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.” (N.K.J.V., emphasis mine)
Cornelius was a Roman centurion, which meant that he commanded 100 soldiers. 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 hadn’t gone to the extreme of becoming 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 to God always.”
Don’t misunderstand, though. Cornelius, despite his piety, was not a Christian and therefore hadn’t experienced salvation. 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.’” (N.K.J.V., emphasis mine)
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 was what we might call a “God fearer.” He prayed often, but he didn’t mention Jesus in any of those prayers. That was a major problem because this was approximately a decade after Christ’s death, resurrection, and the famous Day of Pentecost, that day when God the Holy Spirit had begun to indwell those who believed in Christ. By this time, 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.’” (N.K.J.V., emphasis mine)
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 has heard your prayer!
Now, to be fair, Cornelius was certainly 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 until Peter gave him one. Second, those thousands of people who were born-again Christians at that time were Jews. (Depending upon whether or not the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8:26-39 was a Jew, Cornelius could well have been the very first Gentile Christian in all the world.) Third, Cornelius lived in a transitional time between the Old Testament era and the New Testament era. While 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, including the one about Cornelius, that stand apart from mainstream New Testament teaching.
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 those wise men who came to see Jesus as a child (Matthew 2:1-12), that 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 whatever else we might say about Cornelius, this much is clear: He was indeed a lost man and God did indeed hear his prayers. So, if nothing else, the story of Cornelius really does prove that God can hear the prayers of lost people if He chooses to hear those prayers.