Church is a Group Activity (2): We Have a Common Foundation
Intro -- Gene Cernan was the last of twelve very privileged men. He was the last man to walk on the moon in December 1972. But he was also the pivotal man on another space flight. On June 4, 1966, Gene Cernan very nearly died in space performing the Americans second walk in space. The American public never knew the danger, but flight directors at NASA headquarters that day feared the worst. Cernan’s walk in space began fine, but as he got to the rear of the capsule and tried to unload a new device intended to propel spacewalkers trouble developed rapidly. Because he had no footholds or handholds, every time he tried to turn a knob or pull a lever, all that happened in the vacuum of space was that he propelled himself in the opposite direction, then he would have to somehow re-orient himself and start all over with the same result. Naturally, the harder he tried, the more he found himself literally going in circles. Within a very short period of time his visor was completely fogged over from sweat, his heartbeat was soon way beyond acceptable levels and his oxygen was used up at twice the expected rate because of his extreme exertion; he was completely exhausted. It became apparent that the activity had to be canceled, but Cernan arrived back at the capsule opening only to discover that his suit had expanded and it was only with extreme exertion that he and command pilot Stafford finally managed to pull him back in at the last possible moment before he was out of oxygen. Gene Cernan escaped death only by the smallest of margins – all because of lack of proper foundational handholds and footholds on his space capsule to allow him to leverage himself in the weightlessness of space. Proper foundations are critical in any endeavor and the church is no exception.
We started last week to look at Paul’s three pictures of the church given in Eph 2:19-22. We found that he likened it to a country, emphasizing that all in the body of Christ are equally privilege. Then he likened it to a family showing that all are equally accepted. Today we begin a three-part look at the church as a temple or building showing that all are equally needed.
III. The Church is a Building (We are Needed)
Now, this section ends with three wonderful verses that stress the final picture of the church – the church as a building with the emphasis being that we are needed, can be used, are important to God’s program. Let’s read starting in verse 20: 20) built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21) in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22) In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Paul’s imagery is very likely driven by the fact that there was the magnificent temple to Diana that was resident in Ephesus with which his readers were thoroughly familiar. He had also made reference in the verses just before this to imagery which called to mind the spectacular Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, so it was only natural that he would now look at this new entity, this new man, this church, that God was creating to say, it is also like a building, but it is a living building. As opposed to the beauty but immaterial nature of these other temples, there is now something unique in the world. We want to look at this section from a four-fold point of view. To outfit us for the service God wants from us we will see that we have a foundation, a focus, a fit and a function. Today we look at the foundation.
A. We have a foundation
As we have seen, the cross of Christ had enabled in Ephesus the joining of ancient foes – Jews and Gentiles – into a new entity called the church. To help us understand that new entity Paul says, “It’s like that great temple down the street, and as in any building, nothing is more fundamentally important than the foundation.” According to verse 20, the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ. That is one loaded little phrase.
Most of you will probably recognize that this is not the only place in Scripture where Paul talks about a foundation. He is particularly clear in I Corinthians 3 and we need to turn there. He says beginning in verse 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11) For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. If you have been watching closely, you will notice that in Ephesians the foundation is comprised of the apostles and prophets while in Corinthians, the foundation is Christ. How are we to reconcile this seeming contradiction?
Some have tried to reconcile these by suggesting that in both cases Christ is the foundation and that when Ephesians says that we are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, the meaning is that we are built on the foundation that was utilized by or laid by the apostles which is Jesus Christ. This would correspond well with Paul’s comment in I Corinthians 3:10 that he laid a foundation. However, this fails to explain all the facts, and I believe that there is a better explanation.
Please note first of all that in both passages, the picture of a building is being used as a metaphor to help us understand some greater reality. Metaphors need not correspond exactly when used in different places in Scripture. Paul may have altered the imagery to make different points, and that appears to be exactly what he did. This is particularly evident in the fact that while Jesus Christ is clearly said to be the foundation in I Corinthians 3, he is equally clearly said to be the cornerstone in Ephesians 2. Now, I will grant you that the cornerstone is important as we will see, but it is not the whole foundation. It is one major piece of the foundation. So, it seems clear to me that Paul has taken a building as his main image in both passages, but has altered the elements to make certain points.
