Most of us have seen a Cornerstone. They used to be a standard feature of important structures, such as courthouses, schools, and even factories and office buildings. Today they are mostly associated with churches. The cornerstone is typically a prominent block of stone that is carved with the building’s date and perhaps other decorations. Often it is hollow and contains a ‘time capsule’ of memorabilia. In other words, the modern cornerstone is a decorative architectural feature that serves no real structural purpose other than as a kind of commemoration. That’s not at all the meaning of ‘cornerstone’ as it is used in the Bible!
You’ve probably had the experience of seeing the crumbled remains of an old building – perhaps the ruins of something constructed in antiquity. Maybe you noticed that it was the corners of the structure that are usually most intact. This is because corners are self-braced and thus resist the kinds of lateral forces that topple walls. Ancient people noticed this too, and though they didn’t have the engineering insights to analyze it in detail, they grasped the principle of the corner’s strength and paid special attention to them in their construction work. They also recognized that when they were laying out a building, the logical place to start was in one corner and build out from there. The choice and placement of this first or ‘chief’ cornerstone was crucial to the construction project and thus was given a mystical significance as representing the ‘heart and soul’ that would dictate either success or failure of the entire enterprise. In fact, in the ancient Mideast (and probably elsewhere too) we know that there were special religious rituals associated with placing this cornerstone, often involving sacrifices and blood.
So when the Biblical writers referred to the cornerstone (as they do a dozen times in the Old and New Testaments), they certainly weren’t thinking of some sort of superficial commemorative block! The cornerstone was the very essence of the undertaking and had potent spiritual significance.
So it’s not surprising that mention of the cornerstone appears in the Old Testament as a metaphor for God’s handiwork. For example, Job 38:6 refers to God laying the cornerstone on which the earth is constructed. But the Old Testament also makes curious references to “the stone that the builders rejected” which ultimately becomes key to the structure (Psalm 118:22) and the “stone laid in Zion” which becomes “the cornerstone for a sure foundation” (Isaiah 28:16). The Jewish rabbis recognized these as hinting at God’s plan to deliver His chosen people through a powerful future leader they called the ‘Messiah’ (Christ).
These ‘cornerstone’ prophecies assume new significance in the New Testament when Jesus pointedly identifies Himself as the promised cornerstone that is being rejected by the religious establishment. (Matthew 21:42-46). The apostles later drew on this familiar prophecy when they were called to account for their boldness in proclaiming the crucified Jesus as the victorious Messiah (Acts 4:11-12).
In the church of today there is sometimes much confusion. Our culture does not automatically embrace the church as it once did (or at least seemed to) and hostile and dismissive voices fill the media. Within the churches there are passionate debates about how best to attract and retain members. Sometimes there can be the danger that we become preoccupied with technology and entertainment as the foundation for success (We need a better website! We need a video screen! We need guitars and drums!). It is certainly appropriate and necessary that we utilize all of the best materials as we seek to continually construct our ministry to be relevant to today’s world. However, we must never fall into the fatal trap of bypassing the Chief Cornerstone on which all else depends:
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)