Summary: This is an examination of the qualities of the first Gentile to be converted to the Christian Faith. As we see, he is an individual who provides inspiration and an example for all.
One of my favorite conversion stories in the Book of Acts is that of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion. In fact, one of the first sermons I ever delivered came from this passage. In that lesson and even my later studies of the passage, I must admit, I focused more on Peter than on Cornelius. You see, I had thought it quite interesting how God chose to use Peter to take the Gospel to this gentile. I found it intriguing how God helped Peter overcome his ethnic and spiritual prejudice so that he would accept Cornelius and his gentile family and friends into the fellowship of the Church.
Since that time, I have read a great many books on Rome, the Roman army and the relationship between Rome and the subjugated nations and peoples within her Empire. With that newly acquired knowledge, I have come to view the Roman centurion, Cornelius, as a truly extraordinary man. He is a man that we all can admire. He is a man that we all can and should rightfully imitate in so many ways.
1. CORNELIUS, THE HUMBLE ROMAN.
Our passage, at first glance, might not appear to provide much details on Cornelius and his background. On the contrary, we can glean quite a bit of information from the facts presented in the very first Verse of Chapter 10.
First of all, his name - Cornelius - tells us that he was Italian. Secondly, we are told that he was a Roman soldier. By this we know that he was, at least, 5’8’’ in height. Not only was Cornelius a soldier, he was a fairly high-ranking officer. He was a Centurion. This tells us that he was over thirty years old because it took 12 to 16 years of military service to be eligible for promotion to such a rank. Furthermore, from his being a Centurion we know that Cornelius was a literate man who had to have shown administrative skills along with combat leadership.
Now, there were sixty grades or levels of rank even within the office of Centurion. To be of the lowest rank of Centurion meant that you were responsible for a "Century"; that is, a unit of 80 soldiers. The highest ranking Centurion was the leader of a "Cohort"; that is, 480 soldiers and a sizable administrative staff.
The Scripture says that Cornelius was the leader of a "band". Most Greek teachers believe that this word "band" refers to a Roman Cohort, meaning that Cornelius would be on the higher end of the ranking system of Centurions. I believe that the Scriptures lend support to that being the case in two ways: Firstly, Cornelius had the authority, as we shall see in this passage, to dispatch a soldier on an obvious personal errand. A low ranking Centurion would never have had such authority. Secondly, Cornelius enjoyed the presence of his family, a privilege granted only to those of the upper ranks.
Cornelius’ Cohort is referred to as the "Italian" Cohort. In Cornelius’ day, about 65% of all Roman soldiers were Italian. That percentage was decreasing year by year. Most likely, this Cohort was entirely composed of soldiers recruited from Italy; thus, the nickname.
Cornelius was stationed at Caesarea, a coastal city about 50 miles Northwest of Jerusalem. Caesarea was the seat of Roman government in Palestine and Syria. This is where the Roman governor was head-quartered. I theorize that Cornelius’ Cohort - being entirely Italian - was responsible in part for the Roman governor’s security. At this time, Marcellus - Pontius Pilate’s successor - was governor.
We need to remember that Rome conquered the territories the New Testament calls Judea, Galilee and Samaria 60 years before the birth of Christ. From that time, the Jews increasingly ceased to be a free and independent nation. They were ruled by people of Rome’s choosing.
The Jews never fully accepted their being a part of the Roman Empire and so, from time to time, they would resist Roman authority. For this reason, Rome had to constantly keep military troops in and around the Jewish nation to keep them from outright rebellion.
If the Jews - on this account - had a negative view toward their Roman masters and the Roman troops, the feeling was very much reciprocated by the Romans. Pagan Rome was the epitome of arrogance. Romans thought they were the superior civilization. They believed that they ruled the world because they alone were wise and powerful. They viewed most other peoples and their cultures as being inferior.
Most Roman soldiers and their officers shared that contempt for the peoples they conquered. Though officially prohibited, it was not uncommon for Roman troops to oppress the people they conquered and ruled over. There were cases where Roman soldiers were guilty of assaults and robberies. Their officers, if they were not doing the same, would turn a blind eye to such misdeeds. This was just an indication of their arrogance and the total disregard for the people they ruled over.