United In God’s Temple
having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (2:20–22)
The foundation of the apostles and prophets refers to the divine revelation that they taught, which in its written form is the New Testament. Because the Greek genitive case appears to be used in the subjective sense, signifying the originating agency, the meaning is not that the apostles and prophets were themselves the foundation—though in a certain sense they were—but that they laid the foundation. Paul spoke of himself as “a wise master builder” who “laid a foundation” and went on to say, “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:10–11; cf. Rom. 15:20). These are New Testament prophets, as indicated by the facts that they are listed after the apostles and are part of the building of the church of Jesus Christ (cf. 3:5; 4:11). Their unique function was to authoritatively speak the word of God to the church in the years before the New Testament canon was complete. The fact that they are identified with the foundation reveals that they were limited to that formative period. As 4:11 shows, they completed their work and gave way to “evangelists, and … pastors and teachers.”
The corner stone of the foundation is Christ Jesus Himself (see Isa. 28:16; Ps. 118:22; Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11). The cornerstone was the major structural part of ancient buildings. It had to be strong enough to support what was built on it, and it had to be precisely laid, because every other part of the structure was oriented to it. The cornerstone was the support, the orienter, and the unifier of the entire building. That is what Jesus Christ is to God’s kingdom, God’s family, and God’s building.
Through Isaiah, God declared, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed” (Isa. 28:16). After quoting that passage, Peter says, “This precious value, then, is for you who believe … you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:7, 9).
It is Christ Jesus Himself as the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord. Sunarmologeō (fitted together) refers to the careful joining of every component of a piece of furniture, wall, building, or other structure. Every part is precisely cut to fit snugly, strongly, and beautifully with every other part. Nothing is out of place, defective, misshapen, or inappropriate. Because it is Christ’s building, the church is perfect, spotless, without defect or blemish. And that is how He will one day present the church, His own holy temple, to Himself (Eph. 5:27).
Christ’s Body, however, will not be complete until every person who will believe in Him has done so. Every new believer is a new stone in Christ’s building, His holy temple. Thus Paul says the temple is growing because believers are continually being added.
Many cathedrals in Europe have been under construction for hundreds of years. In a continuing process, new rooms, alcoves, chapels, and so forth are built. That is the way with the church of Jesus Christ. It is in a continual state of construction as each new saint becomes a new stone. “You also, as living stones,” Peter said, “are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). As kingdom citizens, family members, and living stones, believers in Jesus Christ are a holy priesthood who offer up spiritual sacrifices in God’s holy temple. As a living, functioning, and precious part of that temple, we also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (see also 2 Cor. 6:16).
The term a dwelling (katoikētērion) carries the idea of a permanent home. God in the Spirit makes His earthly sanctuary in the church, where He takes up permanent residence as Lord. This would be a vivid perception for people living amid temples in which pagan deities were believed to dwell, as in the temple to Artemis in Ephesus (see Acts 19:23–41). But the church is no small physical chamber in which an idol is kept; it is the vast spiritual body of the redeemed, wherein resides His Spirit. (It should be noted that this is a distinct truth from that of each believer being the individual temple of the Holy Spirit, as taught in 1 Cor. 6:19–20.)
Through the blood, the suffering flesh, the cross, and the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, aliens become citizens, strangers become family, idolaters become the temple of the true God, the hopeless inherit the promises of God, those without Christ become one in Christ, those far off are brought near, and the godless are reconciled to God. Therein is the reconciliation of men to God and of men to men.
The New Humanity
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
For several chapters the apostle has been building toward a consideration of the church, which is the major theme of Ephesians. He has not tackled the theme directly. The word “church” has occurred only once thus far (in 1:22). But this is what he wants to talk about, and everything has been building to a full treatment of it.
Chapter 1 presented the plan of salvation from God’s perspective, beginning with God’s electing grace in Christ and culminating in the exaltation of Christ as “head over everything for the church, which is his body.” Chapter 2 presented the plan from our perspective, showing how we are brought from a state of being spiritually dead to a state of being spiritually alive. But it also ends with the church; for it shows, not merely how we have been made alive in Christ, but how we have been brought into the fellowship of God’s redeemed and regenerated people.
This is the point to which the last verses of chapter 2 bring us.
I am sure you remember, when you were a child, being given books of drawings in which various objects were cleverly concealed. The picture might be of a field with trees, grass, and fluffy clouds. Underneath were the words: “Can you find the animals hidden in this picture?” When you looked at the picture carefully, you would find a squirrel hidden in the wavy lines of the clouds, an elephant tucked into the foliage of a tree, fish in the grass, and so on. In a sense, this is what we have in verses 19–22 of this chapter. Paul is not using the word “church,” but tucked into these lines are three great biblical images for what the church is and how it functions.
