When Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the church (Acts 4:11; Eph 2:20), it means that his person and work (sinless life, atoning death, and resurrection) is the basis of our relationship with God and fellowship with one another. The “building” that God is constructing today is not a inanimate building (like the temple in the OT), but a spiritual building, consisting of individual people who compose the very structure of this building. Christians are little “stones” that rest upon the cornerstone, Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-6).
The Rejected Cornerstone
In the Ancient Near East, larger buildings and homes would use ashlar stones which were bigger than the typical foundation stones used on smaller homes. These ashlar stones had finished faces and square corners so the walls would remain aligned during the subsequent building process. A stone would be rejected for the foundation if it wasn’t finished properly or if its corners weren’t perfectly squared. When Psalm 118:22 tells us of builders who rejected a particular stone that afterward became the cornerstone, it is referring to this process of selecting the right foundation stones for a large-scale building project.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were looking for a particular kind of Messiah to provide the foundation for their kingdom building project: a powerful militant King who would deliver them from the hands of their oppressors and provide them with a glorious empire. They wanted immediate vindication over their enemies and a place of prominence within God’s reign. They were primarily interested in building a kingdom of glory but not equally interested in establishing righteousness, holiness, humility, and God-pleasing worship.
A “Failed” Inspection
When the religious leaders began to inspect Jesus to see if he could be the foundation stone for their kingdom, they quickly determined that he did not fit with their blueprints. Jesus called for repentance and humble faith in him for the forgiveness of sin (Matt 26:28; Luke 18:9-14). He rebuked the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and called them to pursue lives of God-centered authenticity and worship (Matt 23:1ff).
Jesus consistently warned his disciples that his suffering would come before glory, and so would theirs (see Luke 9:21-22; 9:44-45; 18:31-33; 24:44-47; John 15:18-16:4). He called people to repent of seeking glory and honor from others and to seek the glory of God above all things (John 5:39-44). He commanded people to deny themselves (Luke 9:23) and turn from their love of money (Matt 6:19-24).
Before he vanquished his people’s enemies, he would first teach his people to love their enemies (Luke 6:27-31), and then suffer under the hands of his enemies in order to atone for his people’s sins. He upended Israel’s present worship practices (John 2:13-22; Luke 19:45-46) and taught truth that penetrated past their external religious façade into the depths of their hearts (Matt. 5:21-48). Such a “stone” would not fit Jewish leaders’ self-righteous, glory-seeking, money-loving, enemy-hating building plans, so they tossed it outside the city.
Throughout the New Testament, the Scriptures prepare Jesus’ disciples to expect the same rejection that Jesus experienced. The world is looking for a god that yield to their will and allow them to continue nursing their pet sins (1 John 2:15-17; 1 Tim 3:1-8). The unregenerate heart despises the necessity of a blood atonement (1 Cor 1:18) and rages over the idea that God alone is worthy of all glory (Rom 1:18-32). If we are faithful to preach and teach the gospel in all its fullness, courageous and without qualification, calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, we will be rejected by the world (2 Tim 3:12).
We must, therefore, give up our attempts at making Christianity look “cool” to an unbelieving world. If we fall into this snare, we will quickly start removing parts of the gospel that the world considers “offensive” or “problematic” or “not politically-correct” or “bigoted” or “insensitive.” This is not an excuse to be mean and snarly; we must always speak and act in love and with much patience (see 1 Cor 13:1-8; 2 Tim 2:24-26). And we are called to conduct our lives in a way that adorns the gospel—that is, our lives should display the gospel’s attractiveness (see Titus 2:10).
But we must always remember the foundation upon which we are built: our Savior and Lord was rejected by a world that loves its sin and self-righteousness (John 3:20-21; Luke 18:9-14). When we tell people about repentance from sin and humble faith in a crucified Savior, we must understand that we are attacking their two greatest objects of worship. When this happens, we will likely experience rejection, just like Jesus did. But we are not to despise this status; we are to embrace it:
So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. (Heb 13:12-13)