Cornelius Received the Holy Spirit

A variety of phrases were used to describe what happened to Cornelius and his household.

  • The Spirit fell on them all - Acts 10:44; 11:15
  • The gift of the Spirit had been poured out on them - Acts 10:45
  • The had received the Holy Spirit - Acts 10:47
  • They had been baptized in the Spirit - Acts 11:16
  • God gave them the same gift - Acts 11:17
  • God gave them the Holy Spirit - Acts 15:8

Peter emphasized that the event experienced by Cornelius and his household was the same thing that had happened at the beginning of the Church. "And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, 'John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?" (Acts 11:15-17). Read Peter's words again carefully. It almost sounds like Peter is talking about two different beginnings: at the beginning of the church (i.e. Acts 2) and when the apostles believed. Yet the apostles believed on the Lord Jesus before His death (Matthew 16:18). Was Peter recalling two separate past events or only one?

The answer is that while the apostles did believe on Jesus while he was still on earth, their belief was not based on full knowledge. As Jesus pointed out, the apostles were not ready to hear everything they needed to know. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come" (John 16:12-13). It was not until after Jesus' resurrection that their minds were opened."Then He said to them, "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me." And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, "and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. "And you are witnesses of these things. "Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high"" (Luke 24:44-49). Even with this fuller understanding, they still did not comprehend everything. "Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" And He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth"" (Acts 1:6-8). It would take the Holy Spirit to remind them of everything they needed to know when they were ready to teach the gospel. "These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (John 14:25-26). Hence, Peter is placing the beginning of the apostle's faith at the point in time when all the facts came together. Faith was not true faith until they had the full truth in which to believe.

Now, consider what happened at the beginning and notice the similarities to what happened to Cornelius and his household. "When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:1-4).

The event that happened on the day of Pentecost was not common place. The fact that the experience of Cornelius reminded Peter of what happened at the beginning implies that it had not been occurring since the beginning. There are quite a number of conversions mentioned between Acts 2 and Acts 10. The conversion of the Samaritans is given in a fair amount of detail. "But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done. Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:12-17). Yet, the experience of the Samaritans is different from Cornelius. The Samaritans were baptized, but they did not receive the gifts of the Spirit immediately. Even though Philip was present, and he had the gifts of the Spirit, these people had to wait until apostles came from Jerusalem. The Spirit was then given to the Samaritans by the laying on of the apostles' hands (Acts 8:18). We must, therefore, conclude that the receiving of the gifts of the Spirit by the hands of the apostles was not the baptism in the Spirit. Otherwise, Peter would have been reminded of more recent baptisms in the Spirit. Instead, he reached all the way back to the beginning of the church. In addition, since baptism in water came before receiving the Spirit in Acts 8 and it came after receiving the Spirit in Acts 10, we must conclude that the receiving of the Spirit in these two came for separate, unrelated purposes.

Let us take a brief sidetrack from our main discussion because frequently there is some confusion as to when baptism is mentioned as to which baptism is occurring -- baptism in water or baptism in the Spirit. Baptism in the Spirit is a baptism that was administered by Christ. John promised that Jesus would baptize with the Spirit. "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11). And when we read of the two events that are called the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we see that no man was involved in its administration. In Acts 2:2 we are told that it came from heaven and in both events we are told that God gave the recipients the gift (Acts 2:17, 32-33; 11:17; 15:8). In contrast, baptism in water is administered by men. Jesus commanded, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). And when the eunuch was baptized, we see that it was done by Philip. "Both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him" (Acts 8:38).

The baptism in the Spirit was promised by Christ. "Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high" (Luke 24:49). And again, "John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now ... But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:5, 8). However, baptism in water is not promised, but commanded. Peter commanded it of Cornelius and his household, "And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:48). Ananias instructed Saul to be baptized, "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize people of all nations in Matthew 28:19. A command can be obeyed, but a promise cannot be obeyed; a promise must be given.

