Accepting a Roman
This is ground breaking! These are the first Gentile converts to Christianity.
The Jews of Judea and Galilee famously hated and resisted being ruled by the Roman army—to the extent of armed revolt. The rebellion most well-known among us began in AD 66 and culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem, including the Temple, in 70.
Also very famous is the Bar Kokhba revolt of AD 132-135, which culminated in Jews being slaughtered wholesale, the survivors driven from the land, and even their name removed from the land—the emperor Hadrian renamed it Syria Palestina (i.e. “from Syria to Philistia”, no acknowledgement of the people who had lived in-between for a thousand years). This name was later shortened to Palestine.
These were not the only two revolts. Two other, much smaller ones are mentioned by the Torah scholar Gamaliel in Acts 5:34-37. Barabbas was involved in another one (Mark 15:7 & Luke 23:18-19). There were others. The point is that the Jewish people very widely and very strenuously hated their Roman rulers.
It’s in this context that we encounter a Roman centurion, what we would call today the rank of captain, a company commander. We meet him in Acts chapter 10. His name is Cornelius, he is Italian, and he’s stationed at the garrison in Caesarea.
And he has adopted Judaism.
Here’s the character reference given him in verse 2: “A devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.” Remarkable praise for anyone, and given here to a Roman!
You know the story. (Or if you don’t please read Acts 10.) While keeping a regular (Jewish!) hour of prayer, an angel appears to him and calls him by name! Very, very few people in all of scripture are visited by one of God’s angels. The result is that Peter is sent for to teach him the gospel concerning Jesus.
Cornelius gathers together not only his household (which he’s brought into Judaism, remember), but all of his relatives and his friends! Peter doesn’t really have to say too much—he notes in verse 37 that they all know about Jesus already. They just need that final bit of instruction. And then…the people gathered there are given the gift of the Holy Spirit! With that powerful endorsement from God Himself, Peter concludes they should be baptized. God has shown—proven—that all, whether Jew or Gentile, can come to Jesus Christ in faith.
This is ground breaking! These are the first Gentile converts to Christianity. As we go on into the next chapter, there is some pretty heated opposition to including Gentiles. But what God has done silences them (11:18). More opposition will come up later, but as far as the apostles are concerned the matter is settled. There has been a complete paradigm shift. Everyone, Jew or not, on equal footing—on the basis of faith.
And it’s all done through a Roman. A Roman soldier. A Roman officer. There could not have been a more powerful test case. And it isn’t just one guy, is it? We don’t know if every single person who hears Peter is baptized, but a bunch of them are. From this point forward, the church is changed.
Nationality, ethnicity, race do not matter. But there’s something that does matter: faith in the one true God, the God of Israel. Faith in Roman gods or any other god will not save. We have to know and be devoted to and pray to the God whose everlasting covenant with Israel is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We have to hear about it, heed the call to learn about it, come to faith in it, heed the command of Jesus through Peter, to be baptized into it.
This is the fundamental truth that matters, which we can hang onto, even though there may be hatred around us. The early church was surrounded by hate and prejudice, and some of it seeped in, but they learned that even Romans could be their brothers and sisters in Christ, all together knowing and believing the one God, the one gospel of the Kingdom, the one savior Jesus Christ.