The Centurion’s Vision
The reign of the Roman Emperor lasted from 41 to 54 AD.
The centurion’s vision DIG: What kind of a man was Cornelius? Since he was part of an occupying army, what is unusual about him? About this encounter with ADONAI? What was the state of Jewish-Gentile relations at that time? What did the Bible teach? What can you say about the division? What do you think caused the schism? What do you think God felt about the difference?
REFLECT: Has God ever done something miraculous for you? Is so, what was it? Why is that action significant to you? What does it mean to revere God? Does that describe you? Why or why not? If evaluated by how you treated others this week, what would others say? What memorial offering does your lifestyle present before the Lord? How does the life of Cornelius challenge you?
Chapter 10 is pivotal in the book of Acts, for it records the salvation of the Gentiles. We see Peter using the keys to the Kingdom (see the commentary on The Life of Christ, to see link click Fx – On This Rock I Will Build My Church) for the third and final time. He had opened the door of faith for the Jews (see An – Peter Speaks to the Shavu’ot Crowd) and also for the Samaritans (see Ba – Simon the Sorcerer), and now he would be used by ADONAI to bring the Gentiles into the congregations of God (Galatians 3:27-28; Ephesians 2:11-22).
This event took place about ten years after Shavu’ot. Why did the apostles wait so long before going to the lost Gentiles? After all, in His Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), Yeshua had told them to go into all the world, and it would therefore seem logical for them to go to their Gentile neighbors as soon as possible. But YHVH has His times as well as His plans, and the transition from the Jews to the Samaritans to the Gentiles was a gradual one.
The stoning of Stephen (see Ax – The Stoning of Stephen) and the subsequent persecution of the Hellenistic Jews marked the climax of the apostles witness to the Jews. Then the gospel moved to the Samaritans. When Ha’Shem saved Sha’ul of Tarsus, He anointed His special envoy to the Gentiles. Now was the time to open the door of faith (Acts 14:27) to the Gentiles and bring them into the family of God.205
The narrative begins by introducing the first main character. His name was Cornelius, and a resident of Caesarea. In all likelihood he was named after P. Cornelius Sulla, the famous Roman general who in 82 BC freed ten thousand slaves, who subsequently were so grateful they took his name. Our Cornelius may well be the descendant of those freed men.206 Luke introduces him as a certain man. This designation frequently marks this person as remarkable in some way (see 5:1-11 and 34, 9:36-43, 14:8-10 and 19:13-17). Caesarea was an important city located on the coast roughly sixty-five northwest of Jerusalem, and thirty miles north of Joppa. Josephus describes Herod’s building up of Caesarea into a major administrative city (Antiquities 15.9.6). It was a seaport, the capital of the Roman province of Judea, and the residence of its procurator. It had an amphitheater, a hippodrome, and a temple dedicated to Caesar. Naturally, a large Roman garrison was stationed there. Among them was Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Cohort (10:1). A Roman legion at full strength consisted of 6,000 men, and was divided into ten cohorts of 600 men each. A centurion commanded 100 of these men, and each legion had 60 centurions, who were considered the backbone of the Roman army. Being an officer in the Roman army would have made him all the more hated by any patriotic Jew. Like the other centurions mentioned in the B’rit Chadashah, Cornelius had reached his rank by proving to be a strong, responsible, reliable man.
Theophilus (Luke 1:3) would perhaps remember Yeshua’s encounter with a centurion at Capernaum who was described as well respected by the Jewish community, much like Cornelius (see the commentary on The Life of Christ Ea – The Faith of the Centurion). Centurions generally are depicted in a favorable light throughout the gospels and Acts. This may well be evidence of the success of early evangelism among the Roman military.207
It may be said that Luke goes out of his way to make it clear that neither Jesus nor His disciples were antagonistic toward the Roman presence in the East or elsewhere, and that in fact even Roman soldiers found the Way (9:2, 19:9 and 23, 22:4, 24:14 and 22) appealing and worth joining.208 Moreover, the Roman army functioned as an agent of “Romanity” through its observance of a calendar of official cults, frequently being defined as an “oasis of religious freedom” on this account. Some soldiers apparently continued to honor their local deities besides the official cults, with no hindrance or objection, a centurion living in Eretz (the land of) Isra’el could apparently openly adopt certain Jewish practices.
