Cornelius and the Holy Spirit

Donald P. Ames
Aurora, Illinois

In their attempts to justify the doctrine of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit today, many denominations regard the receiving of the Holy Spirit by Cornelius (Acts 10) to be irrefutable proof that baptism is by the Holy Spirit, and that we can receive the Holy Spirit prior to any water baptism. Being unfamiliar with the actual meaning of this passage, some members of the church shun it and hope it will not be brought up in discussions of baptism and the Holy Spirit. Yet, there is nothing in the passage to fear, and in this short article, an effort shall be made to set forth the real teaching of the passage.

There can be no doubt that Cornelius did receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:15-18), but to argue it proves we can today is to assume many points not taught in the passage. The very fact Peter "remembered" the Lord's promise of baptism in the Holy Spirit is evidence it was not a regular practice, as they had baptized regularly since the day of Pentecost. During this time, some element was used, but Peter's statement shows it was not the Holy Spirit. This was no ordinary event, or else it would not have brought to his mind the promise of the Lord. Something very unusual had focused his attention on this one event.

Holy Spirit baptism was never the general New Testament practice. Those seeking to bind it today have missed its significance. It was never a command, but a promise (Matt. 3:11-12), just as the baptism of fire (hell). Christ repeated the promise to the disciples before he ascended (Acts 1:4-5, 8) , telling them it would be fulfilled in Jerusalem. This fulfillment was accomplished on Pentecost (Acts 2: 11:16). It was promised to guide the apostles into the paths of all truth (John 14:26, 16:13). Having been given in fulfillment of the promise, Holy Spirit baptism ceased to be. Now, all of a sudden, Peter beholds another such event, and "remembers" the promise of the Lord to them. Why had this unusual event occurred? Was this repetition to prove anyone could receive the Holy Spirit? Was it given to show God today will give it prior to baptism-or even without baptism? These are the questions that I shall now attempt to answer.

First of all, it was not given to save Cornelius. Peter had been sought because he had the "words whereby thou shalt be saved" (Acts 11:14). Whatever was contained in those words would tell Cornelius what to do to obtain salvation. But Peter taught him, and commanded him, to be baptized in water (10:47 ), for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 22:16, Rom. 6 :1-7, I Pet. 3:21). Since Peter gives this command following the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we know it had not saved Cornelius. In fact, it could not, without making God a respecter of persons, as the death of Christ sealed his will and it could not be broken (Heb. 9:15-17).

Actually, Cornelius himself obtained absolutely no benefit at all from this event, other than being able to speak in tongues Acts 10:45). This ability incidentally, would have to accompany any such event today for this passage to be of any benefit to modern theories. If it does not, then this passage does not!

But, if the Holy Spirit benefitted Cornelius none, then why was it given? Luke answers in Acts 10:45, saying, "And they of the circumcision that believed were amazed, as many as came with Peter because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit." Why? To benefit Cornelius (a Gentile)? No, but for the Jews - and his companions! Why? To save Cornelius? No, but to show them (Jews) conclusively that God had accepted that hated and despised group, the Gentiles. Not yet ready to accept the Gentiles, they did not enter their task in earnest until God performed this miraculous event to show He had definitely accepted the Gentiles and would not tolerate their actions. There is no reference anywhere Cornelius gained any special benefits by this event (other than tongues).

But, hadn't Peter acknowledged this (10:34)? Yes, but to what extent? Emotions often overrule comprehension. To illustrate, you can tell a curious child a hot stove will burn. He will believe you, but until he is actually burned, he will still be trying for himself. He believes, but not with comprehension-it is a shallow acceptance. The Jews hated the Gentiles (note also Peter's reactions in Gal. 2) , and although they might verbally acknowledge God had accepted them, they were not ready to give up without a better understanding of what they were agreeing to. Peter had acknowledged it verbally, but in his heart he didn't want to accept it. Now, after beholding this event, Peter admits his resistance to the will of God-he comprehends now that the Gentiles are indeed accepted. Note: "If then God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us . . . who was I, that I could withstand God?" (11:17). Up till now he and his companions, following their emotions, had not intended to completely obey the will of the Lord. They were, as is said today, "dragging their feet."

This hesitancy on the part of Peter did not please God, so to fully convince and convict them, the Lord performed this special, unusual, and miraculous event to benefit, not Cornelius, but "they of the circumcision . . . as many as came with Peter." Is it any wonder they "were amazed." Of all despised people, God has actually given to these Gentiles that which they themselves (apostles) had received from Christ. Now, suddenly, here it is again-yet its mission had already been accomplished. They thus realized their own actions to be in the wrong and that this was God's reproof to them for not fulfilling their obligations properly. The evidence was overwhelming, and they now "believed" the Gentiles acceptable as equals before God.

Coming to his senses, Peter asks himself, "Who was I, that I could withstand God?" (11:17). Then, turning to his formerly reluctant companions, he asks, "Can any man forbid the water, that these should be Baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?" (10:46). Silence! Who was man to refuse to accept one into the kingdom of God merely because he was not a Jew? Having believed, the Gentiles were now as fit subjects for baptism as a Jew, and this former acknowledgment (10:33-34) was now fully believed.

But was this special event solely to convince Peter and his companions? No, the Lord well realized the stubborn attitude of the Jews. Being fully convicted and with this evidence with them, Peter and the others related these events to the rest of the disciples, who in turn agreed, "then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life" (11:18). They didn't believe it prior to the evidence, and no doubt would not have without such evidence, but now there could be no doubt left. Of the truth, God had accepted all people; He was not a respecter of persons. The promise of Peter (Acts 2:39) was being realized.

Since Cornelius obtained no benefits at all from this event (other than speaking in tongues), those using it today to justify receiving the Holy Spirit before (or without) baptism have to assume their doctrine that such is the "call of God" to save the individual, convict him of his sins, and open his mind to the truth. None of these happened to Cornelius, but he did speak in tongues! `'Fill our Baptist friends, etc., accept that today?

In spite of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit, Cornelius was "commanded" to be baptized (10:47) His condition of being in his sins was still the same. He was not saved, and could not be saved without bowing to the will of Christ; not as an act of expressing his faith in Christ, but for the remission o f sins (Acts 2:38, etc.). All arguments based on this event for the benefit of Peter and his companions to prove such still occurs today must completely ignore both the circumstances surrounding it (Jewish-Gentile antagonism) and the recipients (not the one lost, but the one preaching). Let us beware lest we be found guilty of handling the word of God to our own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16).

Truth Magazine, V:8, pp. 9-11
May 1961