Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is one of the most important people in the New Testament. His conversion, along with that of his family and friends, recorded in Acts 10 and 11, was a watershed event in church history.
The early church had a really hard time accepting that Gentiles could be saved without first becoming Jews, and Peter perhaps more than most. That’s why Peter received a special vision in Acts 10:9-16. Three times he saw a sheet lowered from heaven, filled with all kinds of animals: clean and unclean. Three times he was told to rise and eat. After all, he was “very hungry,” v. 9. Three times, he said, “no,” that he’d never eaten an unclean animal: no bacon, no rattlesnake, no kalimari. Three times, he was told that what God had cleansed, he must not call unclean or common.
“What in the world?” thought Peter.
Just then, in God’s perfect timing, there was a knock at the front door, so to speak v. 17. Three men – Gentiles – wanted to talk to Peter. Now he understood.
Though a Roman centurion, Cornelius was what was known as a “God-fearer.” Cf. Acts 13:16, you who fear God. These were Gentiles, like Cornelius, who had come to see the God of Israel as the true God. They had not become “Jews” by being circumcised, but they still recognized and followed the God of Israel.
Cornelius was called a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms to the people, and prayed to God always, Acts 10:1. For all that, he and his household still needed something.
God sent Peter to tell him of that something.
1. God acknowledged what Cornelius was doing, but it was not enough. Lest some use these verses to say that we can be saved by our own works and doings, Peter said that there was someone else involved, vs. 34, 35.
2. This someone else was the Lord Jesus, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. He then went about doing good and healing, vs. 36-39a.
3. In spite of all the good the Lord did, they killed Him by hanging Him on a tree, v. 39b.
4. God raised Him from the dead, vs. 40, 41. Jesus showed Himself to selected witnesses, among them Peter, who confirmed that He did indeed rise from the dead. There are those who teach that He only rose “spiritually,” that His body remained dead, and is preserved somewhere, but He Himself proved His bodily resurrection by appearing to His disciples, telling them to touch Him and saying, “A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have,” Luke 24:39.
5. Jesus commanded His disciples to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission [forgiveness] of sins, vs. 42, 43.
Peter never got to finish his sermon.
In thinking about current practices and teaching, it strikes me that Peter never did several things we do today.
1. He never told Cornelius to “make his decision for Christ.”
2. He never told Cornelius to “pray to receive the Holy Spirit.”
3. He never told Cornelius to “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins,” (even though he had indeed said that to an earlier audience, Acts 2:38).
With regard to that last “omission,” when I was just a new believer, I worked with a lady who belonged to a group who insisted that baptism was essential to salvation. They’re still around today – I see them on facebook quite often. Even though I had pleased the little old ladies in my grandmother’s Sunday School class because I knew that “sanctification” means “to set apart” (though it means more than that), I really didn’t know much about the Bible. I did know the story in Acts 10; I just didn’t know where it was. I looked and looked and finally found it. (Didn’t have my trusty Strong’s Concordance, then. 🙂 ) When I showed Acts 10 to this lady, she had no answer, though she wouldn’t receive what it said.
Play close attention to what the Holy Spirit wanted us to know about what He sent Peter to do:
While Peter was STILL SPEAKING these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were ASTONISHED, 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. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these SHOULD NOT BE BAPTIZED WHO HAVE RECEIVED THE HOLY SPIRIT JUST AS WE HAVE?” Acts 10:44-47, emphasis added.
It seems to me that, unless one is willingly to believe that lost people can receive the Holy Spirit, the conversion of Cornelius and his family and friends puts to rest forever the false teaching that baptism is essential to becoming saved.
Having said that, it is essential for those who ARE saved – it’s their “profession of faith,” not walking an aisle or raising a hand. It’s just never how you “get saved.”