The very stone which the builders rejected
has become the head of the corner;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Last fall Charles Colson was in India. As usual, the crowds he spoke to wanted to hear the testimony of this Watergate criminal turned prison evangelist. Here's the way he described his experience in India:
When I was in India last fall I had many opportunities to tell what Christ has done in my life. The thousands of faces in those predominantly Hindu crowds would nod and smile as I shared my experience. Hindus believe all roads lead to God—if Jesus was my guru, that was fine. They all had their gurus, too.
But when I spoke of the reason for my faith, the resurrection of Christ, the nods would stop. People's expressions changed and they listened intently. The fact of the Resurrection demands a choice, one that reduces all other religions to mere philosophies.
(Christianity Today, March 21, 1986, p. 72)
The Shocking, Objective Resurrection
Christianity socks you between the eyes because it is a religion that says: The really marvelous things in life are not the feelings of the heart but the facts of history. There is a world of difference between a subjective religious disposition and an objective resurrection from the dead.
Put yourself in Athens 25 years after the death of Jesus. You are a religious pluralist. You love to discuss religion. You love to hear about the religious experience of people from all over the world. It's fascinating. Sometimes you even learn something to incorporate into your own life to help you get along better.
What If Paul Preached Religious Experience Only?
Then one day comes a man named Paul to the Areopagus and joins in the discussions. You ask him about his religion. Suppose he said,
"I worship Jesus Christ. He was a Jewish teacher and wonder-worker. He lived in Palestine 25 years ago and taught a way of love and truth. His wisdom was unsurpassed. Even in his dying he never gave in to the lower instincts of anger and revenge. His memory is very powerful. His teachings linger on in his followers. His example can have a tremendous influence in your life if you meditate on what he did and said."
Period. That's all.
What would the response have been? Tolerance. Benign interest, perhaps. Nods and smiles of respect. Paul has his guru. The Athenians have their gurus. If it works for you, fine. You have your inner experience. I have mine.
What If Paul Preached the Resurrection as Historical Truth?
But what if he had said (which he did in fact say, in Acts 17:31!),
"The God who made the world and everything in it . . . commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead"?
Well, that is not acceptable in a polite, respectful dialogue about religious experience. Discussions about the relative value of religious experience and declarations about someone's resurrection from the dead are just not in the same category. That's why the Hindus stopped nodding at Charles Colson. That's why the Athenians mocked. That's why Christianity is offensively unique in a pluralistic age. For us everything hangs on a marvelous fact in history, not a marvelous feeling in the heart.
Therefore, in this Easter worship service I want to direct your attention to four marvelous facts in Matthew 21:42. We will approach it like this. We will read a word from Jesus. Then we will read its interpretation by the apostle Peter. Then we will fix our gaze on four marvelous things in Jesus' word.
Jesus' Word in Matthew 21:42
The word of the Lord is found in Matthew 21:42 at the end of the parable of the wicked tenants. The owner of the vineyard had sent servants to get fruit from the tenants. They had beaten some and killed others. Then he sent his son. But him, too, they cast out and killed.
The meaning is that God owns the vineyard of Israel. It is supposed to bear the fruit of worship and obedience. He has sent prophets and wise men to gather this fruit. And finally he sent his Son. But the leaders of Israel rebel. They will give no fruit. And they kill the Son of God.
Then comes our text in verse 42:
Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?"
Peter's Interpretation in Acts 4:8–12
It seems obvious to you, I am sure, what this refers to, but lets go straight to the interpretation of the apostle Peter in Acts 4:8–12. Peter and John had been arrested for causing a stir by healing a man and teaching about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (4:2–3). The next day the Jewish leaders (the very ones who had condemned Jesus some months earlier) asked them by what power they were acting. Peter answers, and his answer is an interpretation of Jesus' word about the rejected stone. Starting at the end of verse 8:
Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. 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.
Notice Peter's interpretation, one part at a time.
- Verse 10: the stone is Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
- Verse 8: the builders are the rulers of the people and elders.
- Verse 10: the rejection of the stone was the crucifixion of Jesus.
- Verse 10: the elevation of the stone to the head of the corner was the resurrection of Jesus.
- Verse 12: the implication of this new position at the head is that there is salvation in no other. This is the same point Paul made at the Areopagus: the resurrection declares that Jesus is the Son of God in power; all must repent from other gods and seek salvation in him alone.
Four Marvelous Facts About Jesus' Word
That is Peter's interpretation of the word of Jesus in Matthew 21:42. Now we will be able on the basis of this interpretation to go back to Jesus' word and fix our gaze on four marvelous facts.
1. Jesus' Prediction
First, let us marvel at the fact that Jesus predicts his own resurrection before it happens.
He had done this before this moment, and he would do it again. Sometimes he made it plain, for example, when he said: "After I am raised up I will go before you into Galilee" (Mark 14:28; cf. Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 14:25). But usually he spoke of it indirectly, for example, when he said: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19; Mark 14:58; 15:29; Matthew 26:61); or: "No sign will be give to this generation except the sign of Jonah" (Matthew 16:4; 12:39; cf. 12:41). He often spoke only for those who had ears to hear.
