When the news of the Gospel
spread throughout the Roman world in the first century, the group least on board for the message was the Romans. Hence why Christians endured executions, persecution, and imprisonment under the name of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, many Roman citizens converted to The Way, later known as Christianity. We find such a case in Acts 10 when we meet a Roman centurion named Cornelius.
- Cornelius, who lives in a town known as Caesarea, ends up converting his whole family to Christianity. He serves as a Roman soldier (centurion, to be specific), a rarity amongst Christian circles. An angel appears to Cornelius and Cornelius connects with Peter after Peter undergoes a vision. In the vision, God essentially declares the Gentiles no longer unclean. Because Christ died on the cross for all humanity, this grafted in Gentiles into God’s people for those who choose to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
- In this article, we’ll dive into the character of Cornelius and what he does. We’ll also discuss what we can learn from his story and his interactions with Peter, two men from completely opposite worlds.
- Who Was Cornelius in the Book of Acts?
- As mentioned before, Cornelius serves as a Roman centurion. Apart from this, we don’t see many Gentiles jump into the narrative until Acts 10. Those of The Way had baptized Jews and Samaritans (people who had Jewish roots), but no Gentiles. Enter Cornelius and his god-fearing family.
- We also know the Jews had a difficult time accepting Gentiles into The Way. After all, many of them underwent circumcision and other rituals that the Gentiles didn’t have to. Even Peter has a difficult time swallowing his pride and gets reprimanded for doing so by Paul. This happens when Peter refuses to eat with the Gentile Christians in Galatians 2.
- Cornelius becomes the first Gentile baptized in church history. Apart from these details, we don’t know much about his character. We know that he exercises obedience when the angel calls him to meet with Peter. After all, Romans didn’t have high opinions of Jews at the time. For Cornelius to seek wisdom from Peter on the next steps in his Christian walk, this probably took some humility. We also do know that the Jewish community respected Cornelius (Acts 10:22). Perhaps like Paul, he didn’t allow for his Roman citizenship to cause him to look down on others.
- What Did Cornelius Do in the Bible?
- As for what Cornelius did in Scripture, apart from what we’ve discussed above, we know that he gave to the poor (Acts 10:2). We also know that before Peter came, he was devoutly religious, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he had a saving relationship with Jesus. In fact, he needed to hear the words of Peter, so he could better understand the Gospel.
- This reminds me of the eunuch who talks with Philip in Acts 8. The eunuch from Ethiopia wants to understand the Bible but has no one to guide him. Enter the disciple Philip who explains the text to him.
- We don’t really know much else about Cornelius, but it’s really important to talk about Peter’s role in this story. Peter had an aversion to Gentiles, especially Roman Gentiles.
- Throughout the Old Testament, the Jews were God’s people. The very idea that the same people who crucified his Lord could come into a saving relationship with Jesus likely churned his stomach. In this story, God has to send Peter a vision where he declares the once “unclean” foods as clean. In other words, the Gentiles, who once had no part in God’s family, were becoming grafted in. But that would only happen if Peter swallowed his pride and explained the Gospel to Cornelius.
- As the story goes, Peter shares the good news with Cornelius, and the rest goes down in history. Conversions across the Gentile world explode, and a great many come into a saving relationship with the Lord. All because Peter recognized that divisions and separations between groups of people should not hinder one’s ability to share about the Gospel. It takes the Jewish Christians a while to warm up to the idea of having Gentiles in their midst. But because Peter met with Cornelius, a revolution happened amongst the Gentiles.
- How Did Cornelius Die in the Bible?
- In short, we don’t know. The Bible doesn’t catalog many of the deaths of the saints of God. We know, for instance, Paul was beheaded, and Peter crucified upside-down. But the Bible doesn’t contain verses on these deaths. Most of what we know comes from the tradition of church history.
- With that said, we know that Cornelius had a strong faith in Christ, and like many of the early Christians, would be willing to die for it. If he did die at the hands of the Roman empire, he probably would have received a similar death to that of Paul. Roman citizens had the less painful and gory option of a beheading. But we also do know that followers such as John perished because of old age. Perhaps Cornelius died of natural causes. All to say, we don’t truly know.
- What Can We Learn from Cornelius?
- Christians can learn a lot from the story of Peter and Cornelius.
- Firstly, we understand that following God often takes humility. Cornelius revered the Jewish people and also the Christians, despite his Roman background. Most Romans would’ve sneered at anyone who didn’t have Roman citizenship. But Cornelius shows true humility and reverence. The outspoken Peter has to learn this lesson the hard way. Like many of the Jewish Christians, he feels uncomfortable about the fact they would let Gentiles into their new way of life. But God shows him the importance of allowing them to be a part of The Way.
- Secondly, we learn not to make quick judgments about people. When Peter heard the words “Roman centurion,” he probably didn’t picture Cornelius. More likely, he envisioned the Roman centurions he saw standing guard in Jerusalem or crucifying people within his community. If Peter had taken this assumption and refused to teach Cornelius about salvation—similar to Jonah and the Ninevites—he could have prevented the Gospel from reaching the Gentile ears who needed to hear it.
- Thirdly, this story shows the importance of preaching the Gospel to unreached people. We may often think of third-world nations when we hear this, but most likely, we have people in our own backyards who haven’t had Gospel exposure. For instance, I had written a modern-day Daniel book. At one of my book signings, people would halt by my table and ask me about the book. I started with the question, “Have you heard about the story of Daniel in the lions’ den?”
- Most of them replied, “No.”
- So many people have not heard the true Gospel of Christ. Or perhaps, even worse, they’ve listened to a perversion of it. As Christians, we must put aside our differences with other people and find common ground in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, can we share the Gospel with those who desperately need to hear its words. Perhaps, like Cornelius, the person whom we share it with will spread the words of Jesus like crazy, and we’ll see many more lives changed for Christ.
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