When we read about people being baptized in the Spirit, we see that signs accompanied the event (Acts 2:4-8; 10:44-46). In particular, those baptized began to speak in other languages (or tongues). But baptism in water did not confer miraculous gifts. Again, the baptisms of the Samaritans prove this point. "But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. ... Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 8:12, 14-16).

Finally, all Christians were not baptized in the Spirit. As we previously noted, there were many baptism between Acts 2 and Acts 10, yet the baptism in the Spirit in Acts 2 and in Acts 10 were unique in the history of the church. Even receiving miraculous gifts of the Spirit was not universal. "And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?" (I Corinthians 12:28-30). The answer to Paul's questions is "No." All Christians did not receive the gifts. However, all Christians were baptized in water.

"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).

"Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" (Romans 6:3).

"For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Galatians 3:27).

This then leads us to the question, "Wasn't the baptism received by Cornelius the gift of the Spirit promised by Peter in Acts 2:38-39?" Peter promised of the gift of the Spirit would come after repenting and being baptized for the forgiveness of sins. However, Cornelius received the Spirit before he was baptized. Hence, it cannot be the same promised gift.

We must also take note that the gift in Acts 2:38-39 was universally promised. "For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself" (Acts 2:39). Yet we saw earlier that everyone did not receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and everyone did not receive the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. However, there is a gift of the Spirit that has been promised to all who have their sins remitted. "In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed 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). The Holy Spirit is given as a pledge of our inheritance. In other words, there is a gift of the Spirit which serves as our guarantee of a heavenly reward after this life ends. It is not a gift that is accompanied by miraculous signs, but it is an important gift which every child of God would possess.

If you accept that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was not a common event, then we need to address the question as to what purpose these unique baptisms served. For the baptism that occurred on Pentecost, we are told as to its purpose. The Spirit was given to teach the apostles and to remind them of the events that they witnessed. "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (John 14:26). In addition the Spirit would give the apostles power to be effective witnesses of the Christ. "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). It was through the signs that accompanied the apostles that God bore witness to the truth. "How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?" (Hebrews 2:3-4). Hence, the primary purpose of the baptism of the Holy Spirit was to give witness to the truth.

Before considering the purpose of Cornelius' baptism in the Spirit, let us address what this baptism did not do.

The Spirit did not come to make Cornelius acceptable to God. Cornelius was already a God-fearing man (Acts 10:2). He already had a good reputation before men and God (Acts 10:22). But as Peter stated, Cornelius was already acceptable to God, "in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:35).

The Spirit did not come to give Cornelius faith. Cornelius already believed in God (Acts 10:2) and Cornelius came to believe in God's Son through the gospel preached to him. "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). Peter testified that by hearing the word of the gospel, Cornelius believed. "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe" (Acts 15:7). Cornelius's faith was by the message preached to him and not by direct intervention of the Spirit of God.

The Spirit did not come to give Cornelius salvation. In neither Acts 2 or Acts 10 is there any mention that by receiving the baptism of the Spirit the recipients gained salvation. It is simply an assumption made by various people that the Spirit would not come upon a person unless he is saved. However, there are instances when the Spirit came upon people who we know were in sin. For example, the Spirit came upon Saul while he was searching to murder David. "So David fled and escaped, and went to Samuel at Ramah, and told him all that Saul had done to him. And he and Samuel went and stayed in Naioth. Now it was told Saul, saying, "Take note, David is at Naioth in Ramah!" Then Saul sent messengers to take David. And when they saw the group of prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as leader over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. And when Saul was told, he sent other messengers, and they prophesied likewise. Then Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they prophesied also. Then he also went to Ramah, and came to the great well that is at Sechu. So he asked, and said, "Where are Samuel and David?" And someone said, "Indeed they are at Naioth in Ramah." So he went there to Naioth in Ramah. Then the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" (1 Samuel 19:18-24). Balaam also was able to prophesy for God even while he sought for a way to hinder God and make money from the deal (Numbers 23:1-5; II Peter 2:15). At least with the case of Cornelius we are dealing with better material; at least Cornelius was a godly man. But because the Spirit comes upon a person, it does not imply that the person was saved or lost.

