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The Christadelphian | March 2018

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Living stones (3)

We end this series looking at the work of the Lord Jesus and the great spiritual building currently under construction.

In our first two studies we looked at the use of the phrase “living stones” in scripture. We considered various examples of stones either being treated as though they were alive, or being described as though they were. In Old Testament times we read of stones being set up as a witness to what the Lord had done. We also read of them being “revived”, in the days of David and Nehemiah. As we shall see in this final part of our study, this symbolism also appears in the New Testament.

Stones can be made into Abraham’s children

Prior to the ministry of the Master, in the deserts of Judaea lived a man unlike any other. He wore rough clothing and ate wild food. John, the son of Zacharias the priest, had begun to preach God’s word to the people of Israel. Truly he must have been one of the greatest teachers of all time. He was not simply a powerful orator, but one who made the Bible come alive. Everyone flocked to hear him, common people, harlots, tax collectors, even Roman soldiers. They hung on his every word: they longed for more. Surrounded by the wilderness he was a living, breathing, life-giving, spiritual oasis. This was unlike anything the people had ever heard before. Not only did he speak God’s word with power and love, but they could actually understand him – not like the leaders! Under their guidance many of the people remained ignorant of much of the law and what God required of them (see John 7:49). So great was the respect that the people had for John that, even after his death, the rulers were terrified of saying anything to discredit him, for fear of being stoned by those who loved him (Luke 20:6).

In Luke 3 we read of the astonishing effect that John had on the people of his day. Different groups came out to see him, and many asked him one very simple question: “What shall we do?” (verses 10,12,14). Patiently, forcefully, John explained to each group what was needed. We can imagine that they bowed before him, accepting the instructions of God, determined to try to apply his instructions. But not everyone shared this mindset:

“When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7) [1]

How these words must have hurt the rulers! He dared to imply that they were the serpent’s seed! Well, John had barely started. He demanded that they repent of all their wicked works, that they “bring forth fruit”, manifesting their belief in God.

The leaders, almost certainly publicly shamed in the front of the common people, were incensed. They were Abraham’s seed. They could trace their lineage right back to the fathers of the nation. How dare he say such things to them? John was ready for that argument as well:

“And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” (verse 9)

Why did John use the symbol of stones being made into Abraham’s children? As we saw in our second study, it is possible that John was working at the same place where Israel crossed the river under Joshua. Maybe the “stones” which Joshua had set up (Joshua 4:9) were still visible in John’s day, at Bethabara, the ‘house of crossing’? There is, however, more to it than this. I believe John was quoting Isaiah 5. In this chapter, the Father is portrayed as the owner of a vineyard. The vine which grew there represents the people of Israel, and the vineyard, the land (verse 7). As any owner of a vine expects to see some fruit growing, so in Isaiah’s parable the Lord is portrayed as a man who at harvest time came, but found only wild grapes (verse 4). Earlier in the chapter we read of all that had been done so that the vine of Israel could take root, flourish and be fruitful:

“My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.” (verses 1,2)

A number of these symbols appear in the Master’s later parable of the wicked husbandmen. But notice how, in preparing for Israel to enter the land, God is represented as a man gathering out stones from His vineyard, so the soil was of the very best quality. What, then (or more correctly, who) was gathered out of Canaan that Israel might possess it? There is only one answer: the Gentiles. Yes, the children of Israel had to do their part and drive out the enemy, but with the Father’s blessing, they would succeed.

How appropriate that John should have chosen this symbol. ‘If you don’t serve God’ he said to the leaders, ‘then the Gentiles will be offered the opportunity to do so. They will embrace Israel’s hope.’

In due course, especially after the ascension of the Master to heaven, this is exactly what happened. Gentiles were made “fellowheirs” (Ephesians 3:6), becoming constituent members of Abraham’s seed, through faith. By grace they became living stones.

The stones will cry out …

After three and a half years, the time had come. Jesus was to enter Jerusalem for the final time. Of course, many who followed him did so in the mistaken belief that he had come to oust the Romans, under whose hand they had suffered for so long. Very few knew that he was coming to Jerusalem to die. As he neared the city, a great number of people followed him. They had come from Jericho, termed “the city of palm trees” in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 34:3). It is appropriate that branches of these very trees were cut down and laid in his path, as he rode the (previously unbroken) colt towards David’s city. Others spread their clothes in the way, possibly as an allusion to the actions of Jehu’s men when he was told that he was to be king (2 Kings 9:13).

Unsurprisingly, the multitude began to cry out in joy, singing of all they believed that he, as the Messiah, would do. Sadly, this was too much for the leaders. They had seen his popularity grow and theirs dwindle to such an extent that on one occasion they complained that they were achieving nothing because the entire world was now following this one from Nazareth (John 12:19). Perhaps struggling to make themselves heard above the sound of singing, they called the Master to them. He should rebuke the people, they said. What was being said was wrong; it was blasphemous. The response of Jesus is particularly powerful:

“And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” (Luke 19:40)

Stones “crying out”. What was it that Jesus was saying? Was he indicating that, in years to come, archaeologists would unearth many treasures in the Holy Land, supporting Bible teaching? Possibly so. But surely the primary message from the Master is that, if God’s people do not praise Him and accept His Son, then others – those who previously were “dead” – would be given the opportunity to do so. It is the same message we considered in Isaiah 5, and from the lips of John. If Jews refuse to serve faithfully, then Gentiles will be offered the opportunity. We read this teaching from the Master on other occasions. In interpreting the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, he spoke of the hope of the kingdom being taken from Israel and given to a nation which would bring forth fruits to God (Matthew 21:43).

