While it is not a matter that has immediate soteriological implications, the question of whether or not the household of Cornelius received the baptism of the Holy Spirit is important. What we understand about it affects other doctrines which we may believe, if we are logically consistent. Just as the doctrine of the literal, personal indwelling may not alone affect one’s salvation, often it is the gateway which leads to other errors about the Holy Spirit which do affect one’s salvation. Thus it is with Cornelius and Holy Spirit baptism. This author holds to the view that Cornelius and his household were not baptized in the Holy Spirit and the following sets forth the reasons why this view is held.
First, and most importantly, the promise of Holy Spirit baptism was given to the apostles alone. In John 14:26 Jesus promised “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26 ). Again, in the same setting, Jesus promised “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come” (John 16:13). This promise was given when Jesus was alone with the Twelve (Matt. 26:20).
Luke records that when Jesus had been raised from the dead he appeared to the apostles, i.e., Twelve, and showed Himself alive by many infallible proofs (Acts 1:2,3). It was then that He again promised the baptism of the Holy Spirit to them. “And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (Acts 1:4-5). Notice that He said the apostles had heard this from Him, referring back to the promise contained in John 14:26 and 16:13. These were promises of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and these promises were given only to the apostles. Furthermore, when we follow the pronouns in the first and second chapter of Acts, we find that they refer back to the apostles of verse two. Only they had the Spirit empower them through this baptism (Acts 2:1-4, 14).
Notice also that the promise was to be fulfilled “not many days hence” in Jerusalem, not a decade later at the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. If it was not fulfilled on the day of Pentecost then Peter was mistaken when he said “this is that” (Acts 2:17). According to some, he should have said “this is only partly that” which was spoken by the prophet Joel. Again, if it was not fulfilled in Jerusalem, then Jesus was mistaken.
What seems so inconsistent to this author is that many writers will make the point made above but will come back when dealing with Cornelius and say that he and his household also received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. If the Lord’s promise was only to the apostles, then why should we try to expand that promise to others? The baptism of the Holy Spirit was promised only to the apostles, never to anyone else. We should not be more generous than the Lord.
But because the apostles were baptized in the Holy Spirit, this meant that others would also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, i.e., miraculous endowments, in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-32). Peter said that the apostles’ receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit was the fulfillment of that prophecy (Acts 2:17). But the prophecy mentions “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” and servants and handmaidens would “prophesy” (Acts 2:17,18). When did this occur? Only when the apostles had laid their hands upon others did this occur (Acts 8:18). They received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) when the apostles conferred upon them this ability and not until then. But the baptism of the apostles in the Holy Spirit (i.e., being endued with power from on high – Acts 1:8) was necessary for this to happen.
Second, the household of Cornelius did not receive the same abilities that the baptism of the Holy Spirit provided the apostles. The apostles were endowed with the power to remember everything that Jesus had taught them and were guided into all truth (John 14:26; 16:13). They also had the power to impart spiritual gifts to others through laying their hands on them (Acts 8:18). They were also given the power to act as ambassadors, beseeching the world to be reconciled to God (II Cor. 5:19,20). They had the power to bind on earth those things already bound in heaven (Matt. 16:18,19). The apostles had the power to come with the rod of correction (II Cor. 13:1-3, 10; cf. Acts 13:9-11). There were miraculous signs associated with being apostles given by the baptism of the Holy Spirit that Cornelius and his household never received (II Cor. 12:12). Furthermore, the household of Cornelius did not receive cloven tongues like as of fire that sat upon each of them, nor was there the sound of a rushing mighty wind, as had happened at Pentecost with the apostles (Acts 2:1-4). Even if you could prove that what the household of Cornelius received was a baptism in the sense of being immersed, they still did not receive that which the apostles received.
Even those who argue that Cornelius and his household received the baptism of the Holy Spirit will admit that what they received did not make them the same as apostles.
