Ever heard of a guy named Cornelius? If you haven’t, you need to learn about him.
He and a young Jewish woman named Mary from a village called Bethany were the only two people in the New Testament whose lives the Lord sought to memorialize (“to preserve the memory of”). That is, because of how they caught the attention of heaven the Lord exalted them that others might emulate them.
So the question is, “Why were these two memorialized?”
Mary shattered an alabaster jar containing expensive ointment that was worth a years wages. She broke the jar and poured the oil upon Jesus a week before His death to “anoint Him for burial.” As the disciples looked upon this act with rage and offense Jesus’ heart was moved. Interrupting the jeering and mockery Jesus looked her in the eyes and said (my paraphrase): “What she has done will be a memorial to me forever. Wherever you apostles go to preach the Gospel, tell them also about what she has done. This is wisdom. This is beautiful.” (read about it in Matthew 26 and John 12)
And then there was Cornelius. Cornelius was a Gentile. Presumably of Italian descent. Acts chapter 10 tells his story.
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. (Acts 10:1-4)
Luke’s description of Cornelius deserves our attention. He used five statements to describe the Centurion of the Italian cohort.
1. He was a devout man. That is, He was devoted. He was consecrated. Focused. Abandoned. Deliberate. Intentional. He lived his life so as to make it count. He didn’t squander his time, his energy, or his resources. He was wise. He lived before an Audience of One knowing that God and God alone would evaluate his life on the last Day.
2. He was a God-fearing man. That is, he lived holy unto the Lord. He revered and feared the Holy One of Israel. He feared God because he knew God. His intimate fellowship with God produced in him awe, wonder, dread, and worship. He loved God. He feared God. He adored God. He was a worshiper.
3. He was a family man. It says he feared the Lord “with all his household.” Whether this refers to his biological family or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Luke recorded him as fearing the Lord “WITH all his household.” He was a leader of his home. He set the culture. He lived with integrity in the secret place of his personal chambers. And in doing so he encouraged others to live holy before God.
4. He was a generous man. He gave finances to the poor and needy. His was extravagant in his sacrificial giving. He gave in secret that his Father in heaven would reward him openly (Mt. 6). He knew how much the poor meant to the Lord. And he understood that he was called to sow financial resources into people’s lives. He was open handed with the resources God had given him.
5. He was a praying man. Luke says that he “prayed continually to God.” It was an overflow of his heart. But it was also a focus. It was something he was deliberate about. He invested his time and energy into cultivating a prayer life. Depth in God was his primary ambition in life. Communion and fellowship with the Holy was his life vision. He talked to God, and God talked to him. He gazed upon God, and God gazed upon him.
This devout, God-fearing, family-leading, generous, prayerful man caught the attention of heaven. The angel told him that his “prayers” and the “giving” of his finances “ascended as a memorial before God.” This is an incredible statement that we would be wise to ponder. We too can live this way. And we too can be memorialized by the Lord. Luke gives us an invitation into such a life by his 5-fold description of this centurion; a man we never hear about again in the New Testament.
Like Mary of Bethany, he wasn’t famous before men. But he was ‘famous’ before the Lord. And at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters anyway.