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The Spreading Flame - Series 3: Episode 2

The conversion of Cornelius

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 10:1-48

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household are the first Gentiles to become Christians, having their own experience of the Holy Spirit blessing them and being baptised. Peter has to break away from Jewish traditions in order to follow God's leading.

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household are the first Gentiles to become Christians, having their own experience of the Holy Spirit blessing them and being baptised. Peter has to break away from Jewish traditions in order to follow God's leading.


Welcome back to Series 3. We’re now in the second episode, and as you know, Luke designs Acts in such a way that there are six series that represent the different phases of the growth of the Gospel message and of the Church. Series 1 was about Jerusalem and the amazing way God blessed the church there. Series 2 was about the areas surrounding Jerusalem nearby, the area we would call Israel today, Judea and Samaria. Series 3 is about how the Gospel spreads to the non-Jewish people, known in the Bible as the Gentiles.

Background and Introduction

The first episode acts as an introduction to this theme and it is picked up in this episode. This is the dramatic moment when a completely new door for the Gospel opens up through a series of spectacular miracles brought about by God’s direct intervention and it concerns a man called Cornelius. Before we talk about him, we need to remember what happened in the previous episode. Peter, the senior Apostle in Jerusalem, responsible for the churches in the surrounding district, particularly in Judea, the heartland of the Jewish nation, spent a lot of time travelling around. He would go from town to town and through the villages where many churches had been established. It appears that, from the revival in Jerusalem, there had been many people taking the Gospel to the surrounding area and little churches being formed in those areas. We saw in the first episode how Peter was visiting a number of places - a place called Lydda and a port city called Joppa, on the Western coast of Judea. We saw two amazing miracles - an amazing healing and an amazing resurrection of the dead, when a woman called Dorcas was raised from death. Then we saw a considerable revival going on in the area as many people came to faith.

The last episode ended with Peter staying in the port city of Joppa. We’re going to connect this episode with that one, by going back to Acts 9:43, which says,

‘Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.’

Acts 9:43, NIV

There he is. He’s not at home in Jerusalem, where he was based; he’s in the port city of Joppa, near the modern city of Tel Aviv in Israel, and he’s staying there and probably going to travel more around that immediate area. That’s the context. Peter is visiting an acquaintance, or a friend, a church member in the church in Joppa.

An Angel Visits Cornelius

Then something totally unexpected happens. Peter anticipated that fairly soon he would return to the city of Jerusalem, but he didn’t. He went off in a completely different direction because God literally intervened and created a remarkable series of events, which are described very fully by Luke in Acts 10. It is a very dramatic story with miracles taking place in different locations. Acts 10:1 - 8,

1 ‘At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” 4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is also called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.’

Acts 10:1-8, NIV

A new person is introduced into our story, a Roman soldier called Cornelius who was based in the capital city of Judea, Caesarea. This was another port city, further north than Joppa, built specifically by the Romans to house their political, administrative and military headquarters for the whole province. That’s where the Roman governor was based. That’s where Pontius Pilate had been based and all his successors as governors over the province of Judea. That’s where the military headquarters were. It had easy access to the sea and for travel to Rome by sea.

Cornelius is described as a centurion. That is roughly the equivalent of a captain in a modern army. His was responsible for one hundred men, a middle ranking officer. But this particular Roman officer had an interest in Judaism. He probably came from another country altogether. He had been in Judea for some time. He had contact with the Jewish community and is described here as God-fearing. Luke uses this expression to describe people outside the Jewish faith who have a respect for the Jewish God. They sort of believe that the Jewish God must be the true God, the God Yahweh, the God of Israel. They have come into contact with the Jewish religion and they are seeking that God. They are trying to find a way to know him and to understand him. This man would have turned his back on the Roman religion and all the gods, shrines and worship of that religion. He presumably was not interested in, nor satisfied, by it. He felt that Judaism had something better - this belief in a single, wonderful, unique Creator God by the name of Yahweh. So, he prayed. He had learned from the Jews how to pray. He probably knew a little about the Old Testament. He may have read some of the Old Testament books in the Greek language because they were translated into Greek at the time. He gave gifts to the poor. He was a seeker and this seeker was met by the living God because he had an astonishing, miraculous engagement with an angel, who encouraged him that God had heard his prayers and then gave him a specific message that he needed to go and find a man called Simon Peter, who was staying in Joppa. What extraordinary information! Who could possibly know that? That is divinely imparted information. There was Simon Peter further south by the sea, with his friend Simon the Tanner. Further north in Caesarea, Cornelius has this vision and he tells some of his soldiers to go to Joppa and look for the man called Simon Peter. Revelation has come to him.

God uses angels to reveal truth and to guide people. Angels appear several times in the book of Acts; we have seen one or two instances, there are more to come later in the story, usually to reveal something, to give guidance and to give help and support to people and very occasionally they come as an instrument of judgement against those opposing the Church. Angels are messengers. They are never to be worshipped or focused upon. They are God’s messengers, and they sometimes appear in dreams.

