Who Was Cornelius in the Bible?

See how God used a faithful soldier to confirm that salvation is for all people.

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In the modern world, the majority of people who identify themselves as Christians are Gentiles -- meaning, they are not Jewish. This has been the case for most of the past 2,000 years. However, this was not the case during the earliest stages of the church. In fact, most members of the early church were Jews who had decided to follow Jesus as the natural fulfillment of their Jewish faith. 

So what happened?

How did Christianity swing from an extension of Judaism to a faith filled with people of all cultures? Part of the answer can be found in the story of Cornelius and Peter as recorded in Acts 10.

Peter was one of Jesus' original disciples. And, like Jesus, Peter was Jewish and had been raised to follow Jewish customs and traditions. Cornelius, on the other hand, was a Gentile. Specifically, he was a centurion within the Roman army.

In many ways, Peter and Cornelius were as different as could be. Yet they both experienced a supernatural connection that blew open the doors of the early church. Their work produced massive spiritual repercussions that are still being felt around the world today.

A Vision for Cornelius

The early verses of Acts 10 provide a little background for Cornelius and his family:

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.
Acts 10:1-2

These verses don't explain a lot, but they do provide some useful information. For example, Cornelius was from the region of Caesarea, probably the city of Caesarea Maritima. This was a major city during the first and second centuries A.D. Originally built by Herod the Great around 22 B.C., the city had become a major center of Roman authority during the time of the early church.

In fact, Caesarea was the Roman capital of Judea and official home of the Roman procurators.

We also learn that Cornelius and his family "were devout and God-fearing." During the time of the early church, it was not uncommon for Romans and other Gentiles to admire the faith and intense worship of Christians and Jews -- even to imitate their traditions. However, it was rare for such Gentiles to fully embrace faith in one God.

Cornelius did so, and he was rewarded with a vision from God:

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!”

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. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

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. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
Acts 10:3-8

Cornelius had a supernatural encounter with God. Thankfully, he chose to obey what he'd been told.

A Vision for Peter

The next day, the apostle Peter also experienced a supernatural vision from God:

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.
Acts 10:9-16

Peter's vision centered around the dietary restrictions God had commanded to the nation of Israel back in the Old Testament -- specifically in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These restrictions had governed what the Jews ate, and whom they associated with, for thousands of years. They were vital to the Jewish way of life.

God's vision to Peter showed that He was doing something new in His relationship with humankind. Because the Old Testament laws had been fulfilled through Jesus Christ, God's people no longer needed to follow dietary restrictions and other "purity laws" in order to be identified as His children. Now, all that mattered was how individuals responded to Jesus Christ.

Peter's vision also carried a deeper meaning. By declaring that nothing made clean by God should be considered impure, God was beginning to open Peter's eyes regarding the spiritual needs of the Gentiles. Because of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, all people had the opportunity to be "made clean" -- to be saved. This included both Jews and Gentiles.

A Key Connection

Just as Peter was contemplating the meaning of his vision, three men arrived at his doorstep. They were the messengers sent by Cornelius. These men explained the vision Cornelius had received, and they invited Peter to return with them to meet their master, the centurion. Peter agreed.

The next day, Peter and his new companions began their journey to Caesarea. When they arrived, Peter found Cornelius's household full of people longing to hear more about God.

By this time, he was beginning to understand the deeper meaning of his vision:

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 you sent for me?”
Acts 10:27-29

After Cornelius explained the nature of his own vision, Peter shared what he had seen and heard regarding Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection. He explained the message of the gospel -- that Jesus Christ had opened the door for sins to be forgiven and for people to once and for all experience restoration with God.

As he was talking, the gathered people experienced a miracle of their own:

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

It's important to see that the events of Cornelius's household mirrored the Day of Pentecost described in Acts 2:1-13.

That was the day when the Holy Spirit poured into the disciples in the upper room -- the day when Peter boldly proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ and witnessed more than 3,000 people choose to follow Him.

While the coming of the Holy Spirit launched the church on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit's blessing on the household of Cornelius the Centurion confirmed that the gospel was not only for the Jews but an open door of salvation for all people.