Immediately after making the statement about stones crying out, the Master beheld the (literal) stones which made up the walls of Jerusalem. Like Jeremiah before him, he wept (Lamentations 2:11; 3:48; Luke 19:41). This is hardly surprising, bearing in mind all that these two men had to endure for the truth. And yet these references show that neither Jeremiah nor Jesus cried because of personal suffering. They wept at the suffering of others. Their tears were shed because of what the people of Jerusalem would have to go through. Jesus cried, considering the destruction of the city in AD 70. In this context, he said that not one stone would be left upon another (Luke 19:44). Gentile stones would come alive in God’s sight, yet the stones of His city would be cast to the ground by a cruel and vicious enemy. Jerusalem would be trodden down of the Gentiles for almost two millennia.

As we consider the natural stones which made up the temple, and the spiritual, “living” stones, which the Master said would cry out for joy, there is a further connection with the work and words of the prophet Jeremiah. Such was the horror which came upon the city and its people in the days leading up to the Babylonian captivity, parts of the wall are portrayed as crying out for pain:

“The LORD hath purposed to destroy the wall of the daughter of Zion: he hath stretched out a line, he hath not withdrawn his hand from destroying: therefore he made the rampart and the wall to lament; they languished together.” (Lamentations 2:8)

What an astonishing contrast to the words of Jesus Christ! In Jeremiah’s day, the stones are described as lamenting – in Jesus’ day he spoke of stones rejoicing at the joy which was theirs. There is, surely, powerful exhortation for us in these things. Do we rejoice at all that has been done for us? Are we known as people who are joyful? Do our neighbours or work colleagues see us as people who “rejoice with joy unspeakable” (1 Peter 1:8) because we know that something better is coming on the earth?

The spiritual house

As we saw in the first part of this study, the Master is the living stone, and we are called to emulate his example (1 Peter 2:4,5). However, this is not simply a promise of what is to come, when we shall be united with him, by grace. This is also a challenge, and a command, for today. In Ephesians 2 we read of the privileged position in which faithful Gentile believers find themselves today. They were, says verse 12:

  1. Aliens from the commonwealth of Israel;
  2. Strangers from the covenants of promise;
  3. Having no hope;
  4. Without God;
  5. In the world.

It is a harrowing picture of alienation and despair. But now this has changed. It could not be more different. Now, through the blood of Jesus Christ, believing Gentiles are made nigh (verse 13). The “middle wall of partition” is broken down (verse 14). The enmity is abolished (verse 15), and they are reconciled to God (verse 16). Now, access to the Father, which was previously barred, is made open, through His faithful Son (verse 18). In this context, the language of stones and buildings is used again:

“Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone …” (verses 19,20)

Believers are “fellowcitizens”, and part of “the household of God”. The picture is of those who were previously outside a particular community or family being welcomed in. We think of people such as Rahab – formerly “without the camp” of Israel, yet allowed to become part of the nation and to enjoy all the spiritual privileges which had been withheld from her. Such people base their beliefs on a firm foundation: the apostles (New Testament), and the prophets (Old Testament).

It is in this context that Jesus is described as the “chief corner stone”. Any “corner stone” is important in a building. A “chief” corner stone is absolutely essential. What are we being shown? That without Christ we are lost. He is the corner – in him Jew and Gentile come together in love and hope:

“In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” (verses 21,22)

Does something in this phrase strike you as unusual? Look at any building project – whether a small extension on the side of a house or a multi-storey tower block. Could it ever be said that such a construction “grows”? It really isn’t the kind of language we would normally use. Anything which “grows” is alive. Paul uses this term showing that, as an ecclesia, we who were once dead are now alive, and must develop in love. Individually and collectively, we are commanded to grow – as living stones we advance in our discipleship, awaiting that time when the Master will be here and the spiritual temple completed.

Solomon’s temple and the ecclesia today

The construction of the temple in Solomon’s day was, very probably, the most unusual building project of all time. Apart from the fact that Jews and Gentiles worked together in harmony, using materials which had been gathered together and financed by David, we know that the stones were shaped away from the temple site:

“And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.” (1 Kings 6:7)

In the same way, we are being prepared now for that great time when we shall be with our Lord and Master, and the house will be made up. But how could such a building project have been completed? It would be illogical, not to say almost impossible, for a stone which had been shaped at the quarry to be transported all the way to Jerusalem, only to find that it was still an inch too long or wide. The temple took seven years to complete (1 Kings 7:38). If all stones were shaped in this way it would have taken far, far longer! So how was this project completed on time?

Firstly, there was almost certainly a ‘pattern’ to which other stones had to comply. They had to be the same shape and size. They had to be the right colour. Jesus Christ is our pattern today. He is the one whose example we seek to follow. And, though we are not meant to be ‘clones’ agreeing with each other on every minuscule aspect of life in the Truth – in terms of doctrine and its practical outworking in our lives, we do have to follow the example of our Lord. We must conform.

Secondly, it would surely have been essential for the temple to be assembled at the quarry. Once the builders were certain that every part was right, it would then be dismantled, with each part marked up in some way, and the stones would be transported to the temple site. There the building would have been re-erected. Even today this pattern is followed in some building projects.

The figures for ecclesial life are surely unmistakeable. As members of the ecclesia today, we are the temple in waiting. We are built on the firm foundation that has been laid down in God’s word. Jesus is our chief corner stone. We grow in faith, looking unto him. We are united together with others, and we all have our parts to play. The ecclesia today, comprising many living stones, waits for that great time when the Master will come and the temple will be completed, when we shall be with him, and like him, by grace.

Jonathan Cope

[1] All quotations are from the KJV.

 

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