Thirty miles north of Joppa was another coastal city, Caesarea, which had been built as a showcase of luxury and furnished with a splendid harbor by Herod the Great.1 In the days of the early church it served as the Roman capital of Judea. There lived Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. A centurion was so named because he was the officer in charge of a fighting unit called a century (from Latin centum, which means hundred), which contained about one hundred soldiers. The actual number varied greatly, but in the early imperial period, a typical century was eighty men strong.2
Cornelius was a gentile, not a Jew. Yet Scripture describes him as a devout man, faithful in good works and in a life of prayer. How did it happen that a gentile with a background in the heathen religion of Rome came to worship the true God? Cornelius was not alone. In his day, the Jewish religion attracted many followers. There were synagogues throughout the Roman world, and in many the congregation was a mixture of Jews and gentiles. Among the gentiles were some known as proselytes because they had gone through all the rituals necessary to be considered full-fledged Jews. But most were not. Yet by separating themselves from paganism and keeping the moral law of God, they had achieved the status of being called God-fearers.5 Later, whenever Paul went to a new city, he preached first to the Jews, the proselytes, and the God-fearers in the synagogue. From those who believed he formed the nucleus of a new church.
Cornelius was a God-fearer so outstanding in his piety that God chose him to be the first gentile convert to Christianity. An angelic messenger from God appeared to him one day while he was praying. His natural reaction was to be afraid, but the angel calmed his fears by assuring him that God was pleased with all his prayers and good deeds. The angel implied that God was now ready to bless him, but to obtain the blessing, he had to follow instructions. First, he had to send men to Joppa for the purpose of fetching Simon Peter, who was staying with Simon the tanner. Then when Peter came, Cornelius had to follow whatever directions Peter gave.
As a good soldier, Cornelius hastened to carry out his orders to the letter. Immediately, he called three trusted servants, two from his household and one from the army. The soldier, doubtless the one who was appointed leader of the group, was a devout gentile, and perhaps the others were as well. After they all reported to their master, he sent them off to find Peter.
While Cornelius's men were walking to Joppa, Peter was having a quiet day at Simon's house.
The tanner’s house was outside Joppa along the coast of the Mediterranean. Toward noon (the sixth hour by Jewish reckoning) Peter went up to the housetop to pray. In an ancient Jewish house, the roof was much like the porch in a modern house. It was a good place to get away from others and enjoy the breezes.
After spending some time with the Lord, Peter became hungry and called for food. While he sat waiting for the servants to prepare it, he fell into a "trance"—that is, God took control of his mind while he was awake.
Peter saw a strange vision. A large sheet appeared in the sky and descended before his eyes. It looked as though the sheet was suspended from cords tied to its four corners. Riding on the sheet was a whole zoo of animals. Among them were birds, mammals, and "creeping things"—a reference to reptiles and insects. When this strange cargo stopped before Peter, he heard a voice, saying, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat."
Peter had no doubt that the animals were real, and such a command to a man waiting for his dinner was entirely reasonable. But Peter saw that all the animals were unclean. The law of Moses allowed the nation of Israel to eat meat, but only from certain animals. Many animals were labeled unfit for consumption. These included pigs, rabbits, camels, anything with paws like a cat or bear, birds of prey, snakes, insects (except locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers), and a host of others.
As a good Jew who had always kept the law, Peter refused to obey, even though he recognized the voice as the Lord's. Perhaps it was Jesus speaking in a voice similar to His earthly voice, very familiar to Peter. Peter protested, "Not so, Lord: for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean." The Lord rebuked him, saying, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." Again the voice commanded him to eat, again he refused, and again the voice rebuked him. The same dialogue occurred yet a third time before the sheet rose up and disappeared into heaven.
As Peter pondered the vision, the messengers from Cornelius reached Simon’s gate. They announced their presence by calling out a greeting. Then when someone responded, probably by coming from the house to find out their purpose, they asked whether a man named Simon Peter was lodging within. Peter himself did not hear the voices outside, but the Spirit alerted him to the arrival of visitors. He told Peter to go down and meet them. They would summon him to another place, and he should go, confident that God had sent them.
Going to Caesarea
When Peter came to the men at the gate, he asked their purpose. The messengers identified themselves as messengers from Cornelius, a Roman centurion, but they quickly made it clear that Cornelius was no ordinary gentile. He was a God-fearer highly respected by the Jews. They did not say why he was held in high esteem, but perhaps, like the centurion who summoned Jesus to heal his servant, he had made generous donations to the local synagogue (Luke 7:2–10), or perhaps he was known as an officer who restrained his men from abusing Jewish people. To explain why they had come, the messengers said that an angel had commanded their master to call for Peter and hear his message.
