In the first few years after Jesus died, under God’s guidance, the gospel was preached only to Jews. The Christian Jews continued to live like Jews. Christianity was a sect of Judaism and had its headquarters in Jerusalem. Two to four years after the Cross commenced the Jewish persecution of the Jewish Christians, beginning with the stoning of Stephen. This was the end of God’s covenant with Israel, which is also the end of the 490 years promised by Daniel 9.
Sect of Judaism
The first seven chapters of Acts do not mention non-Jews. In those first few years after Jesus’s death the gospel was preached only to the “circumcised” (Acts 10:45 – i.e. Jews). Christians continued to live practically like Jews. Christianity existed as a sect of Judaism and the dramatic acts of the young church were confined to Jerusalem. This is evidenced by following:
Jesus explicitly told the apostles to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4).
The apostles and other believers received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, when Jews from all every nation were gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10, 5). This implies that God chose that place and time to give the apostles the opportunity to preach repentance to the Jews. Peter preached to the gathered Jews to repent (Acts 2:38) and on that day 3000 were added to the church (Acts 2:41, cf. 5:11).
Healing at the Temple
In Acts 3 God gave Peter to heal a lame man at the temple (3:2, 7). This implies that God chose this place for the healing to give Peter opportunity to preach the gospel at the temple. All the people gathered around Peter and the apostles, full of amazement (Acts 3:11). Peter urged them to “repent, so that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19). Many believed, and the church grew to 5000 men (Acts 4:4).
Go again to the Temple
After the apostles were jailed (5:18), an angel released them and told them to go and speak to the people in the temple (5:20). They preached every day in the temple (5:42).
Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter told the Jews that Jesus had been exalted by God “to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31).
A few years after the cross God gave Peter the vision of unclean animals (Acts 10:19-20) to convince him to accompany “without misgivings” the uncircumcised men which Cornelius sent. Many people suppose that that vision was about what Christians are allowed to eat, but when Peter arrived at Cornelius, he interpreted his vision himself. He said, “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28). Peter also declared “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (v34-35). This implies that Peter previously thought that God was partial to the Jews. He previously thought that non-Jews were unholy or unclean. The fact that God had to give Peter this vision confirms that disciples and other believers did not associate with the “uncircumcised” in the first few years after the cross.
Holy spirit on gentiles
A number of the circumcised Christians went with Peter to Cornelius (10:23, 45). While Peter was speaking to the uncircumcised gentiles in Cornelius’ house, the Holy Spirit fell on them (10:44, cf. v45) and they spoke in tongues (10:45). This amazed the “circumcised” that came with Peter (10:45). The fact that they were amazed again shows that this was the first time that uncircumcised people received the Holy Spirit.
Back in Jerusalem
When “the circumcised” in Judea heard about these things, they took issue with Peter (11:2), asking why he went to uncircumcised men and ate with them (11:3). After Peter explained what happened, they declared: “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18). This again confirms that, prior to this point in history, the believers did not associate with the uncircumcised, which means that the gospel was focused exclusively on the circumcised.
A series of articles is available that explains the history of the early church in more detail. Please see Early Church Table of Contents.
Stoning of Stephen; turning point in history
In Acts 6 the gospel still focuses on the circumcised. “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (6:7). But in Acts 10 God, by giving Peter the vision, redirects the gospel to non-Jews.
Most of the intermediate verses describe the persecution of the believers, starting with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 (8:1) and ended with the conversion of Paul (9:31). This shift in gospel focus was therefore caused by the persecution of God’s Spirit filled people.
The stoning of Stephen was a turning point in the history of the early church:
Prior to that, the church functioned as part of Judaism, Christians lived practically as Jews and the church was confined to Jerusalem.
Through the persecution, which followed after his death, God dispersed the believers. This reversed Jesus’s instruction to His followers to stay in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4). The church was expelled from Judaism and Jerusalem. The Christian message was taken to the Gentile world. As was their habit previously, the fleeing believers at first took the message only to Jews (11:19). But the Holy Spirit steered the gospel towards the non-Jews, particularly through the conversion of Paul; the apostle to the Gentiles.
Dating of the stoning of Stephen
The dating of Stephen’s death is entirely dependent on the date of Paul’s conversion. Merrill C. Tenney, in his book “New Testament Times” (Inter-Varsity Press, 1967, chapter 7), gives 30 AD at the most probable year for the crucifixion and 32/33 as the most probable date for the stoning of Stephen and the conversion of Paul. R. Jewett (A Chronology of Paul’s Life (Philadelphia, 1979), pp. 1-2.) dates Paul’s conversion to AD 34. Since this should at the most months after the stoning of Stephen, the Stoning of Stephen could be as late as 34 AD. Stephen therefore died about 2 to 4 years after the Cross.
