"While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, 'Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?' And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days" (Acts 10:44-48).
Luke plainly declared that the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and those who were gathered with him, but how exactly did the Holy Spirit come upon them and for what purpose? We will answer these important questions as we comment on this passage.
First, let it be observed that the Holy Spirit fell "while Peter was still speaking." Acts 11:15 is even more specific, stating that the Spirit fell upon them as Peter "began to speak." This detail is important. Thus, the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles at the very beginning of Peter's words. This is a significant point to stress because it implies that the Spirit came upon them before they really had much of an opportunity to hear and learn about Jesus, the church, and what the Lord expected them to do. Furthermore, if they hadn't had a chance to hear about these matters at this point, then they certainly have not yet developed faith regarding them (cf. Rom. 10:17). Therefore, it seems the Holy Spirit came upon these Gentiles before they fully believed in Jesus! This point is of utmost importance for it proves, contrary to the doctrines of some, that this outpouring of the Holy Spirit did not save Cornelius nor any of the other Gentiles. They had not yet had a chance to fully hear or develop faith (let alone obey), so they could not have been saved yet (unless one is willing to incorrectly affirm that salvation is possible prior to faith in Christ). Besides, the angel told Cornelius that Peter would come and tell him something he must do to be saved (cf. Acts 10:6; 11:14).
This outpouring of God's Spirit upon the Gentiles amazes the Jewish Christians who were present. This was something they did not expect! These men who came with Peter were likely struggling with the fact that they were having such close interaction with Gentiles (whom they considered unclean), and this miraculous outpouring would have really shocked them! Luke indicates that the Spirit gave these Gentiles (whether temporarily or permanently we do not know) the ability to speak in tongues (i.e., foreign languages they had never studied before). This was divine proof that the Gentiles were worthy recipients of the gospel message! God is encouraging Peter in what he is beginning to do, and He is clearly showing that He wants the gospel shared with all.
Luke records that the Gentiles received "the gift of the Holy Spirit." They had received the Holy Spirit as a gift (cf. 10:47), though in a different sense and for a different purpose than what is referred to in Acts 2:38. Not everyone who received the Spirit was endowed with the same powers or even with any miraculous abilities at all (e.g., Luke 1:15; John 10:41).
After witnessing this outpouring and going on to explain the gospel plan of salvation, Peter asks if anyone could forbid them from being baptized in water. Peter had learned so much that week, and it all started with the vision from God. Not only did God want him to go to the home of a Gentile to speak with him and teach him the gospel, but God also wanted him to baptize the penitent believing Gentiles as had been done all along with the penitent believing Jews. Peter correctly drew this conclusion as a result of the miraculous outpouring upon Cornelius. God was sending a one-time message that Gentiles were worthy recipient of the gospel message. The differences that separated Jews and Gentiles in the past were now irrelevant to God (cf. Gal. 3:27,28)! Truly, the Lord will accept anyone who fears Him and works righteousness (cf. Acts 10:34,35)! Although such is true, it would unfortunately take a long time for some social stigmas to be completely removed from the minds of many Jews.
No one objected and these Gentiles responded properly to the command to be baptized into Christ for the remission of their sins. Finally, in 10:48, we see a command--the thing they "must do" (10:6)! This is what Cornelius was waiting for, and he did not neglect to be baptized in water in accordance with the gospel message. Cornelius would be "saved" by "words" which he would hear and obey (11:15). He was not saved by the outpouring of the Spirit upon himself; he was saved when he heard, believed, and obeyed (which included repentance and baptism in water). Water baptism was always for remission of sins (cf. Acts 2:38), and since Cornelius needed to be baptized with water, it is understood that he was not yet saved but had sins that needed to be forgiven.
Despite the above evidence, some will argue nevertheless that Cornelius' reception of the Holy Spirit prior to water baptism proves that water baptism is not essential to salvation. Dear listeners, if receiving the gift of the Spirit "proves" that water baptism is unimportant to salvation, then why does it not also "prove" that faith is inconsequential (since they received the Spirit prior to having full faith in Christ)? What "proves" too much "proves" nothing at all! Furthermore, some incorrectly argue that water baptism is just an "outward sign of an inward grace." If such was accurate, why would Peter be concerned about water baptism at all in Cornelius' case? Surely these Gentiles did not need an additional "outward sign" of getting wet when they were speaking in tongues! Clearly, water baptism was important then and it is important now in the process of salvation.
Cornelius asked Peter and the Christians with him to stay there a few days, and it appears that they did. No doubt the days were filled with further instruction regarding the gospel and Christian living. Peter lived with Gentiles for this span of time, eating their food and fellowshipping with them. The middle wall of separation had been broken down; Jew and Gentile were one in Christ!
"Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, 'You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!' But Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning, saying: 'I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object descending like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came to me. When I observed it intently and considered, I saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." But I said, "Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth." But the voice answered me again from heaven, "What God has cleansed you must not call common." Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven. At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea. Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, "Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved." And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, "John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit." If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?' When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, 'Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life' (Acts 11:1-18).
When Peter returned to Jerusalem, he faced opposition from Jewish Christians who learned of his behavior but did not travel with him to Caesarea. They rebuke Peter for what they believe to be an improper association with the "unclean" (cf. Luke 15:2). Peter defends what he did and explains in great detail why he did it. In fact, Acts 11 claims to be more chronologically precise than Acts 10 for Peter "explained it to them in order from the beginning." He spoke of the vision with the animals being lowered down before him, the messengers from Caesarea, the six Jewish Christians who accompanied him (and who could verify his words), his arrival at Cornelius' home, and the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles as he began to speak. Peter was just following God's orders. He had not acted on a whim or done anything wrong!
Peter knew that Cornelius and the other Gentiles had been baptized with the Holy Spirit by Jesus Himself, and that they were certainly worthy candidates for water baptism by which they could be born again and forgiven! Peter wasn't about to resist God, and neither were any of the Jewish Christians willing to resist either. The matter had been settled by God. They accepted Peter's explanation and stopped contending with him about the matter. They praised God for giving Gentiles the opportunity to believe, repent, and be baptized for eternal life! As a side note, we should ask: If refusing baptism to the Gentiles would have been withstanding God, what is a person doing today who refuses this divine ordinance for himself (cf. Luke 7:30)?
The outpouring of the Spirit upon Cornelius and those gathered with him was a unique occurrence. The fact that Peter had to refer back to Pentecost in order to compare it to something similar illustrates its rareness. There is no New Testament explicit evidence that the Holy Spirit was poured out in a miraculous fashion except for these two occurrences (Acts 2 & 10), and there was a unique once-for-all-time purpose involved in both cases. Some will argue implicitly that Paul was a third case of baptism with the Holy Spirit. Regardless, God had promised to pour out His Spirit on all types of flesh, and at this point in Caesarea He had certainly fulfilled His word (cf. 2:17). By the time Ephesians 4:5 was written around 62 A.D. there was only "one baptism" that remained; that is, Great Commission baptism (cf. Matt. 28:19,20; i.e., baptism in water of a penitent believer for the remission of his sins). Baptism with the Holy Spirit wasn't happening any more by 62 A.D. and it hasn't happened since either. This conclusion cannot be resisted unless one is willing to accept that there is more than one baptism available today. If one is willing to accept that improper conclusion (which goes against an explicit declaration of Scripture), will he also be willing to accept more than one Lord or more than one faith which Ephesians 4:5 also speaks of?
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.