February 18, 2024

The Stone the Builders Rejected

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew Topic: Repentance Passage: Matthew 21:33–46, Psalm 118:22–23

F. F. Bruce was a distinguished New Testament scholar from Britain. His works are known for both careful scholarship and their devotional quality. He once wrote a book called The Hard Sayings of Jesus. Some are hard “because they’re difficult to understand,” he said. But others are hard “because the demands they make on us are only too clear.”[i]

He said, “It’s all too easy to believe in a Jesus who is largely a construction of our own imagination—an inoffensive person whom no one would really trouble to crucify. But the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, far from being an inoffensive person, gave offense right and left. Even his loyal followers found him, at times, thoroughly disconcerting. He upset all established notions of religious propriety. He spoke of God in terms of intimacy which sounded like blasphemy. He seemed to enjoy the most questionable company. He set out with open eyes on a road which, in the view of ‘sensible’ people, was bound to lead to disaster. But in those who were not put off by [Jesus] he created a passionate love and allegiance which death could not destroy.”[ii]

Today we find ourselves confronted by another hard saying of Jesus. There are some religious leaders resisting Jesus’ authority. So, Jesus confronts them with a parable; and it’s a parable that packs a punch. The gist of it goes something like this: crushing consequences await anyone who rejects Jesus. But if you’re not put off by Jesus—if, instead, his word leads you to repentance and faith—then you’ll find yourself belonging to God’s kingdom. Let’s look at these things together. Verse 33…

33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.

“Hear another parable,” Jesus says. The first parable we covered last Sunday, and it too packed a punch. It was the parable of the two sons. These religious leaders boasted a great obedience to God. But when John preached God’s kingdom, they refused to respond. When tax collectors and prostitutes were transformed by God’s kingdom, they refused to respond. So, Jesus compares them to a son who tells his father, “I go, sir,” but never does. Their hypocrisy proves they don’t belong to God’s kingdom. Only those who repent, who change their mind about Jesus, become heirs of the kingdom.

Now Jesus tells another parable that packs a punch. He’s got the same religious leaders in the ring; and he’s about to deal another right hook. Our passage unfolds in three parts. We’ll look at the parable itself in verses 33-41. Then we’ll look at how Jesus uses Psalm 118 to explain and apply the parable—that’s verses 42-44. Lastly, we’ll see how his message affects the religious leaders and how it ought to affect us.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

So, to start, let’s look at the parable Jesus tells in verses 33-41. It begins like some of Jesus’ other parables with a master of a house over a vineyard. Most listeners could relate to a story like this, as many owned or worked in vineyards during Jesus’ day.

But more importantly, a vineyard was a familiar metaphor applied to Israel in the Old Testament. Isaiah 5:1-7 is a great example. “[God] had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.” Isaiah 5:7 then tells us what God’s talking about: “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel.” So, when Jesus brings up a vineyard, Jewish ears would be tuning in: Is he talking about us?

Indeed, he is; and there’s a few things Jesus means to emphasize. One is the generosity of the master. Did you notice all he does for the vineyard? He plants the vineyard. He puts a fence around it to keep out the animals. He digs a winepress in it—they don’t have to haul their grapes elsewhere. He builds a watchtower from which to see thieves or possible fire damage. The master does everything to bless his vineyard and make it prosper. To use the Lord’s words in Isaiah 5:4, “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” Same with the master here. He illustrates God’s generosity to his people. He gave them everything.

And the point of the master’s generosity was for his vineyard to bear fruit. Throughout our passage, we find this concern for fruit. In verse 34, the master means to gather his fruit when the season for fruit drew near. We’ll see it again in verse 41—even the religious leaders know the purpose of a vineyard is fruit. Fruit comes up again in verse 43 when Jesus explains the meaning of the parable. We find the same concern in Isaiah 5:2, God looks for his vineyard (his people) to yield fruit.

Now, this too, should cause the ears of the religious leaders to perk up. These same leaders knew what John the Baptist had been preaching. Jesus brought this up a couple times already in verses 25 and 32. And what was John telling them back in Matthew 3:8? “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” This was also the concern of Jesus. On his way to meet with these religious leaders, he cursed a fig tree for bearing no fruit; and the point was to expose Israel and its leaders for producing no fruit.

