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Cornelius: The Roman-Centurion-Orphan-Misfit Who Changed Church-Growth History

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By Donna Howell, Chief Managing Editor, Defender Publishing; best-selling author of Redeemed Unredeemable, Handmaidens Conspiracy, and Dark Covenant.

I recently conducted a one-question survey with some friends and a few folks from my inner circle here at SkyWatch and Defender Publishing for a school project. It was an easy question:

What is a “Gentile”?

I told all participants to render a short answer, not a complicated and lengthy one (because some of these people are scholars and a “simple” question renders an answer that can’t fit the format of the survey). Although this was all initially for a different, college-related purpose, this article was born from the process when something from the Bible leapt off the page and essentially slapped me upside the head.

But before I tell you about that, read the answers I got to my question:

  • “A Gentile is a non-Jew,” one said.
  • “A Non-Jew,” said another.
  • I held my breath with one particular scholar friend: “Hmm. A short answer? I’d have to say ‘non-Jew.’” (I anticipated being there a while, but he was gracious.)
  • Thomas Horn said, “Most would say a non-Jew of the first century.”
  • James Howell, my husband, said, “Without thinking about it? It’s a non-Jew.”
  • One of my personal favorites, from an intelligent Christian friend of mine who fancies herself a comedian: “Ain’t that a dude who ain’t a Jew?”
  • Hilariously, Allie Henson, responding by a quickly-read text, said, “Fast answer? It means more feminine than masculine but not about gender. Somewhat demure, if ‘genteel’ was a demeanor more than a behavior. [Five minutes later…] Oh ‘Gentile’! LOL! That changes everything! My initial thought would be to say ‘a non-Jew,’ but in another project I would probably elaborate and say it was tied into one’s submission to Old Testament laws.”

By now, the collective response among men and women who are well-versed in the Word is that a “Gentile” was a person in the first century who wasn’t a Jew. That was without allowing anyone to elaborate further, because all I needed for my original project was the first thing that came to mind for most people when they hear that word. With that in the bag, I went off to work and filled my head with other thoughts.

That night, back at my home office, I was in deep study over the book of Acts. One verse distracted me in a way that it hadn’t before. It stated, as a fact (not a matter of opinion or something that could be “interpreted away”), that Cornelius, a Roman centurion of the Italian Regiment, was “a devout man…who feared God” (Acts 10:2; NKJV).

I blinked. It popped out at me so I read it again: “devout man…who feared God.” Our God; the God of the Bible.

Of course, I had read this verse before, many times. And I knew that there was a certain oddball group of non-Jews who, at least in part, followed the Jewish God but were not wholly proselytes (Gentiles who converted to Judaism). This group was collectively referred to by the loose term “God-fearers,” and they were attracted to the God of the Jews because of His high ethical/moral standard and purity. My college textbook expounds:

At that time in human history only Judaism taught monotheism; all other religions had multitudes of gods and goddesses. Only Judaism had high ethical standards. In the other religions, gods would [abuse] goddesses, and new gods and goddesses would be born. Prostitution was a liturgical part of religious worship. At that time, half the world was enslaved. Only Judaism promised a coming Messiah or Deliverer. Many Gentiles were attracted to the Jewish concepts of monotheism, high ethical standards, and a promised Messiah-Deliverer. (Wood 2004, 194)

These Gentiles were the “God-fearers.” (Most scholars agree that this is not a technical term [Vickers 2003, 662; Bruce 1988, 203].) But while they may have earned a slight terminological differentiation from your average “Gentile,” they are still Gentiles, scholars say:

It is likely, at least for Gentile men, that the prospect of circumcision was one of the reasons some “God fearers” never became full coverts. Other reasons, such as social or ethnic concerns could also have been factors. “God fearers,” whatever their connection and affection for Judaism, remained fully Gentile. (Vickers 2003, 662; emphasis added)

But there’s an association to the word “Gentile” that casts some unfortunate baggage on these characters as well. Yes, “Gentile” primarily means “non-Jew,” and as a technical term that identifies a nationality—i.e., someone who isn’t born into Jewish blood—I have no problem using it for Cornelius or anyone else. It would hardly be any different from identifying someone as non-African if they were born Chinese.

However, and this is crucial: If one looks up the word “Gentile” in Greek (ethnikos) or Hebrew (goy), we see that it is the same term used in many places throughout the Bible, Old and New Testament, as a reference to “heathens” or “pagans” (Deuteronomy 18:9; Galatians 2:15; Ephesians 2:12; and many others). In The Lexham Bible Dictionary, under “Jewish Attitudes Towards Gentiles,” we read that one societal definition of the word at that time was: “Unrighteous—a stereotype of Gentiles as examples of unrighteous behavior…with no hope for salvation (Eph 2:12; Jubilees 15:26)” (Chambers 2016, “Gentiles”). Another Bible dictionary explains that “In course of time, as the Jews began more and more to pride themselves on their peculiar privileges, [the word ‘Gentile’] acquired unpleasant associations, and was used as a term of contempt” (Easton 1893, 282; emphasis added). That’s a strong feeling. Look, too, at how Jesus, Himself, uses this term in Matthew 18:17: “…but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man [ethnikos, “Gentile”] and a publican.” For good reason, many Bible translations read: “let him be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.”

