Acts 10:1-6 tells the story of a man named Cornelius:
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!” And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.”
Cornelius was a centurion in Rome’s army. He commanded 100 soldiers in the Italian Regiment. This made him a man of some standing. But what truly made him different from other Romans was his view on religion. Rather than worshiping Rome’s assortment of pagan gods and goddesses, Cornelius worshiped Israel’s one God. He had not become a full proselyte to Judaism by submitting himself to circumcision, but he did make a sincere effort to live a life that was pleasing to Israel’s God. As a part of that effort, he prayed “always.”
Don’t misunderstand, though. As fine a man as Cornelius was, he had not experienced salvation. He was not a Christian. To use Christ’s own terminology, he was a “lost” man who needed to be “saved.” This is made crystal clear in Acts 11:13-14, where Peter recounts Cornelius’ story. Peter says,
And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, “Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.”
Noted preacher and commentator Warren Wiersbe has said of Cornelius:
It is interesting to see how religious a person can be and still not be saved. Certainly, Cornelius was sincere in his obedience to God’s law, his fasting, and his generosity to the Jewish people. He was not permitted to offer sacrifices in the temple, so he presented his prayers to God as his sacrifices. In every way, he was a model of religious respectability – and yet he was not a saved man.
You see, Cornelius prayed often, but he didn’t mention Jesus in any of those prayers. He was what we might call a “God fearer.” Mind you, this was approximately a decade after Christ’s death, resurrection, and the famous Day of Pentecost, that day when God the Holy Spirit began to indwell those who believed in Christ. Many thousands of people were walking around as born-again Christians who knew Christ as Savior and were indwelt with the Holy Spirit. Sadly, though, Cornelius wasn’t one of them. Like so many people, he was religious but in need of salvation.
But what did that angel say to him? “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God.” What did that mean? I can tell you what Cornelius took it to mean. In Acts 10:30-31, he says to Peter,
Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God.”
The story gets even more intriguing upon closer inspection. Notice that Cornelius was praying at the “ninth hour.” That was 3:00 p.m., one of the three set times of prayer the Jews observed each day. The other two were 9:00 a.m. (the third hour) and 12:00 noon (the sixth hour). The point is that Cornelius was in the very act of praying when the angel appeared! And when an angel interrupts your prayer and tells you that your prayer has been heard, there’s no doubt that God the Father heard your prayer!
Now, to be fair, I must point out that Cornelius was a far cry from a modern-day Jew who prays at Jerusalem’s famous Wailing Wall in full rejection of Jesus. First, from what we can gather, Cornelius had never heard a presentation of the gospel of Christ. That’s what Peter gave him. Second, of all the thousands who were born-again
Christians at that time, the vast majority of them were Jews. Even Peter seemed astounded that God would have him preach the gospel to a Gentile such as Cornelius. Third, Cornelius did live in a transitional time between the Old Testament era and the New Testament era. The New Testament’s great books on doctrine are Paul’s epistles (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, etc.). The book of Acts is, by and large, just a partial record of the early years of the Christian church. As such, it gives us several unique stories that stand apart from mainstream New Testament teaching. Cornelius’ story is one of those.
In his Believer’s Bible Commentary, William MacDonald writes:
Our view is that Cornelius is an example of a man who lived up to the light which God gave him. While this light was not sufficient to save him, God insured that he was given the additional light of the Gospel.
I think we can best describe Cornelius as a “seeker.” He wanted salvation and was completely open to whatever spiritual truth God would send him. Until the full revelation of that truth arrived, however, the best he could do was put into practice what truth he had. In this way, he was like the wise men who came to see Jesus as a child (Matthew 2:1-12), the Ethiopian eunuch to whom Philip ministered (Acts 8:26-40), and the preacher Apollos who needed to be taught by Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:24-28). But, in the end, the point is: Cornelius was a lost man and God did hear his prayer.