Holy Spirit Baptism and the Household of Cornelius

By Daniel R. Vess

The conversion of Cornelius and his household is a great mile marker in the progress of the gospel. In Acts 10 we not only find the first Gentile converts, but the visible signs of the middle wall of partition separating Jews from Gentiles coming down (Eph. 2:140. The portals to the kingdom were opened to the whole Gentile world. Compared to Acts 2, this chapter exemplifies the “Gentile Pentecost.”

This glorious event is not without controversy. A total of five times the household is said to have received some kind of manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Many have referred to this as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Others have seriously questioned this conclusion, such as, Foy E. Wallace, Jr. in his book, The Mission and Medium of the Holy Spirit.

First, consideration will be given to the various lines of argumentation against Holy Spirit baptism in Acts 10. Next, evidence will be put forth to affirm that Cornelius’ house-hold experienced Holy Spirit baptism.

Arguments Against

1. The gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon Cornelius’ house was not for the same purpose as the apostles’ Holy Spirit baptism. In the case of the apostles it was to enable them to reveal and testify the truth of God (John 16:13; Acts 1:8). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 10 was indeed for an entirely different purpose. However, a difference in purpose does not prove the Gentiles did not experience Holy Spirit baptism.

Although Peter preached the universality of the gospel (Acts 2:39), it was not until his vision and the sudden speaking in tongues by Cornelius’ household that he realized that neither he nor the six Jews present could forbid the Gentiles water baptism. In defense of taking the gospel to the Gen-tiles, Peter told the Jews in Jerusalem that if he had refused to accept the Gentiles he would have been withstanding the will of God. Peter’s words convinced those at Jerusalem that “God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (11:17, 18). Again, Peter stood before those in Jerusalem declaring that God chose him to preach to the first Gentile converts to purify “their hearts by faith” saving them “in the same manner as” the Jews (15:9, 11). Furthermore, to refuse the Gentiles equal access via the Gospel would be to provoke God (15:10). Three times Peter used the manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon these Gentiles to prove God “acknowledged” (15:8) the Gentiles could become Christians without keeping the Law of Moses. Thus, this divine demonstration of Holy Spirit baptism of the Gentiles was to convince the Jewish brethren and fulfill what had always been a part of God’s eternal purpose (Gen. 22:18; Isa. 2:2, 3; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:39).

2. The Holy Spirit did not bestow the same power upon Cornelius’ household as it did upon the apostles. This distinction is also based upon assumptions. Does the same degree of power demand the same abilities? Were the first century Christians who received the gift of interpretation of tongues less blessed by the power of the Spirit than the one who received the gift to speak in tongues? It is further assumed that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is what enabled the apostles to impart gifts via laying on of hands (Acts 8:14-19; 19:1-7; 2 Tm. 1:6). Yet, where is the passage(s) that demands such a conclusion? The apostles were commissioned to do a specific work. Therefore, they were given various abilities that the first Gentile converts did not need (John 14-16). What took place in Cornelius’ home did not remind Peter of the promised power to the apostles (Acts 1:8), but the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1:5). The purpose of these Holy Spirit baptisms was for distinct reasons, thus the manifestation and extent of this outpouring could also be distinctive.

3. Holy Spirit baptism was never promised to Gentiles, but only to the apostles. Frequently, prophecies are also divine promises. The prophecy of Joel 2 was quoted by Peter in Acts 2 in order to explain the manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon the day of Pentecost. If it took the baptism of the Holy Spirit to fulfill the promise to the Jews in Joel, then would it not follow that the same was required to fulfill this promise in relationship to the Gentiles? True, other promises were made in relationship to the apostles’ baptism of the Holy Spirit, yet it was certainly promised to the Gentiles.

4. In the case of Cornelius it is never referred to as baptism, but merely as a gift. If this manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power in Cornelius and those accompanying him was not Holy Spirit baptism, then was it the “gift of the Holy Spirit” promised by Peter in Acts 2:38? No! The gift mentioned there was predicated upon the recipients’ obedience to the gospel. They had to repent and be baptized in order to receive this gift. At Cornelius’ house the gift came prior to their baptism in water. Furthermore, what they received could not have been one of the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit. In Bulwarks of Faith, even Foy Wallace Jr. explained: “Holy Spirit baptism was from God, not from man; it was received directly from heaven  not by importation of hands” (191). Again, if “gift” merely refers to the ability to speak in tongues, then where did this ability come from? All others who had this ability were those who received it by the laying on of the apostles hands. Also, why did Peter make reference to the apostles “gift” and the “beginning”? Was this the only other case of speaking in tongues up to that time? The only logical explanation can be found in the mind of Peter as he paralleled what he saw in Acts 10 to the words of Jesus in Acts 1:5: “John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (11:16).

