Two things seem to be at the core of faithfulness in the first century Jewish community when Christianity began: circumcision and the temple. One subtle difference existing in the first century Jewish community was the role of the Jewish temple. This was not a Hebraist or Hellenist issue. The book of Acts verifies both the Hellenist part of the Jewish community and the Hebraist part of the Jewish community defended their bond with the Jewish temple (Acts 6:9-14). Negative attitudes toward the temple are presented in Acts as individual understandings, not as an act of a group resistance. [Consider as examples Stephen’s statement in Acts 7:48 and the accusations against Paul in Acts 21:28.]
The concepts that follow are not given as a rejection of the existence of the Jewish temple as a God accepted and God seeking institution. They are given in regard to first century Jewish attitudes toward the temple, not the temple’s right to existence.
The Origin of the Jewish Temple
The first temple was built by King Solomon after King David gathered the building materials (2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 22:1-5; 1 Kings 6). It was rebuilt centuries later when a remnant of Jews returned to the Jerusalem area after the Babylonian captivity (Ezra 1:3, 4). It was restored a third time by Herod the Great (John 2:20). Herod paid for the renovation and expansion of the temple complex. Some regard this to be a renovation, not a restoration.
The origin of the temple began as a desire of King David. He wanted to make Jerusalem the royal city of Israel. In the process of doing that, he built himself a palace suitable for a royal residence (2 Samuel 7:1, 2). To King David, it seemed inappropriate for him to live in a fine, permanent residence while God’s ark of the covenant sat in a tent (2 Samuel 7:2). Thus, it became David’s intent to build God a magnificent temple.
God’s response to David is curious. (1) “You are not the one to build me a house” (2 Samuel 7:5). (2) “Since Israel began as a nation, I have lived in a tent [a tabernacle]” (2 Samuel 7:6). (3) “I never asked Israel to build me a house” (2 Samuel 7:7).
It is obvious that building God a temple was David’s desire, not God’s instruction or command. Yet, scripture declares God accepted the temple.
What followed was God’s declaration that He would make David a house [a continuing royal dynasty over Israel], not that David would make God a house. God would make David’s son king over Israel, establish David’s descendants as the royal lineage of Israel, and David’s son would build the temple David wished to build (2 Samuel 7:12-16).
After Solomon completed the Jewish temple (1 Kings 6), he dedicated it with a prayer that focused on the purposes of the temple as a place of prayer. Included was Solomon’s request for God to hear and answer gentile prayers when they came to pray at the Jewish temple (1 Kings 8:41-43).
God accepted the temple as the place for His presence and for sacrificial worship (1 Kings 8:10-13; 2 Chronicles 5:11-14; 7:11, 12).
The Jewish Temple and Problems
Significant trouble involving the temple began occurring when King Solomon sealed foreign alliances by marrying the daughters of foreign royal families (I Kings 11:1-8). The end result was this: an offended God took ten of Israel’s twelve tribes from the reign of King Rehoboam, King Solomon’s son (1 Kings 12:16, 17).
Those ten tribes made Jereboam their king (1 Kings 12:20). King Jereboam was afraid that a return to the Jerusalem temple would incite patriotic feelings and result in a return to King Rehoboam’s rule. In that fear, he built idolatrous shrines at Dan and Bethel. The idolatrous shrines were a deliberate substitute for the Jerusalem temple. These shrines made pilgrimages to the Jerusalem temple unnecessary (I Kings 12:25-33). Thus the temple Solomon built played a prominent role in King Jereoboam’s decision to turn the ten tribes toward idolatry.
In time the temple served a detrimental role in the thinking of the tribes that remained loyal to David’s descendants. These Jews placed their faith in the temple’s existence rather than in God. This was their reasoning: “We have God’s temple in Jerusalem. The presence of God’s temple guarantees us that Jerusalem cannot be destroyed. God must protect His temple.” Thus, safety was found in God’s obligation to protect His temple, not in their reverencing and obeying Him! To place their faith in the temple’s existence was a terrible mistake!
Listen to these prophetic statements:
Jeremiah 7:4, 8 “Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ . . . Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail.”
