At this point, Stephen brings in the first of his direct quotations. It is from Amos. If you are reading the New International Version and look at the last line of the indented quotation, you will see that there is a little letter stuck into verse 43, which is a reference to the footnote at the bottom of the page, giving the reference as Amos 5:25-27. The letter comes after the word “exile” and before the words “beyond Babylon.” There is a very good reason for that. It is because Amos did not say “beyond Babylon” but rather “beyond Damascus.” Amos wrote “beyond Damascus” because he was a prophet to the people of the northern kingdom, and he was prophesying their exile. They were taken beyond Damascus by the Syrians. But Stephen, who quotes the text, alters it, because he is not talking to the people of the northern kingdom but to the leaders of Israel in the south. It is their history he has in mind. And when they were carried away into captivity, it was not by the Syrians who took the people of the northernmost Jewish state into exile beyond Damascus—a scattering that happened in 721 B.C.—but rather by the Babylonians who took them “beyond Babylon” in 586 B.C. As we would say, that is “where the rubber really met the road” for the Sanhedrin.
Stephen was telling them, “The rebellious attitude of Joseph’s brothers and the people who came out of Egypt has been characteristic of you Jewish people throughout your history. You, the Sanhedrin, are part of that history. You are descendants of those who returned to Canaan from Babylon, and the spirit that took your ancestors to Babylon is still in you.
They had told Stephen, “You have been blaspheming against the law of Moses. We are going to condemn you for that.”
Stephen tells them, “You have been breaking the law of Moses all your lives, and because you have been rejecting Moses you have also been rejecting the truth about Jesus.”
Another section of the speech is found in verses 44-50. Up to this point, Stephen has been talking about individuals: Abraham, Joseph and Moses. Now he turns from individuals to deal with the “tabernacle of Testimony.” The tabernacle was the portable temple the Jews carried with them during their desert wanderings. It came with them into the Promised Land and was retained in part up to and including the time of King David. It was only during the reign of Solomon that a permanent temple was built. Stephen contrasts the wilderness tabernacle with the later, magnificent temple that was built by Solomon, rebuilt after the return from exile and then again in an even more marvelous fashion by King Herod.
The temple of Herod was the glory of Jerusalem at this time. Much of it was covered with gold. So as a person drew near Jerusalem, he saw it shining against the skyline. The temple had never been as glorious as it was in that day, and the priests, like priests who serve in cathedrals everywhere, loved the temple and could not see beyond it.
Stephen compares the wilderness tabernacle, which was not glorious, with this great temple of Herod. The tabernacle was not spectacular from a human point of view, but God could be found there.
I think Stephen is saying that the day of the temple was passing. It had been built by Solomon. It had been a blessing. That was all very good. But it was passing away now simply because the Lord Jesus Christ had come. He was the real temple. Besides, those who believe on him themselves become temples of the Holy Spirit as the living God came to dwell in them.