The master’s generosity was for his vineyard to bear fruit. But when the season for fruit had come, what happens in verses 34-37? He sends servants to gather his fruits. But instead of giving the master his fruit, they beat and kill and stone his servants. The master’s generosity then shines again—instead of immediate punishment, he sends other servants, “more than the first,” it says in verse 36. The tenants do the same to them—they beat and kill them too. “Finally,” verse 37 says, the master sends his son, saying, “They will respect my son.” “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”

At this point in the parable, it’s not hard to see where Jesus is going. He’s rehearsing the story of Israel rejecting their God. God had given Israel a kingdom to steward. Everything they needed to bear fruit, he provided. He even sent them servant after servant after servant—we know them as the prophets. They were God’s messengers to help Israel understand their purpose in bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. Yet the nation and its leaders largely rejected those prophets and beat them and killed them.

But Jesus then takes their story further: Israel’s rejection culminates in the killing of the master’s son, the rightful heir. Instead of stewarding the Lord’s gifts to produce fruit for his kingdom, the tenants attempt to seize everything to build their own kingdom. And they will do it even to the point of killing the owner’s son.

Now, anyone following Matthew’s Gospel knows that Jesus has just written himself into the parable. Jesus is the son. Since the start of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is son of David, son of Abraham. Ultimately, he is Son of God. Also, Matthew recalls several occasions when Jesus tells his disciples how he must be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and crucify him.

Jesus is showing how the story of Israel’s rejection of God climaxes in them killing God’s Son. This is Jesus’ own destiny in the telling of Israel’s story. He is the final and full expression of God’s generosity and patience and merciful provision. Yet, they still reject him. We can see that better as readers of Matthew’s Gospel. But these religious leaders haven’t yet put the pieces together.

Jesus then poses a question in verse 40 to draw them in and let them finish the parable. He asks, “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They say to Jesus, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” That is spot on! They have drawn the right conclusion from the parable. The wicked tenants merit the owner’s judgment. The owner is right to strip the vineyard from them and give it to others who will give him the fruits he deserves.

By extension, we’re seeing here that God will be right to judge Israel and strip Israel of his kingdom. The religious leaders haven’t yet fully grasped that they are the wicked tenants in Jesus’ story. By rejecting God’s Son, their sights are set on building their own kingdom. They’re not interested in God’s kingdom, especially one where Jesus reigns and includes the likes of tax collectors and prostitutes—that was back in verse 32.

But here’s where Jesus’ parable sets them up. Here’s where it packs a punch. Anyone who lives for their own kingdom will be crushed by Jesus’ kingdom. That’s understood in part by the owner “putting those wretches to a miserable death” in verse 41. But Jesus expands on this by turning to the Scriptures in verses 42-44.

Applying the Parable Using Psalm 118

Having finished the parable, Jesus now uses Psalm 118 to explain and apply the parable to these religious leaders directly. Had these religious leaders read their Bible’s more carefully, they would’ve known things were heading this way.

He says in verse 42, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” That’s from Psalm 118:22-23. We learned part of that Psalm not too long ago in 21:9—the people praised Jesus with words from Psalm 118: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” But what we haven’t learned yet is how those praises follow the king’s sufferings and vindication.

Psalm 118 is written from the perspective of a special king in Israel. I say “special” because he leads God’s people into worship. Also, he has enough influence in Israel that he represents the nation in battle. That’s why he can speak of all nations surrounding me in 118:10-11. He’s like the figure we find in Psalm 2. The kings of the earth and rulers set themselves against the Lord and against his anointed (Ps 2:1). Also, in the face of great suffering, he remains faithful to the Lord. And, to top it off, he represents God’s people, such that his victory becomes theirs. He’s a special king.

But the king’s victory doesn’t come without great suffering. That’s why he opens with, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord.” Nations surround him. “I pushed hard,” he says, “so that I was falling.” He likens his sufferings to a death in verse 18. But it’s in verse 22 that we find the words Jesus quotes: “the stone that the builders rejected.” God’s special king—mighty as he is, faithful as he is, fearless as he is—he’s tossed aside like an insignificant stone. The builders—the ones leading God’s people, the ones who were supposed to be about the Lord’s work; in Jesus’ day, it was the likes of these religious leaders. The builders look at this king like an insignificant stone: “Eh, there’s better ones over here, let’s toss him aside. We know better how to build God’s kingdom.”

Nevertheless, God had a plan for this special king. As our text says, this was the Lord’s doing; it was part of his sovereign plan. The king getting tossed aside becomes the greatest act God performs to establish his kingdom. “The stone that the builders rejected,” it says, “[that same stone] has become the cornerstone”—the most significant stone in the building. Meaning, the king that seemed insignificant, the king who was tossed aside, the king who struggled unto death for his people—he doesn’t stay dead. God makes him the cornerstone. Which is why Psalm 118 ends with praise.

