The Cornerstone

(Luke 20.1-19)

Jason Procopio

Welcome back!

If it’s your first time here today, let me just briefly explain what we’re doing, and why we’ll do it that way.

Here at Eglise Connexion we preach through books of the Bible. We start at chapter 1, verse 1 of a book of the Bible, and we make our way through, preaching the entire book. We do this because we believe that’s the most faithful way to preach the Bible; we can’t avoid subjects that make us uncomfortable, or that are difficult, because they’re there. And we believe it’s the best way for us to get a global view of what the Bible teaches—when you know what comes before, you’re more sensitive to what comes after. We’ll take breaks now and then to look at other books or other subjects, but in general this is how we preach.

We’ve been in the gospel of Luke since September of 2017—and finally, we can now say that we are entering the home stretch.

The gospel of Luke, if you remember, is the story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, told by Luke, who was a doctor and minister who worked with the apostle Paul. Luke had a friend, Theophilus, who apparently had some influence in Roman society. Theophilus was either an unbeliever or a new Christian, and Luke wanted to tell his friend the story of Christ as faithfully as possible. So he went around and collected as many eyewitness accounts as he could find of what Jesus did and said (1.3-4),  

…[in order] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. 

So that’s exactly what he does. He tells of the birth of Jesus, and takes us through the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. He shows Jesus to be a healer and a teacher of great authority and power, but far more importantly, Luke shows us that Jesus is the King and Messiah God had promised to send to liberate his people, the people of Israel. 

Jesus chooses a group of twelve men to follow him and learn from him and minister on his behalf. Before their eyes, he performs many miracles, displays his power over creation itself, and proves himself to be divine when he transfigures before their eyes.

After this event, he begins to make his way toward Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was and is, of course, the holy city for the Jews, the location of the temple that King Solomon had built for God. Jesus takes a long time getting to Jerusalem, but in the last text we saw, in chapter 19, he finally arrives.

He comes into Jerusalem as God’s King, coming to claim his royalty in the holy city. A crowd follows him into the city, worshiping him as King; he shows his authority as King over the religious establishment in Israel when he cleanses the temple, and continues to do so by teaching in the temple.

And that is where we left off last time.

So today we’re going to begin reading in chapter 20, very soon after the cleansing of the temple. And it’s important to remember the ways in which Jesus established his authority in the previous text, because today we’re going to see Jesus’s authority challenged by the religious leaders—the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, the leaders of 1st-century Judaism. For them, the authority Jesus displayed in chapter 19 is a threat to their own power, so they’re going to be very clear that they aren’t having any of it.

So let’s begin reading, in chapter 20, verse 1.

A Trap (v. 1-8)

One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”

So Jesus is, Luke tells us, teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel. This sounds like an obvious question, but what is “the gospel”? When we use that word today, we mean the entire story of what Jesus did—his life, death and resurrection, and all that he achieved for us. But at this point in time, he hasn’t died yet, and he certainly hasn’t been raised yet.

So when Luke talks about “the gospel” that Jesus is preaching, what does he mean?

The gospel that Jesus is preaching, as he said in Luke 17.21, is the good news that the kingdom of God is in the midst of you. Remember, this was THE big overarching theme of the entire Old Testament—God had promised to establish his kingdom and his presence among his people. But the temple was looted, the kings were a long series of failures, and the people were exiled in Assyria and Babylon. Most of them eventually came back, but God’s presence had not come back to the temple, and the royalty in Israel had utterly failed. Israel was now living under occupation by the Roman Empire.

The Jews of Jesus’s day, reading their Bibles, would have seen promise after promise that God was going to bring his kingdom and his presence back to his people. They had waited for centuries, and finally, here was Jesus saying that that day had come. The kingdom of God was here, in him. It was through him that God was bringing his presence and his reign back to his people, because he is God: he is the King of God’s kingdom.

Obviously, this message—this gospel—posed a significant threat to the religious leaders. Because if God’s King truly had come, then he would also want to control the religious life of the kingdom—and that was their territory. They didn’t want anyone else coming in telling them how to run things or calling them hypocrites (as Jesus often did).

So here they make an all-out frontal attack on Jesus, by asking to see his credentials—Who gave you the authority to preach in the temple? Who gave you the right to say these things?

Now, the obvious answer is “God,” but Jesus doesn’t say that; because he knows that if he does, they’ll quickly accuse him of blasphemy and have him killed…and it’s not quite time for that yet. So instead of talking about himself, Jesus rather brings up his cousin, John the Baptist.

We saw John early in this gospel; John came on the scene a little while before Jesus, preaching a message of repentance and baptizing people as a sign that they were turning from their rebellion against God—their “sin”—and living for God alone. The people loved John; but the religious authorities, again, saw him as a threat. So they never really got behind him: they didn’t publicly denounce him as a fake (because the people loved him), but they never openly approved of him either.

