Cornelius – Peter’s First Gentile Convert

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The closing verses of Acts 9 switches the focus from Paul to the Apostle Peter and introduces his apostolic work. He had travelled with John to a city of Samaria (Acts 8:14) and had presumably been with those who returned to Jerusalem (verse 25), but he was restless and had decided to travel around the region to satisfy himself that all was well with the communities of believers, the converts of Philip, in Western Judea.

He had reached Lydda, a town 15 miles east of Joppa, where he healed the paralysed Aeneas (Acts 9:32-34). He had then responded to an urgent plea to travel to Joppa, where a Gentile sympathiser, Tabitha, or Dorcas, (her Greek name) an exceptional woman, had died and was mourned by many. Having cleared the mourners from the room where she lay, Peter prayed and restored her to life (verses 36-42) – adequate evidence that the power of Jesus was still at work.

He stayed in Joppa for some considerable time with Simon, a tanner (verse 43). Of course, a tanner’s trade, which involved treating the skins of dead animals, and thus contact with that which was unclean, was an occupation abhorrent to strict Jews. Peter could have selected from many homes in Joppa eager to offer hospitality, but he had chosen to stay at Simon’s and perhaps it was an indication that he was ready to reject Jewish prejudices and was being prepared for what was to follow. He had in his hands the key to open to the Gentiles the way of salvation, but he had not yet been told when or where he was to use it. We remember another ambassador of God, Jonah, who waited in Joppa and who had taken a ship to Tarshish to avoid God’s errand – but Peter’s objective was very different as he stood at the gateway to the Gentile world.

Caesarea was a fine modern city 30 miles north of Joppa, built by Herod the Great to the honour of Augustus Caesar. It was the headquarters of the Roman forces of occupation and the capital of the Roman province of Judea; but most Romans were hated as conquerors.

Cornelius, an officer equivalent to a lieutenant, was in a difficult position. His character, as portrayed by Luke, is distinctive – he was “a devout man, and one that feared God”. The term “God-fearing” was used of one who was not a full Jewish proselyte but who believed in one God and respected the moral and ethical teachings of the Jews, without accepting the rules and regulations of the rabbis, such as circumcision. Cornelius had obviously turned away from contemporary idolatry and learned the faith of Judaism. He prayed regularly, cared for the poor and gave generously to those in need. The phrase “with all his house” indicates that he instructed his family and exerted his influence upon them. But how could a man, whose allegiance was to the Emperor, become a follower of Christ? The fact that he lived in his own house and not in military quarters with household servants, kinsfolk and friends, as is recorded in Acts 10:7,24,30, suggests that he had already retired from military service – maybe his strong convictions had forced him to leave active service. Several commentators have made some interesting observations as to his identification. There are two Roman centurions mentioned in the Gospels – the one whose servant was healed by Jesus in Galilee (Luke 7:2) and the centurion on duty at the foot of the cross. The suggestion is that Cornelius could have been that centurion! We shall never know for certain. But here was a man who was following the Jewish practices of prayer and fasting.

Acts 10 verse 3. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the Jewish hour of prayer, when the angel appeared to him, and his reaction was one of fear. A soldier accustomed to dangerous situations! – but this was no ordinary trance – it was a revelation through an angel – no wonder he was afraid! But his question was followed by a reassurance and a command: “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God” (verse 4). A memorial offering was a portion of the grain offering burned on the altar and was called a “memorial” (Leviticus 2:2; Leviticus 24:7). Then followed the command to contact Peter.

The implication of Acts 10 verses 5-6 is that, despite his “God-fearing”, there is something else for Cornelius to do in order to walk in the way of faith, and it was Peter who would tell him. As soon as the angel left him, he acted and despatched his men to make the 30-mile journey.

Just before their arrival, Peter was on the roof of Simon’s house in prayer and meditation. He had a problem – whether or not the gospel should be taken to the Gentiles. It had probably been a topic of conversation when he had spent those two weeks with Paul in Jerusalem (Acts 9:28): He was “very hungry” but was fasting till the hour of prayer – at which point he fell into a trance (verse 10).

Acts 10 verses11,12. The word for “sheet” indicates a ‘mainsail’ – a very appropriate word for the fisherman!

Acts 10 verse 13. Indeed he was in need of food! But consider the reply! (verse 14). So deeply ingrained was the observance of the Law of clean and unclean, as given in Leviticus 11, that Peter refused to obey immediately – and yet he had lived so long in the uncleanness of a tannery! There followed a sharp rebuke (Acts 10 verse 15).

Acts 10 verse 16. The invitation was repeated three times to make an impression on Peter, but the three-fold repetition may have reminded him of other incidents in his life; three times he had denied his Master; three times he had received the commission to feed the flock; now three times he is shown there is no longer to be clean and unclean believers in any nation. So he is left wondering – it was a vision to reform him – to show that the barrier between Jew and Gentile had been removed. What happened next supplied the answer as he tried to fathom what it all meant, for the messengers had been searching for him (verses 17,18).

As Peter heard them, there was another voice (verses 19,20). Did he wonder if the Roman soldier had come to arrest him? But when the men recounted their story, any remaining doubts were dispelled; he was completely convinced and knew his plan of action (verse 22).

Acts 10 verse 23. There were no doubts about sharing a meal with these men. It was too late to set out and, by providing lodging for them, Peter was already taking the first step towards accepting Gentiles. So, the following morning the party leave for Caesarea. But in order to meet any objection head on, Peter invited some of the Jewish brethren from the area to join him, to whom he would have recounted his experiences of the previous day. Six joined him (Acts 11:12) who would be witnesses of what might occur when they reached Cornelius’ home. At the end of the two-day journey, the party of ten arrived to find Cornelius with a house full of kinsfolk and friends waiting. This was a radical move for the Jewish brethren – to enter a Roman soldier’s house could have considerable consequences!

Acts 10 verses 25,26. Cornelius recognised Peter as a messenger from God, but Peter’s response was direct – ‘I am only a man myself’ and the emphasis was meant for his Jewish brethren as much as for Cornelius. Nevertheless, he was not entirely comfortable, but he was forthright in declaring how his Jewish prejudices had been overturned by the revelation he had received (verse 28) although it was not the most tactful thing to say – but Cornelius accepted it. He had come “without raising any objection” (verse 29) – again a comment for the benefit of his Jewish associates. So, the one who had preached the gospel to the Jews (Acts 2) was to be the one who would present it to the Gentile world. Although he asks the question, ‘May I ask why you sent for me?’, Peter already knew the answer because the messengers had told him, but it was right that Cornelius should state the case.

Acts 10 verse 34. Then Peter began to speak. Here was a captive audience, eager to hear. We do not know for how long he spoke to them, because this is only a brief summary of what he preached, but it is a concise statement of the Gospel message. Having begun by re-telling the lesson he had just learned, that God does not show favouritism, he uses “the keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19) to reveal the way of salvation, rehearsing events in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus which he had witnessed – and he uses the word four times in Acts 10 verses 39-43.

Acts 10 verses 44-46. It was Pentecost repeated – but now for the Gentiles – and, following that, came baptism.

Acts 10 verse 47. The challenge was to those Peter had brought with him and there was no alternative but to agree. The barriers were now down!

Acts 10 verse 48. “Then prayed they him to tarry certain days”. As a new convert, it was essential for further instruction and fellowship. Jesus’ charge to Peter had been accomplished, and a new chapter in Christian history had been written. So, the Gospel of grace has come to us and, like Cornelius, we await its final consummation.

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