At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort,a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
Understanding And Applying the Text
Luke opens this section by showing the type of person Cornelius was. First, he was a centurion. A centurion was a middle-level officer in the Roman army. From a social standpoint, centurions were commoners. They were outside the small senatorial and equestrian elites which dominated the empire.
A soldier joined the Roman army as a ranker. Most centurions were rankers who came up through the ranks. So Cornelius was around 50 years old. It took around 16 years to reach the rank of centurion.
Centurions led from the front. As a result, casualty rates were high. They commanded the base tactical units in the army. Most rankers never made it above principales. Principales were junior officers. Centurions were the most important officers in the army.
Centurions were responsible for unit discipline. As a result, their men often hated them. They carried a Vitis or vine-stick. A Vitis was a badge of rank. But it was also more. The stick was often used to beat rankers. Tacitus tells about a centurion given the nickname Da mihi alteram! (“Give-me-another!”). He would break his stick beating his men and then shout for another one.
Rome paid Centurions well. This made them wealthy.
Cornelius may or may not have been a Roman citizen. Centurions were often rewarded with Roman citizenship after 25 years of service.
The Roman troops, stationed in Judea, were auxiliaries. Cornelius was part of the Italian cohort. A cohort was a Roman military unit of about 600 soldiers. It was one-tenth of a legion. The Italian Cohort was the “cohors II Italica.” They were stationed in Syria in A.D. 88.
Second Cornelius feared God. He had taken care to instruct his household to fear God. Cornelius’ household consisted of everyone who lived in his house. His wife, children, servants, and maids.
Luke describes Cornelius as “a devout man who feared God”. Luke does not call him a God-fearer. God-fearers were Gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel and kept the Mosaic law. But they did not take the final step of circumcision.
Being a “God-fearer” may have overstated Cornelius status. Rome held the Jewish religion in contempt. A Jew would not work on the Sabbath. Soldiers needed to work regardless of the day.
While Cornelius was not a Roman citizen. Rome could grant him citizenship as a reward for his service. A Roman citizen could not receive any strange religion. Roman considered Judaism a strange religion. So while Cornelius may have worshiped God, he was not a Jewish convert.
Third Cornelius gave generously to the people. While he was a strict disciplinarian with his soldiers. Cornelius was nonetheless generous. These two are not incompatible.
Fourth he prayed continually. Cornelius’ faith was small. He did not understand the significance of Israel’s God. But what little faith he had, drove him to his knees in prayer.
Caesarea was a seaport on the Mediterranean. It was sixty-five miles northwest of Jerusalem. Caesarea was a Gentile city. It was a Roman administration center. Herod the Great oversaw the city’s rebuilding and improvements.
Cornelius had a vision. This was like Paul’s Damascus road experience. While God did not knock him down and Christ Himself did not appear, Cornelius had a vision from heaven. It is interesting Paul’s and Cornelius’ reactions are similar. They were both called by name. And they were both terrified. They both asked, what do you want?
Cornelius saw a vision. He was not in a trance, like Peter. Luke tells us Cornelius’ vision was a historical event. Luke gives us the time of day it occurred. This is about 3:00 in the afternoon. Christianity is a religion based in history. Christ’s death and resurrection are historical events.
Cornelius’ response was to ask, “What is it, Lord?” The meaning is Yes Lord, what is it? Cornelius was not asking two questions. What is it? Is that you Lord? He knew he was dealing with the divine.
The angel told him God heard his prayers and accepted his alms. We learn here that prayer and good works please God. And God rewards them with great reward. “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful in a few things, I will set thee over many things,” (Matthew 25:21.)
Many err when trying to understand this. They err in two ways. They believe a man creates his own faith from his own efforts and power. They deny the grace of God by insisting God grants grace on the merits of works. Second, they believe our good works are meritorious. And that, Gods grace increases as we deserve more of it.
They would claim that Cornelius’ works caused God’s grace. So, works went before faith. It is not difficult to show their error. Cornelius could not have anything by prayer unless faith went first. Faith opens the gate for us to pray. It was the heretic Pelagius, who denied the need for grace. He said faithful prayers gave us faith. The fear of God proves that Cornelius was regenerate by the Spirit. Even though at this point he knew nothing of Christ. This explains why we say his faith was small. It was incomplete. The Holy Spirit worked faith in Cornelius. But we must ground faith in something. He could not have faith in Christ. He had no knowledge of Christ.
The angel told Cornelius to send men to Joppa. God does not tell him to go himself. Why send for Peter. Why doesn’t the angel teach Cornelius? God works on so many plains we cannot imagine. But here three are clear to us. God’s purpose was greater than teaching Cornelius. God’s purpose was to teach Peter, and the church through Peter, He included Gentiles in the Kingdom of God. And third, even though there was divine intervention. God still used common means i.e. the foolishness of preaching to change men’s hearts. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 1:17). For since in the wisdom of God, the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. (1 Corinthians 1:21)
The angel told Cornelius who to get and where he was. Then the angel left.
Cornelius explained everything that happened to his servant and a soldier. The soldier may be from the ranks or from his personal staff. We can understand the phrase “who served him” either way. It made sense to send a soldier. He provided protection during the journey. But the chosen soldier was devout. This indicates Cornelius was diligent in teaching all around him about God.
How many times have you heard someone say they would believe if God showed them a true miracle. God has determined the means He uses. He brings sinners to Him through the foolishness of preaching.