So when they ask Jesus by whose authority he’s acting, rather than playing into their hands, Jesus puts them before a sort of test. V. 3:

He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” 

It’s brilliant.

People may have had divided opinions about Jesus, but nearly everyone loved John the Baptist. So if the religious leaders said John was a prophet from God, the people would want to know why they didn’t believe him; and if they said John wasn’t a prophet from God, the people would want to kill them.

So they do the only thing they can do; they say, “We don’t know.” 

And Jesus (figuratively) spreads his palms and says, “Well there you go. I’ll talk when you do.”

But that’s not the end of it. The people have just seen an explicit challenge on Jesus’s authority. And Jesus wants them to know what it means to challenge his authority. So he goes on to tell them a parable.

A Parable (v. 9-16)

A parable is, essentially, a deceptively simple story meant to illustrate a larger truth. So the larger truth Jesus is going to illustrate here is that no matter how legitimate someone’s authority is, there are some who will always reject it—to their downfall. V. 9:  

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. 10 When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. 12 And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. 13 Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ 15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

Now, this may seem a bit difficult for us today, because there aren’t many vineyards in Paris, and even if there were, modern vineyards aren’t managed like this. But to anyone in Jesus’s context who was listening to this parable, the meaning would have been obvious. 

In the Old Testament (which they all knew well), we see that God had granted limited authority over the religious life of his people to the religious authorities—the high priests and the scribes.

But occasionally, God felt the need to manage the situation on a more first-hand basis; so he sent his prophets to rebuke the authorities. But they consistently rejected the prophets.

So finally, God sent his Son—Jesus Christ himself. 

And what we’ll see very soon is that the religious authorities who had rejected the prophets will kill the Son.

And let’s be clear: They don’t kill him just because of disbelief—because they don’t really believe he comes from the Father. They kill him because they want what’s his. They want his inheritance. They want the prime place in the religious establishment. They want to be the ones in control, the ones telling the people what to do.

And Jesus’s parable makes it clear that they will be judged severely for this 

What father wouldn’t seek punishment against those who had killed his son? 

As he says in v. 16: He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.

A Reminder (v. 16-19)

But the end of Jesus’s parable provokes a strong reaction from those listening. V. 16b:  

When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!”

No matter how much the people liked Jesus, they simply couldn’t imagine their religious leaders not having the authority they have always had. The chief priests and scribes and elders had always had such a strong hold over the people that the people themselves couldn’t conceive of God taking the authority away from them and giving it to others.

And that is why Jesus says what he says next (v. 17):  

17 But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: 

“ ‘The stone that the builders rejected 

has become the cornerstone’? 

18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” 

Now again, this may sound obscure for us, but it wouldn’t have been for the people listening. They learned their Scripture by heart from a very young age, so they would have immediately recognized that Jesus is quoting Psalm 118 here.

And that’s really interesting, because Psalm 118 is the same psalm that the crowd—more than likely many of the same people present now—had sung about Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey just a short time ago. We saw this in our last sermon, in Luke 19.37-39:  

…the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”

Why did the Pharisees tell Jesus to rebuke his disciples? It’s not just because they were calling him King; it’s because they were singing a psalm that every Jew recognized as speaking about the Messiah—the King whom God would send to deliver his people.

So now, Jesus quotes Psalm 118—the same psalm the people sang about him—to remind everyone that their own Scriptures said it would happen this way. The Scriptures had foretold that the human authorities would reject the Messiah. 

Look at what he says one more time:

17 …“What then is this that is written: [and here’s Psalm 118]

“ ‘The stone that the builders rejected 

has become the cornerstone’? 

18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

The “builders” here are not literal stonemasons or carpenters, but rather those who “built” the life and society of Israel—the leaders of the people. They had been trying to build up God’s kingdom on their own for centuries, and had so far only succeeded in building up a system of their own power.

And they prove that they are after a selfish enterprise because they reject the one thing that would make this kingdom work: the cornerstone. 

You can see it in many of the cathedrals we have in Paris: in the keystone of an arch, for example. You take out that stone, and the whole thing comes falling down.

So Jesus is saying that these “builders”—the religious authorities in Israel—are trying to build the kingdom of God for their own power, and because of that, they’re rejecting the only thing which makes the kingdom of God possible: the King.

The King—Jesus Christ himself—is the “cornerstone” of the kingdom of God, the foundational brick on which the whole edifice of the kingdom would be built.

And the consequence of rejecting him is that instead of being the cornerstone, he becomes a stone of destruction: as he said, Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him. If you try to build the kingdom of God by any other way, you’ll find that you’ve been building an entirely different kingdom all along.