Micah 3:11 “Her leaders pronounce judgment for a bribe, her priests instruct for a price and her prophets divine for money. Yet they lean on the Lord saying, ‘Is not the Lord in our midst? Calamity will not come upon us.’”
The temple existed to allow Israel to honor God, not to serve as an insurance policy!
In the first century, the role of the temple among Jewish people is curiously interesting. More Jews lived outside of Palestine [the diaspora] than in Palestine. Only those who lived in Palestine had near access to the Jerusalem temple. In Palestine the core of devotion to God included temple worship, temple sacrifices [as the only site for sacrificial worship—Deuteronomy 12:1-14], temple prayers [offered three times daily by Jews with immediate access to the temple area], and national feasts. To the diaspora, the synagogue served as the core of devotion—readings, lessons, and prayers—because they did not have near access to the temple. [The temple and the synagogues were not in competition—both existed simultaneously in Jerusalem serving different roles.] However, this fact was true. The diaspora did not have easy access to the temple. Those in and near Jerusalem did.
The First Congregation and the Temple
Remember that the first congregation was a Jewish congregation composed of Jews native to their homeland, relocated Jews, diaspora pilgrims, and proselytes. Remember their view of Jesus as the Christ centered in God keeping a promise to Israel nationally, not God’s universal outreach. Most of the people in the first congregation did not share nor understand God’s universal intent in making Jesus the Christ. In those Christians’ understanding, the nation of Israel was poised to assume its rightful role—a role the nation should have assumed long before.
There is an obvious link/bond between the first Christian congregation and the Jewish temple. The Jewish temple played a key role not only in evangelistic outreach to Jews and proselytes, but also in expressing Christian devotion to the resurrected Christ. Christianity was the ‘fulfillment’ of Judaism. To that first congregation, it was not a separate movement. It was the ultimate reform movement among God’s people, not an outreach to the world. It called the diaspora all over the Mediterranean world to repent and called God fearing gentiles to become proselytes.
The evidences of the link/bond between the first congregation and the temple are numerous. Those who were among the first to be baptized in the conviction that Jesus was the Christ expressed their single-minded devotion by making daily trips to the temple (Acts 2:46). The first recorded act of an apostle after the Jerusalem congregation existed was Peter and John’s trip to the temple at the afternoon hour of prayer (Acts 3:1, 3). They likely were going to pray. The evangelistic opportunity occurred as the result of a miracle and the man’s reaction to the miracle—it was spontaneous, not planned. While the temple courtyard and area around the temple obviously were sites of early Christian evangelistic activity, this was not an all-inclusive, universal outreach. It was a call to the Jewish people to realize what God was doing for the nation of Israel through the Messiah Jesus (Acts 3:19-26, particularly note verses 19 and 26). Remember Peter is, again, speaking to an audience of Jews and proselytes.
Peter and John were arrested by the temple guard [Jews] for their deed and words in Acts 3. They were presented at the Jewish court for trial (Acts 4:1-2, 5-6). After the incident involving Ananias and Sapphira, the apostles were located in the temple area (Acts 5:12). When all the apostles were arrested to be tried in the Jewish court, they were teaching in the temple (Acts 5:25). After their trial, they were daily in the temple area preaching and teaching that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 5:42). One effect of all this teaching and association in the temple area is that many priests obeyed the gospel (Acts 6:7). An accusation against Stephen was that he spoke against “this holy place [the temple] and the law” (Acts 6:13).
The link/bond between the Jerusalem congregation and the temple is obvious in Acts 21:19-26. Paul was in the temple area on this occasion at the request of the Jerusalem elders. Paul was arrested in the temple courtyard after his presence sparked a riot (Acts 21:27-28). The riot almost resulted in Paul’s death. The people became an emotional, frenzied mob when Paul was openly accused of defiling the temple! Note Acts’ writer acknowledged why the people were upset with Paul. It was because they declared (1) Paul opposed the nation of Israel, the law, and ‘this place’, and (2) he defiled the temple by bringing a non-Jew to the wrong area.
