Question: Did the martyr Stephen teach that physical temples were no longer required for Christians?

Table of Contents

Question: Did the martyr Stephen teach that physical temples were no longer required for Christians?

This question becomes straightforward to answer when we understand the context of Stephen's exchange with those who soon martyr him

Some wonder if Stephen's martyrdom in Acts 7: teaches that physical temples were no longer required.

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.

Christians continued to honor, revere, and worship at the Jerusalem temple. Stephen's argument is a defense against the charges of idolatry and blasphemy. He insists simply that God can be worshiped outside as well as inside the temple, and decries Jewish practices of his day that have made the temple a site of idolatrous worship and an idolatrous focus in and of itself.[1]

This question becomes straightforward to answer when we understand the context of Stephen's exchange with those who soon martyr him.

The issue in Acts 7 is that Stephen has been accused of crimes—two crimes (detailed in Acts 6:13):

And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law:

Stephen's first argument

What we read in Acts 7 is Stephen's defense. This part of the speech is broken up into four sections.

  1. The first is 7:2-8 which deals with the period of Abraham and the Patriarchs;
  2. The second is Joseph's and Israel's slavery in Egypt in 7:9-19;
  3. The third is Moses and the Israelite Exodus and their subsequent wandering in the desert in 7:20-44; and
  4. Finally, we get David and Solomon and the construction of the temple in 7:45-50.

The first theme that comes through in the discussion in 7:45-50 is that God is transcendent. God is with Abraham:

[Section 1 of the talk] "The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran." (Acts 7:2)

God was with Joseph in Egypt:

[Second 2] "And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him."

And again with Moses in Midian:

[Section 3] "When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight: and as he drew near to behold it, the voice of the Lord came unto him," (Acts 7:30-33) (there is also that tabernacle in the wilderness in 7:44).

So, when we get to the section on David (i.e., section 4, where the verses of concern are), we already expect to be dealing with the presence of God. But rather than pointing out God's presence in the temple, instead, Stephen points out God's presence among the people.

This echoes a vital issue for Latter-day Saints, because the Church's restoration began not with God in the temple, but with God appearing to Joseph in a grove of trees. And while God eventually appears in the temple, we have all of these visitations that happen elsewhere as well. So we, like ancient Israel, have this shared notion of a transcendence of God. He isn't restricted to the Temple.

Stephen's second argument

The other main argument that Stephen makes is about how the Israelites were not obedient to Moses. We need not detail this theme much, but we can see some examples:

"or he [Moses]supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not. ... But he that did his neighbour wrong thrust him away, saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?" (Acts 7:25,27)

If the first argument's discussion on the presence of God is aimed at the charge of blasphemy against the temple, then these types of verses are aimed at the charge of blasphemy against the Law (meaing the Law of Moses).

Further, Stephen goes on, in verse 41, he points out the idolatry of Israel with the incident of the Golden Calf during the Exodus. And this comes back in 7:48-50 to a charge of idolatry by the Israelites in the temple. What often gets missed here in these verses is that Stephen is quoting scripture. In Acts 7:48 he notes: "thus saith the prophet," and the prophet he is quoting is Isaiah 66:1-2:

Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.

And what isn't quoted, but is implied here is also 66:3-4:

He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine’s blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations. I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: but they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not.

What these verse refer to is that God doesn't dwell in the temple because that temple is no longer a house of prayer—it has become a place of idolatry. The temple authorities may claim to worship God, but in reality (argues Stephen) they are worshipping the works of their hands.

In other words, Stephen is returning the charges towards him back onto his tormentors (and of course they kill him for it).

This isn't a rejection of the temple (after all, it was David—as Stephen claims explicitly—who sought to find a house for God, and received permission from God to build it). In Acts 7:7 this is predicted to Abraham—a promise that his descendants would serve God in this place (referring to the future temple). Rather than a rejection of the temple, it is a rejection of the Jewish control of the temple and the views that they held about it.

Other evidence

In Acts 2:46 we see the followers of Jesus every day at the temple. "And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart," We see this also in 5:42—although in chapters 3-5 we see the Jews beginning to harass and persecute the followers of Jesus at the temple, attempting to keep the Christians out. This leads to the trial of Stephen in Chapters 6 and 7. Seen in this context, it isn't the temple that is bad. But what Stephen is pointing out is the hypocrisy in limiting the worship of God to the temple, and subsequently making the temple worship into a form of idolatry.

Within LDS belief, there isn't an attempt to limit or place God only in the Temple. Rather, we look to do both - to place God among the people—among the members, and to give us a sacred place where we can serve God and worship. In this case, context helps us understand a great deal about what is being said, and taking a couple of verses from that context makes a good polemical argument—but one that creates these funny contradictions with the Old Testament, and the other behavior of the early Christians, who clearly cherished the temple.


Notes

  1. For a non-LDS scholar that develops substantially the same argument, see Jocelyn McWhirter, Rejected Prophets: Jesus and His Witnesses in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2013), 104ff.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims