Just before ascending into heaven, Jesus told his disciples to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In Matthew 28:20, he specifically said to “make disciples of all nations.”
It took a while for them to understand that he meant for more than just Jews to become disciples. Finally, God prepared a very special person, Cornelius, to become the first gentile Christian.
The Jews had long suffered under Roman occupation. So isn’t it just like God to choose a Roman centurion to hear the gospel first? A centurion was a Roman professional soldier, a commander, nominally, of 100 men known as a century. In practice, most centuries were smaller Six centuries made a cohort.
Cornelius was part of the Italian cohort (Acts 10:1) stationed at Caesarea. Ten cohorts made a legion (nominally 6,000 men), but some cohorts existed independently, not as part of a legion. The Italian cohort appears to be one of them. The members were all Italians, and most likely Roman citizens.
In any occupation, the native people regard the occupiers as enemies, but some, at least, in the occupying army make an effort to understand local customs and develop a great love for local people.
The disciples should have remembered at least one such centurion. Jesus healed the servant of a centurion who told him that all he needed to do was speak the word and it would not be necessary for him to defile himself by entering a gentile’s house. Jesus was amazed at his faith.
That centurion had asked some Jewish elders to make the request to Jesus. When they did so they told him that this gentile was worthy to receive the favor because he loved the Jewish nation and had built the synagogue (Luke 7:4-5).
Cornelius’ prayer and Peter’s vision
Cornelius, too, loved the God of the Jews. He and his entire family were very devout both in prayer and in generous giving.
One day as he prayed, an angel appeared before him and called him by name. He praised Cornelius’ prayers and gifts to the poor and told him to send men to Joppa to find Simon, known as Peter.
He was staying at the home of a tanner, also named Simon.Simon, being a tanner, had a contemptible business; he handled dead animals for a living.
That Peter chose to stay with him instead of someone more respectable speaks volumes about how far he had come in his understanding of the gospel, but Jesus was about to stretch him still further.
Joppa was far enough from Caesarea that it took Cornelius’ men until noon the next day to arrive. Shortly before they found the tanner’s house, Peter was hungry and, while waiting for lunch, started to zone out. Most translations say he went into a trance, but that doesn’t have to mean anything more than daydreaming or being in a dazed state between waking and sleeping.
In his trance, Peter had a vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven, and a voice told him to select some lunch from among the animals. He said, “No, Lord.” Perhaps the word for Lord would be better translated “sir.” It seems odd to speak directly to the Lord and say “no” to his instruction, but don’t we frequently do just that? In any case, Peter had never eaten anything unclean and had no intention of doing so.
The entire process occurred three times—kind of reminiscent of Peter’s three denials of Jesus and Jesus’ three-fold restoring question, “Do you love me?” By that time, he was wide awake, wondering what that was all about. And just then, Cornelius’ men were at the door asking for him. The Holy Spirit commanded him to go speak with them.
When the men said that they came because of an angel’s visit to Cornelius, Peter invited them into the house. It was a breach of etiquette for gentiles to enter a Jew’s house. It wasn’t even Peter’s house, although a tanner would have little grounds to object.
Peter gets it
The next day Peter left with the men. Some believers from Joppa joined them. When they arrived in Caesarea the next day, Cornelius had prepared to meet them. He had invited all of his relatives and close friends to expect something important.
When Peter entered the house, Cornelius greeted him by falling at his feet in worship. Peter quickly let him know how inappropriate it is to worship another mere human. Then they went into a large room, where Peter saw the crowd.
He said that they all knew it was unlawful for him, as a Jew, to be there, but at least he had figured out from his vision that he had no right to consider anything or anyone unclean or impure. Then he asked for an explanation of why he was there.
Cornelius told Peter about his own vision, how the angel had told him to send for Peter by name and exactly where to find him. So all of those people had gathered to hear what God had commanded Peter to say.
Up until that time, Peter had no idea that God had commanded him to say anything at all, but he said, “Now I understand.” He finally recognized that God does not show favoritism. God accepts anyone from any nation who honors him and does what is right. Then he launched into the same sermon he had used for years when addressing a new crowd for the first time.
Before he could finish, everyone in the room began to speak in tongues—the same sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit he had experienced at Pentecost and had probably seen many times since then. He didn’t finish his sermon. Instead, he immediately held a service of baptism.
What God accomplished
In this entire process, God showed both great patience and ability to handle multiple details.
Is Cornelius anyone important? In a way, no. He was saved by grace through faith just like anyone else. Faith came to him by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, just like anyone else. But Cornelius was the first gentile to hear and receive the word. His prayer resulted in perhaps the most important turning point in the early history of the church.
- God raised up Cornelius as a God-fearing Roman soldier who prayed and ministered to the poor for years.
- He made sure Cornelius was at prayer at just the right moment.
- He made sure that Peter was near by. Considering the criticism Peter received from other leaders of the church for baptizing gentiles, he was the only person who could get away with it.
- The next day, God delayed Peter’s lunch. Peter was apparently up on the roof to pray, but was too hungry to concentrate.
- God prepared an object lesson, which he had to show Peter three times in order for it to sink in.
- That object lesson started about the time Cornelius’ men arrived in Joppa.
- Peter was puzzling over what it meant at the exact time the men showed up at the house. He had no time to get distracted by any other thought, such as lunch.
- While Peter traveled to Caesarea, having no idea why, Cornelius assembled a congregation to hear the message Peter had no idea he’d be preaching.
- Peter was always a slow learner, but once he got a hold of a divine lesson, he always acted on it immediately.
Peter would never have considered entering the house at the time God appeared to Cornelius, but at just the right time, God got his attention, and gradually led him from puzzled obedience to a pivotal sermon.
We think of Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles and Peter as apostle to the Jews, but if Cornelius and Peter had not opened the door for other gentiles, there would have been no gentile church in Antioch to send Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey.
The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, Acts 9:43
Centurion. “Centurion 2 Boulogne Luc Viatour” by I, Luc Viatour. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The Angel Appearing to the Centurion Cornelius. Public domain.
Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.