The Lord made arrangements for Cornelius and other Gentiles who joined him to hear the gospel by the mouth of Peter. It was special. We still are talking about Cornelius’ conversion nearly 2,000 years after the fact! Now, to our finalset of questions.
(13) Why did Cornelius and his household receive the Holy Spirit in the manner that they did? It did not occur by means of an apostle laying hands on them. Rather, the Holy Spirit “fell” on Cornelius and those Gentiles who were with him, as He had fallen on the apostles “at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). In this instance, the gift of God’s Spirit was “poured out” on the Gentiles (Acts 10:45). That certainly sounds like Joel’s prophecy, a message which foretold that God would pour out of His Spirit “on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). On Pentecost, He was poured out on Jews (the apostles), and at Cornelius’ house, He was poured out on the Gentiles.
But why did it transpire like that? It was not to help the Gentile hearers understand the truth. It also was not to open their hearts to receive the gospel and Jesus. And, it was not to save them (certainly the Holy Spirit’s activity was linked to their salvation via submission to God’s gospel, but the miraculous outpouring of the Spirit did not, in and of itself, cleanse them of their past sins).
What, then, was the purpose of this outpouring? It was to convince the Jewish disciples that Gentiles could be saved and be part of God’s people just like they were. Six Jewish brethren (Acts 11:12) plus Peter – seven total, witnessed what happened at Cornelius’ house. When Peter went to Jerusalem and rehearsed to Jewish saints why he went to Cornelius’ place and what occurred there (Acts 11:14-17), what was their reaction to Peter’s explanation? “When they heard these things, they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’” (Acts 11:18). God’s plan worked!
(14) When did Cornelius and his household receive the Holy Spirit? When one reads Acts 10, he might get the impression that they received the Spirit at the conclusion of Peter’s message about Jesus. Why? Because it is written, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). Yet, when we read the details which Peter later shared with concerned Jewish brethren, we see a different picture. What was Cephas’ message to them? Whatever it was, he “. . . explained it to them in order from the beginning . . .” (Acts 11:4). How did he relate what had happened? He did it “in order,” and he told it “from the beginning.”
Just what did Peter go on to share with them? God’s angel told Cornelius to send for Peter. Why? Because “he will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved” (11:14). Go on, Peter: “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning” (11:15). As Peter later related, the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house heard the gospel and believed (Acts 15:7). They had to hear the word before they could have faith, because faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17). But remember, Peter said that he rehearsed the events in the order in which they took place, and hesaid that the Holy Spirit fell on them as he began to speak. Thus, the order was: (1) Cornelius and those with him received the Holy Spirit, (2) they heard the word, (3) they believed the gospel, and (4) were saved.
“But that does not sound right. How could they receive the Holy Spirit before they were saved?” We recall, do we not, that this case was a unique event, an exception, if you would? (Acts 11:15). Note that the Bible does not say that the Holy Spirit lived in Cornelius or was in his heart prior to believing and obeying Peter’s message. It says that he and others received him – it was a miraculous manifestation.
(15) How do we know that Cornelius was baptized? The Bible says that Peter “commanded them to be baptized” (Acts 10:48), but that fact does not prove that they were immersed. Why not? Giving a command to people and people obeying that command are two different matters. God commands all people to repent (Acts 17:30), but not everyone does so. Thus, the command to be baptized shows that it was God’s will for it to happen, but it is no guarantee that humans would/will submit to it.
The words of Acts 11:1 are helpful: “Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God.” What did Cornelius and others do? They “received the word of God.” In the book of Acts, when we read that people “received the word,” that includes the idea of being immersed for the remission of sins. In Samaria, the people believed and were baptized (Acts 8:12). The context shows that by doing so, they “received the word of God” (8:14). We see the same thing on the Day of Pentecost: the command to be baptized for remission of sins, and those who received Peter’s word were baptized (2:38,41). Redemption is in the Christ (Colossians 1:13,14), and the only way into Him is via baptism (Romans 6:3,4). So, yes, Cornelius and those with him received the grace of God in Jesus when they were baptized into Him.
— Roger D. Campbell