Cornelius Becomes a Christian


Scripture Reference: Acts 10:1-11:18

Story Overview: Up until the conversion of Cornelius, the gospel message had been preached almost exclusively to Jewish people.  Any Gentile (anyone not born into a Jewish family) who wanted to follow Christ would have first converted to Judaism.  But the good news of Jesus was for everyone and not just the Jews.  God used a vision of animals on a sheet and a miraculous pouring out of the Holy Spirit to reveal this important truth to the Apostle Peter and those he was teaching.  Following this, Peter baptised Cornelius, a Roman centurion making Cornelius the first Gentile to become a Christian.

Suggested Emphasis: God wants everyone to hear about Him and become Christians.

Memory Verse: God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:4

Background Study
Way to Introduce the Story
The Story
Review Questions
Craft and Activity Ideas
Online Resources

Background Study:

Cornelius Has a Vision Acts 10:1-8
In the city of Caesarea Cornelius held the important and prestigious position of a centurion in the Roman army.  As a centurion he would have had command over at least 100 soldiers and received five times the pay that a regular soldier did.  He was a good man and verse 2 refers to Cornelius as a “God fearer”.  This description refers to Gentiles who had not formally accepted Judaism through circumcision but who believed in God, respected the moral life of Jews and followed many Jewish teachings.

One Jewish ritual that Cornelius seemed to follow was that of daily prayer at about 3 in the afternoon.  It was during one such prayer that Cornelius “distinctly saw an angel of God”.  The angel said that God was pleased with Cornelius’ prayers and gifts to the poor.  God was now about to provide an answer to Cornelius’ prayers.  Cornelius was instructed to send for Simon Peter who was staying in Joppa.  Immediately, Cornelius dispatched 2 servants to travel 50 kilometres (30 miles) south to fetch Peter from Joppa.

Cornelius must have been transparent in his belief in God because he seemed to be surrounded by others who also believed.  “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing” (Acts 10:2, NIV).  The “devout soldier” he dispatched was one of his attendants (Acts 10:7, NIV).  Later, we find him gathering “his relatives and close friends” to hear Peter speak God’s word (Acts 10:24 and 27, NIV).  But, even though Cornelius was a good man who believed in God, prayed and did good deeds such as helping the poor, Cornelius had not heard the good news of Jesus Christ.  Cornelius had not been saved by the blood of Christ.

 

Peter Has a Vision Acts 10:9-16
Peter’s home was in Jerusalem but he was still staying in the city of Joppa following the amazing incident where Dorcas Was Raised from the Dead.  He was living by the sea at the home of Simon, the tanner.  According to Jewish law tanners would have been ceremonially unclean much of the time since they were working with the hides of dead animals.  The house of a tanner seems the perfect setting for a vision involving animals.

It was common for houses of this time to have a staircase outside the building leading up to the roof.  The fresh sea breeze and privacy must have been inviting. While Cornelius’ men were making their way to Joppa Peter climbed up the roof to pray.  He became hungry and asked for food to be prepared.  Unlike Cornelius who “distinctly saw an angel” Peter fell into a trance before seeing the vision placed before him.  “Something like a large sheet” came down from heaven.  It was filled with all sorts of creatures that the Law quite specifically forbade Jews to eat (Leviticus 11).  These unclean creatures included four-footed animals, reptiles and birds.  Peter must have been aghast when a voice said to kill the creatures and eat them.  This was no small matter for a faithful Jew and went against everything Peter had been taught..

“Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them.   I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground.”   Leviticus 11:43-44, NIV

The Scripture does not specify who “the voice” came from but Peter addressed the speaker as “Lord” and refused to eat what was “impure or unclean”.  The voice corrected Peter and told him not to call anything impure that the Lord has made pure.  This was repeated 3 times before the sheet was taken back to heaven.

 

From Joppa to Caesarea Acts 10:17-33
While Peter was still contemplating what he had just seen the 3 men arrived at the gate.  The Spirit told Peter to greet them and go with them.  The men had respectfully hovered at the gate but Peter then broke Jewish tradition by inviting them into the house to stay until morning.  Peter was beginning to understand the vision.  If God approved of all kinds of animals then, of course, he would accept all kinds of people.

The next day six other Christians from Joppa joined Peter and the 3 men for the walk back to Caesarea.  Cornelius had gathered a large group of people to hear what Peter had to say and Peter again broke with Jewish tradition by entering the house of a Gentile to speak with them.  Up to this time Peter would have considered the house of a Gentile to be “unclean” but the vision of sheet had helped him understand that he “should not call any man impure or unclean”.  Cornelius told Peter about his own vision of the angel that he had seen the day before and how this had made him eager to hear God’s message.

