Breaking on the Cornerstone
“I was reading in Matthew 21: 42-44 the other night and am curious. Obviously, Jesus is the stone the builders rejected, but I don’t understand where it says, “and whoever falls on this Stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” Is Jesus talking about the broken who come to Him and “fall” on Him? Are those the broken He meant? And “on whom it falls,” is that referring to the end times, when all will be judged?”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstonel this was the Lord’s going, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’ Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”-Matthew 21:42-44
Great question, before I get into it, I think it would be a good idea to look at the text in question within its context. Chapter 21 in and of itself circles around the theme of Jesus’s authority. Now, it does focus on separate aspects of his authority but the authority and power of the Son of Man is the thematic center of this chapter.
Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem showing He has authority over Israel.
Jesus cleanses the temple showing that He has authority over worship.
Jesus destroys the fig tree showing that He has authority over life and death.
Jesus asks if John’s miracles came from God showing that if the miracles of John came from God than surely greater miracles still performed through Jesus are of God showing him to have authority over wonders and prophets.
Jesus tells the parable of the two sons showing that he has authority over the religious elite.
Jesus tells the parable of the tenants showing that he has authority over who is included and who is excluded from covenant community.
Your question pertains to the final bit of this chapter where Jesus quotes from Psalm 118:22-23 and then interprets its meaning. Remembering the section right before this where Jesus excludes the religious elite from the kingdom He then goes on to state that the kingdom will be “taken away from you.” Who is the “you” in this sentence…is it the religious elite again…or is he speaking to the wider audience? While it is safe to say from reading this that he is likely speaking again to the religious elite it is later in this verse when Jesus says that, “it will be given to the nations.” This is where we acquire our clue regarding the meaning here.
The Greek word used is ethnos, which is the standard term in Scripture generally translated “Gentile.” It is interesting that in this setting it is not translated in this way (likely because Jesus is surrounded by Jews, speaking to Jews), for I am of the belief that this rendering is more consistent with the interpretative use of the word both in the remaining New Testament and in the Septuagint. At the very least “nations” should be the accepted rendering, considering this word is only translated “people” one other time in the New Testament (Acts 8:9).
The nation whom it is given to is a people that are “producing fruit.” They are a people who will live faithfully in covenant with God through Christ. Jesus then commissions a warning in verse 44. Matthew appears to take an interesting formula here by combining the concepts of Isaiah 8:15 and Daniel 2:44 and applying them to Psalm 118:22-23. In the first part of the verse he states, “the one who falls on this stone will be broken into pieces,” reflecting similar words written in Isaiah 8:15, “And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” This is a warning to those who do not accept Christ…a warning to Jews present who would not repent and to the religious elite. If they allowed him to be the cornerstone that became a stumbling block, than in their stumbling they would be broken upon it, destroyed and made useless to God and cut off from Him. In the second part of the verse, “and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him,” is reminiscent of Daniel 2:44, “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.” This is a warning to any political authorities…letting them know that the Kingdom of God and the cornerstone that represents it will crush any and all political authorities that stand in its way, not by its own power, but by the power and authority of God Himself.
Both scenarios provide a here/not yet here in fullness reality. Jews of the first century were definitely under God’s judgment. The destruction of the second temple and Jerusalem as a whole prove that point true. Therefore, in their stumbling upon Christ (historically Jews did villainize themselves both to Christians and to Romans) they did in fact become a broken people left with no temple and a still scattered populace. The political authorities also felt the wrath of God as He took over Rome in the 4th century and spread throughout most of the known world by the middle of the 2nd cenutry. The kingdom of God depicted in the Church did in fact have victory over Rome, the Imperial Cult, and its pagan religion. The Pantheon was made into a church, and the emperor was under the authority of the Church’s leadership. It is an amazing thing to even comprehend. But we live in a world that is still broken and still in need of this kingdom today. When Jesus returns than all that he has said will happen will happen in its fullness…until then we enjoy the first fruits of the kingdom and patiently await His return.
I hope this helps Sarah, remember, this is set within the thematic context of Jesus’ authority. In order to read it properly this understanding must be grasped, so that the text itself can be placed properly within its own setting. Doing this helps us to understand that the writers were much more fluid in their presentation of the narrative than some would like you to believe. For the rest of you, I hope you found this helpful. The promises of Jesus regarding the kingdom were a huge part of Jesus’ ministry and many Christians (unfortunately) do not take the time to understand them. Hopefully, in working through some of this I have encouraged others to tread more carefully through the sayings and teachings of Jesus so that they may glean from Him the hope that gives life. Peace and blessings and as always, thank you for reading.
With Love in Christ
Justin (AKA The Nerdy Theologian)