Abstract: God’s covenant with Israel did not come to an end at Christ’s death. The end of the covenant came two to four years later when Israel, by stoning Stephen, rejected the Holy Spirit. At that time, Jesus stood to announce the end of the covenant.
A summary of this article is available HERE.
In Dispensationalism, God suspended His covenant with Israel at the Cross and postponed the last seven years to just before Christ’s return.
This article shows that that covenant was not suspended at Christ’s death. Rather, during the first few years after Jesus died, God gave Israel a final opportunity to repent. For this purpose, He sent His Holy Spirit, but to Israel alone (Acts 10:47-11:3, 18, 19). The gospel was preached to Jews alone.
The first chapters of Acts show that God’s covenant with Israel did not end at the cross. On to contrary, He sent His Holy Spirit, His miracle-working, Spirit-filled disciples, and the gospel message, but to Jerusalem ONLY and to Jews ONLY (cf. Acts 10:45):
The first seven chapters of Acts do not mention non-Jews at all.
Jesus explicitly told His disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4).
His disciples received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost – a day when Jews from every nation were gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10, 5). This implies that God chose that day and place 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).
God gave Peter to heal a lame man at the temple (Acts 3:2, 7). This implies that God wanted to give Peter the opportunity to preach to the Jews 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).
After the apostles were jailed, an angel released them and told them to go and speak to the people in the temple. They preached every day in the temple (Acts 5:18, 20, 42).
Peter told the Jews that God exalted Jesus “to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31).
In conclusion, during those first years after the cross, while “the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly,” not a single non-Jew accepted the gospel or received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45 – i.e. Jews). The church consisted of Jews only (Acts 6:7). They adhered to all Old Testament laws. In other words, the infant church remained part of (a sect of) Judaism.
A series of articles are available that explain the history of the early church in more detail. See Early Church Table of Contents.
The vision of the unclean animals that God gave to Peter (Acts 10:11, 12, 19-20) and the subsequent events teach us much about the attitude of the Christians in the time before that vision. Many people suppose that that vision was about what Christians are allowed to eat, but when Peter interpreted his vision himself and said:
“God has shown me that I should not call
any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
“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”
“The Spirit told me to go with them
without misgivings” (Acts 11:12).
In other words, before Peter had received that vision, he and the other Christians thought of Gentiles as “unholy or unclean.” Therefore, they did not associate with Gentiles or proclaimed the gospel to them. And they thought that God preferred Jews over other people.
Peter went to Cornelius’ house. While Peter was speaking to the uncircumcised Gentiles, the Holy Spirit fell on them and they spoke in tongues. This amazed the “circumcised” that came with Peter (Acts 10:23, 44-45). This means that this was the first time that uncircumcised people received the Holy Spirit. The Jews thought that only Jews could receive the Holy Spirit.
When Christians in Judea (all of them were Jews) heard about these things, they took issue with Peter and asked him why he went to uncircumcised people and ate with them (Acts 11:2-3). This again confirms that, before this point in history, the Christians did not associate with Gentiles.
Through Peter’s vision and the events of Acts 10, God taught the Christians to take the message to the Gentile world.
In Acts 6, the gospel still focused on the circumcised (Acts 6:7). But in Acts 10, God, by giving Peter the vision, redirects the gospel to non-Jews. The intermediate text describes the persecution of the believers that began with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 (Acts 8:1) and ended with Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:31). Paul was to become the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13; Gal 2:10). Therefore, this shift in the gospel focus was caused by the persecution of God’s Spirit-filled people.
However, it is proposed that it was specifically Stephen’s death that was the turning point. Firstly, the persecution began with Stephen’s stoning (Acts 8:1).
Secondly, Stephan announced the end of the covenant. Another article (The Covenant in Daniel 9) has shown that the entire Daniel 9 is based on God’s covenant with Israel. Stephen’s speech was similarly based on the covenant. But 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 other speeches in Acts, Stephen did not call his hearers to repentance. Rather, he cited God’s mighty acts on behalf of His people in the past; showing that God was faithful to the covenant. Then he lists the failures of the Jewish people; showing that they failed to 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)
Stephen saw “Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 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; Mark 16:19; 1 Peter 3:22). But Stephen saw Him standing. For this reason, it is proposed that Jesus stood in judgment and that Stephen was the conduit through whom Jesus announced judgment on the Jewish nation. In other words, through Stephen, Jesus announced the end of God’s covenant with Israel.
When did Stephen die?
Merrill C. Tenney, in his book “New Testament Times” (Inter-Varsity Press, 1967, chapter 7), gives 30 AD as 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, he could have been stoned as late as 34 AD. Stephen, therefore, died about 2 to 4 years after the Cross.
Never before or after in the history of mankind has God appealed for the corporate heart of any nation like He did, firstly, during the 3½ years of Christ’s personal ministry on earth and, secondly, during the 2 to 4 years after He died when He sent the Holy Spirit with power, but only to the Jews.
The end of the covenant
Since the gospel went TO JEWS ONLY during the first few years after the Cross, God’s covenant with Israel did not come to an end when Jesus died. After He died, Israel, as a nation, still had one final opportunity to repent.
Since God, after Stephen’s death and after the persecution of the Christians (Acts 7; 8:1), suddenly redirected the gospel away from the Jews to all people, two to four years after the Cross, that must have been the end of the covenant. At that time, “the kingdom of God” was taken away from the Jews (Matt 21:43). For a further discussion, see, Who is Israel in Revelation?
By killing God’s Spirit-filled disciples, Judaism rejected the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 6:8-13). It seems appropriate that Israel would terminate the covenant with the rejection of the Holy Spirit, just as they killed Jesus a few years earlier.
How this relates to the prophecy
The purpose of the 490 years of Daniel 9 was to give Israel an opportunity to fulfill the goals of Daniel 9:24. They still had this opportunity in the first few years after Jesus died.
Daniel 9 does not specify a specific event for the end of the 490 years. However, since the 490 years were an extension of God’s covenant with Israel, the 490 years came to an end when God’s covenant with Israel ended, namely on the day that Stephen died.
The “one week” of verse 27 – the final seven years – is the period from Jesus’ baptism in AD 26/27 until Stephen’s death in about AD 33/34.
During these final seven years, Jesus confirmed God’s covenant with Israel; firstly, through His personal preaching before He died and, secondly, for a further three or four years after His death, by sending His disciples, empowered with the Holy Spirit, ONLY to Jews.
The Jewish sacrificial system pointed forward to “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). Therefore, when He offered Himself as the Lamb of God” in the middle of” the final seven years, He put “a stop to sacrifice and grain offering” (Dan 9:27) in terms of significance.
Are Jews now condemned?
“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 with salvation. The purpose of the covenant was that Israel would take God’s salvation to the entire world (cf. Gen 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, 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 Jewish nation is no longer the people of the covenant does not mean that God has rejected them as individuals (cf. Rom 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 love for the individual Jews. Because of this, the gospel was still preached to them even after the stoning of Stephen (cf. Acts 28:17-28). 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 (Gal 3:26-29; cf. Rom 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” (Rom 11:23).
What if Israel repented?
If Israel accepted the message brought by the Holy Spirit during the years after Christ’s death, history would have been very different. Then the nation of Israel 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 fulfilled:
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. (Dan 9:24)
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?