Cornerstone or Crushing Stone?

Matthew 21:33-45 – “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.

Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenants saw the son they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do with those tenants?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other tenants who will pay him at the proper seasons.”

Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone; this came about from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them.

The parable of the landowner and the wicked tenants teaches us a lot about God’s program with the nation of Israel, and it has plenty of application for individuals as well. In fact, the parable teaches us that every individual must confront the claims of Christ. Either Christ is received as Savior and becomes the cornerstone of one’s life, or He becomes the crushing stone at the end of one’s life. Let’s consider a little background and the interpretation of this parable.

The Parable Interpreted

The parables of Jesus were stories from everyday experiences. Jesus used parables in His teaching to illustrate moral and spiritual truth. In the 1st century, when landowners would travel abroad for an extended length of time, they would put their property in the hands of tenants who would oversee the orchards and vineyards of the landowner’s property. Periodically the owner would send his personal servants back to the home base to collect the profits or part of the produce. For the tenants to refuse to carry out the landowners wishes and disrespect his servants would be bad enough, but to beat and kill some of them, and then to kill the owner’s son would be unforgivable.

It’s not difficult to interpret the essential features of this parable. The landowner obviously represents God, and the son and heir represents the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The vineyard is the nation of Israel which God planted in the Land. The servants are the many Old Testament prophets who were sent by God to His chosen people down through the years, both to warn them of their spiritually dead condition and to encourage them to bear spiritual fruit. The wicked tenants of the parable are the professional theologians of the day: the priests, the Levites and the scribes. These men were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the nation. They were responsible for guiding the people in the ways of the Lord and preparing the nation for the coming of Messiah, but they had failed. Notice that these leaders, the chief priests and scribes, were the very audience that the Lord was addressing with this parable (v23). And there is no doubt that these leaders knew that the Lord was specifically directing this parable towards them (v45).

The Main Point

In verse 33 we see that God did everything possible to care for and protect His vineyard, Israel. As the ancient landowners would build watchtowers in the fields to keep watch for thieves who would steal the harvest, so God watched over His people Israel. The protective wall or hedge in the parable may represent the Old Testament Law, which God gave to separate and preserve Israel from the surrounding pagan nations. The Law was God’s means of protecting and disciplining his people and preparing them for the coming of the Messiah. (See Galatians 3:23 24.) The fact that the owner prepared a winepress for processing the grapes at vintage time shows that God expected fruit from His vineyard. A similar parable in Isaiah 5:1-7 emphasizes the fact that Israel did not “bear good grapes,” but only worthless grapes. The main point of this parable, however, is that the tenants failed to receive the owner’s servants and especially his son. Israel rejected her Messiah, the Son of God.

Israel’s disrespect and mistreatment of the Old Testament prophets is well documented in Scripture. Jeremiah, for example, was beaten, put in stocks, thrown into a pit and barely escaped with his life. (See Jeremiah 20 as well as 37-38.) The prophet Amos was told to shut up and go back home. (See Amos 7.) Tradition tells us that Isaiah was forced into a hollow log and cut in half. Hebrews 11:37-38 describes the mistreatment of God’s Old Testament prophets.

Christ’s First Coming

The ultimate gesture of God’s grace to the nation of Israel was the coming of Christ (v37). In spite of what the leaders of Israel had done to the prophets, God in His grace still sent His only begotten Son into the vineyard of Israel. Notice that the tenants did not assume that the son and heir was just another servant—they recognized him! They knew he was the son, and they plotted to kill him (v38). The Lord Jesus Christ was not rejected by Israel because of ignorance. The Jewish leaders clearly understood His claims to be the Son of God and the promised Messiah, but they would not acknowledge His claims. And they would not submit to His teachings, His righteous standards, or His authority. Instead, they plotted how to do away with Him (John 11:53), threw Him out of the vineyard and crucified Him- “outside the camp” of Israel. As Hebrews 13:11-12 says, “The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood.”Jesus was rejected and disowned by Judaism, and crucified as a common criminal outside the city walls of Jerusalem.

