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“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” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Peter uses a metaphor drawn from the Old Testament, this one being particularly significant to the apostle himself. God’s people come to a Living Stone and are built up as living stones in Him. Who better to deliver a picture of stones than the one who got his name changed by Jesus, from “Simon” to “Rocky”?
When Jesus asked the disciples in Matthew 16, “Who do you say that I am?” it was Simon Peter who confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [Greek Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:15-18).
Now, many have taken the Lord’s words to mean that the Church is built on Peter, ostensibly the first bishop of Rome. His name in Greek, Petros, means “rock” after all. But the rock on which the Church is built is not Peter, but the One who Peter confessed as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Don’t take my word for it. Take Peter’s. In our text, Peter cites three Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah as a stone. “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’” (Isaiah 28:16). And “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” (Psalm 118:22). And “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” (Isaiah 8:14).
Now, it’s not so clear in the ESV, which uses “cornerstone” twice; but as Peter uses different words for stone in the Greek all three times, it appears that he’s teaching us more about what sort of stone Christ is for us.
There’s the cornerstone, of course. Today the laying of the cornerstone has mostly ceremonial purposes. The stone’s face bears the year of construction, and it is often hollowed out to receive a time capsule of treasured objects and papers. The structural value of the cornerstone, if you are a stone mason, is to serve as a point of reference for the straightness of the building. The cornerstone is the first and the largest stone above grade. As such it had to be quarried, measured, sawed, shaped, and finally mortared in with great precision. Masons build a building up from the corners. The first stone will determine the straightness of the building’s lines of depth, width, and height. If the cornerstone is a little off kilter, the whole building will end up looking crooked, at best, or at worst case, may collapse.
In the same way, Jesus Christ is the standard of straightness in our lives. He is the cornerstone of the Church. The Church is not built upon the teachings of man, which are unstable as sand and constantly shifting. Ephesians 2:20 says beautifully that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” In other words, the Church is built upon the Word of God, written down by the apostles and the prophets. Christ is the giver of that Word, which points to Christ Himself, final authority for the Church.
In a world full of Satan’s lies and deceptions, the Word of the Lord remains straight and true. His Word of Law cuts through all excuses, rationalizations, and moral compromises and holds us accountable to God’s unchanging standards. His Word of Gospel holds before us the unchanging love of the crucified and risen One. Whoever builds his or her life along these true lines will never regret it.
The second “stone” is the capstone or keystone, the wedge-shaped piece at the top of an arch. An arch or series of arches is not only beautiful, but provides a brilliant way to open a load-bearing wall for doors or light without weakening the wall. The half-circle of specially shaped stones is laid over a curved wooden form. When the capstone is mortared in, the wooden form can be removed. All the weight and stress from above the door or window is directed sideways through the stones of the arch and its capstone. Knock out the capstone and the arch will collapse, along with the rest of the wall.
In the same way, suffering Christians need to be reminded that Christ Jesus holds us together. Jesus bears our burdens, the stresses that tear us apart. If He is knocked out of that position, our lives collapse. The “builders” cited by Peter are the religious leaders of Israel. They choose to build their nation’s spiritual life without Christ. They reject Him because He is nothing like the “messiah” they envisioned. But their structure collapses without Him. In disgust over their rejection of His Son, the Father withdraws His hand of mercy and lets the Romans topple the temple and take their nation apart.
The third stone is the skandalon, the stone that people trip over, that causes offense. When Isaiah 8 speaks of a stone of stumbling, a rock of offense, it says that the Lord is the stone and that those who trip over Him will be broken.
This should send a chill down your spine. Jesus Christ doesn’t like to be rejected and thrown to the ground. When that happens, the rejected capstone becomes a stumbling stone, that He will move Himself to trip these proud builders so that they come crashing down. Christ promises unlimited curses on those who disobey and disbelieve the Gospel message. There is no middle ground—either Christ is the cornerstone and capstone of your life, or He is a stumbling stone, a fearsome boulder who will take you down and break you.
These three stones are a wonderful complement to our Gospel lesson, in which Jesus declares, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Notice He doesn’t say, “I’ve come to show you the way, and you’ll be saved if you walk along the same path well enough.” No, He says, “I am the Way: if you’ve got Me, you’ve got eternal life.” He doesn’t say, “I’ve come to point you toward the truth you must find;” He says, “I am the Truth: if you have Me, you have salvation!” He doesn’t say, “I’ve come to show you what you must do if you want to have life;” He says, “I am the Life: if you have Me, you have eternal life.” And He says, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Not, “I’m so vain that I won’t let anyone else save,” but rather, “Apart from Me, there is no Savior, but I have died for all.”
