One of the amazing things about the Bible is how much truth can be stored in such small places. There is a passage in Acts 10 that illustrates this point.
Cornelius is a rather mysterious character. He appears and disappears in the same Bible chapter, Acts 10. This Gentile soldier’s marvelous moral character, and his noble influence, even among Jews (22), is well established. He was a worshipper of the one, true God. His life was characterized by piety. He prayed consistently and was generous to the poor. Moreover, the centurion was a force in his family, leading them in spiritual values (see 10:1-2,22).
Aside from these general references to his noble character, there is a further passage in Acts 10 that throws a floodlight upon the religious convictions of this Gentile. When Peter, who was dispatched to instruct the officer, arrived in Caesarea, Cornelius gave an explanatory presentation as to why he had sent for the apostle. In conclusion he said:
“Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all things that have been commanded thee of the Lord” (33).
Careful study of this passage yields a great deal of information about the centurion.
First, the officer referred to “God,” not gods. As stated above, Cornelius was a monotheist. As a rule, Gentiles subscribed to the notion that there were many “gods” (cf. 1 Cor. 8:5-6). The depravity of Roman religion is vividly portrayed in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Roman saints (cf. 21ff). Even before he heard the gospel message from Peter’s mouth, Cornelius already had turned from idols to reverence a living God (cf. Acts 14:15; 1 Thes. 1:9).
Second, Cornelius believed that God was an observer of human activity and interested therein. He confessed: “we are all here in the sight of God.” The phrase not only suggests that Heaven was aware of this meeting, but approved of it.
Even the Hebrews had a difficult time on occasion conceiving the idea that Jehovah observes everything. When Jacob fled from his home, fearing the wrath of his brother Esau, he came to Bethel. In a thrilling dream God spoke to him, renewing the promise that first had been made to his grandfather, Abraham. When Jacob awoke, he exclaimed, with obvious surprise: “Surely Jehovah is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16).
When Jonah was instructed by the Lord to do mission work in Nineveh, he sought to do otherwise. Rather than heading east to Assyria, he determined to go west, to Tarshish, and so be away “from the presence of Jehovah” (Jon. 1:3). It is, therefore, rather remarkable that Cornelius had such a clear understanding of this aspect of the Creator’s nature.
Third, the Gentile officer was aware that saving truth was embodied in an objective revelation which would issue from a man who had been appointed by God to instruct him. The group therefore was assembled to “hear” the things, i.e., “words,” (cf. 11:14) to be spoken by Peter. Cornelius knew he had received no special message from the angel, detailing the content of what he must do in order to enjoy salvation. He did not surmise that he could capture “spiritual vibes” from the atmosphere in some esoteric fashion. He did not subscribe to the view that he could merely follow the inclinations of his conscience and all would be right (cf. Pr. 14:12; Acts 23:1).
This is a powerful truth that legions today, who are searching for answers in every place but the right one, need to learn.
Fourth, this centurion acknowledged the sovereignty of Almighty God. He confessed that the Lord had “commanded” certain things to which human beings were amenable, and he was anxious to humbly submit. There are several interesting matters here.
“Commanded” translates the Greek term prostasso, literally “to arrange toward,” hence denotes to prescribe, order, or command something (Arndt, 725). In the Greek papyri it is used to depict a decree issued by a sovereign ruler (Moulton & Milligan, 551).
Next, the verb is a passive voice form, suggesting that God is the giver of commands, and we humans are the receivers. We are not allowed in the driver’s seat!
The term is also in the perfect tense—reflecting an action that has occurred already but the results are abiding. The effect is this: God had commanded, and his will was to remain inviolate. There would be no disputing it. This was truly an amazing concept for this Gentile to have perceived. Earlier, even Peter had said: “Not so, Lord” (14).
Fifth, Cornelius recognized that he could not selectively obey the Lord. “All” was the goal. He said they were present to receive “all things” the Lord had commanded Peter to convey. How many there are today who would be so happy if only God allowed them “multiple choice” obedience. They would gladly believe if only they could dispense with baptism (Mk. 16:16), or else they would be immersed if only they did not have to repent (Acts 2:38).
Initially, Naaman the Assyrian was not terribly disturbed about dipping in a river for cleansing from his leprosy, he just faulted the Lord’s location of the ceremony (2 Kgs. 5:12). He needed to learn that deliberate, partial obedience is no obedience!
Sixth, the centurion conceded the authority of Peter, an apostle, as a spokesman for deity. He suggested that he and his family were there to hear from Peter the things that God commanded his apostle to tell them. Peter’s words would carry as much weight as if the Lord had spoken to them personally.
There are those who labor under the illusion that the “words in red,” in some editions of the Gospel accounts, are of greater significance than what Peter or Paul wrote. I actually have heard members of the church state that they did not agree with Paul on some issues. Such a reckless expression of disrespect!
The Savior himself declared that one authorized by Him carried his authority. He said, for example, regarding the seventy—whom he had sent out to preach: “He who hears you hears me; and he who rejects you rejects me; and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk. 10:16). Paul also said that the things he wrote represented the “commandment of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37).
Cornelius’ understanding and disposition, as reflected in this solitary sentence, is stunning indeed. It truly reveals something of the depth of his soul. Are we willing to listen as he teaches us?