To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His Name. – Acts 10:43 (ESV)
Forgiveness of sins is for everyone, with the caveat to that being that it only comes to those who believe in Him, that being Jesus. What is it that must be believed? In its most basic form, what must be believed is that Jesus is Lord, that He is supreme above all other rulers and authorities, and that His Lordship extends to the whole of creation (human, animal, vegetable, mineral). With the words of our text, we find that Peter is speaking here to a man named Cornelius, a Gentile, and presumably, to a group that consisted predominantly of Gentiles, consisting of “his relatives and close friends” (10:24b).
Peter, of course, is a Jew, a member of the nation of Israel. Cornelius was a Roman centurion who lived in Caesarea, and was said to be “an upright and God-fearing man” (10:22b). In addition to that, he was “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (10:22c). To that, we can add that he “feared God with all his household” and “gave alms generously to the people” (10:2b). His being well-spoken of by the whole Jewish nation is obviously hyperbole, meant to inform us that the people with whom he dealt on a regular basis were quite fond of him. This was probably due in part to his giving of alms to the people. Clearly, he was a shrewd man that knew how to deal with the people that were, in some sense, subject to his authority.
Owing to all of this, it is highly likely that Cornelius was familiar with the great, national aspirations of the people of Israel, their understanding of their plight of ongoing subjection to pagan rulers, and the continued exile from the promises of their God that such subjection represented. With that, it is reasonable to presume that he well understood the way that Israel generally looked upon Gentiles, which goes back to what had to be one of the main factors in his generous contribution of alms.
If he did in fact understand these things, then it is also likely that he had a very basic grasp on the importance of Israel’s national symbols of circumcision, land, Torah, and Temple. We must also hold to an idea that Cornelius would be quite surprised to be instructed to send for a Jew to come to his house, as Jews did not generally enter the house of a Gentile, and especially the house of a Roman centurion, who would represent their hated oppressors. Not only would the instruction be a surprise, we would have to figure that Cornelius would also be surprised with the fact that Peter did in fact come into his house. This makes the fact that upon meeting Peter, Cornelius “fell down at his feet and worshiped him” (10:25b), all the more interesting.
Peter addresses an obvious sense of relief on the part of Cornelius when he says, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection” (10:28-29a). With this, Peter is, of course, referring to the vision he had received while on the roof of the house of Simon, in Joppa. In that vision, Peter heard God say to him, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (10:15b). When Peter was found by the men that Cornelius had sent to bring him to Caesarea, he immediately connected the words of God with future association with Gentiles, so he did not hesitate to answer the request to come. One has to wonder what happened to this willingness to extend the fellowship of the Gospel (Jesus’ Lordship over all nations and peoples) when we find out about his behavior in Antioch, which we learn about in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Returning to the subject of exile, it must be pointed out that exile was one of the results of the sin of Israel, and their faithlessness to God’s covenant with them. When we look through the books of the Hebrew Scriptures that chronicle the history of Israel, whenever we find the people in subjection to foreigners, whether in their land or outside their land, they are considered to be in a state of exile. This exile will always be connected with sin, usually idolatry. When the people would have the yoke of subjection and oppression broken, and are either enabled to overthrow those who ruled them in their own land, or to return to their land (in the case of the Babylonian exile and the return under the Persians), we find that it was because the people were said to have repented from their sin, receiving the forgiveness of their God. So return from exile was equated with the forgiveness of sins. We can surmise that Cornelius, with all that is said of him, was familiar with this idea.