When Peter and his companions reached Caesarea, about the noon of the day after their departure from Joppa, they were at once conducted to the house of the centurion; which the apostle, instructed by the vision with which he had been favored, did not hesitate to enter, though it was a Gentile’s house. As he entered, the centurion, apprized, if only by the presence of his messengers, of who it was that had come, cast his body to the earth at the apostle’s feet, in token of the profoundest reverence for him. But Peter, with some haste, raised him from the ground, saying, “Stand up; for I also am a man.”
Why did Cornelius do this—and why did Peter forbid it?
This is not clear at first sight, but is clear enough when it comes to be explained that the word “worshipped him,” which is applied to the act in our version, does not of itself denote religious homage, to which its actual meaning is now confined, but denoted as often civil reverence. Of this use traces remain in the term “worshipful,” applied to magistrate and old corporations; and in the now remarkable phrase, “with my body I thee worship,” in the marriage service of the Church of England.
In fact, the kind of reverence, homage, or “worship,” rendered by the utter prostration of the body to the ground, was a mark of profound respect rendered by the Jews, as it is still by various Oriental nations, to kings; and not only to them, but to other persons of high dignity. It would therefore seem, at the first view, harmless of the significance which our different western habits would ascribe to it, and which Peter seems to have somewhat feared that it might appear to bear. But although this was a custom of the Jews themselves, it was not a custom of the Romans, who never thus humbled themselves before any human being, but before their gods only. It was on this ground, doubtless, that Peter declined it; either as fearing that Cornelius, as a Roman, really attached something more than the Oriental significance to this act, or as apprehensive that it might, however intended, be misunderstood by those who heard of it, in case he suffered it to pass without remark. Considering the character already given of Cornelius, it is difficult to suppose that he had any intention of rendering to Peter the “worship” due to God only. Nor would it have been much otherwise if, as some imagine, the centurion took the apostle for an angel; for then also it would have been scarcely less improper. Still it is possible, from Peter’s reminding him that he also was a man, that Cornelius was struck with such reverential awe at the presence of one whom he knew to be a legate sent by God expressly to him, that, in the flurry of his spirits, he could not at the moment remember to preserve the due distinction between the honor to be rendered to the Sender and to him who was sent. It is, however, quite sufficient to suppose, that Cornelius, knowing that the customs of the East allowed of such reverential homage being shown from man to man, adopted it as the most adequate expression of his feelings, and which Peter, as a Jew, would readily understand; while, on the other hand, the apostle very judiciously declined this mark of respect, knowing, as he did, that it was an act of religious worship among the Romans themselves, and that his acceptance of it might lead to evil.
On entering the reception-room, Peter found himself in the presence of a number of the centurion’s relations and friends, whom, expecting the Apostle’s visit at this time, he had assembled together, that they might partake of the advantages he expected to derive from it. We may conceive how anxiously the centurion had remained with these friends awaiting this arrival, and how eagerly he started from them to meet Peter at the door, when he heard that he was actually come. Finding himself thus singularly situated in the midst of a Gentile company, Peter thought it proper to explain how it was that, contrary to all Jewish ideas and practices, he thus appeared among them. God, he said, had shown him (in the vision), that he was not to account any men “common or unclean.” Under the conviction thus impressed, he had come, without hesitation, when sent for; and now that he was come, he desired to know for what purpose he had been called. He knew already in a general way; but he wished to be more fully and particularly informed by the person chiefly concerned; and if he had fully known these particulars himself, he might have wished his attesting companions to hear an authentic statement from the centurion’s own lips.
Cornelius began by saying, “Four days ago, I was fasting until this hour.” By this he means that four days ago he had been fasting until the same hour of the day as that at which he was speaking, namely, until the ninth hour (as he presently explains), or three o’clock in the afternoon; and not, as some had fancied, that he had fasted from the time of the vision to the then present hour.
Then, at the ninth hour, being one of the three principal Jewish hours of prayer, he was praying in his house, when suddenly “a man in bright clothing” stood before him, and called him by his name, assuring him that his prayer was heard, and that his “alms were held in remembrance before God.” What his prayer was we are not told; but the answer vouchsafed to it clearly shows that its purport must have been to supplicate for more light to his feet—to implore that he might be guided into all truth. Such prayer was never made in vain; and in this case it was most signally answered. The angel himself had no commission to impart that light, for the ministry of the Gospel has not been given to angels. The office of the angel here was to give the authenticating assurance of a message from heaven, to the information, that by sending to Joppa for Peter, and receiving his instructions, the light he so earnestly desired would be obtained. Cornelius added, that it was on this authority he had sent for the apostle; and now that he was come, he himself, and those there present with him, stood ready to receive with respect and attention all things that had been commanded him of God. By this we seem to gather that Cornelius supposed Peter to have been charged with a special message to deliver to him—an impression likely to be strengthened by the intimation which the apostle had let fall, that he also had received instructions from God in connection with this case. It soon, however, appeared that Peter had but one and the same Gospel message to deliver to Cornelius and to every other sinner who had been brought to feel his need of a Savior.
Having now passed through the circumstances of the two visions—that of Peter, and that of Cornelius—it may be well to direct our attention to Paley’s excellent remark, that the circumstances of the two visions are such as take them entirely out of momentary miracles, or such as may be accounted for by false perceptions. They belong to that mixed class in which, although the miracle itself is sudden, some circumstance combined with it is permanent. Saul’s conversion is another marked example of this; and of both instances together, Paley observes: “Of this kind is the history of St. Paul’s conversion. The sudden light and sound, the vision and voice, upon the road to Damascus, were momentary: but Paul’s blindness for three days, in consequence of what had happened; the communication made to Ananias in another place, and by a vision independent of the former, and finding him in the condition described; and Paul’s recovery of sight upon Ananias’ laying his hands upon him—are circumstances which take the transaction, and the principal miracle, as included in it, entirely out of the case of momentary miracles, or of such as may be accounted for by false perceptions. Exactly the same thing may be observed of Peter’s vision preparatory to the call of Cornelius, and of its connection with what was imparted in a distant place to Cornelius himself, and with the message dispatched by Cornelius to Peter. The vision might be a dream; the message could not. Either communication, taken separately, might be a delusion; the concurrence of the two was impossible to happen without a supernatural cause.” Note: Evidences of Christianity, Proposition ii., Chapter 1.