One of the seven wonders of the ancient world was the Colossus of Rhodes. The statue stood in the city’s harbor and at over 150 in height (including the pedestal) it towered over the incoming ships. This is where our word colossal comes from.
Luke’s account of the conversion of Cornelius and his household in Acts 10 & 11 is of colossal importance. We know this for several reasons. For starters, Luke devotes more space in Acts to telling this story than any other (including the three accounts of Paul’s conversion combined). There’s also the fact that Cornelius and Peter receive independent, complementary visions (so there can be no doubt about God’s will in the matter). Finally, Luke lays out his narrative in a clear sequential manner and repeats much of it in chapter 11 to avoid any ambiguity about what happened.
So what happens at the house of Cornelius? In short, Gentiles (people with no Jewish background at all) came into the kingdom of God. Up until this time, the church was composed of people with Jewish backgrounds. There were Hebraic Jews and Hellenistic Jews (see 6:1ff), as well as the Samaritans (who could claim some portion of Jewish blood and practice). But in Acts 10 we have the first account of people with no connection to Judaism being baptized as followers of Jesus.
As mentioned, Luke goes to great pains to show us how all of this is orchestrated by God through visions, an angel, and the Holy Spirit all being actively involved. Peter isn’t in control (as we might expect)—he doesn’t head off to Cornelius house on his own, an escort comes to get him. When he arrives, he asks why Cornelius sent for him (v. 29). Cornelius isn’t in control; he is waiting to hear what Peter has to say (v. 22). It is God who is clearly behind everything that is taking place.
Given this, when the Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household and they begin to speak in tongues it becomes obvious to Peter what should be done—they are to receive baptism just as the Jewish people have been doing in becoming Christians. This speaks volumes to the significance God places upon baptism in that Peter views the divine activity that has occurred as qualifying Cornelius and his household for the ritual rather than seeing it as somehow exempting them from it (as many would be tempted to think today). Yet this is not an oddity. Luke’s presentation of baptism throughout Acts is consistent with what we see at the house of Cornelius.
What Luke shows us in Acts 10 is nothing less than God’s promise to Abraham being fulfilled. The world that was scattered in Genesis 11 is being brought back together through Christ. After the Babel episode, Abraham is assured that through his offspring “all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). God enters into a special relationship with Israel for the ultimate purpose of reuniting the world one day through Jesus. Luke shows us that with Cornelius and his household—that day has come. Jews and Gentiles can come together as one in the body of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18).
The good news for today is that God is still bringing people together through Jesus Christ.