THE WHOLE GOSPEL FOR THE WHOLE WORLD PART I: CORNELIUS, THE INCOMPLETE MAN
1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 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 he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 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. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 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, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
— Acts 10:1-8, ESV
We are walking through an extraordinary door in the book of Acts that opens up the whole gospel to the whole world (10:1-11:18). Up to this point, the New Testament church has largely been a Jewish experience (with notable exceptions in Samaria and the Gaza Strip), springing as it does from Old Testament promises concerning the Messiah, Jesus Christ. But the time has come for God to reach out to the Gentiles, which includes every nation, kindred, tongue, and tribe in the world.
Two people are instrumental in this monumental breakthrough. One is a Jewish man and one is an everyman. While we generally associate the Apostle Paul with taking the gospel to the Gentle masses, at this point he is still in training with the Lord. But before his missionary journeys begin, it is the Apostle Peter, the first among his equals, who walks through the open door delivering the message of salvation to the first lot of Gentiles. We will look at the foundational contribution of Simon Peter, who at the outset is a rather reluctant witness, in the next text (10:9-43).
In the passage at hand for today (10:1-8), however, we look at Cornelius of Caesarea. By eventually opening up the door of his home to Simon Peter, he permanently opened up a entryway for the gospel to get into the Gentile world. This will complete the commission of Christ, to take the gospel from Jerusalem and Judea, through Samaria and its regions, to the uttermost parts of the world. But this story of completing the Great Commission begins with an incomplete man.
Cornelius Was A Good Man
Most people in the world are good. Now before you start quoting Romans 3 at me, I don’t mean good in the sense they are good with God, or good enough to merit salvation apart from the grace of God, I just mean generally good in actions and attitudes.
I believe in the total depravity of the human race, but I also believe in the imago deo, that all humans are made in the image of God. As such, all of us, Christians and non-Christians, are capable of expressing some of the good communicable attributes of God, such as kindness, truthfulness, and a willingness to help others. Sure there are rats among us, but law enforcement friends I know tell me that ten percent of the people are committing ninety percent of the crimes. Most people are generally good, law abiding citizens, like Cornelius of Caesarea.
Cornelius had a good job, a hard-earned position as a captain of a well regarded military troop. He had a good home and a good family, with a plethora of good friends and good co-workers. The man had a good life, so it seems, but something was definitely missing. Maybe he needed something more than good, maybe he needed God, in his life?
Cornelius Was A Religious Man
Cornelius had God in his life, at least in some form or fashion. The text tells us he was “devout” (literally good, in a religious sense). It says he “feared God,” and taught his family to do the same.
It is possible he was a typical Roman who worshiped a pantheon of gods. More likely he was a proselyte to Judaism, a Gentile who worshiped with the Jews at the local synagogue. Quite certainly, however, Cornelius did not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and was not a member of a New Covenant church, since at this time there was not one in Caesarea.
Most of the people in the world today are religious. Christianity claims the most, although most of them are nominal, non-practicing Christians. Islam is a growing second, and the vast majority of them are tolerant, not terroristic toward other people. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism are for the most part peaceful, too. It is good, humanly speaking, to be religious, if your religion teaches you virtue and tolerance.
Cornelius was active in his religion, whatever religion it might have been. But, something was definitely missing. Maybe he needed a new religion, or a new relationship, in his life?
Cornelius Was A Generous Man
Cornelius is apparently a man who put his money where his mouth is. He has a good job, does good things, is good at his religion, and all of this compels him to “give alms generously to the people.” He is a man you want to have on your charity’s mailing list.
People would be open books if we could all see each other’s checkbook. What you give, and who you give it to, tells a lot about you. Stinginess suits more people than generosity, put paint Cornelius among the latter.
What a good guy! What a devoutly religious man! No one was more giving than Cornelius! But, something was definitely missing. Maybe he needed to give himself to something, or someone, else?
Cornelius Was An Incomplete Man
The last trait the text teaches us about Cornelius is he “prayed continually to God.” There could only be a couple of reasons for this. He was either thankfully content, or desperately empty. Judging from the response he received from the Lord, I think the gauge that monitored the peace in his soul was on “E.”
By the time Cornelius, and Peter, and God opened this door for the whole gospel to go to the whole world, it had been seven years since the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ten years had passed since His public ministry began. The news, the good news, would have no doubt reverberated to Caesarea and back many times. Cornelius has surely heard about Jesus, but He did not know Jesus, not personally, not savingly, not as Lord and Savior. Thus, in spite of all of Cornelius’ goodness and religiosity and generosity and prayer, he was still an incomplete man.
Cornelius knew it. He did not try to suppress it. This is why he was praying and praying to God for help.
Most People in the World are Incomplete
Most people in the world are good, religious, often generous, and everyone prays. We are not surrounded by serial killers, else we’d all be dead. The whole world is full of people made in the image of God, who lack a saving relationship with God, who need to hear the whole gospel of God. This includes the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, but also the bad news that without Jesus, no matter how good or religious or generous you are, you will miss Heaven and spend eternity in Hell.
Perhaps you are one of the incomplete people in the world. Like Cornelius, you need to admit it, quit trying to suppress it, and call upon the name of the Lord. Cornelius’ prayer gets answered, and so will yours, if you humbly cry out to God and willingly receive repentance and faith in Jesus’ name. Not only will this save your soul, but it can also open the door of salvation for your family members, friends, and others to enter in.
Perhaps you are a complete person, a genuine Christian. Then realize you are surrounded by incomplete people. The book of Acts teaches that the whole gospel is for the whole world, and we the whole people must take it to those with holes in their hearts.
We Must Take the Whole Gospel to the Whole World
In Cornelius’ case, we see the Lord sent “an angel of God.” Angels on Christmas trees are cute, but angels in the Bible always spark “terror” in those who see them. How Acts-ish is this? From Pentecost to apostolic miracles to tongue-talking Christians to angels delivering messages, unusual things are always happening.
You and I live in a slightly different day. Yes, there are still angels around us and God is always doing miracles, but please remember the special effects in Acts are demonstrative, not normative. God does not normally answer prayers with angels and miracles, he answers prayer with people, Christian people, like Simon Peter.
Peter presents himself as the reluctant witness to take the complete gospel to an incomplete man. Having studied the incomplete man, we will get to the reluctant witness next. But for now, will you be that witness, go to the incomplete people in your life, walk through that open door, and take the whole gospel to the whole world?