Christ the Cornerstone

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 118:22-23
Mark 12:1-12

Drawing upon the imagery of the 118th Psalm, Jesus Christ claims to be the cornerstone of life for those who trust him. But for those who reject him, it spells disaster and ruin.

According to the Gospel record, two things brought the hatred and fear of Jesus’ enemies to a boiling point and made them finally decide it was time to get rid of Jesus for good. The first was Jesus’ final miracle when he raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. The news of this astonishing act swept through the city of Jerusalem and its environs like a desert brush fire, causing a near panic among the members of the Jewish ruling council. “What are we to do,” they asked themselves, “for this man performs many signs? If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:47-48).

The solution was proposed by Caiaphas, the chief priest, who observed that it was better for one man to die than for everyone to be jeopardized—political expediency. “So from that day on,” the Gospel of John says, “they made plans to put him to death” (v. 53). Jesus’ judicial murder was motivated in the first place by the fear his popularity triggered in the elite members of society—fear that he would upset the social order and cost them their privileged positions. That’s just about the commonest motive there is for getting rid of anyone who challenges the system.

But something else happened that made the rulers in Jerusalem determine to kill Jesus without further delay, something, in fact, that turned their cold calculation into white-hot anger. It was simply a story that Jesus told shortly after raising Lazarus from the dead. The first three Gospels all tell how Jesus rode into the holy city triumphantly on Palm Sunday, and then the next day cleared out all the money changers and peddlers who had turned the Temple into what he called “a den of robbers”—the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law—in other words, the power structure of the city, all were offended by this act. These groups represented the whole of the elite of Jerusalem society, comprising both Sadducees and Pharisees, two normally antagonistic parties who had grouped together in an informal alliance to deal with the threat that Jesus posed.

So when Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem again on Tuesday of Holy Week and went once more into the Temple courts, the leaders of the Sadducees and Pharisees were waiting for him. They confronted Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Mark 11:28). In other words, what right did Jesus have to walk around the Temple like he owned the place? But of course, that is exactly what he did—he owned the place! After all, it was his Father’s house.

A History of Israel

To answer his enemies’ challenge Jesus tells them a parable with a very sharp point. It was all about the owner of a vineyard who let it out to a group of tenant farmers (Mark 12:1-12). The owner went away to live in another country, and sent his servants periodically to collect the rent that was due to him. But the tenants abused and rejected those servants, refusing their demands, until finally the owner tried sending his own son to the vineyard in hopes that he would receive more respect. But the tenants killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.

Now comes the point of the story. Jesus asks a rhetorical question, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” And he answers, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (v. 9). And then Jesus quotes the 118th Psalm to these members of the establishment, men who are in the process of acting out in real life the story that he’s just told them in the parable. “Have you not read this Scripture,” Jesus asks:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone. (Psalm 118:22)

When Jesus finished speaking his audience knew exactly what he was getting at. They understood his story perfectly. “They were seeking to arrest him,” the Gospel writer states, “for they perceived that he had told the parable against them” (v. 12).

But do we understand as clearly what Jesus meant? Are we as quick as his enemies to get his point? While Jesus’ parables were sometimes obscure to his audience, in this case his meaning was transparent and instantly grasped. Everybody recognized it because the story he told was based on a very familiar Old Testament passage, the 5th chapter of Isaiah, which describes Israel as God’s vineyard. So the people understood who was who. The vineyard was Israel, the people themselves; the tenants were the leaders, especially those priests and scribes and Pharisees; the servants sent by the owner were the Old Testament prophets who spoke God’s word to the people. And, of course, the son who came in the end to the vineyard was Jesus himself.

The story Jesus tells is really the story of the Bible; it is a history of Israel in parabolic form. As such, it is a history of persistent mercy met by persistent rejection. God sent messenger after messenger to his people, all of them asking for the return that was due to him by right, namely, the fruit of repentance, of love, of gratitude and obedience. But the message was spurned and the messengers shamefully treated. How could the Lord continue to send prophet after prophet, and in the end his only Son? Doesn’t he know what’s going to happen? Yet still he calls out with his word of grace. Mercy, said the great Bishop Ryle, is God’s darling attribute.

But mercy, broad and deep as it is, is not forever. Persistent rejection eventually meets with hard judgment (v. 9). That’s the message of Jesus. Eventually the time to respond runs out and the day of salvation draws to a close, and those who have rejected the Son meet with a terrible doom. If the people reject their Messiah, Jesus warns, God will destroy their nation and give his kingdom to others. The people of God would henceforth be the church, the body of those, both Jews and gentiles, who believe in Christ Jesus. For Israel’s chief priests and rulers and teachers of the law the day of reckoning was close at hand.

Stumbling Block or Capstone?

Jesus’ listeners were so caught up in the story he told that day in the Temple courtyard that they put themselves right into the middle of it. They had ceased to be merely an audience; they had themselves been caught up as actors in the story. And something like that needs to happen to each of us as well. We must read this parable not just as a metaphor about first-century Israel, but as a confrontation with our own destiny. Put simply, the message is this: your eternal fate will be determined by your attitude toward Jesus Christ. And the point is driven home by that brief verse from Psalm 118. It’s verse 22, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone [or the capstone].”

The capstone of an arch is the central stone that holds all the others together; remove that one stone and the whole structure collapses. The cornerstone of the building is the key to the whole foundation; the entire structure is based upon it. But a rejected stone becomes a stumbling block, a stone that causes you to trip and fall—or that falls on you. Jesus closed his parable of the tenants in the vineyard with these words of warning: “And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Matthew 21:44).

So the very same stone is either the crucial element in one’s life or the cause of untold, infinite disaster, and it all depends on whether that stone is accepted or rejected. Jesus Christ is both. He is the cornerstone or he is the stumbling block. The 118th psalm is talking about him and the decisive role he plays in every single person’s life. The New Testament makes this fact perfectly clear. Speaking in Jerusalem shortly after the crucifixion Peter, who had quickly emerged as the leader of the rapidly growing Christian movement, declared to the very council that had condemned Jesus to death, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11). Years later he amplified that message in his first epistle.

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 Jesus Christ. 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, Peter writes, is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone”

1 Peter 2:4-7

It all comes down to what has been called the “scandal of particularity.” Is salvation really through Christ alone? Must everyone accept the Lord Jesus in order to be saved? Why should that be? Why just him, why only one way? Why can’t you find God in your way, and I in mine? Why this insistence on the cross, and the blood, and Christian doctrine, and personal trust in Christ and all the rest?

Most people, you know, who are interested in religion want something gentle and aesthetically pleasing—a sort of humanitarianism with an easy-going, all-accepting “Higher Power.” But biblical Christianity offers a crucified Christ and a hard choice: make him the cornerstone of your life, or he will be a stumbling block to you. Build your life on Christ, or his judgment will crush you. That’s not scare tactics. It’s just plain reality. Jesus Christ is either the keystone or he’s a stumbling block in every last human life. Which is he for you?