When the early church is born, it is predominately Jewish. This is not surprising because Jesus and His disciples are Jewish. His ministry is based in Israel. Christianity is destined to grow from the roots of Judaism, but the sacrificial work of Jesus renders the laws of Moses obsolete. He states, “I have not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it” (Mt. 5:17). Jesus tells the apostles He has “other sheep which are not of this fold” (Jn. 10:16). Because the Levitical law forbids close association with non-Jews, the question of how to bring Gentiles into the Church is enigmatic. The answer to overcoming racial prejudice is found in God’s Holy Spirit.
The salvation of Cornelius is a pivotal point in the New Testament. His story takes place about a decade after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. His conversion affirms the inclusion of all nations in the Kingdom of God. This centurion has unknowingly taken the first decisive step toward spreading the Gospel to the entire world.
The numerous ethnicities present on the Day of Pentecost verify that Cornelius is not the first non-Jewish convert (Acts 2:9-11). An Ethiopian eunuch is later won to Christ by Philip (8:38). But up to this point the Church has not opened wide her doors to all Gentiles. The circumstances surrounding Cornelius make him the representative of all future Gentile Believers. His situation stirs controversy and forces the dissolution of narrow prejudicial views. The events recorded in these verses are extremely significant because the results are so decisive. The narrative can be divided into four scenes.
Cornelius is a centurion who heads a band of soldiers serving in Caesarea under Herod Agrippa (Acts 10:1). This city is a major port of Palestine and the seat of Roman government in the Province of Judea. A legion is comprised of 6,000 men and each legion is divided into ten cohorts of 600 soldiers. A cohort is further divided into six groups or “centuries” of 100 men – hence the name centurion. The group under Cornelius’ command is called “Italian” for it is their country of origin.
Cornelius is stationed in the only area of the world where the pure worship of Jehovah is practiced. He is presented to us as an unusual individual, for he stays true to Jehovah despite the legendary carnality of military life which surrounds him. He is a man of wealth and status with a home, family, and servants. Although Cornelius has not converted to Judaism, he has shown sympathy with their monotheistic theology. He forsakes the gods of Rome and embraces the God of Israel. Even though he is neither a Jewish proselyte nor circumcised, he is pictured as a devout and praying man. He and his entire household respect Jehovah. He gives generously to the poor (10:2). This godly soldier has resided in Caesarea long enough to financially bless the Jewish community there. His prayers compel him to act and he demonstrates his faith through his works (Jas. 2:18 & 26).
A series of events are set in motion as Cornelius prays in the middle of the afternoon. He has an angelic vision and is informed God recognizes his prayers and benevolent acts (Acts 10:4). He is instructed to send men and bring the apostle Peter to his home. The angel tells him where Peter can be found (vv. 5-6).
It is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit which brings these two men together for their backgrounds could not have been more diverse. Cornelius is a disciplined Roman soldier while Peter is a fisherman. One man needs to be born again and the other has walked with Christ Himself. Cornelius does not hesitate to invite Peter into his home, but Peter hesitates to set foot inside the house of a Gentile (10:28). Both Cornelius and Peter are positioned to hear from God for they are in prayer when they receive their visions. Whereas the vision of Cornelius is self-explanatory, Peter’s vision needs some interpretation. The experiences of these men dovetail to answer questions regarding how, why, and when the Gentiles fit into God’s redemptive plan. The issue with which these men wrestle is the singular most important problem facing the early Church. In order to solve it, all that is required is the obedience of a centurion and an apostle.
Although Peter personally hears Christ give the Great Commission, it is insufficient to conquer his racial bias (Mt. 28:19). Ironically, on the Day of Pentecost, it is Peter who preaches the sermon regarding Gentile inclusiveness. “God’s Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17). Peter is about to fully grasp the meaning of his own prophetic message.
