A Roman soldier who had become a centurion had worked his way up through the ranks of the military to earn the status of a noncommissioned officer given the responsibilities equivalent to
a captain in the US Army and the command of a hundred Roman soldiers. A Centurion was
paid sixteen times what the average soldier was paid. Polybius, the Roman historian described
a Centurion like this:
“Centurions are required not to be bold and adventurous so much as good leaders, of steady and prudent mind, not prone to take the offensive or start fighting wantonly, but able when overwhelmed and hard-pressed to stand fast and die at their post.”
- Polybius, History 6.24
Cornelius was a centurion in the Cohors II Miliaria Italica Civium Romanorum which consisted of archers from Italy who were freedmen (freed slaves) who had gained their citizenship. A cohort
was a unit of 1,000 men. Ten cohorts made a legion (10,000 men). Cornelius was in charge of
a group of 100 archers that together with 900 other archers made up the Second Italian Cohort of Roman Citizens. The members originally all came from Italy. Notice that Cornelius' family was with him in his home and that Cornelius had done many good things in the community of Caesarea. Cornelius had probably been in this position in Caesarea for a faily long time since he had a home with his family in a community where he was known for his good deeds.
Luke tells us that Cornelius was devout, God-fearing, gave generously and prayed to God regularly. Likewise, the angel also said that Cornelius’ prayers and gifts to the poor have become a memorial
before God. Directions on how to receive eternal life where brought to Cornelius by the angel,
because of Cornelius’ desire to seek God and his willingness to do the good deeds that reflected God’s character. Cornelius’ good deeds showed that he was seeking the God of glory, honor and immortality. Paul wrote in a similar way in Romans 2:7 when he wrote that a man like Cornelius
will receive eternal life:
“To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” - Romans 2:7
But, Paul also writes that no one will be declared righteous and given eternal life because
of their good deeds. Instead, Paul makes it clear that no man can gain glory, honor and
immortality because of their good works. Righteousness and eternal life are attained through
faith in Jesus Christ, because even though we may seek glory, honor and immortality from God,
we all fall short of attaining it.
“No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law…This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
- Romans 3:20-24
Even though men will never attain eternal life by their own works, men do reveal that they are
seeking God when they do good and seek to find God. God says that to these men, “he will give eternal life…glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good” (Romans 2:7) How? He will lead them to Jesus who is the only way to be justified and the only source of righteousness.
The angel tells Cornelius that his prayers and gifts have reminded God (“memorial offering”) that Cornelius was seeking God’s “glory, honor and immortality.” Because of this, God sent an angel
to Cornelius to tell him to go get Peter (who is 30 miles south of Caesarea in Joppa). Peter will
tell Cornelius how he can gain by grace what he has demonstrated by his works that he is
trying to gain, but has not. Cornelius will be saved in Acts 10:44.