Stephen, Session #17 (All quotes generally ESV)

IN WHAT WAY DOES STEPHEN DISPARAGE THE TEMPLE?

If we assemble the various verses in Stephen’s speech which speak about the worship of the true God and their pattern of worshiping false gods, a message becomes more and more obvious.  Let’s look at the progression in Acts 7:

  • Verse 33 tells us about the burning bush and God speaking to Moses:   Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  God is saying to Moses:  “I want you to worship me right here.  You don’t have to build a Temple.  Just take off your shoes!”
  • Right away in verse 40, the children of Israel want to revert to their old Egyptian ways of worship, “saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him. “  Worshiping an invisible God wasn’t good enough; they had to have a visible “golden calf” to call “god.”
  • The “golden calf” was just the beginning.  Then, verse 43 Stephen reminds them that “You took up the tent of Molochand the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship;”  The Israelites went to the next level of evil by sacrificing their own children to false gods.
  • Verse 44 is a reminder of what God had asked them to provide for Him—just a TENT!   “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.”  God told our forefathers what He wanted—just a tent to remind us that He will follow us anywhere we go.
  • Verses 47 and following put the frosting on Stephen’s cake:  “But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, ‘What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord.   Did not my hand make all these things?’”

Do you see what Stephen is saying?  God doesn’t live in Temples made with human hands—heathen gods live there!  But you LOVE your heathen gods.  First it was the golden calf, then Molech and the sacrificing of your children.  But you didn’t stop there, did you?  You went the next step, building the biggest idol yet:  you built that stupid Temple on Mt. Zion which God never wanted but you insisted upon it anyway.  That Temple is the biggest false god you ever made!  You’re SO PROUD of it, aren’t you?  It is just one more false god made with your own hands!”

Now, why would Stephen’s audience get upset with that?

 STEPHEN DEPICTS A STRANGE PATTERN WITHIN JEWISH HISTORY

When the overall pattern of Stephen’s speech is seen, the outline appears as a roller coaster which provides another quirky view of Jewish history.  Over and over again, Stephen selects stories of people who have been crushed in the depths of despair, only to have God reach out not only to rescue them, but to elevate them to never-before-seen heights of glory.

First, we have the story of Abraham.  Of course, Abraham is a “big deal” in Jewish history, so it is no surprise that Stephen speaks about him.  But Stephen’s approach to Abraham’s life is an odd one:  here is a nobody from the land of “Who-cares.”  Abraham is promised great glory in a far-off land, but he never owns a square foot of anything except his burial plot!  But today, he is the father of an entire nation.

Joseph is next on Stephen’s hit parade.  No one cares of Joseph.  The Jewish histories never focus on him.  Why Joseph?  Joseph, his Dad’s “favorite,” gets sold into slavery, then thrown in jail by Potiphar’s wife.  But God rescues him from his debasement and elevates him to the glorious position of 2nd in command in all of Egypt.

Moses—a murderer of an Egyptian, a refugee in no man’s land, a goat herder in the desert, and a man with a speech impediment.  This is no leader of men!  But does God leave him there?  No.  Moses is elevated to greatness when God choose him to be the rescuer of God’s people in Egypt.

The pattern here is simple:  someone who looks like an “everyman” and who seems to amount to nothing, who is ground down and debased, is chosen by God and elevated to greatness and glory.  Given that pattern, what do you think Stephen might have to say about Jesus the Crucified?

OLD TESTAMENT INFORMATION ON PROPHET ABUSE AND MURDER:

  When Stephen utters these words in Acts 7:53, he is being “all inclusive!”  “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….”  

Stephen’s claim is that every single prophet which was sent to Israel was abused or killed in some fashion.  The Old Testament is limited in its reporting of such things.  Two passages from Jeremiah are specific:

  • Jeremiah 2:29-30  “Why do you contend with me?  You have all transgressed against me declares the Lord.  In vain have I struck your children; they took no correction; your ownsword devoured your prophets like a ravening lion.”
  • Jeremiah 26:23 “and they took Uriah (a prophet) from Egypt and brought him to King Jehoiakim, who struck him down with the sword and dumped his dead body into the burial place of the common people.

     Then we have the words of Elijah the Prophet in 1 Kings 19:10 For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets withthe sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.

  • 2 Chronicles 24:21 the Prophet Zechariah:  by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord.”
  • Nehemiah 9:26 “Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.”

Other than Jeremiah 26 and 2 Chronicles 24, this is all we have in the Old Testament about specific behavior. The words “they killed your prophets” from Elijah and Nehemiah suggest that there is more going on than the Old Testament reports—and indeed, this is true!  The people KNEW these tales and were ashamed of them!

Jewish literature outside of the Bible tells many a tale about the killing of the prophets (and some of these reports seem almost enthusiastic!)  Examples:

Martyrdom of Isaiah (an apocryphal book from 2nd Century B.C.) chapter 5:14 says  “And when Isaiah was being sawed apart, he neither cried aloud nor wept, but his lips spoke with the Holy Spirit until he was sawed in two.”

Prophetarum Vitae Fabulosae “enumeratio LXXII prophetarum et prophetissarum attributa” (“The Fictitious Lives of the Prophets: listing the attributes of 72 prophets and prophetesses”) was assembled by Theodor Schermann in 1907.  Tall tales listed there!