Since creation, God has desired to dwell and fellowship with His people. Because people are created to be physical, earthly beings—we are not fully human if we do not have a soul and a body, and so any attempt to devalue or denigrate the physical is a lie from Satan—the kingdom of God has always been an earthly phenomenon. As such, God has often seen fit to assign His presence to aspects of the physical creation. The clearest example of this was when He gave the tabernacle and later the temple to His people Israel. But by Jesus’ day, the temple had taken on an ungodly significance in the life of the nation.
In the last reflection, we looked at the ministry of Stephen and the major themes in his address to the Sanhedrin, where he used the Old Testament to show them how they were guilty of the very things of which they accused him. (He especially does this by highlighting similar acts of distortion and rebellion among the Jewish fathers and comparing it to the behavior of his contemporaries. He is saying they have always been this way.) Today, we will examine the Sanhedrin’s claim that Stephen is blaspheming the temple and then look at his martyrdom.
A. The True Tabernacle (vv. 44-50)
The tabernacle had been built by Moses during the wilderness wanderings—a portable tent that housed the Ark of the Covenant and was God’s prescribed meeting place with His people. It was brought into the Promised Land under Joshua and remained a key aspect of Israel’s worship and life until the time of King David. During the construction of his palace, he noticed how seemingly unfitting it was for him to live in a lovely house while the Lord’s presence dwelt in a tent, so he decided to build a temple for the Lord. The Lord spoke to David through the prophet Nathan, and told him that it would be Solomon who would build the temple (and he did, gloriously), but that the Lord in mercy would build David a house—a dynasty, a family line from which the promised king would come (2 Samuel 7:8-16). David cries out in worship that this Davidic Covenant promise of a king and His kingdom not only looks towards “the distant future” for its fulfillment, but is literally God’s “charter for humanity”—it is the centerpiece of God’s plan and program for all people on earth (v. 19). The temple built by Solomon might be a temporary dwelling of God with His chosen nation Israel, but the Davidic Covenant is a promise for His permanent dwelling with all people.
“Testimony” in verse 44 is the Greek word for witness; God intended the tabernacle to be a physical witness—as if in a court of law, or as a physical observer of the truth of something—of His covenant with the nation. This of course was the Mosaic Covenant, which was conditioned upon Israel’s proper response to Him. That God chose to dwell with the nation, out of all the nations on earth, should have spurred them to consistent and devoted obedience. The tabernacle was a reminder of that. It was also a symbol of God’s nearness, of His willingness to act on their behalf and care for them.
But the people rebelled. Indeed, they rebelled to such an extent that they horrifically violated the Covenant and in 722 and 586 BC virtually the entire nation was carted off into captivity—but not before the temple, the glorious house of God that Solomon had built, was razed and destroyed by the invaders. (Of course, God’s glory had departed a long time before—first with the Ark of the Covenant being captured by Philistine invaders [1 Samuel 4:21-22], then during Ezekiel’s day before the exile [Ezekiel 9-11].) After seventy years of captivity, God allowed a remnant of Jews to return to the land, where they slowly rebuilt the temple under the prophetic ministries of Zechariah and Haggai. Sadly, some carnality evidently remained in God’s people, as somehow Zechariah’s divinely ordained ministry of encouragement prompted them to execute him—which they did, in the very temple which he had encouraged them to rebuild (Matt. 23:35).
By Malachi’s day, less than a century after the return from the exile, God’s people were already complacent and defiling temple worship with rigid externalism and blemished sacrifices, as well as impure family lives that defiled them as worshippers (Mal. 1-2). God was silent for over four hundred years until He came to earth in the person of His Son—whom Malachi promised would coke to the temple someday (Mal. 3:1), which would be fully realized at His second coming in its purifying and purging aspects (vv. 2-3). Jesus did come, and saw that His covenant people were still misusing the temple—He had to clean it out twice (John 2:13-17; Matt. 21:12-17).
