God’s Word for You
Acts 10:1-2 Giving alms
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, February 24, 2020
10 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Cohort. 2 He was a devout man who worshiped God with all his household. He gave gifts generously to the poor and always prayed to God.
In the regular Roman army, a cohort was one tenth of a legion, with anything up to about 600 soldiers. However, there were no Roman regulars in Israel at this time. The Romans used “auxiliaries,” with soldiers supplied by the provinces, and in which a cohort might have as many as 1000 men. The Italian Cohort was one of these auxiliary forces, with the distinction of having been raised in Italy. There is evidence of an army force known as Cohors II Italica (“Second Italian Cohort”) in Caesarea after 69 AD, but that was more than 30 years after the events of Acts 10. Whether Cornelius was a centurion in the First Italian or Second Italian Cohort is not known, but what’s important to our text is not his regiment, but his faith.
Luke introduces us to a soldier in this Italian Cohort (or regiment) named Cornelius. He was not a Jew, but a Gentile proselyte who had become a worshiper of God through the Old Testament Scriptures. He and his household were faithful and devout worshipers, and like Tabitha, Cornelius showed his faith through his many works, such as the gifts he gave to the poor.
The ancient church thought very highly of gifts to the poor. These were often referred to as “alms,” and we would call them contributions or charitable donations today in our culture of the ledger and the tax form. “Almsgiving is good even as a fruit of repentance for sin. Fasting is better than prayer” (that is, as a fruit of repentance) “but the giving of alms is better than both, for ‘love covers over a multitude of sins’” (2 Clement 16:4, quoting 1 Peter 4:8). Also: “When you can do good” (again, this is in the context of giving alms to the poor) “do not delay” (Polycarp 10:2). Then there is a perplexing verse in the ancient Didache or “Teaching of the Apostles”: “Do not let your alms sweat in your hands until you know who it is you’re giving to” (Didache 1:6). This has been taken to mean either (1) do not give without thinking about it carefully first, or (2) do not overthink giving alms. Just give freely. I favor the second interpretation, since in the Shepherd of Hermas we also read: “Do good, and from your labors (which God has given you) give generously to all who are in need. Don’t consider who you should give to or who you shouldn’t. Give to all, for God wants there to be things given from his own gifts for all” (Mandate 2:4).
Jesus said, “When you give alms (NIV “give to the needy”), do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4).
Alms—giving charitably and kindly to those who need assistance—is one of the ways God provides for people. It falls under the doctrine of the work of God the Father as part of his divine Providence. God provides for us through our parents, and also through nature; through the bounties of fields, mines, forests, rivers and seas. He provides for us by giving us natural and learned talents, and through our interests which can become productive work and even a career. He also provides for us by means of inheritance, and where all of these come up short because of sin or tragedy, he uses the kindness of others through the giving of alms and charity. Some Christians live portions of their lives on both sides of almsgiving: sometimes receiving, sometimes giving. Such Christians are blessed by God because they have seen both sides of charity. They accept the need and are able to give freely. Some Christians who spend most of their lives giving may find it difficult to be on the receiving end of a gift, but they should remember that this is how God provides for his people. In a similar way, some people who spend a long time receiving charity may find it difficult to give when they have an opportunity simply because giving has not been part of their frame of mind.
Whether you give or receive, do it to God’s glory. Do it quietly, and with thanks. Thank God for providing for you with the gift. If it is a gift you receive, he has provided for some of your needs through the faith of others. If it is a gift you give, he is providing for someone else through your faith. Either way, physical and spiritual needs are being met, and you and I can be thankful that our gracious and Almighty God is always watching over us, always providing for us, and always giving us opportunities to share and show our faith.
Pastor Timothy Smith