Peter Baptizes at Cornelius’s House
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
Much has been made of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. When and how should we expect to receive the Spirit? How can we know if someone has the Spirit? At times it appears that the Spirit is “transferred” by laying on of hands and praying (Acts 8:14-17, Acts 19:6), while at other times it just descends without warning (Acts 2:41, Acts 4:31). What transpires after the Holy Spirit is received is usually some type of supernatural phenomenon, usually speaking in tongues. However, this is not always the case. In some cases, such as Acts 4:31, those who receive the Spirit preach boldly. This is reminiscent of how the Holy Spirit is received in the Old Testament. The judges are often said to have had the Holy Spirit descend on them.
When the children of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the children of Israel, who delivered them: Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord delivered Cushan-Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-Rishathaim. (Judges 3:9-10)
But the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon; then he blew the trumpet, and the Abiezrites gathered behind him. (Judges 6:34)
And the Spirit of the Lord began to move upon him (Samson) at Mahaneh Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol. (Judges 13:25)
And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he tore the lion apart as one would have torn apart a young goat, though he had nothing in his hand. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done. (Judges 14:6)
There is no doubt that the New Testament narrative follows the same Old Testament trend of the Spirit providing a supernatural power, or vigor, to those who receive it.
Some denominations, such as the Assemblies of God have sought to create dogma surrounding the giving/receiving of the Holy Spirit, claiming that all who receive the Spirit will speak in tongues. However, this is not universally true in the New Testament and especially untrue for the Old Testament. No evidence of tongues is seen in Acts 4:31 or Acts 8:14-18. Moreover, Paul tells the Corinthian church that the Spirit gives certain gifts to certain people. Not all will speak in tongues and not all will prophesy.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)
If the Spirit gives the gifts as it sees fit then it is useless to try and create a dogmatic approach to determining who has the Spirit and who does not. We cannot claim that all who have the Spirit will speak in tongues since clearly it’s not accurate historically and Paul clearly teaches that such a notion is untrue.
Another interesting part of this passage is that Peter’s audience received the Spirit first before they were baptized. Some faiths affirm that the Christian receives Spirit when baptized. However, this is untrue of Peter’s visit to Cornelius, as well as the Baptism of the Eunuch by Phillip. Others contend that we receive the Spirit before we are even able to accept Christ, depending on the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.
Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3)
However, the idea that we need the Holy Spirit before responding to God ignores the many people who followed Christ before the Holy Spirit was “sent” on the day of Pentecost. It also ignores the many Old Testament passages were God gives His people the free will to seek Him or to turn away from Him. If we take Paul (in 1 Cor 12:3) literally then we must assume that some temporary provision was in place before Pentecost but the scriptures speak of no such thing. Moreover, if one can only proclaim Christ as Lord once they have received the Spirit (not of their own accord) then the whole theology of heaven and hell is made useless since God is the one deciding who is following Him, not the other way around. Is God so tyrannical that He is going to send people to hell for not proclaiming the name of Jesus when it was Him, all along, who decided who was going to be capable of such a thing? This is, of course, not the God of the Old or New Testament.
What can be conclusively known from Peter’s visit with Cornelius? First, God sought to bring the Gentiles into the fold of Israel, or at the very least, sought to include them in the plan of salvation. Most scholars view this as the manifestation of God fulfilling His previous promise, where He intended Israel to the a light to the nations.
“I am the Lord, I have called You in righteousness,
I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You,
And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6)
He says, “It is too [a]small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light [b]of the nations
So that My salvation may [c]reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
The Lord has bared His holy arm
In the sight of all the nations,
That all the ends of the earth may see
The salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:10)
With the Baptism of the Gentiles, Peter is now aware that the plan of salvation is not just for the Jews. However, there is more work to be done. No one has yet figured out how the Gentiles will be able to integrate with the Jews and their strict code of righteousness, which prohibits fellowship with Gentiles. We shall see a resolution to this in Acts 15.