And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. – Acts 10:45-48 ESV
Cornelius was a centurion, a non-commissioned officer in the Roman army, who was in charge of a troop of 100 soldiers. He lived in the city of Caesarea, along the Mediterranean coast. Interestingly enough, he was also “a devout man who feared God with all his household” (Acts 10:2 ESV). He gave generously and prayed regularly. But he would have been greatly disliked by the Jews in Caesarea because he was both a Gentile and a Roman soldier. But God had plans for Cornelius and for the spread of the gospel.
Back in the gospel of Matthew, he records an encounter between Jesus and another centurion. It took place in the city of Capernaum. He approached Jesus and shared that he had a servant back at home who was paralyzed and suffering greatly. When Jesus offered to come heal him, the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the world, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matthew 8:8-9 ESV). Jesus marveled at the man’s faith and said, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…” (Matthew 8:11-12 ESV). Jesus predicts that others, like this centurion, will come to believe in Him. Gentiles, from east and west, and from outside the household of Israel, would come to believe in Jesus as their Savior. And not long after Jesus ascended back into heaven, Peter experienced the fulfillment of that prediction.
In a dream, Cornelius received a visit from an angel, who told him to send for Peter. Though he was terrorized by this encounter, he did just as the angel commanded him, sending two servants and a soldier to Joppa to find Peter. In the meantime, back in Joppa, Peter was up on the roof of the house where he was staying, preparing to pray. He became hungry, fell into a trance and was given an unexpected vision from God. In his dream, “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’” (Acts 10:11-13 ESV). Peter was appalled at the very thought and told the Lord, “By no means!” He explained that, as a good Jew, he had never eaten anything unclean or common. He had faithfully observed the Mosaic dietary laws. But the voice said, “What God has made clean, do not all common” (Acts 10:15 ESV). This sequence of events took place three times, then the sheet was taken back up into heaven and Peter awoke from his trance. Before he had an opportunity to figure out what this vision meant, the servants of Cornelius showed up at his doorstep. Peter was told by the Spirit to accompany them “without hesitation.”
The next day, Peter left for Caesarea, accompanied by some Jewish brothers who had become Christ-followers. When they arrived at the home of Cornelius, they found that he had gathered a crowd made up of his family and close friends. Peter explained to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28 ESV). Peter had gotten the message behind the vision. He understood that the good news of the gospel was to be made available to any and all, regardless of their nationality, occupation, background, economic status or religious heritage. Peter explained his new-found enlightenment, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 ESV). While Peter shared with them the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44 ESV). The believing Jews who had accompanied Peter were shocked at this turn of events because the “gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45 ESV).
Cornelius and his family and friends believed in Jesus Christ and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. At that moment they were included into the family of God, the household of faith. The Jewish believers who had come with Peter and the Gentile who had gathered in the home of Cornelius became one at that moment. They shared a common belief in Jesus and the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 ESV). The gospel is for all. The Holy Spirit is a gift given to all who believe in Jesus Christ. There is no favoritism with God. There are no classes or divisions. Paul put it this way: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV).