelius, the Roman centurion.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Cornelius'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wbc/c/cornelius.html. 1901.