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Sanctuary and Stone

But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honour as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offence and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. (Isaiah 8.13-15).

At first glance, there seems to be a strange linking of images here by Isaiah. He has God becoming first a “sanctuary” and then a “stone of offence”. What, if anything, is the connection?

Well the word Isaiah uses for “sanctuary” is miqdash which means, quite literally, the holy (sanctus) place that was to be found at the far end of the temple. But it was also the place in the temple where, by taking hold of the bronze ‘horns’ which were at the four corners of the altar, you could put yourself beyond the reach of any who would harm you. In 1 Kings 1.50 we read how Adonijah, frightened that Solomon was about to kill him, “arose and went and took hold of the horns of the altar”. So the sanctuary was not just the holy place, it was the place in which you could take refuge. And that seems to have triggered in Isaiah’s mind the thought that is found throughout the Old Testament — namely that, “the LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge … ” (Psalm 18.2). So we have the sequence … sanctuary … place of safety and protection … rock …

But while a rock might offer safety and protection to one person, it might be a danger and an obstacle to another. It might even might cause someone to stumble and fall if he isn’t looking where he is going. That seems to be the train of Isaiah’s thought and it was, of course, famously taken up and echoed over 700 years later in the song we call the Nunc Dimittis. In the temple, Simeon takes the baby Jesus from Mary and tells her: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2.34). There, for the first time in the New Testament, “the LORD of hosts” who is the “sanctuary” and “stone” of Isaiah 8 is identified with Jesus. Following his advent, he will now be the one who determines whether someone ends up “risen” in safety or “fallen” in brokenness.

Speaking of the Jews and their rejection of Jesus, Paul says: “They have stumbled over the stumbling stone” (Romans 9.32). And Peter says the same. With a backward glance at Isaiah 8, he writes that Jesus has become “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence” (1 Peter 2.8) and, in the very next chapter of his letter, Peter again returns to Isaiah 8 and replaces “the LORD of hosts, him you shall honour as holy” with “honour Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Peter 3.15).

Just as Isaiah prophesied, when the Lord of hosts became flesh and walked this earth in the person of Jesus, he became both a sanctuary and a stone. And that is still true today. For every person who, like me, finds in him a safe place, a “rock of ages cleft for me” into which I can run and find security and protection, there are hundreds of others who want nothing to do with him, who would find him an unwelcome hindrance to their lifestyle, a silent reproach that would make them feel uncomfortable and uneasy. People still fall on the stone that is Jesus. And as Jesus himself said (again echoing Isaiah): “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces” (Luke 20.18). The image is of a clay pot that cannot fail to break if it falls on a rock. And it makes the point that, sadly, judgment is inherent in all real rejection of Jesus. Sanctuary in which one finds salvation … or a stone on which one is broken. Jesus will, in the end, be one or the other to everyone who has ever lived and who ever will.

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