A Turning Point in Acts
Chapter ten introduces a major event in Luke’s account of the early Church’s history. Thus far, we have dealt only with Jews and Samaritans who embraced the faith, the lone exception being the Ethiopian eunuch who was a Gentile. But though the Ethiopian was the first, it is with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, that Luke highlights the gathering in of the Gentiles unto the faith. Indeed, it is this very event that Peter would reference at the “Jerusalem Council” in their determination whether Gentiles must adopt the ceremonial aspects of the Law to be saved (Acts 15:6-11). And so the conversion of Cornelius and his household becomes a crucial event in Acts.
Cornelius was a Roman centurion and wealthy man. But he was also what we now call a “God-fearer,” that is, one who worshiped the God of Israel and was probably attached to a synagogue but had not adopted the ceremonial aspects of the Law, such as circumcision, and so were not full members of the Jewish community. He was also a pious man who prayed continually and gave of his abundance to the poor. On one afternoon, he was praying when the Lord spoke to him in a vision informing him that both his prayers and his alms “have ascended as a memorial before God” and that he was to send for a certain Simon (Peter) who was presently staying in Joppa with another Simon (a tanner).
Let us take away from this forthwith that God responds to heartfelt sincere prayer and generous giving. We earn nothing from God by doing these things but they do please Him – and Him we wish to please. As for the vision, we must be aware that this time in which we are engaged in the Book of Acts was a special time in the Church’s history in which the New Testament had not yet been written. God did indeed speak through visions to his people, especially the apostles and prophets. But we must understand now that the word of God has been confirmed and “inscripturated,” we have no need of visions, for we have God’s word. I have heard stories that Muslims are coming to faith in the Middle East through visions where Jesus comes and speaks to them. I will not deny it. Perhaps there are no Bibles in their language and so God works in a special way in that place. I cannot tell. I do know that we in America have no excuse for chasing visions and dreams as the definitive word has come to us through Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2).
But let us bear in mind that we are Gentiles, who were once “separated from Christ…having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). The account of Cornelius is our reason for rejoicing that we were not left behind.