This five-part series explores how the early Church separated from the Jerusalem temple, where the first Christians often met (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:20-21). Part 2 is about the history of “place” and Stephen’s prophetic rebuke of the Sanhedrin.
The history of “place”
Stephen recounted the history of Israel for his listeners in the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, an assembly of rabbis appointed to sit as a tribunal or court system.
He spoke about God’s call to Abraham, who left Ur and traveled to Canaan, and of the hardships the patriarch’s descendants would endure.
6 “God spoke to [Abraham] in this way: ‘Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.
7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’”
–Acts 7:6–7 NIV
Stephen echoes his accuser’s words, mentioning place, a special location where the Israelite people one day would worship God.
Stephen also mentions place elsewhere in his speech. He refers to the presence of the Lord in the burning bush:
“Then the Lord said to [Moses], ‘Take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground.’”
–Acts 7:33 NIV
Stephen then recounts a short history of the tabernacle:
44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen.
45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David,
46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.
47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.”
–Acts 7:44–47 NIV
The tabernacle was a temporary dwelling place for God among the Israelites during their wilderness sojourn. David’s dream was to provide a permanent place for God to dwell among His people. David gave his son Solomon plans for this “house,” the temple.
Stephen then reaches the crux of his argument:
48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
49 ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’”
–Acts 7:48–50 NIV
The Jews of that time considered place of utmost importance, but God was never confined to a place, whether it be a tabernacle, a temple, or a house (1 Ki. 8:27).
In the past God had mocked their cries of “the temple of the Lord! the temple of the Lord! the temple of the Lord!” Israel gave lip service to God’s great temple, but they desecrated it by their evil deeds, showing they had no heart relationship with God (see Jer. 7:3-15).
Stephen’s prophetic rebuke
Stephen recounted Israel’s rebellion in the desert (Acts 7:39-43). Even though Israel had the tabernacle, the place where God dwelled with them, they rejected God and refused to obey.
Stephen spoke the truth and accurately assessed the hearts of his listeners. Like their forebears, they “reverenced” the temple but denied their faith in God by spurning what God was saying by the Holy Spirit through Stephen.
Stephen rebuked them.
51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!
52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—
53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
–Acts 7:51–53 NIV
Strong words. What happened? We’ll find out next time.