The Baptism of Cornelius
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
There are groups who believe in the direct operation of the Holy Spirit in their lives today. As proof that the Holy Spirit comes upon believers, they will cite the conversion of Cornelius and his household. Some will even go so far as to claim that a person is not really saved unless they experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Yet, they won't go so far as to declare that those who do not experience the direct working of the Spirit to be non-Christians. It is almost as if they view the world as containing two classes of Christians. The regular, everyday variety and those who have been invited into the inner circle by the Spirit of God.
To keep things in perspective, let us examine the events leading up to the conversion of Cornelius in detail.
The church was established on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. The event was accompanied by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, and possibly others who were gathered with them (Acts 1:13-15; 2:1-4). Later that day about 3,000 were baptized and added to the Lord's church (Acts 2:41, 47). Peter promised those who were baptized that the Holy Spirit would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Those who believe in the direct operation of the Spirit today would have us read this verse to say that we are receiving the Holy Spirit, Himself, as the gift. Yet, the verse is actually stating that those who were forgiven of their sins would receive a gift from the Holy Spirit.
Notice that the word "gift" is singular. Yet, miraculous gifts from the Spirit are usually mentioned as a plural. What singular gift does the Spirit give to every Christian? "For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit" (Hebrews 6:4). The Hebrew writer also speaks of the heavenly gift of the Holy Spirit in which we have been made partakers. We also know that salvation is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). More specifically, Paul says the Spirit of God is our guarantee of salvation. "In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation--having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory" (Ephesians 1:13-14). Salvation is a gift that every Christian receives and the Holy Spirit guarantees that we will receive that gift when this world comes to an end.
Several years pass and the church grew to tremendous numbers. Yet, all of its members came from the Jewish nation. Of particular interest is the start of the church in Samaria. Philip came preaching the word and performing miracles among the people. The people believed the teaching of Philip and were baptized (Acts 8:12-13). "Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." (Acts 8:14-15). Even though the people in Samaria were baptized, they did not immediately receive the ability to use miraculous gifts. Even though Philip was among them demonstrating the power of God by gifts of the Spirit, it is apparent that he was not given permission to pass those gifts on to others. The gifts came only when the apostles laid their hands on the people (Acts 8:17). "Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands" (Acts 8:18).
Notice that there was a gap in time when people became children of God and when some of them received the ability to do miraculous deeds. Later, Paul mentions that not all Christians were able to perform miracles. "All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?" (I Corinthians 12:29-30). Hence, we must conclude that a person does not need to have the gifts of the Spirit to prove they have been saved.
In all the years that the church grew at the beginning, there is no mention of the Spirit coming directly upon the disciples as He did on the day of Pentecost. Instead, we find the gifts of the Spirit being spread by the apostles laying hands on believers.
It also appears that the early church began to think that only Jews could become Christians. After all Christians in the very early church were all once Jews.
In Acts 10, we are introduced to a godly man, named Cornelius (Acts 10:1-5). Cornelius is instructed to send for a man named Peter. Cornelius immediately dispatches trusted men to invite Peter to his home. Meanwhile God gives Peter a puzzling vision (Acts 10:9-17). The key point of the vision was a warning, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." (Acts 10:15). The men from Cornelius arrived at the same time the vision ended. The Spirit instructed Peter to go with the men. Some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied Peter on the trip (Acts 10:23).
When Peter arrived he told Cornelius, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for" (Acts 10:28-29). Cornelius then explains why he sent for Peter and concludes, "So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord." (Acts 10:33).
Peter then presents a lesson to Cornelius and his household, but in the midst of that lesson the Holy Spirit falls on those gathered just as He had done at the beginning of the church (Acts 10:44-48). "All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God" (Acts 10:45-46). They were amazed because the pouring out of the Spirit came upon Gentiles. They were amazed because this was the second time that this event had happened. Peter comments on this unusual event, "And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'" (Acts 11:15-16). Peter was reminded of the words of Jesus, which he had not thought about in a while. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was not an everyday occurrence. It had only occurred twice: on the day of Pentecost and at the teaching of Cornelius' household.
Please notice that the coming of the Spirit did not make Cornelius good or religious. Cornelius was "a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually" (Acts 10:2) before God spoke to Cornelius through an angel. It was his deeds that brought him to the attention of God (Acts 10:4). He enjoyed a good reputation among mankind as well (Acts 10:22). Many claim that men are born so depraved that they cannot become religious without the intervention of God. Yet, here is a religious man, who because of his good deeds God takes notice and selects him for a special purpose. Even with his good deeds, he was not saved because he was instructed to send for Peter to learn what God would have him to do.
The Spirit did not produce faith in Cornelius when He came upon his household. Peter said the faith was produced by the message he delivered. "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe" (Acts 15:7). The purpose of the Spirit's coming was to be a witness to their faith. "And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us" (Acts 15:8). Even though faith is something that cannot be seen, God revealed what was inside by the sending of the Spirit. Nor did the coming of the Spirit cleanse them of their sins. "He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9).
Please take note of this important point. The baptism of the Spirit did not save Cornelius and his household. The salvation came by the words which Peter taught. "He reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, 'Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household'" (Acts 11:13-14). Paul later confirms this when he stated, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16).
Yet even after being baptized by the Spirit, Peter commanded Cornelius and his household to be baptized. ""Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?" And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ." (Acts 10:47-48). You see, Peter was there to tell Cornelius and his household how to be saved. "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:11). Only in Jesus can anyone obtain salvation and the way into Christ is through faith and baptism. "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:26-28). Far too many desire to separate faith from baptism, but it is the combination that saves. "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be save" (Mark 16:16).
It is amazing how people emphasize the miraculous gifts of the Spirit and claim that one is not saved until those gifts are demonstrated. Do you not realize that there were many wonders involved in the saving of the Gentiles? Why are they not emphasized? An angel was sent by God to Cornelius to tell him who he needed to talk to about salvation. Must people today wait until an angel appears to give them directions to a particular preacher? We are not talking about a "feeling" or a "leading." Cornelius knew he was addressing an angel and the message from the angel was very clear and direct.
Peter was given a vision indicating he should speak to the Gentiles. Should preachers today sit in their offices until they receive permission from God to speak His message? Peter was also directly told to go with Cornelius's men (Acts 10:19-20). Must preachers today wait for the Spirit to tell them were they are to go before spreading the Word? Again, this was not a "feeling" or a "leading," but a direct command of God.
Why is it that one miracle is emphasized when four were involved?
A better question is to ask why God sent the Spirit to these Gentiles? As we have shown, the Spirit was not sent to bring salvation. We are given a hint by Paul. "But I have written very boldly to you on some points, as reminding you, because of the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:15-16). The offering of the Gentiles became acceptable because it was sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Do you remember God's warning to Peter not to call unclean what God called clean? The coming of the Spirit proved God's acceptance of the Gentiles. They were set apart (sanctified) for salvation.
Paul tells us that the gift of speaking in other languages (tongues) was a sign for unbelievers (I Corinthians 14:22). Even though brethren from Joppa had accompanied Peter, they did not believe the Gentiles could be saved. The gift of speaking in other languages was a sign to these unbelievers that God did plan to save the Gentiles. Later this same witness convinced other brethren who questioned Peter's right to go to the Gentiles. "And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, "You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them." But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, ... "And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?" When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life."" (Acts 11:2-4, 15-18). God bore witness to the Jewish Christians that there was no distinction between Jew and Gentile. "And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith." (Acts 15:8-9).
For a detailed study on the conversion of Cornelius, see When Was Cornelius Saved?