The Unique Case of Cornelius
The conversion of a Roman military officer, Cornelius by name, as recorded in the tenth chapter of the book of Acts, represents one of the key events in Christian history. The gates of the kingdom of Christ were flung wide open and for the first time in many centuries all non-Hebrew people were welcomed into a religious fellowship with the offspring of Abraham.
The prophets had spoken of the day when the “nations” would flow into the house of God and “all flesh” would be able to access the blessings of divine salvation (Isaiah 2:2-4; Joel 2:28-32; cf. Acts 2:17-21). With the inclusion of the Gentiles into the family of God on this occasion, the Old Testament prophecies pertaining to such began their fulfillment.
As wonderful and clear as this marvelous chapter of the Bible is, it is a tragedy that it has been so seriously misunderstood by multitudes of sincere people. The reason for this misapprehension is due to the fact that the entire chapter is viewed as a model for every subsequent century—and it is not. There are abiding principles, but the student must explore the narrative with considerable discrimination.
The Temporary Supernatural
It must be noted first of all that the events of this chapter occurred when the church was in its state of infancy. The Lord God was validating the authenticity of the new movement by means of supernatural phenomena. Such was evident from the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1) onward, and the need for divine authentication was no less urgent on this occasion. The revolutionary concession of equal Gentile status, along with that nation that had been Jehovah’s “own possession” for fifteen centuries (Exodus 19:5), was a shattering truth of seismic proportion. This circumstance would necessitate a powerfully orchestrated divine documentation—in connection with both those selected to convey the message and those who would be the recipients.
One must remember that there was a long-standing “middle wall of partition” (the Mosaic law) that separated these two segments of humanity. The Gentiles (i.e., all non-Jews) were considered an “alien” body of people, indeed, “strangers” as viewed by the Hebrews (cf. Ephesians 2:12-14), who were being used in a special way for the coming of Jesus into this world. It would take a mighty effort, therefore, to change Jewish hearts of resistance to those of compliance. Accordingly, through a series of remarkable supernatural events, the way was prepared before the culminating events of Acts 10.
First, there was an amazing vision in which Cornelius saw an angel sent from God (10:3). The heavenly being engaged the centurion in conversation, assuring him that the Lord had taken note of his prayers. He thus was to send a message to a Jew in Joppa, Simon Peter. Cornelius was informed exactly where and with whom Peter was residing in the city. The fact that Peter was lodging with a tanner was a clue that the apostle might be disposed to help him, since normally Jews disdained tanners due to their frequent contact with dead animals (which rendered them ceremonially unclean). Whatever resistance, therefore, the Roman commander might have entertained, it vanished.
Second, the Lord began to arrange circumstances at Joppa. Just as the messengers from Cornelius neared the city, Peter went up on the flat roof of his host’s house. It was about mid-day and the apostle became hungry. He fell into a trance (cf. “vision” [v. 17]) during which he saw a great sheet let down from heaven. It contained a variety of creatures which, by Old Testament law, were declared unclean (cf. Leviticus 11).
Peter was commanded to “kill and eat,” but he promptly refused, appealing to his rigorous devotion to the law. Twice more the scene was repeated, and it perplexed the apostle greatly. Just as he contemplated this puzzling matter, the servants dispatched from Cornelius arrived at the gate below and inquired about Peter (the timings in Acts are astounding!).
When the messengers explained the background of their visit, together with the prodding of the Holy Spirit (v. 19), the truth “clicked” in the apostle’s mind. He called the messengers in (Gentiles, no less!) and had them lodge overnight. The following morning, Peter, the three messengers, and six Jewish brethren (who would serve as witnesses) began the trip back to Caesarea.
Third, when the company of ten reached Caesarea, a group consisting of the Roman commander’s family and friends had assembled and were anxious for the message they knew Peter would bring concerning their salvation (v. 22; cf. 11:14). In concert, both Peter and Cornelius related the miraculous events of several days earlier. The divine orchestration was perfect, and God’s apostle began his proclamation of the gospel (vv. 34ff).
Fourth, as Peter spoke (v. 44), or more precisely, as he “began to speak” (11:15), a supernatural manifestation of the Spirit’s power fell upon the Gentile audience. These non-Hebrews suddenly were granted the ability (a “gift” [10:45]) to speak in languages they had not known previously, and with these “tongues” (not mere ecstatic sounds—as Pentecostals allege) they magnified God (v. 46).
This miraculous endowment convinced everyone privy to it that this entire series of events had been implemented by God. It was no presumptive, man-oriented circumstance. It would not be an easy task, however, to convince the Jews elsewhere (especially back at Jerusalem) that the Gentiles were to be granted unrestrained access to the blessings of the church of Christ.
