Rejection and Consequences


35 The Vision of Stephen

by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, December 2013

But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Acts 7:55, 56

The stoning of Stephen marked a significant change in direction for the covenant. The leaders of the nation of Israel, supported by the majority of the people, had finally and irrevocably rejected their Messiah. From this point forward, the church accepted the responsibility of the covenant and began to move away from Judaism.

Jesus had gloriously fulfilled the covenant in redeeming humankind at Calvary. Believers could now look by faith to His finished work at Calvary. Thousands joined the new church. There was a love and fellowship that was unique. Many priests joined the movement. There were wealthy people who willingly sacrificed to support the new church, and people of power and intellect joined the church and proclaimed the risen Christ with the power of the Spirit. Among these capable ones was Stephen, whose appointment as a deacon became a door open for ministry, which he joyfully entered.


Daniel 9:24: A Special Probation

God’s word through Daniel, “Seventy weeks are determined (hatak, lit. “cut off”) upon thy people and upon thy holy city” (Dan. 9:24), describes the probation granted Israel to fulfill God’s purpose for them as a nation. If they should fail again, all Jewish privileges as the covenant people would be given to another people (Deut. 32:21; 1 Peter 2:10; Jer. 18:6-10; Matt. 21:41). The last week of the seventy-week prophecy began with Jesus’ anointing at His baptism. In the midst of that final week, sacrifice and oblation ceased with Jesus’ death on the cross. The end of the week and the end of the seventy-week prophecy of Daniel 9:24 came with the official and final rejection of the Messiah, marked by the stoning of Stephen in AD 34.1

Within the next year or so, Saul was converted by Jesus’ personal appearance, which blinded him on the road to Damascus. At the same time, Jesus also appeared to Ananias in a vision, telling him that Saul was “a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Ananias sought out Saul and prayed for him, and God healed him of his blindness. Saul also received the Holy Ghost and was baptized. Immediately, Saul began to preach Christ in the synagogue. When Saul and Barnabas went on their first missionary journey to Cyprus, Saul was called “Paul” from that time on (Acts 13:9). For several years, Paul preached the gospel largely to the Jews.2

The gospel to the Gentiles began with preaching to the Samaritans (Acts 8:5-17, 25), the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch about AD 34 (Acts 8:27-39), and Peter’s visit to the house of Cornelius about AD 41 (Acts 10). However, taking the gospel to the Gentiles did not take root until the missionary journeys of Paul and Barnabas about AD 45.


To Seal Up “Vision and Prophet”

Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. (Dan. 9:24)

“What was so significant about the stoning of Stephen? Why was his martyrdom more” influential “than that suffered by others at that time?” According to William H. Shea, who examined these questions, “the verb “˜to seal up’ (hatam) may be understood” in this instance “as either to validate or authenticate, to close up (until a later opening), or to bring to an end.”3 The two objects to be sealed were the “vision” (hazan) and the “prophet” (nabi).

Shea prefers the third interpretation, “to bring to an end,” and explains why. First, without the article, “prophet” suggests a collective meaning, and “bringing to an end” makes “sense if referred to prophets as persons instead of to their words. Second, the verb hatam also occurs three phrases earlier in this same verse with the clear idea of bringing to an end (“to put an end to sin”). Third, this interpretation fits the immediate context better because the text says that seventy weeks were decreed for Daniel’s people and his holy city.” Thus, Shea concludes, “vision” and “prophet” were to come to an end for the nation of Israel “by the time this prophetic period closes.”4

There were several New Testament prophets (Acts 11:27, 28; 13:1; 15:32; 21:10) who spoke for the church, but none who spoke for Israel as a nation. Saul himself had a vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). There were a number of New Testament prophets who spoke early in the history of the church. The apostle John wrote the book of Revelation written around AD 100!5

This contradiction increases interest in the second interpretation, “to close up (until a later opening),” which fits the context of the vision of Daniel 8, which was sealed. See also, “for the words are closed up and sealed [hatam] till the time of the end” (Dan. 12:9; cf. Dan. 8:26). This view hinges on whether or not Israel would accept their Messiah and fulfill the other mandates of Daniel 9:24.

One could also make a case for the first interpretation, which interprets the 490-year fulfillment of Daniel 9:24 as authenticating or validating the larger prophecy in Daniel 8 by providing details that can be aligned with known historical dates.


