Both Jesus and Stephen were attacked by religious leaders for threatening to destroy the temple just as some are attacked for trying to destroy the church! Both Jesus and Stephen defended themselves with the same argument, an argument that can help us sort through some of the difficult questions surrounding our attitudes toward church.
Jesus declared that the temple was made with human hands, and this would be destroyed. But, in three days, he would build another temple not made with hands.
Similarly, Stephen argued to the point of death that “. . . the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. He quoted then the prophet Isaiah speaking the word of the Lord:
Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things? (66:1)
Both Jesus and Stephen make a big distinction between those things made with human hands and the things God makes with his own hands. The Jews were already familiar with the context for these phrases—which was why they tore their clothes and gnashed their teeth! Look at these OT passages and you will see easily what the Jews had for centuries described as made with human hands:
Deuteronomy 4:28 : “There you will serve gods made by human hands, gods of wood and stone, gods that cannot see or hear, eat or smell.”
2 King 19:18: “They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands.”
Psalm 115:4: “But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.”
Idols—false gods–were made by human hands, so when both Jesus and Stephen used these very words about the holy temple, the Jewish religious leaders were horrified!
While he was holding the coat of those throwing stones, Saul probably didn’t understand why Stephen would use those blasphemous words, but later as Paul, he would make the same argument in Athens.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.. . .
The church of Christ, the one Jesus declared He would build, is not made with human hands! The prophet Daniel was among the first to know this. Look at his interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar:
“Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. 32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.
44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. (Chapter 2)
The kingdom not made with human hands is big and powerful and eternal and everywhere! The Jews thought the temple represented this eternal kingdom, but they were very wrong. That temple would be broken down stone by stone as Jesus said.
In contrast, the temple Jesus promised to build was “his body” (John 2:21). Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17
Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 17 God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
And this is the only temple where God dwells, one not made with human hands; rather, in “you together” (translating a plural pronoun). And “you together” are his body, the church, his temple that he is building with his own hands—and this is where God is present!
Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:21).
We can judge better what is from God by looking at who made it. If people are the creators, originators, or founders, then we should be clear that whatever it is, it is not the equivalent of that which is made by the hand of God.
Now, don’t knee-jerk and jump to a very false conclusion. Not everything man-made is evil per se. The temple in Jerusalem was not evil per se. Jesus worshipped there, taught there, healed there, and prayed there. The early Christians did the same.
The problem was that at least these religious leaders had turned the temple into an idol! They owned it, they were proud of their workmanship, they worshipped the temple and defended it to the point of putting the Son of God to death for reminding them that God’s kingdom was not made with human hands.
Some Christians own their church! Some are totally proud of their workmanship! They worship their worship. They heroically defend their brand—to the point of putting those to death who would remind them that God’s kingdom is not made with human hands and that God does not dwell in churches made with human hands.
Stephen died for reminding the Jews that even the ground around a burning bush could be as holy as the temple. God could not be contained in Jerusalem. Stephen’s God was bigger than theirs. Theirs was so small, he was contained in a building of brick and stone—just like an idol.
We dare not believe that we can contain God in our buildings or behind our signs or within any traditions or fellowships that we might have created ourselves.
An even greater challenge is to step out of buildings that are made with our human hands and be willing to take off our shoes because God is there, and we are on his holy ground.