By Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry Jr
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 (JVG 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.’” 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” (Richard Horsley).
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 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” (Lloyd Gaston).
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). “The point of the speech [of Stephen] is plainly directed against the over-estimation of the temple in Jerusalem.” 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” (Barnabas 16). The God-ordained cult, under the control of those crying “we have no king but Caesar,” served as an indirect meaons of emperor worship which John is exposing.
Douglas Hare 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). 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).
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 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” (Alan Johnson). As Scharlemann 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.”