In the New Testament, we have several cases where the Spirit is given to those who were already saved. The apostles were chosen by Jesus and were baptizing prior to Jesus' death (John 4:1-2), but they did not receive the baptism of the Spirit until a later time in Acts 2. The Samaritans believed and were baptized prior to receiving the gifts of the Spirit as recorded in Acts 8. Those in Corinth were baptized prior to receiving the gifts as well (Acts 18:8; I Corinthians 12:1-11). The same is true of those in Ephesus. "When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied" (Acts 19:5-6). But even in each of these cases, only one is called a baptism by the Spirit. The rest received gifts of the Spirit by the laying on of the apostles' hands.

Not everyone received miraculous gifts from the Spirit, but all Christians did receive salvation from their sins. We must always keep in mind that Peter reported that Cornelius would hear words where by he would be saved (Acts 11:14). Later Peter also stated that we are all saved by the grace of Jesus, just as Cornelius was saved. "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they" (Acts 15:8-11).

The Spirit did not come to sanctify Cornelius. Sanctification is done through the word of God. As Jesus prayed, "Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth" (John 17:17).

The Spirit did not come to bring Cornelius forth. This, again, is done by the word of God. "Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures" (James 1:18).

The Spirit did not come to give Cornelius a new birth. This, too, is done by the word of God. "Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever" (I Peter 1:22-23).

The Spirit did not come to cleanse Cornelius's heart. His heart was cleansed by faith (Acts 15:9).

The Spirit did not come as an alternative or as a replacement for baptism in water. Even though he received the baptism in the Spirit, Peter still commanded that Cornelius and his household should be baptized in water. "'Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?' And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:47-48).

The Spirit did not come to make Cornelius a child of God. That is done by faith and baptism in water. "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:26-27).

So why did the Spirit come upon Cornelius and his household? The answer is clearly stated by Peter in Acts 15:8-11. "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they." God acknowledged them, or bore them witness, or testified to them (depending on your translation) by giving them the Holy Spirit.

Hence, our next question ought to be, "A witness to what?" Some time after Cornelius's conversion the issue was raised as to whether a Gentile had to become a Jew before he could be saved. "Some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). Peter's response to this was to point out that the Spirit came to witness that these Gentiles could be saved without being first a Jew. But take note that Peter did not say that the Spirit came to witness that a person could be saved without baptism.

This then leads to the question, "Why did the Spirit come before Cornelius was baptized in water?" In order to answer this question, you need to notice that six Jewish Christians had accompanied Peter to Cornelius's house (Acts 10:23; 11:12). As stated in the text, the Spirit's coming was a shock to these men. "And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God" (Acts 10:45-46). Peter then turned to these same men and asked if they dare object to Cornelius being baptized in water given the obvious testimony of God (Acts 10:47; 11:17).

Also, notice that the Spirit did not come upon the Gentiles until Peter began to speak (Acts 11:15). Here was testimony to all that Gentiles could be saved through the word of God (Acts 11:13-14).

When Peter testified at the gathering in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, he used the example of Cornelius to prove that Gentiles, while remaining Gentiles and not becoming Jews, were accepted by God. Peter did not use the case of Cornelius to prove that everyone should receive the Spirit, or that the Spirit burnt sin out of a sinner's heart, or that the Spirit's coming made him a child of God. Instead, we find that Peter used the baptism of the Spirit as proof that Cornelius and his household should be baptized in water, as recorded in Acts 10 and Acts 11. Peter consistently argued that the Gentiles were to receive the gospel without being bound to the Law. For anyone to claim otherwise would be trying God. "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:10).