If we drill a little deeper, his purposes become even more evident. In Ephesians 2, it is clear that his imagery of a building incorporates the whole church – all of us as individual parts forming a building or living temple, if you will. In I Corinthians 3 he eventually gets to that point, but that is not his starting point. Look again starting in verse 10: According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11) For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Here, the foundation is not for a temple comprised of every believer, but instead the foundation referenced is for each individual’s life. As believer’s we all have Jesus Christ as the foundation for our lives. This is shown as he goes on beginning in verse 12: Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13) each one’s work (not our corporate work, but the work of each one of us individually) will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14) If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15) If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
So, up until this point in I Cor. 3, it has all been about the individual -- not about the collective body of Christ, but about each individual member. But that all changes beginning in verse 16: 16) Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17) If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Beginning with verse 16, all of the “you’s” are plural (we can’t see this in the English text unless you have a footnote, but it is clear in the Greek). So – in verses 10-15, Paul is saying, you (singular) must build wisely as an individual. Choose for your life activities that are of eternal value, which will stand the judgment fire of God when He judges your works, your attitudes, you efforts, your individual contributions. But why does he urge that? Why because all of us taken together, “you” plural, form the temple of God, and that temple is to be holy. Now we have reached a point similar to that which he will emphasize in Ephesians 2, but I hope this will help you understand how these two passages need to be reconciled.
Thus, the foundation for our personal lives as individual believers is Jesus Christ and none other. And upon that foundation, we are to build works of faith, efforts governed by the guidance and help and with reliance upon the Holy Spirit. That is the thrust of I Corinthians 3:10-15.
But the teaching of Ephesians 2:20-22 is that we believers collectively – the body of Christ taken as a whole – we all together form a building which is built upon a foundation comprised of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. That is the imagery of Ephesians 2. We see this foundational nature of apostles and prophets in more detail in 4:11: And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12) to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. Here we see a progression in leadership in the church from the original apostles and prophets, whose work ended as we will see in a few moments, to the evangelists, pastors (or shepherds) and teachers who continue active in the church today.
I would add one final note that supports the view that the foundation of the church actually consists of the apostles and prophets and that is found in Revelation 21 beginning in verse 10 where the Lord gives us through the apostle John, a glimpse of the future New Jerusalem: This is good. Listen closely: 10) And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11) having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12) It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— 13) on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14) And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. If the names of the apostles are inscribed for all time on the foundation of the New Jerusalem, it is hard not to imagine that they form the foundation for the church as well. That’s Eph 2:20.
Now, we will come back in a moment to discuss the identity of the apostles and prophets, but first there are a couple of other things we need to understand now that we have a firm grasp on how the term foundation should be taken. Let’s start at the beginning. To get the context, look with me starting at verse 19: So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20) built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. See the word “built” at the beginning of verse 20? It is in the aorist tense in Greek – as used here, think of it as past tense. It denotes an action done at a specific point in time as opposed to an ongoing or continuing development. The tense indicates that the foundation is built once for all time and is one of several New Testament indications of the foundational, but not continual, nature of the apostolic and prophetic offices. They did not, nor were they intended, to go on forever.
The second thing we should note is that the word “built” is in the passive voice and indicates in the words of one commentator, “we who are in one body are recipients of God’s action.” In other words, what that word is telling us is that at a point in time, that is in the early days of the church, God built a foundation comprised of the apostles and prophets and began building on top of that foundation a building comprised of all believers. The foundation came first, was finished, and represents a completed action. However, notice the word “grows” in verse 21 and the words “being built” in verse 22. Both of those are present tense words and indicate the ongoing nature of the building of the church once the foundation has been laid – a process that will continue through the church age until Christ comes again. All of that is indicated in the grammar that Paul uses in this passage.
So – are you still with me? Grammatically Paul has presented a crystal clear picture of a foundation being begun and completed, consisting of the apostles and prophets -- followed by a continuous, ongoing activity of building on top of the foundation with building blocks of individual believers. Now the question is, who are the apostles and prophets?
Look at verse 20 again: built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. Note that a single article – which is the word “the” -- governs both the apostles and prophets. This means that while they are distinct groups, they are very closely related. If we can identify one, we will have a lead on both. And, as it turns out, it is not difficult to identify the apostles.
We have seen that the word “apostle” can have a general meaning of one delegated to represent another – a sort of personal envoy. But in the New Testament, the term quickly took on a technical meaning which is being employed here. It was used to designate those delegated by Christ himself in the most limited sense to proclaim the authoritative message of the gospel in oral and written form before the completion of the New Testament.
