THREE PEOPLE WHO CHANGED THE WORLD
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
October 16, 2016
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.
33 So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
— Acts 10:1-8, 33, ESV
The book of Acts tells how the first Christians carried out the Great Commission of our Lord. Thousands came to Christ in Jerusalem during the first Pentecost after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Persecution led by the pharisee Saul of Tarsus moved the messengers of the gospel into Samaria to spread the word. Then, after the Lord saved Saul of Tarsus and turned him into the Apostle Paul, the gospel was taken from “Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, to the end of the earth” (ref. Acts 1:8).
In the middle part of Acts (ref. Acts 10:1-11:18) there is a key turned that ultimately opens the door for Paul and others to broadcast the gospel world-wide. Three persons were instrumental in this monumental moment: one was a pagan, one was a great preacher, and the other one is a person above all other persons on planet earth. Three sermons will tell their story, the story of three people who changed the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The first one mentioned in this turnkey text is Cornelius. He was a Gentile, a Roman, a non-Christian who had adopted some Jewish religious practices. He lived in the beautiful seaside city of Caesarea, the northern outpost and year-round residence of the governor of Roman occupied Palestine. He was a centurion, a disciplined military man who had risen through the ranks from enlisted man to non-commissioned officer to commissioned captain. He led and influenced a hundred men in a cohort of six hundred in a legion of six thousand. Cornelius’ life and conversion to Christ exemplify some important truths about how the gospel of Jesus Christ changes everything.
The gospel changes the world one person at a time.
Representatively, Cornelius becomes the first Gentile convert to Christianity, with all due respect to the Samaritans (some of whom may have been fully Gentile) and the Ethiopian eunuch (whose conversion takes place just outside Jerusalem). Cornelius is the initial beneficiary of the what is often called the Gentile Pentecost, the great event described here that brought the whole gospel to the whole world. Great movements of evangelism and church growth often begin with just one person, and in this case that one person is Cornelius.
Cornelius was a good man. His military life reflected achievement, character, and devotion. He provided his family with multiple servants to meet their needs. He paid his taxes and gave donations to the poor. Cornelius was a good man, a very good man, in the eyes of the public. But was he a good man in the eyes of God?
Are people basically good or intrinsically bad? The answer is yes. We are good because we are made in the image of God, with God’s moral laws written on our hearts. That’s why most people obey most laws most of the time, provide for their families, and make money by working instead of armed robbery. We are bad because we are all sinners, sin separates us from God and is null and void of faith, without which no one can be acceptable to God. Paul’s words to the Romans applied even to this Roman centurion, Cornelius, about whom it can be said, “There is none good, no not one … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ref. Romans 3:10, 23). Cornelius had human goodness, but he needed divine grace to be saved.
Cornelius was a religious man. He devoutly engaged in religious activity like prayer and almsgiving. He even entertained an angel of the Lord, and they don’t appear to just anybody. His house must have been a regular place of worship for likeminded religious people, probably in accordance with Judaism. Cornelius was a religious man, a very religious man, even in the public square. But did his religion earn him favor with God?
It is quite possible, even probable in most cases, to practice religion without having any real relationship with God. The Jews of the Old Testament did it all the time, and still do it today. Most Christian church members who show up for worship at Easter and Christmas wouldn’t know what salvation is if it bit them on the nose. In the eyes of God, our religious observances are “as filthy rags” (ref. Isaiah 64:6) without total trust in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In spite of his position, generosity, and religious activity, Cornelius was empty, lost, and undone without Jesus Christ. No wonder, in spite of all he had attained and done for God and others, we find Cornelius still searching, still praying, still hoping for something and someone more. God prompted and heard his prayer, sent him an angel and then another angel (messenger), and brought him the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was the gospel, not his innate goodness or religious activity, that changed Cornelius into a man acceptable to God. And a man or woman of faith is someone God can use to gain access to others to spread the world changing gospel of Jesus Christ.
One person with the gospel can change their world.
Cornelius’ quest for God captured many other people as well. That’s because Cornelius’ burden for his own soul became a burden for the souls of the people he loved, the family he lived with, and the soldiers he worked around. When one finds the one thing that changes their world for the better, they want to share it with everyone they know.
Cornelius’ influence was immediate. He had a family. He had friends. He had co-workers. And when his prayer provided a place and time to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, I believe he invited them all over to his house. The number of Gentile converts to Christianity was large enough to send shock waves through the Jewish Christian ranks, so the number of new Christians who were saved along with Cornelius must have been substantial, in the hundreds, maybe even thousands. One person can make a difference, now and forever.
God is sovereign in salvation, He saves one soul at a time, but He often dispenses salvation in streaks. In other words, when God saves one member of a family, salvation often spreads to other members of the family. When a person with friends comes to Christ, they often bring their best friends to Christ. The gospel not only changes you, it changes the people around you, and the best work you can do on earth is to labor to bring a full circle with you to Heaven.
Cornelius’ influence rippled throughout the whole world. The New Testament is quite kind to Roman centurions and soldiers. Remember that the Gospels and Acts were penned a generation after the events actually happened. By the time they were written, the gospel of Jesus Christ had spread throughout the known world. It was spread by Peter, by Paul, and by a strategic number of Roman soldiers who had converted to Christianity. This latter part of the Great Commission awakening, the taking of the whole gospel to the whole world, began right here with one man named Cornelius.
I went on a study tour of Israel with a group of American evangelical pastors. We were all Gentiles. The first place on our stop after arriving at the airport in Tel Aviv was the southern suburb of Joffa. Joffa used to be called Joppa. It is the city where Simon Peter was staying when God summoned him to go and tell the gospel to Cornelius.
The conversion of Cornelius, his family, and fellow Roman soldiers opened up the Gentiles to the gospel. It paved the way for the missionary work of the Apostle Paul. It spread the good news westward, eventually covering Europe, including England, and the new England, which became the United States of America. Unless you are a Christian Jew from Jerusalem, or a saved Samaritan from Samaria, you owe your salvation to this man, Cornelius. He was one man who opened his heart to the gospel, then the Lord used him to open the gospel to the whole world.
God fills an open heart and God flows through a filled heart. If you are trusting in your own goodness and good deeds to save you, then your heart is empty of salvation. If you are trusting in your religion or church membership to save you, your heart is empty of the Lord Jesus Christ. Open your mind, heart, and will to the gospel and God will come in. He will stay, too, and use your mind, heart, and will to reach others for Christ. The gospel will change your world, their world, and all the world, forever.
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Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org