Studies in the Book of Acts
The Gospel Goes to Cornelius, a Gentile (Acts 10:1-11:18)
Part 1: Chapter 10
The Gentile challenge
Luke now begins to tell the story of a fundamental turning point in the history of the early church. For the first time Gentiles will be directly evangelized and admitted into fellowship with Jewish Christians. As a result, the church will not remain just an offshoot of an ethnic religion (Judaism). It will become a universal body embracing people from every nation and race.
Luke takes great pains to show that this change in the church is the result of God’s will and guidance. It does not come about through some human-devised program. This section shows that God, through the Holy Spirit, is bringing the Gentiles into his spiritual body, the church. We will see this in verse after verse describing the account of Cornelius’ conversion as a supernatural operation of God. [Acts 10:3, 11-16, 19-20, 22b, 30-33, 44-46; 11:5-10, 12-13, 15-17.]
At the beginning of his two-part work, Luke alerts his readers to the promise that Jesus would be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). Quoting from Isaiah the prophet, Luke repeats the promise that through Jesus “all people will see God’s salvation” (Luke 3:6). Luke also tells us that Paul will carry Christ’s name to the Gentiles (9:15). (Ironically, God will open the church’s door to the Gentiles through Peter, not Paul.)
But up to this time, the barrier between Jew and Gentile has not been breached, though on several occasions it has been nudged. When the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch (probably already a proselyte or God-fearer) are converted, for example, almost certainly the issue of the church’s attitude to non-Jews comes up. The controversy over the Gentiles is probably avoided only because the Ethiopian lives far away and the Samaritans probably fellowship among themselves in their own congregations. And they are considered “half-Jews” anyway. Thus, the issue of Gentiles directly mingling with Jews can be sidestepped until chapter 10.
But to have Gentiles evangelized directly and en masse, and then to have them fellowship with Jews, is another matter. Jews will be coming into contact with people who are considered impure, and whose food is regarded as unclean. Gentiles will not be living in conformity with Mosaic law. For example, they don’t circumcise their children.
Of even greater concern is that Gentiles are idolaters, worshipping many false gods. Granted, they might become converted. But what will be the shape of their day-to-day religious practices? Will they corrupt and contaminate the practices Jews hold sacred? Such issues will soon become major concerns, dividing the church for decades to come.
Meanwhile, the range of the Christian evangelistic program has been steadily broadening — pushing out from Jews in Jerusalem, to Jews throughout Judea, to the Samaritans, to African proselytes. Now the time has come to crash through the “wall of partition.” The gospel is taken directly to Gentiles, and questions about their eligibility to be among the people of God have to be dealt with head on.
A test case
A test case is needed to show God’s will in this matter: Can Gentiles become Christians, and what is the path toward their becoming disciples? As it turns out, God uses the Roman centurion Cornelius, his family and friends to break down the barrier to the Gentile world. The space Luke devotes to the conversion of Cornelius reveals how controversial it is in the church, and how important it is to the story of the spread of the gospel. Entire sections in chapters 10, 11 and 15 deal with the crisis precipitated by Cornelius’ conversion. Three times in these chapters Luke discusses the conversion of Cornelius and its implication for the church. Luke narrates the original story of the event in 10:1-48. He discusses it again, along with the controversy it engenders, in 11:1-18. Then, for a third time, he summarizes the story of Cornelius’ conversion in 15:6-11.
The story of Cornelius, which ends with Peter’s speech to the assembly at Jerusalem, is the longest narrative in Acts… Judged solely on the basis of the amount of space Luke gives to the story, we know that we are dealing with a crucial concern of Acts, a pivot for the entire book, a turning point in the long drama of redemption. [Willimon, 95.]
Breakthrough at Caesarea (10:1)
Caesarea is the setting for the conversion of Cornelius. It is an apt place for the calling of the first Gentiles to fellowship with Jewish Christians. The city is in the center of the coastal Plain of Sharon, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem. Herod the Great built some magnificent projects here, including an amphitheater, an aqueduct and a superb port. A garrison of soldiers protects the city, harbor and water facilities. The military guard includes the Italian Regiment, of which Cornelius is a centurion.
In this period, Caesarea serves as the capital of the Roman province of Judea. It is the residence of the Roman procurator (23:23-24). Josephus says that the population is primarily Gentile. [Wars 3:409.] However, Caesarea also has a large minority of Jews. The two groups brawled on a regular basis. [Antiquities 20:173-178.]
Philip probably preached to the Jews of Caesarea (8:40). Paul stopped there on his way to Tarsus (9:30), but there’s no indication that he preached in the area. Now, Peter on his own missionary journey has gone as far as Joppa, 30 miles south of Caesarea.