In verse 40 the Lord asked the religious leaders what the owner of the vineyard should do to the wicked tenants. They condemned themselves with their answer. “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his share of the crops at harvest time” (v41). Their prophetic words came true not too many years later. In 70 AD, the Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and scattered the Jewish people. The Gentiles were brought into the place of God’s favor and the newly-formed church began to produce spiritual fruit as the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed to all the world. In verse 42 the Lord Jesus said that all these coming events would be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 118:22, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing. It is marvelous in our eyes.” The New Testament bears out the fact that Jesus Christ, who was rejected by Israel, has become the cornerstone of the Church. (See Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Peter 2:6-7.)

Christ’s Second Coming

Continuing His predictions, the Lord announced that the kingdom of God would be taken away from the nation of Israel and given to a nation or people who would produce fruit (v42). Who is this fruit producing nation? Is this “nation” the Church, or is it the nation of Israel in the future? While a good case can be made for either view, the Lord’s use of the phrase “kingdom of God” is a strong point in favor of the “Israel of the future” interpretation of this verse. Throughout the New Testament the Church is described as “the body of Christ” and “the bride of Christ,” but there is no reference to the Church as the “kingdom of God.” While all true believers are in the kingdom of God with Christ as our King, the Lord Jesus is never referred to in Scripture as the “King of the Church,” and the phrase “the kingdom of God” is never used synonymously or inter-changeably with “the Church.”

Furthermore, we know from biblical prophecies that in the future there will definitely be a spiritual awakening in the nation of Israel. Jeremiah 31:31-34 predicts that the hardened heart of Israel will be softened and become spiritual. Ezekiel 37 indicates that the dry bones of the “House of Israel” will come together and spiritual life will be given to Israel. Romans 11:25-26 indicates that the “partial hardening” of Israel will be removed and “all Israel will be saved.” These passages refer to a time of the future, and does not describe the Church, but refers to the spiritually revived remnant of Israel in the last days. This group of Jewish people will be the “servants of God…144,000 from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (Revelation 7:3-4). It seems clear that this is “the nation” or “people” of Matthew 21:43 that will be given the kingdom of God. This is “the nation” that will prepare for, and receive, the Messiah that was once rejected by their forefathers. This is “the nation” that will form the basis of our Lord’s kingdom here on this earth which will last for 1000 years (Revelation 20:6).

Practical Application

The Lord included some personal application along with His eschatological teaching in this passage: “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed” (v44). The eschatology (doctrine of future things) of this verse includes both advents of the Lord Jesus. At His first coming, the nation of Israel was broken because it rejected Him, and the rejected stone became the cornerstone of the Church. At His second coming, the Lord will return as the “crushing stone.” Take a few moments to read Daniel 2. In the last days of Gentile power (represented by the image), the Lord will return as a stone from the air and crush all powers that have rejected and resisted His authority. The nations will be crushed to powder and blown away and replaced with the “great mountain” kingdom of our Lord.

Notice that while “he who falls on this stone” and “he on whom it falls” applies to nations, it also applies to every individual who is confronted with the claims of Christ. When a person believes and accepts Jesus as Savior and Lord, He becomes the cornerstone of that person’s life, and life takes on a whole new meaning and structure.

Is Jesus Christ now the cornerstone of your life? If you’re a believer, the Lord Jesus Christ has become the cornerstone of your life, the foundation upon whom your salvation rests. And nothing can remove Him as your cornerstone! (See John 10:27 30.) But does your lifestyle reflect this truth? Is your life structured around the Cornerstone? Is your life being built with care, using materials that are valuable and enduring? Or is your life structured around your own earthly goals and desires, and is it being lived selfishly and carelessly? Is it possible that your Cornerstone is obscured by worthless building materials? (See 1 Corinthians 3:10-17.)

Is it even possible that you only think or say you’re a Christian? Maybe Jesus Christ is not the cornerstone of your life, because you have never recognized your need of Him as your personal Savior from sin and the judgment of God. Without Christ as the Cornerstone, a person’s life cannot be constructed properly, and it remains unstructured, unstable, broken and lost. While that life may appear to be productive when judged by this world’s values and standards, from God’s point of view it is an unproductive and broken life—and in the end it will be judged by the Lord Himself as the Crushing Stone! For every person who hears the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lord becomes either the cornerstone now, or the crushing stone later.  
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