Too often, we fall into the trap of reading the Old Testament like a first-century Jew. I’ve even had seminary professors promote the idea as the proper method of understanding it. However, what we often forget is that the Old Testament is not the end of the story, that there is more of God’s Word to help us understand it, and that reading the OT like the average first-century Jew might just lead us to reject the Messiah. Is there a better way to read it?
In Acts 7, Stephen defended himself against the Jews and in the process teaches us about the true meaning of the Old Testament. Some Jews out of jealousy for the miracles he was performing and the wisdom with which he explained the Scriptures had accused him of speaking against the holy place, the law, and Moses. His defense has a great deal to teach us about how we should read the Old Testament and understand these fundamental ideas.
Stephen answered the accusation of having spoken against the holy place in two ways – speaking of the land of Israel and of the temple. In defending his theology of the land, he explained how God had met and spoken with the patriarchs outside of the Promised Land and the God was not confined to a certain country. His treatment of the temple is even more illuminating in helping us to read the Old Testament better.
The Jews of Jesus’ day held the temple in extremely high esteem. They were beside themselves when they thought that Jesus or anybody else said something against it, as if saying something against the temple were blasphemy. But the question isn’t “How did Jews view the temple” but rather “How should we view the temple?”
In order to view the temple rightly, we have to understand that God never asked for it to be built. God had specifically told Moses and the Israelites to build the tabernacle (or tent), but the temple doesn’t come on the scene until much later in the time of David. David loved God and didn’t want to see the house of God humiliated by being in a lowly tent while David lived in a nice house, so he asked to build the temple, or a house for God. The importance to biblical interpretation of God’s answer to David can hardly be understated.
The Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. … And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. 2 Samuel 7:11-16
As Stephen explains in Acts 7, while Solomon built the temple, God does not live in houses made by human hands. Solomon and his temple are not the fulfillment of the promise to David. The promise of God building a house, establishing a kingdom, is only fulfilled in Jesus. David’s earthly kingdom was never “established forever.” Instead, God always had in mind his Messiah, the coming one that had been promised to Eve, Abraham, Moses, and Judah. This was not a new idea to Stephen, but was exactly what God had promised in David in Samuel and explained in Isaiah 66:1-2.
We simply cannot understand what God or the writer of Samuel meant in the promise to David apart from the Messiah. The Old Testament leads us through many people and events that at first appear to be the fulfillment of promises about the Messiah. But what we eventually find out is that all of these “partial fulfillments” are really indications that the promise has not yet been fulfilled but is waiting on the Messiah. When we read the story of Solomon building the temple, we might at first think that he is the fulfillment of this promise. But as we continue to read the Old Testament, we find out that God had something bigger and better than Solomon in mind the whole time.
Moses and the Law
They had also accused Stephen of speaking against Moses and the Law. Once again, though, it was the unbelieving Jews who were wrong about both. They were trying to understand Moses apart from the One that Moses wrote about. Stephen explained to them that it was actually the general practice of the physical sons of Abraham to reject Moses and the Law. They rejected him in Egypt, in the wilderness multiple times, and they continually rejected the Law during their time in Israel.
God had promised to bring Israel a prophet like Moses who would know God face to face. God told Israel that they needed to listen to and obey that prophet. But just like they had rejected Moses, the majority of Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah.
The Law is filled with prophecies of the coming Messiah, from Genesis 3 to the end of Deuteronomy where it tells us that even after Joshua (who some might have assumed was the prophet like Moses), there still had not been a prophet like Moses. In order for us to understand the Law and the rest of the Old Testament, we have to be looking forward to Jesus.
They accused Stephen of speaking against the temple and Moses, but Stephen showed them (and Acts shows us) the true meaning of both. The temple was not something to be worshipped, but rather the God who sanctified it. Moses was not the savior, just his forerunner. Neither of these was the end – God had always intended these to point toward Jesus.
If we want to understand the Old Testament, we can try to read it like a first century Jew, or we can read it like Jesus, Paul, and Stephen read it. We need to know that God’s plan was always Jesus – and He told us all about it in the Old Testament.