Early Christian Witness

Members of the early Christian church willingly sold what they had and pooled their resources, supporting those who were poor and needy in their midst (Acts 4:32-37). Contention developed over the distribution of food being given to the “Grecians” (or Hellenists) in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1) These were Jewish widows “who had been born in Greco-Roman lands, had moved to Jerusalem, and then become Christians.”6 Stephen was also a Hellenist. By contrast, “the “˜Hebrews’ “| were Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jews who formed the original nucleus of the Christian community in Jerusalem. The Twelve belonged to this group (6:2).”7

There were other issues that separated the two groups. The Greek-speaking Christians probably had separate worship services, as did the Jews in their synagogues (Acts 6:9). Within Judaism, those from Greco-Roman lands were considered religiously liberal and probably lax in their observance of the law (1 Maccabees 1:10-15; 2 Maccabees 4:7-20).8 The Hellenists had no roots in the Palestinian Hebrew traditions. Most of them were not able to read the Hebrew Scriptures, and they did not attend the Hebrew synagogues. Proselytes naturally would associate more with the Hellenists.

When serving tables got to be a burden, the twelve apostles called a meeting and appointed “seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to take on that responsibility. “The election of the Seven “| and the persecution that came thereafter probably “indicate that theological differences played” a prominent “role in that dissension and that the Hellenists’ complaint “| was only the symptom of a deeper problem.”9

Stephen was an enthusiastic Christian, naturally brilliant and probably educated. His ordination as a deacon was an open door to ministry. Stephen and the ministers selected with him “are never referred to as “˜deacons’ (diakonoi) in the book of Acts.”10 Their calling was as much to preach the word of God as to serve tables. Stephen was truly gifted, as Luke described in Acts:

And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake. (Acts 6:8-10)

Stephen’s preaching was powerful, for “the only biblical reference that there were many conversions, even among the priests, appears in the context of Stephen’s preaching (cf. 6:7).”11 His preaching also called forth strong opposition from the Jews (Acts 6:9-12). The Sanhedrin arrested Stephen, and, through false witnesses, accused him of blasphemy. The high priest asked him one question, “Are these things so?” Stephen immediately began his defense as a sermon to the Sanhedrin.


Stephen’s Trial and Defense

False witnesses were induced to say: “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:13, 14, NASB). Stephen’s statement, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Acts 7:48, NASB), “could be interpreted not only as a protest against the idolatrous relationship that Israel maintained with the Temple but also as a statement of the definitive end of the entire ceremonial system, for the Temple was never intended to become a permanent institution,” except as a location for praise to God (see Isa. 2:1-4).12

“From the time of the Maccabees,” the Jews “regarded any attack on Torah and temple as sacrilege. Stephen, however, as well [as] the other Hellenistic Christians, may have quickly understood that the mission of Christ involved the abrogation of the whole temple order and its being superseded” by the sanctuary in heaven (Heb. 8:1, 2, 7, 13; 9:24; 10:1, 2), and a superior temple “not made with hands.”13

They listened willingly until Stephen pointed out that the Temple on earth is merely a copy of the temple in heaven. This enraged the Sanhedrin. Stephen abruptly terminated the historical narrative and confronted them.

Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it. (Acts 7:51-53)

The Sanhedrin immediately dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him to death. This was the culminating event of rejection by the official governing body of the nation of Israel. From this point on, the Jewish leadership intensified their persecution of believers in Christ, scattering them and causing them to go “every where preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). This was also the exact date of the end of the 490-year prophecy. Probation for Israel as a nation, as the chosen people of God, had ended. The promises and responsibilities of the everlasting covenant passed to another people.


Michael Stands Up

At the time of Stephen’s death, the martyr saw a vision of deep significance. It was of Jesus standing (Greek histami “to establish, to set, to stand”) on the right hand of God.

But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. (Acts 7:55, 56)

We have always taken this vision as an encouragement to Stephen in his martyrdom and a confirmation to the Christian church for their message, and that it was. There is, however, a deeper significance to Jesus’ standing, which Luke mentions twice for emphasis.

The close of probation for the Jewish nation can be compared to the close of probation for the world at the end of time. Daniel 7:9, 10 describes a scene of judgment, in which “thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit “| the judgment was set, and the books were opened.” During any judgment, God sits on His throne. What will happen when Jesus finishes His mediation in heaven? He will stand up (Dan. 12:1, Hebrew awmad’ “stand or stood”), as a sign that judgment is completed!14


Opportunity Rejected

The stoning of Stephen ended the probation for the Jewish nation as the chosen people of God. Jesus’ priestly ministry for the Jews as a nation closed, and Jesus stood up beside the throne of God. He was now ready to work with a people who would bring forth the fruits of righteousness (Matt. 21:41- 43; 2 Cor. 9:10; Phil. 1:11; Heb. 12:11; James 3:18).

