Do you have a friend who has a concept of God who will require them to pay for their actions after they die?
You’ve likely heard them express hope that their good actions will outweigh their bad actions.
Sometimes, they just lament that they will have to pay for all the bad or evil things they have done or thought.
Other times, they would describe themselves as religious or spiritual, trying to do the best they can with what they know.
Cornelius was a Spiritual Person
In the book of Acts, Luke tells us the story of a man who had a spirituality that motivated him to do good works.
Cornelius and his family are described in spiritual terms. He was a spiritual man, one who was very religious.
“He and his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”Acts 10:2
Cornelius sought after God. He did spiritual things like giving to those who had need.
The term devout indicates Cornelius is a steadfast follower of a particular religion or god. Another description would be one who is profoundly reverent or dedicated to serving a deity.
The specific term God-fearer describes a non-Jewish person who was not yet a convert to the Jewish religion but had begun observing some of their rites and practices.
These two descriptions help us understand Cornelius and his family. They are monotheistic (versus the culture of the polytheistic Romans). Doing good works to please God partially motivates his generosity.
You and I might describe Cornelius as “honestly religious,” trying the best he can with what he knows.
Cornelius had a Prayer Experience
One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”Acts 10:3 (NIV)
Three in the afternoon was a common hour of prayer. In Acts 3:1, “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon.”
Though the phrase sets the story on a day in history, it also shows part of Cornelius’ personal devotion and rhythm of prayer. Prayer was a spiritual discipline for Cornelius, even though he was not yet a follower of Christ.
In his time of prayer, Cornelius has a vision with an angel who calls him by name, gives him affirmation, guidance, and a mission.
He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.”Acts 10:3-4 (NIV)
Cornelius stared at him in fear….
Not too many of us have experienced this. But put yourself in the shoes of Cornelius – a spiritual person, a man of ritual prayer. But now, a supernatural visitation happens unexpectedly that afternoon
I think I might have some fear if an angel suddenly visited me as a surprise in my morning devotions.
Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering.
The angel affirms that God has noticed Cornelius. God has noticed the man of prayer. God has noticed the gifts to the poor.
But, good works and prayer are not enough for salvation. God takes the initiative to bring salvation to Cornelius by sending him on a mission to find Peter.
Cornelius Receives Guidance
Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.Acts 10:5-6 (NIV)
The angel gives Cornelius specific guidance to find a particular person in another city.
Can you imagine rushing feelings that range between puzzled curiosity or the dread in this mystical experience of Cornelius?
- Why am I to find this man Simon (also known as Peter)?
- What will he tell me?
- His name sounds Jewish. What might he want with me, a Roman Gentile?
- Will he even come into my house?
- Does God want to tell me something?
- Will he even be in Joppa?
- Is there a person called “Simon the Tanner”?
Cornelius lived in the town of Caesarea. It was approximately 33 miles (54km) to Joppa. Completing this mission takes a few days.
At an average walking speed, that’s one day in one direction. On horseback maybe less.
It would take some practical arrangement to send people, find Simon the Tanner, and then persuade Peter to return with them to the home of Cornelius.
The Gospel Comes to Cornelius
When Peter and Cornelius meet (10:23-26), Peter explains the facts about Jesus – “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (10:36).
Peter explains some of the historical events that happened (10:37-41) and how he was given the message to “testify that Christ is the one whom God has appointed judge of the living and the dead . . . [those] who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
The Holy Spirit falls on all who heard the message and people take baptism (10:48) God had given them repentance unto life (Acts 11:17)
Cornelius’ men find the home of Simon the Tanner, find Peter, and then bring Peter back to the home of Cornelius. He meets with Peter, who explains three things in bringing the good news to the family of Cornelius.
- The historical events about the death and resurrection of Christ.
- God has appointed Christ to judge the living and the dead.
- Those who believe in him receive forgiveness of sin through his name.
In the Roman culture of Cornelius, there was a big concern about the afterlife.
What would happen when you died?
What did you do that you would have to pay for in this life?
Based on what we know about Cornelius, it is likely that this spiritual thirst motived his growth as a God-fearer and being devout.
How Peter Shared the Gospel
Peter adapted the gospel to address an underlying concern or spiritual thirst that Cornelius likely had.
Peter didn’t explain sin nor use Old Testament law, but approached sin in a different way.
- Sin will be judged, and those who believe will receive forgiveness.
- Repentance means to change your mind as to who you will follow.
- Starting with a concern of Cornelius, Peter presents Jesus as the future judge.
The Conversion of Cornelius
The text doesn’t say anything about Cornelius’s individual response.
He is lumped in with “all who heard the message.”
He responded and received the Holy Spirit. He likely took baptism with those who were baptized.
We can presume that he believed and responded to the message.
What happens after you die?
Do people in our culture today think about these things?
I see such questions raised in film (such as Ghost), horror flicks that deal with ghosts, or reality TV shows that deal with hauntings and spirits.
I hear such questions come up in music and song.
Questions about life after death come to the surface when people begin to reflect on the fragility of life:
- a heart attack or blood clot that brings death
- the accidental death of a loved one,
- the violent end of a homicide,
- a school shooting,
Thoughts about life after death may not be on the same motivational level as Cornelius, but a question deep in the heart nonetheless.
Ecclesiastes writes that God has set eternity in the hearts of men, yet they cannot understand it.
“What will you pay for?”
On a plane ride from Chicago to Richmond, my elderly seat mate chatted at me nearly the entire way.
Just after the captain made the pre-landing announcements, my talkative companion lamented to me over the awful choices she saw her granddaughter making.
Thinking of her granddaughter’s eternity, she sighed and said,
“I guess we will all have to pay for our actions someday.”
I asked her “What will you have to pay for some day?”
The conversation came to an end at that moment. The attendants began their pre-landing instructions about seat backs, table trays, collecting debris, and repacking personal belongings.
In the hustle and rustle of the cabin preparations, there was no opportunity to finish the converation.
But I got a window into her spiritual thirst – what would happen to her after she died?
Let me ask you this?
Do you encounter people who think about having to pay for their actions after they die?
Ask the Lord to open a conversation with someone about these thoughts and feel free to share them here.