Homework is critical when facts are involved, for without the proper information, one can draw a conclusion that is false and inaccurate. Nowhere is this more crucial than when reading God's Word. Such was the case concerning a devotional about Cornelius, written by a well-known author, which a friend sent to me a while back. The story of Cornelius is found in Acts 10. The author took great pleasure in pointing out that Cornelius, as a centurion in the Roman army, was a "bad guy", stating that he "hung out with the wrong crowd, ate the wrong food, and swore allegiance to Caesar". But the author was wrong. Scripture is very clear that Cornelius was quite the opposite! Verse 2 introduces us to a "devout man who feared God", "gave alms to the Jewish people" and "prayed continually". Jews to this day consider almsgiving and prayer (along with fasting) as the most important aspects of piety and godliness. One commentary even noted that because Cornelius is mentioned by name it meant that his demonstration of faith was well-known among the early believers. That doesn't sound like a bad guy to me.
The story of Cornelius also shows us an interesting side of human nature. Although the author attempted to paint a wonderful picture of Peter's devotion to purity, a cultural nuance was completely overlooked. Yes, Peter did desire to remain pure before God and therefore refused to eat the unclean animals (Lev. 11) in his vision (v. 14), but it must be noted that he was staying in the home of a tanner, a profession with repeated exposure to dead animals making one unclean. This was certainly something that was forbidden in the Torah (Num. 19:11-13). This does not mean that Peter was an out and out hypocrite, but it does show that the Lord had already started to work on Peter's strict view of who he should associate with. This little detail helps to direct you to the main point of this story, but the author "didn't do the homework" and therefore missed it completely.
The conclusion drawn in the devotional I received was that "in our lifetime, you and I are going to come across discarded people..." and that it will be up to us as to how we will interact with them. But this was not the case with Cornelius. True, he was not part of the "covenant" community (i.e. Jewish), but he was hardly discarded! As a commander over a unit of 100 men he was respected and powerful. As a God-fearer he maintained his Gentile identity, but worshipped the God of Israel and demonstrated his faith through charity and prayer. And may I point out that one is hardly “discarded” when an angel shows up to hold a conversation with you (vs. 3)! Cornelius appears in our Scriptures at a pivotal turning point in sacred history when the faith community expands just as the prophets and psalms foretold (Ps.22:27-28, Ps.66:4; Mic. 4:2; Zech. 8:20-23). Rather than being "discarded", Cornelius was a person on the doorstep of a more complete faith. He understood God, and through Peter's preaching, he came to know Jesus.
What we learn from this passage is not whether or not we should interact with discarded people. If we do our homework, we learn that this passage speaks about the advancement of God's kingdom. God speaks to both Cornelius (who sends for Peter) and to Peter (who goes where God sends him). Neither of them initiated the process but both participated in God's work. God is looking for eager hearts and willing servants. When you put the two together, the kingdom grows. The point of this passage then is whether or not we will participate in the work God initiates. A popular cable game show from the 1990’s, "Cash Cab" always ended its quirky and urban introduction with one pertinent question, “Are you in?” God is asking us that same question. Are you in?
Ann LeFevre, M. Div.
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