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Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 10:1-8

Peter and Cornelius

10 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day[a] he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

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We are entering another exciting chapter in Acts. This book is a tremendous documentation of the explosive expansion of the early Church.

The previous chapters recounted the countless number of Jewish converts to Christianity. We also read about the growth of the Church among the Samaritans, who were half Jew, half Gentile because they intermarried with Assyrians. St Luke, the author of Acts, then documented the conversion of the Gentiles, the first of whom is Cornelius.

Cornelius was a Roman centurion of the Italian cohort — regiment, literally ‘band’ — who was stationed in Caesarea (verse 1). John MacArthur tells us:

Josephus, I think it is, tells us that there were five cohorts stationed in Caesarea, so they had a lotta Roman soldiers in that place…Make it a little study. It’s interesting. Sometime study centurions in the New Testament. You’ll find that they always appear to be good men. In fact, Jesus had some most interesting conversations with centurions.

Matthew Henry gives us more information (emphases mine below):

We are here told that he was a great man and a good man–two characters that seldom meet, but here they did; and where they do meet they put a lustre upon each other: goodness makes greatness truly valuable, and greatness makes goodness much more serviceable. 1. Cornelius was an officer of the army, Acts 10:1. He was at present quartered in Cesarea, a strong city, lately re-edified and fortified by Herod the Great, and called Cesarea in honour of Augustus Cæsar. It lay upon the sea-shore, very convenient for the keeping up of a correspondence between Rome and its conquests in those parts. The Roman governor or proconsul ordinarily resided here, Acts 23:23,24,25:6. Here there was a band, or cohort, or regiment, of the Roman army, which probably was the governor’s life-guard, and is here called the Italian band, because, that they might be the more sure of their fidelity, they were all native Romans, or Italians. Cornelius had a command in this part of the army. His name, Cornelius was much used among the Romans, among some of the most ancient and noble families. He was an officer of considerable rank and figure, a centurion. We read of one of that rank in our Saviour’s time, of whom he gave a great commendation, Matthew 8:10.

It is also interesting that the Lord chose a centurion rather than a philosopher or, as in the case of some of the Apostles, a fisherman.

Matthew Henry explains. The first sentence is well worth remembering. The last sentence is particularly important to note, as it would appear this was a sort of judgement on the Jews for rejecting Christ:

Fishermen, unlearned and ignorant men, were the first of the Jewish converts, but not so of the Gentiles; for the world shall know that the gospel has that in it which may recommend it to men of polite learning and a liberal education, as we have reason to think this centurion was. Let not soldiers and officers of the army plead that their employment frees them from the restraints which some others are under, and, giving them an opportunity of living more at large, may excuse them if they be not religious; for here was an officer of the army that embraced Christianity, and yet was neither turned out of his place nor turned himself out. And, lastly, it was a mortification to the Jews that not only the Gentiles were taken into the church, but that the first who was taken in was an officer of the Roman army, which was to them the abomination of desolation.

Verse 2 tells us that Cornelius was a ‘devout’ man. He and his household ‘feared God’. He gave alms generously and prayed ‘continually’. He was a Gentile following Jewish beliefs and customs, although not circumcision, in his case. No doubt he followed the Jewish laws about charity and adhered to their frequent prayer schedule.

MacArthur describes the three different types of Gentiles, some of whom believed in the God of Israel. It is no accident that the words ‘feared God’ are in verse 2, because the God-fearer was one of these three types:

Now, the term feared God became a technical term for Gentiles. There were three kinds of Gentiles in the mind of a Jew. One kind was just the plain, old, run-of-the-mill Gentile. The other kind, and this is getting better on the scale, the other kind was a God-fearer quote. This was a Gentile who had been sick of his own religion, the immoralities and the idolatries of his own faith, and he was sick of the whole polytheistic thing, and he had come to the conclusion in his mind that the God of Israel was the true God. He actually began to pray to that God. He perhaps become involved in the worship in certain synagogues or temple, or the temple itself. Much like, you remember, the eunuch, chapter 8, whom Philip met. But he was…he was involved in the Jewish ethic. He believed in the ethics of the Old Testament, but he had never been circumcised. He was not then a full proselyte. He was what they called a God-fearer.

The third level of Gentile would be the proselyte who had come all the way to Judaism, actually gone through the act of circumcision, and fully identified himself with Israel and was considered to be a Jew in a spiritual sense. Now you have all three. Well, Cornelius is the guy in the middle. He’s the God-fearer. He is not a full Jew, so he is to be considered a Gentile…but he did fear God. He was sick of the immorality and the emptiness of his own religion. He had attached himself to the Jewish religion. He didn’t accept the ceremonial laws, perhaps, and the circumcision, etc., but he often attended worship, no doubt. He believed in one God and in the ethics of the Old Testament.

At the ‘ninth hour of the day’, Cornelius received a vision from an angel of the Lord (verse 3). The ninth hour of the day was three o’clock in the afternoon. It is significant, because that was the time of the ritual sacrifice in the temple. Devout Jews prayed at that time of day, and, in Acts 10:30, Cornelius said that is what he was doing.

The angel addressed Cornelius by name. Henry explains:

he called him by his name, Cornelius, to intimate the particular notice God took of him.

