1 Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort,
2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.
3 About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, "Cornelius!"
4 And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.
5 "Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter;
6 he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea." 7 When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants,
8 and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. NASU
In Acts 1:8 Jesus proclaimed that the disciples were to be witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the world. Their witness clearly would extend to the Gentiles.
The story of the gospel breaking the Gentile barrier is found in Acts 10:1-11:18. The sixty-six verses in this passage constitute the longest narrative in Acts. Luke's purpose in recording the story was to report and support the admission of the Gentiles into the faith. Here, as it says in Acts 14:27, God "had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles." NASU
To be sure there had been a build-up to this event. There were anticipations of outreach to Gentiles in the Old Testament. In Isaiah :6, the Lord said that the restored ones of Israel would be a "light of the nations." Jesus Himself (Luke 7:2-10) ministered to a Gentile centurion. On the Day of Pentecost, there were (Acts 2:10) "proselytes" in the audience.
Later, the gospel was preached by Philip in Samaria. The Samaritans were not regarded as Gentiles, but they were of mixed descent. They were descendants of Jewish and Assyrian mixed marriages. After preaching in Samaria, Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:27) on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Bruce (p. 186) says that this Gentile was probably "God-fearing." After meeting with Philip, he was led to Christ and was baptized.
Then came the conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-9). He was to bear (Acts 9:15) the name of Christ "before the Gentiles." Later, Paul cited Isaiah :6 as he declared that God had placed him and his team "as a light for the Gentiles." His ministry was in total harmony with Old Testament prophecy.
The build-up was considerable. The ministry of Paul would be powerful to the Gentiles. However, it was the apostle Peter whom God used to bring about the major Gentile breakthrough. It was fitting that God should use Peter for this purpose. He was fully respected by the Jewish church.
Fernando (pp. 318-322 and 333-339), like Haenchen (pp 356-360), presents the story of the Gentile breakthrough in seven scenes. Through these powerful scenes, Luke presents the legitimacy of the Gentile mission. The scenes are as follows:
Scene One: Cornelius's Vision (10:1-8)
Scene Two: Peter's Vision (10:9-16)
Scene Three: Peter Meets the Messengers (10:17-23a)
Scene Four: Peter and Cornelius Meet (10:23b-33)
Scene Five: Peter's Speech (10:34-43)
Scene Six: Gentiles Receive the Holy Spirit (10:44-48)
Scene Seven: The Jewish Christian Approve (11:1-18)
This event had a powerful impact on the spread of the gospel. Later, at the Jerusalem Council, Peter (Acts 15:7-8) would refer to the breakthrough at the house of Cornelius and his role in it. Then, Barnabas and Paul reported on signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). When they had stopped speaking, James declared that the words of the prophets agreed with the report of Peter (Acts 15:13-15).
The breaking of the Gentile barrier takes place in Caesarea at the house of Cornelius the centurion. The city of Caesarea was the Roman capital of the province of Judea. Caesarea was rebuilt by Herod the Great and is named after Caesar Augustus. As Fernando points out (p. 318), the population consisted of more Gentiles than Jews. This was a fitting place for the Gentile breakthrough!
Cornelius was "a centurion of [ek] what was called the Italian cohort." Robertson says (p. 133), "A legion had ten cohorts or ‘bands' and sixty centuries." Thus, each cohort had six centuries. Each cohort was comprised of 600 men and each century had 100 men. Most scholars hold that Cornelius belonged to the Italian cohort but only commanded 100 men. However, some believe (Gangel, p. 158) hold that Cornelius was in charge of the cohort and therefore led 600 men. The NLT and TLB versions support this view. The preposition ek favors the former view. Either way, we know that Cornelius was an influential figure in Caesarea.
Luke says that Cornelius and his household were "devout" and were "God-fearers." As Bruce points out (p. 216), the God-fearers became the nucleus of the church in many cities during Paul's journeys. Concerning God-fearers, Fernando (p. 318) writes:
It is usually held that God-fearers were those who attended the synagogue and honored Jewish laws and customs but had not been incorporated in the Jewish community (i.e., become proselytes) through circumcision. But the view that "devout" and "God-fearing" may not have been strict technical terms is becoming more accepted now. Instead, the word "sympathizer" is used.
Arndt and Gingrich (p. 722) present the usual view. They define God-fearers as those "who obligated themselves only to follow certain commandments." A proselyte, according (p. 722) to them, is "one who has come over." A proselyte was "a Gentile won for Judaism by Jewish missionary efforts, who became a Jew by undergoing circumcision." Thus, the dividing line between a God-fearer and a proselyte was circumcision.
Lenski drills down deeper with regard to "proselytes." According to him (p. 67), the Jews had two types of proselytes: (1) proselytes of the gate and (2) proselytes of righteousness. The proselytes of the gate were reverent, but they had not been circumcised. They were not full converts to Judaism. The proselytes of righteousness were circumcised and were full converts. Given this further analysis, the God-fearers were proselytes of the gate but not proselytes of righteousness.
We know that Cornelius was a very religious man. He gave generously and prayed to God regularly, but was not circumcised. Therefore he was not a proselyte as the term is customarily used or, more specifically, he was not a proselyte of righteousness.
According to Bruce (p. 217), "A God-fearer had no objection to the society of Jews, but even a moderately orthodox Jew would not willingly enter the dwelling of a Gentile, God-fearer though he were." It would take a major intervention from God to break the Gentile barrier. That intervention happened!
One day, about three in the afternoon, Cornelius had a vision. Pious Jews prayed three times a day, so Cornelius probably was on that schedule. In this vision an angel of God spoke to him. The angel (Acts 10:4-6) said:
4 "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.
5 "Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter;
6 he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea." NASU
The angel acknowledges the prayers and generosity of Cornelius. These had "ascended as a memorial before God." Simon did not question either the messenger or the message. He simply obeyed. He summoned two of his servants and a soldier, explained everything to them, and sent them to Joppa.
Once again God gives guidance through a vision (see Acts 9:10) and an angel (see Acts 5:19). In his vision an angel came and spoke to Cornelius. The angel's role was similar to the role of the Spirit in leading God's saints. In our next scene (Acts 10:19) the Spirit speaks to Peter. Whether through an angel or directly through the Spirit, God supernaturally guides His servants.
The important point of application in this passage is that God is at work. When God is ready to expand His church, He moves into a situation in His Sovereign way and opens doors. This time God gave a vision and sent an angel. He may use this method at anytime, but whatever method He uses, He is in control. No man can limit Him in what He does.
Of course, there is a human side to the story. Cornelius was a pious and generous man. Moreover, as the story reveals, he was receptive to God and His messenger. His response to God was immediate obedience. This is an excellent example for all of us. Let us quickly do His will!
George M. Flattery
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Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.
Bruner, Frederick Dale. A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Ervin, Howard M. These Are Not Drunken As Ye Suppose. Plainfield: Logos International, 1968.
Fernando, Ajith. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
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Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971.
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Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Swete, Henry Barclay. The Holy Spirit in the New Testament. London: Macmillan and Company, 1910.
© Copyright 2003. GMF.