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Alexander Maclaren.

Expositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts online

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Joppa - to carry on and copy the healing and the quickening work of
Christ, by His present power, and after His blessed example.



WHAT GOD HATH CLEANSED

'There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of
the band called the Italian band, 2. A devout man, and one that feared
God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed
to God alway. 3. He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of
the day an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him,
Cornelius. 4. And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What
is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come
up for a memorial before God. 5. And now send men to Joppa, and call
for one Simon, whose surname is Peter: 6. He lodgeth with one Simon a
tanner, whose house is by the sea-side: he shall tell thee what thou
oughtest to do. 7. And when the angel which spake unto Cornelius was
departed, he called two of his household servants, and a devout soldier
of them that waited on him continually; 8. And when he had declared all
these things unto them, he sent them to Joppa. 9. On the morrow, as
they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up
upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: 10. And he became very
hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a
trance, 11. And saw heaven opened, 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: 12. Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of
the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.
13. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. 14. But
Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is
common or unclean. 15. And the voice spake unto him again the second
time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. 16. This was
done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. 17. Now
while Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen
should mean, behold, the men which were sent from Cornelius had made
inquiry for Simon's house, and stood before the gate, 18. And called,
and asked whether Simon, which was surnamed Peter, were lodged there.
19. While Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said unto him,
Behold, three men seek thee. 20. Arise therefore, and get thee down,
and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.' - ACTS x.
1-20.

The Church was at first in appearance only a Jewish sect; but the great
stride is now to be taken which carries it over the border into the
Gentile world, and begins its universal aspect. If we consider the
magnitude of the change, and the difficulties of training and prejudice
which it had to encounter in the Church itself, we shall not wonder at
the abundance of supernatural occurrences which attended it. Without
some such impulse, it is difficult to conceive of its having been
accomplished.

In this narrative we see the supernatural preparation on both sides.
God, as it were, lays His right hand on Cornelius, and His left on
Peter, and impels them towards each other. Philip had already preached
to the Ethiopian, and probably the anonymous brethren in Acts xi. 20
had already spoken the word to pure Greeks at Antioch; but the
importance of Peter's action here is that by reason of his Apostleship,
his recognition of Gentile Christians becomes the act of the whole
community. His entrance into Cornelius's house ended the Jewish phase
of the Church. The epoch was worthy of divine intervention, and the
step needed divine warrant. Therefore the abundance of miracle at this
point is not superfluous.

I. We have the vision which guided the seeker to the light. Caesarea,
as the seat of government, was the focus of Gentilism, and that the
Gospel should effect a lodgment there was significant. Still more so
was the person whom it first won, - an officer of the Roman army, the
very emblem of worldly power, loathed by every true Jew. A centurion
was not an officer of high rank, but Cornelius's name suggests the
possibility of his connection with a famous Roman family, and the name
of the 'band' or 'cohort,' of which his troop was part, suggests that
it was raised in Italy, and therefore properly officered by Romans. His
residence in Judaea had touched his spirit with some knowledge of, and
reverence for, the Jehovah whom this strange people worshipped. He was
one of a class numerous in these times of religious unrest, who had
been more or less affected by the pure monotheism of the Jew.

It is remarkable that the centurions of the New Testament are all more
or less favourably inclined towards Christ and Christianity, and the
fact has been laid hold of to throw doubt on the narratives; but it is
very natural that similarity of position and training should have
produced similarity of thought; and that three or four such persons
should have come in contact with Jesus and His Apostles makes no
violent demands on probability, while there was no occasion to mention
others who were not like-minded. Quartered for considerable periods in
the country, and brought into close contact with its religion, and
profoundly sceptical of their own, as all but the lowest minds then
were, Cornelius and his brother in arms and spirit whose faith drew
wondering praise from Jesus, are bright examples of the possibility of
earnest religious life being nourished amid grave disadvantages, and
preach a lesson, often neglected, that we should be slow to form
unfavourable opinions of classes of men, or to decide that those of
such and such a profession, or in such and such circumstances, must be
of such and such a character.

It would have seemed that the last place to look for the first Gentile
Christian would have been in the barracks at Caesarea; and yet there
God's angel went for him, and found him. It has often been discussed
whether Cornelius was a 'proselyte' or not. It matters very little. He
was drawn to the Jews' religion, had adopted their hours of prayer,
reverenced their God, had therefore cast off idolatry, gave alms to the
people as acknowledgment that their God was his God, and cultivated
habitual devotion, which he had diffused among his household, both of
slaves and soldiers. It is a beautiful picture of a soul feeling after
a deeper knowledge of God, as a plant turns its half-opened flowers to
the sun.

