Today’s Chocolate: Parra White Chocolate with Almonds
Today’s Passage: Acts 10
What do you think of when you think of the Newsboys? One of the CCM industry’s long-running Christian rock acts, the Newsboys have been around since 1985, with hundreds of songs and seventeen studio albums to their name. But chances are you don’t know them for their song “Cornelius.” It’s a bouncy, catchy ode to the converted centurion by the same name from Acts 10, but at the end of the day, it goes afield from the text to applaud general integrity, refusal to compromise, and…such bizarre lines as “What rhymes with Cornelius? Helium.” So, having hooked your interest with an introduction only tangentially related to the content of the passage, let’s set aside the Newsboys’ deep cuts and take a look at the tale of the man behind the song.
What sets Cornelius apart? It’s less that he’s among the “fearless few who can’t be bought” and more that he’s cool with Jews. Luke describes him as “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually” (2). The angel that appears to him mentions his prayers and alms (4), and the messengers he sends to Peter introduce him as “a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews” (22). He cares about Jews and their God: that’s his claim to fame.
But he’s a Roman. He’s not a Jew himself. And up to this point, Peter and Paul have been taking the gospel strictly to Jewish communities, and of all the followers of Jesus we’ve seen so far, the only non-Jewish convert I can think of is that Ethiopian eunuch. But God has big plans and good news for all of humanity, not just one ethnicity, and not just a subset of one religion. So set is God on expanding the gospel to Gentiles as well as Jews that he gives Peter advance notice, in the form of a vision. Three times in the vision he invites Peter to eat from a giant sheet of animals that the Torah declares unclean, each time telling him, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (15). The sheet is a metaphor for everyone who is not a Jew. They’re all welcome! So when the messengers come to take Peter to meet Cornelius, he’s up for it.
In light of first-century Roman-Jewish relations, Peter’s willingness to meet Cornelius is remarkable. While some Jews, such as tax collectors, enjoyed a tenuous alliance with the Empire, a great many out of elitism refused to have anything to do with anyone who wasn’t a Jew, and others still had nothing but contempt for their authoritarian oppressors. Conversely, Rome hated the friction generated by uncooperative Jews, both through political insurrectionism and religious rejection of the Roman pantheon and the cult of emperor-worship. I don’t think it would be off-base to compare it to an American police officer and a black man receiving visions from God instructing them to meet each other. It’s even present in the racial element: the Romans may not have been Scandinavian-white, but they were lighter-skinned, and Jews may not have been Nigerian-dark, but they certainly skewed swarthy.
Cornelius may reject the racial animosities of Roman imperialism, but he’s still got some bad Roman habits. When Peter shows up at his house, Cornelius “fell at his feet and worshiped him” (25). The word “worshipped” (προσκυνέω, proskuneó) might also be translated “prostrated himself in reverence,” but given that Cornelius has already dropped to the ground and that Peter responds, “Stand up; I too am just a man” (26), I think it’s fair to infer some undue veneration is going on here. God isn’t the only being Cornelius has worshipped! If nothing else, he just worshipped Peter.
Whoops, Cornelius. Nobody’s perfect. But fortunately, Jesus Christ died not for perfect people, who don’t exist, but for real flawed human beings like you and me.