Can you find these images? The first is of the church as a city-state or kingdom. Paul refers to it by saying, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people” (v. 19). The second picture is of a family. Paul slips that in by continuing, “… and members of God’s household” (v. 19). The third picture is the most carefully developed, a building which turns out to be a temple: “… built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (v. 20). And Paul adds, “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21).
Later in the letter Paul develops the image of the church as Christ’s body (chaps. 4–5), and still later as a well-equipped army (ch. 6).
What a rich field of imagery this first picture unfolds! We think at once of the Old Testament theocracy, in which God was the literal head of the earthly Jewish state. Or we think of John the Baptist’s preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 3:2), or of Jesus declaring, “The kingdom of God is within [or, in the midst of] you” (Luke 17:21). We pray for the coming of that kingdom each time we recite the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
In scholarly discussion there has been much debate over whether the kingdom of God is past, present, or future. This debate flows from the texts I have cited, among others. In some cases the kingdom seems to have a past aspect, as in God’s rule over Israel. In others it has a present aspect, as in the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early Christians. In still other cases the kingdom of God is future; else how could we pray “your kingdom come”?
The solution to this apparent problem is that the kingdom of God actually transcends these temporal concepts and is best dealt with in entirely different terms. Basically the kingdom of God is where God rules. Since God rules over all life and over all worldly kingdoms, there is a sense in which the whole world is God’s kingdom. His kingdom prevails. As a result, those who confess God’s kingship are comforted in the midst of this world’s chaotic conflicts and changes. It is why, although there are always “wars and rumors of wars,” we are not to be “alarmed” by them (Matt. 24:6). The kingdom is also where God rules in individual minds and hearts. Paul described the internal aspects of this kingdom as “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). In this present time the kingdom comes whenever the righteousness, peace, and joy of Jesus enter an individual life, transform it, and bring spiritual blessing.
Paul does not develop this picture at great length in Ephesians. In fact, he does not even use the word “kingdom.” But he introduces his thoughts in such a way that it is clear what he has in mind—the incorporation of gentile believers into the kingdom. In other words, he gets into this image by the things he had said earlier. In these previous verses he had been talking about the hostility that had existed between Jew and Gentile symbolized by the wall around the Jewish portions of the temple in Jerusalem. Paul declares that this wall has been broken down by Christ so that now both Jew and Gentile (and all other elements of human society) are brought near to God on an equal basis and become elements of one great spiritual kingdom, the Christian church.
This is revolutionary thinking—and it has proved itself to be revolutionary historically. When Paul wrote these words the kingdom of Rome was at the height of its territorial expansion and glory. Rome dominated the world. Roman armies kept peace and dispensed justice. Roman roads linked the far-flung reaches of the Empire. Rome had stood for hundreds of years and was thought to be able to stand for thousands of years more. But Paul looked at Rome and saw it, not as one great united Kingdom, but as a force imposed on mutually antagonistic factions: rich and poor, free man and slave, man and woman, Jew and Gentile. And in its place he saw this new humanity, created by God himself, transcending these boundaries. This kingdom was destined to grow and permeate all nations, drawing from all peoples. It is a kingdom that cannot be shaken or destroyed.
God’s Children in Christ
Paul’s second picture of the church is a family. He introduces it in the second half of verse 19: “… and members of God’s household.” The Greek word which Paul uses (oikeios) can refer to an entire family establishment, including friends who live with the family, servants, and hired workers. But in view of Paul’s earlier discussion of our being made alive in Christ, when we had been dead in transgressions and sins, it is most likely that he is thinking of our being born into the “natural” family of God where the ties are of blood and not mere household associations.
No doubt this is why he introduced this image. Wonderful as the relationship of a citizen to a strong, beneficent state may be, it is still a distant, or formal relationship. Family ties are more intimate, the bonds tighter.
To become a member of a family you must be born into it or be adopted into it. Interestingly, the Bible uses both terms to describe what it means to be a Christian. Chiefly it speaks of rebirth. This was Jesus’ teaching to the aging Nicodemus: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Peter wrote about it in his first letter: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
This idea highlights the similarity or continuity of natures. The life of the child is not the same life as the life of the father or mother, but it comes from them and is like theirs. Today we would speak of a genetic relationship in which characteristics of parents are passed to children. This is why there must be holiness in the church. God is holy. So the children of God must be growing in holiness also. If they are not, they show that they are not truly God’s children.
Being a member of God’s household brings inestimable privileges with it. It brings us into the supportive network of our spiritual brothers and sisters. It gives us a share in the oversight, fellowship, and prayers of the church. It gives us a right to the sacraments and a place in God’s plan. More important, it gives us access to God as Father, which means that we can come to him in prayer at any moment of any day with any need or request and have the assurance that he will hear, receive us, and answer our requests out of his own mercy and according to his own pleasing and perfect will.
The most extensive picture of the church in these verses is a temple. Paul speaks of Christians being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (vv. 20–22). As Paul develops it, this image has several important aspects.
