What an interesting man Cornelius is. He is a Gentile, first of all. This is the matter of chief importance, because this is an account of the opening of the door of the Gospel to the Gentiles. He is also a centurion. A centurion was a Roman military officer who had command of one hundred men. Cornelius’ group was called “the Italian Regiment.”
It is interesting to note that this is not the only place in the New Testament where we are introduced to a centurion. We find these men several times in the Gospels and in Acts, and in every instance they are highly commended. One of them, who came into contact with Jesus, was praised by Him with the words: “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matt. 8:10). Cornelius followed in this path.
We are told a number of additional things about him, all of which are indications of his genuine faith (v. 2): 1) he was devout; 2) he was God-fearing; 3) he was active in his piety, giving to all who were in need; and 4) he prayed to God regularly.
That Cornelius was a “God-fearer” meant that although he worshiped Jehovah he had nevertheless not become a Jew by circumcision. God-fearers were Gentiles who expressed interest in Judaism and attended worship in the synagogue, but who, because they had not yet fully converted to Judaism by circumcision, had to sit in the back as observers rather than as full participants in the community. In the eyes of Jewish people it was a good thing to be a God-fearer. It meant that the people involved were on the right religious track. Nevertheless, because they were not yet Jews, it was improper for Jews to associate with them socially.
This was basic to the problem, of course. Peter would have had no trouble associating with Cornelius if Cornelius had previously come into the fold of Judaism by circumcision. His being a Roman would have been no problem. If he was a Jewish proselyte, Peter could have gone to him easily. But Cornelius had not done that. Though he had been exposed to the God of Israel, he was nevertheless still a Gentile.
This raises an interesting question in my mind, and the question is: Was Cornelius regenerate? Was he born again? This is not as easy to answer as one might think. It would be hard to put him in the category of the pagans described in Romans 1, or even those described in Romans 2. Granted, he had nothing in his background that could commend him to God. Granted, he was ignorant of Jesus Christ. That is what Peter was sent to Caesarea to tell him about. But Cornelius was seeking the true God. He was attending synagogue services. He was listening to the Jewish Scriptures. He was praying. Is it possible to seek God—really seek God—unless God is first at work to draw a person to Him? Is it possible to pray so that God hears the prayer and responds without first being born again? Is it possible to do good deeds that God notes and recognizes without being regenerate?
As I say, I am not sure of the answer we should give to that question. Part of it depends upon how we define what theologians call “prevenient grace,” that is, the work of the Holy Spirit in preparing one to receive the Gospel. But whether this man was already regenerate and now just needed to be taught more fully, or whether the Holy Spirit was merely at work in his life in what we would call an “external way,” making him dissatisfied with his paganism and bringing him into contact with a better way so he could begin to learn about the God of Israel (and if I had to choose, I would say that this is probably the case), it is certainly the case that Cornelius had been prepared for what Peter was being sent to Caesarea to tell him.
Those are important points, because they are a necessity for anyone. Everyone needs to have his or her heart prepared by God if that person is going to receive the Gospel. Your heart needs to be prepared, if you are to receive it. Yet the person also needs to hear the way of salvation.