Such seekers do not grope without touching. It is not only 'unto the
seed of Jacob' that God has never said, 'Seek ye Me in vain.' The story
has a message of hope to all such seekers, and sheds precious light on
dark problems in regard to the relation of such souls in heathen lands
to the light and love of God, The vision appeared to Cornelius in the
manner corresponding to his spiritual susceptibility, and it came at
the hour of prayer. God's angels ever draw near to hearts opened by
desire to receive them. Not in visible form, but in reality,
'bright-harnessed angels stand' all around the chamber where prayer is
made. Our hours of supplication are God's hours of communication.

The vision to Cornelius is not to be whittled down to a mental
impression. It was an objective, supernatural appearance, - whether to
sense or soul matters little. The story gives most graphically the
fixed gaze of terror which Cornelius fastened on the angel, and very
characteristically the immediate recovery and quick question to which
his courage and military promptitude helped him. 'What is it, Lord?'
does not speak of terror, but of readiness to take orders and obey.
'Lord' seems to be but a title of reverence here.

In the angel's answer, the order in which prayers and alms are named is
the reverse of that in verse 2. Luke speaks as a man, beginning with
the visible manifestation, and passing thence to the inward devotion
which animated the external beneficence. The angel speaks as God sees,
beginning with the inward, and descending to the outward. The strong
'anthropomorphism' of the representation that man's prayer and alms
keep God in mind of him needs no vindication and little explanation. It
substitutes the mental state which in us originates certain acts for
the acts themselves. God's 'remembrance' is in Scripture frequently
used to express His loving deeds, which show that their recipient is
not forgotten of Him.

But the all-important truth in the words is that the prayers and alms
(coming from a devout heart) of a man who had never heard of Jesus
Christ were acceptable to God. None the less Cornelius needed Jesus,
and the recompense made to him was the knowledge of the Saviour. The
belief that in many a heathen heart such yearning after a dimly known
God has stretched itself towards light, and been accepted of God, does
not in the least conflict with the truth that 'there is none other Name
given among men, whereby we must be saved,' but it sheds a bright and
most welcome light of hope into that awful darkness. Christ is the only
Saviour, but it is not for us to say how far off from the channel in
which it flows the water of life may percolate, and feed the roots of
distant trees. Cornelius's religion was not a substitute for Christ,
but was the occasion of his being led to Christ, and finding full,
conscious salvation there. God leads seeking souls by His own wonderful
ways; and we may leave all such in His hand, assured that no heart ever
hungered after righteousness and was not filled.

The instruction to send for Peter tested Cornelius's willingness to be
taught by an unknown Jew, and his belief in the divine origin of the
vision. The direction given by which to find this teacher was not
promising. A lodger in a tan-yard by the seaside was certainly not a
man of position or wealth. But military discipline helped religious
reverence; and without delay, as soon as the angel 'was departed' (an
expression which gives the outward reality of the appearance strongly),
Cornelius's confidential servants, sympathisers with him in his
religion, were told all the story, and before nightfall were on their
march to Joppa. Swift obedience to whatever God points out as our path
towards the light, even if it seem somewhat unattractive, will always
mark our conduct if we really long for the light, and believe that He
is pointing our way.

II. The vision which guided the light-bearer to the seeker. - All
through the night the messengers marched along the maritime plain in
which both Caesarea and Joppa lay, much discussing, no doubt, their
strange errand, and wondering what they would find. The preparation of
Peter, which was as needful as that of Cornelius, was so timed as to be
completed just as the messengers stood at the tanner's door.

The first point to note in regard to it is its scene. It is of
subordinate importance, but it can scarcely have been entirely
unmeaning, that the flashing waters of the Mediterranean, blazing in
midday sunshine, stretched before Peter's eyes as he sat on the
housetop 'by the seaside.' His thoughts may have travelled across the
sea, and he may have wondered what lay beyond the horizon, and whether
there were men there to whom Christ's commission extended. 'The isles'
of which prophecy had told that they should 'wait for His law' were
away out in the mysterious distance. Some expansion of spirit towards
regions beyond may have accompanied his gaze. At all events, it was by
the shore of the great highway of nations and of truth that the vision
which revealed that all men were 'cleansed' filled the eye and heart of
the Apostle, and told him that, in his calling as 'fisher of men,' a
wider water than the land-locked Sea of Galilee was his.

We may also note the connection of the form of the vision with his
circumstances. His hunger determined its shape. The natural bodily
sensations coloured his state of mind even in trance, and afforded the
point of contact for God's message. It does not follow that the vision
was only the consequence of his hunger, as has been suggested by
critics who wish to get rid of the supernatural. But the form which it
took teaches us how mercifully God is wont to mould His communications
according to our needs, and how wisely He shapes them, so as to find
entrance through even the lower wants. The commonest bodily needs may
become avenues for His truth, if our prayer accompanies our hunger.