However, God did not wholly cast the Jews away. There were many common people and members of the council, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who heard Jesus gladly (Mark 6:20; 12:37; John 19:38, 39; Mark 15:43). People in the professions, including scribes, lawyers, and wealthy publicans, such as Matthew and Zacchaeus, also heard Jesus and followed Him (Luke 5:27; 19:8). On the day of Pentecost, “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Thus, many active, intelligent people joined the church. Even unlearned fishermen became educated in the presence of Jesus. The chief priests in council “took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

There was a spirit and a power in the early church that could not be resisted except by force and persecution. The early church was a Jewish church, made up of people who heard the gospel message and responded in faith.

On the other hand, the Jewish nation, particularly its leadership, rejected Jesus right from the beginning. During the three and a half years of His ministry, they repeatedly tried to trap Him, arrest Him, and stop Him in any way possible. They finally arrested Him at night, condemned Him in an illegal trial, and influenced Roman officials to have Him crucified. There is no question but that the vast majority of the Jewish leadership rejected Jesus, the Messiah.

Yet, Jesus is long-suffering and not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). The Jewish nation’s opportunity did not end with Jesus’ death. For another three and a half years, the leaders and people could observe the effect of His ministry on the lives of His apostles and the new converts coming into the church. The brilliant and persuasive Stephen brought the message directly to the Sanhedrin. However, the Sanhedrin rejected Stephen’s message and stoned him to death.

This act marked the final rejection of Jesus by the Jewish nation. The 490-year prophecy came to an end, closing their probation. At this time, God rejected the Jewish nation as the chosen people of God and passed the privileges and responsibilities of the covenant to the church.15 God received those Jews who made up the early church. It was the official leaders and the Sanhedrin, representing the nation, whom He rejected.

When Jesus ascended to the Father, He “sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). Stephen in his dying vision saw “Jesus standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). As has been mentioned, this showed that Jesus’ mediation and judgment had finished, and He now stood to begin the final phase of judgment.16

In the persecution that followed, “only the Hellenistic Christians were scattered from Jerusalem.”| The apostles were able to stay there (cf. Acts 8:1, 14), as were the other Hebrew Christians (cf. 11:1, 18, 22).”| “˜Those who had been scattered went about preaching the word’ (Acts 8:4; cf. 8:5-8; 11:19-21). The Hellenists, therefore, “˜became the real founders of the mission to the Gentiles, in which circumcision and observation of the ritual law were no longer required.’ “17


Endnotes

1. Wilson Paroschi, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 9/1-2 (1998), pp. 343-361.

2. When the Jews refused Paul’s message, he turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-48; 18:6; 28:28, 29).

3. Paroschi, p. 345.

4. William H. Shea, “Daniel and the Judgment,” a manuscript on the sanctuary and the judgment doctrine, Andrews University, July 1980, p. 366. Shea’s thesis was finally published in “The Prophecy of Dan. 9:24-27,” in The Seventy Weeks, Leviticus, and the Nature of Prophecy, Daniel & Revelation Committee Series, vol. 3, Frank B. Holbrook, ed. (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Research Institute, 1986), pp. 75-118.

5. The gift of prophecy was an essential part of the New Testament church (1 Cor. 12:28, 29; Eph. 4:11).

6. Paroschi, p. 347.
7. Paroschi, p. 347.

8. Evidence for their laxness is found in First Maccabees. “From them came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of Antiochus the king; he had been a hostage in Rome. He began to reign in the one hundred and thirty-seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks. In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, “˜Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil” (1 Mac. 1:10-15, RSV).

  9. Paroschi, p. 348
10. Paroschi, p. 348.
11. Paroschi, p. 349.
12. Paroschi, p. 349.
13. Paroschi, p. 350.

14. Scripture indicates that judgment proceeds from the “judgment seat.” (Mt. 27:19; Jn. 19:13; Acts 18:12, 16, 17; 25:6, 10, 17; Ro. 14:12; 2 Cor. 5:10). When the judgment is finished probation is closed and Jesus, the judge stands. The final (executive) phase of judgment is about to begin. (cf. Job 19:25: Isa. 3:13; Dan. 12:1). See chapter 48, “The Close of Probation.”

15. The church, at this time did not yet bear the name “Christian,” for they did not receive that designation until the headquarters of the church moved to Antioch of Syria (Acts 11:26). Before this, they were designated “the way” or “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). In the second century, they were called by the Jews, minim, “a term used in the Talmud and Midrash for a Jewish heretic or sectarian” (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10846-min, accessed 3/18/13).

16. New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 587; Darrell L. Bock, “Luke,” Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), vol. 2, p. 1800.

17
. Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul: Studies in the Earliest History of Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 13, quoted in Peroschi, p. 350.