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The Christadelphian | January 2018

In the magazine this month:

A sample article from this edition:

Living stones (1)

The idea of a lifeless stone symbolising the life-giving work of the Lord Jesus is unusual. In this three-part series we see him as the chief corner stone, the foundation of the living temple.

Just occasionally in the word of God, we read statements which, on the surface, appear to describe something which is impossible – or, at the very least contradictory. Jesus taught that those who lose their lives will find them (Matthew 10:39). Paul said that only when he was weak was he in a position of true strength (2 Corinthians 12:10). Of course, we know that there are no contradictions in God’s inspired word, and so can easily comprehend the vital message that these apparent anomalies are presenting to us. Jesus was showing that if we reject the things that this world offers (“losing our lives”), then everlasting life will be ours, when he comes again. Paul wrote to the ecclesia at Corinth stating that if disciples refuse to trust in their own abilities, becoming “weak”, then the blessings of incorruptibility and everlasting strength will be theirs, by grace.

There are many other examples of these figures of speech: we might term them ‘Biblical oxymorons’ – phrases that describe situations or things which on face value may be impossible yet which are spiritually perfectly true, and of immense importance.

A living stone … lively stones

In 1 Peter 2 the apostle describes the challenges which disciples face, in his day and ours. Like believers in the first century we are called to lay aside all malice and, as a baby desires milk, we should long for the comfort and nourishment which comes from God’s word. In this context, we read these words about the Lord Jesus, and those who seek to follow him:

“To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4,5)

[1]

Peter’s name means ‘rock’. He was also called Cephas by the Master (John 1:42), which has a similar meaning. He received a blessing from Jesus following his declaration that the Lord was the son of the living God, and was told that upon this awesome truth – this ‘rock-like’ statement – the ecclesia would be founded (Matthew 16:17,18). How appropriate then, that this very apostle should speak of Jesus as a “living stone”, and state that we must all be “lively stones”.

On the surface, it is hard to imagine anything less living than a stone! Other inanimate objects exist, but they are often made from other things which were once alive. A book is made of paper, which comes from trees. A lifeless item is produced by taking that which is alive and using it to manufacture something else. The same might be said of many items of clothing. Whether made of cotton, wool or leather, they came from things which were once living. Yet this could never be said of a stone. A stone is dead; it has never lived, and it never will. Yet Jesus is portrayed as a living stone, and we are called to emulate his example.

Stones: their attributes

As we have already noted, stones are lifeless. They are, however, far from useless. Stones are now, as they were in Bible times, used in a whole host of ways:

  • Under the law, in the few cases where a sinner had to be executed (Achan, for example), the prescribed method was almost always by stoning.
  • When the law was given to Moses, ten key commandments could have been recorded in any number of ways: written on a scroll, for example, or on some other material, such as leather. Yet it was upon two tables of stone that the servant of God was given these laws.
  • David took five smooth stones into his conflict with Goliath. The armour of Saul (and, possibly, his weapons?) were rejected by the courageous young shepherd who took only the things he had “proved” (1 Samuel 17:39,40). Just one stone was sufficient for the faithful servant of Yahweh to destroy the enemy champion who had defied the armies of the living God. The four, unused stones almost certainly relate to Goliath’s kinsmen, all of whom were slain by David’s family members or mighty men, in due course (2 Samuel 21:15-22).
  • Unsurprisingly stones were often used in Israel (if not in Egypt, see Exodus 5), for building. Houses and temples were built of stone. We will see the significance of this in our future studies, God willing.
  • An altar had to be made of stones which had not been shaped by man (Exodus 20:25, Deuteronomy 27:5,6), surely reminding us of Jesus. When Nebuchadnezzar saw the stone smite the image, it was cut from the side of a mountain “without hands” (Daniel 2:34,45).
  • Time and again we read of Jesus being the corner stone, rejected by the majority of those of his day, yet God’s own choice (Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6,7).

Stones are strong and durable. They can be shaped and polished. They outlast almost all other materials. Over the years a house made of stone will need replacement doors and windows, possibly on a number of occasions, but the rocks from which the building is constructed will remain virtually unchanged. So when we read of Jesus being the chief corner stone of the house, and we the constituent stones, the challenge for us from the word of God is very clear. The strength and durability of the Master is being stressed. Jesus wasn’t swayed by popular thinking. He was steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of his Lord. In Isaiah 50:7 the Messiah is portrayed as having set his face “like a flint”. Following his death and resurrection he was made immortal: “… the same yesterday, and today, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). Though the standards of those in the world around us may change, we are commanded to be unwavering in our service of God. Doctrinally and morally we must never change.