Cornelius was a devout man and worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He a God-fearer with all his household. He gave tzedakah generously to the Jewish poor (10:2a). Since God-fearers could not go to the Temple to offer sacrifices, they commonly expressed their commitment to the local synagogue by serving as supporters and donors to the Jewish community. In his gospel, Luke speaks of another well-respected centurion who built a synagogue for the people of Capernaum (see above), perhaps as its main donor, and other people dedicated candlesticks or lamps (Arak. 6b).
And he prayed to God continually (10:2b). Jewish prayer customs in the house included recital of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) and Tefilla (Amidah) on rising and retiring (Ber. 1:1f, 4:1), blessings over the food and grace after meals (Ber 6:1ff), kiddish (the sanctification of Shabbat) (Ber. 8:1), and havdalah (the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the profane days of the week) (Ber. 8:5). However, just how much knowledge of these customs a God-fearer would possess on the one hand, and practiced on the other, remains speculative.
The idea of prayer as the “service of the heart” (10:2) lies at the center of the intention behind all the sacrifices (see the commentary on Exodus Fb – The Five Offerings of the Tabernacle: Christ, Our Sacrificial Offering). A sincere offering of the heart is accepted by ADONAI as a soothing aroma (Leviticus 1:7-9).209 However, just because a person brought a sacrifice to the Tabernacle or Temple did not mean that it produced the desired result (efficacious). If the person’s heart wasn’t in it, if he or she was merely going through the motions of obedience without sincere repentance or gratefulness, the sacrifice was to no avail. People show up to Shabbat services or church all the time with unrepentant, ungrateful hearts, resentful of God, and their prayers bounce off the ceiling (see the commentary on Jeremiah Cc – False Religion is Worthless). Just because you sit in the garage doesn’t make you a car.
In other words, Cornelius is described as performing most of the typical duties of a Jew (prayer, fasting and almsgiving) and was living up to the light he had. The promise of ADONAI is that if people live up to the light they have, then God makes sure they get more light until there is sufficient light given for a decision for salvation. Like Ruth in the TaNaKh (see the commentary on Ruth An – Your People Will Be My People and Your God My God), this God-fearing Gentile had accepted the two essentials of true worship. First, your people will be my people. Although Cornelius did not officially join the Jewish people, he cared for them as his own, and secondly, and your God shall be my God. He prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Or looking at it another way, he had works stemming from faith (Romans 1:5 and 16:26; Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:10 and James 2:14) – which is how the B’rit Chadashah defines true religion (James 1:27), as does the TaNaKh (Micah 6:8; Ecclesiastes 12:13).210
Cornelius had a seeking heart; he had lived up to the light he had and ADONAI was about to give him more. This is the necessary balance to divine election – that God responds to the seeking, willing heart (Isaiah 55:6-7: Jeremiah 29:13; John 7:17). Divine election and human responsibility are both the clear teaching of the Bible. Salvation is both accomplished by YHVH and commanded of sinners. Although our limited comprehension does not allow us to harmonize them, there is no conflict in the mind of God.211 Because of the Lord’s sovereign election of Cornelius, and in response to his seeking heart, ADONAI moved to prepare him.