Centurion Cornelius (10:1-2)
Cornelius, the hero of the story, is identified as an army man, a centurion in the Italian Regiment or “cohort.” A centurion is a noncommissioned officer who worked his way up through the ranks to take command of a group of soldiers within a Roman legion. (A comparable rank in the American military would be captain, and in the British army, a company sergeant-major.) When a cohort is at full strength, a centurion is in command of 100 men. William Barclay gives the following description of Rome’s military units:
In the Roman military set-up there was first of all the legion. It was a force of six thousand men and therefore was roughly equal to a division. In every legion there were ten cohorts. A cohort therefore had six hundred men and comes near to being the equivalent of a battalion. The cohort was divided into centuries and over each century there was a centurion. The century is therefore roughly the equivalent of a company. [William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), page 79.]
The above applies to regular legions of the Roman army. However, it is likely that there are no such legions in Judea between A.D. 6 and 66. Roman governors in Judea have auxiliaryforces, and the cohorts have smaller numbers. The Italian Cohort (Regiment) to which Cornelius belongs would be an auxiliary unit. The historian Polybius describes the qualifications of a centurion: “Centurions are required not to be bold and adventurous so much as good leaders, of stead and prudent mind, not prone to take the offensive or start fighting wantonly, but able when overwhelmed and hard-pressed to stand fast and die at their post.” [History 6.24.]
Cornelius may be a descendant of one of the freedman of a man named Cornelius Sulla, who liberated 10,000 slaves in 82 B.C. According to common practice, the freed slaves took their patron’s name. Centurions are generally pictured in a favorable light by Luke. The first Gentile with whom Jesus came into contact, so far as we know, is a centurion stationed in Capernaum. He is pictured as exhibiting extraordinary faith in Jesus (Luke 7:1-10). The centurion at Jesus’ crucifixion also recognizes something special in him (Luke 23:47). Later, another centurion, Julius, shows kindness to Paul and spares his life (27:1, 3, 43).
Devout and God-fearing (10:2)
Luke describes Cornelius and his family as “devout and God-fearing” (10:2). The description of Cornelius as “a righteous and God-fearing man” best sums up his spiritual qualities (10:22). We might call him a “deeply religious man.” He worships the God of Israel, attends the synagogue, and lives according to many of the standards of the Torah. He is a Gentile (10:28) but is “respected by all the Jewish people” (10:22). He prays at the designated hours of Jewish prayer (10:30), gives “gifts to the poor” (10:4) and is devout (10:2). But he is not a proselyte — he isn’t circumcised (11:3).
Luke describes the piety of Cornelius in traditional Jewish terms as one who engages in prayer and almsgiving (Tobit 12:8-10). Specifically, he gives alms “to the people.” Luke uses the term “the people” to indicate the nation of Israel, or the Jews. This suggests that Cornelius helps Jews, as does the centurion of Luke 7:5. “In sum, Cornelius was a noble and spiritually sensitive Roman army officer,” says Richard N. Longenecker. [385.] And we may say of him with F. F. Bruce, “He had every qualification, short of circumcision, which could satisfy Jewish requirements.” [203.]
While it’s not clear that the Jews have a technical designation such as “God-fearers” for people like Cornelius, it’s clear that there are many such Gentiles scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They along with full proselytes are found worshipping in synagogues in which Paul preaches. They ultimately constitute an important part of the church (13:14, 26, 48).
We notice too that his family, and even his military aide (10:8) are also said to be devout people. In that society, the entire household, including servants, usually adopt the patriarch’s religion. Cornelius would influence them by his example. This fact, along with his reputation for good works (10:22), indicates that Cornelius is an older man who has been in Caesarea for some years. He may even be a semi-retired army officer.
Cornelius has a vision (10:3-8)
The fateful time of Cornelius’ calling is at hand. It begins on a certain day about three o’clock in the afternoon, one of the statutory Jewish hours of prayer (3:1). Cornelius is praying at this time (10:30). He has a vision in which a messenger from God, an angel, said: “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God” (10:4).
The angel speaks in the language of sacrifice used in Jewish circles. The “memorial offering” mentioned here alludes to the Old Testament flour offerings made from grain that were to be burned “as a memorial portion” (Leviticus 2:2). [The Greek word for “memorial” in Acts 10:4was the same one the Greek Septuagint used in Leviticus 2:2.] This offering was burned on the altar and “an aroma pleasing to the Lord” went up to God (Leviticus 2:2).
Like the aroma of the sacrifice, the scent of Cornelius’ prayers and gifts is going “up” to God. God is signaling his pleasure with Cornelius, and he is ready to reveal his salvation to him. In preparation for this, the angel tells Cornelius to send men to Joppa to ask Peter to come to his home. Cornelius calls two servants and a military aide, a devout man, and dispatches them to Joppa (11:7-8).
