2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” 8and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
In three interwoven scriptural allusions, 1 Peter 2:4-10 presents us with a striking image. While undertaking a great construction project, a team of builders reject a stone. However, this stone is later placed as the chief cornerstone of a new divinely established building, a vast new temple constructed by the Spirit, formed of ‘living’ stones.
This stone which God has laid becomes a cause of division. On the one hand, people come to this stone in order to be built upon it. On the other hand, those who continue to reject it consistently find it to be an obstacle in their way and stumble over it to their destruction.
The imagery explored in this passage was deeply embedded in the consciousness of the early Church. The passages to which Peter alludes—Isaiah 28:16-19, Psalm 118, and Isaiah 8:11-15—are referenced in numerous other places in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 21:42-44; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17-18; John 12:13; Acts 4:11; Romans 9:32-33; 10:11; Ephesians 2:20).
The significance of the imagery of this passage arises from the fact that the construction work described is not a general building project, but the establishment of the eschatological Temple itself. The stone that God lays is placed in Zion, where the Temple itself was located. Hence the imagery explored in this passage involves a searching interrogation of core scriptural symbols, and is not merely a random metaphor deployed only for a limited purpose.
Peter does not leave his readers guessing about the character of the building with which he is concerned, declaring that we are to be ‘built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ We are being formed into a new temple (a ‘spiritual house’), a new priesthood, and a site of sacrifice (the combination of organic and architectural imagery in such a context is also seen in Ephesians 2:19-22 and 4:16).
As those familiar with scriptural prophecy would have known, this new temple construction would be a refuge for the righteous, yet a cause of destruction for the rebellious. The wider context of Isaiah 28:16 speaks of the sweeping away of the refuge of lies and the trampling down of those who have sided with death. The stone of Isaiah 8:14 is YHWH himself, a stone of stumbling laid as a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that many of them might be broken and destroyed. Further afield, any reference to a great eschatological stone would recall the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2, where a stone cut out without hands (cf. Exodus 20:25) breaks apart and crushes the massive idol of the empires, becoming a mountain that fills the whole earth.
In relating this imagery to Christ, the New Testament authors activated an expansive network of scriptural symbolism, prophecy, and textual connections. Christ is the Messiah who constructs the eschatological temple, yet, as the Isaianic stone of stumbling, he is identified with YHWH himself. Christ is the one who brings radical division in the people of God and the destruction of those who are rebellious. The building of the eschatological temple is a project opposed by the former builders, who rejected its fundamental stone, yet it is the start of a kingdom that will never end.
In the gospels and Acts we can see how fraught the Jerusalem Temple was as a symbol dividing Jews and Christians. Jesus prophesied the Temple’s coming destruction, while speaking allusively of a new building that would be established. In John 2:19-22, Jesus speaks of his own body as a temple that would be destroyed and then raised up. In the context of the parable of the Wicked Vinedressers in Matthew 21, Jesus declares that the rejected stone—associated with the rejected son of the parable that precedes it—would become the chief cornerstone, breaking all those who fall on it (like the stone of stumbling in Isaiah 8) and grinding to powder all those upon whom it falls (like the stone of Daniel 2).
Alongside imagery of a new temple project, 1 Peter 2 alludes to Exodus 19, where Israel was constituted as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation at Mount Sinai, speaking of the people formed upon and around Jesus Christ using the charged description ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (cf. Exodus 19:6). Within this passage, one may also hear the echo of Jesus’ terrible words to the chief priests and the Pharisees—the builders who rejected him—in Matthew 21:43-44—
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.
The people of God are being reconstituted around Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified by Israel’s rulers yet rose again by the power of God, the stone which was once rejected yet has been made the chief cornerstone.
Such passages may be unsettling for a post-Holocaust Church, acutely aware of the poisonous fruits that supercessionist theologies have borne historically. However, while we must be vigilant and alert to the many dangers on this front, it is important that we do not muffle key New Testament themes in order to counteract the vicious ways that they have been employed in the service of anti-Semitism.
The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ coming entails an apocalyptic crisis for Israel and its rulers. Jesus’ death and resurrection, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, and the establishment of the Church are events that the New Testament connects together. In Jesus, God is initiating a new ‘living’ building project in fulfilment of scriptural prophecy, a project that is a cause of radical division, bringing salvation and mercy for some, yet destruction for others.
Jesus is the eschatological stone of the new Temple construction project, establishing refuge yet also bringing destruction to the rebellious rulers of this present age. He is the Isaianic stone of stumbling and the Danielic stone that crushes the great idol of the human empires, becoming a vast mountain that fills the whole earth.
Jesus is the one who brings division to the world, separating the nations as we see in parables such as that of the Sheep and the Goats. However, while Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which lurks in the background, involves a falling stone, 1 Peter 2 speaks of this division as one primarily occasioned by people’s posture towards Christ, the eschatological living stone: will they stumble over him as the rejected stone or will they come to him as the precious chosen stone in order to build their lives upon him?
Within its original context, 1 Peter 2 was profoundly charged with political meaning and consequence. Christ had been rejected by the Jewish rulers of his day, even though he was the chief cornerstone of God’s eschatological Temple. In the process, the rulers had doomed themselves and their political project to destruction, while the people of God would be reconstituted around Christ.
Christ’s presence in the world continues to have a character similar to that which he represented in first century Israel. He is either the rejected stone upon which we stumble or the chief cornerstone from which all else takes its bearings. One way or another, we have to reckon with him, either as a stubborn and dangerous obstacle or as the one whose claims must take priority over all else.
The immodesty of the place that God has given to this rejected stone exacerbates the division it causes. The stone is not merely rescued from the refuse to be placed in a relatively insignificant part of the structure, but is established as the chief cornerstone, the most important stone in the entire building. We must either build everything around Christ or not at all.
Christian political witness must be built around and declare Christ as the great eschatological stone laid by God. He must either be approached as the stubborn obstacle, arresting the development of all idolatrous political visions, or as the chief cornerstone, the sure and solid basis from all else can take its bearings.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.