The difference between Cornelius and many “religious” people today is that the Roman centurion knew that his religious devotion was not sufficient to save him. Many religious people today are satisfied that their character and good works will get them to heaven, and they have no concept of either their own sin or of God’s grace. In his prayers, Cornelius was asking God to show him the way of salvation (Acts 11:13-14).212
Cornelius was engaged in his daily prayer time at three in the afternoon, also known as the ninth hour of the day (three o’clock in the afternoon), Cornelius was praying. Luke’s reference to the ninth hour would seem to suggest that some who lived away from Yerushalayim prayed at the same hours when the offerings were sacrificed in the Temple (Jud. 9:1). This view is supported by the angel’s description of Cornelius’ prayers as having gone up as a memorial offering before God” (see 10:4b below), which recalls the description of part of the Grain Offering in the TaNaKh as a memorial offering (Hebrew: azkara). Likewise, Luke states that Peter’s arrival at the house of Cornelius (see Bg – Peter Goes to the House of Cornelius) four days later was the same exact time of day when the angel had appeared to Cornelius as he was praying (10:30).213
At that time, Cornelius clearly saw a vision (see Bf – Peter’s Vision: A closer look at visions or dreams). This was not a dream, nor was it actually happening. This vision came in the “mind’s eye” of Cornelius. At the same time, it was so vivid that later he would say: Suddenly, a man stood in front of me in shining clothes (10:30).214 In his vision, angel of God came to him and said, “Cornelius!” The centurion stared at him in terror even though he recognized that the angel was a messenger from God. Much like Paul on the Damascus road, Cornelius addressed the heavenly angel with respect and said: What is it, lord (Greek: master) (10:3-4a)?
The angel was quick to reassure Cornelius that God was aware of his piety, saying to him, “Like the smoke of incense, your prayers and tzedakah (charitable giving) have gone up as a memorial offering before God” (10:4b). The term memorial (literally meaning remembrance) is sacrificial language (Leviticus 2:2, 9 and 16; Hebrews 13:15ff). Cornelius’ prayers and works of charity had risen like the sweet savor of a sincerely offered sacrifice, well pleasing to YHVH (Philippians 4:18).215 ADONAI knew Cornelius’ heart. He was a devout man, and worshiped Him to the best of his knowledge. But despite Cornelius’ sincerity and devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he could not be saved apart from a correct understanding of the gospel of Yeshua Messiah (Acts 4:12). Ha’Shem was arranging to provide him with that knowledge. Specifically, the angel told him to send men to Joppa and call for Simon, also named Peter, to distinguish him from Simon the Tanner with whom Peter was staying. He is being entertained as a guest by Simon the tanner, whose house is beside the sea (10:5-6).
When the angel speaking to him had left, Cornelius, in true military fashion, responded immediately. Still very much in the dark about what God had in mind for him, Cornelius called two of his God fearing servants (10:2) and a devout soldier (who was probably a God-fearer like himself) from among those attached to his command (10:7). The word for servant (Greek: oiketes) refers to household servants who were considered part of the family, as opposed to male slaves (Greek: doulos). The Greek text adds that all three continually waited on him, which is a classical expression for “orderlies.” Therefore, Cornelius was careful to choose his most trustworthy attendants to go to Joppa and seek Peter.216
After Cornelius explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa (10:8). This was a long journey, probably traveling on horseback. They must have left immediately because they arrived at noon the next day (10:9). However, why send for Peter who was thirty miles (48 km) away in Joppa, when Philip the evangelist was already in Caesarea (Acts 8:40)? It was because Peter, not Philip, had been given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and that door could not be opened until he unlocked it.
It is difficult for us to grasp the impassable gulf that existed in those days between the Jews on the one hand and the Gentiles on the other. Not that the TaNaKh approved of such a divide. On the contrary, alongside the oracles against the Gentile nations, it affirmed that YHVH had a purpose for them. By choosing and blessing one family, He intended to bless all the families of the earth, “I will bless those who bless you, but whoever curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). So, the psalmists and the prophets foretold of the day when ADONAI’s Messiah would inherit the nations (Psalm 2:7-8, 22:27-28, Isaiah 2:1ff, 42:6, 49:6; Joel 2:28ff), God’s Servant would be their light, all nations would flow to the LORD’s Holy Temple, and Ha’Shem would pour out His Ruach on all mankind. The tragedy was that Isra’el twisted the doctrine of election into one of favoritism, became filled with racial pride and hated, despised the Gentiles as “dogs” and developed traditions that kept them apart. No orthodox Jew would ever enter the home of a Gentile, even a God-fearer, or invite such a one into his home (10:28). On the contrary, all interaction with Gentiles was strictly forbidden and no pious Jew would ever sit down at a table with a Gentile.217 Yet, these three Gentiles were on their way to a Jew’s house to sit down and talk to him! What might they be talking about along their 30-mile journey to Joppa?