The Crisis of Acts 1-7 and the Dispensation of Grace
In the opening chapters of the book of Acts we have the record of the continuation of God’s program and dealings with the nation of Israel following their rejection of Jesus of Nazareth as their Christ. Even though the nation rejected Christ, God, having delivered up Christ by His “determinate counsel and foreknowledge” provided for Israel’s redemption through Christ’s death and for the fulfillment of the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants. And as the first several chapters of Acts relate, God mercifully extended to His nation a limited time opportunity for them to change their minds about who Jesus is and to receive remission of their sins. In so doing they would “save themselves from this untoward generation” (2:40) and not be “destroyed from among the people” (3:23) when the Lord began to have His day of purging the nation. Peter testified to this in Acts 3:19 when he said,…
“REPENT YE therefore, and be converted, THAT YOUR SINS MAY BE BLOTTED OUT, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord;”
It was imperative that they do this because as Peter went on to say…
“For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you.
And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, SHALL BE DESTROYED FROM AMONG THE PEOPLE.” (vs 22-23)
Again, later on in Acts 5:30-31, Peter affirmed what God was doing as he addressed the rulers.
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.
Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, FOR TO GIVE REPENTANCE TO ISRAEL, AND FORGIVENESS OF SINS.”
God was offering “repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” The people of Israel were being given a gracious opportunity to change their mind about Jesus and to have their “sins blotted out” before the Lord dealt with “this untoward generation.”
In connection with this gracious opportunity being given to the nation to repent, it is significant to notice that God confronted the rulers of Israel at this time with 3 distinct and outstanding proofs concerning the truthfullness of the apostles’ testimony regarding Christ. And in so doing He gave them, as the leaders of the nation, 3 honest opportunities to repent, and to lead the nation to repentance.
The FIRST of the 3 honest opportunities to repent confronted the rulers when they were faced with Peter’s miracle of healing the lame man at the gate of the temple. As the account relates…
“And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple;
Who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple asked an alms.
Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.
And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength.
And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God.” (3:2-3,6-8)
After Peter explained to the people the significance of the miracle and exhorted them to respond postively to it, the rulers were “grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” They, therefore, “laid hands on them, and put them in hold unto the next day.” (4:2-3) But on the morrow when they brought Peter and John before them and demanded of them to know “By what power, or by what name, have ye done this?,” it was then that they were confronted with the first of 3 honest opportunities to change their minds and acknowledge the truth. Listen as the account records the testimony of their own hearts…
“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignornant men, THEY MARVELLED; AND THEY TOOK KNOWLEDGE OF THEM, THAT THEY HAD BEEN WITH JESUS.
And beholding the man which was healed standing with them, THEY COULD SAY NOTHING AGAINST IT.
But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves,
Saying, What shall we do to these men? FOR THAT INDEED A NOTABLE MIRACLE HATH BEEN DONE BY THEM is manifest to all them that dwell in Jerusalem; AND WE CANNOT DENY IT.” (4:13-16)
Honesty of heart would have compelled them to change their minds about Jesus of Nazareth, and to acknowledge Him to be the Christ, and also that God had raised Him from the dead, just as Peter and John testified. Their own hearts perceived and recognized that Peter and John HAD BEEN WITH JESUS, just as they had been testifying to the people. They were in the position of not being able to deny anything. But, though honestly confronted with the truth and with the opportunity to repent, instead they hardened their hearts, and said among themselves…
“But that it spread no further among the people, let us straitly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name.
And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.” (vs 17)
The SECOND honest opportunity to repent occurred in connection with the next attempt the rulers made to silence the apostles. The intensified sign ministry of the apostles was producing a tremendous witness concerning the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. In response to this, as Acts 5:17-18 say,…
“Then the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and were filled with indignation,
And laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison.”
With this done, God provided the rulers with another opportunity to “marvel” and to “take knowledge” that the apostles and their ministry were of God. Instead of leaving the apostles in the common prison, as the account says,…
“But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth, and said,
Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.” (5:19-20)
When the rulers sent for the apostles to be brought before them to face charges, we are told…
“But when the officers came, and found them not in the prison, they returned, and told,
Saying, The prison TRULY FOUND WE SHUT WITH ALL SAFTEY, and the keepers standing without before the doors: but when we had opened, WE FOUND NO MAN WITHIN.
