Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 344 - January 1885
The sovereign grace of God toward all men was about to have another and yet more conclusive formal seal. It was not enough that the scattered Hellenists were preaching the gospel in the free action of the Holy Spirit, or that Philip in particular had evangelised Samaria. It was not enough that Saul of Tarsus had been called from his persecutions to bear Christ's name before the Gentiles no less but more than before the sons of Israel. The apostle of the circumcision must now openly act on the grand principle of Christianity which knows no distinction between Jew or Greek. As the cross proves them alike sinful and lost (Rom. iii. 22, 23), the gospel meets them alike where they are (Rom. x. 12), and proclaims the same One to be Lord of all and rich unto call that call upon Him. This was now to be publicly demonstrated by Peter's preaching to the Gentiles, and their entrance into the privileges of the gospel οn precisely the same terms of gratuitous, unconditional, and everlasting salvation by the faith of Christ, as to the Jews at and since Pentecost. Henceforth there is no distinction: for whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
The circumstances of a change so momentous bore the unequivocal marks of divine authority; though, long before, the Lord Himself had announced it (Luke xxiv. 47) to the unwilling and therefore unintelligent ears of His disciples, and Peter had in terms affirmed it (Acts ii. 39), however little he seems to have as yet apprehended the force of what he then uttered. Indeed we are here and now carefully shown how reluctantly he set his hand to the work of indiscriminate grace till God left excuses no longer possible. But He would have the activity of His grace tarry no more for the -dull sons of men: His message of love to the lost must run forth in power; and the great apostle of the circumcision must be the one formally to open the gates of the kingdom not to Jews only but to Gentiles also. The moment was come; the man with whom to begin appears.
"Now a certain man in Caesarea, Cornelius by name, a centurion of a cohort that was called Italian, pious and fearing God with all his house, 1giving much alms to the people, and entreating God continually, saw in a vision manifestly about ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in unto him and saying to him, Cornelius. But he gazing on him and being affrighted, said, What is it, Lord? And he said to hi in, Thy prayers and thine alms have gone up for a memorial before God. And now send men unto Joppa, and fetch [one]2 Simon who is surnamed Peter: he lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea. And when the angel that spoke to him had departed, he called two of his domestics and a pious soldier of those in close attendance, and having recounted all to them, sent them to Joppa" (ver. 1-8).
The Spirit of God is thus careful to make known the godly life of Cornelius. He was already a converted man, though a Gentile. But he did not know salvation proclaimed in the gospel. Therefore was Peter to be sent for, as Peter himself afterwards explained (Acts xi. 14): else he could only have hoped for his soul in the mercy of God. But now the gospel is to teach sinful man, without distinction; and it seemed good to the all-wise God to bless thereby such an one as this devout Roman, as He had already in the same grace paid honour to the crucified Saviour by converting as well as tilling with peace the penitent robber who hung by His side. They were as different tributes to the grace which came by Him as could well be conceived; but each was seasonable, each to the glory of Jesus, each a display of what God can afford to do through redemption. The pious centurion was only entitled to know his sins remitted on God's message of grace through the blood of Jesus.
The Evangelical school, ignorant of the new and peculiar privileges of the gospel, were wont to regard Cornelius as a self-righteous philanthropist, because they did not distinguish between conversion and the known forgiveness of sins or salvation. But this was their ignorance. Even Bede knew better, when he said albeit in dubious phraseology that he came through faith to works, but through work was established in faith. Had Bede said through the gospel, instead of "through works," it would have been more in accordance with the truth; but those who cite him approvingly seem not more intelligent than the venerable light of the dark ages. It was really God putting honour on the accomplished sacrifice of Christ; and now, that the Jews nationally had rejected their Messiah, calling Gentiles into equal privilege with believing Israelites by the gospel.
But the known godly character of Cornelius was suited to silence the prejudices of the ancient people of God. He looked to God and served Him in faith, before He knew present salvation. If it were too much to say as Calvin does that, before Peter came, he had a church in his house, we are told on the highest authority that he was devout and feared God with all his household: no idol, we may be sure, was tolerated there. Instead of the rapacity of a Roman abroad, with contempt unbounded for the Jew, he abounded in alms-giving to "the people" in their low estate, and this in Caesarea where Gentiles predominated. Best of all he entreated God continually. To suppose all this in one destitute of life is absurd. Cornelius was born of God and walked accordingly, though he had not yet peace; and God was now about to meet the wants and longings of his soul by the full revelation of His grace in the gospel.
