For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”
Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
1 Peter 2:6-8 NIV
This passage references three Old Testament passages. The first is from Isaiah 28:16, which is also quoted in Romans 9:33 and Ephesians 2:20. The second is from Psalm 118:22, also quoted in Matthew 21:42 and Acts 4:11. And the third quote is of Isaiah 8:14, also found in Romans 9:33. I do not know if these references originally referred to some common experience of Israel, of it they were unrelated before the New Testament authors drew them together. But clearly, Peter connects them together here to tell us something about Jesus.
Jesus as the Cornerstone, or Capstone
The cornerstone is mostly a ceremonial block placed in a structure today, but at one time it was a critical component of a large structure. The cornerstone is laid first, and the rest of the foundation for the building is aligned with the cornerstone. It is in that sense that we see Jesus identified as the cornerstone. He is the key to the temple that is built on the apostles and prophets, with us as the materials built onto that foundation. That temple is aligned with him and is built up around him (Eph. 2:19-22).
In contrast to the cornerstone is the capstone, the stone from the rabbinic parable below; and also the stone from Psalm 118:22. While the cornerstone is the first stone set and provides alignment for the rest of the structure, the capstone is among the last stone(s) set. Sometimes it is ceremonial, sometimes it provides weather protection for the rest of the structure, and other times it is like a key that helps hold the structure together.
Regardless if these passages refer to a cornerstone or a capstone, the point is the same. Jesus is that precious stone, the most important part of the temple. He was chosen to fill that role. And the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame. There will never be a reason for the one who trusts in Christ to regret their choice. Christ will always be faithful to keep those who have trusted in him.
The Rejected Stone
Years ago I heard of a legend related to the passage in Psalm 118:22, explaining the reference to the rejected stone. However, the only sources I can find for this story are secondary sources. The primary source they reference has been taken down so there is no way I can verify the validity of this old rabbinic parable. While this story might well have been invented as an attempt to explain the Psalm 118:22 passage or the later passages from the New Testament, it does at least give us some idea of what could be meant by this reference and its New Testament application to Jesus.
The Rabbinic Parable
When Solomon’s temple was being built, it was forbidden for the sound of hammers to be heard at the job site because it was a holy place of worship. You can’t have worship with construction going on in the background! So it had to be quiet. What this meant for the construction was that each and every 20 ton stone had to have a ‘shop drawing’ and was made several miles away in the quarry. Several miles away each stone was carefully cut for its exact spot in the temple.
From the very start, there was a plan for each stone. The very first stone to be delivered was the capstone, but that’s the last stone needed in construction. So the builders said, “What is this? This doesn’t look like any of the first stones we need. Put it over there for now.” Well, years went by and the grass grew over the capstone and everyone generally forgot about it.
Finally the construction was done and the builders said “send us the capstone” and the word came back from the quarry “we already did”. They were confused. Then someone remembered what they had done with the very first stone sent to them. It was taken from its lowly position among the overgrown weeds where it had been forgotten, and it was honored in the final ceremony to complete the temple. Thus the scripture says, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.”
Jesus as the Rejected Stone
The point of this story is that this stone, rejected by the builders, has become the key part of the building. The New Testament references make clear that Jesus is this capstone that was rejected. The structure being built, according to Ephesians, was a holy temple to the Lord; the Church. Without Jesus, the temple will fall apart. It cannot exist apart from him.
Throughout history, many religions have been built around various individuals and concepts. And the structures they have produced have always been flawed. Only when Jesus is the cornerstone will the building be straight and true. Only then will it rise to become a holy temple to the Lord.
A Stumbling Stone
The idea of Jesus being a stumbling stone seems strange. We are instructed not to become a stumbling stone for anyone else (Luke 17:1-2, 1 Cor. 10:32). And Jesus himself, in Luke 7:23, says “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” So what does this passage mean that talks about Jesus being a stumbling stone, a rock that makes people fall?
The context of the passage in Isaiah 8:14 concerns a feared enemy attack. The northern kingdom of Israel had joined with Syria to attack the southern kingdom of Judah. And Ahaz, the king of Judah was looking for an alliance with Assyria. But Isaiah encouraged him to trust instead in God. It is God that Ahaz should fear and regard as holy rather than the attacking armies.
And then comes the passage that Peter is quoting. Israel was rejecting the holiness of God and the protection he could provide. They stumbled and fell because they refused to trust in God. But they did not just stumble. God made them stumble. Since they refused to trust him, he would ensure that they fell in the coming battles (2 Thess 2:10-12).
They looked to other nations to deliver them rather than trusting in God. And I believe that is the application that Peter is also applying to the verse. Jesus is a stumbling stone to the Greek who looks for wisdom and to the Jews who look for signs (1 Cor. 1:22-23). All too often we trust in just about anything before we will trust in God. And that leads to Jesus becoming a stumbling stone for us.
What They Were Destined For
Peter says that people stumble because of their disobedience to the message of the gospel. If they would believe in Jesus, they would not stumble over him. But all too many people refuse to believe and fall as a result. But did God destine them to disobey?
There are those who will argue that God chooses who will believe and who will not. That our coming to faith has nothing to do with any choice we make. It is totally a choice that God has made on our behalf. And with that understanding of election, it is easy to see this expression as supporting unconditional election.
But I think it is more likely that Peter is expressing that those who disobey the message are destined to stumble; that God will make them stumble. And the context of the passage from Isaiah 8:14 supports that. God did not force the Jews to act the way that they did. But because of their actions, destruction was what they were destined for. I might believe, and, as a result, be destined for eternal life. Or I might disbelieve, and, as a result, be destined for destruction.
A Call to Action
What is your life built around? What is the cornerstone of the church you are a part of? If the answer is not Jesus, then you are heading in the wrong direction. Align your life, and your relationship with God, around Jesus as the cornerstone. If he is your cornerstone, you have no reason to be ashamed. If he is not, then you are stumbling around in the dark.
- What is the significance of a cornerstone? Of a capstone?
- How is Jesus a stumbling stone?
- What are unbelievers destined for; to stumble; or to disobey?
- 1 Peter: An Introduction
- 1 Peter: Because of His Great Mercy (1:3-5)
- 1 Peter: Glorious Joy, In All Kinds of Trials (1:6-9)
- 1 Peter: The Mystery of Salvation (1:10-12)
- 1 Peter: Be Holy In All You Do (1:13-16)
- 1 Peter: Living as an Alien, a Foreigner in this World (1:17-21)
- 1 Peter: Love One Another Deeply, From the Heart (1:22-2:3)
- 1 Peter: A Chosen People, A Royal Priesthood (2:4-5; 9-10)
- 1 Peter: A Chosen and Precious Cornerstone (2:6-8)
- 1 Peter: Living As Foreigners and Exiles (2:11-17)
- 1 Peter: Responding To Suffering (2:18-25)
- 1 Peter: Instruction for Wives and Husbands (3:1-7)
- 1 Peter: Christian Ethical Behavior (3:8-12)
- 1 Peter: Revere Christ in Your Suffering (3:13-18)
- 1 Peter: Imprisoned Spirits and Baptism (3:19-22)
- 1 Peter: Don’t Surrender to the World’s Influence (4:1-6)
- 1 Peter: Life in the Church: to Love and to Serve (4:7-11)
- 1 Peter: Being a Shepherd, a Rewarding Task (5:1-4)
- 1 Peter: Humble Yourself Under the Hand of God (5:5-11)