The events at Caesarea had scarcely been concluded before the news of this Jewish-Gentile alliance had spread to Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem, some sixty-five miles to the southeast. Note carefully the following:
“And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, saying, ‘You went in to men uncircumcised, and did eat with them’” (Acts 11:2-3).
The term “contended” is from the Greek diakrino, which here signifies “to take a firm position against,” and the imperfect tense form suggesting persistent opposition. It was a volatile situation; one that could have damaged the early church dramatically.
With great patience (how he has grown!) Peter began his defense, rehearsing the controversial events step by step. The six Jewish brothers who had witnessed the Caesarean episode were standing nearby (v. 12), giving assent to the apostle’s testimony. Peter concluded by confidently affirming that this reception was of God, and he had no intention of withstanding his Maker!
Now note this thrilling conclusion: “And when they [the Jews] heard these things, they held their peace.” Not only did they drop their charges, they “glorified God,” acknowledging that the Lord had granted to the Gentiles that opportunity to repent and be saved (v. 18). What a glorious day it was for the cause of Jesus Christ!
Later the issue would arise as to whether the Gentiles should be required to practice circumcision as an appendix to the gospel. It was determined that such should not be the case (see Acts 15:1ff) and that pressing this Hebrew regulation upon their Gentile friends would constitute a mark of apostasy (Galatians 5:1ff).
Lessons To Be Drawn
As we observed at the commencement of this discussion, Acts 10 is severely misunderstood by numerous religious people who profess an identification with the Christian faith. Let us consider a couple of these matters.
The Pentecostal people contend that this case serves as a precedent for Christians today in receiving a special gift of the Holy Spirit with the ability to speak in tongues. With no attention at all to the distinctive nature of the ancient context, they generalize a modern application. That simply cannot be done.
First, as noted already, the divine activities at Joppa and Caesarea were unique to that first-century situation regarding the merging of Jews and Gentiles into the body of Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:11ff), and that has not a thing on
earth to do with any analogous circumstance in the modern world.
In the second place, Cornelius and his associates received the baptism (overwhelming) measure of the Holy Spirit before they became Christians (as the name was subsequently applied [11:26]). This is the reverse of what our charismatic friends claim—salvation first, then the gift of tongues as an evidence of redemption.
Salvation before Baptism
In addition to the misuse of this wonderful chapter by the holiness sects, those who contend for the erroneous doctrine of salvation by faith alone also pervert this section of Scripture by arguing as follows.
It is alleged that no one but a child of God is ever granted a gift of the Spirit. Added, then, to this premise is the fact that Cornelius and his family received the gift of the Spirit before they were immersed in water (10:47). Supposedly, then, the conclusion that follows must be: these Gentiles were saved before they were immersed. One would be forced to concede that if the two premises were true, and properly related to one another, the conclusion would follow necessarily. But does it?
In fact, it does not. What is the flaw in the argument? It is this: this very case demonstrates the exception to the major premise in our opponents’ argument. Consider the following factors.
First, the context, on the very face of it, demonstrates that if God had not placed his stamp of approval on the events transpiring at Caesarea, there would have been no baptism of these Gentiles! The miraculous signs were designed to convince Peter and his Jewish colleagues to move forward with the process. They were being nudged incrementally. The supernatural outpouring of the Spirit would scarcely have been necessary to convince them of the validity of what they had done already. This is so obvious that it is exceedingly difficult to miss.
Second, Peter himself, at the subsequent Jerusalem meeting (Acts 15), refutes this sectarian argument. He rehearses the fact that God chose him to be the instrument through which the Gentiles would initially hear the gospel and believe (15:7). The term “believe” is a comprehensive term summing up their entire gospel obedience (faith being the motivating action that underlies further acts of obedience, e.g., repentance and baptism). For examples see 4:32; 6:7; 16:33-34; 19:2-3. The apostle declared that God “made no distinction” between Jews and Gentiles in the matter of salvation. Since the Jews’ salvation involved baptism for the remission of sins, it must be inferred necessarily that Gentile baptism was for the same reason.
Third, to suggest that Peter administered a baptism to folks who were saved already would involve him in a theological inconsistency. Such would suggest that his practice in Acts 10 did not conform to his earlier teaching in Acts 2:38. Moreover, it would conflict with his later affirmation that “baptism saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).
Fourth, this view would have Peter in conflict with Paul, who testified that he was immersed in order to have his sins washed away (Acts 22:16), and who taught that baptism transitions one “into” Christ where salvation is located (Galatians 3:27; 2 Timothy 2:10).
The conclusion that the careful Bible student must draw, therefore, is this: the normative features of Acts 10, i.e., those elements consistent with an abiding pattern of redemption, are operative today. The miraculous
elements (a speaking angel, direct communication from the Spirit, and a supernatural outpouring of the Spirit) were unique to that situation, thus should not be appealed to as authoritative today.