109. The Stone that Shatters (sunthlaomai) and Pulverizes (likmaō)
(Matthew 21:44 = Luke 20:18)

At the conclusion to the juridicial parable1 of the Vineyard and Tenants, in the Matthean and Lukan narratives, Jesus adds a severe warning. Those who reject the “stone”, i.e. God’s Messiah, will discover this stone to be the cause of their personal destruction. This logion only occurs in Matthew and Luke and it contains two verbs that are only found in the New Testament in these two contexts, namely “shatter” (sunthlaomai) and “pulverize” (likmaō).2 While the image of the stone remains constant, the nature of the stone changes from being the cornerstone to being a stone over which one stumbles or a stone that falls upon someone, to their hurt and destruction.

This statement combines ideas and perhaps some terminology from Isaiah 8:14-15 and Daniel 2:44-5. The Isaiah text speaks about the dangers that disobedient inhabitants of Jerusalem will face, because they do not trust in God. They will fall (pesountai) and be crushed (suntribēsontai), as they experience “a stumbling caused by a stone” and “a fall caused by a rock.” At the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision in Daniel 2 the great statue is destroyed by the rock “cut from a mountain, without hands” (Daniel 2:34). Daniel interprets this (2:44-45) stone to refer to a future kingdom established by God, which none can oppose. Rather it “crushes (leptunei) and abolishes (likmēsei) those kingdoms” (Daniel 2:44(Septuagint)). While the terminology varies, the sense is very similar to Jesus’ statement in that God will exercise judgment against those who resist Him, with the result that they are shattered and crushed. In the Matthean context it is Jesus as Messiah who is the stone.

The translator of Judges (the A text) used sunthlaomai to describe the death of Abimelech (9:53), when a woman threw a millstone on him from the tower of Thebes and it “crushed (sunethlasen) his skull.” In Daniel 6 when Daniel is rescued from the den of lions his antagonists are condemned to death and thrown to the lions. The translator (of the Old Greek text) used the simple form of the verb to describe how the beasts killed them and “crushed (ethlasen) their bones” (6: 24). In the Psalms God exercises judgment against his enemies by crushing their heads (e.g. Psalms 67(68):21; 73(74):14; 109(110):5,6). The Psalmist used a military image in which a rod of some kind (often iron) was used as a weapon to crush the skulls of enemies either during battle or in the judgment that ensues after battle. It is an image of complete defeat. In the first Servant Song (Isaiah 42:3) the way this figure proceeds in his assignment is surprising. “A bruised (tethlasmenon) reed he will not break and a smoking wick he will not quench.” Matthew quotes this passage (12:20), but uses a different verb to describe the “bruised (suntetrimmenon) reed.” In his first coming as Messiah Jesus did not exercise judgment over his enemies in the manner God does in the Psalter, but encouraged any positive response to him and his message from whatever quarter. However, those who rejected him will discover that Yahweh will not let them treat his Messiah in such cavalier and rebellious a fashion. Jesus warns that such people, “falling upon/against this stone”, the one they have rejected, “will be crushed (sunthlasthēsetai)” (Matthew 21:44). The imagery is that of a clay pot that falls upon a stone and shatters to pieces — a common occurrence in first century Jerusalem. Jesus used the passive voice (“will be crushed”) and the agent of the action is implied, namely God himself. In this statement Jesus warns his contemporaries of the hostility they face from God should they continue to reject him as Messiah, i.e. act like the tenant farmers in the previous Vineyard parable. The initiative for this destructive act seems to lie with vessel/person which by virtue of its action comes into contact with the stone and so is destroyed.

The second part of Jesus’ statement used a different image whereby a stone falls upon something or someone and pulverizes (likmēsei) it. In this case the initiative lies with the stone which impacts some object thereby causing its destruction. We have already noted that the verb used in this clause (likmēsei) occurred in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the statue (Dan. 2:44). The stone “made without hands” represents a kingdom established by God “that will never be destroyed.” The conjunction of the images (stone and crushing) in Daniel 2:44 and Matthew 21:44 suggest that Jesus had Daniel’s text in mind when he gave this teaching.

