What’s In a Pile of Stones?
Build altars in the places where I remind you who I am,
and I will come and bless you there. (Ex 20:24b NLT)
When God called Abraham and created through him a people for himself, idolatry was rampant in the earth. Even Abraham himself worshiped idols prior to his call from the Lord (Josh 24:2). In calling Abraham, God was preparing man for a relationship with the one true God and that relationship was to be a living, personal and incarnational reality like the earth had never known. This was all part of God’s eternal purpose that everything ultimately would come together under the authority of his beloved Son, that everything would be by, through, in, of and for the Lord Jesus Christ.
God had to deal with man’s propensity to create visual images, representations of that which he worshipped. Man attempted to carve or sculpt images which captured the characteristics and essences of the gods he served. God clearly forbade such activity for his people. In the first place, the idols men created were depicting fictious deities which served to deter them from the true and living God. Additionally, the use of idols connoted the finite and restricted character of the false god who could only be present where the idol resided. This of course tended to dissuade man from believing in the omnipresence of God.
Everything God directed Israel to fulfill in their relationship with him was intended to point to the Lord Jesus Christ and his efficacious atoning act through the cross. The whole sacrificial system, the priesthood, ceremonies and feasts, the tabernacle and subsequently the temple all manifestly showed and prophesied something of the coming Messiah and of man’s deliverance from sin and union with God. Additionally, there was an interesting phenomenon we read mostly about in the historical portions of the Old Testament that was at times initiated by man and at other times by the Lord. I am speaking here of the practice of piling up stones as a memorial or remembrance of something God did in the lives of his people.
This practice of setting up a stone monument or piling up stones may seem a little strange to us. However, we probably have our own counterpart of this ancient cultural convention in both a public and personal rendering. Washington, D.C., as well as most cities and towns across this nation, exhibit memorials and remembrances of wars, events and significant people. The presidential and war memorials in Washington are exemplary in this regard. Even in the smallest of communities you find symbols, such as military tanks and artillery or statues of statesmen, commemorating wars and honored persons. On a personal level, how many of us have, over the years upon touring history laden sites such as Gettysburg, Mt. Rushmore, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., bought mementos representing these places, persons and events? This was our way, whether as a nation or as individuals, of establishing a remembering of meaningful events, happenings or encounters.
The first example in the Bible comes in Genesis 28 where Jacob, on his way to his Uncle Laban’s to find a wife, has the stairway to heaven dream wherein the Lord talks with him, renewing the Abrahamic covenant. That this experience for Jacob was highly significant is captured in his fourfold response: God is in this place, this place is venerable, it is the house of God, it is the gateway to heaven. This event for Jacob was so momentous that he sought to honor God and preserve the memory of it for posterity. This was the kind of encounter that compelled one to memorialize for its generationally faith building power.
Approximately 10 years later, God called Jacob out of Shechem to return to Bethel in the land of Canaan and once again renewed the covenant with him. As before, Jacob set up a memorial stone calling the place Bethel— “House of God”—because God had spoken to him there.
When the children of Israel under Joshua’s leadership finally crossed the Jordon into Canaan, God had them pile up stone memorials both in the middle of the river and on the Canaan side. This memorial was specifically intended to perpetuate memory of the providential activity of God among the Hebrews in future generations.
Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “In the future your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’ (Josh 4:21 NLT).
So, what’s in a pile of stones? The short answer, there is a reminder. The pile of stones reminds us of the ever-present reality of God in all situations and circumstances. Jacob said, “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it.” The stones remind us that God is more desirous and prepared to speak to us than we are prepared to hear. Although Jacob vowed at Bethel to make the Lord his God, ten years later as God spoke to him renewing the covenant, his household was still rife with idols. The pile of stones reminds us that all peoples are to discover the life and power of God through what he has done for us.
Obviously, we are not going to literally pile up the stones as we reflect upon God’s gracious involvement in our lives. How then do we effectually memorialize the Lord, giving him honor and thanksgiving while also providing a witness of his greatness for others? I would suggest two things: one is simply a daily discipline we exercise faithfully day by day. The other is a commitment to faithfully make Christ known in all our ways.
The discipline of which I speak is to diligently and consistently journal, to record daily what God is doing and speaking into our lives. In so doing, we honor God and signify the value we place on his sovereign, loving interposition in our lives. We are called to live by every word out of the mouth of God. If God loves us so much so as to condescend to speak words of life to us, we would be less than gracious if we neglected to record those thoughts and directions. Every day as we read the Word, we should do so with the expectation that God wants to speak forming, shaping words into our lives.
When the Apostle John was banished to Patmos, he heard a loud voice behind him that sounded like a trumpet blast. The voice said, “Write down what you see, and send it…”. (Rev 1:11 NLT) John was hearing living words from God, which conveyed to him that God was present with him in that exile, that God wanted to speak to him, and that God wanted others to benefit from his activity in John’s life. I personally rephrase this passage thusly: Receive the revelation, record the revelation, relate the revelation. It is the very nature of biblical revelation that it is covered or hidden for the sole purpose of being discovered. God delights in revealing himself to those who diligently seek him. Not to record the wonderful life altering nuggets of truth he shares with us would be the gravest of spiritual lapses.
Journaling the words and actions of God in one’s life is a great faith builder and a source of hope in times of trial and testing. Being able to reflect back upon previous circumstances wherein God manifested providentially in one’s life enables hope that he will do the same in the future. Periodically reviewing the miraculous interventions of God in one’s life is a tremendous antidote against the poisonous lies of the accuser. It is also a great barrier against discouragement while traversing various trials and tribulations.
Making Christ known in all our ways is not principally trying to verbally testify or relate a unique spiritual experience to others. It is fundamentally taking up our cross, dying to self, and allowing the life of Christ to be formed in us. The greatest witness we can have is others being able to see Christ in us as we walk out both the blessings and the challenges of life day by day. Paul confirmed this thought to the church in Thessalonica when he said: “And you know the way we lived among you was further proof of the truth of our message.” To the Corinthians he said this: “I don’t want anyone to think more highly of me than what they can actually see in my life and my message.” To the Romans, “I dare not boast of anything else. I have brought the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I lived before them.”
For Paul, there should never be any inconsistency between the message one purports and the way one’s life is lived. As powerful as our message might be, Christ in us is the more powerful witness. Allowing Christ to live out and manifest his life in and through us is the fulfilling of his command to the disciples prior to his ascension:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses… (Acts1:7 NIV)
The essence of our witness is to the resurrection of Christ. The greatest manifestation of that witness is for others to see his life in us. This is precisely why the cross most become more than a historical reality; the cross must become a daily principle in our lives.
Piling up the stones, collecting and savoring those unique, providential and miraculous encounters with God give honor and glory to him. It will always serve to bolster our faith and release our hope as well as serve to bring encouragement to others who may be struggling in their walk with God.
As we strip off every weight that hinders and run with endurance the race that God has set before us, may we in every encounter and challenge in life be able to say, “Surely God is in this place.”