There were twelve such individuals. This is shown first of all by the fact that Jesus specifically called out and appointed twelve individuals from the larger group of disciples who followed him. We read in Mark 3:13-14: And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14) And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach. Matthew and Luke include parallel accounts of this appointment, mentioning that it occurred after Jesus had spent a full night in prayer. Thus, very early in his ministry, Christ singled out twelve for a very special mission. Of course, the original twelve included Judas who eventually eliminated himself. Yet, the passage we just read from Revelation indicates that there are twelve names of apostles inscribed on the foundations of the New Jerusalem. Surely Judas is not one of those. Who has replaced Judas?
I think it is interesting that the number 12 was so impressed onto the minds of the apostles that when Judas betrayed Christ, they felt it imperative to appoint a replacement. Look with me at Acts 1 where they were keen to fill the “office”. Let’s begin with verse 21: So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22) beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” You will recall that they eventually drew lots and chose Matthias.
Note that in their minds the replacement had to be someone who had been with them during Jesus’ earthly ministry and a witness to his resurrection as had all the other apostles according to I Corinthians 15:7. Note also that this is the last we ever hear of Matthias. Many speculate that the apostles may have been presumptuous here, for the Lord himself very clearly appointed Paul an apostle later. Paul always spoke of himself as the least of the apostles, but an apostle nonetheless, though one “untimely born” (I Cor 15:8) because he did not see the Lord during Jesus’ earthly ministry but the Lord appeared to him later, on the road to Damascus, and probably at other times according to II Corinthians 12:1-4. Paul actually recognized the very special nature of his appointment as an apostle even equating himself with Peter when he says in Gal. 2:7: On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised 8) (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles).
So, whose name is on the twelfth foundation in the New Jerusalem? I’m sure the Lord would have told us had it mattered, and I am not adamant about this, but I believe it is Paul and not Matthias. Why? Because he more fully meets the qualifications of an apostle. It is true that Matthias saw Jesus during his earthly ministry, but Paul was given special revelations of the resurrected Christ and qualified as one untimely born. He was appointed directly by Christ, not by lot as was Matthias. He fulfilled the apostolic duty of receiving, preaching and writing New Testament revelation -- a key part of the apostolic office referenced in many passages such as we will see in Ephesians 3 where Paul was given special revelation. You will remember Paul said in Galatians 1:8: But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. Though he considered himself the least of the apostles, he always carried the burden of his apostolic calling as it related to his message and the absolute necessity of keeping it pure. There is, of course, no such indication concerning Matthias, given that there is no other indication of him at all. I suspect Paul was all along the intended replacement for Judas.
Be that as it may, what is clear is that the apostles mentioned in Ephesians 2 were a very limited group, meeting qualifications that no one living since the first century could meet and fulfilling a foundational ministry of receiving, teaching and proclaiming New Testament revelation prior to there being a written New Testament. They were also charged with moving from place to place to establish new churches and ministries. Those were the apostles.
Now what about the prophets? Some have contended that the apostles and prophets are one and the same group, but this is not the case as seen by the fact that two names are used, they are clearly different in 3:5 and 4:11. There has also been some debate about whether these are Old Testament or New Testament prophets. However, most commentators correctly conclude that they are New Testament prophets. First, as we have already seen, the close link between these groups established by the use of a single article to govern both groups is a strong indication that since the apostles were a NT group, so were the prophets. Second, if they were OT prophets, one would expect prophets to be listed first rather than second. Third, they are part of the foundation of the church which is clearly a NT entity. Fourth, this same group of apostles and prophets is said in 3:5 to be recipients of NT revelation. And finally, in 4:11 both are contributors to church growth.
These NT prophets are those listed in I Corinthians 12 as having the gift of prophesy. Prophets were those upon whom the Holy Spirit would come in a special way during a gathering of a local church to speak an authoritative message – this done in the absence of a written New Testament. Apostles had a more authoritative responsibility and a broader one as they moved from place to place to establish churches. Prophets were active in one particular church and were important in continuing through the ministry of the Holy Spirit the teaching of NT truth in one particular place. As the written Scripture became available, their role diminished.
Now, follow closely the implications of what we have just studied. The apostles and prophets were a relatively small group of special leaders who were on the scene in the very early days of the church -- inspired teachers, organs of divine revelation, bearers of divine authority. The fact that they are bracketed together here and elsewhere as foundational is significant. In what sense are they foundational? The answer has to be in the content of their teaching. The apostles are constantly listed as a group in the book of Acts, indicating the extreme importance that attached to their commission and the regard in which they were held. And – and the foundational nature of their ministry is clearly indicated in Acts 2:42 where we find that the new believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” That was their lifeline in those early days without any written NT. It is the content of that message, not the individuals themselves, that is really foundational.
