Often, when you go to see a movie, you have little idea how the story will play out. Promotional trailers, after all, may give you snippets of the best scenes (Action! Suspense! Laughter! Tears!) but tell you almost nothing about the plot.
Other times, however, especially when the story is based on actual events, you already know where the plot is headed. History itself is the spoiler. But that doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the narrative journey, watching how the scenes knit together, moving the action toward its predetermined destination.
So it was, I imagine, for Theophilus, reading Luke’s account of both the life and ministry of Jesus (the gospel of Luke) and the continuation of that story in the lives of his apostles (the book of Acts).
Nobody knows exactly who Theophilus was, but he was probably a Roman citizen of high status who was honestly curious about the gospel and therefore commissioned Luke’s careful account. It’s likely that he already knew something about how belief in Jesus had spread beyond the Jews to the Gentiles. And if so, as a Roman interested in learning more about the God of the Jews, Theophilus would have read Acts anticipating the turn in the plot that would definitively embrace the Gentiles into God’s plan.
That moment comes in Acts 10.
Not that it comes as a surprise. Again, Theophilus already knew where the story was headed. But the story itself points in that direction. As we’ve seen, Jesus himself commissioned his disciples to take the gospel to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NRSV). While Acts begins in Jerusalem, the network of believers quickly spreads outward under the direct guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. An official from Ethiopia hears the gospel from Philip and is baptized. And if my earlier speculations about Aeneas have any merit, Theophilus was primed to hear how the gospel would embrace Rome.
So cue the centurion:
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. (Acts 10:1-2)
The previous action had taken place in Joppa, where Peter was still boarding with Simon the tanner. Luke the director now cuts to a scene in Caesarea, an important port city 30 miles or so up the coast.
For the first time in the story, we are introduced to a Roman centurion. His name is Cornelius, a man earnestly seeking some god other than those worshiped by the Romans. He has found consolation in worshiping the God of the Jews. Indeed, Luke describes Cornelius as one might describe a devout Jew: he fears God, gives alms (generously!), and is devoted to prayer.
Centurions were so named for being in command of a Roman military “century” of about 100 men. Readers familiar with the gospels shouldn’t be too surprised at Cornelius’ budding faith. Jesus himself had marveled at a centurion whose faith was greater than any he had encountered in Israel (Matt 8:5-13), while another centurion, witnessing how Jesus died and how the earth shook, exclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matt 27:54).
A faithful centurion: the story of Cornelius will occupy us for a chapter and a half.
But Theophilus is ready to read what happened next. This is the moment he had been waiting for.
And he won’t be disappointed.