The significance of the vision is plain to us, though Peter was 'much
perplexed' about it. In the light of the event, we understand that the
'great sheet let down from heaven by four corners,' and containing all
manner of creatures, is the symbol of universal humanity (to use modern
language). The four corners correspond to the four points of the
compass, - north, south, east, and west, - the contents to the swarming
millions of men. Peter would perceive no more in the command to 'kill
and eat' than the abrogation of Mosaic restrictions. Meditation was
needful to disclose the full extent of the revolution shadowed by the
vision and its accompanying words. The old nature of Peter was not so
completely changed but that a flash of it breaks out still. The same
self-confidence which had led him to 'rebuke' Jesus, and to say, 'This
shall not be unto Thee,' speaks in his unhesitating and irreverent 'Not
so, Lord!'

The naive reason he gives for not obeying - namely, his never having
done as he was now bid to do - is charmingly illogical and human. God
tells him to do a new thing, and his reason for not doing it is that it
is new. Use and wont are set up by us all against the fresh disclosures
of God's will. The command to kill and eat was not repeated. It was but
the introduction to the truth which was repeated thrice, the same
number of times as Peter had denied his Master and had received his
charge to feed His sheep.

That great truth has manifold applications, but its direct purpose as
regards Peter is to teach that all restrictions which differentiated
Jew from Gentile are abolished. 'Cleansing' does not here apply to
moral purifying, but to the admission of all mankind to the same
standing as the Jew. Therefore the Gospel is to be preached to all men,
and the Jewish Christian has no pre-eminence.

Peter's perplexity as to the meaning of the vision is very
intelligible. It was not so plain as to carry its own interpretation,
but, like most other of God's teachings, was explained by
circumstances. What was next done made the best commentary on what had
just been beheld. While patient reflection is necessary to do due
honour to God's teachings and to discover their bearing on events, it
is generally true that events unfold their significance as meditation
alone never can. Life is the best commentator on God's word. The three
men down at the door poured light on the vision on the housetop. But
the explanation was not left to circumstances. The Spirit directed
Peter to go with the messengers, and thus taught him the meaning of the
enigmatical words which he had heard from heaven.

It is to be remembered that the Apostle had no need of fresh
illumination as to the world-wide preaching of the Gospel. Christ's
commission to 'the uttermost parts of the earth' ever rang in his ears,
as we may be sure. But what he did need was the lesson that the
Gentiles could come into the Church without going through the gate of
Judaism. If all peculiar sanctity was gone from the Jew, and all men
shared in the 'cleansing,' there was no need for keeping up any of the
old restrictions, or insisting on Gentiles being first received into
the Israelitish community as a stage in their progress towards
Christianity.

It took Peter and the others years to digest the lesson given on the
housetop, but he began to put it in practice that day. How little he
knew the sweep of the truth then declared to him! How little we have
learned it yet! All exclusiveness which looks down on classes or races,
all monkish asceticism which taboos natural appetites and tastes, all
morbid scrupulosity which shuts out from religious men large fields of
life, all Pharisaism which says 'The temple of the Lord are we,' are
smitten to dust by the great words which gather all men into the same
ample, impartial divine love, and, in another aspect, give Christian
culture and life the charter of freest use of all God's fair world, and
place the distinction between clean and unclean in the spirit of the
user rather than in the thing used. 'Unto the pure all things are pure:
but unto them that are defiled... is nothing pure.'



'GOD IS NO RESPECTER OF PERSONS'

'And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and
at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before
me in bright clothing, 31. And said, Cornelius, thy prayer is heard,
and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God. 32. Send
therefore to Joppa, and call hither Simon, whose surname is Peter; he
is lodged in the house of one Simon a tanner by the sea-side: who, when
he cometh, shall speak unto thee. 83. Immediately therefore I sent to
thee; and thou hast well done that thou art come. Now therefore are we
all here present before God, to hear all things that art commanded thee
of God. 34. Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I
perceive that God is no respecter of persons: 35. But in every nation
he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.
35. The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching
peace by Jesus Christ: (He is Lord of all:) 37. That word, I say, ye
know, which was published throughout all Judaea, and began from
Galilee, after the baptism which John preached; 38. How God anointed
Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about
doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God
was with Him. 39. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both
in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on
a tree: 40. Him God raised up the third day, and shewed Him openly; 41.
Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to
us, who did eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead. 42. And
He commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is He
which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead. 43. To Him
give all the prophets witness, that through His Name whosoever
believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins. 44. While Peter yet
spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the
word.' - ACTS x. 30-44.

This passage falls into three parts: Cornelius's explanation, Peter's
sermon, and the descent of the Spirit on the new converts. The last is
the most important, and yet is told most briefly. We may surely
recognise the influence of Peter's personal reminiscences in the scale
of the narrative, and may remember that Luke and Mark were thrown
together in later days.

