A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 7:44-50. Stephen’s defence (iv) David and Solomon.
It is in Stephen’s fourth epoch (44-50), which includes the settlement of the promised land and the establishment of the monarchy, that a religious structure is mentioned for the first time, namely *the tabernacle of the testimony which* the people had *with them in the desert* (44). In referring to the tabernacle and the temple, Stephen is derogatory to neither. On the contrary, they were associated with some of the greatest names of Israel history – Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon. Further, the tabernacle was constructed *as God directed Moses and according to the pattern he had seen* (44). Then the *fathers under Joshua brought it with them* into the land they took from the nations they dispossessed (45a). For a long period it *remained in the land* as a focus of national life, even *until the time of David* (45b), who *enjoyed God’s favour* and asked permission to build God a more substantial and permanent *dwelling place* (47). His request was refused, however, and it *was Solomon who built the house for him* (47).
In this story of the transition from tabernacle to temple, Stephen is seen by some as showing a bias towards the former because it was mobile. But he expresses neither a preference for the tabernacle nor a distaste for the temple. For both were constructed in accordance with God’s will. Does this not contradict Stephen’s thesis, however? No, Stephen’s point is not that it was wrong to construct either the tabernacle or the temple, but that they should never have been regarded as in any literal sense God’s home. For *the Most High does not live in houses made by men* (48). Paul was to make the same point to the Athenian philosophers (17:24). And, although this sentiment is not expressed in the Old Testament in so many words, Solomon himself understood it. After the temple had been built he prayed: ‘But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (1 Ki.8:27; cf. 2Ch.6:18) Instead of quoting this, however, Stephen cites Isaiah 66:1-2 where God says: *Heaven is my throne and the earth my footstool*. So *what kind of house or resting place* could be built for him? God is himself the Creator; how can the Maker of everything be confined within man-made structures? (49-50). It is not difficult, then, to grasp Stephen’s thesis.
A single thread runs right through the first part of his defence. It is that the God of Israel is a pilgrim God, who is not restricted to any one place. Key assertions in his speech are that the God of glory appeared to Abraham while he was still in heathen Mesopotamia (2); that God was with Joseph even when he was a slave in Egypt (9); that God came to Moses in the desert of Midian, and thereby constituted the place ‘holy ground’ (30,33); that, although in the wilderness God had been ‘moving from place to place with a tent as [his ] dwelling’ (2 Sam.7:6; cf. 1Ch.17:5), yet ‘the Most High God does not live in houses made by men’ (48). It is evident then from Scripture itself that God’s presence cannot be localized, and that no building can confine him or inhibit his activity. If he has any home on earth, it is with his people that he lives. He has pledged himself by a solemn covenant to be their God. Therefore, according to his covenant promise, wherever they are, there is he also.
Tomorrow: b). The law.
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.