There was 60 km between Caesarea in the north and Joppa much further south. There was quite a big distance between these two port cities.

Peter’s Vision

The extraordinary thing is, that while a miracle was taking place in Caesarea, another one was taking place in Joppa, and that’s what we read about in the next section. Acts 10: 9 to 23,

9 ‘About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. 17 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. 18 They called out, asking if Simon, who was known as Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” 21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” 22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 And Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.’

Acts 10:9-23, NIV

What an extraordinary situation we find here. Peter has gone up on the roof to pray. The roofs of houses in the ancient world, generally speaking in the Mediterranean, were flat and so, in the hot climate, the roof acted as an extra room and a place you could rest, meet people, or a place you could eat. All sorts of possibilities existed in the daytime. Peter goes up on the roof to pray. It’s a natural place to go to pray. You get away from the household and you can reflect. But he has a vision. Not a dream or an hallucination or anything man-made, but something that God gave him miraculously. God sometimes speaks through visions, very vivid images or even dramas that play out in front of our eyes, and they are almost as if they are real. That’s what a vision is and that often happened in the biblical times. This vision involved animals, reptiles and birds that were known to Jews, from their Jewish law, to be forbidden for them to eat. They were considered ritually or ceremonially unclean. This is described in Leviticus 11. Peter was familiar with this background. The Jews were forbidden to eat certain animals and creatures in their law. They had very strict rules about what they could and couldn’t eat. In this vision, the very things he wasn’t allowed to eat, he was being asked to eat. It was to do with understanding what was clean and what was unclean. The message came to him from this vivid image, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” There was a deeper message. It wasn’t really a message about animals and what you can eat; it was a message about the fact that something was changing in the way that God was dealing with humanity. The old Jewish Law was passing away, and was no longer relevant. It separated the Jews from other people but now that separation was going to be overcome in Christ. Peter knew this in his head, but as yet he hadn’t really thought about the implications of relating to the non-Jewish people, relating to the Gentile people, because the Jewish people generally didn’t have much social connection with the non-Jewish people in their country, and especially with the Romans, the occupiers. They didn’t have meals together because they had restrictions on their diet, and they didn’t like some of the things that the Gentiles would eat; they weren’t allowed to eat many of them. There was a social separation that was in Peter’s mind and in his heart. He knew that Christ loved the Gentiles, but he hadn’t made any effort, up to that point, to reach out to them, to build a relationship with them, in order that they could become believers.

But Peter knew from these events that something remarkable was happening. He had an amazing vision and then suddenly just when God says, “Don’t call anything impure that I’ve called clean,” some Gentiles come to the door. They come in and have social interaction and food together - the very thing the Jews generally didn’t do. Peter knew that God was doing something miraculous then.

Peter Goes to Cornelius

He decides that he must follow up. Acts 10:23 - 33,

23 ‘The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” 27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our Law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why did you send for me?” 30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here together in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”’

Acts 10:23-33, NIV

Cornelius was so welcoming and open to Peter; he was ready. People were ready to hear him and Peter realised that something amazing was happening. Everything was set up for a remarkable occasion. The one thing that needed to happen was that Peter must explain to Cornelius and the others the Gospel about Jesus Christ. They hadn’t heard the details of the Gospel message. They just knew there was a living God and that that living God was calling them. There are often people like that in the world; they feel God is calling them, but they don’t know about Jesus; they don’t know the way to salvation. Peter realised that, so he immediately began to speak.

Peter Explains the Gospel

Acts 10:34 - 38:

34 ‘Then Peter began to speak: “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”’

Acts 10:34-38, NIV

Peter goes straight in, and explains the story of Jesus. He retells the story of Jesus’ ministry - the three years that Jesus had ministered and preached all the way around the country and he makes it clear that he expects that they’ve heard something about Jesus. It’s clear that Cornelius and his friends have heard something about Jesus because everybody in the whole country remembered the extraordinary things that had happened; the many miracles; the mysterious death; the mysterious resurrection; all sorts of rumours were going round. We also know that there’s a Christian community in Caesarea because we know that Philip the evangelist ended up there. They might have had some contact with Cornelius. General information wasn’t enough and Peter explained from eyewitness testimony, the extraordinary things that Jesus did, the extraordinary miracles and how God’s Holy Spirit was upon him. He was telling the story and explaining about the death and resurrection of Jesus. He continues preaching.

The household is gathered. It’s quite a big house probably because Cornelius was a reasonably well-paid officer. There could have been thirty people listening. His household would have consisted of family members, servants, attendants, slaves maybe - all sorts of people, maybe some relatives. We don’t know exactly who was there, but they are listening very closely.

