A Commentary by John Stott
1). Stephen is accused (Acts 6:13-15).
The rumour which had been circulated was that Stephen had blasphemed against Moses and against God.(11). Now before the Sanhedrin the false witnesses elaborated the charge: ‘*This fellow never stops speaking against the holy place and against the law*’ (13). We pause to note that this was an extremely serious double accusation. For nothing was more sacred to the Jews, and nothing more precious, than their temple and their law. The temple was ‘the holy place’, the sanctuary of God’s presence, and the law was ‘holy scripture’, the revelation of God’s mind and will. Therefore, since the temple was God’s house and the law was God’s word, to speak against either was to speak against God or, in other words, to blaspheme.
But in what sense did Stephen speak against the temple and the law? The false witnesses explained: ‘*For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs of Moses handed down to us*’ (14). Stephen’s words against the temple and the law are thus seen to be his teaching about what Jesus of Nazareth would do to both. But was Stephen right? Was Jesus an iconoclast, who had threatened to destroy the temple and change the law, thus robbing Israel of her two most treasured possessions and even opposing God who gave them? Certainly Jesus had been accused of this, and it is safe to assume that Stephen was faithfully echoing his teaching.
So what did Jesus say about the temple and the law? First, he said that he would replace the temple. ‘We have heard him say,’ false witnesses had testified, ‘”I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man”’ (Mk.14:58; cf.15:29; Mt.26:61). His hearers thought he meant this literally, and asked: ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ (Jn.2:20). ‘But’, John comments. ‘the temple he had spoken of was his body’ (Jn.2:21), both his resurrection body which was raised on the third day, and also his spiritual body, the church, which would take the place of the material temple. Thus Jesus dared to speak of himself as God’s new temple replacing the old. ‘I tell you’, he declared, ‘that one greater than the temple is here.’ (Mt.12:6). In consequence, although in the past the people came together to the temple to meet God, in future the meeting place with God would be himself.
Secondly, Jesus said that he would fulfil the law. He was of course accused of disrespect for the law, for example in relation to the Sabbath. But the scribes and Pharisees did not understand him. What he did was to contradict the scribal misinterpretations of Moses, and so sweep away all traditions of the elders. But he was never disrespectful to the law itself. On the contrary, he said: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’ (Mt. 5:17). In particular, his resolve to lay down his life for us would fulfil all priesthood and sacrifice.
What Jesus taught, then, was that the temple and the law would be superseded, meaning not that they had never been divine gifts in the first place, but that they would find their God-intended fulfilment in him, the Messiah. Jesus was and is himself the replacement of the temple and the fulfilment of the law. Moreover, to affirm that both the temple and the law pointed forward to him and are now fulfilled in him is to magnify their importance, not to denigrate it.
So far as we can tell, Stephen was teaching much the same as Jesus taught. The false witnesses accused him of saying that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the law. That is, they portrayed the work of Christ in negative, destructive terms. But what Stephen was really doing was preaching Christ, positively and constructively, as the One in whom all that the Old Testament foretold and foreshadowed is fulfilled, including the temple and the law.
At this point *all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel* (15). It is surely significant that the Council, gazing at the prisoner in the dock, should see his face shining like an angel’s, for this is exactly what happened to Moses’ face when he came down from Mount Sinai with the law (Ex. 34:29ff). Was it not God’s deliberate purpose to give the same radiant face to Stephen when he was accused of opposing the law as he had given to Moses when he received the law? In this way God was showing that both Moses’ ministry of the law and Stephen’s interpretation of it had his approval. Indeed God’s blessing on Stephen is evident throughout. The grace and power of his ministry (8), his irresistible wisdom (10) and his shining face (13) were all tokens that the favour of God rested upon him.
Tomorrow: Acts 7:1-53. Stephen makes his defence.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.