The statement of Act 17:24 specifically states:
does not dwell in temples made with hands
To "dwell" (κατοικέω) means (from BDAG):
- to live in a locality for any length of time, live, dwell, reside, settle (down)
- to make something a habitation or dwelling by being there, inhabit
Regarding the second definition, the idea of both habitation and dwelling is that of "to live as a resident."
So the statement is saying God does not live as a resident in temples made by people. This fits many descriptions of God's dwelling (all quotes from NKJV unless otherwise noted):
- Exodus 15:17 indicates God creates His dwelling place
You [LORD, v.16] will bring them in and plant them
In the mountain of Your inheritance,
In the place, O LORD, which You have made
For Your own dwelling [ישׁב],
The sanctuary, O LORD, which Your hands have established.
- Exodus 23:19 is one of many passages that reference "the house [בַּיִת] of the LORD," but the term need not imply a place for living (i.e. dwelling), but simply a reference to a place (see BDB or HALOT lexicons).
- Exodus 29:45-46 only states the LORD's locality in relation to people (and indeed, the tabernacle in v.42 is simply the "meeting" place for God to speak with His people).
will dwell [שׁכן] among the children of Israel and will be their God ... that I may dwell [שׁכן] among them
- Numbers 35:34 indicates a location as in the land given to Israel, but again with respect to the fact the people are inhabiting it and He dwells among them:
Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell [שׁכן]; for I the LORD dwell [שׁכן] among the children of Israel.
- Deuteronomy 12:5 puts the context of God's dwelling more localized to a specific tribe:
But you shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place [שׁכן]; and there you shall go.
- 1 Samuel 4:4 is translated "dwell" at times in reference to the ark of the covenant, but the term ישׁב can simply mean "sits" as well, for again, the tabernacle/ark was the place of meeting:
the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who dwells [ישׁב] between the cherubim
This locates the exact place, on the ark, where God meets, but it can be stated as well from other passages that this represents the heavenly reality of God's living in creation being surrounded by cherubim (Ezekiel 10:1-20)
2 Samuel 7:2 David states the ark of God has a dwelling in the tent, of which he wants to make a house, but God declares(v.5) He has not desired a house, but simply "moved" in a tent, yet even then, He also has been with David wherever he has gone (v.9), so even in David's travels away from the tabernacle while running from Saul. Instead, God will (v.12-13):
When your [David's] days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
So the decedent of David who has the eternal throne is the one who builds God's house.
1 Kings 8:12-13, Solomon (David's son) believes (incorrectly) he has fulfilled making that eternal dwelling:
Then Solomon spoke: “The LORD said He would dwell in the dark cloud. I have surely built You an exalted house, And a place for You to dwell in forever.”
Yet even so, Solomon seems to also understand (or immediately come to such an understanding) that this place was never really for God to dwell in, but a place to exalt God's name (v.17, 20), and so he goes on to say (v.27-30, bold added):
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built! 28 Yet regard the prayer of Your servant and his supplication, O LORD my God, and listen to the cry and the prayer which Your servant is praying before You today: 29 that Your eyes may be open toward this temple night and day, toward the place of which You said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that You may hear the prayer which Your servant makes toward this place. 30 And may You hear the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. Hear in heaven Your dwelling place; and when You hear, forgive.
So far, evidence suggests that God never claimed to dwell in a particular structure made by people, but only among His people. That He had a "house" to meet with those people at is evident.
These ideas are confirmed in other passages:
Psalm 68:16 indicates there is a mountain that will be His eternal dwelling (from ESV, which I think does a better job in this passage of conveying the point; also cf. Psalm 132:13-14, Isaiah 8:18, Joel 3:17, 21):
Why do you look with hatred, O many-peaked mountain,
at the mount that God desired for his abode,
yes, where the LORD will dwell forever?
And then in v.18, it mentions some activity that must happen before God can dwell where He desires:
You have ascended on high,
You have led captivity captive;
You have received gifts among men,
Even from the rebellious,
That the LORD God might dwell there.
The New Testament attributes the fulfillment of that work to Christ (Eph 4:8) in the relation of the building of "the body of Christ" (Eph 4:12, i.e. the church, Col 1:24).
Psalm 113:4-6 notes how God's dwelling is higher than the heavens and earth to which He comes low to interact with (cf. Isaiah 33:5):
The LORD is high above all nations, His glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, Who dwells on high, Who humbles Himself to behold The things that are in the heavens and in the earth?
Zechariah 2:10-11 again place a location in relation to people for God's future dwelling:
"Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” says the LORD. 11 “Many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and they shall become My people. And I will dwell in your midst. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you."
So there is much evidence that God does not dwell (i.e. live in) in human made structures.
Key Set of Passages
But a key set of passage to understand Acts 17:24 are these:
Isaiah 66:1-2a discusses that God has made where he dwells in creation generally (i.e., heaven and earth)
Thus says the LORD:
“Heaven is My throne,
And earth is My footstool.
Where is the house that you will build Me?
And where is the place of My rest?
For all those things My hand has made,
And all those things exist,”
Says the LORD.
This passage from Isaiah is directly noted in v.49-50 of the discussion of God's dwelling place in Acts 7, but notice the words of Stephen in his sermon, which is the lead in to the Isaiah quote, so Acts 7:48 (emphasis added):
the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says:
Recall that Paul (then Saul) was present to hear that sermon (v.58). So Paul's reference in Acts 17:24 is either:
- Borrowing from Stephen's "summary" statement about Isaiah, or
- Stemming from a common understanding of the Jewish people that both Stephen and Paul are drawing from.
Paul expands on the dwelling of God, in relation to people (as some OT passages noted) and the work of Christ (Ps 68:18 and Eph 4:8, 12), in many passages—two are Romans 8:9, Eph 2:22. But the more direct statement is in 1 Cor 3:16
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
And again in 2 Cor 6:16 (which seems to be a compilation from various verses: Exo 29:45; Lev 26:12; Jer 31:33; 32:38; Ezek 37:26, 27; Zech 8:8):
And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.”
Paul was not the only one to speak of this dwelling of God, for John references God's dwelling among people in Revelation 7:15, but specifically in 21:2-3 God is dwelling with them...
Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold,the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people.
... but with no temple built by men's hands present (v.22):
But I saw no temple in it [New Jerusalem], for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
(And for what it is worth, I believe the New Jerusalem itself, with its three equal dimensions in 21:16, is a pyramid mountain that is Zion, fulfilling the OT prophecies of the mountain God has chosen to dwell in.)
So Paul is not contradicting what is revealed elsewhere in Scripture. God does not live in structures made by the hands of humanity, but rather dwells both above creation, but also in/among humanity as part of creation, all created by His own hands.