The Messiah Would Be the Rejected Cornerstone
In Matthew 21, Jesus has just told a parable: the owner of a vineyard sent some servants to collect the produce from the tenants. But the tenants beat and killed the servants. They did likewise with a second group of servants, and finally, when the owner sent his son, they killed him too. The parable is a sad comment on the history of Israel’s leaders (but not all the people!): rejecting the prophets and finally rejecting God’s Son. Jesus then segues into quoting Psalm 118 about a rejected stone.
Perhaps he thought of this psalm because the word in Hebrew for son is ben, while stone is even (rhyming with ben). A play on words leading to an important point!
The psalm is one of the Hallel Psalms (Psalms 113-118) read near the conclusion of the Passover seder. Psalm 118 praises God for His deliverance of Israel and of Israel’s leader, the king. Israel was rejected in the sight of its enemies, as was its king. But Jesus is both the ultimate Israelite and the ultimate leader of Israel. And so he uses the psalm to illustrate that though the leadership of Israel has rejected him, in fact, he is the chief cornerstone of the nation. (Rabbinic literature, in fact, referred to the leaders of Israel as “builders.”) The word “cornerstone” may refer either to the foundation stone or to the keystone holding together an arch. So Jesus is either the foundation or the “stone” holding together the entire structure of Israel; but as he is both, we do not need to decide the exact meaning of the word. And, says the psalm, all this is “marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23), or in other words, an unusual, wondrous, unexpected thing to think about. It reminds us somewhat of Isaiah 53:1, “Who has believed what he has heard from us?” That a rejected and crucified person should turn out to be the Messiah of Israel!
In his telling, Luke 20:18 adds: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” This looks to be a reference to Isaiah 8:13-15: “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense 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.” Not only is Jesus the rejected stone who becomes the most important stone of all, but that rejection will lead to serious consequences. We are reminded of Luke 2:25-35:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s [Messiah].
And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Simeon likewise spoke of the “fall” and well as the “rising” of many in Israel, and the opposition that would happen; the passages we have looked at spell that out more clearly. Interestingly, just as it “is marvelous in our eyes” in the gospel quotation of Psalm 118, Jesus’ parents “marveled” at Simeon’s blessing (using the same Greek word in both cases for “marvel”).
In Acts 4, Peter speaks to a group of leaders: “rulers,” “elders,” “scribes,” “Annas the high priest,” and “Caiaphas and John and Alexander and all who were of the high-priestly family.” Then in verse 11, he refers to Psalm 118, saying, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Finally, 1 Peter 2:4-8 speaks of Jesus as a stone rejected by people, but chosen by God:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through [Messiah Jesus]. For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”
Here Peter cites a related verse, Isaiah 28:16: “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: “Whoever believes will not be in haste.” ‘ ” (This verse is also quoted in Romans 9:33.) He also cites Isaiah 8:14 as Luke did. And finally, he quotes from Psalm 118. All these quotes come in the context of encouraging the readers in their faith. Like Jesus, these believers are also chosen by God, even if they find themselves rejected by others for their faith.