But no matter how many proofs Jesus gives the religious authorities that the Scriptures they claim to love said this was how the Messiah would come, they remain hell-bent (literally) on rejecting him and preserving the selfish authority they had built for themselves. V. 19:

19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.

The Cornerstone

Now at this point, we who live in the 21st century need to recognize that when Jesus talks about being the cornerstone of God’s kingdom—the King who reigns—he’s not just speaking to the religious leaders: he’s speaking to the crowds. They may not be religious leaders, but they are complicit in the system of power the leaders have set up, as we can see by their response to his parable. They may not like everything the religious leaders do, but at least they’re familiar, and the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

So Jesus’s point here is clear, and it’s for everyone: anyone who rejects the King God has sent is working toward building a kingdom other than the kingdom of God. And that’s sedition. That’s treason.

Think of it this way. No good judge in a functioning society judges arbitrarily. He judges according to a set of laws that have been established. Any time someone comes in accused of a crime, the judge doesn’t think about how what the person did makes him feel; he looks at the law, and sees if what they did adheres to or breaks the law. 

God gave his law to his people, and we broke it at every turn. And yet, in his grace, God decided to send us a solution to our guilt—a way to be acquitted of our very real rebellion against him.

And Jesus Christ is that solution. Jesus fulfilled the law for us, his people. He took our sin upon himself, and suffered punishment in our place.

So now, because Christ is the means God gave us to escape his judgment, we are judged according to how we respond to Christ. Do we accept him, or do we reject him? 

Christ is the cornerstone of the kingdom. If we accept his work for us, he is the foundation on which our forgiveness, and our union with God, and our inclusion in the kingdom of God, are built. If we reject him, he is the foundation on which our judgment is decided.

A couple weeks ago I witnessed a bad traffic accident. I was on the sidewalk at the corner of an intersection. There was a car in front of me, already engaged in a left turn, waiting for pedestrians to get out of the way, and behind that car, there was another car coming up in the right-hand lane, going straight as the light turned yellow. Coming from the other direction, a guy on a motorcycle tried to speed through the light, and ran face first into the side of the car turning left. He and the motorcycle flew off to the side, and were hit again by the other car coming up from behind.

It was serious. I have no idea if the guy was okay; he was taken off in an ambulance about fifteen minutes later and didn’t get up the whole time. A dozen of us were there and saw the whole thing, so we waited for the police to come and to see if we could help. 

And as I was waiting there, I just kept asking myself, Why did he keep going? There was no room for him to squeeze through, and he didn’t even try; he ran straight into the car turning left. More than likely, he was distracted and didn’t notice the car until it was too late. If you drive, you know how easily that can happen.

Here’s my point. None of us ever think we’re going to get in a bad car wreck, until we do. Most of us experience a kind of delusion when we get behind the wheel. We know that accidents happen—we know that’s true—but we never really believe it could happen to us. So we let our minds wander, we let ourselves get distracted.

But no matter how much we don’t believe it could happen to us, if there’s a car in front of you, and you keep going, you’re going to get smashed. 

Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of God’s kingdom. No matter what people may think about him, he’s THERE, and his authority is total. Either we will smash into him, or we’ll build our lives on him. 

But no matter how many proofs Jesus gives the religious authorities that the Scriptures they claim to love said this was how the Messiah would come, they remain hell-bent (literally) on rejecting him and preserving the selfish authority they had built for themselves. V. 19:

19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.

Our Final Authority

Now obviously there is a lot to teach us here, and that will vary depending on where we are.

This text is probably most immediately applicable to those whom we’d call “religious leaders” of our day—to pastors and elders. We are in a similar position as the religious leaders of Jesus’s day, just on a smaller scale, with church members called by the Bible to submit to our authority as elders. 

Let me assure you, this text is terribly unsettling for a pastor. Not only because we see what severe consequences come from abusing the borrowed authority we have, but especially because we see how easy it would be for us to fall into the same traps, how easy it would be to build our own tiny “kingdoms” rather than the kingdom of God. 

But the Bible warns us, in no uncertain terms, that although we do have a kind of limited authority in our respective churches, we are not the final authority of the people of God. Christ is the final authority. And he will judge us severely if we abuse the limited authority we’ve been given.

But this text is not just for pastors.

Remember, Jesus tells his parable for the people. He wants the people to see what their religious authorities are doing, in order that they might submit to the real authority of the kingdom of God.

We can see why it would be hard for them. They had gotten used to things the way they were: what the religious authorities demanded was sometimes hard, but at least the rules were clear—do these things, don’t do these things, and God will love you as his people.