Peter’s vision (10:9-16)
The scene in Luke’s drama switches to Peter, who is praying on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house. The roof is a convenient place to get away from activity in the house. The time is around noon, the sixth hour, by the ancient method of reckoning. Noon is also one of the three appointed times for Jewish public prayer (Daniel 6:10; Psalm 55:17).
During the time of prayer, Peter becomes hungry and asks someone in the house for something to eat. While the meal is being prepared, he falls into a trance (10:11-12). Peter sees a large sheet held up by its four corners being let down to the ground. Inside the sheet he sees various four-footed animals, reptiles and birds. The three categories of living things Peter sees correspond roughly with the three divisions given in Genesis 6:20: animals, creatures that move along the ground and birds.
A voice tells Peter to get up and eat. But Peter replies, “Surely not, Lord!…I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (10:14). Peter’s strong negative — “Surely not, Lord!” recalls the prophet Ezekiel’s horror when he is told by the Lord to use human excrement as fuel for baking bread. He said: “Not so, Sovereign Lord!…. No impure meat has ever entered my mouth” (Ezekiel 4:14).
We saw earlier that Peter is not overly scrupulous in observing certain Jewish regulations. He stays at the house of a leather worker, who would come in contact with dead animals. Perhaps he even works with unclean animals (9:43). But Peter does apparently follow the Jewish dietary laws based on the Torah. He knows from Leviticus 11:47 that a Jew needs to “distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”
However, the sheet contains “all kinds” of living things. Luke’s account implies it includes animals traditionally acceptable to eat as well as those forbidden by old covenant law. Perhaps Peter sees the living things he recognized as unclean touching the edible ones, thus tainting them. “While clean animals were represented in the sheet, Peter was scandalized by the unholy mixture of clean and unclean and by the fact that no distinctions were made in the command to ‘kill and eat’.” [Longenecker, 387.]
The Jews’ adherence to the dietary laws profoundly affect their relations with Gentiles. Food laws have the effect of keeping the people separated from each other. A Jew visiting a Gentile can’t be sure he will be served “clean” food, or that the food is prepared according to the requirements of the law, or whether it has been tainted by an idol. To eat with Gentiles is to risk defilement, and this is a strong inducement for Jews not to fellowship with them. Since food is at the center of social life, it is the thing that perhaps more than anything else creates a barrier between Jews and Gentiles. And as an ideal, Jews have no dealings with Gentiles. Food regulations are a point of heated debate in the church. [Romans 14:1-8, 17; Corinthians 8:1-13; Galatians 2:11-14.]
It’s not surprising, then, that Peter is confused by the next statement of the voice in his vision. When he refuses to eat, a voice says: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (11:15). This happens three times, perhaps with the sheet being lowered each time, accompanied by a command to eat and not to call anything unclean that God had cleansed.
Pondering the vision (10:17-23)
Peter is puzzled about the meaning of the vision, with its strange mixture of living things, and the odd commands (10:17). While Peter is mulling over what he has seen, the emissaries from Cornelius arrive at Simon’s home. They stop at the gate, shouting to the occupants, asking whether Peter is staying there (9:17). This little scene with Gentiles calling out from beyond the gate reflects exactly the situation the vision is meant to correct.
Devout non-Jews such as those who came from Cornelius probably understand that Jews do not want any close association with Gentiles. Thus, it would be rude for them to come to the door of a Jew’s home, with the desire of being allowed inside. But at the same time as the exchange at the gate, the Holy Spirit says to Peter: “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them” (10:20). The fact of the Spirit having to encourage Peter not to be hesitant reveals his reluctance to associate with Gentiles.
By now, however, Peter begins to suspect that God is making some purpose known to him, so he invites the men into the house as his guests (10:23). (No doubt, this occurs with the tanner’s permission, since Peter himself is a guest.) The men explain they are here at the request of Cornelius, emphasizing that he is “a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people” (10:22). More than this, they say that Cornelius has not decided on his own to contact Peter, but an angel from God told him to do so.
Contingent goes to Caesarea (10:23)
Peter must now be doubly impressed that something of importance — something inspired by the Holy Spirit — is happening with the Gentile Cornelius. He wholeheartedly agrees to go with the men. The next day Peter starts out for Caesarea, 30 miles away. He takes some of the disciples living in Joppa with him. We learn later that the contingent consists of six people (11:12). They are identified as “circumcised believers,” which is to say they are Jewish Christians who follow the traditions of the Torah (10:45). In retrospect, this proves a wise move, as Peter will later be severely criticized by the Jerusalem church for meeting with Cornelius (11:3). The six will be important witnesses to the operation of the Holy Spirit in this momentous event.