Peter raised no objection, although he put off any travel until the next day. He bade the men to stay with him until the time came for departure. Here was the first sign of Peter’s change of heart toward gentiles. Evidently with Simon’s permission, he welcomed gentiles to share his lodgings.
On the next day, Peter accompanied the messengers back to Caesarea. Several believers from Joppa came along to observe. At Cornelius’s house, Peter found that the centurion had assembled a large company, including many of his relatives and close friends.
Jew Meeting Gentile
Cornelius himself met Peter at the door and threw himself at his feet, intending to worship him. But Peter immediately corrected the error. Insisting that he was only a man, Peter helped Cornelius to his feet.
Peter went further into the house and found a large gathering of people. Imagine how awkward Peter felt when, for the first time in his life, he entered the home of a gentile. Feeling that his remarkable departure from Jewish custom required an explanation, he said that his own outlook on gentiles had changed. God showed him that it was wrong to consider any man unclean. In essence, he was admitting that he had formerly harbored a sinful distaste for gentiles.
Peter asked why Cornelius had sent for him. Cornelius replied by reviewing the words of the angel. The answer to Peter's question was that the angel commanded Cornelius to summon Peter. Cornelius then asked Peter to share whatever message God had given him.
Peter began by marveling at God’s perfect justice. The Jews held themselves to be superior to other peoples, but God does not accept a man just because he is a Jew. Nor does He reject a man just because he is a gentile. As Peter said, "God is no respecter of persons." In other words, when God judges a man, He gives no weight to such externals as race, national origin, wealth, power, and appearance. He looks only on the heart. Peter was reaffirming a principle often stated in the Old Testament (Deut. 10:17; 2 Chron. 19:7; Job 34:19) and stated again in Peter’s own first epistle (1 Pet. 1:17).
Peter then used surprising language to describe how a man gains acceptance with God. He said that the requirements are to fear God and work righteousness.
Yet although Cornelius and perhaps other gentiles listening to Peter had won a measure of acceptance with God, they were lacking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. To be saved, they needed to put their faith in Jesus. Therefore, Peter started his sermon by demonstrating that Jesus deserved their faith.
The facts about Jesus' life and death were already well known to Peter's audience, as they were to everyone in Palestine. Peter said of Jesus' message, "That word, I say, ye know." Yet Peter stated some of these facts anyway. As he summarized the life and ministry of Jesus, he emphasized that Jesus was not just a famous man whose ministry was the talk of the whole country. He was the Christ promised by the prophets. More than that, He was the Lord of all.
Then Peter stressed the strange contrast between Jesus' life and Jesus' death. His life was devoted to doing good. Through the power of God's Spirit, He cast out demons from those under the power of Satan. Yet the life of this good man came to what end? He was taken by the authorities and hung on a tree. In the words Peter chose to describe crucifixion, he emphasized that Jesus’ manner of death was especially disgraceful. Paul, paraphrasing the law of Moses (Deut. 21:23), said, "Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Gal. 3:13).
But the injustice in Jesus' death did not stand. God overturned it by raising up Jesus on the third day after His burial. Jesus then showed Himself to His disciples and appointed them to be witnesses everywhere of His resurrection. Peter himself had no doubt that he saw the risen Christ. What he saw was no ghost, for they ate and drank together.
Briefly, Peter spoke of God's direction for his own life. The risen Christ charged Peter and the other apostles to go about preaching. Their message—the message that Cornelius and his loved ones wanted to hear—was simple:
- God will not overlook sin. If a sinner fails to obtain God's forgiveness, he will someday stand in judgment and receive the just penalty. The Judge of all men will be Jesus.
- Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies of the Old Testament. Therefore, He must be the Savior from sin that God promised to send into the world.
- The one way of salvation is to believe in Jesus. Whoever believes in Him will receive remission (forgiveness) of sin and gain everlasting life.
Descent of the Spirit
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit descended upon his hearers. The proof of the Spirit's coming was that the gentiles began to speak in tongues. Again, these were actual human languages, for the Jewish observers from the church in Joppa could pick out enough familiar words to understand that the speakers were praising and magnifying God. The observers were amazed. They never expected God to give the Spirit to unclean gentiles as well as to Jews.
Peter's mind was no longer clouded with Jewish pride. He realized that if God baptized the gentiles with the Spirit, he could not refuse to baptize them with water. Without delay, they were baptized in the name of the Lord. Afterward, in response to their pleas for further teaching, Peter remained several more days.
Cornelius and his loved ones were the first gentile converts to Christianity. At the first moment of believing in Christ, the Holy Spirit came to indwell them. He did not delay His coming until they especially prayed for Him, or until they went through some ritual. Likewise today, the coming of the Spirit is simultaneous with salvation.
The year of Cornelius's conversion was probably in the late 30s (see Appendix 1).