Lecture 13: Cornelius
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The conversion of Cornelius and Peter's vision were important events in emphasizing the inclusion of Gentiles into the early Church.
V. The Conversion of Cornelius
A. The Geographical Spread of the Gospel (8:14-17)
B. Summary (9:31)
C. Cornelius Episode (10:1-11:18)
2. Importance of Prayer
3. Peter's Vision
5. The Gospel Message
6. The Spirit Comes Upon the Gentiles
7. Peter baptizes Cornelius
8. Trouble in Jerusalem
9. Peter's Explanation
Lecture: Paul: Cornelius
I want to follow a few events that will cause us to backtrack a bit; I apologize for that, but I wanted to keep the discussion of Paul as a unity, and not break it up very much. We talked about Acts 1:8 being the key verse to explaining the Book of Acts, “But you shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The first spread of the Gospel begins in Jerusalem with the speech at Pentecost; it goes through Judea; and then after the persecution that comes upon the Hellenists, the Gospel spreads up to Samaria.
In 8:14-17, we have the spread of the Gospel to Samaria being explained, “Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” This is a very confusing issue about the Holy Spirit not coming upon them. No system of theology that I know of explains this very well. Because if you talk about this being a charismatic experience that had not yet occurred upon them, it doesn’t say that a second experience of the Spirit had not come upon them. They had not received the Spirit, period. I don’t know of any theology that says any person who believed in the Lord had not received the Spirit at that moment, or at that time. So it doesn’t really fit any system nicely. People have tried to explain why it’s so different, and the least unacceptable explanation that I’ve heard is that perhaps the Spirit had been withheld from the Samaritans because of the great animosity between Samaria and Jerusalem, and thus, by having the Jerusalem disciples coming up and then receiving the Spirit, it brought some sort of a unity among these long-time enemies and opponents. As I say, at best, this is the least unacceptable explanation that I know of.
What is interesting to note here, however, is that, when the Gospel is spread to Samaria, the church in Jerusalem sends up Peter and John to check it out. It’s rather clear that there is a center of the church, and that center is Jerusalem. And to verify, to demonstrate the proof of, to check out whether Christianity had really come to Samaria, the Jerusalem church goes up there and checks that out. We’ll find that later on, when a problem comes up (the problem of Gentiles in the church), that will go to Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem church, acting as the center of Christendom, will decide that issue. So there is a center of Christianity already in Jerusalem and the apostles are the leaders of that, and they send up Peter and John to check it out. So now the Gospel has spread up to Samaria as well. And the end of this section, 9:31, has this summary as to the spread here, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, and was built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied.” Acts 1:8 says, “You shall receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” So that, up to this, three-fourths of that commission of the Lord has been fulfilled, but the ends of the earth have not yet been reached. And that will take place under the work of Paul and Barnabas (or at the beginning, they’re referred to as Barnabas and Saul).
In the midst of this, Luke interrupts the account of the spread of the Gospel geographically by the story of Cornelius, the conversion of Cornelius in Chapter 10. There are two events in the Book of Acts repeated [i.e., recorded] three times. One is the conversion of Paul, or Saul of Tarsus (recorded in Chapter 9, and repeated in Chapter 22 and Chapter 26). For Luke, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is very important, and so it’s repeated three times. The other event repeated three times is the conversion of Cornelius. These are the only two events repeated three times in the Book of Acts. It’s recorded in Chapter 10, and repeated in Chapters 11 and 15. This must indicate that for Luke, this also is very important.
The man Cornelius is described in the tenth chapter as a “God-fearer”. The chapter begins, “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort ….” He was a Roman soldier, a leader of 100 men, a centurion, kind of like a lieutenant. He’s “…a devout man who feared God, with all his household ….” He’s a man who fears God, and in v.22, that same expression is used once again, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man ….” Now, that could refer to a devout person. But the way it’s used in Acts indicates that it has a specific meaning. In Chapter 13, that term is used again, and it’s used when Paul preaches at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. We’ll come back to this in a minute, but just for the moment, he’s up in Pisidian Antioch, which is in central part of Turkey, and he preaches at the synagogue, and here’s how he addresses his audience [v. 16]: “Men of Israel and you that fear God, listen.” Then in v. 26, he says it again, “Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God ….” Now, he can’t be referring to something like “you who are Jews” and “you who are devout Jews” (in contrast). He can’t be referring to “men of Israel” and “you who are really devout people”. What he means is this: “you who are the children of Abraham” (physical descendants of Abraham) and ”you who are not, but who are God-fearers.”
