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In Ephesians 2:20-22 Paul uses an illustration to describe the blessings we have in the church. In the context, he has referred to the church as a household or nation (v19). Now he refers to it as a temple. See the very similar example in 1 Peter 2:4-8.
He describes the foundation of this temple as the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus being the chief cornerstone. This is like 1 Peter 2:4-8 and Psalm 118:22 where Jesus is also said to be the chief cornerstone. Likewise, 1 Corinthians 3:11 says there can be no foundation other than Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 16:18 where Jesus - not Peter - is the stone on which the church is built).
These other passages make clear that Jesus Himself is the foundation. The chief cornerstone was the foundational stone in ancient architecture, from which all measurements began, so every other stone was laid in relationship to the cornerstone. Clearly this position belongs to Jesus.
But if Jesus is the foundation, then in what sense is it the foundation "of the apostles and prophets." Some claim this means the apostles and prophets are the foundation, but such a view would directly contradict the above passages. And the idea is not necessary to the language.
"Of the apostles" in the Greek is a possessive (genitive plural). It simply means belonging to or pertaining to the apostles and prophets. It does not say the apostles and prophets are the foundation, but simply that the foundation in some way pertains or relates to them.
We say a similar thing when we say this is the "Smith's house" (Greek would use genitive here). No one would conclude that the Smiths are the house, but that it belongs to or pertains to them. If an architectural firm designed a building or a construction firm built a building, we might say, "This is one of Smith and Brown's buildings." We do not mean that Smith and Brown are the building, but only that they designed or constructed it, etc. This is all that is meant in Greek by "of the apostles and prophets."
So in what way does Jesus, as the foundation or chief cornerstone, pertain to the apostles and prophets? They revealed the gospel message which made known to the world about Jesus as the foundation of the church and how people can become members of that church. They were His ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:18-21). Peter had the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:18,19), which he used when he preached the sermons that taught people how to enter.
This is similar to Acts 2:42, which refers to the "apostles' doctrine." This does not mean they are the doctrine, nor even that they originated it. It is theirs only in the sense that they were responsible to reveal and teach it. Likewise, the foundation is theirs only in that they revealed and taught the message about it.
To say the apostles and prophets are the foundation would be to the make the same mistake some people make on Matt. 16:18 when they claim Peter was the rock on which the church is built. To so state would exalt a man to a position God never intended, and thereby fail to truly exalt Jesus to the position He deserves. The practical consequences is seen in Catholicism and Mormonism and such groups, who have exalted their priesthood/hierarchy (especially popes) to positions all out of proportion to what God ever intended. Yet they justify their position by misusing passages such as these.
One may say of our nation that it is built on the foundation of the founding fathers. This does not mean the founding fathers are the foundation, but the nation is built on the work they did -- they laid the foundation. So in a sense it can be said that the apostles and prophets laid the foundation (by preaching the message of salvation). But Jesus is the foundation. The latter part of the verse simply explains or makes clear that this is so -- Jesus Himself is the chief cornerstone or foundation that pertains to the apostles and prophets.
Specifically, Mormonism claims that "the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets" means apostles and prophets must be living on earth in order for the true church to exist; so any church which does not have living apostles on earth cannot be the true church. While it is true that the work of the apostles pertained to the founding or beginning of the church, yet Jesus is the chief cornerstone. Must Jesus be living on earth in order for the church to exist? Obviously not. Then why must we have apostles and prophets living on earth in order for the church to exist? We do not need apostles living on earth today any more than we need Jesus living on earth today!
But we have seen that it is the foundation "of the apostles and prophets" in the sense that they revealed and taught the message about it. In that sense, their work of teaching and preaching pertained to the beginning of the church. But today we have the written record of their work in the Scriptures. We now "have" apostles and prophets in the sense that Jews in Jesus' day "had" Moses and the prophets (Luke 16:29-31) -- we have the fruits of their work. This is the only sense in which apostles and prophets are needed in the church today.
Now as people are converted, they are added to the building, built on the foundation, like bricks are added to a building to build it up. Hence the whole building is gradually built up and joined together to serve as the spiritual temple in which God spiritually dwells.. See on 1 Peter 2:4-8.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 9/2006
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.