The reason I point out the fact that Jesus predicted his own resurrection is to sow a seed in your mind that I don't have time to develop today. The seed is simply that it is impossible to admire Jesus as a wise and loving teacher while rejecting him as your risen and living Master. It's impossible because if he isn't the risen Master, then he was deluded or deceptive in his life and teaching and so shouldn't be admired. He built his life around a self-understanding that included his own resurrection. If he didn't rise, he is to be pitied as a teacher not admired.
But someone may say, "Aren't you assuming that he said everything the Gospels said that he did? Wouldn't the skeptic who rejects the resurrection but admires Jesus say that the early church made up those sayings to make it look like Jesus expected his own resurrection?"
The answer to that question is that no matter how much of the Gospels you try to strip away as later additions, you never wind up with a mere man. His claims to authority and power are so woven through his words and deeds that critics are dreaming when they think they can peel the onion of supernatural tradition down to the natural core of a mere man. He vanishes. Because a mere, natural man named Jesus with a noble view of love never existed. The Jesus of history knew he was no ordinary man, and we do well to marvel that part of his self-understanding was the assurance that he would rise from the dead. So we should marvel that Jesus predicted his resurrection before it happened.
2. The Builders' Blindness
Second, let us marvel at the blindness of the builders.
"The very stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner." It is an amazing thing that the people who should know stones best did not recognize the best stone. Mark 6:6 says, "Jesus marveled because of their unbelief." He said to Nicodemus, one of the "builders": "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?" Jesus was astonished at the blindness of those who should have been the first to recognize him from their knowledge of the Old Testament.
A Lesson for Today About "Builders" and Rejection
And while we marvel at this let us learn a lesson. Even today there is no guarantee that the "builders"—the religious experts, the university theologians, the clergy—will recognize the stone.
Two years ago a sixty year old theology professor at the University of Leeds in England was appointed Bishop of Durham. In the process he announced that the resurrection of Jesus was a "conjuring trick with bones." So here is a "builder" who still is rejecting the stone.
Why should we be vigilant about such things in our own churches and colleges and seminaries?
Two Reasons to Be Vigilant Against Such Rejection
One is that the bishop's words reached Moslems in Sri Lanka, half way around the world. Immediately they began aggressive visitation campaigns to Christians saying that there is no reason for conflict any more since Christians and Moslems both agree now that Jesus was merely a prophet to be honored, not the Son of God to be worshiped. One Anglican rector in Sri Lanka said, "They are killing us with our bishop's own words." The "builders" are still rejecting the corner stone and in many churches the walls and the mission are in disarray.
The other reason for us to be vigilant as we marvel at the blindness of the builders is something that Iain Murray said recently. He said that the uproar over the Jenkins affair is puzzling since he has been teaching these things to preparing ministers in the university for years and probably doing more harm there than he can do now that he is a public figure and his cards are on the table.
So let us marvel at the blindness of the builders. And let us learn that academic stature has never been a guarantee of religious insight. And let us be vigilant and examine our church leaders—our pastors, our deacons, our board members, our Sunday School teachers—let us examine them carefully to see if they know and accept the stone which many builders have rejected.
3. The Rejected Stone Now the Head Stone
Third, let us marvel that the stone which is now at the head of the corner is the very stone that was once rejected.
A Real Man Reigning at God's Right Hand
Or, to take the imagery away, we must marvel that it is a real man who now reigns at the right hand of God. Yes, he is more than a man. He is the Son of God in power. But the astonishing thing that we gaze at now is this: God the Son came into the world and clothed himself with a human nature in order to die for sinners like you and me. A divine nature and a human nature came together in one Person. And when that Person rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to take his place as the Head of the church and the King of the world, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, it was a man who went into heaven. He was one of us. He is the same man reigning in heaven today who ate and drank and taught and healed and suffered on earth. The very stone which the builders rejected, THIS one is now head of the corner.
In Luke 24:36–43 the risen Christ appeared to the apostles. They were so amazed that they thought they were seeing a ghost. So Jesus says,
Why are you troubled, and why do questions rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.
And while they still disbelieved for joy, and marveled, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
Good News for Now and for Later
The risen Christ who reigns in heaven today and intercedes for us with the Father is a rejected stone! He has flesh and bones! He is one of us. And this truth contains good news for now and good news for later. For now it means this:
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15–16)
For he too is a rejected stone with pierced hands and flesh and bone!
But not only that. This truth is also good news for the future. Get every ethereal, ghost-like conception of the coming kingdom out of your head. The God-man is not going to rule over invisible spirits and ghosts. "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies." We will eat broiled fish in the kingdom! We will hold it in our physical hands and stand on our feet. And there will be no more wheel chairs or crutches or cancer or paralysis or leukemia or allergies or arthritis any more. For we will bear the image of the Son of God, and we will see him and touch him and marvel at him forever and ever, because the divine stone which is now at the head of the corner is the very same human stone that was once rejected.
4. What It Means to Be the Head of the Corner
Fourth, let us marvel AT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE THE HEAD OF THE CORNER.
Paul saw it perhaps more clearly than anyone, and said,
God raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things. (Ephesians 1:20–22)
So that Jesus could say,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (Matthew 28:18)
And Paul could preach in Athens with unwavering authority:
God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:31)
Therefore (as we return to Peter's interpretation of our text), "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
O do not be like the builders this morning! Do not reject Jesus Christ. Do not stumble over this rejected stone. The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This is the Lord's doing and may it be marvelous in your eyes. Amen.