 

Peter Shares the Gospel with Cornelius and His Household Acts 10:34-43
Peter went on to speak freely about Jesus to this group of Gentiles and says, “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”  He is speaking to a well-informed group who was already aware of what was happening all around Jerusalem and how many Jews were turning to Jesus.  In a form much like in the Sermon at Pentecost Peter shares his own eyewitness testimony of Jesus and tells them how Jesus is the fulfilment of what the prophets said.

 

The Holy Spirit Comes Upon the Gentiles Acts 10:44-46
Again, in much the same manner as at Pentecost the “Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message”.  If Peter had any doubts of God’s intention to accept Gentiles before this then these doubts would have been wiped away when the Spirit’s power caused these Gentiles to speak in tongues and praise God.  The 6 Christian brothers from Joppa who had accompanied Peter were astonished.

The Gospel is for everyone.  In the Book of Acts we read of other examples of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a special way to show that God was breaking a barrier and accepting a new group of people.  This happened with:

 

Cornelius and His Household Are Baptised Acts 10:47-48
The Spirit had poured out gifts on Cornelius and his household to reveal God’s approval of Gentiles being qualified to receive Him.  Now, it was time for them to accept Jesus Christ in a personal way and to allow the Spirit to indwell them (refer to the conclusion of Peter’s earlier sermon in Acts 2:38-39).  They were now baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.

 

Peter Reports to the Jews in Jerusalem Acts 11:1-18
Peter stayed on in Caesarea for a few days but he eventually returned to Jerusalem.  The news had spread quickly around Judea and the Jewish Christians (referred to as “circumcised believers”) were shocked that Peter had been in the house of uncircumcised men and even eaten with them.  Peter went on to recount the story in detail so that they all could understand that it was God’s will that the Gentile Christians be accepted. 

This shift in the long-standing order of things would have been extremely difficult for them to accept.  What Peter had to say to these Jewish Christians would have ramifications for the spreading of the gospel and the growth of the church.  After recounting the events Peter concluded with 3 irrefutable points:

  1. The Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles in the same way he came on us Jews
  2. I was there when Jesus once said that “John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
  3. If God gave them the Gentiles the same gift as he gave us then who am I to oppose God?

God’s power, Peter’s words and the faithfulness of these Jewish Christians resulted in sweet agreement that is not always seen in other parts of Acts.

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Acts 11:18

 

Was Cornelius the first Gentile convert or was the Ethiopian eunuch?  It is worth mentioning that before this time Philip Taught the Ethiopian Eunuch.  The biblical narrative (found in Acts 8) does not record whether or not the Ethiopian was a proselyte (Gentile converted to Judaism) or Gentile but this later conversion of Cornelius seems to infer that the Ethiopian had become a Jew before becoming a Christian.  In the account of Cornelius the significance of a Gentile being accepted is emphasised through Peter’s vision, the astonishment of the Christians from Joppa and the need for Peter to explain this incident to the Jerusalem leaders.  Cornelius does indeed seem to be the first.

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Way to Introduce the Story: Before class prepare small pieces of paper–one for each child. Write the letter “J” on a few of the cards and the letter “G” on the rest. Tape the pieces of paper underneath each chair in your classroom. When you are ready to begin class tell the children that you have something wonderful to tell them. It is the best news in the whole world. Ask them to look underneath their chairs. “All of you who have the letter “J” may come up and here the good news.” Whisper “Jesus loves you” in the ears of those who have the letter “J.”

How does it feel when you only get to hear the good news if you have the letter “J”? In the days when our bible story took place the Jewish people thought that only Jews should hear the good news about Jesus. That means that they would have to be born into a Jewish family. If you weren’t born into a Jewish family then you were a gentile. The only way you could hear about Jesus was to first study and learn about God and then promise to follow the Jewish religion. Let’s see what God had to say about that.
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The Story:

A Gentile is someone who is not born into a Jewish family.  Cornelius was a Gentile. Cornelius was a very important man who lived in the city of Caesarea.  He was a Centurian in the Roman Army who was in charge of many soldiers.

Cornelius believed in God.  Even though He was not a Jew he still liked to do some of the things that good Jews did.  He gave generously to those in need and he prayed regularly.  Cornelius even liked to tell his family about God and they believed in God too.

One day, when Cornelius was praying, he had a vision.  An angel of the Lord came to him and called his name.  The angel told Cornelius that his prayers had been answered, ““Now send men to the city of Joppa, and tell them to go to the house of Simon the Tanner who lives by the sea.  Bring back the man called Peter.”  Cornelius immediately told two of his servants and one of his soldiers to go to Joppa to get Peter.

Meanwhile, Peter was busy teaching people in the city of Joppa about Jesus.  He did not know anything about Cornelius and his dream.

Up until now the only people Peter had taught about Jesus were Jewish people and people who had chosen to become Jews.  He had not told Gentiles about Jesus.

