Are genuine seekers after God saved, if they have responded to the light they have but have never heard the gospel? The experience of Cornelius begins to answer this question.
At Caesarea, a mainly Gentile city, residence of the Roman proconsul (from A.D. 6 onward), lived Cornelius, a Roman centurion. He was in command of sixty to one hundred men and was the equivalent of an army captain or company commander. His unit was part of the Italian Regiment (the Cohores II Miliaria Italica Civium Romanorum). A cohort had ten centuries and was the equivalent of a modern military battalion. This battalion was an auxiliary unit, not part of a regular Roman legion. Such a battalion of archers was first made up of Roman soldiers and then filled out in the provinces.
Cornelius would have been a winsome figure for Luke's Roman audience. Polybius said of centurions, the backbone of the Roman army, "They wish centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts" (Histories 6.24.9).
This "solid citizen" along with all his family (literally "all his household," which would have included household servants and military orderlies and their families) was devout and God-fearing. Luke does not quite use "God-fearer" (hos phoboumenos or hos seboumenos) as a technical term (Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26, 43, 50; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7). But it does point to that class of monotheistic Gentiles who worshiped the God of the Old Testament, kept the Old Testament ethical code, attended synagogue, observed the sabbath and practiced the main requirements of Jewish piety (Levinskaya 1990). Because they refused to become proselytes, Jews still regarded them as ritually unclean Gentiles. Luke emphasizes Cornelius's piety: regular prayer (the Jewish practice was three times a day: m. Berakot 4:1; compare Dan 6:10) and many acts of charity among the needy of the Jewish people (Tobit 1:16; Sirach 7:10; 16:14; compare Mt 6:1-14).
God may do preparatory work in a culture before missionaries arrive. But note Cornelius's worship is directed to the one true God.
At about three in the afternoon (literally, "the ninth hour," the Jewish afternoon hour of prayer and sacrifice), in broad daylight, Cornelius, wide awake, sees clearly a vision in which an angel approaches him and addresses him by name. Staring in fear (compare 1:10; 3:4, 12; 6:15; 7:55), Cornelius responds, What is it, Lord? (compare 9:5). Lord can mean anything from a courteous "sir" (so here says Bruce [1990:254]) to a divine title (E. F. Harrison 1986:176 says it indicates that Cornelius knows he is in God's presence). Cornelius probably is indeed giving some worshipful acclaim, although he may not know the exact identity of the one to whom he is speaking (Longenecker 1981:386).
The angel says Cornelius's prayers and acts of charity have risen as the aroma of the meal offering rose as a memorial before God (Lev 2:2, 9, 16; Ps 141:2; Tobit 12:12; Longenecker 1981:386). It is too much to say that Cornelius has been praying that he might be fully incorporated into the fellowship of the people of God (as Pesch 1986:1:337; Kistemaker 1990:373).
What we see emerging to this point is the basic outline of the "more light" principle of God's redemptive mercy (compare Lk 8:18; 19:26). Cornelius has responded in faith and obedience to the "light" he has received, as evidenced by his piety. He fears the one true God, prays to him regularly and acts in love to the needy among God's people. Such obedience is not a "works righteousness" that earns salvation. This we can see by God's response. He does not declare Cornelius saved. Rather, he grants him "more light" by which he and his household may be saved (Acts 11:14). God's response is embodied in a command to send for the messenger who carries the gospel, the essential "more light" (4:12). What have we done with the light we have received?
The angel tells Cornelius to send to Joppa, thirty miles south, and fetch Simon who is called Peter from the house of Simon the tanner, located by the sea (a good water supply was needed for the tanning trade). God deals with Cornelius this way to demonstrate that salvation comes to all people in the same divinely commanded and enabled way: through human messengers who proclaim the gospel (Lk 24:47).
We need to constantly remind ourselves of this, whether we are considering the claims of the gospel and are tempted to wait for some extraordinary experience, or whether having received it and become a witness to it we are tempted to become lax in evangelism, thinking that there may be other ways God will save people.
Cornelius calls two household servants (an oiketes had a particularly intimate relationship with the master, since he served him in very personal matters; Philo De Plantatione 55) and a soldier who is an orderly (the NIV translation of both terms misses the intimate relation these men have to Cornelius). He tells them everything that had happened (Williams [1985:172] notes the emphatic position of everything in the Greek text). As members of his household, all three would be God-fearers (compare Acts 10:2), though Luke emphasizes the devoutness of the military orderly.
Cornelius sends them to Joppa to find and bring back Peter. Some have supposed that the thirty-mile distance requires that they ride (Marshall 1980:184). Others suggest that a determined march through the night with rest stops would permit them to arrive about noon the next day (Haenchen 1971:347; compare 10:9, 17). In any case, Cornelius's immediate obedience to limited information models for us the kind of faith that will truly receive salvation. It depends on God's word of promise alone.