Luke highlights the conversion of Cornelius because of its value in describing the universality of the gospel, but in so doing he also describes in one man a series of admirable qualities, those to which any sober-minded man would gladly aspire. By virtue of being a Roman centurion, he had to possess in himself unmistakable and remarkable qualities of leadership and submission. William Barclay quotes an unnamed ancient historian who describes the qualifications of a Roman centurion: “Centurions are desired not to be overbold and reckless so much as good leaders, of steady and prudent mind, not prone to take the offensive to start fighting wantonly, but able when overwhelmed and hard-pressed to stand fast and die at their posts.”
A Roman legion consisted of six thousand men. Each legion was then divided into ten cohorts of six hundred men. A cohort was divided into three bands and each band into two centuries. As a centurion, Cornelius was over one of these centuries, or one hundred men (eighty soldiers and 20 servants), and demonstrated both submission to authority and leadership skills. The band to which Cornelius was attached was called the Italian band, probably because it consisted of those who were from Italy. There was a well known and esteemed patrician family in Rome by the name of Cornelia and many commentators suggest the possibility that Cornelius was connected with that family.
Cornelius was not only a capable military leader, but he had personal qualities that endeared him to the people. Luke records that he had “a good report among all the nations of the Jews” (Acts 10:22). Luke further records that he was a just man, and one that feared God, gave much alms to the people and prayed to God alway (Acts 10:2, 22). This was not altogether uncommon, for another centurion during Jesus’ day had supported the Jews and had even built them a sysnagogue (Luke 7:1-5). It was said that he “loved our nation” and was worthy to receive an answer to his request (vv. 4,5). Cornelius was also such a man.
There has been much discussion over the religious state of Cornelius. Some have tried to make Cornelius a Jewish proselyte. But the truth of the matter is the Text no where states that Cornelius was a proselyte to the Jewish faith. In fact, it rather states the opposite. Albert Barnes outlines the reasons well: “But there is no sufficient evidence of this. The reception of the narrative of Peter, Acts 11:1-3, shows that the other apostles regarded him as a Gentile. In Act 10:28, Peter evidently regards him as a foreigner – one who did not in any sense esteem himself to be a Jew. In Acts 11:1, it is expressly said that ‘the Gentiles’ had received the Word of God, evidently alluding to Cornelius and to those who were with him.” The Pulpit Commentary observes, “he is spoken of simply as a Gentile and uncircumcised. . .he was in no sense a proselyte.”
And yet the Text speaks of him as a “devout” and “just” man and as one “that feared God” and “prayed to God alway” (Acts 10:1,2,22). His prayers went up to God as a memorial (Acts 10:4). Since he wasn’t a Christian yet, and since he wasn’t a proselyte, then how could he be described as devout? Brother Woods answers that “the only conclusion harmonizing the difficulties of the case” is that Cornelius “was worshipping God under the system of patriarchy” (Questions and Answers Open Forum Freed-Hardeman College Lectures, 1976).
It does seem either that 1) Cornelius was under the law of patriarchy and his prayers were offered while he was still amenable to that system, and God heard them with a view to answering them or 2), his prayers simply went up to God as a memorial and God arranged mercifully in His providence for Cornelius to hear the gospel of Christ, as He does for all those that seek Him (e.g., II Pet. 3:9). For more discussion on Cornelius and his prayer see Does God Hear The Alien Sinner’s Prayer?
Regardless of the answer, it is significant that God chose Cornelius of all the Gentiles in the world to be the first to be brought into the body, thus fulfilling the mystery that “in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Ephesians 3:5-6). This alone speaks volumes of his character. God only chooses the right people for the job, and Cornelius was that man.
The Lord’s approval of him, and all those that likewise trusted in Him there that day, is seen in His bestowing the gift of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius even before he had obeyed the gospel (Acts 10:44-48). This pouring out of the gift of the Holy Ghost (not the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which was reserved for the apostles alone – John 14:26; 16:13), without the laying on of their hands (Acts 8:18), demonstrated that God had granted unto the Gentiles repentance unto life (Acts 11:18). The conversion of Cornelius demonstrated to Peter that God was “no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him (Acts 10:34,35).
Eric L. Padgett