Yet, scholars acknowledge that “Cornelius believed in the God of the Jews and was committed to honoring him from a sincere and submissive heart” (Laney 2019, 261).

It wasn’t new to me that the God of the Jews was the same God that Cornelius devotedly followed, and I knew that the “happy ending” was mere verses away, when Peter would be summoned from Joppa and lead Cornelius and his entire household to Christ…but it was this verse, in this very moment in time, before Cornelius accepted the Messiah, that I couldn’t let go because suddenly I realized that it was God’s Word identifying “devout man…who feared God.” There was a lesson hidden here in plain sight that was being missed by too many Bible readers, including myself up to this moment. After the “Gentile” survey, something was no longer settling well. What started as just a tiny hiccup in my own comprehension that I chose to ignore continued to nag at the back of my mind until I relented and gave it my whole focus.

I glanced back to my survey notes defining “Gentile”: “not a Jew, not a Jew, not a Jew…”

I glanced back to the Acts 10:2 description of Cornelius: “a devout man…who feared [the Jewish] God.”

“What are you?” I said aloud, shaking my head.

Sure, I knew Cornelius would have been called a “Gentile” at the time. He wasn’t even circumcised. But, deep down, I saw with fresh perspective that there was a title game being played around that turn in history…and something about it felt too familiar.

A fledgling thought was whipping about in my mind and I decided to act on it. I backed my chair away from my study table, grabbed my phone, and headed to my computer to send some texts and emails to my inner circle again. Another one-question survey was conducted in which the participants were instructed to keep their answers as concise as possible, just like the first time.

What is a “Jew”?

Everyone had been told to approach the question as if it was being asked around the first century, close to the time of the cross, to put us in kinda the same headspace as those characters in Acts. Additionally, I made it clear that this was not a racial or national question that had anything to do with whether a person had been born into a Jewish tribe or family, etc. When I asked what a “Jew” was, I was asking about a spiritual identity.

Most of the answers were exactly what I expected to hear:

  • “A follower of Yahweh.”
  • “Someone who followed God before Christ.”
  • “A participant in the pre-Christian religion of the Old Testament.”
  • “A person who made Jehovah their God.”

Again, I looked at the verse in Acts 10:2, thinking maybe I missed something.

Poor Cornelius, I thought to myself. You aren’t circumcised, you probably don’t observe all the feasts, you likely don’t follow all the rules, and as such, you would probably be ostracized from, or at least cold-shouldered at, any a synagogue you tried to sincerely worship at… But you follow the same God as the Jews! Spiritually, you are a Jew or proselyte! Yet you are doomed to fail in your pursuit to fit into any religious family in those days unless you follow a bunch of rote rules.

Other than circumcision and a few other rituals, what was the difference between a “God-fearer” and a legitimate proselyte?

I looked it up in my Logos Bible Software and read that I was not the first to think these terms bore uncanny resemblance, as Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary also opined: “One should be careful about drawing too sharp a distinction between ‘God fearer’ and the technical term ‘proselyte’” (Vickers 2003, 662).

It was now pretty late. Maybe I would figure it all out in the morning. Meanwhile, I was lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep, asking myself why, if he followed their God so dutifully as to be called “devout,” Cornelius wouldn’t have pursued officially converting. At least then he and his household wouldn’t feel like outsiders… Was his stance against circumcision? I mean, he was about to be freed from that as an obligation through the New Covenant anyway, but he didn’t know that yet…

“One more survey,” I texted everyone the first thing the next morning. “Then I promise I’ll leave you all alone.”

It was the same perimeters as the last two: short answer, first-century application:

How does one become a proselyte?

As you can imagine, this was the part that shifted away from deeply spiritual concepts and into ritual. Everyone had the same idea:

  • “Get circumcised and start obeying the Mosaic Law.”
  • “Carry out a burnt animal sacrifice.”
  • “Observe all the laws and precepts that the Jews had to.”
  • “Circumcision; sacrifice; baptism ritual; Law.”
  • And, from my funny friend: “Get a degree in legalism.”

As my phone was blowing up with answers from my associates and friends, I left the room to go get a cup of coffee and say hello to my husband. I asked him the proselyte question as well and, after placing him within the perimeters of a “short” answer, he paused, stopped chewing his reheated goulash from dinner the night before, and shrugged, eyes wide, shaking his head.

“Man… I just don’t know. Follow a bunch of rules, I guess?”

The distasteful emphasis he placed on the word “rules” made this whole Cornelius thing click. From out of the mouth of the gorgeous, bearded man in my dining room came the answer I couldn’t put my finger on during the last few days.

