StoningPMW 2020-084 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In this eighth entry in an 8-part series I am concluding my argument that the Jewish Temple in the first-century effectively functioned as tool of emperor worship, in that it was under the control of Roman-controlled priests. I recommend reading the previous articles first, and in order.


We must recall that Jesus called first century Israel under its unbelieving authorities an “adulterous generation” (Mt 12:39//; 16:4//). That charge harkens back to OT Israel’s unfaithfulness through idolatry. Thus, the first century temple system about which John is writing, is controlled by a corrupt, Messiah-denying high priesthood and has now become an idol linked with and likened to emperor worship. For this reason, Christ begins moving his people away from the temple because with his coming it no longer serves any God-approved purpose. As Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God, 182) observes: Jesus “prophesies that God will destroy the temple . . , not only because it was becoming obsolete but because of its flawed use and Israel’s rejection of Jesus.”

The reason Christians visited the temple in Acts was not to participate in its cult worship, but to gain access for a witness to the Jews (Ac 3:11; 5:20, 25, 42; cf. 3:11; 5:12, 20). In this, they were following the example of Jesus who had “spoken openly” in “synagogues, and in the temple, where all the Jews come together” (Jn 18:20; cp. Mt 21:23; 26:55; Lk 19:47). The temple is “the meeting-point for the disciples, and the natural place for the apostles to present their claim to Jerusalem’s religious leadership that Jesus, though crucified, is Israel’s Messiah. It is a ‘natural strategic objective.’” [1] Certain key passages in Acts “indicate that the apostles were in the Temple mainly to spread the word about the fulfillment of history that they believed had begun with Jesus’ actions . . . . The Temple courtyard was the principle public meeting place in Jerusalem, and the obvious place for such activities” (Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, 292).

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Stephen’s martyr sermon highlights the absolute spiritual and moral failure of Israel showing that “you who received the law as ordained by angels . . . did not keep it” (Ac 7:53) — though this was the very charge against Stephen (Ac 6:13b). Israel was “stiff-necked,” “uncircumcised in heart,” “always resisting the Holy Spirit” (Ac 7:51). They persecuted the prophets [2[ and were “betrayers and murderers” of “the Righteous One (Ac 7:52). The people themselves are corrupt, their temple is corrupt, irrelevant, and wrongly exalted. It therefore detracts Israel from the proper worship of God, serving therefore as an idol. The temple services “no longer . . . represent the will of God so that that which it should have achieved is to be sought in quite different areas of religious expression. Such an attitude could eventually result in the demand that the vain but seductive temple services should cease, even that the temple should be destroyed” (Gaston 103).

Because of this perspective “the early church was accused again and again of opposition to the temple, in the case of Stephen (Acts 6:13f), Paul (Acts 21:28) and all the apostles (Evan. Pet vii, 26). It appears that [the] saying in Mk 14:58 was important in the anti-Christian polemic of the time of Mark” (Gaston 69). “The point of the speech [of Stephen] is plainly directed against the over-estimation of the temple in Jerusalem.” [3] As the second century Christian Barnabas declared: “the wretched [Jews], wandering in error, trusted not in God Himself, but in the temple, as being the house of God. For almost after the manner of the Gentiles they worshipped Him in the temple” (Barn. 16). The God-ordained cult, under the control of those crying “we have no king but Caesar,” served as an indirect means of emperor worship which John is exposing.

Hare (130) notes that “persecution occurred when Christians challenged the symbols of ethnic solidarity so sharply that they placed themselves beyond the tolerance-limits of the Jewish community.” The Jews, therefore, sought capital punishment for any who spoke against or defiled the temple, in Jeremiah’s day (Jer 26:7-8, 11; Ant. 10:6:2 §89-92) as well as in the first century (Ac 6:14; 21:26-30; 24:6; 25:7-8; Sanh. 13:5; Ros. Has. 17a; Ber. 9:13b). Josephus records the story of Jesus Ananias who preached woe against Jerusalem and the temple before finally being killed (J.W. 6:5:3 §300-09).


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Thus, “the charge leveled against Jesus at his trial that he would ‘destroy the Temple,’ though ‘false’ at one level, proves true at a deeper level. ‘Jesus is the destroyer of the Temple in a figurative sense: its destruction is the result of his death, brought about by those in charge of the Temple worship’‘ (Walker 12, citing Donald Juel). Likewise the “false witnesses” brought against Stephen (Ac 7:13) “seem to have been false more in nuance and degree than in kind. From the accusations and from his defense, it is clear that Stephen had begun to apply his Christian convictions regarding the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth in God’s redemptive program” (EBC 9:335-36). As Scharlemann (13) puts it: “The nature of this charge, as it relates to the activity of Stephen, would suggest that the witnesses are called ‘false’ because they brought their accusations with malice aforethought and not because they had themselves invented the substance of their charges” (cp. Bruce Acts 135).


[1] P. W. L. Walker (65); cites J. Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (London: SCM, 1959), 242.
[2] This charge of killing the prophets is stereotypical language from the OT (Neh 9:26; cp. 1Ki 19:10, 14; 21:13; 2Ch 24:21; 36:15ff; Jer 2:30; 26:20-23; Mt 5:12; Heb 11:36-37). See also Josephus, Ant. 9:13:2 §264; 10:3:1 §38.
[3] Johannes Weiss, Earliest Christianity: A History of the Period A.D. 30–150 (New York: Harper, 1959), 1:169.

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  1. L.D. Jones December 29, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    Postmillennialists use the “this generation” phrase in Matthew 24 to validate their position. Jesus however said in Matthew 12: “But he answered and said unto them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.'”

    So my question is, if Jesus said this generation would only see the sign of Jonas, how can you say that “this generation” saw the signs described in Matt. 24?

  2. Kenneth Gentry January 2, 2017 at 11:52 am

    In Matt. 12, Jesus is answering the Pharisee’s demand for a sign to be given them — on the spot. But he rejects their call for some sort of wonder-working sign (such as Moses gave to Pharaoh). He is warning the Pharisees that the only sign he will offer them is the sign of his resurrection. This is the same sign he gives to the temple authorities in John 2:18.

    This, of course, does not mean that he performed no other signs that the Pharisees could see, for we know that he did (John 2:11, 23; 4:54; 6:14; 7:31; 12:37). In fact, the Pharisee Nicodemus saw the signs (miracles) and was impressed by them (John 3:2), as did other Pharisees and Jewish authorities (John 11:47). But whether the Pharisees (and high priestly authorities) would receive it or not, the destruction of the temple was a sign of God’s judgment on them.

    So in Matt 12 Jesus refuses to amaze them with a wonder-working miracle “on demand.” He is telling them: “The sign you need most dearly to see will be my resurrection.”

  3. David Morsillo October 25, 2020 at 7:19 pm

    Thank you Dr Gentry for a most helpful series of articles. I especially appreciated you bringing out the connection in the scriptures between “made with hands” and idolatry. I noticed today your mention of what Josephus records Jesus Ananias saying. I have long seen a connection between this and Isa 66:6 “A voice of noise from the city, a voice from the temple, a voice of the LORD that rendereth recompence to his enemies.” and I wonder whether you would concur?

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