This latter temple cleansing was preceded by His triumphal entry to the city as Davidic king (21:1-11) and followed by an object lesson about Israel’s unbelief (21:18-22), rejection of Jesus’ authority by the Jewish leadership (21:23-27), multiple parables which spoke of His rejection by the Jewish people (21:28-22:14), further conflict with various Jewish leaders (22:15-40), and the declaration of His identity as Davidic king (22:41-46). This section is capped off by His passionate excoriation of the Jewish leadership for their externalism, self-righteousness, legalism, and ungodliness (23:1-36). At this point, Jesus looks at the city of Jerusalem and weeps over its constant rejection of Him and His Father. He calls the temple “your house” (not “My,” not “My Father’s”) and says it is left to them desolate—not merely because it has ceased to be a place of God-honoring worship, but because within a few short decades the temple will be destroyed by Gentile invaders who will again judge God’s nation for their covenant unfaithfulness. But this time it is worse. For they have rejected the Prophet like unto Moses, and He is requiring it of them, just as He said (Deut. 18:15-19). But even here there is a note of hope, for Jesus promises they will return to Him (v. 39). There will be anew temple in the Millennium for a regenerate national Israel (Ezek. 40-48). And then finally the whole world will become a temple and the glory of God will be the air we breathe (Rev. 21:3-4, 22).
Where is the true temple? Stephen hints at it by his use of Isaiah 66—God dwells on a high and holy place and with the humble who tremble at His Word. The temple was always a symbol of something greater, even though God deigned to have His presence there. So Stephen honors what it was designed to be, but he does not honor the temple the way the Jewish leadership has. They have made an idol out of the temple. They have clung to their traditions and even God’s sacrificial system in an externalist, legalistic way. They have allowed the symbol to trump the reality—and assume because they were externally right with the symbol, that the reality was theirs too. Most of all, they are clinging to the temple while rejecting the very One whose right it was to command, judge, and reward. These are not godly people, and they do not truly honor the Lord. Where is the temple? It is no longer in Jerusalem. That is just a building that will very soon be rubble. The true temple now is also where the kingdom is—in the new community of humble, trembling, surrendered disciples who have yielded to the rule of the rejected, risen, reigning Christ—the church (cf. Matt. 21:42-43; 1 Cor. 3:9-17). The church is the new holy of holies (for that is the word used for “temple” in 1 Corinthians), where the very immediate presence of God dwells under a new and perfect high priest, Jesus Christ. God has removed His Spirit and His blessing from the Jerusalem system and has placed it upon a meager group of people who are outcasts of the whole world. The Jewish people have once again set themselves in opposition to God. And just as they killed Zechariah, they will kill Stephen, too.
B. The Death of the Witness (vv. 51-60)
The zenith of Stephen’s sermon is thus: These leaders are stiff-necked, unbowing, hard-hearted. They resist the sovereign ministry and rule of the Spirit. They are just as their fathers are (v. 51). Moreover, they have done worse than their fathers, fore they have now killed the Messiah Himself (v. 52)! Even before they begin stoning him, Stephen looks up, and he sees heaven itself open. Jesus is there—Jesus, the incarnate God, the Lord of the temple, the covenant-maker, the One anointed by God to rule in fulfillment of promises to David, who has even now taken that authoritative position by God’s right hand (an explicitly Messianic, Davidic position).
It is from that place of rule that Jesus has been working the last seven chapters. It is from there He poured out the Spirit, converted thousands to His rule, healed people, struck Ananias and Sapphira dead, caused an earthquake, restrained wicked hearts—and gave His people words to say to testify of Him, just as He promised (Luke 12:11, 21:15). Clearly Jesus has been busy! He is not passive, not a king in exile, not anointed but delaying His rule until a later time. No, He rules now, and that powerfully, decisively, and effectually. He changes things on earth from heaven as He advances heaven’s agenda on earth. It is this Jesus Stephen loves and has served so faithfully. His outcry of faith at what his eyes see—implying Jesus is indeed the Messiah and approved by God, the last thing the Jews want to hear—enrages them further and they drag him out of the city and begin to stone him for blasphemy. A young man named Saul approves of his death and hold the cloaks of the men doing the killing (v. 58). But Stephen continues to look at the risen Christ—who is standing in heaven, not sitting, for He is rising to welcome His servant home. And Stephen’s final words are asking the authoritative, ruling, powerful Lord Jesus to not hold this sin against the charge of these men (v. 60).
This is the sweet part. For we know Christ raised His scepter for at least one of these men, in a powerful way. This man, who viciously opposed the government of God in Christ, would shortly become the greatest expositor and proclaimer of the implications of that rule—to the point of being granted new revelation no one else had yet received! What a testimony to the grace of God and the power of Christ’s reign that Paul is. And praise God for precious Stephen, whose faithfulness to the Messiah, the Word of God and the true temple provides a beautiful model for every generation of believers.