Connections 04.01.2018: Whatever Happened to Brother Cornelius?

Acts 10:30-43

Cornelius’s story is very important because he and his family are, according to Acts, the first Gentiles to become Christians. So Cornelius matters as a sign of what is to come in the Christian movement and as a representative of those “outsiders” who will come into the church.

But Cornelius is also an individual. He is a human being. He matters as a sign and as a representative, but he also matters as a person.

I wonder whatever happened to Brother Cornelius.

Tradition tells us he became bishop of Caesarea. Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t. Even if we give tradition the benefit of the doubt, that’s all we know.

We can safely assume that he was never the same after he met the resurrected Jesus. That is the case even though he didn’t meet the resurrected Lord in the same way that Saul did on the Damascus Road or that the disciples did in the upper room. Christ didn’t appear to Cornelius. Instead, he came to Cornelius through Peter’s preaching and through the Holy Spirit (vv. 44-48).

The resurrected Christ has been coming to people in those ways ever since. He still does. That’s how he came to us. That’s how he’s coming to others.

Cornelius’s conversion was an important part of what God is doing in the world. When the resurrected Jesus comes to us, we become part of his body, of his movement, and of his cause. This matters. It matters that we are part of what God is doing through the resurrected Jesus to bring about a new heaven and a new earth.

It also matters that Jesus comes to us as individuals. Knowing Jesus and growing in our relationship with him affects how we think, feel, talk, and act. It affects how we relate to those who are closest to us and to those with whom we come into occasional contact.

Having the resurrected Lord come into our lives changes every aspect of them. We become part of the great story God is telling. And our personal stories become even more significant than they already were, because now we can live them in faith, hope, and love.

We can’t know the details of the difference the resurrected Jesus made in Cornelius’s life. We can know more (but not everything) about the difference he makes in ours. Thinking about Cornelius on Easter Sunday helps us think about how meaningful Jesus’ resurrection is for all people, all of creation, and all of history—and for each one of us.

Discussion

1. Who was Cornelius? Why is his conversion such a significant story? What do we need to learn from it?
2. How did the Lord prepare Peter for his meeting with Cornelius? Why did he need such preparation?
3. What does it mean for God to show “no partiality” (v. 34)?
4. How does Peter describe Jesus’ ministry? How can it be a model for ours?
5. Peter and others were witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. What were they supposed to do as his witnesses? How are we witnesses to the resurrected Jesus? What should our experience lead us to do?

Reference Shelf

Verses 34-35 make explicit the gospel’s universal implications. The God behind the gospel is the God of all, “a central theological axiom,” according to Luke Johnson. This God shows no partiality with regard to race, ethnicity, or national origin. Yet v. 35 makes clear that God’s lack of partiality is directed “in any nation [toward] anyone who fears him and does what is right.” It is precisely these people who are “acceptable to him.” The piety of Cornelius, of which readers were reminded in v. 31, does have a bearing on his standing before God.

To make his case that the blessings of the
gospel are for all people who fear God and do what is right, Peter presents the essential kerygma (vv. 36-42). Close reading of this presentation of the kerygma, curiously, does not explicitly make Peter’s case that God shows no partiality. God sent the message of the gospel (logos) to Israel (v. 36a). “That message spread throughout Judea” (v. 37a), the “country of the Jews” (RSV), culminating in “Jerusalem” (v. 39). Even v. 42 states that Jesus commanded his disciples “to preach to the people,” not noting for Cornelius that Jesus explicitly commanded his disciples twice to preach to non-Jews (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). Peter does conclude with an emphatic statement that “all the prophets testify . . . that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness” (v. 43). Still, if one listens to this kerygmatic summary as Cornelius would have heard it, one wonders what exactly would have convinced him that this gospel is for all people.

Readers should recall that the speeches of Acts, as much as they may bear some connection with history, are directed primarily to the readers. Perhaps the opening words of Peter’s speech, “You know” (v. 36, NRSV; v. 37, Greek NT), give away to readers the real audience of these words, for Peter had no reason to assume that Cornelius “knew” the gospel story. But readers do! The primary actors within the kerygmatic summary, God and Jesus, are not unknown figures to the reader. The God who acts in this summary is the God with whom the reader has become quite familiar in the whole narrative of Luke–Acts to this point. It is this God whose Spirit inspired Simeon to proclaim at the beginning of the story that Jesus would be a light to Gentiles (Luke 2:31-32). This same God has just now brought Peter and the Gentile Cornelius together.

Parenthetically, Peter notes that Jesus is “Lord of all” (v. 36). This could speak directly to Cornelius, if he understood pantøn (“all”) to include “all people,” a possible, though not necessary, rendering of the Greek word. Readers, however, recalling that Jesus did command his disciples to proclaim forgiveness of sins to all nations in his name (Luke 24:47), would easily recognize the universal implications of the expression “Lord of all.”

Finally, while Cornelius must simply trust Peter’s declaration that the prophets testify to the universal efficacy of the gospel (v. 43), readers can recall the climactic line of the prophetic quotation that introduced the first sermon preached in Acts: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21, quoting Joel 2:32a). Recollection of this prophetic declaration, especially when combined with the readers’ knowledge of Jesus’ command to preach forgiveness to all nations “in his name,” should convince the reader that the gospel is for all people.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007) 173-74.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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