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.
Having an Inspired Foundation (2:20a)
It is a natural question: “How can I know that God will not change his heart despite the changes in my circumstances?” Paul answers that the heart-house of which we are members is built on a foundation of inspiration. The covenantal inclusion of the Gentiles was not an afterthought or an unplanned by-product. Paul says that the Ephesians are the fulfillment of a building process with foundations laid by those whom God inspired to impart his will in both the Old Testament and the New. The words of the apostles and prophets coordinate.6 Though there is some question as to whether the prophets in this clause refer to the Old Testament prophets, there is no question that Paul is saying that the inspired messengers of the New Testament are speaking in continuity with those of the Old (cf. Eph. 3:4–5). This engrafting of many nations and new peoples was always in the plan. There is not a problem with the new misaligning with the old. The inclusion of the Gentiles was not a surprise or an afterthought; the foundation of the Scriptures was laid broadly enough to include us. God always intended for us to be part of his plan. Those that God inspires to lay the foundation for understanding his purposes have indicated that the Father’s household was always intended to include many nations. The light to the nations was always intended to bring others to the Father’s home. We are welcome despite our differing backgrounds.
Having a Divine Cornerstone (2:20b)
And if the foundation of the apostles and prophets does not itself assure us of the welcome God intends for us, our security in his home is shown to rest on the unshakable cornerstone of Christ himself. The household of God is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20b).
In his death and resurrection, Jesus stands as the chief witness to the enlarging and enfolding intention of the Father. It is by his sacrifice once for all that the barrier between Jew and Gentile is destroyed. No longer is there a ceremonial partition between those inside and those outside of God’s house. Jesus, the One who exactly represents the will of the Father, indicates that the Father’s home is for both those near and those far away, for those included and those excluded, for those once united to the covenant and those separate. His sacrifice is the ultimate testimony on which we can rest our claim of God’s love. His is the cornerstone of our assurance, a divine stone that cannot be shaken, a rock upon which the hope of all who trust him is sure.
With greater clarity we now understand the words of Isaiah describing the ministry of the coming Messiah: “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; cf. 8:14–16; Ps. 118:22; Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11). The witness of the apostles and prophets and the unassailable testimony of the Lord who sacrificed himself in our behalf are the inspired foundation and divine cornerstone of our assurance of his love no matter the temporal transitions and earthly troubles this life may hold.
Seminary president David Sebastian tells the story of his son biking into their garage and saying, “Dad, you’d better come. There’s a crazy lady in the field and she’s drawing a crowd.” As a pastor in a small town, David knew that whenever there was “a crazy lady in the field,” it fit in his job description to go see what was up. The woman in the field had made it from Missourito Oklahoma on the bus before her money ran out. The police had offered her a place in a homeless shelter, but the shelter would not accept the young woman with the puppy she carried. In desperation and fear that someone might take her dog, the woman ran until she ran out of breath. Then she just stood there in the field, out of breath and out of hope, while a crowd gathered around her.
When Pastor David arrived, he received a quick summary of the situation from the police and then asked the young woman her name. With downcast eyes and a voice barely audible she replied, “Mandy.” “Where is your home, Mandy?” he asked. She said, “Missouri.” And that’s when a bell rang in David’s mental register.
“You are Mandy from Missouri?” he said. “I have been expecting you! Your pastor is a friend of mine. He wrote me weeks ago to say that you would come. I have prepared a place for you.”
Mandy looked up with unbelieving eyes and said, “You know about me?”
“Yes,” he said, “Look. I have the letter right here.”
When David showed Mandy the letter, she could hardly believe it. The troubled young woman had not fully understood or remembered why the pastor in Missouri had placed her on the bus. She had not planned to come to this town. But someone had planned for her, and it was there in writing. It was too good to be true, but it was true. And the truth that someone had so cared for her renewed enough hope in her to give her strength to walk out of the field, to show up for work at a new job a few days later, and to start life again.