The story now shifts to Joppa where Peter resides. It is a costal city about thirty miles south of Caesarea. The following day, Peter also has a vision which clearly depicts God’s absolute racial impartiality and ethnic inclusiveness (vv. 9-16). The animals, reptiles, and birds in his vision represent foods which Jews are forbidden to eat (Lev. 11:41-44). Peter is instructed to kill some of these creatures and eat them. The apostle is abhorred and refuses to obey, for he has been a practicing Jew all his life (Acts 10:14). God then partially interprets the meaning of the thrice-repeated vision. Whatever God declares as “cleansed”, whether it be animals or human beings, no one should regard as unholy. The Lord effectively removes the distinction between Kosher and non-Kosher foods, a boundary that hitherto separates Gentiles from Jews. God is impartial and unbiased. No longer should Peter regard either non-kosher foods or non-Jewish persons as “unclean” (Acts 10:15 & 34).
As Peter reflects on his vision, Cornelius’ messengers arrive as if on cue and Peter is instructed to meet them at the door. The visitors explain their mission and he accepts their invitation to accompany them and meet Cornelius. Peter gives them lodging that night and the following day they depart for Caesarea. Sensing God is about to do something unique, Peter brings with him six other Jewish believers as witnesses (Acts 11:12). They will later validate what Peter relates to the Jewish Believers in Jerusalem (11:4-18).
The party of ten from Joppa arrives in Caesarea. It is evident Cornelius believes Peter will come for he summons his friends and relatives to join him for the occasion (10: 24). The Jews believe entering a Gentile house renders one ceremonially unclean (v. 28). It is therefore a test of Peter’s obedience even to enter the centurion’s home. Cornelius attempts to bow in homage to Peter, but the apostle will not allow it. Such acts of reverence are reserved for God alone (Acts 14:14; Rev. 19:10 & 22:9). Peter’s remarks affirm his racial equality with Cornelius. The centurion explains why he has invited Peter and expresses appreciation to him for making the journey (vv. 30-33).
Cornelius states his sincere desire to hear what Peter has to say. Peter begins a brief teaching but is interrupted by the Holy Spirit who fills the hearts of everyone in the house (v. 44). The sign of the Spirit’s presence is unmistakable, for they all speak with new tongues (Acts 2:4 & 10:46). Since these converts have been baptized in the Spirit it follows they are eligible for water baptism as well (v. 47). After the baptisms, Cornelius and his friends urge Peter to stay with them for a few days (v. 48).
As the chapter closes Cornelius fades from the pages of the New Testament. We are left with the impression of a noble, brave, generous, courteous, and zealous man. As a soldier, Cornelius represents Caesar’s conquest of the Jews. But as a Spirit-filled Believer, he represents Jesus’ conquest of the Gentiles.
The episode concludes by noting the effect these events have upon other Jewish Believers. Up to this time, they have zealously upheld the laws of Moses. Although the question regarding the salvation of Gentiles is now settled, when Peter arrives in Jerusalem he is confronted by his peers. Centuries of Jewish ritualism cause them to criticize Peter’s actions. He is accused, not only of eating with a Gentile, but with entering his home (11:3). Peter briefly relates the story chronologically and succinctly. When he concludes, they are convinced God has affirmed the Gentiles are candidates for salvation. Some years before, Jesus gives Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 16:9). The apostle uses them to unlock the doors to every nation on earth.
Some weeks later at the Jerusalem Council, Peter alludes to this incident as positive proof God intends to save Gentiles apart from the trappings of the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:7-11). The decision of this council officially sanctions Gentile inclusiveness. The Jewish Christians finally understand non-Jews can join Christ’s Church without first embracing Judaism. As “the apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul makes non-Jews the focus of his ministry (Rom. 11:13).
Through this series of events, God teaches Peter to show no favoritism or partiality. But every Believer must ensure racial prejudice is eliminated from his own heart. No person, Jew or Gentile, is beyond God’s reach. “In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or freeman, male or female, for all are one in Him” (Gal. 3:28). All race, class, and gender distinctions are forever eliminated. On the Day of Pentecost, as well as in the home of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit falls on culturally diverse groups of people. As Spirit-filled Believers we are compelled to listen to the Voice which makes us continually aware of our equality.