This verb likmaō, however, requires some comment. Its primary sense is to winnow, shake, scatter, being formed from the noun likmos “winnowing basket,” likmēsis “the winnowing,” and likmētēs “the winnower.”3 Both in secular and biblical texts the verb occurs in contexts where grain is being harvested. For example, in Philo’s De Iosepho 112 the author retells Joseph’s commands to Egyptians regarding the way they should store the harvest in preparation for the seven years of famine. They were not to thresh the grain, but store it in the sheaves when they require it, then it will be “threshed and winnowed (likmōntōn).” When Naomi advises Ruth, her daughter-in-law, that she can no longer provide for her, she counsels her to seek the assistance of Boaz. That night (Ruth 3:2) Boaz “is winnowing (likmāi) the threshing-floor of the barley.”4 Of course, threshing required the straw and grain to be crushed and then tossed in the air or shaken in some manner, so that the wind could blow the lighter straw away from the heavier seeds of grain. In the process the straw is pulverized and scattered by the wind.

The use of this verb in the agricultural process gets applied to other kinds of shaking and pulverizing. The Septuagint translation of Amos 9:9 is a great example of this sense.

For behold I am commanding, and I will winnow (likmiō) the house of Israel among all the nations as one winnows (likmatai) with a winnowing fan (likmōi), and nothing crushed shall fall to the ground.5

To “winnow the house of Israel among all the nations” is a prophetic warning about Yahweh’s judgment to scatter the Northern Kingdom into exile. This winnowing seems to be so violent and so complete that neither grain nor chaff will be left behind, i.e. the exile will be total. The following verse outlines the scope of this disaster. This Greek translation communicates the sense of the Hebrew text, but does so in quite an altered fashion. The New Revised Standard Version rendered the Hebrew text as:

For lo, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground.

Yahweh declares that he “will scatter (diasperō) Egypt among the nations and winnow (likmēsō) them into the countries” (Ezekiel 29:12).6 These texts demonstrate how this Greek verb was used in various Old Testament passages to express God’s judgment upon Israel and other nations by scattering them from their homelands. But this is not the end of the story because “he who winnowed (ho likmēsas) Israel will gather him and will keep him, as he who feeds his flock” (Jeremiah 38(31Hebrew):10).7

Returning then to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 21:44, we can now hear how his words resonate with these Old Testament prophetic words. The stone crushes and pulverizes into dust that the wind sweeps away. This in fact is how Nebuchadnezzar saw in his vision the great statue destroyed.

Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff at a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth. (Daniel 2:35NIV)

It is not clear in Jesus statement whether he is the stone in both segments of this statement or whether he is referring to the Kingdom of God that he is inaugurating in a new, powerful way. Essentially Jesus and the Kingdom of God are identified together. We noted that in Daniel’s interpretation that the stone represented a great kingdom God would establish in the future.

For Jesus to make such a statement in Jerusalem at the very end of his ministry is an astonishing warning. It reveals a deep knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures and Daniel in particular. We do not have space to explore all of the nuances and implications. However, it does point to the great significance that Jesus bears for human history and individual human beings. The risk in rejecting Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Saviour is extraordinarily costly. As Jesus told his followers, to try and save one’s life without following Jesus is to destroy it.


  1. accepting Jesus of Nazareth as “Lord”, i.e. the ultimate ruler who holds every human being accountable to God, requires a major change in human thinking, particularly for us who live in the highly individualistic West. We value our presumed human autonomy too much to submit to Jesus. This role that Jesus possesses is one of the greatest challenges we have in pursuing the Great Commission. However, we cannot ignore it or keep it quiet.
  2. if you are a pastor or teacher, when was the last time you proclaimed that Jesus is both Saviour and Judge? Jesus himself said that God is the most dangerous being that humans must come to terms with, “the One Who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Jesus is God’s Son, the stone whom we reject at our peril.
  • 1Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent. A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 276. He defines a “juridicial parable” as one in which the speaker “elicits a self-condemnation from the hearers through the aid of an image.”
  • 2Although one or two manuscripts omit v.44 in Matthew’s Gospel and some textual critics consider this verse to be borrowed from Luke 20:18, the evidence for its originality in Matthew is strong and the form in Matthew’s Gospel is slightly different from that found in Luke.
  • 3C.Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Volume 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 401. He also notes various examples in the papyri from the first century B.C.
  • 4A.Pietersma and B.Wright, eds., A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 242.
  • 5Ibid., 795.
  • 6Ibid., 969.
  • 7Ibid., 914.

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