Who then are the God-fearers? God-fearers were Gentiles. They were Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism. There were a lot of things that were attractive about the Jewish religion:
• It was monotheistic. Instead of all of the wild gods on Mt. Olympus, and going to the temple to serve all these wild gods, this taught that there was one God. And most of the Greek philosophers had come around to the view that if there was a god, there was only one god and not many gods. So it’s monotheistic. It was on the crest of what thinking people were believing about God.
• It also was a very ancient religion. It goes back to the time of Abraham, 2000 years ago or something like that. That was attractive; it wasn’t some Johnny-come-lately.
• It was a religion that had a noble family life. Technically a man could divorce his wife by simply handing her a sandal and saying “I divorce you”, but they didn’t. The family life among the Jews was of a higher level. It was a quantum higher than what was found among the Greeks and Romans. It was a much more noble family life, where children respected their parents. You could talk about Roman orgies, but you didn’t talk about Jewish orgies. So the moral life and the family life were much more noble.
And so there were a lot of Gentiles that were attracted to it. But there were some things about Judaism that were unattractive. If a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, that entailed some very significant changes:
• It meant that he had to become kosher. He had to keep the Jewish law, which meant no more barbecued ribs at TGI Friday’s. No more “all the shrimp you can eat”, no lobster, no ham. You could say that if you really love the Lord these things aren’t important, but they’re not arguments in favor of becoming a Jew.
• And there were other things involved. When you were a Roman centurion, you swore allegiance to the standards of Rome, which were thought to be idolatrous. So you now had to question that practice. And furthermore, you had to offer a sacrifice in Jerusalem, or send one. You could probably handle that, but let me ask you: if you become a Jew, does that maybe raise questions about your allegiance to your present country? Israel wasn’t an independent nation as we term it now (it was an occupied nation), but there are some real questions about that. I think, for instance, that when we think of Jews today in America, do they have an attitude of allegiance to Israel in some ways that they don’t have to another nation like the United States? Yes, there are bonds to Israel, and a lot of money goes to Israel. That money doesn’t go to Jordan or Syria. So there’s a kind of identity with the religion, and with the political entity – that was questionable.
• But the greatest stumbling block for men was that, if you became a Jew, you had to be circumcised. And there was a lot of propaganda about what that would do to your manhood and things of that nature. And so, circumcision was the real stumbling block to becoming a Jewish convert.
So, a lot of Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism were repelled by some of the requirements of Judaism. And so, they were in a class called “God-fearers”. They attended the synagogue; they kept the moral law; but they didn’t keep a kosher home; they were not circumcised. They were semi-converts. And there were a great many of these at that time. Cornelius is one of them. He is attracted to Judaism, and he contributes to Judaism. There were Gentiles who built synagogues for Jews, but they were not converted; they were semi-converts.
This is what Cornelius was. He is a Gentile attracted to Judaism, but not converted. In this story, prayer and its importance comes up a number of times, because the whole incident begins with a man who prays constantly to God [v.2]. Cornelius constantly prays to God. Peter goes up to his housetop to pray, and while praying he has this vision [v.10]. And then in v.30 once again, he says that “I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house, and behold a man stood before me and said that the Lord revealed this to me while I was praying.” So, all of this has as its context that God’s message is revealed to Peter and to Cornelius while they are praying. Now remember the handout I gave you last week about the importance of prayer in Luke and in the Book of Acts. You can see its theological emphasis here very clearly.
In his prayer time, Peter receives a vision. And he falls into a trance, and v. 11 he sees “…the heavens opened and something descending like a great sheet, let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘No, Lord; for I have never yet eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ This happened three times ….” Peter is a slow learner, apparently. But he has a problem, he says in essence, “I’m a kosher Jew; I cannot eat these things; I don’t do these things.”
Now, think of some of the things that happened in the life of Jesus and his teachings to the disciples that apparently haven’t sunk in real well. “It’s not what goes into a man’s stomach that defiles him, but what comes out of his heart,” and then Mark adds the comment, “Thus Jesus declares all things clean,” (Mark 7:18-19). But the disciples didn’t understand it yet. It’s quite clear what Mark says when Jesus declares all foods clean: you could eat anything you want. This has not yet sunk in to the disciples, at least in the case of Peter here with Cornelius.
