PMW 2020-083 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.Stephen stoned

In this seventh entry in an 8-part series I am arguing that the Jewish Temple in the first-century effectively functioned as tool of emperor worship, being run by a corrupt priesthood in collusion with the Roman authorities. I recommend reading the previous articles first, and in order.

Wiens (62) argues regarding Stephen’s sermon that “idolatry is not so much an initial phase [of Israel’s national experience beginning with Moses] as a continuing reality, and that one of Stephen’s main points here is to contrast false and true worship at every stage of Israel’s cult.” Stephen speaks of the golden calf (Ac 7:39-41), Moloch worship (v 43), and finally mentions the Jewish temple which was “made with hands” (v 48). Wiens points out that Israel apparently believed that when they made an idol, they made the god itself, for they requested that Aaron “make for us gods” (v 40; Ex 32:1), whereupon we read that “they made a calf” and “were rejoicing in the works of their hands” (v 41). Thus, “that is what the authors of Exodus and Acts apparently wanted their readers to understand. People create their own gods if they do not worship the God who created the heavens and ‘all these things’” (Wiens 62).

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Stephen traces Israel’s worship history and failure. He begins with Abraham’s leaving his country (Ac 7:2-5) in order to secure a “place” to worship God (7:7) through Moses’ tabernacle established in the Land (7:44-45) to his conclusion in Solomon’s building the temple “made by human hands” (7:47-48), which is “this place” against which Stephen preaches (6:13). But as he traces her worship through the ages, he highlights her rebellion against godly men (7:9, 20, 25-29, 35) and her involvement in idolatry (7:39-43). By this redemptive-historical survey Stephen emphasizes Israel’s constant failure to reach the goal of true worship. Despite the Sanhedrin’s alleged concern for Moses over against Stephen (6:13-14) Beale (Temple 218) cites John J. Kilgallen, noting that “the purpose of Acts 7:46-52 is to conclude that ‘as Moses was rejected and the people’s worship became blasphemous thereby [7:20-43], so with Christ rejected, the Temple worship becomes a blasphemy’ (Kilgallen 1976: 94).” This is because ultimately even Solomon recognized (1Ki 8:27) God “does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Ac 7:48 citing Isa 66:1-2).

His overall point is that the goal of redemptive history is finally to come to the ultimate worship of God in a temple made “without hands,” that is, in the resurrected Christ who is the eschatological temple (cf. Jn 2:19-21; cp. Da 2:34, 45). Israel wanted to maintain her hand-made temple which “was a mere pointer to a time when God’s dwelling on earth would not be limited to a ‘handmade’ house. Israel’s physical temples were ‘handmade’ (Acts 7:44-47) and could never be a permanent dwelling place for God” (Beale Temple 222). She was satisfied with holding to the old creation “handmade” temple rather than moving on to the new creation temple made “without hands.” She preferred the old, temporal order where men could fashion hand-made idols for themselves (7:41) rather than God’s new order made without hands. “Stephen’s point in citing Isaiah 66:1 appears to demonstrate that, just as God’s own hand created the first cosmos that had become tainted with idolatry, so God would create a new, eternal creation and Jerusalem, not by human hands but by his own hand (so Is. 65:17-19 and 66:22). . . . The second temple had become idolatrous, since Israel had supplanted their tradition for God himself. The temple became the central focus of their idolatry (cf. Rom 2:22)” (Beale Temple 310).

Thus, Israel’s clinging to her temple shows that here history is one of constant failure in coming to her proper goal: “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did” (7:51).

Interestingly, Stephen employs the word tupos in consecutive statements in order to make an important point: He speaks of the “images” (tupous) made for the “tabernacle of Moloch” and Rompha, and then immediately of the “pattern” (tupon) of the “tabernacle of testimony.” His point appears to be that “only those who ‘see through’ the hand-made models to the God who does not dwell in created things can worship truly. Those who see only what they have made or projected worship idols. And this is as true for the tabernacle as for the temple” (Wiens 75). Thus, the Jewish devotion to the temple “made with hands” blocks their view through that temple to its God, “the Most High” (Ac 7:48). That which is good has been made bad. Jesus can in one breath declare that the temple which was to be “a house of prayer” has become a “den of robbers” (Lk 19:46). “My house” (Mt 21:13) can become “your house” (Mt 23:38).

