Most of us are pretty ordinary people. Perhaps we have some influence in our particular circle of relationships, but the breadth and depth of influence for the majority of us is neither significantly deep or wide. And that is true of most individuals mentioned in Scripture as well. Sure, we know the stories of Abraham and the patriarchs, David, the prophets, the disciples, Paul, and a few more. But what about the hundreds of names recorded in the genealogies and so many others who are mentioned almost incidentally in various accounts — people like Mephibosheth (Jonathan’s son) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isaiah’s son)? About them we don’t know too much.
The point is that ordinariness is prevalent. Yet even in the “ordinary” stories, there is much that is extraordinary when a man is gripped by the gospel of Christ. And just such an account given in Acts 10. In just a few verses of that chapter, the Holy Spirit has recorded for eternity much about the remarkable position and stature of the man Cornelius. This is what we know:
He was a man of leadership. He was a member of the most loyal of the Roman fighting units — the cohort (v. 1). Some 32 of these bands of 600-member Italian volunteers were stationed in the provinces of the Roman Empire. But Cornelius was no mere “member.” He was a centurion — an officer with 100 men under his command. In an elite group, he was an elite leader — one of only six centurions in this Caesarean cohort.
He was a man of means. That is evident not only by the fact that he carried a position of authority, but also because he had the ability to give abundantly to charitable needs (v. 2) and he was wealthy enough to be the owner of slaves — household attendants (v. 7).
He was a man of godliness. Evidently a proselyte to the Jewish faith, he was genuine in his devotion to God, as demonstrated by his fear of God (v. 2a), his vibrant prayer life (v. 2b), his leadership of his home (v. 2), and his evangelism of his soldiers and servants (v. 7).
He was a man of humility. This is not apparent in a rapid reading of the text. After the angel had appeared to Cornelius, commanding him to send for Peter (vv. 4-6), Cornelius chose three men to go on the journey to Joppa for him — two slaves and a soldier. Why slaves? Why a soldier? [It is unlikely that the servants would have needed protection, so it is improbable that the soldier was sent for that reason.] Commentator Lenski helps here: “These three men were selected because they were spiritually closest to Cornelius. Their respective stations did not matter; as for that, all three messengers might have been slaves or soldiers. The point is that we here have a Roman officer who shared his [faith] with those who were far beneath him.” [my emphasis]
What a unique man of God! A man of authority, position and wealth. And the same man also a man of godliness and humility. His godliness infiltrated his entire home (v. 2) and was passed even to his servants and soldiers (don’t miss that the same quality of godly character attributed to Cornelius in v. 1 also characterizes this soldier in v. 7).
What made an “ordinary” man named Cornelius extraordinary was not his political position or wealth, but his godliness, humility, and service. So we have an illustration of Christ’s words that greatness in the kingdom will be marked by humility — “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mark 10:43; NASB).