Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 gives the impression that the temple was not a very good idea. On trial before the Jewish leaders, Stephen accuses them of being no better then their ancestors who in the desert abandoned Moses and offered sacrifices “in honor of what their hands had made.” His criticism implies a connection between the golden calf and the temple as he argues the Most High does not live in “houses made by men.” What are we to make of this criticism? Should the temple have been built or was it from the beginning a form of idolatry?
In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann argues the temple system became idolatrous under what he calls the “royal consciousness” of Solomon’s reign…consciousness” characterized by religious syncretism, affluence, and oppressive military power. In this context, the temple represents an attempt to domesticate God, to make him into a national deity whose primary purpose is to establish and protect the prosperity of the nation. Stephen’s speech prophetically critiques this perspective by promoting the tabernacle as the appropriate dwelling place for the Lord.
Stephen’s speech supports one of the primary themes of Acts; namely, the expansion of the church from Jerusalem to “Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). A tabernacle is mobile and so was the perfect symbol for such an outward movement. The stationary temple inevitably leads to an inward turn: a religious system focused on the land and national identity, complete with barriers defining who’s in and out. The tabernacle obliterates barriers, destroys simplistic definitions, and refuses to allow for legalistic designations of inclusion and exclusion, declaring instead the freedom of God (Exodus 33:19).
This tension between the temple and the tabernacle reminds me of a recent visit to my grandparents. Both are in their upper eighties and live at home with an uncle who helps care for them. My grandfather is a large, ornery Scandinavian who witnessed firsthand the horrors of the great World War and spent much of his life engineering trains in the upper Midwest. He is a former alcoholic who dried up with the help of A.A. He smoked cigars and cigarettes most of his life until one day he decided to quit, throwing his last pack of cigarettes out the train window. Grandpa’s language has always been rough, peppered with cursing and vulgarity to the point that my brother and I were instructed never to repeat anything he said. Lately his health has been deteriorating. His eyesight is bad, his knees are giving out, and every now and again he goes to the doctor to have cancer cut out of his skin.
When we go for a visit, the custom is for the women to sit in the kitchen and for the men to go out to the garage. This is not an ordinary garage; it is a sanctuary for ornery men. A restaurant booth, television, refrigerator, coffee pot, and some extra chairs have transformed storage space into a place where retired railroaders, policemen, and pilots once gathered. Lately grandpa makes a point to remind me that most of them are gone. The only ones left are my grandfather and another guy whose health will not allow him to come around anymore. Yet every morning grandpa makes the trek out to the garage to have coffee, listen to some country music, and doodle pictures he usually tries to unload on my son.
On the way home from our last visit, my wife shared with me the topic of conversation in the kitchen. Sunday mornings my uncle takes grandma to worship at the Lutheran church she has attended all of her married life. For a variety of reasons, grandpa stays home. Even when he was healthy, he was never the churchgoing type. Growing up, I would usually only see him in church at funerals and weddings for which he’d arrive early so he could sit in the back. While grandpa may not attend Sunday morning worship services, my wife informed me that the Lutheran pastor comes by the house to give him communion.
I smile as I picture this in my mind. I see this large, stubborn Swede lumbering over to his black padded chair by the kitchen table with the help of two wooden canes. I hear the pastor ask him how he has been, with grandpa responding as he usually does, “It’s rough.” I see him lift his head in the direction of the pastor and hear the words, “The body of Christ broken for you,” as the wafer is placed on my grandfather’s tongue. Again the pastor speaks, “The blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of your sins,” as grandpa drinks from the cup.
I think about Stephen’s speech and ponder the mystery of the Sovereign Lord tabernacling with an 89-year-old retired train engineer in the middle of his kitchen. I am overwhelmed by the symbols of grace and mercy: the mysterious presence of the resurrected Christ in the bread and the wine. I remember the gospel of John and the tabernacle language he uses to speak of the incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This is the heart of the gospel message, the tabernacling of God with his people in the midst of misery and brokenness, working to make all things new.