End of the 490 years
As argued in the article Confirm the covenant, the Seventy Weeks (490 years) come to an end when the Messiah no longer maintains His covenant with Israel (Daniel 9:27). Since the gospel went to Jews only during the first few years after the Cross, God’s covenant with the Jews did not come to an end at the Cross. But since God suddenly redirected the gospel away from the Jews to all people, a few years after the cross, this must be the end of the Seventy Weeks.
It also seems appropriate that Israel would seal the termination of the covenant with the rejection and persecution of the people to whom God gave His Holy Spirit, just as they persecuted Jesus a few years before.
This conclusion also fits the time specifications exactly. There was 483 years from the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (see Which Decree) to the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry at His baptism, as required by the prophecy. 3½ years later He offered Himself as the Lamb of God, “putting a stop to sacrifice and grain offering” (9:27). Another 3½ years later, at the end of the 490 years, the covenant with Israel came to an end.
Therefore, God’s covenant with Israel ended two to four years after the Cross.
Stephen announced the end of the covenant.
In an earlier article (The Covenant in Daniel 9) it was shown that the entire Daniel 9 is based on the covenant God made with Israel. Stephen’s speech was similarly based on the covenant. While Daniel confessed the sins of his people and prayed for the mercies of the covenant, Stephen’s speech was a pronouncement of God’s judgment in terms of the covenant.
In contrast to Peter some time earlier (cf. Acts 4:8-12), Stephen made no effort to defend himself. In contrast to other speeches in Acts, Stephen did not call his hearers to repentance. Rather, he cites God’s mighty acts on behalf of His people in the past—keeping His side of the covenant. Then he lists the failures of the Jewish people—explaining that the Jewish people did not keep their side of the covenant. After his long recital of Israel’s history, he announced his verdict:
“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:51- 53).
Jesus stood in judgment
Stephen then “gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55). The Bible consistently says that Jesus sat down at the right hand of God (Luke 22:69; Heb. 8:1-2; 10:12; cf. Col 3:1; Rom 8:34; Acts 2:33; 5:31; Mar 16:19; 1 Peter 3:22). But Stephen saw Him standing. It is therefore proposed that Jesus stood in judgment, and that Stephen was the conduit through which Jesus’ judgment was announced on the Jewish nation. Stephen brought to the Jewish leaders not only another one of God’s covenant lawsuits, but the final one.
Israel no longer the covenant people
The period of privilege for the Jews did not end at the Cross. After Christ’s death God offered them a last opportunity. But they failed (Acts 7:53). The seventy weeks which God decreed for Israel have come to an end. They were now no longer the people of the covenant. The change in Stephen’s speech of the pronoun from “our” (Acts 7:11, 19, 38, 44 and 45) to “your fathers” (v. 51) means more than a simple breakage in Stephen’s solidarity with his audience. It also implies the definitive end of the covenant God made with Israel.
“The gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).
The covenant which God made with Israel was not synonymous of salvation. The purpose of the covenant was to take God’s salvation to the entire world (cf. Genesis 12:1-3). God elected Israel for Himself and conferred to them a series of privileges, such as the multiplication of their seed, the gift of the land, and His own presence in blessing and protection, in order to enable them to be the channel for His blessing to all other nations. Thus the covenant must be understood in terms of mission.
So to state that the Jews are no longer the people of the covenant does not mean that God has rejected them (cf. Romans 11:1–10). Rather, God has chosen another method to execute His missionary plan. God’s covenant with Israel was established on a corporate basis—i.e., it involved the entire nation as an entity. The end of the covenant with Israel does not imply the end of God’s interest in the Jews as individuals. Because of this, the gospel was still preached to them even after the stoning of Stephen (cf. Acts 28:17-28) (92). But the privilege of being “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9) was no longer theirs. The people of the covenant are now not defined by bloodline, but by faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26-29; cf. Romans 11:25-32).
In his last moments Stephen prayed: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60). These words were much more than a prayer. They were the genuine expression of God’s will in relation to the Jews. “If they do not continue in their unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23).
What if Israel accepted the Messiah?
What would have happened if Israel accepted the message brought by the Holy Spirit? It would have proclaimed “the excellencies of Him” to the entire world in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the goals for the seventy weeks would have been attained:
Finish the transgression,
Make an end of sin,
Make atonement for iniquity,
Bring in everlasting righteousness,
Seal up vision and prophecy and
Anoint the most holy place.
For more on this controversial subject, please see the series of articles on the return of Christ, concluding with Why did He Not Return in the First Century as He promised?.