The Holy Spirit Poured Out

Then something extraordinary happens in the next few moments as described in Acts 10:44 - 48:

44‘While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.’

Acts 10:44-48, NIV

Peter hadn’t finished his talk when God began to move upon the gathered group in Cornelius’ house. The Holy Spirit was poured out. In other words, they were beginning to believe; even as Peter was speaking, faith was coming to them and God confirmed their faith by sending them the dynamic and tangible power of the Holy Spirit. They began to praise God spontaneously; joy began to come. They probably began to sing and some of them began to speak in tongues - that precious and mysterious gift of being able to speak in a language that you haven’t learnt, that is a language of praise and worship to God. The gift that was first received on the Day of Pentecost by all those Jews who gathered in Jerusalem. That very same gift is being given now to a group of Gentiles. This is an equivalent event. The Day of Pentecost over here, the Jewish Pentecost, and now a Gentile Pentecost, with a smaller number of people but equal power and impact. Peter is amazed and in a strange sort of way he doesn’t really have to complete all the details of his message because God has gone ahead of him. These people have been prepared. Cornelius has been influencing them and encouraging them to seek the Jewish God. Now they know much more about what God is doing. They encounter the reality of the person of Jesus himself, who died and was raised again from the dead, who can forgive their sins.

The Gospel to the Gentiles

Just like on the Day of Pentecost, when Peter called people to be baptised in water, and three thousand were baptised on that day, so here, he calls on his friends, his fellow believers who travelled with him from Joppa - Jewish believers - to baptise these Gentiles. We have the first moment where Gentiles are reached with a strategic act of evangelism and a divine intervention to open the door. This is an amazing moment in the Church. This is going to open the door for all sorts of people to hear the Gospel, who previously were out of reach, and the Apostles hadn’t found a way of reaching them. It had already happened to the Samaritans. Now it’s going to happen to the Romans and the Greeks, and many other people after them. What an amazing moment!


Our reflections, as we come to the end of this episode are, first of all, to notice this step forward in the story of Acts. Now a whole new door is opening, the door to the Gentiles, and very soon we’ll see how that develops very fast, when a church is established in the city of Antioch. It makes clear that the Law of Moses has become redundant. It’s out of date. It’s obsolete. It’s not needed. When these Gentile people come in to believe in Jesus Christ, they don’t have to become Jews first. They don’t have to be circumcised. They don’t have to follow the food laws and regulations. They don’t have to obey the Jewish Sabbath law. They don’t have to go into the Old Testament and follow all those laws. They were for the Jews in the past but now the new covenant has come. Now the Gospel has come and the Holy Spirit is the sign. The presence of the Holy Spirit is the sign that they have been included.

Here we see a very interesting example of the four aspects of the conversion process, the process of coming to Christ that I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions in the past, starting at the Day of Pentecost. There are four things that are necessary as part of the salvation process in its fullness. The first is repentance - turning away from our old life, turning away from independence from God, turning away from following after other gods, in the case here, the Roman system of worship of many gods. There needs to be a humbling - an openness, an ending of independence, what we might call repentance, the changing of our mind. The second aspect is living faith. We only become Christians when we specifically put our trust in Jesus Christ as our Saviour. It’s an act of faith. It’s a decision. It’s a moment of trust that he died for us, that he rose again for us, that he will forgive us our sins. Repentance and faith. Thirdly, baptism in water. Here baptism in water followed immediately after conversion. Fourthly, the receiving of the Holy Spirit and the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We need all these four things together.

This particular episode has raised an interesting question for the Church. Who was in that household and were there, for example, infants in that household? It doesn’t say there were any infants there. We don’t know whether they were or not. We don’t know whether they were baptised or not. The Church has taken different views about whether infants should be baptised if they’re part of a Christian family. As we are speaking through the book of Acts, I take a position of respecting different views on this doctrine of baptism. Some may think that infants in Christian families should be baptised. Others take the view that baptism should be given only to those who personally profess faith. Whichever way, baptism is an important part of this process.

My concluding observation and reflection is that this is an amazing story about evangelism. What it tells us is that we need to be available. Peter was available to do something unusual. He went to a place he never intended to go and spoke to a group of people he never intended to speak to, but the door opened up. Evangelism depends on our availability, being on the front foot, and that’s the one lesson that I take particularly to heart from this, and I think we can all do that concerning our own personal witness for Jesus Christ.

In this episode, in conclusion, a great step forward has been taken for the Gospel and we’ll see how that works out in subsequent episodes in Series 3. I hope we’ll see you for those episodes.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. God prepares Peter for a change in his thinking. How has God prepared you for changes in your thinking?
  • Discipleship
    1. What is the importance of speaking in tongues here?
    2. Do you have ‘traditions’ you are holding on to?
    3. How available are you for evangelism?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Compare this episode with S01 E03. What are similarities or differences?
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