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BAPTISM OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (4): Cornelius


As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as He had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: “John baptized with wter, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So if God gave them the same gift as He gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God? – Peter, Acts 11:15-17

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. – Acts 10:44-46

The traditional understanding in the Church of Christ about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and here at the home of Cornelius, a Gentile Roman centurion, is somewhat confused. On the one hand, the claim is that the Eleven disciples plus Mathais were baptized in the Spirit to give them apostolic powers.

Then, when we come to Cornelius, there is a quandary: What did Peter mean when he said the Spirit fell on Cornelius and household “as He had come on us at the beginning,” especially since he went on to say, “God gave them the same gift as He gave us”? Does this mean that Cornelius also received apostolic powers and authority? After all, he did speak in tongues as on the Day of Pentecost. What does all of this mean?

Perhaps we need to rethink what happened at Pentecost that caused Peter to say what he did.

Very few (if any) seriously argue that Cornelius was an apostle or that he had apostolic powers and authority. Maybe the visible outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost had another purpose than the one we have believed. I would like to approach Acts 2 through the insights we can gain from Acts 10 – 11.

As on Us at the Beginning

In the case of Cornelius, the Spirit came visibly on this Gentile household as a sign to the Jews who were with Peter. Peter had already received a vision from God relating to this mission to Cornelius. God had prepared Peter’s heart for what was happening. The brothers who were with him, as well as those back in Jerusalem, did not have that same insight.

When the Spirit fell on Cornelius, the six Jews with Peter were astonished. Why?  “That the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” They knew none could really speak in tongues except by the power of the Holy Spirit – though not all who had the Holy Spirit spoke in tongues.

Paul was quite clear about that in 1 Corinthians 12. There, he was dealing with a church that exalted speaking in tongues above more excellent gifts. In this, they were like many today in the modern charismatic movement. Paul differed though.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

Not every believer has exactly the same gifts from God or the same tasks in the church. We are not all “clones” of each other. This does not alter our relationship to God, however.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He gives them to each one, just as He determines. – 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

Many gifts. One Spirit. All the gifts given by the Spirit are for the common good of the one body. Gifts are not for the personal benefit of the one who receives them.

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

Though there are different gifts, “there is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). So Paul wrote in Ephesians, and so he writes in 1 Corinthians. We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.

Those who spoke in tongues did so by the Spirit; those who performed miracles or prophesied did so by the Holy Spirit. Those who love as God loves do so by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). You see, not all the gifts of the Spirit are what we think of as “miraculous.”

Now some gifts are visible. Exercising these gifts causes wonder and awe. There is an immediate, visible impact on those who see them. Other gifts – such as the gifts of love, faith, and hope – are not immediately apparent to casual observers. Yet, these are the gifts that have the most power in changing hearts and lives into the likeness of God.

Paul continued in 1 Corinthians 12:

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts. – 1 Corinthians 12:27-31

Not all speak in tongues. Speaking in tongues is not the be all and end all of gifts of the Spirit. It is no accident that Paul lists it near the end of both of his lists of the charismatic gifts. There is one Spirit for the one body, though, and Paul urges us to seek the greater spiritual gifts.

Why, then, were tongues – the gifts of speaking in various languages – given? In 1 Corinthians 14:22, Paul wrote, “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.” Whereas most gifts were for the benefit of the body of Christ, Paul said tongues were to be a sign for unbelievers. Hence, it has little place in the assembly of the church. There, even 5 words spoken with understanding are better than ten thousand words that cannot be understood.

How did Cornelius’ speaking in tongues act as a sign for unbelievers? The Jews who came there with Peter did not believe the gospel was for Gentiles. When Peter went back to Jerusalem, the leaders of the church there called him on the carpet for having gone to Gentiles with the gospel and even eating with them.

The fact Cornelius and family spoke in tongues though was a sign to all of these unbelieving Jews that the gospel is for all. Even those in Jerusalem, who did not directly witness what happened, believed when they heard through Peter and six others of what God had done – and they rejoiced.

How Is Cornelius Like Pentecost?

The tongues on Pentecost were also a sign for the unbelievers. The unbelievers then were the Jews who had seen Jesus – and then killed him. In Peter’s sermon he offered many proofs. Among these proofs from the testimony of the Scriptures, their own knowledge of what Jesus had done, and the testimony of those who had seen the resurrected Christ was that “He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33).

When the Lord poured the Holy Spirit out for all flesh, some of those who received the Spirit spoke in tongues as a sign. Not all. Only some. The same Spirit that was poured out on all gave gifts to each one according to His will (1 Corinthians 12:11).

On Pentecost, He gave the gift of tongues to the apostles as a sign for the unbelieving Jews who did not believe in Jesus. At the house of Cornelius, He gave the gift of tongues to Cornelius and his family as a sign for the unbelieving Jews who did not believe the gospel was for Gentiles. It was the same gift from the Spirit given in the same, direct manner.

Being baptized in the Holy Spirit was for all who are baptized into the one body. The gift of tongues was only for a limited number as a sign for those who do not believe.

NEXT (5): BAPTIZED BY ONE SPIRIT INTO ONE BODY

PREVIOUS (3): THE GREAT COMMISSION & PENTECOST

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2 Responses

  1. Jerry–

    So if I understand you, the gift of tongues sort of “dried up” once it had served its purpose? What about prophecy and healing?

    Since I’m also of the CoC background, is our proof against these three gifts essentially that none of us can do them? Or is there anything more firm in the scriptures to tell us that these gifts no longer exist, though all of the others do?

    Great series, Jerry! Man, getting a double-dose from you and Jay on the Spirit is quite a treat! Especially since you are both coming from different points in the scriptures. …And add to that, our preacher is doing a long series on the Spirit on Sunday mornings! So I am fat and happy. Thanks for sharing your talents with us,

    • Jon,

      I just scheduled a post for Monday, May 17 that deals with the questions you just asked. I’m reading Jay’s posts with interest, and have offered several comments there. I believe he and I will come out at about the same place, although my series was not a detailed study of all the Bible says about the Holy Spirit – only of how we are to understand the Baptism of the Spirit.

      Thanks for the words of encouragement.

      Jerry S

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