Seeing in writing that someone had planned all along to care for her provided powerful new hope for Mandy, but the plan touched more than just her. David Sebastian told that story to a group of seminary presidents. This is a group of persons whose occupations make them sophisticated in the matters of faith, but also accustomed to hard realities and public scrutiny. There is not much that moves them. But when they heard the story of Mandy from Missouri, isolated in a field and encircled by gawkers—yet still within the plan and compassion of God—they were touched. I watched as heads went down and hands crept up to wipe tears from eyes. All knew what it meant to feel isolated, alone, and under the scrutiny of others. Something in that story of a girl alone in a field and isolated by the pressures of life touched them. It was for such as them, as well as for such as us, that Paul in essence writes, “God planned for you all along to be part of his household. He loved you, planned for you, and prepared for you. See, he wrote down right here through the apostles and prophets his plan to include you so that you would be sure. And if you were to have any questions yet, he wrote his love in the blood of his Son. You can rest on that foundation, and on that cornerstone you can build much new hope.”
20. And are built. The third comparison illustrates the manner in which the Ephesians, and all other Christians are admitted to the honour of being fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God. They are built on the foundation,—they are founded on the doctrine, of the apostles and prophets. We are thus enabled to distinguish between a true and a false church. This is of the greatest importance; for the tendency to error is always strong, and the consequences of mistake are dangerous in the extreme. No churches boast more loudly of the name than those which bear a false and empty title; as may be seen in our own times. To guard us against mistake, the mark of a true church is pointed out.
Foundation, in this passage, unquestionably means doctrine; for no mention is made of patriarchs or pious kings, but only of those who held the office of teachers, and whom God had appointed to superintend the edification of his church. It is laid down by Paul, that the faith of the church ought to be founded on this doctrine. What opinion, then, must we form of those who rest entirely on the contrivances of men, and yet accuse us of revolt, because we embrace the pure doctrine of God? But the manner in which it is founded deserves inquiry; for, in the strict sense of the term, Christ is the only foundation. He alone supports the whole church. He alone is the rule and standard of faith. But Christ is actually the foundation on which the church is built by the preaching of doctrine; and, on this account, the prophets and apostles are called builders. (1 Cor. 3:10.) Nothing else, Paul tells us, was ever intended by the prophets and apostles, than to found a church on Christ.
We shall find this to be true, if we begin with Moses; for “Christ is the end of the law,” (Rom. 10:4,) and the sum of the gospel. Let us remember, therefore, that if we wish to be reckoned among believers, we must place our reliance on no other: if we wish to make sure progress in the knowledge of the Scriptures, to him our whole attention must be directed. The same lesson is taught, when we consult the word of God as contained in the writings of the prophets and apostles. To shew us how we ought to combine them, their harmony is pointed out; for they have a common foundation, and labour jointly in building the temple of God. Though the apostles have become, our teachers, the instruction of the prophets has not been rendered superfluous; but one and the same object is promoted by both.
I have been led to make this remark by the conduct of the Marcionites in ancient times, who expunged the word prophets from this passage; and by that of certain fanatics in the present day, who, following their footsteps, exclaim loudly that we have nothing to do with the law and the prophets, because the gospel has put an end to their authority. The Holy Spirit everywhere declares, that he has spoken to us by the mouth of the prophets, and demands that we shall listen to him in their writings. This is of no small consequence for maintaining the authority of our faith. All the servants of God, from first to last, are so perfectly agreed, that their harmony is in itself a clear demonstration that it is one God who speaks in them all. The commencement of our religion must be traced to the creation of the world. In vain do Papists, Mahometans, and other sects, boast of their antiquity, while they are mere counterfeits of the true, the pure religion.
Jesus Christ himself is the chief corner-stone. Those who transfer this honour to Peter, and maintain that on him the church is founded, are so void of shame, as to attempt to justify their error by quoting this passage. They hold out that Christ is called the chief corner-stone, by comparison with others; and that there are many stones on which the church is founded. But this difficulty is easily solved. Various metaphors are employed by the apostles according to the diversity of circumstances, but still with the same meaning. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul lays down an incontestable proposition, that “no other foundation can be laid.” (1 Cor. 3:11.) He does not therefore mean, that Christ is merely a corner, or a part of the foundation; for then he would contradict himself. What then? He means that Jews and Gentiles were two separate walls, but are formed into one spiritual building. Christ is placed in the middle of the corner for the purpose of uniting both, and this is the force of the metaphor. What is immediately added shews sufficiently that he is very far from limiting Christ to any one part of the building.