Some have argued that just as Christians had different gifts, Cornelius and his household had different gifts than the apostles through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But the analogy fails when we realize that the apostles all had the same power. One apostle did not have more inspiration than another. One did not have less authority than another. Holy Spirit baptism did not produce different effects on different people any more than water baptism produces different effects on different people.
Third, what Cornelius and his household received was never referred to as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It was specifically referred to as the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 10:45; 11:17). This is what was promised in Acts 2:38 and was not the baptism of the Holy Spirit. What drew Peter’s thoughts back to Pentecost was the fact that there was no laying on of hands of the apostles here to empower, as had been the case since the day of Pentecost onward. Those who received the gift of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Acts 2:38 received it from the apostles laying their hands upon them and in no other way (Acts 8:18). The events at Cornelius’ home were the exception to that, proving that the Gentiles were also subjects of redemption through Christ. But the uniqueness of the event is no proof that it was Holy Spirit baptism any more than the fact that they received these gifts before they were Christians proved they were saved before baptism. The purpose was to show that God had granted unto the Gentiles repentance unto life (Acts 11:18). The Holy Spirit did not refer to it as Holy Spirit baptism so why should we?
Also, why would anyone think that the Gentiles had to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit to prove that they, too, were the subjects of God’s grace through Christ? Since only the apostles were promised and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and not the Jews in general, why would we think the Gentiles needed to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit? God did not pick Gentile apostles to take the gospel to the Gentiles, he chose a Jew, Paul (Gal. 2:8). Wouldn’t receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, i.e., miraculous gifts (Acts 2:38), be just as much a sign that the Gentiles were also accepted? If not, why not?
Furthermore, Cornelius was probably a wealthy Gentile. His household may have been considerable, including family and servants. Why would the Lord baptize all these, i. e., his household, in the Holy Spirit but be selective with his own Jewish disciples?
Finally, Peter says it was “a like gift” (Acts 11:17). The word “like” here is the word “isen” meaning “equal,” according to Vine. The Analytical Greek Lexicon defines it as “equal, like.” Bauer, Ardnt and Gingrinch also say that the word means “equal.” Thayer says the word means “equal,” though he does translate it “same” in Acts 11:17. How much of this translation is influenced by his theological bias we’ll never know. But being “like” something and two or more things being “the same” are two different concepts entirely. There is another word in the Greek New Testament that could have been used if Luke, who was an educated man, wanted to indicate that these two demonstrations of power were the “same.”
The Greek word “autos” is often translated “same.” For instance, Jesus Christ is the same (autos) yesterday, today, and for ever (Heb. 13:8). The very John that was in the wilderness of Judea preaching was the same (autos) John spoken of by Isaiah and who also had a coat made of camel’s hair (Matt. 3:1-4). What country did the shepherds abide in? The same (autos) country of Judea where Joseph and Mary were (Luke 2:4-8). Paul wrote “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord” (I Cor. 12:4,5). Is there a difference between the “same” (autos) Lord and an “equal” (isos) Lord? If you can see the difference here then you can see the difference between the “like gift” and the “same gift.”
To call what Cornelius and his household received the same as Holy Spirit baptism is to call it something that Peter never called it, that Luke never called it, and that the Holy Spirit Himself never called it. What Cornelius received was equal to what happened on Pentecost in that there was 1) no laying on of the apostle’s hands, which had happened in every case where miraculous power was imparted to an individual since Pentecost onward (except for the apostles, including Paul), and 2) they spoke with tongues, but it was not the same thing. It was not Holy Spirit baptism. If it was, then they would have had what the apostles had and could have done what the apostles could do, just as Paul could do what the other apostles could do and had what the other apostles had. He was not behind the “chiefest” apostles in anything (II Cor. 11:5; 12:11).
Let us call Bible things by Bible names and simply call it what Luke, Peter and the Holy Spirit called it: the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45; 11:17).
Eric L. Padgett