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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Acts 10:1–48]

THERE lived in Cæsarea a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a devout and God-fearing man, who gave much alms to the poor, and prayed continually. One day an angel appeared to him and said: “Thy prayers and thy alms have ascended for a memorial in the sight of God. Send men to Joppe, and call hither one Simon, who is surnamed Peter. He will tell thee what thou must do.” Then the angel disappeared, but Cornelius sent three men, who feared the Lord, to Joppe.

On the following day, as these men were drawing near the city, Peter, waiting for his mid-day meal, went up to the housetop to pray. During his prayer he was rapt in ecstasy. He saw heaven opened, and behold, a great sheet, as it were, was let down by the four corners from heaven to earth. In the sheet there were all manner of four-footed beasts, and creeping things of the earth, and birds of the air. Then a voice came from heaven, saying: “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” Peter replied: “Far be it from me, Lord, for I have never eaten any common and unclean thing.” But the voice spoke to him again: “That which God hath purified do not thou call common!” This was done three times, after which the vision disappeared.

Whilst Peter was wondering what this vision might signify, the Spirit of God spoke within him, saying: “Behold, three men seek thee; arise, therefore, go down, and go with them, doubting nothing, for I have sent them.” Immediately Peter went down and met the men whom Cornelius had sent.

Next day he set out with them, and with some of his own disciples, for Cæsarea. Here he was met by Cornelius, who, bowing down before Peter, told his vision and all that the angel had said.

Peter then understood his own vision about clean and unclean animals; that is to say that the Gentiles, who had hitherto been considered as unclean, were to be received henceforth into the Church of Christ. Whereupon he announced to Cornelius and his household the doctrine of Jesus Christ.

And opening his mouth, he said: “In very deed I perceive that God is not a respecter of persons. But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh justice, is acceptable to Him. God sent the word to the children of Israel, preaching peace1 by Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all1). You know1 the word which hath been published through all Judæa: for it began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached, Jesus of Nazareth: how God anointed Him with the Holy Ghost, and with power, who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things that He did in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they killed, hanging Him upon a tree. Him God raised up the third day, and gave Him to be made manifest, not to all the people, but to witnesses pre-ordained by God, even to us who did eat and drink with Him after He arose again from the dead, and He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that it was He who was appointed by God to be the Judge of the living and of the dead. To Him all the prophets give testimony, that by His Name all receive remission of sins who believe in Him.”

Whilst Peter was yet speaking, the Holy Ghost came upon all who heard him. Peter and his disciples were astonished to hear these Gentiles speak in divers tongues, even as the apostles had done on the day of Pentecost. Then Peter said: “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” And he commanded them all to be baptized in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

From that time forth the Gospel was preached to the Gentiles in various other places. Paul, as Saul was now called, and Barnabas, his companion, preached especially at Antioch, the ancient capital of Syria. There the number of the faithful increased very much; and there, for the first time, the believers in Christ were called Christians, after the Name of their Divine Master and Founder Jesus Christ.

The Catholicity of the Church. The events just related were of the highest importance for the development of the Church. The apostles had known that the Gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles. Soon after their Lord’s Birth, Gentiles had come from afar to worship Him and hail Him as the Saviour of the world; and just before His Ascension Jesus had commanded His apostles to “go and teach all nations”; but the manner and conditions under which Gentiles were to be made Christians, were not yet clearly and distinctly perceived by the apostles. A further and special revelation was necessary to shew that nothing but sincere faith was required, and that none of the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were to be imposed on them. Peter, therefore, was taught by this wonderful vision that the Jewish ceremonial law was done away with by our Lord; and God’s marvellous and direct interposition in the case of the call of Cornelius taught the apostle that the Gentiles were to be admitted directly into the Christian Church, without first submitting to the rite of circumcision. Thus the reception of Cornelius and his friends into the Church was a most important and decisive moment in her history, for it proved not only her Catholicity, but also her entire independence of Judaism. Moreover, by the conversion of the Roman centurion and his friends a link was formed between the Christian Church and Rome, the capital and mistress of the ancient world, and a road to the centre of civilisation was thrown open to the vicar of Jesus Christ; the development of the infant Church into the Church of the whole world being thus facilitated. God, by giving the impulse to her further development, by His direct intervention in the conversion of the first Gentiles, proved that He ever governs her, and that our Lord was faithful to His promise: “Lo, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world.”

The Primacy of Peter. Why was the revelation that the Old Law was done away with, and that Gentiles were to be received into the Church, given to Peter only, and not to the other apostles? And why did Almighty God refer Cornelius to Peter for instruction, and not to the other apostles, or even to the deacon Philip, who was living in the very same town (Cæsarea)? He did so, because to Peter was given the power of the keys of His kingdom, the Church. Peter was the chief pastor of the Church, so to him was assigned the office of receiving the first Gentiles into her fold, even as he had been appointed to admit the first Jews on the Day of Pentecost. He it was who had authority to throw open the gates of salvation to the pagan world.