An angel of God he sees in vision by day. It was broad daylight, in the afternoon; nor was he asleep, but enquiring learns that God, not unmindful of his prayers and alms,3 bids him fetch Simon Peter from Joppa. As the great apostle of the uncircumcision wrote at the end to instruct the slow mind of the believing Hebrews, so the great apostle of the circumcision was to be employed at the beginning in evangelising at God's command the Gentiles. Does this beautiful interlacing offend you? If so, it proves how little you have entered into the divine ways which cut off all room or excuse for human independence. Neither in Judea nor in Rome (pace ΕusebŁ ) nor anywhere else was there to be, if God were obeyed, the unseemly suicidal sight of a, Jewish church distinct from a Gentile church. The assembly was on God's part meant to be one on earth, let there be ever so many assemblies; the saints composing but one assembly, of which in due time it could be said, even when Corinthians were splitting into divisions, all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas." Here however it was a question of getting the gospel, as necessarily is the true order, though the church follows in its proper course: individual blessing must be known before collective privilege and responsibility.
On the other hand, while these messengers were approaching Joppa, about noon of the next day, Peter retired to pray and, growing hungry, saw, in a trance into which he fell, a sheet of striking significance, which he soon learnt to apply.
"And on the morrow, when they were journeying and drawing near to the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray about the sixth hour, and he became hungry and desired to eat; but while they made ready, a trance came over him, and he beholdeth heaven opened and a certain vessel descending4 as a great sheet by four corners let down upon the earth in which were all the quadrupeds and reptiles of the earth and [the]5 birds of the sky. And there came a voice unto him, Arise, Peter, slay and eat. But Peter said, By no means, Lord; because never did I eat anything common and unclean. And a voice [came] again a second time unto him, What God cleansed deem not thou common. And this was done thrice; and straightway6 the vessel was taken up into heaven" (ver. 9-16).
Peter had not departed from that condition of dependence on God which he had expressed on the occasion of choosing "the seven" to their diaconal service in Jerusalem. "It is not fit that we [the twelve] should forsake the word of God and serve tables." "Look ye out therefore...But we will give ourselves closely to prayer and to the ministry of the word." So he assuredly was doing now when a special mission was being assigned him by God. He had withdrawn to be alone before Him. It was no question of repairing to the temple as once, or even to an oratory. The housetop sufficed; but it is well, when forms vanish, if the spirit abides and grows stronger as here. We cannot afford to be slack in that which God honours in the apostle. The needy should not grow weary in telling out their need to Him and in counting on Him to act worthily of His great Name.
Peter receives a threefold testimony of God's purifying the Gentiles by faith, instead of separating Israel by circumcision. The cross had changed all, and put no difference between believers, Jew or Gentile. The former had lost thereby their old superiority according to flesh; both were now open alike to incomparably better blessings in Christ by faith. It was no question now of the law or of becoming a proselyte, or even of laying hold of the skirt of a Jew. From the opened heaven light streamed on the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, and grace declared the uncleanness gone which Sinai had denounced for a while with rigour. For all was over with the first man under law. The Saviour speaks from heaven where such a distinction as Jews or Gentiles has no place, and acts on the efficacy of that blood which has procured everlasting redemption for all believers equally, be they Jew or Greek, barbarian or Scythian, male or female, bond or free. A Jew could hitherto no more eat of an unclean animal than with a sinner of the Gentiles. But the sheet which came down from heaven and was taken up there taught him in due time the immense change which hinges on the cross, answers to the glory of Christ on high, and drew from him on a later day even i τι_ Jerusalem itself the gracious confession, " We believe that we shall be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, even as they also:" not merely the Gentiles as the Jews, but the Jews in like manner as the Gentiles.
How far the saints or even the apostles anticipated the grace of the gospel must be evident to the least attentive reader of the inspired narrative. Even up to this hour Peter had no thought of, and ventured to object in the vision to, what the voice commanded from heaven. So little was the special character of the gospel in its free grace indebted to the hearts or minds of its most blessed preachers; so incontrovertibly does the word of God prove that what concerns us incalculably above all else for time and eternity proceeded from God alone, feeling and acting for Christ in His own love and to His own glory, though for these very reasons to our best and surest blessing.
1) τε "both" is in Text. Rea which L P support with most cursives &c., but the most ancient and best reject.
2) Authorities re-divided, so that "one" here is hardly certain.
3) It is not without interest to note the difference of Scripture from the Apocrypha. For in Tobit xu.12 the angel is made to bring the memorial of prayer before God; in the Acts the prayers and the alms rise up there without intervention, whether or not an angel brings the answer. Canon Humphrey has well reminded us of this.
4) Text. Rec. (supported by L P and most cursives) adds "upon him"—I suppose from Matt. iv. 16, Mark i. 10, Luke iii. 22, John i. 32, 33, and very strangely, contrary to the best MSS., vv., &c.
5) The article here is doubtful, though its insertion in Text. Rec. has ancient authority as well as numbers.
6) The best MSS. &c.. sustain "straightway" as against the Text. Rec. which gives "again."