The Conversion of Cornelius — Bruce Ligon

During the course of our lives, you and I have become acquainted with individuals of generally good morals. These people may involve themselves in organized religion and good works. Yet we would never consider them Christians. The upstanding morals of these people and devotion to religion do not mean they are in a proper and pleasing relationship with the Lord.

The book of Acts gives us a glimpse of the preaching of the gospel by the apostles in the early days of the church.   As we come to Acts 10, approximately ten years have passed since the gospel had been preached for the first time in its fullness (Acts 2). This was a time of transition in the history of the church. Up until this time the gospel had only been taken to the Jews. Yet now a significant turning point occurs. Jesus had told the apostles, immediately before His ascension, they would also be going “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Now the time had come to extend the reach of the gospel. This change required the apostles to completely adjust their thinking.

What Kind Of Man Was Cornelius?

In Acts 10, we meet a man named Cornelius. He was a responsible and recognized leader. As verse 1 states concerning him, he was “a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort.” Of greater importance is that Cornelius recognized the importance of reverencing God.

Verse 2 summarizes the character of Cornelius: “A devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.” Please notice the two revealing adverbs in this verse. First, he gave alms generously. Though he was probably a man of considerable prosperity, he realized that life was to be more than about riches. Also, Cornelius’ praying is described as continual. This emphasizes that prayer was a regular part of his life rather than reserved for special situations.

Brother H. Leo Boles presented the following comments regarding the depth of Cornelius’ devotion, “It seems that he worshiped God with all earnestness and devotion, and taught his house to do the same” (H. Leo Boles, Commentary on Acts, p. 160). Verse 4 states regarding Cornelius that he feared God with all his household. Brother Wayne Jackson cogently stated that this indicates that he had renounced the idolatry of paganism and was a true believer in God (Wayne Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles From Jerusalem to Rome, p. 118).

The Gospel Comes To Cornelius

Since the gospel had not yet been taken to the Gentiles, Cornelius was unaware of it. This is a key point to be considered regarding his prayer being heard.

Verse 3 records that Cornelius saw clearly in a vision an angel from the Lord. Immediately, he responded, “What is it, Lord?” The Lord tells Cornelius he had heard his prayers. Then he instructs Cornelius to send men to Joppa in order that they may bring Peter back with them.

As the men sent by Cornelius made their way to Joppa, Peter receives a startling message from the Lord while he was in a trance (Acts 10:9-13). Peter’s difficulty in accepting this message is seen in that the Lord sent this message to him three times. Peter was “inwardly perplexed” and he was “pondering” regarding what the message might mean (verses 17, 19a). Any doubts Peter had went away as the Spirit tells him to go with the men who had been sent “without hesitation, for I have sent them” (vs. 19-20). When Peter inquires of the reason the men have come to him, they respond, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say” (vs. 21-22).

When Peter and the men arrive at Cornelius, the record emphasizes he had brought together his family and close friends (v. 24). When Peter entered, Cornelius wants to worship him, but Peter tells him, “Stand up, I too am a man” (v. 26). After explaining his presence is a violation of Jewish custom, he now understands that he should not call any man common or unclean (vs. 27-28). In verses 29-32, Cornelius sets forth why Peter was called. The attitude of Cornelius, now that Peter has arrived, is emphasized as he declares, “Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord” (v. 33).

Peter begins his sermon with a very important emphasis, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). The sermon preached on this occasion is reminiscent of what he had earlier preached on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). He proclaims to them Jesus as the Christ. Peter emphasized Jesus had been anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, he had been put to death, he had been raised from the dead, and he had been ordained by God to be the Judge of the living and the dead, and that through Him the forgiveness of sins is offered (vs. 38-40).   In verse 43, Peter announced that it is through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is offered to those who believe. In verse 48, we learn that Peter commanded Cornelius and his household to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Following their baptism, they asked Peter and those who came with him stay to for a short period of time.

The Baptism Of The Holy Spirit

Please notice in this account the baptism of the Holy Spirit. A careful reading of the text will help sincere people to properly understand it. Acts 10:44-46 sets forth a dramatic turning point, “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”

In order to grasp the significance of this occurrence, there are three points to be observed. First, as Acts 11 records, Peter defends his preaching to those gathered in Jerusalem who were disturbed over what had taken place. A crucial point in his narrative is set forth, when he stated, “I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning” (vs. 15). “At the beginning” is a clear reference to the beginning of the church and the preaching of the gospel. Second, in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, he quoted the prophecy uttered by Joel (see Acts 2:16ff). A key point in Joel’s prophecy is that God’s Spirit would be poured out on “all flesh.” “All flesh” did not mean every person. It meant the basic two divisions of people at that time: Jews and Gentiles. In light of the fact that all of the apostles were Jews, this had not yet taken place. Thus we must look for a further bestowal of the Spirit to complete the scope of Joel’s prediction. Since Cornelius was a Gentile, now Joel’s prophecy was being fulfilled. Third, Wayne Jackson makes the following poignant point regarding Holy Spirit baptism, “The fact that Peter had to reach all the way back to Pentecost for an adequate example to illustrate this ‘outpouring’ of the Spirit in Caesarea, is evidence that ‘Holy Spirit baptism’ had not been a practice that occurred between these two episodes” (Wayne Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles From Jerusalem to Rome, p.134). These three points can also help us to understand that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was never meant to be a continuing element involved in people becoming Christians. Its fulfillment was limited to the first century.

Conclusion

The accounts in the book of Acts of the preaching of the gospel, including the account of Cornelius, should be viewed as more than history. You and I need to read them and be reminded of the urgency of taking the gospel to the lost. Brother J.M. McCaleb penned the following words that have been set to music, which should motivate our efforts toward the lost:

The blessed gospel is for all, The gospel is for all; Where sin has gone must go His grace: The gospel is for all.

Bruce preaches for the Bellville Church of Christ in Bellville, TX.

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