Further amplifying on the implications and application of this truth, the great English preacher, John Stott says, “In practical terms this means that the church is built on the New Testament Scriptures. They are the church’s foundation documents. And just as a foundation cannot be tampered with once it has been laid and the superstructure is being built upon it, so the New Testament foundation of the church is inviolable and cannot be changed by any additions, subtractions or modifications offered by teachers who claim to be apostles or prophets today. The church stands or falls by its loyal dependence on the foundation truths which God revealed to his apostles and prophets, and which are now preserved in the New Testament Scriptures.”
That last statement is of vital importance to any church that wants to have a lasting impact. We can only have that impact when we are building on the foundation of Scripture. Building on anything else is to be like Gene Cernan turning meaninglessly in space with every effort for lack of a foothold. All sweat and effort and activity – but no meaningful progress. Listen, programs cannot build a strong spiritual life. Entertainment cannot build spirituality. Community involvement will not lead to a fruitful Christian life. All of these can be and should be part of what we do, but they can only be effective – please get this, they can only be effective if we are building on the foundation of Scripture. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons has always been a primary tool in Satan’s toolkit because it makes everyone feel good, keeps them busy and makes them feel productive, but all the while they are shriveling up like a dried prune because they are not being fed. Real growth can only happen on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – the Word of God. There is no shortcut, no alternative, no exception! Take away the foundation and what happens? The building crumbles.
Browsing in a pet shop, a man sees a beautiful parrot with a red string tied to its left leg and a green string tied to its right leg. He asks the store owner about the strings. “This is a highly trained creature,” the owner explains. “If you pull the red string, he speaks French; if you pull the green string, he speaks Spanish.” “What happens if I pull both at once?” the curious guy asks. “I fall off my perch, you fool!” screeches the parrot.
Foundations are fundamental. We must always be building on our foundation. That’s exactly why Paul told Timothy as virtually his last instruction in II Timothy 4:2: preach the word. This is exactly why our Lord told Peter as virtually his last word to him in John 21:17 Feed my lambs (meaning, teach my people). This is exactly why Paul said to the Galatians at the very beginning of his letter to them, 9) As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. And this exactly why John, writing the last of the New Testament books to be written says this in Rev 22:18-19: I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19) and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
Folks, listen to me – revelation is over for now. We have been given what we need for this age and God is not in the business of giving new revelation. We have a foundation, and once the foundation is done and the building is started, you don’t begin to mess around with the foundation anymore, right? It’s done; it’s complete; it’s sufficient. Our problem is we don’t read it, meditate on it, study it, give ourselves to it; understand it; apply it – and so we are susceptible when someone comes along with some glamorous new revelation that he just got from God. Much more entertaining and satisfying to listen to that. Folks, if we would just study what we have there is more than enough excitement here for a lifteime.
Listen, I don’t care if it’s your favorite TV preacher or your neighbor down the street. When someone comes along saying the Lord told me this or gave me a vision of that or revealed this, it is time to tune out. I don’t care if he says, “God has revealed to me that he is going to take me home in 8 days if we don’t raise so much money.” Look out. It’s not God. I don’t care if someone writes a book called Ninety Minutes in Heaven (Don Piper) or Twenty-Three Minutes in Hell (Bill Wiese), Jesus’ word on the subject was and is found in Luke 16:31 when he said in response to the rich man who had died and gone to hell wanting someone to go back and warn his brothers: If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets (meaning Scripture), neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead. Paul, who was a genuine apostle and who was caught up into heaven at one time said that he had seen things that could not be uttered. He further noted that he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. He certainly was not setting up a money-making ministry around his experience.
Beloved, I am not questioning the sincerity, motives or Christian faith of anyone, but I can tell you this on the basis of God’s Word, He is not issuing new revelation today that is to be normative for life. We have that and it is the foundational truth found in His Word. It is complete; it is sufficient; and given the warnings that attach to trying to add to it, I would be very careful in any such attempt, and I would urge you as your pastor, get in the Word for your excitement and edification and growth. At best – at best, someone else’s experience is not necessary or relevant to your life and in all likelihood is very suspect. Tread lightly. We have the most wonderful foundation we could ever have. Let’s use it; let’s know it; let’s get to the God behind it.