That was the problem. Cornelius was a spiritual orphan.

Cornelius is not definable by terms such as “Jew” or “proselyte.” That much we’ve established. He is not a “Christian” (called a “follower of the Way” at the time), because, at this moment in Acts 10:2, he hasn’t heard the Gospel yet. Nor would “pagan” be accurate, since he, as identified out of the very God-breathed Scripture, is a devoted, God-fearing man…and this is precisely why “Gentile” doesn’t sound appropriate either, because it’s synonymous to “pagan” and linked to those “with no hope for salvation” (Chambers 2016, “Gentiles”).

We’re back to Cornelius being a spiritual orphan. He’s not a Jew, proselyte, Christian, pagan, heathen, or Gentile (spiritually speaking). He’s a misfit on a grand scale. An oddball, who doesn’t have a family or anyone that he can connect to.

Nothing about it was right. If you sat him down to talk theology with a Jew from his day, they would come to realize they were following the SAME GOD; they would have the same essential beliefs! He is, according to our verse study, referred to with the same adjective (“devout”) that identified some of the grandest of biblical heroes who did enormous, miraculous works in the name of Yahweh/Christ. But because he didn’t jump through the hoops, he was an orphan. A Jew of his day might have been willing to witness to him about his religion, but the second Cornelius had a different idea about the rules, the rituals, the laws, the sacrifices…a Pharisee would have written him off. Jesus saw this problem, and had a dramatic answer: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).

Poor orphan Cornelius.

How many Cornelius’s do you think are in My Body today, but have no family because the hoops have ostracized them, as well? I heard that Still, Small Voice ask me.

“Many,” I fumed, shaking my head and feeling that old familiar “Rise Up, Radicals!” sermon starting to bubble up in my heart again. “Lord,” I prayed, taking a deep breath. “What do you want me to do?”

When you meet a Cornelius, remind them that it is MY definition that matters. Not the word games humans play.

My eyes fell back to Acts 10:2, and I blinked back tears. Right there, as I had always known but never fully grasped, was God, Himself, in His own Words, identifying, defining, refining, and now re-defining Cornelius the way God always saw him: “a devout man…who feared God.” No other word, term, title, label, tagline, stamp, mark, or even nickname mattered anymore, and never would again. Cornelius’ heart was in the right place, and that is what God had always observed.

Oh…and before I go, let me tell you the poetic relevance of Cornelius’ Acts 10–11 happy ending:

An angel came to Cornelius instructed him to call for Peter in Joppa. In a divine appointment, just before Cornelius’ men arrived over in Joppa to summon Peter, Peter had a vision of his own, the interpretation of which illustrated that Gentiles can be equal inheritors of salvation (Acts 10:9–15, 28). The very next event recorded in Scripture was this!: Peter went willingly with Cornelius’ men and proceeded to witness the Gospel to the “many” who were gathered in the home of Cornelius (Acts 10:27). Before he had finished, the Holy Spirit fell upon the entire assembly and, to the amazement of the Jewish Christians, they all spoke in tongues (Acts 10:44–48), which marked the inauguration of the Gentiles into Body, into the Church, and into the family of God.

Know what that means? Consider it on a larger scale: Now the Gospel would be recognized as extending not only to believing Jews, but to every single person in the world from that moment forward. Although the crowd, as it is physically and literally accounted for on this precise day, is only Cornelius and his household (which included family, friends, and servants), it launched the largest Church-growth contributor in human history. The Church growth in this instance is thereby not only numerical, but it involves a spiritual growth also, as the Church matured into a new diverse family and took on a new attitude of acceptance. The previously generic “God-fearers” became paramount to the growth of the early Church!

In Acts the “God fearers” are key figures in the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption.… Furthermore, as the gospel spread to Pisidian Antioch, to Philippi, to Corinth, to Athens, and beyond, the “God fearers” were among those who formed the earliest Christian congregations as the gospel spread to the Gentiles. (Vickers 2003, 662)

And it all started with Cornelius, who proved that it is only through fearing God and carrying out righteous deeds that we are found acceptable to God (Acts 10:35), not through titles and word games.

Thank you for your diligence, Mr. Misfit Without A Spiritual Family. Thank you for your service to God when nobody was looking, Mr. Nobody Knows What To Call You. Thank you for standing as a powerful challenger of legalism, Mr. Non-Jew In The Presence Of Our Jewish Savior.

The orphan, through diligently following God with the sincerity of his heart, paved the way for the spiritual adoption of every other orphan, forever.

Including me, a non-Jew of the twenty-first century.

REFERENCE LIST

Bruce, F. F. 1988. The Book of the Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Chambers, C. 2016. “Gentiles.” In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Easton, M. G. 1893. Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Laney, J. C. 2019. “Peter and the Centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1–48).” In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Vickers, B. J. 2003. “God Fearer.” In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

Wood, George. 2004. Acts. 3rd ed. Springfield, MO: Global University Press.

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