That’s why God’s people join the king in worship at the end of Psalm 118. It’s through the king’s obedient sufferings and victory that God’s kingdom prevails, and the people get to enter the gates of righteousness into the kingdom and right into the presence of God. The people are filled with joy. There are glad songs of salvation among the people. That stone—no longer is it insignificant—it has become “marvelous in our eyes.” “This is the day the Lord has made,” they sing, “let us rejoice and be glad in it.”    

Going back to Matthew 21, it makes sense why Jesus would use Psalm 118 to explain and apply his parable to these religious leaders. Jesus is the special king of Psalm 118. He’s about to be tossed aside like an insignificant stone, and the religious leaders will instigate it. They are the builders who think they know better by tossing aside the stone—much like the tenants who kill the son. But what they don’t realize is that such an act will not stop God’s special king. In fact, Psalm 118 has already laid out what’s going to happen. Sure, they’ll kill Jesus. But it’s all part of God’s plan to topple their kingdom and establish a greater one, one that’s built on the Cornerstone of Jesus.

“Therefore, I tell you,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [you unbelieving Israel] and given to a people producing its fruits.” Can you imagine how that lands on these Jewish leaders? Just because you’re Jewish, just because you belong to Israel and have centuries of blessings from God, just because you know the Scriptures and view yourself as religious—that doesn’t mean you belong to God’s kingdom. That doesn’t make you part of God’s people. No, if you reject the King, then you’re not part of the kingdom. That’s a crushing blow.

Who gets the kingdom? Those who produce the kingdom’s fruits. Those who repent and bow to Jesus as King and love his rule. He will give the kingdom to the likes of his disciples, who’ve chosen to follow Jesus. Earlier he mentioned the likes of tax collectors and prostitutes who had responded to the saving message of Jesus. Later, Matthew will include people from all nations. In fact, it’s significant here that the word behind “a people producing its fruits” is the same word we translate as nation. He’s talking about the church, consisting of Jew and Gentile alike who proclaim Jesus as Lord and submit their lives to bearing the fruit of his kingdom.

But for those who reject Jesus, there will be crushing consequences. He goes on to say in verse 44, “And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

Perhaps we’re now hearing echoes from Isaiah 8:14-15. The Lord becomes a sanctuary to those who trust him. But the Lord also becomes “a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling…and many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be crushed.” Or maybe we’re hearing echoes of the stone prophecy in Daniel 2. People build their own kingdoms for a while. But God eventually raises up a stone that shatters their kingdoms. Either way, Jesus is clear. The stone of Psalm 118 ain’t going anywhere. You can accept that and live accordingly. Or crushing consequences await anyone who rejects Jesus.

How should we respond to Jesus’ Word?

So where does that leave you? How have you responded to Jesus? We know how the religious leaders respond. Matthew tells us in verse 45. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.” Okay, good! But that perception doesn’t result in repentance, does it?

Tragically, Matthew says, “And although they were seeking to arrest [Jesus], they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.” Luke’s Gospel tells us they went off and plotted secretly how to kill Jesus. They’re in the same state of unbelief they had before with John the Baptist. Look at verse 26: “we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” Now they’re afraid of the crowd because they hold Jesus to be a prophet. Despite the evidence, despite the parables, despite knowing that Jesus was talking about them, they remain unchanged.

If that’s where they stay, Jesus’ kingdom will crush them. If that’s where you stay, Jesus’ kingdom will crush you. He will take you out. You will suffer the misery of watching your kingdom crumble, and for an eternity that misery will never let up. So, what are you going to do with Jesus? Do you hold him to be the rightful heir? Do you acknowledge him as King and Savior and Lord? Or have you rejected him? Have you disregarded him? Do you live in ways that push him out? Are you indifferent to Jesus?

Because this parable doesn’t allow you to stay there. If you walk away, saying, “Eh, that’s just what Christians happen to believe,” then you’ve missed the claim Jesus is making about himself. You must come to terms with Jesus.

He is the Cornerstone. God is building his kingdom as we speak. But if you see life as just doing your own thing, building your own kingdom, ignoring Jesus’ words, then crushing consequences await you. Jesus will shatter your kingdom. Would consider again the master’s generosity? Consider again God’s kindness in making his appeals to you and sending his Son for you. Romans 2:4 tells us that God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance. If you’re not put off by Jesus’ word—if, instead, that word leads you to repentance—then you’ll find yourself blessed in his kingdom.

So don’t choose to live for yourself. Trust in Jesus and find his person and his obedience and his sufferings and his resurrection to be your salvation. Repent and follow the King, and you can take that first step getting baptized.

For many of us, we have placed our trust in Jesus. His words, hard as they are sometimes, have become for us eternal life. We look at that stone now, and he is by no means insignificant. He is marvelous in our eyes. We sing with Psalm 118, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” We see God’s great work of salvation in Jesus; his victory has become our victory. We’re thrilled!