The graces of Redemption can be received only through the Church. When our Lord Jesus revealed Himself to Saul, He might Himself have imparted to him all necessary instruction, and the grace of regeneration. He did not, however, do so, but sent to him the priest Ananias to teach him and baptize him. Our Blessed Lord acted in the same way regarding the conversion of Cornelius. He neither taught him directly Himself, nor by the mouth of an angel, but commanded him to send for Peter, and hear his words. Nor did the wonderful outpouring of the Holy Ghost on Cornelius and his companions make Baptism superfluous; for each one had to be baptized, and be thus received into the Church by her ministers. It is only by the exercise of the threefold—teaching, pastoral, and priestly—office of the Church, that men can be united and reconciled to our Lord Jesus Christ. He who despises and neglects the means of grace entrusted to the Church cannot receive grace; and he who says that the priesthood is unnecessary, falls into a most fatal error. St. Paul writes thus (1 Cor. 4:1): “Let a man so account of us as the ministers of God, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God.”

Baptism is the first and most necessary of the Sacraments. The Holy Ghost descended visibly on Corneiius and his companions, and imparted to them the gift of tongues, in order to convince the Jewish Christians that the Gentiles need not first become Jews before they could receive the gifts of the Holy Ghost. This outpouring of the Holy Ghost prepared them for a worthy reception of holy Baptism, but it was only by their Baptism that they received the grace of regeneration, and became members of the Body of Christ, that is, His Church.

The good works of sinners. Cornelius was convinced of the nothingness of the pagan gods, and believed in One Invisible God, the Creator of heaven and earth. He also observed the moral law which God has written in the hearts of men, and which He revealed in the ten Commandments. He constantly prayed to God for guidance and knowledge of the truth; and he supplemented his prayers by works of mercy and almsgiving. Now, these good works of prayer and almsgiving were indeed supernatural good works, but still could not directly merit for Cornelius everlasting happiness, for only those good works which are performed in a state of sanctifying grace have meritorious value for heaven. Because Cornelius corresponded with divine grace, he received the further gift of faith, and by Baptism received sanctifying grace.

The following virtues are to be found in Cornelius:

1. He was religious, for he prayed continually, and honoured God, and according to his lights strove after religious truth.

2. He was conscientious, for, as far as his conscience taught him, he observed God’s commandments, obeyed the will of God, and kept himself from sin.

3. He was charitable and compassionate, working for the good of his neighbour. He practised not only the corporal but also the spiritual works of mercy, by inviting his friends to hear the words of Peter, and thus leading them to the true faith.

4. He was obedient to God’s command to send for Peter, and he thereby obtained salvation.

5. He was humble. If he had said to himself: “What can an uneducated fisherman like Peter do for me, a cultivated Roman?” he would not have obtained the gift of faith in Jesus Christ.

6. He believed the word of God, as it was announced to him by Peter, and therefore he received the gift of faith from the Holy Ghost, and the grace of Baptism.

Indifferentism in matters of faith. The sentence in Peter’s discourse: “In every nation he that feareth God and worketh justice is acceptable to Him”, has been interpreted by people either indifferent about, or weak in faith, to mean: “It is all the same what people believe, or what religious creed they profess, if only they live good lives.” Now is this principle, that religion and faith are matters of indifference, correct? No! it is utterly false and un-Christian, and that for these reasons: 1. Peter did not say: “Faith does not signify”; for he was, on the contrary, most anxious to convert Cornelius to the true faith; but his words meant rather that nationality does not signify—it does not matter what nation a man belongs to, for all nations are called to believe in Jesus Christ, and all persons, to whatever nation they may belong, are acceptable to Him, if, as Cornelius did, they keep the commandments and strive after a knowledge of the truth. Such men, being acceptable to God, are called by Him to believe the true faith, and thereby obtain salvation. 2. Peter, at the end of his discourse, expressly teaches that no one can obtain forgiveness of sins but through faith in Jesus (compare with this his words in chapter LXXXV: “There is no other Name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved”; Acts 4:12). 3. If no account was to be made of holding the true faith, St. Peter need not have preached to Cornelius, and need not have baptized him. 4. If it be a matter of indifference what faith a man holds, then the whole revelation of God would have been unnecessary, and it would have been quite superfluous for our Lord Jesus Christ to have come into the world, to have taught the true faith, and founded His Church. 5. The principle that it does not signify what a man believes is in direct opposition to the teaching of the Gospels, in which we find our Blessed Lord so often demanding faith in Himself and His doctrine (see, for example, chapter XV). There is only one true God, one Saviour, and one true faith, which Jesus Christ taught and bequeathed to the Church that He founded. Any indifference in matters of faith, or any admiration of it in others must come from a want of firm religious convictions, and is a grievous sin against faith.

The name of Christian means a disciple and adherent, a follower of Jesus Christ. It is a glorious title to bear, and is a continual exhortation to us who do bear it, to cling to our Lord by a firm faith and true love, to keep His commandments, and to follow His example.

APPLICATION. You may take example from the centurion Cornelius. He was not a Christian, and yet he feared God; he prayed continually, and did good to his neighbour. You are a Christian, and yet how lukewarm and negligent you are in your prayers! How little account you make of sin! How little love you bear to your neighbour!

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