Thus, “in some respects Stephen’s polemic is the familiar and standard sort of fare Jews used against pagan temples and theology of God’s residence that was entailed in pagan thought (cf. Acts 17:16ff).”[1] Certainly such language “is a point that any Jew might make in a polemic against paganism” (Hill, Regnum Caelorum, 74). Walker (66-67) comments regarding Stephen’s use of cheiropoiētos in his defense: “despite the Temple’s true status in God’s sight, it has effectively become for them an idol. More startling still, perhaps the Temple has actually become an idol, not just subjectively in the hearts of his audience, but objectively in the sight of God. Their subjective idolatry of the Temple (seeking to preserve the ‘holy place’ against every criticism) has been an instrumental factor in causing them to dismiss Israel’s true Messiah when he dared to speak against it (Acts 6:14). This is so serious that God has allowed that idolatry to become objective as well. The Temple has lost its former status and is now in his sight too merely a human construct (cheiropoētos), void of significance.”

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The great tragedy of Israel was that their Messiah “came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive them” (Jn 1:11) so that he wept over them for their blindness (Lk 19:41-44). Scharlemann (106) argues: “Judging from the speech ascribed to Stephen, he saw the temple as one of the institutions of Judaism that kept the Jews . . . from accepting Jesus as the Messiah. This is one reason he engaged in a frontal attack on it, in all of its religious significance. Stephen called it a human institution, an idolatrous creation, like the golden calf. Contemporary Jews were sure that the temple had been created by God’s hands; but Stephen spoke of it as ‘made with hands.'” He notes further (119): “By applying to the temple in Jerusalem the adjective ‘made by hand,’ Stephen intended to say that it had become an object of idolatry, for this is the same language he used to describe the golden calf.” Stephen was not opposed to the temple as such.[2] After all, this where Christ was dedicated to God (Lk 2:27), where he went to be in his “Father’s house” (Lk 2:46-49), and where he became enraged at the Jewish abuse of the temple (Jn 2:13-17). In fact, the temple had become “the premier symbol of a superstitious belief that God would protect and rally his people irrespective of their conformity to his will.” [3[ Beale (Temple 310) agrees: “The religious establishment superstitiously viewed the temple as a guarantee that God would guard and prosper the nation despite their disobedience to his will.”

As Stephen ends his speech he effectively deems the idolatrous Sanhedrin to be Gentiles, for they are “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised in heart” while reminding them of the golden calf episode (Ac 7:39-41), where both charges were originally laid against Israel (Dt 10:16; Ex 33:5). He relates the golden calf idol to the temple in that both are made by “hands” (Ac 7:41, 48). Speaking “like a prophet of old” Stephen notes that “God’s indictment rests upon you just as it did on your idolatrous and apostate ancestors” (EBC 9:348). We must remember that Jesus promised to give his persecuted followers the very words to speak when brought before councils (Lk 21:12-15//). Stephen is the first martyr and gives the longest speech in Acts as a most powerful expression of Christ’s warning. His circumstances very closely parallel Christ’s trial circumstances.

In that “the word ‘handmade’ (Acts 7:48) always refers to idols in the Greek Old Testament and is without exception a negative reference in the New Testament,” Beale (Temple 224, 225) finds it significant that “the only other use in Acts refers to an idolatrous pagan temple.” In Acts 17 Paul preaches to the Athenians about their many idols, one “To an unknown God” (Ac 17:16, 23): “God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands [cheiropoiētois]” (Ac 17:24). This also picks up on Jesus’ statement and, like Stephen’s defense, alludes to Isa 66:1-3. Still later Paul is accused of turning people from idolatry “saying that gods made with hands [dia cheirōn ginomen (a different expression)] are no gods at all” (Ac 19:26). [4[ Rev 9:20 also mentions the idols which were “the works of their hands [ergōn tōn cheirōn].”


[1] Ben Witherington, Acts, 273n.
[2] F. F. Bruce, Acts, 143-44.
[3[ Carson, Matthew (EBC) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 442.
[4] Here, however, he employs different terms: dia cheirōn ginomenoi.

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