Now when the high priest and the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these things, THEY DOUBTED OF THEM WHEREUNTO THIS WOULD GROW.” (5:22-24)
Again the rulers are confronted with a “notable miracle,” and this time one which thwarted their own efforts. Again the apostles testify to them the truth concerning Jesus of Nazareth, and of God raising Him from the dead, and of the witness of the Holy Spirit to Israel. But did they respond positively to it? Was this second honest opportunity greeted with a change of mind?
“When they (the rulers) heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.” (5:33)
Even Gamaliel’s counsel, though not designed by him to actually change their minds, gave the rulers the opportunity to honestly think whether this “was of God” or not. But their hardness of heart persisted and they vented their anger by beating the apostles and commanding them again not to speak in the name of Jesus.
The THIRD and final honest opportunity for the rulers to change their minds came when certain ones brought Stephen before the council after having been silenced by “the wisdom and spirit by which he spake.” As Acts 6:9-14 relate, through the use of lies they “stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes,” and they seized Stephen and “brought him to the council.” After setting up false witnesses to incriminate Stephen and to fill with hatred the hearts of everyone of the rulers, the council prepared to hear Stephen’s defence. But as verse 15 describes, before Stephen opened his mouth a marvelous phenomenon was produced in the hearts of “all that sat in the council.”
“And all that sat in the council, LOOKING STEADFASTLY ON HIM, saw his face AS IT HAD BEEN THE FACE OF AN ANGEL.”
In the heart of everyone of the rulers was produced the undeniable conviction that they were in the very presence of a messenger of God — a messenger of God, like an angel, sent to them.
First, a “notable miracle” among the people. Then, one which thwarted their own devices. And now, one within their own hearts convicting them that what they were about to hear was from a messenger of God to them. Surely, now the rulers wouldn’t harden their hearts! Surely, now they would change their minds and acknowledge both the truthfullness of Stephen’s historical recounting of Israel’s rebellious history, and the truth that they were guilty of having rejected their Messiah. But even in the face of this the most heart-searching of the 3 opportunities for the rulers to repent, they remained “stiffnecked” and continued to “resist the Holy Ghost.” They were “cut to the heart” by what Stephen said and they “gnashed on him with their teeth.” (7:54) Then they killed him.
With this third opportunity spurned by the rulers, the Lord was ready and took His position to begin having His day of purging and avenging wrath, just as Stephen’s vision made clear. God’s mercy to His nation had been refused. He was ready to make His enemies His footstool. The “untoward generation” was ready to be judged along with the rest of the world.
But instead, the mercy, long-suffering, grace and wisdom of God proved to be exceedingly abundant, “unsearchable” and “past finding out.” For against this back-drop of Israel’s outright rejection of God, and the Gentiles already long-standing worthiness to receive God’s judgment, the Lord Jesus Christ came back from heaven and raised up a brand new apostle — Paul — and revealed to him how that the wrath of God so deserved by this world would be held back in long-suffering and grace. Instead of yet “showing His wrath and making His power known” in the judgment this world was ripe for, God has brought in a ‘dispensation of His grace for us Gentiles.’ A dispensation which is not according to expectation or prophecy, but which is according to “the mystery of Christ” — a secret purpose God has in Christ which He kept “hid in Himself” since before the world began, but revealed when He raised up Paul as a new apostle. (cf. Rom. 16:25-27; Eph. 3:1-12; Col. 1:25-27 eg.)
We, today, live in this unprophesied dispensation of God’s long-suffering and grace. During this dispensation God has temporarily suspended His program and dealings with Israel; has put Jew and Gentile on the exact same level; and is graciously offering reconciliation to His enemies before He has His day of judgment. Those who are reconciled to God through faith in Christ Jesus are made members of the “new creation,” the church the body of Christ, which God is forming today in accordance with the “mystery of Christ.”
When God, though, concludes this present dispensation, He will rapture the church to be with Himself, and will then resume His program with Israel and will no longer be long-suffering. The Lord will have His day of wrath and judgment. The crisis of this world being ripe for the Lord’s “day of wrath and righteous judgment” will no longer be averted by His “much long-suffering.” But rather the Lord will ‘make His enemies His footstool’ including “taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Lord’s day of wrath and judgment hasn’t been avoided by this world, but it is being graciously held back. Its crisis of confrontation with the righteous judgment of God is coming. And until then, we who have been reconciled unto God through trusting in Jesus Christ as our Saviour have the privilege of proclaiming unto others the gospel of God’s grace with its gift of righteousness and deliverance from the wrath to come. – K.R. Blades