Cornelius’s conversion was no ordinary conversion. It symbolized the reach of the gospel to the Gentile world. Cornelius was a devout Gentile man who loved God. He was a centurion who used his power to care for Jewish people in his area. One day while he was praying, an angel of the Lord came to him and told him to send for Simon Peter, who was staying in a town not far away.
Perhaps the greatest significance to Cornelius’s story in Scripture is the impact it had on Peter’s ministry as an apostle. The Lord had called Peter to be His witness in the world, commissioning him to proclaim a gospel that was meant to go out through Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, to “the ends of the earth” —meaning the Gentile world (Acts 1:8).
In those days, the line was clearly drawn between Jews and Gentiles. They were separated not only by belief, but by ceremony, diet, and a range of other religious and cultural practices. It would have been hard for even the most enlightened Jew to imagine full-on fellowship with Gentiles. And yet salvation in Christ was offered fully and equally to them both. Simon Peter would play a key role in the gospel reaching beyond the Hebrew people, and Cornelius would be the Gentile to receive the gospel from him.
As Cornelius’s servants were on their way to get the apostle, Peter had a vision of all kinds of clean and unclean animals being lowered in a sheet. The Lord said, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat” (Acts 10:13). Peter was incredulous. Never in his life would he defile himself in this way, by partaking of what was unclean. But the Lord said, “‘What God has made clean, do not call impure.’ This happened three times, and suddenly the object was taken up into heaven” (vv.15–16).
This vision was about more than food. It was about Cornelius, and by extension, the entire Gentile world. The Lord was using Cornelius to teach Peter how to take the gospel beyond his own people, and how to regard them as clean. After Peter’s vision, Cornelius’s servants arrived and asked him to come to Cornelius’s house to proclaim the gospel to them.
While Peter was preaching to Cornelius’s family, the Holy Spirit came down in a way that was similar to Pentecost. In both cases, the Holy Spirit descended on everyone present, and they all understood each other, even though people were speaking in different languages (Acts 2:6, 10:46). God’s Holy Spirit saw no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, and here was the proof.
We see in the text that Peter struggled a little to believe what God was doing. He was still learning. Peter believed Gentiles could be saved without first converting to Judaism. But with Cornelius, he witnessed it firsthand, and it astonished him. God was expanding Peter’s understanding of the breadth and scope of His saving grace. And it all came back to one basic need every single person who has ever lived shares: the need for peace with God, which is accomplished alone through Jesus Christ. May God always expand our view of His grace, our love for the lost, and our passion for His presence.
Written by Russ Ramsey