So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord. – Acts 10:33 (ESV)
It is likely that we have read these words dozens of times, yet have never taken their full measure or grasped the significance and importance of what it is that is being said here. What is significant is not only what is said, but by whom it is being said. These are the words of a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion and commander of the Italian Cohort. Cornelius speaks these words to the Apostle Peter, who has been brought to his house from Joppa, having just received a vision from the Lord in regards to things clean and unclean.
Earlier in this chapter of Acts, we read that Cornelius “saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, ‘Cornelius.’ And he stared at Him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’” (10:3-4a) That statement is worth noting because of the consistent, underlying message that we find in the New Testament, which sets Jesus in contrast to Caesar. In that day, “Lord” (kurios) was a title that was reserved for Caesar. Yet here we find this title on the lips of one of Caesar’s soldiers, as it is directed to the “angel of God.” Then we see him using the title again in our text above.
Now Cornelius was in Caesarea. As a ranking military official in the land in which the events of the life and death of Christ had taken place, it would be unreasonable to think that he was unaware of the things that were being said about Jesus, or that he was unaware of the activities of the main proponents of that message. He would have known the claims that the followers of Jesus were making for Him. Indeed, the speech that he made in welcoming Peter to his house indicates his awareness of the message of Jesus that Peter carried, and perhaps of his growing understanding of the significance of the claim, as he says, using official, military language, that “we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” Clearly, Cornelius, the Roman centurion and subject of Caesar, with his use of both “God” and “Lord” and “commanded,” makes a distinction that shows us that he himself had come to think of Jesus as “Lord.” Coming from him, as the commander of up to one thousand soldiers of Lord Caesar, this would be no light matter.
Having been encouraged by Cornelius to speak of the Lord Jesus, “Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him’.” (10:34-35) With that as a preface, Peter continues and says, “As for the word that He sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)” (10:36). Here, before a Roman military commander, and likely, before a group of Roman government officials and probably some soldiers as well, Peter uses some startling language. He speaks of the “good news of peace.” This is the Gospel of peace. For the Roman hearer, this would be the good news of the Caesar and of the peace (pax Romana) that he brings. Peter applies it to Jesus. Then, in the same breath, while a number of his hearers are contemplating the depth of this statement and its inherent challenge to the Lordship of their emperor, Peter extends his claim and says frankly that it is Jesus that is “Lord of all.” A bit later, Peter adds that Jesus “is the One appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (10:42b). This claim is made in stark contrast to the well-known fact that it is Caesar, the all-powerful ruler of the world, that has the power to judge, and who has the power of life and death.
While it is said of Cornelius that he was “a devout man who feared God” (10:2a), and that he used the language of “Lord” in reference to Jesus, this would not necessarily apply to all those that were around him, so Peter is being quite bold. Cornelius himself is being quite bold, revealing his revolutionary beliefs to the people closest to him, inviting certain scrutiny, possible persecution, and probable removal from his position. This should tell us something about the revolutionary and resolute faith that is demonstrated by those that confess their belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Just as “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (10:38a), He does the same for all those that choose to testify of His Son.