Studies in the Book of Acts
Holy Spirit poured out (10:44-46)
As Peter is making this point, something extraordinary interrupts his talk. Everyone listening to his message suddenly receives the Holy Spirit (10:44). (In Peter’s later summary of what happens, he said the interruption occurs, “As I began to speak…” (11:15). When Peter makes the point that Jesus is the one who forgives sins, he has said all that is necessary.)
When the group hears Peter talking about faith in Christ, they believed the message. They have faith — accepting their need for Jesus as Savior. Cornelius and his family (and presumably the others present) are devout and God-fearing people. They are praying people, ones who do good to others. But they had not received the Holy Spirit, which is the “sign” of those who are God’s people. When they respond positively to the news that Jesus Christ is their Savior and the hope of the world, they receive the Holy Spirit. Their allegiance is no longer in their own religious work, but in Jesus as their Savior. This change comes only when Cornelius and the others are confronted with making a choice about Jesus Christ.
How do Peter and the others know that Cornelius’ group have received the Holy Spirit? It is evident by a miraculous sign — “they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God” (10:46). In fact, the Spirit comes on these people in more or less the same way as he did upon the Jewish converts at Pentecost. For this reason, this event is sometimes called “the Gentile Pentecost.”
It is not possible to mistake this momentous event. “Just as the first Jewish believers had received the Spirit and praised God in other tongues on the day of Pentecost, so now these Gentiles received the identical gift of God.” [I. Howard Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans: 1996), 194.] The Holy Spirit is given only to those who believe in Jesus (Acts 11:17; Galatians 3:2). It is an irrefutable sign that God accepts these Gentiles. Cornelius and the others respond to Peter’s message in faith and God accepts them, sealing them as his people with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The six Jewish believers are astonished at this turn of events — “that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45). But there is no refuting what occurs before their eyes — or in this case, their ears. The Jewish Christians know the Spirit has been given to the group because they “heard them speaking in tongues and praising God” (10:46).
The gift of tongues at Pentecost was speaking in various human languages. Here it is not so clear what is in view. If the group is speaking in other languages, which ones are they speaking in, and how would the Jewish observers know? Perhaps what is being described here are ecstatic utterances of a sort that are understood as praise to God. This may be, at least in part, the “tongues” that Paul describes. [1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28; 13:1; 14:1-28.] In any case, these miraculous tongues and praises are given for the sake of the Jewish believers who came with Peter. They will later verify Peter’s contention before a board of Jerusalem believers that God accepts Gentiles into the church.
They were baptized (10:47-48)
Cornelius and the others believe and receive the Spirit, but they are not yet baptized. Baptism is a rite that symbolizes an individual’s having been cleansed of sin and “resurrected” to newness of life. It can also function as a sign to the believer that he or she has been received into the community of believers.
We should be careful about thinking in terms of a formula as though a person receives the Holy Spirit only after being baptized. This is obviously not the case here, as everyone receives the Holy Spirit before being baptized. However, baptism is an important ceremony to the individual’s Christian life in the same way that a marriage ceremony is a vital beginning point of a marriage. (But the ceremony doesn’t cause the marriage.) Although people are saved by faith, not baptism, the New Testament pattern is that all who have faith are also baptized in water.
With this in mind, when Peter sees that the group has already received the Holy Spirit, he says, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water” (10:47). He then orders that they should be baptized in Jesus’ name, in effect saying he (and the church) accept what God has already done.
A new direction
We should state once again what the Cornelius event means to the church. Not only can Gentiles be accepted into the church as Gentiles, it means that they can also be directly evangelized. They can become disciples in every sense of the word without having to become fully observant Jews. The Spirit baptizes people, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, into one body, the Israel of God (1 Corinthians 12:13).
The Jewish believers seem to understand this — that God accepts the Gentiles as they are. This is indicated in the fact that no one seems to suggest that Cornelius should be circumcised. However, the issue of circumcision for Gentile believers plagues the church for decades to come. As well, the question of whether Gentiles should live like Jews in such things as their eating habits will also continue to trouble the church.
Cornelius does not ask to be baptized. Nor does the church (Peter) ask him if he is interested in fellowshipping with the body of believers, hoping for a later conversion. From start to finish, God is operating his salvation upon Cornelius, who has little role in this part of the story except to accept what God is doing. William H. Willimon correctly says:
Cornelius is surprisingly passive in this story, as if he is someone who is being swept along, carried by events and reacting to actions quite beyond his power to initiate or control. This is the way it is with repentance. It is more than a decision we make (‘since I gave my life to Christ’; ‘since I took Jesus as my personal Savior’) or some good deed we offer to God; repentance is the joyful human response to God’s offer of himself to us. [100.]
In fact, all conversion accounts in Acts begin with God’s initiative through the Holy Spirit. God is always pictured as the One who begins and completes the process of repentance.
God is the chief actor in all Lukan accounts of conversion. Even the smallest details are attributed to the working of God. Conversion is not the result of skillful leadership by the community or even of persuasive preaching or biblical interpretation. In many accounts, such as those of Philip’s work with the Ethiopian, the mysterious hand of God directs everything. In other stories, such as the story of Peter and Cornelius, the church must be dragged kicking and screaming into the movements of God. Manipulation, strategic planning, calculating efforts by the community aimed at church growth are utterly absent. Even our much beloved modern notions of “free will” and personal choice and decision appear to play little role in conversion in Acts. Conversion is a surprising, unexpected act of divine grace. [ibid., 104.]
Luke’s story is about how the gospel reaches Rome, and Cornelius plays no further role in that story. He leaves Luke’s account as abruptly as Ananias does. Johannes Munck observes that “the narrative about Cornelius seems, from an historical point of view, to be left hanging in midair as a detached fragment.” [Munck, 107.]
We would like to know more about Cornelius’ subsequent history. How does he live out his life as a Christian? Does he continue to serve in the military? Does he get caught up in the church’s squabble over whether Gentiles should live like Jews, and what is his reaction? But Luke tells us nothing further about Cornelius, except that Peter stays with him for some time (10:48). Then the apostle goes to Jerusalem to answer his critics, and Cornelius becomes lost in the mist of history.
Luke has interests other than recounting the converted life of Cornelius. He wants to tell the story of how God opens salvation to the Gentiles. Once he tells that tale, Luke moves on to narrate other events that show the growth of the church, and the gospel being preached further afield.
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012