44 “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by 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 what is the place of my rest?
50 Did not my hand make all these things?’
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:44-53 ESV
Having been accused of blasphemy against Moses and God, Stephen refuted those charges by showing his reverence for both. At the same time, he revealed that it was his Jewish brothers who had failed to truly honor Moses. In fact, he gave proof that they, like their ancestors, really rejected Moses, refusing to listen to his prophecy regarding the coming Messiah. Not only that, they were guilty of idolatry, just like their ancient ancestors. In fact, they had made idols out of the land of Judah, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple of God. Which is the next topic in Stephen’s message. He had been accused of speaking against the Temple and of having taught that the resurrected Jesus was going to tear it down. These were false accusations, but that didn’t keep Stephen from using them to teach those in his audience an important object lesson regarding the Temple.
34 Then the cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could no longer enter the Tabernacle because the cloud had settled down over it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.
36 Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. 37 But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted. 38 The cloud of the Lord hovered over the Tabernacle during the day, and at night fire glowed inside the cloud so the whole family of Israel could see it. This continued throughout all their journeys. – Exodus 40:34-38 NLT
It was designed to function during their journey from Egypt to the promised land. Inside, in the Holy of Holies, was contained the Ark of the Covenant, on top of which was the Mercy Seat, the place of atonement. It was over that spot that the cloud hovered that signified God’s presence. Inside the Ark of the Covenant were the tablets of stone that contained the testimony of God, the Ten Commandments, given to Moses on Mount Sinai. God’s law and God’s presence went before the people of Israel, guiding them both morally and literally. Whenever the cloud of God’s presence moved out of the Holy of Holies, the people were to pack up the Tabernacle and follow wherever He led, taking the law with them as they went.
And Stephen points out that this had been the pattern all the way up until the people arrived in the land promised to Abraham by God. At that point, the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, had ended up in Shiloh. The book of Joshua records: “Now that the land was under Israelite control, the entire community of Israel gathered at Shiloh and set up the Tabernacle” (Joshua 18:1 NLT). Evidently, the Ark and the Tabernacle remained in Shiloh until the day that Israel determined to treat the Ark like a good luck charm and take it into battle against the Philistines. It was captured and, seven months later, returned. But it did not go back to Shiloh. Instead, it ended up in a place called Kiriath-jearim.
1 So the men of Kiriath-jearim came to get the Ark of the Lord. They took it to the hillside home of Abinadab and ordained Eleazar, his son, to be in charge of it. 2 The Ark remained in Kiriath-jearim for a long time—twenty years in all. During that time all Israel mourned because it seemed the Lord had abandoned them. – 1 Samuel 7:1-2 NLT
It seems that the people of Israel had a somewhat spotty relationship with the Tabernacle and the Ark. These items had become little more than symbols of God’s power and presence. And God would use their loss of respect for the Tabernacle and the Ark to remind their future descendants that He takes obedience to His will quite seriously. Consider these sobering words, spoken by God to His prophet, Jeremiah, and intended for the people of Israel who had seen the Temple as the modern-day version of the Tabernacle.
1 The Lord gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, 2 “Go to the entrance of the Lord’s Temple, and give this message to the people: ‘O Judah, listen to this message from the Lord! Listen to it, all of you who worship here! 3 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says:
“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. 4 But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the Lord’s Temple is here. They chant, “The Lord’s Temple is here! The Lord’s Temple is here!” 5 But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; 6 only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. 7 Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.
8 “‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! 9 Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, 10 and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again?” – Jeremiah 7:1-10 NLT
God went on to tell Jeremiah to give the following message to the people:
“Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel.” – Jeremiah 7:12 NLT
Shiloh, the former home to God’s Tabernacle, lay in ruins when God spoke these words to Jeremiah. The town’s claim to fame of having once held the Tabernacle of God, was not enough to stop its destruction for its unfaithfulness. And God wants the people of Israel to know that Jerusalem would not fair any better, just because it contained the Temple.
The fact was, the Temple had been David’s idea, not God’s. Which is the point that Stephen seems to be making. It was David who had proposed the idea of building God a great house in which to dwell. But God had responded to David’s grand scheme with the following words:
5 “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. 7 In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’” – 2 Samuel 7:5-6 NLT
God would eventually allow David’s son, Solomon, to build the Temple, which Stephen points out. But Stephen showed that it was not a house that God desired, but obedient people. He quotes from the prophet Isaiah to make his point.
1 This is what the Lord says:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?
Could you build me such a resting place?
2 My hands have made both heaven and earth;
they and everything in them are mine.
I, the Lord, have spoken!
“I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts,
who tremble at my word.” – Isaiah 66:1-12 NLT
God desired obedience to His word, not a place in which to dwell. He didn’t need a house. He needed His people to humbly submit to His will. And, as Stephen is attempting to point out, Gods will was that they submit to and accept Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. God had chosen to dwell among them in the form of His own Son. Jesus, the Son of God, had become God incarnate, God in human flesh. And as the apostle John pointed out in his gospel, “the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT). The glory of God no longer hovered over the Ark inside the Temple. And with Jesus’ departure, the glory of God had come to rest on those who had placed their faith in Jesus as their Savior. God dwells within those who have accepted His Son as the sacrifice for their sin debt. He indwells them in the form of His Holy Spirit. And the author of Hebrews provides us with some exciting news.
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”
17 then he adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” – Hebrews 10-11-17 NLT
God now writes His law on the hearts of men, not on tablets of stone. He resides in the hearts of men, not buildings made of brick and mortar. And yet, that was the very thing the people in Stephen’s audience refused to accept. So, he blasts them for their stubborn refusal to recognize the hand of God working in their midst. He exposes them as stubborn and stiff-necked, a people who “always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51 ESV), just as their ancestors had. Even the Old Testament prophets, who had announced the coming of the Righteous One, had been killed by the people of Israel. And Stephen accuses the high priest and members of the Sanhedrin of having betrayed and murdered Jesus. Just as their ancestors had received the law and had refused to keep it, they had received the Messiah and had refused to accept Him. The glory of God had appeared right in their midst, and they had ignored Him. Now, the glory of God had shown up in the form of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by signs and wonders, and they refused to believe it. It does not appear that Stephen was attempting to change their minds. He was not trying to convince them to accept Jesus as their Savior. He already knew that their minds were made up and their rejection of Him was permanent and irreversible. And their reaction to Stephen’s words will prove him right.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.