There’s similar comfort in the three stones of this text. Jesus is not a moving target, and salvation is not a matter of pursuing Him and trying to do enough to catch Him for your own. He’s the cornerstone, unmoved and unmovable. His Word does not change. His salvation does not change. If you have Him, you have eternal life. If you try to get to the Father without Him, only then is He the rock on which you’ll stumble and be broken. Now, what of you?
Put yourself in the shoes of the first Christians to hear this text from Peter. You know stones and buildings well, and the most famous in your experience is the temple in Jerusalem. At the moment, it still stands; but before His death, Jesus prophesied that the time would come when the temple was destroyed, without one stone left upon another. That time comes just a few years after Peter wrote this text. Remember, the chief priests and leaders rejected Jesus and had Him crucified: they refused to believe He is the Messiah. Thus, they rejected the cornerstone—He was a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to them. Because they rejected Jesus, they’ve turned to other messiahs instead: not saviors from sin, but nationalists who want to rebel against Rome.
Just a few years later, Rome has had enough. It sends armies to Jerusalem, and the city falls after a horrific siege. The soldiers meticulously dismantle the temple. The identity of the Jews as a people is tied to the temple and the land. When the Romans destroy the temple, they go a long way to erasing their identity: the Jews go from being the “chosen people” to “not a people,” and those who survive are scattered. Does this mean that God has forsaken the world? What of those who trust in Christ? What about you?
For those shell-shocked by the destruction, this text gives great hope: for Peter says, “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” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
The Lord is building a new temple: not one out of stones constructed by human hands, but His Church. The cornerstone, chosen and precious, has been laid by Jesus’ death and resurrection. His people are built upon Him like living stones; and to them, Peter writes: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
With Jerusalem wiped out, one might wonder if God has any patience left. The chosen people are obliterated. But Peter says, “You are a chosen race.” This is not by lineage or ancestry, but by the promise of grace: all those who trust in Christ for salvation are now the people of God. God so loved not only the world, but He loved you that He sought you out and brought you to faith. He wanted you!
“You are a royal priesthood,” says Peter. Not one or the other but both. You are both adopted into the royal family of heaven and anointed into the holy priesthood of God. The temple in Jerusalem is gone. The sacrifices there were discontinued. But the sacrifices there are no longer needed because Jesus has been sacrificed for the sins of all. Now, you are a royal priesthood: for the sake of Jesus, it is given to you to draw near to God. You have full and free access to communicate with God, to pray directly, needing no other mediator than Jesus, and you are commissioned to a lifelong spiritual ministry of love and service.
It is given to you to offer the only sacrifice that is left: a sacrifice of praise, proclamations of what Jesus has done, and a life lived in gratitude for it. This is a present reality: you are not auditioning in the hopes that you will earn a place in the royal priesthood of God; rather, for the sake of Jesus, the Lord declares that you are in His royal priesthood even now.
Thus, you are also “a holy nation, a people for His own possession.” You are not strangers or foreigners in the kingdom of God. For the sake of Jesus, you are His people. By faith in Christ, you have become part of the great army of believers, that invisible network that has become what the visible nation of Israelites under their monarchy never was: a nation of holy people. Christ has marked you as His own by water and the Word, and He continues to sanctify you. And what do you do as a holy nation? You “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Called, not will call. You are already numbered among His people.
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10). When the Romans dismantled the temple, the Jews who were left effectively became “not a people.” But Peter writes, “Now you are God’s people;” and your identity isn’t built upon a stone temple or a flag or a piece of land or a confirmation certificate that can be taken away or forfeited. It’s built upon Christ who cannot be moved, promised you in His Word which will not pass away. This is not your doing: it is yours because you have received mercy.
This is true whether you’re in the shoes of the first Christians to hear this text from Peter, or alive 2,000 years later. It’s true if you’ve been a child of God for decades or among those who are today publicly confessing the faith that was given in their Baptism. While the devil will use every trial to persuade you that you are far from God and God is far from merciful, you know better. You are built upon Christ. You are numbered and named among God’s people. It is not your doing, but it is yours forever. Where you may grow frustrated or despair, repent; for God has already called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. For Jesus’ sake, it is given to you now: you are a chosen race. You are a royal priesthood. You are a people for God’s own possession. Because you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.