Members of a Jerusalem Synagogue-of the “Freedmen,” whom Luke points out was “so-called” (implying they were really still enslaved to sin), secretly colluded to have false witnesses say Stephen was speaking against Moses and God. Acts 6.14 contains the specific charges: For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us (NIV). This post will seek to show that those who brought these charges ignored their very own scriptures apart from what both Jesus and Stephen preached.
The New Covenant
The charge against Stephen, claiming that Moses’ customs would change, is what their own scriptures stated in many places, but specifically in Jer. 31.31-34. Here is the NIV’s rendering:
(31) The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
(32) It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.
(33)“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
(34) No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
The New Covenant made with the House of Israel and House of Judah (Jer. 31.31) is referenced in Acts 2.5-12 by the foreign Jews who, on the Day of Pentecost, heard “the wonders of God” in their own language. Notice the mention of Parthia, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia. These are the areas the “House of Israel” was translocated to in 722 BCE by the Assyrian Empire. These were Jews who kept their identity by either returning to live in Jerusalem or were there because of the feast of Shavuot (Pentecost). The dialect of Judea is mentioned in Acts 2.9.
Dispensationalists are most likely wrong thinking that The New Covenant is future because they don’t see enough of an overt ceremonial covenant-making act; and, therefore, place the New Covenant into the future when Israel is restored. I often wonder whether they are still looking for Elijah before Messiah’s advent (Mal. 4.5) since he was “John the Baptist” and not called “Elijah” overtly.
“John the Baptist,” before his birth, was prophesied to minister in the power and Spirit of Elijah (Lk. 1.17). Jesus stated that John functioned as a restorer of true belief. His ministry in the wilderness was away from the corruptions of Teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, and Sadducees; and was killed for it. As clear as could be stated, Jesus maintained that “John the Baptist” was the Elijah that was to come (Mt. 17.10-13). It is obvious that John fulfilled Mal.4.5. Hence, O.T. promises are sometimes fulfilled in ways not envisioned by human-formulated, synthetic theological systems.
Returning to the promise of Jer. 31, verse 32 notes the outcome of Moses’ Law: they broke it. This was the natural outcome and not something the people of Israel could do in their own strength. The Law functioned both to give a righteous standard and to expose humanity’s need for redemption: Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin (Rom. 3.20 NIV). The graciousness of Moses’ Law was the sacrificial system portraying Jesus’ eventual sacrifice in their stead. It was a (perfect) human life for a (sinful) human life that paid the penalty; the animal sacrifices were prospective of Jesus’ High Priestly ministry. Jesus came to fulfill the Law of Moses, not to destroy it (Mt. 5.17). He was the One to whom the promise referred: Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come (Gal. 3.19a NIV). Paul summarizes the Old Covenant in Rom. 10.5 and Gal. 3.12 by quoting Lev. 18.5: Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord (NIV). The Jews of Stephen’s day were still clinging to the old system which could never save. Neither did they recognize the promise in Jer. 31 for a new order which is what Stephen was preaching.
Verses 33 and 34 of Jer. 31 speak of God’s Law placed into the covenant recipient’s hearts. The Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) marks the time of giving God’s Law at Sinai, still observed by Israelites today. God fulfilled a greater giving of the Law by the outpouring of the Spirit on the 120 (an exponential number of the 12 sons of Jacob). Jesus referred to the New Covenant’s ability to teaching each person individually: It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God’ (Jn. 6.45a NIV). While many think Jesus is quoting Is. 54.13 here, He also, conceptually, references the implication of Jer. 31.34a (they wouldn’t be taught by friends or neighbors but by God Himself).
The fact that the New Covenant would enable personal knowledge of God through the Spirit is spoken about by John in 1 Jn. 2.20: and the anointing you have from the Holy [One], and [results in] you all know [the Holy One] (my rendering). Raymond Brown pointed to this verse as fulfilling the “knowing” aspect of the New Covenant.
Prophecy of City of Jerusalem and Temple Destruction in Daniel
At Stephen’s time the Jerusalem Temple was still standing with the Christians (who were all Jews) meeting in Solomon’s Colonnade (Acts 5.12). They were also attending The Temple at the hours of prayer (Acts 3.1). Even God-fearing Gentiles used the times of the Temple’s daily sacrifices for prayer (Acts 10.3). God even sent an angel to Cornelius at this time to inaugurate the inclusion of the Gentiles into the New Covenant according to Isaiah 42.1-6 (and other places).
Hence, it can be observed that the time period between Pentecost and The Temple’s destruction was transitional until the church had evolved to grasp this reality of Gentile inclusion. Undoubtedly, this is what Jesus referred to in John 16.12: I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear (NIV). Jesus’ ministry was almost exclusively to Israelites to whom the Law and promises were given. However, His sacrifice was for humanity, all the sons of Adam. The promise to Abraham was: and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Gen. 12.3b NIV).
The Jews who were persecuting Stephen in their misguided zeal fulfilled the prophecy of Jesus: They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God (Jn.16.2 NIV). Stephen was preaching the Temple’s destruction which occurred 40 years (another significant number and reminiscent to the years of the wilderness wanderings) after Christ’s crucifixion (30 CE). Jesus, of course, also prophesied its ruin, mainly because there was henceforth no need for the earthly temple since He gave the greater sacrifice in the heavenly one: For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence (Heb. 9.24 NIV).
Jesus was “the prophet like Moses” whom the Israelites were to expect (Dt. 18. 15-19, Acts 3.22-23). The test that the Israelites were to apply was fulfillment of the prophet’s words: You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken (Dt. 18.21-22a NIV). Therefore, henceforth 70 CE, everyone could certify that Jesus was “the Prophet” whom Moses referred since His words proved Him true.
Today, Jews on the Temple Mount pray at the retaining wall of The Second Temple as the only remnant left standing. Stephen’s word proved true and so did Jesus’ specificity that not one stone would be left upon another (Lk. 19.41-44; Mt. 14.2, Mk. 13.2, Lk.21.6). If these Jews of The Synagogue of the Freedmen, in Stephen’s time, refused to believe Jesus, they also refused to believe Daniel’s prophecy of general destruction of both the city and Second Temple. Daniel’s prophecy in Dan. 9 occurs nearly 50 years (538 BCE-Dan. 9.1) after Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, and therefore cannot refer to the event of 586 BCE. Here is God’s revelation to Daniel in 9.26b which was fulfilled by Titus in 70 CE: The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed (NIV).