But then comes Jesus Christ, and he’s telling them that the rules laid out by the religious leaders go far beyond the law God had given them, and miss the point entirely. 

He says that God is the one who gets to decide how they are saved. God is the one who sets the rules. And he’s not content with rules which simply modify behavior. He demands a holistic devotion to the Savior he has sent—a devotion which doesn’t merely stop at outward acts, but which sinks its roots down into their hearts. 

At every step, Jesus is clear that it is not enough to do the right thing; we must have transformed hearts, to build our lives on the cornerstone. We must see Christ for who he is, and love him for who he is.

And so many Christians, still to this day, have a very hard time accepting that demand. 

So often we say that Christ is our LORD and Savior, that we fully submit to Christ’s authority as King…but if we’re honest, that only really applies on Sundays. How often do we say we submit to his authority, and then totally forget about that authority when we get home and want to have fun? 

Or, to put it another way, many Christians will give Christ authority over their so-called “religious lives” (they’ll read their Bibles, and they’ll pray five minutes a day, and they’ll be at church every Sunday), but refuse to give him authority over the things they want. If God wants one thing, and we want another…we do what we want.

We’re in the vineyard; we see the servants of the King coming, and we’re already thinking of ways to beat them and send them away so we can still get what we want.

Brothers and sisters, if Christ is our King, he has authority over everything. Every thought. Every desire. Every word. Every act. He is not King over a few well-defined areas of our lives; he is King over our lives, and all of creation. And Christ’s words here should serve as a warning to us of how serious it is to deny him the authority that is his.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget why that’s good news. These days there are so many choices at our disposal: choices of entertainment, of career, of friends, of potential mates… All these choices call us and draw us…but in the end we find ourselves torn rather than satisfied by them. We let ourselves be attracted by everything, and we find real, profound pleasure in nothing.

I heard this example recently: there are a lot of women out there. I see them everywhere: at the supermarket, at Starbucks, in the métro… Guys feel like they want to keep their options open, because there are so many choices before them. So they’ll try women out. This one for a while, and this one for a while, and this one for a while…

But when we allow our options to be reduced—when we decide to devote ourselves to one woman, and one woman only, for the rest of our lives—we find the kind of depth of relationship and happiness and rest in that relationship that we couldn’t come close to finding before.

When we submit to Christ’s authority in everything, it does indeed limit our options. But in exchange for our limited options, we find in him the only lasting joy possible—the joy we were created for. So this is very good news.

It’s also worth noting—and we’ll close with this—that many of the people Jesus was speaking to didn’t really believe in him yet. They weren’t all his disciples. They were people who may have wanted to do the right thing, but who weren’t sure that Jesus was who he said he was.

And Jesus tells them this same parable, to make the point clear to them as well. So if you’re not a Christian today, please listen closely. 

Millenia ago, God promised to bring his presence and his reign back to his people: he promised that he would live among them as their God, and that he would be a gracious King for them, and that they would be his people, under his care, forever.

He kept that promise when he sent Jesus Christ. Christ is the King of God’s kingdom, and he is a King like no other. This King didn’t hold judgment over his people like a weapon; this King put himself under the judgment his people deserved, and suffered it for them. And in exchange, he gave us his perfect life, and all the reward that comes with it: union with God, and eternal life in his presence, forever.

That means—and think of how good this is—for God’s people, the only thing we have to look forward to is perfect joy. There is no longer any judgment, no longer any condemnation, no longer any discord or pain or sickness or death: only perfect life, perfect peace, perfect joy in him.

But it is through Christ—and ONLY through Christ—that we are God’s people.

No matter what you think of him, Jesus Christ is the most significant person in your life. Your response to the call of Christ will determine the course of the rest of your life, and your eternity after that. 

He is the cornerstone. If you accept his sacrifice for you, then he is the one on whom your life—here and for eternity—will be built. (And that is a grace far beyond anything any of us deserve.)

If you reject him, however, then he is the one by whom your judgment will be sealed. 

Christ is the one element without whom everything we’re building will eventually come falling down. He is the one element with whom a truly human, eternal life of joy in the glory of God can be built. 

You can accept him or you can reject him, but either way, he will be first and foremost in your thoughts for all eternity.

So in this text, God is calling us all to the same thing: accept the authority that Christ has as our King and as our Lord. Let him be the sacrifice you needed to be reconciled to God. Let him decide what it means to live for God, and do what he tells you to do. Do not try to build your own life, because no matter how good you think it is, it is nothing compared to the eternal life God promises you if you trust in him.

In Jesus Christ, God has brought his presence and his reign back to his people. He has all authority over the world he has created. He is the King, and he is the Lord. So we are called to trust him as King, and submit to him as Lord.