20 Straining the metaphor a bit—or perhaps anticipating his shift to the term “building” in v. 21—Paul pictures this closely knit household as having a foundation and a cornerstone, with individual believers as bricks in God’s building. The Gentiles are citizens and householders because (causal use of the participle “built”) they were built by God on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Paul envisions his apostolic ministry of establishing churches, as he expressed it in 1 Corinthians 3:10 and Romans 15:20—though in those places he identifies Jesus as the foundation he helped lay. He also speaks of “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Ti 3:15). What is the grammatical relationship expressed in “foundation of apostles and prophets”? The genitival construction could be possession—they own the foundation—but not likely. It could be a subjective genitive—they build the foundation, which is Christ. But unlike 1 Corinthians 3:10, where the apostles are builders, this verse calls the apostles and prophets themselves the stones, along with Jesus the chief cornerstone. So the third option is best, namely, an appositional genitive. The apostles and prophets, in fellowship with Christ, are the first layer of God’s new building and can justly be called its foundation.
How did they become the foundation? Though it is a fluid metaphor, the point here remains inescapable: apostles and prophets were the custodians of the special revelation that originated God’s household; no doubt in their preaching and prophetic ministries they extended the “preaching” of Christ to those far away and near (v. 17). For this reason, I believe we must understand these as “Christian” personnel; i.e., “prophets” refers to early Christian prophets, not the OT variety; this reading is confirmed in 3:5; 4:11 (cf. 1 Co 12:28), both by the mention of apostles and prophets and by the order in which Paul lists them—not prophets and apostles. “Apostles” in the technical sense were personally commissioned by Jesus for ministry in his name, including planting churches (as was Paul, 1:1). Though in the NT “apostles” is not limited to this technical meaning (Ro 16:7; 2 Co 8:22–23; Php 2:25; 1 Th 2:6; Ac 14:4, 14; see commentary on 1:1a), Paul may well have that group—the Twelve plus Paul—in view here as foundational (cf. 1 Co 12:28, “first of all apostles”). In addition, “prophets” spoke God’s message to the churches (Ac 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9–10) and continued to clarify that message in the life of the church (e.g., 1 Co 12, 14). Together they established the normative teaching on which God’s household was built.
Jesus serves as the “chief cornerstone” (akrogōniaios, GK 214). This term’s only two occurrences in the NT—here and at 1 Peter 2:6—may reflect its sole use in the LXX, Isaiah 28:16 (italics added): “So this is what the sovereign Lord says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation.’ ” The christological application of the “stone” image in Psalm 118:22—“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone”—owes to Jesus himself (Mt 21:42; Mk 12:10; Lk 20:17; cf. Ac 4:11). Unlike the NIV’s “capstone” in Psalm 118:22, however, most translations render lěrōš pinnâ (LXX, kephalēn gōnias, both phrases meaning “head of the corner”) as “[chief] cornerstone” (cf. “head stone of the corner,” KJV). “Cornerstone” implies a foundation stone at the corner of a building, perhaps the chief one on which the building is “trued.” A “capstone” is some crowning stone or top stone of a building, or a “keystone,” the stone that locks an arch in place. So what distinctive role does Jesus have: cornerstone, or capstone?
Part of the dilemma arises from the context of 1 Peter 2:6–8, which quotes both Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22. According to Peter, one can “stumble” over Jesus the stone. It is impossible to trip over a capstone; it seems equally difficult to trip over a cornerstone, set into the foundation as it is. Also, Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22 in his confrontation with the Jewish religious leaders (Mt 21:42–44) and follows up with a very ambiguous, “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” Again, how can one fall on a cornerstone that is part of a foundation, or on a capstone or keystone above an arch? On the other hand, a keystone could fall on and crush a person. Supporting the keystone option, if the apostles and prophets constitute the foundation, then we can readily understand Paul’s exalting of Christ to a position as the “capstone” of the entire building. The image certainly fits. It is more convincing if Paul did not have Isaiah 28:16 in mind but only Psalm 118:22.
