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,
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
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
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).
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.
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
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
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
calling was as much to preach the word of God as to serve tables.
Stephen was truly gifted, as Luke described in Acts:
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
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.
“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
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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
(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
Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Journal
of the Adventist Theological Society, 9/1-2 (1998), pp. 343-361.
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.
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.
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.
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
Paroschi, p. 349.12.
Paroschi, p. 349.
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.”
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”
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.
. 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.