Consider the Acknowledgement of the Hebraist and Hellenist Jewish Reality Beginning in Acts 6
You are challenged to focus on what occurred after the Jerusalem congregation’s problem was declared. Seven men of good reputation and filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3) were selected by the congregation (Acts 6:2) to oversee the administration and distribution of the benevolent fund. All seven men had Greek names which may indicate they all were relocated Hellenist Jewish Christians or pilgrim Jewish Christians. This fact is not decisive proof they were Hellenist Jews because some Jews also had Greek names. One, Nicolas from Antioch, was a proselyte. The only other two about whom information was given are Stephen and Phillip.
If Stephen and Philip were among the Greek-speaking Jews Acts called Hellenist, some fascinating happenings come into focus. Stephen was a miracle worker (Acts 6:8) and a gifted speaker who confronted Greek speaking Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Christ (Acts 6:9, 10). He was so effective in his verification of Jesus’ identity as the Christ that those who opposed him could not ‘cope’ with his wisdom or the Holy Spirit in him.
In an effort to diminish Stephen’s effectiveness and influence, these Greek-speaking Jewish opponents induced ‘witnesses’ to accuse Stephen of blaspheming Moses, the law giver, and God. The end result: Stephen was tried before the Jewish Council. False witnesses declared Stephen constantly spoke against the law and the temple (Acts 6:11-14). At least part of the accusation before the Jewish Council was the same accusation made against Jesus before the same Council (see Matthew 26:61 in its full context). It was the accusation of opposition to the temple that guaranteed the death verdict for both men (see also Acts 7:48).
Stephen presented his defense in Acts 7, but his defense merely further antagonized his opponents. He said that (1) God did not dwell in the temple and cited the original temple builder as evidence (Acts 7:48-50; Isaiah 66:1; 1 Kings 8:27); (2) his opponents and the Council were ‘stiff-necked’ people who were uncircumcised in heart (Acts 7:51; see Deuteronomy 10:16) because they resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51); and (3) they were just like their ancestors—prophet persecutors and murderers (Acts 7:52).
The anger of the opponents and Council deepened to emotional resentment. When Stephen affirmed he saw Jesus at God’s right hand, his opponents became instantly violent (Acts 7:54-57). Shortly thereafter Stephen became the first Jewish Christian to die in a devotion to the resurrected Jesus (Acts 7:60). Perhaps a Hellenist Jew was the first Christian martyr.
Philip did the unthinkable. He went to the Samaritans declaring that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 8:5) and performing miracles (Acts 8:6-8). Why should it be so amazing that Philip taught Samaritans? Do you recall John 4:9, Matthew 10:5, or John 8:48? When Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman at the well just outside Sychar, the writer observed,
The Samaritan woman *said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” [For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.] (John 4:9).
The hate and enmity that existed between the Jews and Samaritans cannot be exaggerated! The Samaritans accepted the Pentateuch [the first five Old Testament books] as scripture, but they regarded Mount Gerizim as the site for sacrificial worship. The Jews destroyed the temple that the Samaritans built on Mount Gerizim. A Hellenist Jew took the gospel to and baptized people the Jews despised!
An angel directed Philip to a road that ran through an uninhabited area. On that road Philip met and baptized the eunuch from Ethiopia who had been to Jerusalem to worship (Acts 8:26-27). There are numerous questions about this man for which there are little but speculative answers. Deuteronomy 23:1 suggests a eunuch could not enter the temple courtyards even if he were a proselyte. Some declare from a historical perspective that the surgery that made him a eunuch involved removal of all male organs making it impossible for him to be circumcised, therefore making it impossible for him to be a proselyte. Whatever his physical status, he learned about Jesus Christ from Philip and was baptized. As far as we know, he immediately returned to his country without further instruction. Philip went to Azotus [in earlier times the Philistine city of Ashdod] preaching to all the cities in that region finally settling in the city of Caesarea, a port city which was the administrative capital in Palestine for the Roman government. This entire region had a significant gentile population at this time. A Hellenist Jew declared Jesus to be the Christ in an area with a known gentile population. As was the case with Cornelius in Acts 10, these people had an awareness of Jesus’ ministry and miracles (see Acts 10:36-39).
Increasingly, there was a sense among some Jewish converts that closeness to God was achieved through understanding Jesus Christ, not through praying and sacrificing at the Jewish temple. To many Jewish people, Christian or not, that was an unthinkable idea!
Chapter Three Chapter Five