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Adventists have identified the end of the prophetic 490 years (Dan. 9) with Stephen’s death in Acts 7. Why was his death so important?
This is a case in which examining the way a book is organized—that is to say, how the plot of the book of Acts develops—is useful in interpreting a particular segment of the narrative.
1. The Place of the Narrative in Acts: The story of the church recorded in the book of Acts begins with a meeting of Jesus with the disciples in Jerusalem and ends in the city of Rome, where Paul preaches while in prison. The proclamation of the gospel moved from Jerusalem to the capital of the Roman Empire.
In a sense, the development of the story is summarized in Acts 1:8, where Jesus commands His disciples to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The disciples moved geographically from Jerusalem (Acts 2:42–6:7) through Judea and Samaria (Acts 6:8–9:31) to Palestine-Syria (Acts 9:32–12:24), to the eastern part of the Roman Empire (Acts 12:25–19:20), to Rome itself (Acts 19:21–28:31). The speech of Stephen and his martyrdom lead to the mission to the non-Jews (Acts 7:1–8:1). They are located at a significant point in the narrative.
2. The Purpose of the Speech: Stephen’s speech is an indictment against the Jewish leaders and their supporters who did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah and who actively opposed Him (Acts 7:1-53). Although many of the Jews and priests in Jerusalem became Christians (Acts 6:7), there was strong opposition to the disciples from the Jewish leaders, particularly from the Sanhedrin. Stephen’s speech traces the history of Israel from the call of Abram to the time of Moses in order to show God’s dealing with Israel and the opposition of the people to Moses, who like Jesus was God’s instrument of deliverance. Then Stephen moves to the topic of the tabernacle and makes an important statement that is fully developed in Hebrews: The Israelite Temple is not indispensable for the worship of God.
Interestingly, Stephen did not call the Jewish leaders to repentance and conversion, as was the case in the previous speeches in Acts (2:38, 39; 3:19); he simply indicted them. The leaders were condemned by the Lord, through Stephen.
3. The Impact of the Speech and Death of Stephen: The speech and death of Stephen play an important role in the development of the Christian mission by pushing it beyond the limits of Jerusalem and Judea into the rest of the world. Stephen’s ministry led to the universalization of the Israelite faith as it found its fulfillment in the coming of Jesus as the promised Messiah. Daniel had prophesied that the covenant faith would reach beyond the boundaries of Israel. This is precisely what we find after the death of Stephen.
First, his death resulted in the scattering of the church through persecution, forcing the apostles to go to the non-Jewish world to preserve their lives. They were forced by circumstances to leave Jerusalem.
Second, the message of salvation through the Jewish Messiah reached a new audience in Samaria and the rest of the world, eager to hear the gospel. Under the leadership of Jewish-Christian apostles and believers, God’s original plan to bless all the nations of the earth through Abram was fulfilled (Gen. 12:1-3).
Third, with the conversion of Paul and the mission that God entrusted to him, God Himself assumed center stage in moving the church to a universal mission. This took place at the historical junction created by the speech and death of Stephen. Stephen’s ministry did not close the doors of salvation to the Jews but opened them to the influx of the Gentiles into the experience of salvation through faith in Christ, the Messiah. God’s plan progressed as He intended, and prophecy was fulfilled.
This episode should reaffirm our conviction that God’s redemptive plan for the human race will also achieve its divinely intended purpose through Christ.