Acts 10 and 17 record two key accounts of apostolic evangelism of Gentiles. A careful comparison of the accounts reveals a number of important parallels between the two passages. Attention to these parallels provides us with a biblical basis for rejecting a common wrong assessment of the latter account.
1. Both accounts record evangelistic ministry to very religious but unsaved Gentiles.
— Act 10:1 There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, 2 A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.
— Act 17:22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. 23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
2. In unusual ways, lost people directed the evangelists in both accounts to minister to the lost people that they evangelized.
—An angel appeared to Cornelius and told him to send men to summon Peter to come preach to him (Acts 10:3-6; 22; 30-32; 11:13-14). God then gave Peter a perplexing vision followed by the Spirit’s speaking directly to him to direct him to go with the lost men whom Cornelius had sent to him to summon him (Acts 10:9-20).
—Paul was taken to the Areopagus by men who heard him preaching about what they thought were “strange deities” (Acts 17:18-19).
3. Both accounts feature the evangelism of lost authority figures.
—Peter preached to Cornelius, a centurion in Caesarea (Acts 10:1)
—Paul preached at Mars Hill to people who were secular authorities (Acts 17:19).
4. Lost people prompted the evangelists on both occasions concerning what they wanted to hear from them.
—Cornelius explained to Peter how an angel told him to send for him so that he and his entire household would hear from him the words by which they would all be saved (Acts 10:33 cf. 10:22; 11:13-14). He also told Peter that they were all gathered before God to hear all that God had commanded Peter (Acts 10:33).
—The lost philosophers who took Paul to the Areopagus told Paul that they wanted to know what the meaning of his new teaching was (Acts 17:19-20).
5. Both accounts record apostolic proclamation of God’s posture toward all people.
—Peter told Cornelius that God is an impartial Judge who accepts in every nation those who fear Him and work righteousness (Acts 10:34-35).
—Paul told the Athenians that God made all the nations of men of one blood and has predetermined their appointed times and habitation so that they would seek Him (Acts 17:26-27). He also proclaimed that God is now commanding all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
6. Both accounts emphasize the Father’s work in, for, and through Jesus.
—Acts 10 highlights that the Father anointed Jesus with the Spirit and with power (Acts 10:38), and that He raised Jesus from the dead, showed Him openly, and appointed Him to be the Judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:40-42).
—Acts 17 underscores God’s determination of a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He has appointed (Acts 17:31a). It also says that the proof of that fact is that God raised that Man from the dead (Acts 17:31b).
7. The evangelistic messages climaxed on both occasions with truth about the universal vital significance of Jesus as the God-appointed Judge.
—Act 10:42 And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead. 43 To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.
—Act 17:30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: 31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
8. Both accounts emphasize key truths that believers should tell to all people everywhere.
—Peter told Cornelius that Jesus commanded the apostles to preach and solemnly testify that He is the One appointed by God as the Judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).
—Paul told the Athenians that God is now commanding all people everywhere to repent and that God has given all men proof of the vital significance of the resurrection of Jesus in connection with the Judgment Day and Judge that He has appointed (Acts 17:30-31).
9. Both Peter and Paul preached “Jesus and the resurrection” to their hearers.
—Peter preached that the God-resurrected Jesus commanded the apostles to proclaim a specific message and that through belief in that Jesus people receive the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 10:40-43).
—Paul was asked to explain the meaning of his preaching Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18-20). His message at Mars Hill, therefore, was his explanation of his preaching about Jesus and the resurrection that he had preached earlier in the marketplace to at least some of his hearers who were now also present at Mars Hill. When Paul climaxed his message with a declaration about God’s raising a Man from the dead (Acts 17:31), at least some of his hearers thus knew that Jesus was that Man.
These parallels do not support the view that some hold that Paul “failed” in his evangelistic ministry in Athens because he took a philosophical approach with his hearers instead of preaching the gospel about Jesus to them. Rather, a careful comparison of Acts 10 with Acts 17 shows that Peter and Paul preached the gospel to Gentile authorities in very similar ways on these two occasions.
From these two sterling evangelistic accounts, therefore, we should learn many key principles about how we are to evangelize lost people. We should also learn from our analysis of them that thoroughly comparing Scripture with Scripture is vital for a proper interpretation of Scripture.