I. Cornelius repeats what his messengers had already told Peter, but in
fuller detail. He tells how he was occupied when the angel appeared. He
was keeping the Jewish hour of prayer, and the fact that the vision
came to him as he prayed had attested to him its heavenly origin. If we
would see angels, the most likely place to behold them is in the secret
place of prayer. He tells, too, that the command to send for Peter was
a consequence of God's remembrance of his prayer ('therefore,' verse
32). His prayers and alms showed that he was 'of the light,' and
therefore he was directed to what would yield further light.

The command to send for Peter is noteworthy in two respects. It was,
first, a test of humility and obedience. Cornelius, as a Roman officer,
would be tempted to feel the usual contempt for one of the subject
race, and, unless his eagerness to know more of God's will overbore his
pride, to kick at the idea of sending to beg the favour of the presence
and instruction of a Jew, and of one, too, who could find no better
quarters than a tanner's house. The angel's voice commanded, but it did
not compel. Cornelius bore the test, and neither waived aside the
vision as a hallucination to which it was absurd for a practical man to
attend, nor recoiled from the lowliness of the proposed teacher. He
pocketed official and racial loftiness, and, as he emphasises,
'forthwith' despatched his message. It was as if an English official in
the Punjab had been sent to a Sikh 'Guru' for teaching.

The other remarkable point about the command is that Philip was
probably in Caesarea at the time. Why should Peter have been brought,
then, by two visions and two long journeys? The subsequent history
explains why. For the storm of criticism in the Jerusalem church
provoked by Cornelius's baptism would have raged with tenfold fury if
so revolutionary an act had been done by any less authoritative person
than the leader of the Apostles. The Lord would stamp His own approval
on the deed which marked so great an expansion of the Church, and
therefore He makes the first of the Apostles His agent, and that by a
double vision.

'Thou hast well done that thou art come,' - a courteous welcome, with
just a trace of the doubt which had occupied Cornelius during the 'four
days,' whether this unknown Jew would obey so strange an invitation.
Courtesy and preparedness to receive the unknown message beautifully
blend in Cornelius's closing words, which do not directly ask Peter to
speak, but declare the auditors' eagerness to hear, as well as their
confidence that what he says will be God's voice.

A variant reading in verse 33 gives 'in thy sight' for 'in the sight of
God,' and has much to recommend it. But in any case we have here the
right attitude for us all in the presence of the uttered will and mind
of God. Where such open-eared and open-hearted preparedness marks the
listeners, feebler teachers than Peter will win converts. The reason
why much earnest Christian teaching is vain is the indifference and
non-expectant attitude of the hearers, who are not hearkeners. Seed
thrown on the wayside is picked up by the birds.

II. Peter's sermon is, on the whole, much like his other addresses
which are abundantly reported in the early part of the Acts. The great
business of the preachers then was to tell the history of Jesus.
Christianity is, first, a recital of historical events, from which, no
doubt, principles are deduced, and which necessarily lead on to
doctrines; but the facts are first.

But the familiar story is told to Cornelius with some variation of
tone. And it is prefaced by a great word, which crystallises the large
truth that had sprung into consciousness and startling power in Peter,
as the result of his own and Cornelius's experience. He had not
previously thought of God as 'a respecter of persons,' but the
conviction that He was not had never blazed with such sun-clearness
before him as it did now. Jewish narrowness had, unconsciously to
himself, somewhat clouded it; but these four days had burned in on him,
as if it were a new truth, that 'in every nation' there may be men
accepted of God, because they 'fear Him and work righteousness.'

That great saying is twisted from its right meaning when it is
interpreted as discouraging the efforts of Christians to carry the
Gospel to the heathen; for, if the 'light of nature' is sufficient,
what was Peter sent to Caesarea for? But it is no less maltreated when
evangelical Christians fail to grasp its world-wide significance, or
doubt that in lands where Christ's name has not been proclaimed there
are souls groping for the light, and seeking to obey the law written on
their hearts. That there are such, and that such are 'accepted of Him,'
and led by His own ways to the fuller light, is obviously taught in
these words, and should be a welcome thought to us all.

The tangled utterances which immediately follow, sound as if speech
staggered under the weight of the thoughts opening before the speaker.
Whatever difficulty attends the construction, the intention is
clear, - to contrast the limited scope of the message, as confined to
the children of Israel, with its universal destination as now made
clear. The statement which in the Authorised and Revised Versions is
thrown into a parenthesis is really the very centre of the Apostle's
thought. Jesus, who has hitherto been preached to Israel, is 'Lord of
all,' and the message concerning Him is now to be proclaimed, not in
vague outline and at second hand, as it had hitherto reached Cornelius,
but in full detail, and as a message in which he was concerned.

Contrast the beginning and the ending of the discourse, - 'the word sent
unto the children of Israel' and 'every one that believeth on Him shall



Online LibraryAlexander MaclarenExpositions of Holy Scripture: the Acts → online text (page 22 of 57)