A professor of preaching in my youth used to mock sermons that he said were “a Cook’s tour of the Bible.” Thomas Cook was one of the first travel agents in mid 19th century England. He was famous for organizing and selling superficial, hurried tours.
At first glance, Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 looks like an example of a Cook’s tour of the Bible. Stephen touches on many stories leading up to Solomon’s building a house for God in verse 47. Then in verses 49-50 he quotes Isaiah 66:1-2:
49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and earth is the footstool for my feet.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is my resting place?
50 Did my hand not make all these things?’ (NET Bible).
In defending himself against the charge that he spoke against the holy place, Stephen seems to make the case against himself worse with an argument that Israel’s understanding of tabernacle and temple had always been a mistake.
G. K. Beale in The Temple and the Church’s Mission understands the Temple as a microcosm of the universe. Stephen drew on the final chapters of Isaiah where the new creation and the new Jerusalem equal the new temple. We don’t need a temple because God is remaking the universe itself into a new temple.
The true temple of God, according to Stephen, cannot be made by human hands for two reasons. One is the sinfulness of people. The disobedience of Israel meant that their worship was not all that much different from pagan worship (Acts 7:42-43). The other is the transcendence of God. Even when the people approach holiness, the transcendence of God means that a human-made temple is inadequate as a dwelling place for the creator.
Shortly after the sack of Jerusalem and the ruin of the Temple in 70 CE, a Jewish work, the Sibylline Oracles said that God’s true people “will reject all temples when they see them, altars too, useless foundations of dumb stones.” Some of Philo’s writings take a similar line. So as fatally offensive as Stephen’s plea may have been to the priesthood while the Temple still stood, it was by no means outside the circle of 1st century Jewish thought.
Part of the reason for this was that the people had experienced living on without the Temple during the Babylonian exile. They had begun to develop other institutions like the synagogue and the rabbinic schools. Even with a new temple in Jerusalem, Judaism came to be practiced at a distance in the diaspora. So, despite occasional pilgrimages, many Hellenistic Jews lived most of their lives far from the Temple. Acts says that Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew.
One aspect of Stephen’s speech that I don’t think Beale emphasized enough is the geographical aspect. Luke orders Luke/Acts geographically often at the expense of chronological order. There is the trip from Galilee to Jerusalem in the Gospel. There is the movement from Jerusalem to Rome in Acts. Stephen’s speech comes just before several episodes of the expansion of the Christ movement beyond Palestine. The gospel moves not just away from the Temple, but away from the city and land where the Temple stands. So the speech seems to me to challenge not just the place of the Temple but that of the Holy Land as well.
I wonder if Hellenistic Jewish converts, represented by Luke and Stephen, did not carry this beyond the position of the historical Jesus.
Beale interprets Acts 7 through the lens of Isaiah 66 as dispensing with the Temple. It calls for the abolition of the Temple in favor of a new dwelling for God in people who adhere to Jesus and in a promised new creation. The Epistle of Barnabas builds on Stephen’s speech and affirms the destruction of the Jerusalem temple as confirmation.