Jacob and a “living stone”

This same symbol – of stones being “alive”, or being treated as though they are – is found right throughout the word of God. Following his departure from his family home, Jacob stopped for the night at Luz. There he witnessed the astonishing vision of angels of God descending to the earth and ascending to heaven again. He also received promises, many of which had been made to his father and grandfather. The next day he renamed the location, Bethel: the house of God (Genesis 28:19). However, the first thing he did when he awoke, apart from declaring his awe at what he had seen, related to the stone he had used for his pillow:

“And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.” (28:18)

Some may consider Jacob an extremely weak man. They present him as one who was swayed by his mother (and then his wives and father-in-law), and who deceived his father and cheated his brother. Well, whatever we may think of Jacob (not forgetting he is listed amongst the faithful in Hebrews 11), incidents like this and the one when he rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well so that Rachel’s flocks could be watered (29:10), hardly describe the actions of a weakling.

Why would a stone be elevated and then anointed? Surely because Jacob knew that one day the promised seed would come. He would be the Messiah, the anointed one. He would be a man of real strength. The true seed, whose day Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all rejoiced to see, would indeed be the “living stone”.

Such was the importance of this symbol that Jacob did the same thing when he parted from Laban for the last time (31:45), and when he returned to Bethel, following the death of his beloved wife, Rachel (Genesis 35:14). Prior to his death, when he blessed his sons, he made reference to the true seed when speaking to Joseph, describing the one who would come as “the shepherd, the stone of Israel” (49:24).

Idols of wood and stone – warning from the law

When the children of Israel were led forth from Egypt, they left behind a land absolutely full of idols. Those who are said to know tell us that the Egyptians worshipped around 2,000 different gods. The Israelites saw the great judgements of the Lord which had been poured out upon these pagan deities in the form of ten awesome plagues (Exodus 12:12). Logically speaking, therefore, we might expect that they would have realised that the gods of Egypt – indeed of all Gentile nations – were nothing. Having seen all that had been done for them in the period leading up to, and during, the exodus, the Israelites would surely worship the mighty one of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob alone. In case the point had been missed, the law given through Moses at Sinai forbad the making of, and bowing down to, idols of any kind. Time and again the same point was made:

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth …” (20:4)

Sadly, we know that Israel broke this very simple law with astonishing regularity. They were already in the habit of worshipping Egyptian idols even before the exodus (see Ezekiel 20:8). This practice continued in the wilderness, when the molten calf was made. Other images were carried through the desert (Acts 7:43). Once they entered the land, after an initial period of faithfulness under Joshua and the next generation (Judges 2:7), God’s people descended into idolatry once more. These actions went on virtually unchecked, until they were carried away captive, Israel into Assyria and Judah into Babylon. There they would be absolutely surrounded by idolatry! And what were many of these idols made of? Wood and … stone:

“And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone.” (Deuteronomy 28:64)

So when the Gentiles made themselves stone idols and bowed before them, these lifeless items were alive in the minds of those who worshipped them. It was as though the stone, which was meant to be a small representation of the pagan deity in question, possessed life: a “living stone”. How tragic that Israel fell into this same trap and followed their Gentile neighbours.

These things are not written so we can feel superior, patting ourselves on the back that we have never bowed down to idols made of wood and stone as the faithless Israelites did. They are “written for our learning” (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11). If we fail to see the dangers of the things of this world which threaten us today, then we are no different from Israel in the wilderness. Though we may not actually bow down before idols, the Apostle Paul identifies covetousness as idolatry in Colossians 3:5. Can any of us honestly say that we do not, at times, covet some of the things of this world?

The nation in the wilderness had a rock which had life-giving properties – the one from which water flowed (Exodus 17:6,7). That rock, in symbol, “was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4). He is our source of strength. Only in him, by God’s grace, are we alive. Only if he is our foundation can we withstand the trials and tribulations of this life. Only in him can we grow, spiritually.

What a challenge this is then for us. As Jesus is a living and life-giving stone, we are called upon to emulate his example. We must possess the strength of a stone, while manifesting the hope of life which is ours to those in the world. As “lively stones” we will show to others the attributes of our Lord and Master, the true “living stone”.

Jonathan Cope

[1] All quotations are from the KJV.

 

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