When it says that Cornelius “feared God” (10:1,2), that didn’t mean he was saved. As a matter of fact, we know he wasn’t saved, for God is about to tell him how to be saved (11:13). We know being “devout” (10:2) didn’t mean “saved” either, for Acts 17:2-4 describes some people who were devout before they got saved. “Devout” just means devoted to, and Cornelius was obviously devoted to God.
That’s a good first step in getting saved (Heb. 11:6), but you also have to do what God says to do to be saved. People often wonder how God can fairly judge people who never hear the gospel, but Cornelius illustrates the answer! When he sought God, God showed him the gospel (cf. Ps. 25:8-14).
True, “there is none that seeketh after God” (Rom. 3:11), in and of themselves. But God does things to make men seek Him. He speaks to them through the stars (Ps. 19:1-3) and He divided men up into different nations (Gen. 10,11) “that” they might seek Him (Acts 17:24-27), to name just a few.
But Cornelius had a problem. He was a Gentile, and the God of Israel wasn’t receiving Gentiles under the new kingdom program (Mt. 15:23,24). But a Gentile could be saved under the old program of the law that was still going on as the new program was being introduced. But Gentiles needed Jews to tell them what the law said about how to be saved. Luckily for Cornelius we know there were Jews in Caesarea, for there were Jews everywhere (cf. Acts 2:5). We see evidence that his hometown Jews told him he could get saved by giving alms “to the people” of Israel (10:2). That’s one thing Gentiles had to do to be saved (Gen. 12:1-3 cf. Luke 7:2-5).
But doing that hadn’t saved Cornelius because the new kingdom program that included water baptism for salvation had now been introduced. So now Cornelius needed Jews who could tell him about that too! We know that Philip knew the new program because he baptized the eunuch, and he was living in Caesarea (Acts 8:40 cf. 21:8). And as an “evangelist” he would have made a lot of converts by that time. So why hadn’t they told Cornelius how to be saved?
It was because they were still preaching to Jews only (Acts 11:19) until all Israel was saved. But when unsaved Jews stoned Stephen and made it clear that wouldn’t happen, God saved Saul in Acts 9 and sent him to the Gentiles, changing the kingdom program to His even newer mystery program.
But God didn’t tell Philip about that, for the mystery was given to Paul, not Philip (Eph. 3:1-3). But to introduce what Paul was starting to do among the Gentiles, God is about to give Cornelius a vision to tell him how to be saved.
We see more proof that Cornelius was obeying the law to be saved in that he was praying in “the ninth hour” (Acts 10:3 cf. 10:30), “the hour of prayer” (3:1). Because of all that, his prayers came up to God “for a memorial” (10:4). A memorial is something to help you remember something, as when Memorial Day helps us remember the men who died serving our country. The Jews had sacrifices for a memorial (Lev. 6:15) to help them remember that the reason they had to keep offering them was that they kept sinning (Heb. 10:3).
Cornelius’ prayers were a memorial in place of offerings like that, just as David’s were when he was on the run from Saul (Ps. 141:2) and couldn’t offer sacrifices in the temple. So in saying Cornelius’ prayers came to God as a memorial, that means they were as accepted of God as David’s prayers!
Don’t overlook the fact that the angel calls Peter by his original name (Acts 10:5,6). His full name was “Simon Barjonah” (Mt. 16:17), which means son of Jonah (cf. Mark 10:46). His father was obviously named after the prophet Jonah, who liked to argue with God (Jonah 4)—like Peter (Mt. 16:22; Acts 10:14). We see more proof that Peter was a symbolic son of Jonah in that God is about to send him to the Gentiles like He sent Jonah, and both men had to be convinced to go! Instead, Jonah went to Joppa (Jonah 1:3)—where Peter was (Acts 10:5). See the parallels?
Peter was “by the sea side” (Acts 10:6), and the sea is a symbol of the Gentiles (Isa. 60:5; Rev. 13:1-4). When the angel told Cornelius that Peter would tell him what he had to “do” (Acts 10:6), we know he meant do to be saved (Acts 11:13), so Cornelius obeyed without delay (Acts 10:7,8)!
Video of this sermon is available on YouTube: The Leader of the Italian Band – Acts 10:1-8