Not only that, no doubt if he can’t do these things he’s certainly not going to drink blood. And so when you go back to the account of the Lord’s Supper, “This is my blood of the new covenant; drink you all of this.” The fact that the disciples drank that without any qualm, whereas Peter has all sorts of objections to this kind of thing, indicates that they must have understood it metaphorically. You can’t imagine Peter saying something like, “Lord I don’t eat this stuff. I do drink blood regularly, but I don’t eat any of these things.” So the Lord’s Supper as I understand it has to be understood metaphorically, not literally. But, the vision of Peter is not self-explanatory. Verse 17, “While Peter was still inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, men came ….” In other words, it’s preparatory but it’s not self-explanatory until what is about to take place. And he comes to the home of a man named Cornelius, and Cornelius greets him with great reverence, and he says, “Stand up, I’m a man, I’m not deserving of that.” And in v.28, Peter says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation ….” If you’re a kosher Jew, you cannot visit the home of a Gentile, because that’s an un-kosher place. Most times when you visit a home, you’re given something to eat, and that would be un-kosher. Even if a Gentile offered roast beef sandwiches instead of ham sandwiches, there would still be the issue of how the beef was killed, and whether there was butter (with kosher food, dairy cannot mix with meat). It was simply a practice that you would not enter a non-kosher home. So he already is telling something unusual, because the Lord has said that he shouldn’t call un-clean what’s clean. So the vision is now beginning to take place in its fulfillment.
Now he gives his message in v. 34 and following. First you have his appropriation to the audience (the context, introducing his sermon, drawing in the congregation), and this is changeable. If you look at the Book of Acts, Chapter 17, when Paul preaches to Gentiles on Mars Hill, he has a different introduction. When he preaches in Acts 13 in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, this will be different as well. It’s appropriate to the particular context. “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” That’s his introduction. Now he gets to the unchangeable part of the message, which is the Gospel. “You know the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. How he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and made him manifest, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, [remember when we talked about the replacement of Judas Iscariot, the requirement, ‘be a witness’] who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Would you call this a message to believers, or an evangelistic message? Look at the last words, where he’s talking about the forgiveness of sins. If you believe in him, you will receive the forgiveness of your sins. And it’s at that point now, that the Spirit comes upon Cornelius. “While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, ‘Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ and he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.” So what we’re talking about here is not some secondary experience in the Christian life of the Spirit, but the Spirit of God coming at conversion. That preceding message just before this involves the forgiveness of sins, and it’s followed by Christian baptism. This is the conversion experience of Cornelius.
Now, Peter here baptizes Cornelius, so what we have here is a Gentile, a clear Gentile, being baptized and accepted into the church. You might raise the Ethiopian eunuch as another example of Gentile conversion, but the circumcision issue is moot in the situation of the Ethiopian eunuch, so doesn’t bring the same ramifications. So, here is the first clear case of a Gentile being accepted into the church, and when he comes to Jerusalem, there’s trouble. They don’t like that in Jerusalem. Chapter 11, “Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God.” So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the Circumcision Party criticized him. Who are they?
This is an element of the Jewish Christian church. They’re not Jews who are not Christians; they’re Christians within the believing community who are called the Circumcision Party because they advocate that all people who want to become Christians must be circumcised. If you want to be a Christian and you’re a Jew that’s no problem; but if you’re a Gentile you have to be circumcised. They are Jews who are emphasizing that if Gentiles want to become Christians, they must be circumcised. So they’re called by Luke here “The Circumcision Party”.
And they say to Peter [v.3], “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” That’s not permitted by the law. But Peter began and explained to them in order. So he reviews now the whole Cornelius episode again. “I had this vision,” he says, “and in this vision I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘No, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times ….” And then [v.11], “…at that very moment three men came to the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told us to go ….” And he tells us about this message. He says [v.15] “And as I began to speak to Cornelius the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” And then he gives us this conclusion as explanation, “When they heard this they were silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.’”
You have a paper due next Monday, and that paper involves this issue. How was the issue of whether Gentiles could become Christians without becoming Jews decided? First paper, due next week, one page, deals with that issue. So we’re not going to discuss that any more. We’ll discuss that next week after I have a chance to see your answers. So we’ll know. But a crucial event in Acts – one of the two repeated three times. Is Paul’s conversion important? Yes. Is this experience important? Yes.
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