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.
Rewards for Good Works
In some circles good works are seen as pointless. We are saved by grace, we are told, so we shouldn’t worry about what we do. In this passage, Cornelius’ acts of service and his fervent prayer are listed as having triggered a response from God. That is the plain meaning of the text. If we pray and give to the poor, it would seem, God responds. However, Paul, a major player in the book of acts, puts a caveat on acts of service. In 1 Corinthians 13, he says that if I serve God but have no love the service is useless. So, what kind of good works receive a reward? The first requirement of God is that we give him our heart. The first commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Cornelius doesn’t understand God well, but he is devoted to him. He has understood a little about God and so he responds to him with love. In the Bible love is not primarily an emotion akin to warm fuzziness. In the Bible love is an orientation of the heart that maintains a commitment to someone through thick or thin. Ruth is committed to Naomi in this way, David is committed to God in this way, and Jesus is committed to His Father and the world in this way. The commitment that qualifies as love is sacrificial. It doesn’t always feel good. How do we know, then, if a person loves God? It shows in their actions. A person who loves God sticks to God through thick and thin. They seek out what God wants and they serve him. Cornelius was not ‘saved’, but he was on the right path. He showed a genuine commitment to God and His ways through his actions. God responded with grace and sent him a messenger of salvation.
I have heard some people say that the first prayer from a person that God hears is the sinner’s prayer of repentance. That can not be the case. Cornelius had not prayed that prayer, but God had heard the longing of his heart. God was responding to Cornelius’ prayer and service before he was saved.
Many today who claim to be Christian show no fruit. I think it is possible to be ‘saved’ but show no fruit, but there is no real security in asserting the fact of salvation without any evidence. A heart that is inclined toward God – a heart that shows devoted acts of service to God – is a heart that is on the right path. At some point on that path God saves. He saves because of his sovereign choice. The works that we do do not make God respond to us out of gratitude or obeisance. However, the works that we do show that God is at work in fulfilling his purposes. A person seeking God with all of their heart will find God. Even in Muslim countries where the gospel is made illegal, Jesus shows up in the dreams of sincere seekers. He starts hidden in our unbelief and sinful world, but if we pursue God with passion and sincerity, we will be found.
Dear God, I am perplexed why many Christians live lives where they don’t give even a tenth of their income and their prayer lives are non-existent. Here is a man who knew very little about you but was inspired to be open with you with his words and his finances. You rewarded his authentic good works with a visit from an angel. May we not seek angels, rewards, or material gain – may we seek You. Change our hearts so that we are free to be generous with our material wealth and with our words. Let us pray and give to the community. May we at least do as many good works as those who do not know you yet.
- What good works did Cornelius do?
- What does the angel say about his good works?
- What role does devotion play in the passage? What does it mean to be devout?
- Are your good works on a par with Cornelius?
- Do Christians in your church behave as well as unbelievers in your community? What should be the difference?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3lHueRXvh0 Compare the story of this Muslim with the story of Cornelius.