Not surprisingly, Cornelius was terrified and asked what the matter was (verse 4). No doubt he thought the Lord was going to reprimand him in some way. Henry tells us:

The wisest and best men have been struck with fear upon the appearance of any extra-ordinary messenger from heaven; and justly, for sinful man knows that he has no reason to expect any good tidings thence. And therefore Cornelius cries, “What is it, Lord? What is the matter?” This he speaks as one afraid of something amiss, and longing to be eased of that fear, by knowing the truth; or as one desirous to know the mind of God, and ready to comply with it, as Joshua: What saith my Lord unto his servant? And Samuel: Speak, for thy servant heareth.

The angel reassures Cornelius that his prayers and alms have ascended to God. That is from the Old Testament and one of the reasons that incense was used, the fragrant smoke being a visible symbol of prayers and sacrifices rising to God.

Henry cites Leviticus:

Cornelius prayed, and gave alms, not as the Pharisees, to be seen of men, but in sincerity, as unto God; and he is here told that they were come up for a memorial before God. They were upon record in heaven, in the book of remembrance that is written there for all that fear God, and shall be remembered to his advantage: “Thy prayers shall be answered, and thine alms recompensed.” The sacrifices under the law are said to be for a memorial. See Leviticus 2:9,16,5:12,6:15. And prayers and alms are our spiritual offerings, which God is pleased to take cognizance of, and have regard to.

Some people consider themselves Christians, yet they do not pray daily. Prayer is worship. Prayer is our active acknowledgement of God the Father and God the Son. It’s essential to the Christian life. Furthermore, God hears our prayers and blesses us accordingly.

MacArthur points out:

You know, it seems to me that as I study the Bible, great things always happen when people are in prayer. God moved on Cornelius when he was in prayer. You’re gonna see in a minute that it was Peter, when he was praying, that God moved on, as well. Prayer’s a great place to be, on your knees before God, for God to speak, and here it happens.

God moves in response to prayer. You say, “What was Cornelius praying about?” I don’t know what he was praying about, but I can take a good guess. I think he was saying, “God, I wanna know more about You. I want the fullness.” He was searching for more light and God was about to invade him with light, and here came the angel, the angelic appearance.

The angel told Cornelius to send men to Joppa and to bring Peter to his house (verse 5). Note that the angel did not tell Cornelius to go himself, but to send his men instead.

Two things are striking about this verse. The first is that there was an action to be performed in obedience to the Lord. The second is that Cornelius was not to meet Peter himself in Joppa.

MacArthur takes this further. This is really important:

God not only chooses the receiver and responds to the searching heart of the receiver and prepares the receiver, but God gives the receiver the opportunity to respond actively. Now God could’ve said through this angel, “Cornelius, all you have to do is these steps. Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life or whatever?” And he could’ve gone through the Gospel, see. He could’ve simply gone right to the Gospel, said, “Cornelius, do you believe.” ________ “I believe.” “It’s over, Cornelius, great.” But, no, He didn’t do that.

No, you see, Paul said that we were sent to the world for the obedience of faith, Romans 1. You see, God always wants to tie with faith an act of obedience, because that’s what the Christian life is all about. You might as well learn it at the beginning. That’s why the Bible says, “If you believe in your heartRomans 10:9 and 10, and do what else?...confess with your mouth, the Lord Jesus Christ, you’ll be saved.” God wants some kind of act of obedience tied in with that salvation. So He gives to…to Cornelius the opportunity to be obedient; and isn’t it interesting that if I were Cornelius, here would’ve been my reaction. “Uh, can I go myself? Why do I have to send guys? That means they’ll go there, and they’ll get him, and he’ll have to come here, and that’s a lot of time. I wanna get there.”

I don’t read that in the text. Praise the Lord, he was obedient. He was believing God, and he was obedient. You say, “Well, why would God take this time?” I think there’s two reasons. No. 1, I think was the fact that God wanted Peter also to act on faith, ’cause Peter was gonna have to pack up and head for Cornelius’ house strictly on faith. I mean to have a bunch of Roman soldiers arrive at his door and say, “Come on, we’re taking you to a man who wants to see ya.” That’s a little scary. Roman soldiers.

Secondly, I think, in order to break the barriers down, that the Lord wanted Peter to lead Cornelius to Christ in Cornelius’ own house, which no Jew would ever enter, and so God had the plan laid out, and Cornelius didn’t hassle God. He believed and obeyed.

The angel told Cornelius that Peter was lodging at Simon the tanner’s house by the sea in Joppa (verse 6).

Last week’s entry explained the Jewish opprobrium towards tanners. Their profession was unclean, therefore, they, too were unclean. Tanning also smells, even today. Yet, Peter stayed with Simon for a long time, probably two years. From this, we see the inclusivity of Christianity, which the Apostle himself displayed.

MacArthur tells us why tanners lived by the sea:

Tanners had their house by the seaside, because they needed the salt water for the tanning processes.

After the angel left him, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier (verse 7). He explained the vision to them and sent them to Joppa (verse 8). Last week’s entry also discussed Joppa, more about which can be found at BiblePlaces.com.

MacArthur ties this vision and obedience together for us:

Cornelius is getting prepared. What have we seen in the preparation of the receiver over here? We’ve seen 1) God chose him. 2) God responded to his open heart. 3) God prepared the soil with the proper information and instruction. 4) God promises more light. “He shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do.” 5) God asks for the obedience of faith. Meanwhile, He prepares the messenger, Peter, down in Joppa.

Peter’s preparation — also a vision — is the subject of next week’s post. Peter learned another great lesson in his life which further aided his powerful ministry.

Next time — Acts 10:9-16

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