We are presently working our way through Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians and have just completed chapter 2. The way one understands verse 20 will profoundly affect one’s approach to the Christian life, especially whether or not we should expect ongoing “words from the Lord”.
Eph. 2:20 – built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone
Paul had just described the universal Church as it exists under the New Covenant. Gentiles have joined believing Jews, becoming participants in the hope, promises, and Messiah that the Jewish nation alone was privy to under the Old Covenant. Paul calls the New Covenant Church a “new man”, which was created out of two men (i.e., “Jew” & “Gentile”). Believing Jews and Gentiles now share all the same blessings in Christ. Paul then changes the metaphor, likening the Church to a building, a Temple, that is in the process of being assembled brick-by-brick.
In the midst of this description, Paul tells us that the New Covenant Church has a particular foundation, the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone of which is Christ. This gives Jesus the preeminence, since the cornerstone was laid first and provided support and orientation to the rest of the foundation and to the super-structure.
Whereas Jesus is metaphorically described as a cornerstone (cf. Ps. 118:22; Isa. 28:16), “the apostles and prophets” are foundation-stones. These are two distinct offices in the New Covenant. Eph. 4:11 reads, “and [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers”. These are not two ways of speaking about the exact same office (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28). The reason they are depicted as foundation-stones is that the apostles and prophets received the revelation of the mystery – Christ has brought Gentiles into the People of God. Eph. 3:5 reads “[The mystery] was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
God unveiled His mystery (i.e., the gospel) to these New Covenant apostles and prophets in order that they would deliver it to the Church. It is upon this foundation – this climactic revelation of Christ’s gospel – that the New Covenant Church is rising like a glorious Temple, growing up like a skyscraper as one stone after another is added to its superstructure.
The implications of this metaphor are highly significant. Paul depicts the foundation as having been laid, the mystery being made fully-known. Without its completion, no superstructure could be built. The Church requires the revealed word for its existencd. Paul’s point throughout the text is that the People of God (under the New Covenant) share the same blessings, which includes the same foundation. If new revelations of the Law and Gospel are occurring in our day, this could not be the case – not only would the foundation be incomplete but it would be different for us than those that preceded us.
New Testament Scripture is the apostolic and prophetic message made permanent. Though Paul was the last apostle (1 Cor. 15:8) and, by implication, the prophets are no more, we share a foundation with the early Church because we have received their message in Holy Scripture.