The Conversion of Cornelius
In Acts chapter 10 we read of the conversion of Cornelius. He is important because he was the first Gentile to be baptized into the saving name of Jesus; so this was a major turning point in the spread of God’s message of salvation. If you read Acts chapter 10 you can see how it all happened.
Cornelius was a good-living man. The record says that he was:
“A devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2).
Notice, first of all, that he was devout and God-fearing. But more than that, he had also taught his household likewise to be God fearing. In other words, he preached by example. He also gave of his wealth to the people in his vicinity who were less well off. Finally, he was a man of prayer and he prayed to God regularly and consistently.
But that was not sufficient. He was really coming to God on his own terms. He needed to know about the saving work of Jesus Christ. This is a really important point! If we wish to be saved from our sins, that can only be accomplished through the death of Jesus Christ. So it is important that we know about the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was exactly the same for Cornelius, so an angel appeared to him and asked him to get in touch with the Apostle Peter, who was staying in Joppa at that time, so that he could explain the whole truth to him.
It is also important to note from this incident that Peter himself needed to understand that God’s saving truth was now available to Gentiles as well as to Jews. God intends that all men should have the opportunity of being saved subject to His calling – so we see that both men were really on a steep learning curve.
We need to pass over the next few verses and pick up the incident in verses 44-48, where we read that after preaching about the resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who listened to Peter’s words. Who were these people mentioned in verse 44? Well, verse 24 tells us that Cornelius had called together ‘his kinsmen and near friends’ – so there was a goodly number present who had heard the words of Peter and they were probably all Gentiles.
Furthermore, the fact that these had received the Holy Spirit greatly impressed the Jews who had accompanied Peter from Judaea, because it showed beyond any doubt that God Himself was now calling Gentiles to a belief in Jesus.
And how did they know that these new believers had received the gift of the Holy Spirit? The coming of the gift was the same for them as it had been fo the apostles on the day of Pentecost!
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon al those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God” (Acts 10:44-46).
They too were able to speak with tongues. As this was a visible and unmistakable sign from the Lord God Peter and his compatriots had to agree that there was nothing to stop them from being baptized. As Peter said:
“Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47).
So they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (verse 48).
The whole process is unusual in that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to Cornelius and his friends before they were actually baptized. But the Lord God was making a vital point. He was emphasising to Pete and his fellow baptized believers that the gospel message was to be preached to Gentiles as well as to Jews. God was saying that as far as He was concerned, not only Cornelius should receive the truth as it is in Jesus, but it should be preached to al Gentiles. The gospel should be preached to all, both Jew and Gentile.
The reason for us looking at the incident is that the sign that God used to make His point was that they were al able to ‘speak with tongues’. Again we raise the question: how do we understand the phrase: they ‘heard them speak with tongues’ in (verse 46)? What exactly does that mean? Was it really a speaking in foreign languages and dialects? The answer is, of course “Yes”.
If we go to the next chapter we read how that when Peter got back to Jerusalem, he had to face criticism from his colleagues – and he goes through the whole incident to explain that the Lord God had ordained it all And in Acts 11:15, when telling them about the ‘speaking with tongues’ he makes this point:
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning”.
In other words, we see that just as on the day of Pentecost ‘speaking with tongues’ was the means of enabling people from all parts of the Roman Empire to understand the gospel message in their own tongues (that is the meaning of the phrase “upon us at the beginning” in 11:15). In like manner, when Cornelius and those of his house were also able to ‘speak with tongues’, that means that they too were then able to speak in foreign languages.
So this marvellous aid – the gift of language – which enabled the apostles to spread the gospel message to all people also served another purpose. The ability to speak in tongues was an instantaneous way of determining beyond a shadow of doubt that one really possessed the gift of the Spirit.
There are many other references to‘speaking with tongues’ in the New Testament which should all be understood in exactly the same way. The gift was the ability to speak in foreign languages. As we already said it was primarily given as an aid to preaching the good news of the Kingdom.
Furthermore, we need also to understand that only the apostles had the power of passing on the gifts of the spirit to other people. Cornelius and his household were exceptions to this general rule because they received the gift as a result of the direct invention of the Lord God. As we have seen, this was to emphasize God’s calling of the Gentiles to a belief in Jesus, just as He had first called the Jews. But in every other instance in New Testament times it is noteworthy that only the apostles had the power to pass the Spirit gifts to other people. And that has important consequences, as we shall see.