Q: #480. Who was Cornelius in the Bible?
A: The story of Cornelius is found in (Acts 10:1-48). We learn from the first two verses in this chapter these things about Cornelius:
He was from Caesarea (the Roman capital of Judea)
He was a Roman centurion (of the Italian Regiment)
He was a devout man
He feared God (as did his entire household)
He gave many alms (gave generously to those in need)
He prayed to God continually (often)
When it says that Cornelius “feared God” (also see: Acts 10:22), this means he was a man who believed in, and came to worship the God of the Jews, but was not technically a Jew (also see: Acts 10:35, Acts 13:16,26). He would not have been circumcised. However, it appears that he was respected by the Jews (Acts 10:22), which would have been very unusual for someone who was a Roman centurion (one who commanded a regiment of 100 men). In (Acts 10:3-6), we see an angel appearing to Cornelius while he was praying (at “about the ninth hour” [3 pm], a Jewish time of prayer), saying his “prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God,” and also telling him to send for Peter. Immediately after the angel left, Cornelius sent men (6 – Acts 11:12) to go get Peter (Acts 10:7). (Peter was in Joppa, app. 36 miles away, a two days journey: Acts 10:8-9,30.) (The immediacy with which Cornelius does this shows his devotion to God.)
In the meantime, God also prepares Peter to go and meet Cornelius, showing him in a vision that He is going offer salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-16). Peter does not immediately understand this vision, but as he is pondering it, the men sent from Cornelius arrive (Acts 10:19-23). He leaves with them the next day to go to Cornelius. After he arrives, Cornelius shares with Peter the vision he was given (Acts 10:30-33). Now, Peter appears to understand the vision that God gave to him (Acts 10:28, 34-35), and he begins to share the Gospel with Cornelius and those gathered with him (Acts 10:36-43). As he is doing so, suddenly the Holy Spirit falls on those Peter is preaching to, and they begin to speak in tongues (Acts 10:44-46). Peter then decides they should be baptized (Acts 10:47-48).
As a result of what happened in these verses, Cornelius became the first Gentile convert to Christianity. The Bible tells us in (Acts 17:26-27)(Heb 11:6)(Jer 29:13)(Deut 4:29) that if we seek God, we will find Him. Cornelius is a great example of this.
*** Note: Peter re-tells this story to those in Jerusalem in (Acts 11:1-18), and alludes to it at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7-11).
P.S. As I speak of here, I believe the Bible teaches that God does not hear the prayer of a non-Christian. Some use Cornelius as an example that God does. However, I disagree with this for two reasons. First, I strongly suspect Cornelius may have believed in Jesus, however, he had not fully heard the Gospel, nor had salvation as yet been offered to the Gentiles. As such, his prayers would be heard. Secondly, even if Cornelius was not a believer, God providentially used Cornelius to bring salvation to the Gentiles. (He had to start with someone.)
Related: How many centurions are mentioned in the Bible?