As Peter entered the house he was shocked to see that it was crowded with Romans. These were Cornelius’ friends and family; a mixture of military personnel and civilians with their wives and a few others. Never before had Peter preached to gentiles, and certainly not this type. Romans! But this was Caesarea, the military headquarters of Judea, and this was Cornelius the Centurion’s house, a man who was in command of a hundred soldiers. God had told Peter to respond to Cornelius’ request to come, but he did expect such an audience.
Now these Romans had served long enough in Judea to know that a Jew wasn’t supposed to enter a gentile’s home, so Peter quickly explained that had God had spoken to him and had shown him that he was not to consider a gentile impure or unclean. Just the day before God had given Peter a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven. In the sheet were all kinds of animals. And God told Peter to ‘Kill and eat.’ Now we modern city people don’t have to kill our food so it would be easier for us to imagine a table of roast meats coming down from heaven, and God saying ‘Get up and eat’. In Kenya we have a famous restaurant called ‘Carnivore’ that serves different wild meats like Buffalo, Crocodile, Zebra, Warthog, Ostrich; so we know what a wild meat buffet looks like, and we would never say ‘no’ to such a treat. But a Jew like Peter would consider many wild meats to be unclean, so he said “Surely not Lord, I have never eaten anything impure of unclean.” I can see him staring at the warthog and thinking “This is not just pork, its wild pork!” But God said “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” And Peter was left quite confused and wondering what on earth this vision meant. But now that Peter was standing in Cornelius’ house with ‘unclean’ Romans everywhere, Peter understood that the vision was telling him to accept all gentiles, even Romans, as clean and acceptable to God. The gospel was for them as much as it was for Jews.
So that day Peter presented the gospel to a house of Romans. He confirmed that all the things they had heard that Christ had done was true and that he and the other Jews with him were witnesses to these facts. He also explained that the salvation Christ had brought was for all nations and not just Jews. And then WHAM, it happened! While Peter was speaking the Holy Spirit came on these Roman listeners. In fact he had to stop preaching because the Romans were getting vocal; they were praising God and speaking in Holy Spirit inspired languages (tongues). I would love to have been there. Can you imagine a room full of Romans, some of whom were military, calling out to Jesus? Peter and his Jewish companions were shocked. They had experienced the outpouring of the Spirit on a number of occasions, but it had always happened to Jewish people. They thought a gentile would have to become a Jew before being filled with the Spirit. But the Spirit had come upon Romans as they were!
At this point Peter remembered Jesus’ words, “John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” The implications were huge. If the Spirit came upon the Romans it meant God had baptised them! And if God had baptised them, they were joined to the church! And this meant that the church had to baptise them too! Like Jesus, the church is supposed to do whatever the Father is doing. So Peter ordered that the Romans be baptised. In one stroke of God’s hand Romans had become one with Jews! This was hard for the Jews to take, or even comprehend, and that is why Peter’s vision had been so necessary.
The news that Peter had baptised Gentile Romans spread like wild fire. And when the leaders in Jerusalem heard they were deeply concerned and required Peter to explain his actions. But when Peter told them about his vision and how the Spirit had come on all the Romans they thanked God that the Gentiles could receive salvation without becoming Jews first. This had obviously been a dilemma; Jesus had commanded them to go to all nations, but Jewish laws stopped them entering Gentile homes and put heavy burdens on Gentiles that wanted to convert. But now the way to reach all nations had opened up. They could receive Christ direct.
The coming together of Jew and Gentile had been a process, but not only from the Jewish side. It seems that God had prepared Cornelius and his family for some time. But when the time was right God called the Roman Centurion by name. He said “Cornelius.” Isn’t that nice? It’s a personal touch. It shows that God was looking at his heart and his situation and had a customized way to reach him. And that is what God does for each of us. God’s call isn’t just a general announcement to ‘all nations’, it’s a personal whisper in your ear, ‘Cornelius.’
People sometimes ask, ‘What about those who live in places where the gospel has never gone; what chance do they have?’ Well the story of Cornelius tells us. Cornelius had not heard the gospel, and as a Roman Centurion he had little chance of becoming a Jew. But God saw his heart was ripe, and so he made a way to reach him. And this has happened again and again, even in modern times. People living in strict Islamic countries have met Jesus in their bedrooms. They have had visions, and God called them by name. When he sees a willing heart, he makes a way.