As we have observed repeatedly throughout our readings in the Book of Acts, the emphasis of Luke is on what Jesus was doing from heaven as he ruled there on behalf of his church on earth. So whenever we come to a new section, we should ask ourselves, ‘What did Jesus do in that incident?’ We can even ask, ‘Why did he do that activity?’ The main player in the drama involving Cornelius is not Cornelius, nor is it Peter. Instead it is Jesus and he is doing at least two things in this incident. One is that he finds a seeking sinner called Cornelius and the other is that he opens up his church to the Gentiles. We will consider the first activity today.
Cornelius was a Gentile soldier from Italy who had discovered that his original way of life was not very satisfying. He had had a good military career, having attained the rank of centurion. He was probably married. At some stage in his life he had decided to become a godfearer, that is a Gentile who liked the Jewish way of life and was prepared to adopt certain of its practices, without becoming a fully-fledged proselyte. Nevertheless he realised that the Jews worshipped the true God and that realisation affected his whole life. Luke mentions that Cornelius’ family was affected, Cornelius’ wallet was affected (he gave alms), and Cornelius’ tongue was affected (he now prayed). So clearly, Cornelius was a religious man, but he was aware that there was something more.
The question that arises, of course, is, ‘Was Cornelius a regenerated man?’ After all, it is possible for an individual to do what Cornelius was doing, but to focus only on the externals. Cornelius, in contrast, had his heart focussed on serving God. I would say that he was already regenerate because he was living a spiritual life of which God approved. Having accepted the Old Testament he would have been looking forward to the promised Messiah by faith, which is proof of regeneration. At that moment he was not yet aware that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus. Shortly Jesus was going to let him know. So Cornelius was a religious man who was not satisfied and he was a regenerate man who was not aware of what Jesus had done.
The next question is, how did Cornelius come to be in this state? If we had asked him before he met Peter, Cornelius would have listed a whole lot of incidents that caused him to make certain choices and that string of choices led him to where he now was. If we asked Cornelius after he had met Peter, the centurion would have replied that Jesus had been working secretly in his life. And that is the answer to the question how he became a seeking sinner.