Peter meets Cornelius (10:24-26)
Meanwhile, Cornelius has called together his relatives and close friends (10:24). Earlier, Luke described his household as “devout and God-fearing” (10:2). Later, all of Cornelius’ family will share in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and be baptized (10:44, 48).
Peter arrives at the residence of Cornelius, and goes in (10:25). A momentous milestone lies hidden here. Peter, in contradiction to all that Judaism stands for, enters the house of a Gentile. The church will never be the same again. Cornelius meets Peter and falls at his feet in reverence (10:25). It’s understandable why he reacts this way. Having an angel specifically tell him to send for Peter could make him think there is something holy or supernatural about the apostle.
Also, perhaps something of Cornelius’ former superstitious background is manifesting itself, in which humans are sometimes thought to be gods. Paul and Barnabas are similarly thought of and worshipped by the pagan Gentiles of Lystra (14:15). Peter, of course, will have none of this, and makes Cornelius stand up. Then he sets the record straight about who he is. Luke’s simple phrase from Peter’s words says it all: “I am only a man myself” (10:26).
Call no one impure (10:27-33)
Peter goes inside the house and begins to explain to the group why he, a Jew, is here in the home of a Gentile. He admits that it is against Jewish law for Jews to associate with or even visit Gentiles (10:28). (The “no contact rule” was probably the hoped-for Jewish position. There are provisions in Jewish law that allow business partnerships with Gentiles. But any such contacts, of either a business or social nature, make a Jew ceremonially unclean.)
Various Jewish religious groups debate the degree of separation a Jew needs to maintain vis á vis Gentiles in order to remain loyal to the regulations of the Torah. Some groups, such as the Essenes, seem to maintain an almost complete separation. The Pharisees are more moderate in such matters, and the common folk the least observant. Peter is probably on the more liberal end of the spectrum regarding the wall of separation. (Fishermen are used to handling dead animals and unclean animals.) Yet, he is having great difficulty understanding the new direction the church is to be taking (even with the leading of the Holy Spirit).
Though Peter was not by training or inclination an overly scrupulous Jew, and though as a Christian his inherited prejudices were gradually wearing thin, he was not prepared to go so far as to minister directly to Gentiles. A special revelation was necessary for that, and Luke now tells how God took the initiative in overcoming Peter’s reluctance. [Longenecker, 387.]
By now Peter is clear about what God is trying to teach him. He tells the people assembled in Cornelius’ home: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (10:28).
After Peter explains to his audience why he is in the house of a Gentile, he says to Cornelius: “May I ask why you sent for me?” (10:29). Cornelius then describes the details of the vision he received. He explains that an angel (“a man in shining clothes”) told him he was chosen to receive God’s grace (10:30-31). Cornelius describes how he was commanded by the angel to send for Peter.
Cornelius appreciates Peter having come to see him, a Gentile. The whole group is now ready to hear him. Cornelius says, “We are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” (10:33). In the second telling of the Cornelius event, Luke makes it clear that Cornelius already knows why Peter is coming to see him. The angel told Cornelius that Peter “will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved” (11:14). Cornelius is expecting the gospel of salvation.
Peter’s speech (10:34-43)
Peter begins to speak to the group about the importance of Jesus’ work in repentance and conversion. This speech is similar in content to the one he gave on Pentecost (2:14-40). As with all the sermons and speeches in Acts, we are here reading only a summary of what Peter says. No doubt Peter’s message contains examples that illustrate his main points. Peter probably includes illustrations of Jesus’ healing and power, similar to those found in the Gospels.
The speech follows a familiar pattern, which we now expect from Luke’s summaries. In this case, Peter begins by describing John the Baptist’s mission, and then the work of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem. The speech moves into a discussion of the crucifixion and resurrection. Peter says that the apostles are witnesses to these facts, and are commanded to preach the gospel of peace. He also talks about the judgment to come, but especially that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).
This speech probably represents a summary of the standard apostolic preaching to Jews and Gentiles attending synagogues who are familiar with the Old Testament message. The Synoptic Gospels follow this general pattern in presenting their material on Jesus’ ministry. (Acts gives us only two examples of the form of apostolic preaching to purely pagan audiences. One is at Lystra (14:14-18) and the other at Athens (17:23-31). In such cases, the speaker needs to explain who the one true God is before moving on to his purpose in Jesus Christ.)
As devout people, Cornelius and the others are familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, the hope of a Messiah and the kingdom of God. They may well be aware that a man named Jesus performed miracles, attracted a following, and was killed. Peter suggests that they know something of “the message God sent to the people of Israel” and “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (10:36-37). In several ways, then, Cornelius and his family are prepared for what Peter is telling them.