In the tenth chapter of Acts, Peter pays a visit to the household of Cornelius. Cornelius is a Gentile, which makes the record of this encounter of particular interest to the mission of the church as presented in Acts and expounded on in the New Testament. We will not recap the whole of the interaction or what led to Peter’s dealings with this prominent Gentile (though there will be some recapping), and we will begin by recounting that it is near the close of the story that we hear Peter say “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people” (10:34b). This is not about individual favoritism, but favoritism towards peoples or nations, so it should not, at first, cause us to take the position of an inward focus or cause us to direct our thoughts at some type of earned salvation or status with God.
With that established, we continue, hearing “but in every nation,” which reinforces the point just made, “the person who fears Him and does what is right is welcomed before Him” (10:35). This welcome is, quite obviously, a welcome to the covenant people of God. To this point, briefly reaching into the story of Cornelius, and doing so that we might appropriately hear the words of Peter within the narrative that is on offer, rather than visiting the text with possibly foreign notions of what is meant by “does what is right,” we find very little activity or doing attributed to Cornelius. We are alerted to the fact that Cornelius is a God-fearing man that performed acts of charity and regularly prayed (10:2). Right away then, he is introduced in a far more flattering way than was Abraham in Genesis.
We go on to learn that “About three o’clock one afternoon he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God who came in and said to him, ‘Cornelius.’ Staring at him and becoming greatly afraid, Cornelius replied, ‘What is it, Lord?’ The angel said to him, ‘Your prayers and your acts of charity have gone up as a memorial before God.’” (10:3-4) This should give us some pause, causing us to reflect on God’s opinion about “good works” and their ultimate value. Again, and for what it’s worth, Cornelius is introduced into the narrative of the people of God in a more positive light than was Abraham, which is something to keep in mind.
Cornelius receives instructions: “Now send men to Joppa and summon a man named Simon, who is called Peter. This man is staying as a guest with a man named Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea” (10:5-6). With this said, we find that “When the angel who had spoken to him departed, Cornelius called two of his personal servants and a devout soldier from among those who served him, and when he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa” (10:7-8). Later, after Peter has come to his house, Cornelius, relating his story, speaks to Peter and says “I sent for you at once, and you were kind enough to come. So now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to say to us” (10:33).
We’ll notice that Cornelius, in both verse four and verse thirty-three, uses the word “Lord.” Based on the whole of Luke’s presentation, and especially the story of Saul’s blinding on the road to Damascus, where he says “Who are you, Lord?” and heard “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (9:5), we should presume that Cornelius’ references to the “Lord” are to be considered to be references to the Lord Jesus. Therefore, Cornelius effectively gives voice to the Gospel, calling Jesus Lord, thus taking upon himself the mark of the covenant, which is the confession of Jesus as Lord. It is these things told about Cornelius that, according to the story on offer, fall into the category of “does what is right” (demonstrating a respect of God by engaging in charity, praying regularly, and calling Jesus “Lord”).
This use of “Lord,” with Peter recognizing it for what it is, allows him to move immediately to his speech, pointing to God’s lack of favoritism and His desire to welcome people from all nations before Him. It is telling that Peter does not go into the story of Abraham, nor does he tell the story of Jesus as if Cornelius is hearing it for the first time. Instead, he says “You know the message He sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)” (10:36). We shall not fail to here note that Cornelius is a centurion---an official in Caesar’s army. He, of all people, would be well aware that “good news” is routinely linked to the Caesar. In addition, the use of “Christ,” which is “Messiah,” and means “king”, together with a proclamation that He and not Caesar is “Lord of all,” was quite a bold statement by Peter, considering his setting, while also being emblematic of the proclamation of Christ-followers from the beginning.