What Did Jesus Mean By Saying that He Was the Stone the Builders Rejected?

When Jesus said he was the “stone the builders rejected,” what did he mean?

Contributing Writer
Updated Apr 25, 2024
What Did Jesus Mean By Saying that He Was the Stone the Builders Rejected?

Jesus used language from his time and context to explain eternal truth. When he called himself “the stone the builders rejected,” he referred to something that people from his time would have understood particularly well. Many of Jesus’ phrases and examples don’t have the same cultural meanings today, so we may have to do some research to discover the original message.

When Jesus said he was the “stone the builders rejected,” what did he mean?

What Did Jesus Imply When He Called Himself the Stone the Builders Rejected?

In Matthew 21, Jesus confronts the chief priests and Pharisees in the Temple courtyard. He tells them a parable about a landowner who planted a vineyard, leased it to tenants, and then sent his servants to collect the fruit. However, the tenants mistreated and killed the servants, beating them and sending them back. The landowner finally sends his son, believing the tenants would never abuse him. Yet the tenants kill the son to take over and become the owners.

Jesus asks the question, what would the master do to these servants? He answers himself by commenting how the landowner will take the vineyard away from the tenants and give it to others, better stewards.

Following this parable, Jesus says, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)

The priests and Pharisees understood the parable, which was obvious from their anger. The parable identifies the priests as the tenants. God is the landowner, and Jesus is the son. The parable prophecies both Jesus’ death orchestrated by the priests and how God will remove the kingdom’s stewardship from them and give it to others: the new church, a community of Jews and Gentiles under a new covenant. In addition, he claims to be the Son of God. Combine all these meanings, and the leaders became incensed to the point they tried to kill him there and then. They refrained due to Jesus’ popularity.

Mark 12:10-11, also records Jesus telling the same parable to the chief priests, scribes, and elders, concluding with the same Old Testament quotation. Luke 20:17-18 records a similar interaction with the religious leaders and the same quote, yet adds Jesus’ following commentary: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken into pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

These passages collectively reveal Jesus’ awareness of how he would be rejected by the Jewish leaders, even leading to his crucifixion. And yet, despite this rejection, he would become the cornerstone, the first stone set when building a structure like a temple or house. Jesus asserts his central and indispensable role in God’s redemptive plan by identifying himself as the cornerstone.

As we shall see, he was also building on what the Old Testament had prophecied about him.

What Old Testament Verse Talks about the Stone the Builders Rejected?

As Jesus often did, he was referencing an Old Testament prophecy when he talked about a rejected stone.

Psalm 118 brings thanksgiving and praise. While its exact authorship remains uncertain, King David likely wrote the Psalm to celebrate God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. The Jews sang this during festivals and ceremonies, possibly even the Feast of Tabernacles, commemorating God’s miraculous provision during Israel’s journey in the wilderness.

Verses 5-14 recount David’s distress and how he called upon God during hard times. David trusted God alone, for God delivered and strengthened him. Humanity couldn’t be content with God, David’s protector, and David chose to fight for the Lord, even against the nations surrounding him.

Beginning in verse 15, David continues to praise God’s salvation. What better place to praise God than in the Tabernacle? David becomes more poetic and symbolic here, speaking about gates of righteousness being opened for him.

This brings us to verse 22, which declares, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” David continues, “This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” (v. 23-24)

David concludes the psalm by requesting God’s blessing and abundance upon Israel.

In context, David could have been writing about himself. He had been rejected many times throughout his life. First, when Samuel comes to Jesse’s house to anoint one of his sons as the next king, Jesse doesn’t even consider bringing his youngest to the event. Later, his brothers and King Saul mock David’s desire to challenge Goliath. When David becomes a famous warrior and commander in Israel, Saul seeks to kill him, putting him on the run. Sometime later, after Saul’s death, David wasn’t considered king of all Israel until Saul’s son passed away.

Even as king, David’s son, Absolom, stages a coup with the support of Israel’s leaders, crowing himself king, and David flees once again.

Yet each time, God lifts David to prominence. Samuel does anoint David. He kills Goliath and eventually becomes king of all Israel. Despite Absolom’s coup, God works on David’s behalf and restores him as king.

This was all God’s doing, and David declares God’s plan marvelous.

As Messiah, Jesus refers back to David’s words in Psalm 118, noting that this scripture describes his work as the Christ.

In Acts 4:10-11, Peter quotes this verse when addressing the Jewish leaders, declaring that Jesus, whom they crucified, has become the cornerstone of salvation. Similarly, Paul references Psalm 118 in Ephesians 2:19-22, describing Jesus as the cornerstone of the church, in whom believers are built together as a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

What Does It Mean that Jesus Was Rejected as a Cornerstone?