While Cornelius’ men were making their way to Joppa Peter, like Cornelius, also had a vision.
Peter was staying in a house by the sea with a man called Simon.  Peter went up to the rooftop to pray.   After awhile he got hungry and asked a servant to prepare some food for him.  Of course this was special food because Peter was Jewish and there were many kinds of food that Jews were not allowed to eat.

While Peter was waiting for the food he fell into a trance and saw a vision.  He saw heaven open and something like a large sheet filled with animals come down.  Then a voice said, “Peter, kill the animals and eat them.”

Peter was shocked!  Jews were God’s special people and he did not allow them to eat any of these animals.  Peter said, “No!  I am a Jew and I have never eaten these kinds of animals because they are not pure.”

The voice told him that everything God makes is pure but Peter still refused to eat.  This happened three times before the sheet was taken back up into heaven.

While Peter was wondering what the dream meant the three men that Cornelius had sent arrived at the gate of the house.  The Spirit came to Peter and told him to go and meet the men.  The Holy Spirit commanded Peter to go with them.

The men told Peter about Cornelius and the vision he had.  When Peter heard this he began to understand what God was trying to tell him in the vision of the animals in the sheet.

God had always had special rules for his special people but the dream was telling Peter that God had made EVERYONE and not just the Jews.  Peter should not just teach Jewish people about Jesus.  He should teach Gentiles like Cornelius, too.  Everyone God made needed to hear the good news!

The men spent the night at Simon’s house and the next day Peter travelled with them to Caesarea.  Six of the Jewish Christians from Joppa went along too.

When they arrived at Cornelius’ house he was very excited to meet Peter.  He asked Peter to tell him and everyone in his house about Jesus.

Cornelius had gathered many relatives and friends together so Peter told them all about Jesus.

Usually Jewish people did not enter the house of a Gentile but this did not stop Peter.  He told them about his dream and that now he understood that God had made everyone the same.

After Peter told the people about Jesus something wonderful happened.  The Holy Spirit came upon everyone who had heard the message.  They began to speak in languages they had never spoken in before and they began to praise God.

These were the same miracles that had happened to the Jews. Peter and the other Jewish Christians were amazed.  The Holy Spirit’s power was God’s proof that the Gentiles could accept Jesus just like the Jews had. Everyone was special to God!

So Peter explained to Cornelius and all of the people gathered in his house about how to follow Jesus.  After this Cornelius and his household were baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.

Soon the news about the Gentiles began to spread everywhere.  When Peter went back to his home city, Jerusalem, the Jews there had many questions for him.

Some of the Jewish Christians did not think that Gentiles should become Christians until they had become Jews first.

But Peter explained about the vision he had had from God.  He told them how God wanted everyone to hear about Jesus and obey him.  God loved Jews AND Gentiles the same.  Everyone was special to God.  Cornelius was the first Gentile Christian but there would be many more after this.

Once Peter had explained then the Jewish Christians had no mare arguments.  They praised God because God loved everyone so much.  God wants everyone to hear about Jesus!

Visual Aids: You might like to try telling the story using one of the following free visual aids.  The first and second work well if you are showing it on a computer, laptop or tablet. The third one works well for printing.

  1. Cornelius Becomes a Christian-Slide Show to download
    (.pptx 7 MB file size)
  2. Cornelius Becomes a Christian-Slide Show to download-older format
    (.ppt  7.42 MB file size
  3. Cornelius Becomes a Christian-Visual Aidto download and print
    (.pdf 3.67 MB file size)


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Review Questions:

  1. What is a Gentile? Any person who is not a Jew
  2. Who was the first Gentile to become a Christian? Cornelius
  3. What vision did Peter have on the roof of a house? A sheet full of animals came down out of heaven. A voice told Peter that all of the animals were good to eat
  4. What did Cornelius do after Peter taught him about Jesus? He was baptised
  5. Which people on this earth does God want to become Christians? Everyone!
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Craft and Activity ideas for the class (choose age appropriate ones):

  • Use a bible dictionary to look up the words Jew and Gentile.
  • Look up Joppa and Caesarea on a map.  Check modern maps such as “Google Maps” to see photos from that region.
  • Sing Jesus Loves the Little Children
  • Older children can look up “prejudice” in the dictionary and discuss how Jews were prejudice against the Gentiles and how that people can be prejudice today.
  • Divide Leviticus 11 into sections and ask older children to write down what could and could not be eaten by Jews.
  • Write today’s memory verse (1 Timothy 2:4) at the top of a large poster and let children cut pictures of people from magazines and glue them onto the poster to form a collage.  Alternatively, younger children could draw many different children on the poster.  Provide crayons with various shades of skin tones if possible.
  • Check the Teaching Ideas page on this website for ideas that suit any lesson.
  • Acts_Church Beginnings Try the resources on the Pinterest Board: Acts-Church Beginnings

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Other Online Resources:

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