Here’s what our passage says to those of us who know Jesus to be God’s special King: give to your King the fruit he deserves. You are the new tenants in the vineyard. Jesus took the vineyard away from faithless Israel and he gave it to a people producing its fruits. It started with his disciples, but that’s now you, church—Jew and Gentile alike who believe in Jesus. Through Jesus, the Lord has given his vineyard to you; and he expects fruit. His generosity in the gospel is for the purpose of bearing fruit.

In Matthew 3:8, bearing fruit means repentance, since the kingdom of God is near. In Ephesians 5:9, we learned a few weeks ago that fruit meant committing ourselves to “all that is good and right and true.” In John 15:12, Jesus relates bearing fruit to loving the saints. In John 4:36, gathering fruit has to do with winning new converts to Jesus. Bearing fruit means devoting yourself to the things that please the Lord—things that honor the Son, love his people, and spread his message to others.

Peter must have been listening when Jesus taught on Psalm 118. He understood what Jesus meant when he said, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits,” because Peter viewed the church as that people producing its fruits. You see, he too quotes from Psalm 118 in 1 Peter 2:7, but he explains its significance beforehand in 1 Peter 2:4-5. “As you come to [Jesus], 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.”

In Christ we are living stones being built up as a spiritual house. Jesus is the Cornerstone. God is building an entire house on that Cornerstone. That’s who you are. Maybe others have cut you down this week. Maybe a friend has made you feel worthless. Maybe you’re just going through life finding it hard. Things didn’t work out like you expected. Work seems pointless. Listen, you are part of something great and beautiful that spans centuries and becomes a taste of heaven on earth—you are God’s house built on the Cornerstone, God’s temple, the place where God’s Spirit dwells.

What is your purpose? To offer spiritual sacrifices. What does that mean? Everything we give ourselves to as a result of the Spirit transforming us. In 1 Peter it’s learning how to trust the Lord when tested through trials. It’s learning to be holy in all our conduct. It’s loving one another from a pure heart. It’s proclaiming God’s excellencies. It’s being generally subject to governing authorities. Wives, it’s adorning yourselves with a gentle and quiet spirit. Husbands, it’s living with your wives in an understanding manner. It’s a life of prayer and showing hospitality without grumbling.

This is the fruit God desires from our lives. This is the fruit we get to produce while working in God’s vineyard. Give yourself to bearing the fruit of Jesus’ kingdom. What an amazing privilege to be caretakers in God’s vineyard. Once we were outside the Lord’s vineyard—cut off from his people, cut off from his kingdom. But in Christ he has brought us into his vineyard. We didn’t deserve it.

And as we serve in the vineyard, hasn’t the Lord been so generous? Hasn’t he given us everything we need? We have life and breath, his world; we have his love, the Scriptures, the church; and most of all he sent his only Son. What more could he have done for us? Crushing consequences await anyone who rejects Jesus. But for those who receive Jesus and acknowledge his lordship, there’s no better place to be than serving in his vineyard. Because of his great love, give Jesus the fruit he deserves.

Then lastly, keep building the church on Jesus, the Cornerstone. “This is the Lord’s doing,” Psalm 118 says. It was the Lord’s doing to build his kingdom on the Cornerstone, to build his church on the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. But it’s often a temptation facing Christians to start building the church on things other than Jesus. From the Pope to prosperity, from seeker-sensitive to self-help, from pop-music and coffee to rodeos and arenas, from a popular brand to popular preachers. Every generation is faced with an onslaught of temptations to replace the Cornerstone.

Those temptations have been real even recently with this being an election year. A couple weeks ago, Andrew Walker published an article in World magazine. He says, “In an election year, it is more than easy to collapse and reduce the most important things happening in America to politics. How much more is that amplified with the endless drama of Donald Trump? But for evangelicals, what occurs in the voting booth is much less significant than what is happening in our local congregations on Sundays or around your dinner table.” “…Though we cannot stop the media from doing what it will do, it’s our choice whether to make politics the central fixture of our focus.”[iii]

Brothers and sisters, the moment we make the central fixture of our focus anything other than Jesus—that is the moment we start building a kingdom that isn’t God’s. Be sure that you’re not swayed to start building the church on another foundation. If we toss aside the Cornerstone, then crushing consequences await us.


[i] F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus (Downers Grove: IVP, 1983), 16.

[ii] Bruce, Hard Sayings, 15.

[iii] Andrew T. Walker, “Man’s Chief End Is Not Political Obsession,” World (January 23, 2024), accessed at https://wng.org/opinions/mans-chief-end-is-not-political-obsession-1705963132.

other sermons in this series