So far in our study of the book of Acts, we have seen how the disciples took up the challenge that Jesus left them, to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). But the early Christians were all Jews, and because they were rooted in their own culture, it didn’t occur to them that Jesus’ message was for all people everywhere, not just for the Jews (Matt 28:19). So God needed to intervene supernaturally to open their eyes to his true purpose for the church.
On Sunday, David Gawler preached about the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus – how God called Saul to be a witness to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews (Acts 9:15). But to start with, Saul too worked among the Jewish Christians. So to help the early Christians ‘get it’, God looked for a non-Jew who was ready to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and to join the Christian church. And so we come to Acts 10, and we are introduced to Cornelius.
Cornelius was a centurion in the Roman army, stationed in Caesarea as part of the ‘Italian Cohort’. This means he would have been a middle ranking army officer, with 60-100 men under his command, as well as a comfortable household with several servants. We’re not told what his race actually was, though he was certainly not Jewish.
So why did God choose Cornelius to be the man to show his purpose to the early church? Acts 10:2 tells us his main qualifications: Cornelius was a devout, God-fearing man; he gave generously to the poor; and he prayed continually to God. And he led his household to share his values. Think about this list for a moment – these are all attributes of Cornelius’ character, it’s not a list of his achievements in life.
These character qualities are quite similar to the characteristics that were identified in Acts 6:3, when the church chose the seven deacons. And God is looking for the same kind of people today. He is not so interested in your position, or what you’ve done, but he is interested in your character. Are you, like Cornelius, ready and willing for God to speak to you?
Of course, not all of us will get such a dramatic vision as Cornelius did, in the middle of one afternoon as he was praying. In Cornelius’ case, God wanted to be dramatic, so that Peter and the rest of the church would have no doubt that God had intervened, as you can see if you read on through the rest of the chapter. But make no mistake, God is always interested to speak to people who are ready to hear him. Ask yourself: are you one of those people?
And look how Cornelius responds to God’s calling. He makes himself completely vulnerable in his next actions. He could just have sent some servants to Joppa to find Peter, like God told him to. After all, he was a man in authority in the army, and he was used to telling his servants what to do, and they were used to doing what they were told without question. But Cornelius didn’t just give an order. In verse 8 it says he ‘related everything to them’ before sending them on their trip to locate Peter.
Can you imagine the personal risk he took? What might his servants think when he started talking about an angel appearing in the middle of the afternoon? He might lose all their respect. But no, he told them everything, because he was sure that God would be true to his word. And more than that, knowing how long it would take them to get to Joppa, find Peter, and come back again, on the fourth day Cornelius had gathered all his relatives and friends to see what would happen next (v24). Think of the personal risk there – as far as I can see, God didn’t tell him what was going to happen when Peter got there, but Cornelius has invited everybody round in anticipation.
That’s a challenge for us too. Are we willing to act in faith when God speaks to us? Are we willing to be completely vulnerable, even when we don’t know what the outcome will be? If, like Cornelius, we are willing, God can speak to us too. And only God knows what amazing things he might do through us, if we are willing to be vulnerable to him!