Cornelius was a centurion in the Italian Regiment and was stationed at Caesarea which was located about 33 miles to the north of Joppa. It was the capital of the Roman occupied Judea. Since it was a major seaport and fell on the main caravan route from Tyre to Egypt, it had a vast and diverse demography. Both Jewish and Hellenized Gentiles resided in the port town and followed their own cultures and maintained their separate place for worship. The soldiers stationed within the city would have primarily been for maintaining peace among these different groups. Many Biblical scholars believe that Cornelius and his band of soldiers would have stationed outside a Jewish temple.
Cornelius was a God fearing man who gave alms to the needy and prayed to God on a regular basis. It is also written that he along with his family were pious. Being stationed in a predominantly Jewish town and given the fact that he might have been standing guard outside the temple of God, he would have heard about The God of Israel and along with his entire household started following the great “I Am”. This would have been a tough decision for him being a captain in the Italian regiment. But he was still a gentile as he did not circumcise all the males in his household. The gospel had still not reached him. When the Angel of the Lord came to him in a vision, unlike many others before him he was not startled or afraid, rather calmly asks, “What is it Lord?” This could not have been his first encounter with the Angel of the Lord given his demeanor. This shows that God had regular fellowship with Cornelius and was working amongst him and other gentile believers.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. – Acts 10:4-5
Peter was staying with Simon the Tanner at that time in Joppa. He was spreading the word in Lydda and Joppa. Hearing the news that Tabitha had been brought back to life, the entire community was added to the church of believers (Acts 9: 36-43). Now Peter himself was going through a transformation process and his recent encounter with the people in Samaria would have been an eye opener for him. He realized that the feud between the Jews and the Samaritans was to be forgotten if they were to succeed in their latest mission.
Peter along with John travelled to Samaria and baptized the believers there. Surely during their journey to Samaria they would have recalled the Parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women at the well of Jacob and would have realized that Jesus was preparing them all along for this day. According to the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 11:27) anyone who touches the skin of a dead animal was considered ceremonially unclean yet Peter stayed with Simon the Tanner when he was at Joppa. During those days tanners would have been shunned from the Jewish community along with anyone who was associated with him. God was training Peter with baby steps for what was to come next.
About noon the following day … Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, … He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate … While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “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.” Acts 10:9-19
Peter left for Caesarea with the three men and some of the brothers from Joppa went along with them. At Cornelius’ house, Peter and Cornelius shared their visions and both get reassured that God had arranged their meet. Peter saw that God was working in this gentile household as well and wasted no time in proclaiming the good news to the people who had gathered there.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. – Acts 10:44-46
Cornelius was one of the first gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit but was not the first gentile who believed in the God of Jacob. Naaman the commander of the Syrian army and the centurion mentioned in the gospels are examples from both New and Old Testament that God worked among the gentiles long before the disciples started their ministry. But He knew the Mosaic Laws would act as a hindrance for the disciples to do the same. If you remember, the disciples couldn’t even heal their own countrymen because of their lack of faith. He trained them through parables and often compared the faith of the gentiles with that of the Jews.
Peter went through a transformation process. He preached amongst the Samaritans, lodged with a tanner and entered the house of a gentile. God waited for disciples to attain a level of maturity and understanding. If the disciples had prematurely started their ministry among the gentiles and acted according the Mosaic Law they would have alienated the new believers and the good news would not have reached us today. Peter’s struggle with this new lifestyle can be seen clearly as Paul confronts him in his letter to the Galatians for not dinning with the gentiles.
Seeing that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured on all who had gathered at Cornelius’ house, Peter baptized them in the name of Jesus and stayed with them for a few days. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, he faced opposition from his fellow believers as he had entered the house of a gentile. But when they heard about the visions of Peter and Cornelius and that all who gathered there received the Holy Spirit they had no further objection and all of them accepted that God was working amongst the Gentiles as well.
The baptism of Cornelius is an important event in the history of the Early Church. The gates of the Church, within which thus far only those who were circumcised and observed the Law of Moses had been admitted, were now thrown open to the uncircumcised Gentiles without the obligation of submitting to the Jewish ceremonial laws.- Florentine Bechtel