The Household of Cornelius
Acts 10: A Lesson in Unity and the End of Patriarchal Law for One Man and His Family
Cornelius was “a Centurion,” one of sixty officers in a Roman legion (Acts 10:1). Each centurion would command over 100 men like a modern army captain today. He was a part of the “Italian regiment” (or “cohort”). Ten cohorts of 600 men each made up a legion.
Cornelius “feared God” (verse 2). This was a technical term that the Jews used to refer to pagans who had abandoned, or did not follow, the pagan religions, but instead favored the worship of Jehovah. Gentiles at this time and place in the world could have varying degrees of adherence to Judaism. They could be benefactors like the centurion in Luke 7:1-10, who supported the Jewish community and presumably were sympathetic to Jewish beliefs. There were “God-fearers” like the one here in our text, Acts 10:2, and others such as Acts 13:16, 16:14, 17:4. There is an important mention of this category of “God-fearers” in an inscription from approximately 210 A.D. in Aphrodisias in modern Turkey.
There were also full proselytes who converted to Judaism and embraced all of its requirements. Josephus mentions a certain Izates of the royal family of Adiabene, who embraced Judaism and had himself circumcised in order to accept fully the Jewish way of life (see Josephus, Antiquities, 20.2., 3-4). The event of the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 would not have the significance that it does had Cornelius been a full proselyte to Judaism.
Luke calls Cornelius “devout” (verse 2). In other words, he was right in his attitudes toward both God and man and by grace he was living a godly life (see Acts 17:17). Cornelius “feared,” that is he reverenced God, as did his whole household, which includes family and servants (verse 2). Because of this man’s influence, a large group of people attended synagogue with him. They were segregated because they had not yet become fledged proselytes, they had not been circumcised, and they did not keep the dietary laws. They could listen attentively, and they did. They learned. They gave generously to those in need. They prayed to God and sought his direction for everything in their lives.
Look at verse 37: Peter’s statement makes it clear that Cornelius knew about Jesus. Therefore, he knew about the gospel! Many scholars believe he wanted to accept Christ and to receive the Holy Spirit but had been told that he must first become a Jew. I agree with that supposition because of the context of this story. It is very possible or even likely that his praying to God at this time was pertaining to his consideration of taking that very step at this very time. But that would just not do! So, God had to prepare Peter. Did Cornelius’ devotion include compelling his servants to believe like he did (verse 7)? No.
Peter says it was “unlawful” for Jews to eat with Gentiles (verse 28). Was this God’s Law? No, this was a taboo, that is, something contrary to Jewish (man-made) standards of custom and tradition. Remember this when you read Acts 11:3. Peter’s comments reveal his acceptance of a new (godly) standard in the place of his own (ungodly one): “God shows no partiality” (verse 34). This is the lesson of the animals on the sheet. There is nothing new about this in reality from God’s perspective. It was taught in the Old Testament as well as the New (see Deuteronomy 10:17; 2 Chronicles 19:7; Job 34:19; Romans 2:11, 3:29-30; James 2:1). So, this is truth, not a new truth, but truth that is taking on new dimensions at that time. Peter, in verse 35, “accepted,” meaning he “marked by favorable manifestation of the divine pleasure.”
Christ, Peter says, went about “preaching peace” (verse 37). The peace of the gospel is Jesus. By paying the price of sin through His sacrificial death, Christ established peace between man and God, and therefore, peace between man and man. The substance of Peter’s sermon here was Christ (verses 37–43).
By “household,” Luke refers to all who were under Cornelius’ authority and care who could comprehend the gospel and voluntarily believe and obey (see Acts 11:14). This did not include infants.
“God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:18). This is one of if not the most shocking admissions in Jewish history, but an event that the Old Testament prophesied would come (see Isaiah 42:1, 6; Isaiah 49:6; Acts 2:39; Ephesians 2:11-13).
In closing, here are some things to notice about what changed and what did not for Cornelius:
• These people did not become “The Circumcision.”
• They did not stop eating pork.
• They did not suddenly begin to don yarmulkes or wear Jewish style clothing.
• They did not start wearing their hair (or beards) in the manner of the Jews.
• They did not begin to build and arrange their houses like the Jews.
• They were not required to learn and speak Hebrew or Aramaic.
Why can one draw such conclusions? Because such things are not to be considered as the proper definition of “ONENESS in Christ!” In fact, unless there are cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and individual distinctions between people, in the kingdom of Christ, then the picture of spiritual unity which transcends all of these things is lost. Unity is not uniformity!