The book of Acts is one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible. Many sincere Bible students believe that it records the beginning of the church, the body of Christ. The primary reasons for this belief are that (1) the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ marked a significant change in God’s dealings with mankind (2) the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost marked a new relationship as God came to dwell within the heart of man and (3) the references in the latter part of Acts 2 to the “church” (i.e. Acts 2:47 “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved”). Looking carefully at the book of Acts, we find that its purpose is not to record the beginning of the church, but to record God’s continued dealings with His chosen people, the nation of Israel.
In Acts 7:52, Stephen recounts the history of the nation of Israel, from the time that God called Abraham (Gen. 12) up to that present time. He brings an indictment against the nation of Israel for their rejection of God throughout their entire history. In the Old Testament Scriptures, we read how they persecuted and killed the prophets who were sent by God to foretell the coming of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 23:29-36; Acts 7:52), thereby rejecting God the Father. In the gospel accounts, we read how the people of Israel refused to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as their Messiah and King (John 1:11; John 19:15). They became His betrayers and murderers, putting Him to death on the cross of Calvary (Acts 2:22-23; 3:14-15; 7:52), thereby rejecting God the Son.
As Jesus hung on the cross of Calvary, the first words He uttered were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus interceded to the Father on behalf of the nation of Israel. Though they had taken him by wicked and lawless hands and crucified Him, still He prayed for mercy for His people, because they had done these things “in ignorance” (Acts 3:17). As a result of Jesus’ plea for mercy, Israel was given another opportunity, as a nation, to be saved.
In the Old Testament, God the Father spoke through the prophets. In the gospels, God the Son became flesh and spoke directly (Heb. 1:1-2). In the book of Acts, God the Holy Spirit spoke to Israel through the apostles (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Stephen brought his indictment against Israel in Acts 7:51,
“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.”
Then Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), proceeded to accuse them of betraying and murdering the Lord Jesus Christ. Having heard these things, the leaders of Israel
“… were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. … Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:54-57).
Just before he died, Stephen prayed for his people, Israel, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” This was similar to the prayer that Jesus prayed from the cross, with one difference: Stephen did not say “for they do not know what they do.”
They had now rejected the witness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As a result, God began to set aside, temporarily, His plan and purpose for the nation Israel (Rom. 11:25-27). Following the stoning of Stephen, God saved and called the apostle Paul, who was to receive a new plan and purpose for a new body of believers, the church, which is the body of Christ. The book of Acts is represented on our dispensational chart as a separate dispensation which we have labeled TRANSITION, because it records how the transition between these two different programs of God took place. However, the emphasis in the book of Acts is on Israel’s rejection, their subsequent blinding, and how they were set aside.
An outline of the book of Acts is given in Acts 1:8. Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples, “… you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Chapters 1-7 record the ministry of Peter and the twelve to the Jew only in Jerusalem and Judea. Chapters 8-12 record the events which followed the stoning of Stephen. The ministry moved out to Samaria and was opened up to the Gentiles as well. These chapters show the transition that began to take place, from the ministry of Peter and the twelve to that of the apostle Paul. Chapters 13-28 record the ministry of the apostle Paul to the Jew first and then to the Gentile; a ministry that extended unto the end (uttermost parts) of the earth.