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In Acts 7:44-50 we read:

44 Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.

48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:

49 “‘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? 50 Has not my hand made all these things?’”

What are we to understand when Stephen says the Lord doesn't dwell in houses made by man?

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Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the desert just as the One who spoke to Moses directed him... 47 But Solomon built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands

Stephen went far beyond merely pointing out that God does not live exclusively in the Temple. He made a much more radical claim: that the Jews had treated the Temple as an object of idolatry. To his listeners, he seemed to be drawing a parallel between the creation of the Golden Calf and the building of the Temple:

So they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifice to the idol, and reveled in the works of their hands... Solomon built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.

Prof. Gary Gilbert of Claremont McKenna College comments in The Jewish Annotated New Testament that Stephen implied that "building the temple was contrary to God's wishes." This may be an overstatement, but it is easy to understand how Stephen's listeners took it as a blasphemous denunciation of the Temple itself.

So in Stephen's discourse, God did not dwell in the Temple, and perhaps never did. The human-built 'house of God' had become a kind of idol which God's people placed above true worship. Whether Stephen actually meant to cast aspersion on the Temple itself, or only upon the people who worshiped there, is a matter of debate. However, he clearly meant to imply a consistent pattern in his people's history of placing Temple ritual above responding to the prophets, the greatest of whom, in his view, was Jesus.

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  • So, temple rituals replaced gospel worship, almost becoming a more important God - and that’s what Stephen had a problem with. Apr 4 at 14:23
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Stephen is not denigrating the temple or the tabernacle which preceded it - he is 1) contrasting the God of Israel with the gods of Greece & Rome, and 2) teaching the role of Jesus Christ.

Contrasting the God of Israel with the gods of Greece & Rome

In Acts 7:49-50 Stephen is quoting Isaiah 66. Stephen, Isaiah, and their audiences lived in a world in which polytheistic religions believed that their temples/places of worship provided shelter & nourishment to their deities. Ancient Israel recognized that the lambs, turtle doves, and other offerings made during the Levitical ordinances were not providing life-sustaining nourishment to God (whereas some pagan religions actually believed their gods were dependent upon the meat & grain they left in their temples).

Isaiah drives this point home to a Kingdom of Judah surrounded by--and sometimes succumbing to--polytheism. Stephen quotes Isaiah and emphasizes the point to Jews surrounded by Hellenistic influence. The God of Israel is not subject to the human weaknesses so prevalent among the deities of pagan myth.

Stephen saw that those who rejected Jesus in his day misunderstood God as much as those of ancient Judah who worshipped Moloch. The temple wasn't built for God's benefit, but for man's.

Teaching the Role of Jesus Christ

The Christian theme Stephen is building at great length in his Acts 7 sermon is that the work of Jesus--the long-awaited Messiah--has superseded the Levitical ordinances.

  • Stephen shows that Moses was a type or symbol teaching them about Christ (e.g. vss. 22, 25, 27, 36-38)
  • Stephen shows that their temple ordinances were symbols teaching them about Christ
  • Stephen shows that their prophets taught of Christ
  • Stephen shows that the religious elite of his time entirely missed the point, as had those of many prior generations

In summary, Stephen is calling their error for "Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof". They are engaged in rote repetition of ordinances but have rejected the very Messiah those ordinances were designed to teach them about.

Conclusion

Stephen is not criticizing the temple, he is teaching that Jesus whom they rejected, not the Levitical temple ordinances they accepted, is their Savior.

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This is what Steven referred to in Solomon's dedication of the temple:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27, ESV)

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“What are we to understand when Stephen says the Lord doesn't dwell in houses made by man?” Regarding the interpretation of Acts 7:48, I agree with Matthew Henry’s commentary:

It was no dishonour, but an honour to God, that the tabernacle gave way to the temple; so it is now, that the earthly temple gives way to the spiritual one; and so it will be when, at last, the spiritual shall give way to the eternal one. The whole world is God's temple, in which he is every where present, and fills it with his glory; what occasion has he then for a temple to manifest himself in? And these things show his eternal power and Godhead. But as heaven is his throne, and the earth his footstool, so none of our services can profit Him who made all things. Next to the human nature of Christ, the broken and spiritual heart is his most valued temple. – Matthew Henry’s commentary on Acts 7:42-50

According to the above commentary, there are two aspects to this temple not made by human hands. One is the “human nature of Christ” and the other is the “broken and spiritual heart” of man. For a more detailed treatment of “the more perfect tabernacle” being the human nature of our Lord, here is Ellicott’s commentary on Heb 9:11 :

Here we have in all probability an extension of the same thought, “the more perfect Tabernacle” being the human nature of our Lord. We think at once of a number of passages presenting the same idea: “The Word was made flesh and made His tabernacle among us” (John 1:14); “He spake of the temple of His body (John 2:19); “The Father that dwelleth in Me” (John 14:10); “In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). As in Him God gave to the world the first true revelation of Himself (Hebrews 1:2), God’s dwelling-place amongst His people was a type of the Incarnate Word. – Ellicott’s commentary on Heb 9:11

As Christ is the perfect tabernacle, men are called to be God’s temple on earth. Consider the following discussion from Jamieson-Fausset-Brown’s commentary on 1 Cor 6:19 :

As in 1 Co 3:17, he represented the whole company of believers (souls and bodies), that is, the Church, as "the temple of God," the Spirit; so here, the body of each individual of the Church is viewed as the ideal "temple of the Holy Ghost." So Jo 17:23, which proves that not only the Church, but also each member of it, is "the temple of the Holy Ghost." – Jamieson-Fausset-Brown’s commentary on 1 Cor 6:19.

In context (Acts 7), Stephen defends himself by relating the history of the Jewish people. In the process, he shows how the narrative and physical elements in their story are incomplete in themselves and are but types or representations of spiritual and heavenly realities:

  • the promise of inheritance to Abraham that was as yet to be given - “And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on” (v5)
  • the person of Moses who was sent to deliver Israel, but Moses himself spoke of another - “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear” (v37)
  • the tabernacle that was made according to the pattern (v44) of an as yet unrevealed reality and the temple made with human hands - “the
    Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands” (v48)

While it is implied that the above are fulfilled in and through Christ (cf Heb 8:5, Col 2:17, Heb 9:11, Heb 10:1), Stephen does not explicitly state what it is they represent. However, I believe the witness of Stephen’s life, a life that was lived in imitation of Christ and at moments filled with the Holy Spirit, and the vision at his death, a vision that offers a glimpse of the eternal temple in heaven, they constitute a testimony greater and more powerful than that of any words.

But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” – Acts 7:55-56

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The "house" that Solomon built for God was the temple. Stephen just means that God doesn't truly live in the temple, as though his domestic life were that small. The whole world, the whole universe and all the heavens are God's domain.

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