11 July 2019Acts 7:44-50
“The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (v.48)
Psalm: Psalm 1
Stephen, appointed as an administrative assistant by the apostles, proved a wise and effective communicator, rousing the jealousies of a group of overseas-based Jews who had a particular affection for the Temple. They had him arrested and brought before the council of Jewish priests on the false charge of speaking against the Temple and various Jewish customs. The whole of chapter 7 is Stephen’s response when asked, “Are these things so?” (v. 1). Like a number of court speeches in the world of the times, Stephen offered a reciting of Jewish ancestral traditions demonstrating his Jewish credentials rather than explicitly answering the charges. Today’s excerpt from that speech comes just before his conclusion, and now at last does give his view of the significance for Jews of a holy building.
He reminds his judges that before the Temple was built the Jewish people had the “tent of testimony” whilst travelling in the wilderness, built according to God’s directions to Moses (detailed in Exodus 25:8-40). This impermanent focus for Israel’s worship continued in use after the conquest of Canaan and for many subsequent generations until the time of King David. 2 Samuel 7 tells how David had the idea of replacing the tent with a permanent religious building, but God instructed him to leave that task for his son, as yet unborn. 1 Kings chapters 5 to 8 records in detail Solomon’s building of the Temple. It would subsequently be destroyed and rebuilt twice, at the time of the Babylonian Exile and Return in sixth century BC, and then again in the second century BC being rebuilt by Herod the Great although still unfinished by Jesus’s and Stephen’s time (see John 2:20).
Stephen, however, considers that whatever value the Temple has, it is not to be seen as a house for God as though God were obliged to dwell there. He quotes Isaiah 66:1-2, verses originally intended to ensure a right perspective on the task of rebuilding the Temple following the exile, as a reminder of God’s presence everywhere. Indeed even a Temple purportedly made for God was actually in truth made by God who is creator of all.
- Stephen is defending himself on charges of speaking against religious customs, which he does not regard as very important. Are there common religious customs that you think need to be challenged today? Which of those would you expect traditionalists to most fiercely contend for?
- In what ways are church buildings a help, and in what ways a potential hindrance, to the faith of worshippers?
- “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” (v. 49). Do you find such pictorial language helpful, or how would you describe where God lives?