But I believe Isaiah 28:16 determined the essential sense for Paul’s and Peter’s uses of the stone metaphor—a stone that formed part of the foundation of a building. This seems the best way out of the finely balanced dilemma. Qumran, too, identified “cornerstone” with the foundation when Isaiah 28:16 was quoted (1QS 5.6; 8.4–5). Theologically, it is difficult to picture the metaphor of Jesus’ placement in the building coming as a capstone or keystone, for many of the bricks would already be laid before his position was secured. As most admit, a decision is difficult, but I find the picture of Jesus as the chief cornerstone to be slightly more convincing. While the foundation of a building is important, the most significant member of the building is its cornerstone, since all else is built in relationship to the position of that stone. For the household of God, Christ Jesus functions as chief. For Paul to picture Jesus as the principal stone in the foundation conforms to his use in 1 Corinthians 3:10–11, where Jesus is the foundation (themelios, GK 2529).
2:20 / From the concept of the household or “family” (oikos) of God, the author turns to discuss the building (oikodomē) of this family, utilizing an architectural metaphor. The language reemphasizes that the Gentiles are part of an ongoing process: You, too, are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
If the Gentiles had been guilty of forgetting or even scorning their relationship to God’s redemptive work in history, these words would serve as a significant reminder that they are not the first or only people in God’s eternal plan. Rather, they have been built (the Greek aorist tense refers to something that has happened) upon a foundation that already had been laid.
Apostles and prophets form the foundation of the church. Though some commentators take prophets to mean those in the ot, the word order—apostles and prophets—makes it more likely that the author has the nt prophets in mind (cf. Acts 11:27ff.; 1 Cor. 12:28, 29; 14:1–5, 24ff.). Both offices are used again in Ephesians (3:5; 4:11) with a clear reference to the nt period. They are considered the foundation of the church because of their importance as messengers and interpreters of the gospel.
The thoughts that the author is developing differ slightly from the picture that Paul gives in Corinthians. In Corinth, he is dealing with a divided church—a church that has polarized around Paul, Peter, Christ, and Apollos. Paul seeks to dispel party strife by showing that the ministry is the cooperative effort of a number of individuals, all of whom are servants of God and partners with each other (1 Cor. 1:10–13; 3:5–9). To anyone seeking to be the foundation of God’s building, Paul warns that “no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). In Ephesians, the apostles and prophets are the foundation and Jesus becomes the chief cornerstone (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4–8—quoting Isa. 28:16 and Ps. 118:22—where Christ is interpreted as the cornerstone).
The reasons for this apparent shift are not easy to discern. One author suggests that, by the time Ephesians was written, Christ’s centrality in the church was guaranteed, but because of the heresies that threatened the church, it became necessary to establish an authentic line of tradition through the apostles and prophets (Houlden, p. 292). T. K. Abbott reasons that the cornerstone was more important to Orientals because of its function in connecting and bearing the weight of the building (p. 71). This view does have some appeal, because in the context of the passage the emphasis is upon the function of Christ in keeping this growing structure unified. The cornerstone would have provided the key around which the foundation and the superstructure were built (Stott, pp. 107–8).
Though it is natural to think of the cornerstone as being on the foundational level of a building, there is an attractive alternative to this concept that takes the phrase not as a foundation stone but as a “keystone” to be placed at the summit of a building to crown its completion. Some believe that this is a more fitting explanation of the thought in Ephesians, where Christ is the head of the body (1:22) and the church grows into him who is the head (4:15).
The variety of interpretations of the difficult imagery and syntax should not distract the reader from the central message of this passage. The apostle is showing that the church consists of three significant elements: (a) the Gentiles, who are now part of God’s people, and the Jews; (b) the apostles and prophets; and (c) Jesus Christ. But this is more than just a random combination of parts: They are joined together by the principle of unity and growth.
 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.
 Chapell, B. (2009). Ephesians. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 126–129). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (pp. 242–244). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 80–81). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Patzia, A. G. (2011). Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (pp. 200–202). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.