- The foundation. The strength and durability of a building rests upon its foundation, and that is true of the church too. This is so important that the apostle begins his discussion by reference to this foundation. What is it? Paul says that it is “the apostles and prophets.” We remember that 1 Corinthians 3:11 makes this point differently, saying, “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” But the point is really the same. Jesus is the foundation. He said to the apostle Peter, “On this rock [meaning himself] I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). But it is right to say that the apostles and prophets are the foundation too, in the sense that for us they are their teaching, which is focused on Christ.
The apostles were the appointed and inspired witnesses to Christ in the first generation of the church. Jesus said that he would give the New Testament through them (John 14:26; 15:26–27; 16:13–15), and he did. In this context “prophets” probably refers to that special class of individuals who received and proclaimed direct messages from God and worked along with the apostles in the early days. Paul refers to them again in 3:5, speaking of truths revealed by the Spirit to “God’s holy apostles and prophets,” and in 4:11, saying that God blessed the church by giving “some to be apostles [and] some to be prophets.”
The point is that the basis of the church’s unity—to which each of the three pictures of the church attest—is truth or sound doctrine. In our day churchmen are often very concerned about unity, and many have been pouring great energy into what is called the ecumenical movement, an effort to get the many diverse branches of the church together. It can be a good thing. True Christians should be united, and it is sad that we are as divided as we are. But when anyone speaks about unity we must be careful to determine what kind of unity we are talking about. Is it the unity of the lowest common denominator? If that is the case, Christianity quickly loses its uniqueness altogether. Is it the unity of an imposed ecclesiastical structure? The church had that to perfection in the Middle Ages, but those were the worst of all days for Christ’s body. No, the only unity that is worth having—the only true unity—is the unity built on the revealed truth of God centering in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Where that is present God blesses the church and enables it to grow “together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (v. 22).
- The cornerstone. In 1 Corinthians 3:11 Paul called Jesus the “foundation.” Here he calls him the “cornerstone.” A cornerstone was important for two reasons. It was part of the foundation, and it also fixed the angle of the building and became the standard from which the architect traced the walls and arches throughout.
The word also touches upon a rich mine of imagery. We remember that Isaiah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, spoke of the coming of Jesus Christ in these terms: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed” (Isa. 28:16). The psalmist wrote of a stone which was rejected by the builders of the great temple of Solomon but which was later found and used: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” (Ps. 118:22). Jesus applied this Scripture to himself, quoting Psalm 118 (cf. Matt. 21:42); and Peter tied the texts into one great image, to which he also added a citation of Isaiah 8:14.
In Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”
Now to you who believe, this stone is precious.
But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone.”
“A stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”
1 Peter 2:6–8
Although the leaders of his day rejected the Lord Jesus Christ by crucifying him, God made him the cornerstone of the temple which is the church. This is the Lord’s doing (cf. Ps. 118:23). An individual must therefore either be joined to Christ savingly or be broken by him.
- Living stones. Paul does not mention stones specifically in our text, but that is what he is thinking of when he writes, “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (v. 22). Believers are mortared together with Christ, as God the architect through his workmen, the preachers of the gospel, builds his church. Peter said it in the verse just before those I have quoted: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
The applications of this part of the picture are so obvious as hardly to need elaboration. Let me suggest a few. First, the stones placed into this great structure are chosen and shaped for their position by God. It is his temple; he is the architect; it is not for us to determine where we will fit in or how. Second, the stones are placed into position in relationship to Jesus Christ. They are attached to him; if they are not, they are not part of this building. Third, the stones are of different shapes and sizes, perhaps even of different material, and they are employed for different functions. Some serve in one way, some another. Fourth, the stones are linked to one another. From where they are placed they cannot always see this; they cannot always even see the other stones. But they are part of one interlocking whole regardless. Fifth, the stones of the temple are chosen, shaped, and placed, not to draw attention to themselves, but to contribute to a great building in which God alone dwells. Sixth, the placing of each stone is only part of a long work begun thousands of years in the past that will continue until the end of the age when the Lord returns.
What a great process this is! And how mysterious! We are told in 1 Kings 6:7 that when the great temple of Solomon was constructed “only blocks dressed at the quarry were used, and no hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built.” To my knowledge, no building in history was ever built in this way. Its construction was almost silent, so holy was the work. Silently, silently the stones were moved and added, and the building rose.
Thus it is with the church. We do not hear what is going on inside human minds and hearts as God the Holy Spirit creates new life and adds those individuals to the temple he is building. But God is working. In the days of the apostles God was adding Gentiles to a temple composed at that time largely of Jewish believers. He was adding Luke, Lydia, Phoebe, Philemon, Onesimus—and the believers at Ephesus, and other Greek and Roman cities. Later he added those we call the early church fathers, then the later church fathers and those to whom they ministered. At the time of the Reformation he added Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and Knox and Cranmer and many others. He is still adding to his temple today.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 82–83). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 88–93). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.