The cornerstone is pivotal in providing stability, alignment, and structural integrity in construction. The builder places the cornerstone first as a reference point for the entire foundation, upon which the rest of the structure is laid out and oriented.

Ray Pritchard summarizes why the cornerstone set the stage for the building process:

“The image comes from the ancient quarries where highly-trained stonemasons carefully chose the stones used in construction. No stone was more important than the cornerstone because the integrity of the whole structure depended on the cornerstone containing exactly the right lines. If the cornerstone was not exactly right, the entire building would be out of line. For that reason, builders inspected many stones, rejecting each one until they found the one they wanted. Rejected stones might be used in other parts of the building, but they would never become the cornerstone or the capstone (the first and last stones put in place).”

The cornerstone’s precise placement ensures that subsequent stones are accurately positioned. The cornerstone and the resulting foundation bear the weight of the building above it. This process prevents settling, shifting, and structural failure.

The cornerstone also holds cultural and historical significance. It often represented the building’s purpose or identity. In ancient times, architects laid the cornerstone with a great ceremony at the construction project’s beginning, invoking blessings for success.

So, Jesus implied that while people had been rejected him as the cornerstone of their faith, as the Messiah, he would be the cornerstone for the church.

However, he was also something else.

What Does It Mean that the Rejected Stone Became a Capstone?

Some translations use the word “capstone” in either Psalm 118 or other quotes, which is fascinating. Builders place the capstone as the final step in building the structure, wall, or arch, usually at the apex or highest point. The cornerstone is foundational. The capstone serves as a crowning or finishing element, completing the structure and closing the construction process. Depending on the design, the capstone could be decorative or functional, symbolizing the fulfillment of the builder’s vision.

Other verses speak of Christ as a living stone. Paul draws a parallel between Christ and the water-giving stone from the days of Moses, which Paul says followed Israel around (1 Corinthians 10:4). Peter calls born-again believers “living stones” as well:

“You also, like living stones, are being build into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5)

We must note—these are stones, not bricks. In the Old Testament, the law stated they couldn’t build an altar with human-made bricks. They had to use natural stone (Exodus 20:25). Bricks are all the same size and shape, made with human hands. Each stone, being irregular, creates endless difficulty when constructing a house. Therefore, the bulding’s cornerstone carries even more importance. And only God could build a house like this. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

Jesus is the beginning and the end, the cornerstone and the capstone. Revelation 1:8 emphasizes Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, implying his sovereignty over everything. Unfortunately, the world’s systems reject this reality, to their own destruction.

What Does Jesus Being the Stone the Builders Rejected Mean for Us Today?

As seen in several references in the New Testament, Christ, being the stone the builders rejected, holds profound significance and brings valuable insights.

  1. Foundation of Faith in Christ. Just as the cornerstone provides stability and support for a building, the person of the Lord Jesus Christ is the solid foundation upon which our faith is built. We stand firm upon the unshakable rock of the Messiah, even amidst all life’s trials and challenges. He began the work and will complete it (Philippians 1:6). By anchoring our faith in Jesus, we find security, strength, and assurance in his unwavering love and faithfulness.
  2. Identity in Christ. As Christians, we find our identity in Jesus. These verses remind us that, despite any opposition, God will exalt us if we remain faithful. We find our true worth and significance in him, rooted in being beloved children of God, chosen and accepted by him, regardless of how others perceive or treat us.
  3. Suffering and Perseverance. Jesus endured rejection, persecution, and ultimately crucifixion. As his followers, we’ve also been promised trouble and suffering. Jesus promised the world would hate us since it hated him first (John 15:18). However, Jesus’ example encourages us to persevere in faith, knowing God brings beauty out of brokenness and victory from defeat. Our suffering isn’t in vain but part of God’s redemptive plan for us and all creation.
  4. The Importance of the Church. We don’t need a cornerstone or a capstone without a building. God builds the universal and local church out of born-again people who fit together for a purpose—to be the Lord’s dwelling place and, as such, reveal the Gospel of the Kingdom to the world. Jesus will one day return to declare and embody his finished work. And if God builds such a marvelous house, we should also value the saints’ gathering and mutual encouragement, bringing our talents and spiritual gifts, looking to the Living Stone to teach us how to be living stones.

Jesus is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, our faith’s source and destination. First, God helps us not to reject the way, the truth, and life, which are the only ways to the Father. Next, with Christ as the capstone, let us align our thoughts and actions with him to build our eternal lives and the family of God.


Photo Credit:©GettyImages/2jenn

Britt MooneyBritt Mooney lives and tells great stories. As an author of fiction and non -iction, he is passionate about teaching ministries and nonprofits the power of storytelling to inspire and spread truth. Mooney has a podcast called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author of We Were Reborn for This: The Jesus Model for Living Heaven on Earth as well as Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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