5. What happened in Cornelius’ house is not identical to that of the Pentecostal experience. Certainly, these two cases are not identical, but they are similar. No two cases of conversion are identical in every detail. For example, an angel appeared to Cornelius, but not to the Philippian jailor or the eunuch. If all cases of conversion must be the same in every peculiarity, then the baptism experienced by the household of the Philippian jailor is not the same water baptism as that of Cornelius’ household. Reasoning like this proves too much.

Evidence For

1. What happened with Cornelius’ household is similar to the apostles’ reception of the Holy Spirit. The language consistently points to the Jews in general and the apostles specifically as parallel recipients of this type of Holy Spirit manifestation: “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (10:45); “received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (10:47); “the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning” (11:15); “God gave them the same gift” (11:17); and “giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us” (15:8).

2. Only Pentecost could be referenced as a parallel to what happened in Cornelius’ house (11:15). When refer-ring to the Holy Spirit falling upon them, Peter went back to the “beginning” as a analogous incident. In the years following Pentecost there wasn’t a single manifestation of the Holy Spirit comparable to what he saw at Cornelius’ house. Exactly what Peter meant by going back to Pentecost is made clear in verse 16 when he remembered Jesus’ words concerning the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

3. Peter mentioned Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit baptism in explaining what had happened in Cornelius’ house (11:16). The first promise of a baptism with the Holy Spirit was made by John the Immerser (Matt 3:11). Later, this promise was recounted by Jesus a few days before his ascension (Acts 1:5; Luke 24:44-49). Inspiration ties both the apostles and Cornelius to the promise Christ made in Acts 1:5.

4. The power of the Holy Spirit was administered directly from heaven (11:17; 15:8). The gifts of the Holy Spirit were not conferred by the normal means, that is, the laying on of the apostles’ hands, but straight from heaven. This is compatible with the scriptural teaching that only Christ would administer the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist could not administer it (Matt. 3:11) nor any of the apostles, but only Christ was to administer it (Acts 1:5).

5. It was the “same gift” as that of the apostles at the beginning (11:17). The corresponding word for “same” is translated in Philippians 2:6 as “equal,” that is, Christ “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God.” This “same” gift is mentioned as “the gift of the Holy Spirit” that was poured out on them (10:45). Thus, whatever the outpouring of the gift of the Holy Spirit was in relation to the apostles on Pentecost is the same thing or equal to the outpouring years later at Caesarea.

6. It demonstrated “no distinction” between Jews and Gentiles (15:9). How did Peter know that no distinction existed between Jew and Gentile? Because they were given the same gift from God. If they really didn’t receive the same outpouring of the gift of the Holy Spirit then Peter’s argument is unsupported.

7. The event fulfilled the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32. Ac-cording to Joel’s prophecy all flesh would receive the outpouring of the Spirit. Surely, all flesh does not include animal flesh or those who are wicked, but those willing to call upon the name of the Lord to be saved (Acts 2:21; 10:43). Jew and Gentile represent all flesh. Thus, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the apostles representing Jewish flesh upon the day of Pentecost and then upon the household of Cornelius representing Gentile flesh (10:45).

Furthermore, when the Apostles spoke in tongues having been filled with the Holy Spirit, it represented Holy Spirit baptism promised by Jesus (1:5) and it also fulfilled the prophecy of Joel (2:17). Now, if it took the Holy Spirit baptism to fulfill Joel’s prophecy and the promise of Jesus in reference to the Jews, then it would require Holy Spirit baptism for the Gentiles. After all, Cornelius’ household was filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, the Spirit poured out upon them as on the Jews at the beginning, and reminded the inspired apostle Peter of Jesus promise to baptize with the Holy Spirit (11:16). Finally, if Cornelius’ household did not receive Holy Spirit baptism in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, then where is this prophecy fulfilled?

Every reference to the experience of Cornelius’ house-hold points back to Pentecost (Acts 10:44, 45, 47; 11:15, 16; 15:8). Both Joel 2 and Acts 2 point toward the conversion of Cornelius’ household in Acts 10 for fulfillment. This scriptural proof is convincing and conclusive.

Guardian of Truth XL: 3 p. 
February1, 1996