By J.R. Miller
It was not easy for Peter to go to the house of Cornelius. All his life he had been trained to Jewish exclusiveness as part of his religion. It was hard for him to forget all this--and to regard the Gentiles as having as much right to receive the gospel as his own people. Yet Peter accepted the teaching when it was made plain to him, and went promptly on his errand. We should keep our minds free from prejudice and open to the truth, whatever way it may come to us.
Cornelius is an interesting man. The New Testament centurions are all worthy men. We call Cornelius a heathen--but some modern Christians might learn from this heathen's life and character. He worshiped God. His home was a home of prayer. He gave alms generously to the poor. That his religion was not of the formal kind is evident from the fact that his prayers reached heaven and found acceptance with God. The angel came to him to assure him that his prayers had been heard and that they were about to be answered. We may be quite sure that he had been praying for more knowledge of God and of heavenly things. Wherever there is a human soul longing for God and for light, the fact becomes known in heaven and the answer comes.
To Cornelius the angel said, "Send men to Joppa, and fetch one Simon." Why did not the angel himself tell Cornelius what he needed to know? Angels do not preach the gospel. Only one who has been redeemed, can explain redemption to one who wants to understand it. The angel could only tell Cornelius how to have his longings satisfied. He must send to Joppa for a man.
While the messengers were nearing Joppa, Peter also was having a vision. Nothing less than this could prepare him for going on the errand to the Roman's house. His vision was calculated to show him that now, since Christ had come and died and risen--the distinction between Jew and Gentile was wiped out. When he saw the herd of animals of all kinds in the sheet let down from heaven and heard the command to kill and eat, his Jewish exclusiveness was so ingrained that he at first objected to the contact with what he had been taught was unclean. But most emphatically the objection was answered, "Do not you call anything impure, that God has made clean." The emphasis is on "God" and "you." Peter was not to set up his standard against God's.
Of course, the lesson was not merely about foods. The mingled herd in the descending sheet was a picture of the world with its nations. The Jews thought none "clean" but themselves. But the blood of Christ had cleansed all nations, so far at least, that all were invited on the same terms into the family of God. The lesson is yet before us, to be learned or better learned. While we treat the Chinese as we do, while we make distinctions on social lines, while we turn away with revulsion from anyone, even the basest, who wears the divine image, we have yet to learn what this vision means.
The vision and the duty came very close together. The lesson was taught in the vision; now, instantly, came the divine call to put the lesson in practice. Peter had been shown that the old social walls and distinctions were to be broken down. Just what the lesson meant, he could not make out. He was sitting, then, on the roof of Simon's house, perplexed over the strange vision, wondering what it could mean. Was the gospel to be given to all nations alike? That seemed to be the teaching of the vision. But was it? Just then there was heard the tread of feet on the pavement below. "Simon, three men are looking for you," the Spirit whispered to Peter, "So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them." In a little while Peter was on his way with Gentile messengers to the house of a Gentile.
There is an illustration here of the way God often first shows us our duty, and then calls us out to do it. He gives the vision, and the vision pictures the task. The vision carries in it a bit of God's will for you. You must work it out in the duty of the moment, or prove disobedient. For example, there comes to your knowledge in some way, a story of human need or sorrow of some kind. The vision is before you. It has in it a call to a new duty. Immediately a voice begins to bid you go and minister to the trouble or sorrow. The duty springs out of the vision. So it is continually in life. Visions are always coming; almost every Bible verse we read, brings up a conception of moral and spiritual beauty--which we are to try to attain; or hints at a task--which waits for our hands. God sends the calls to duty--and we dare not disregard them.
When Peter reached the house, he was cordially welcomed. He asked why he had been sent for, and it was told him what had happened. "So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us." The attitude of Cornelius was beautiful. He believed that Peter was the messenger of God to him, and he was ready to hear, with reverence and love, whatever message this messenger might give.
That Peter was ready now to speak his message, appeared from his words: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism." It had cost Peter a great deal to learn this lesson. Up to that time, he had thought that God showed favoritism, that He had a special regard for the Jews, and that the Gentiles had but small place in His favor. In the wonderful vision of Joppa, God had taught him the truth that now all nations were alike before Him. We should learn well this lesson for ourselves. God never asks to what country a man belongs. He looks upon the heart and judges men by their character. He hears the cry for mercy and help from any one of His children, never asking what country or to what rank they belong. No royalty, greatness, or beauty will count in God's sight--if the heart is wrong; and no poverty, lowliness, or humbleness is a blemish--if the heart is right.
Peter's conversion from the narrowness of Judaism, to the wideness of Christianity, was very remarkable. In his words to Cornelius, he makes it very clear that the gospel is for all men--and not merely a little handful of people in the world. He desires all to be saved, and the gates of the gospel are opened to men of every nation. "He accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right." The way of salvation is just as open for the lowest heathen--as for the king of the metropolis. Yet the way is not open to anyone--until he gives up his sins and turns his heart to seek God. The only condition of salvation, is the acceptance of the divine way.
Peter made plain to Cornelius the way of salvation by Jesus Christ; he told of "the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all." This was the gospel, which had come to the Jews, and the same gospel Peter was now bringing to the Gentiles. He recounts briefly, the story of the life of Jesus Christ. He then declares that "everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." Cornelius, good man though he was, prayerful, obedient, upright, needed Christ and must receive Him as his personal Savior. There is no place to bring our sins for pardon and cleansing--but to the cross of Christ!
As on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell upon the Jewish disciples, so now upon these Gentile disciples the same Spirit fell. Thus the promise of Christ was fulfilled to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jews. At once those who believed were baptized, and thus the Church began among the Gentiles.