Cornelius and the First Gentiles
This is the fourth article in a series of lessons on New Testament examples of conversion. While each example illustrates obedience to the same basic commands, each also demonstrates some new aspect of the propagation of the gospel. The gospel was preached first in Jerusalem (Acts 2); but after severe persecution arose, it quickly spread throughout Samaria by the preaching of the scattered Christians (Acts 8:4). The conversion of the Ethiopian in Acts 8 illustrated the beginning of taking the gospel to all nations and all races, but he was still a proselyte and thus considered to be one of the Jewish nation. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9) was unique in that he was a specially chosen vessel to take his place with the Apostles.
The next conversions are given in Acts 10. These cases are unique in that they are the first conversions of any Gentiles. It is clear that the gospel was preached "to the Jew first" (Rom. 1:16).
There is no indication that the first Jewish Christians understood what Jesus meant when He commanded them to "... make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:18). In Acts 10 we find God intervening with a special vision to Peter instructing him that no man was unclean (10:9-17), and then the Holy Spirit told him to go with the messengers sent to him by Cornelius (19-20). When Peter got to them, he stated the conclusion that he drew based upon what the Holy Spirit had just revealed to him: "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him" (10:34-35). It is with this backdrop that we initiate a study of these fascinating cases of conversion.
Can Any Man Forbid the Water . . .?
As we study Acts 10, we see a contrast in deficiencies. Cornelius was "a devout man, and one who feared God with all his house, who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always." Yet he was commanded by God to "Send to Joppa, and fetch Simon, whose surname is Peter; who shall speak unto thee words, whereby thou shalt be saved, thou and all thy house." (Acts 11:13-14)
In the case of Peter we see a man who is baffled by a vision, but who, like Cornelius, obeys the Lord without questioning. They were two weak and sinful men who were striving to serve the Lord in a better way. The men could not understand the truth until they were brought together by the only thing that they had in common. Both men who were about to learn while they taught, and be taught while they learned.
Cornelius needed to hear the gospel. His righteousness could not merit his salvation something else was required. He and his family heard the saving truth of the gospel of Christ, but here is where this case of conversion gets unique. For, "while Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all them that heard the word"(44).
This was the first time that this had ever happened to hearers (review previous cases of conversion). A natural question is: why? The answer is in the next verse: "And they of the circumcision ... were amazed." These Jews who had come with Peter needed to see with their own eyes that God was receiving Gentiles just as he received the Jews.
But did their reception of the Holy Spirit indicate that they had done everything that God wanted? Read on: "Then answered Peter: Can any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptized ...?"
Their reception of the Holy Spirit was not in obedience to any command. It was spontaneous, totally of God, and totally unexpected. Obedience to God's commands were essential to their salvation: "And he commanded them to be baptized ..." What would have happened had they refused to obey? It is clear that they were saved by faith, obeying the very same gospel as in all of the other examples that we have studied in the book of Acts.
Ye often hear it said ...
"Holy Spirit baptism is sufficient for us today."
but Peter said in Acts 10:48:
"... commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ."
It is quite clear from verse 47 that the baptism commanded was water baptism. That is the baptism that we saw was practiced in all other examples to this point. This baptism put them into Christ (Rom. 6:3).
Those being commanded in Acts 10:48 had already received the Holy Spirit. However, it was not to the same degree as the reception by the apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Whether Acts 10:44 records an incident of baptism in the Holy Spirit is arguable to some. If so, we see that they were still required to be baptized in water. We cannot find any example or statement in the New Testament where baptism in the Holy Spirit is commanded, nor where it puts one into Christ.
Baptism in the Holy Spirit was a very rare event, and it was totally under God's control. The one baptism (Eph 4:5) that we are under today is totally under our control. When we learn that we are subject to it we should be as Cornelius and his household who moved quickly to obey Peter's command. Verify this by all of the examples that we have studied so far: Acts 2:41; 8:12; 8:36f; 9:18; 10:47f.