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Definition

The apostolic foundation of the church refers to the apostles’ unique role in the overall design of the church: to be the immediate messengers of Jesus to carry out his authority and preach the gospel faithfully.

Summary

The church is comprised of various parts and components. Scripture states that Jesus is the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20; 1Pet. 2:4, 6-7), which means that the very existence and the purpose of the church depend on and flow out of the person and the work of Jesus Christ. Scripture also states that the apostles are the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). The task at hand seeks to understand the nature and the depth of what this statement truly means. Who are the apostles? What is it about them that uniquely positions them to be the foundation of the church? What does this foundation mean for us today? In this assessment of the nature and the implications of the apostolic foundation of the church, what we observe is that Jesus and his message of the gospel sit at the very heart of the identity and the call of the apostles, thereby the foundation of the church.

Introduction

No architect would claim that a foundation of a building is unimportant or insignificant. In fact, one can easily argue that it is the most fundamental and crucial part of any building. In Ephesians 2:20, Paul uses this building analogy to emphasize the power of unity available for the church in having Jesus as the chief cornerstone and apostles and prophets[i] as the foundation. What did Paul mean by this statement? In particular, who are the apostles and what makes them important enough to be considered the foundation of the church? What are the relevant applications for the church today? The goal of this essay is to accurately assess the nature and the implications of the apostolic office.

The Nature of This Foundation

The term apostle connotes an ambassador. In the New Testament this term refers primarily to those men who were commissioned by Jesus to represent him to the world and to be his spokesmen. Thus, close proximity to Jesus in his earthly ministry and being an eye-witness of his resurrection was a requirement for the office (Acts 1:21-22). Their total number, for symbolic reasons, was twelve – against the background of Old Testament Israel this served to signify a new beginning for the people of God (cf. Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:29-30). Thus, Matthias was needed to replace Judas (Acts 1:23-26). Paul is an exceptional case, receiving his apostleship by a slightly different means (1Cor. 9:1; Gal.1:1, 11-12).

The term “apostle” can be used in a looser sense in reference to “church messengers” (2Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25), but these references do not refer to the apostolic office as such and will not occupy our attention here.

Jesus affirms the foundational role of the apostles in Matthew 16:18, where he says to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The imagery is plain: Christ, the builder of the church, founds his church on the apostles. This is precisely what Paul affirms in Ephesians 2:20 where he says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (cf. Rev. 21:14; also 1Cor. 3:10-11 in context).

In John 13-17 Jesus clarifies the nature of the apostles’ “foundational” role. These men are to be his designated spokesmen. These who have heard him teach will receive his further teaching via the Spirit, and they will, in turn, give the word of Christ to the world (cf. John 14:24-26; 16:12-15; 17:8, 18, 20). That is to say, the apostles in a very real sense give us Christ. Indeed, when they speak they speak for him and with his delegated authority (e.g., 2Thes.3:6; 1Cor.14:37; etc.). Their teaching is the teaching of Christ, the fulness of the revelation come by him, and this apostolic teaching was, in turn, entrusted or “deposited” to the church “once for all” (1Tim.6:20; Jude 3, etc.). All this informs our understanding of their “foundational” role (Eph.2:20; cf. Matt.16:18, also Rev.21:14; also 1Cor.3:10-11 [in context]).

This same thinking is reflected in 1 John 1:1-3.

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

Here the apostle John affirms that the apostles received their teaching and authority from the Lord Jesus himself and that they (the apostles) mediate the Christ-revelation to us. Simply put, the apostolic witness is the only way to Christ.

The Implications of This Foundation

This understanding the nature of the apostolic foundation of the church has the following implications:

  1. Because of the criteria of uniqueness mentioned above, the office of apostleship is not to be repeated or updated. While all followers of Christ carry the call to be Christ’s ambassadors (2Cor. 5:20), the apostles’ particular role and task in the history of redemption are not shared by all Christians. There are various traditions today that want to claim that there are current day apostles who are newly appointed by God for updated tasks and revelations. This line of thinking assumes that God’s revelation needs to be updated from one context to another and that we ought to be paying attention to the newest revelation that God desires to communicate to us. While there is certainly a need for contextualization for the application of the gospel, Scripture repeatedly states that the revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ has already been known in full. Jude expresses this idea in his letter as he writes: “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Paul also gives his counsel to Timothy to continue in the things he had already learned and become convinced of (cf. 2Tim. 3:14). Affirming the need for new revelations is to diminish the authority of the apostles, which ultimately diminishes the authority of Jesus. The unique and permanent value of the apostolic office is confirmed in Revelation 21:14 when the vision of the new heaven and the new earth describes the presence of “twelve foundations … the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” This means that the initial establishment of the apostolic foundation will have an eternal significance in God’s church. This will not be changed, updated, or renewed.
  2. The church always needs to remember and hold onto what the apostles held onto: the gospel of Jesus Christ. In some traditions, they speak of apostolic succession with a goal to trace their history and tradition of bishops all the way back to the first apostles of the New Testament. For example, Roman Catholicism understands their pope as the rightful successor to Peter. In this way, Peter the apostle is considered their first pope. This understanding fails to recognize the core identity of the apostles: faithful proclamation and preservation of the gospel message that was directly received from Jesus. Edmond Clowney notes: “They become foundation stones of the church only because Christ is the chief cornerstone…. The apostles are not legislators but reporters and interpreters.”[ii] This means that the nature of the apostolic foundation of the church is not based on what the apostles can do through their own abilities but what they were called to do through their derived authority. This is why when Paul defends his apostleship in his letters to various churches, he usually confronts the content of false teachings that have crept into the life of the churches he planted (Gal 1:6-9). He does not force people to blindly follow his apostolic authority. He constantly demonstrates his apostolic authority by counterattacking the false teachers and thereby preserving the purity of the gospel that he was called to represent and pass down faithfully (Gal 3). Without the gospel of Jesus Christ, this building, the church, will fall apart, like a building without a stable foundation.
  3. The unity of the church ultimately flows out of the foundation that we have in Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Paul actually states that Jesus is the foundation of the church, which seems to contradict what is said in Ephesians 2. However, the two are to be seen as being complementary. Because the authority of the apostles directly comes from Jesus himself and Jesus is the cornerstone upon which all pieces of the building hang onto, the two verses are describing the same reality with different emphases. In other words, to affirm the authority of the apostles is to affirm the authority of Jesus; to reject the authority of the apostles is to reject the authority of Jesus. Jesus and his message are not to be pitted against the apostles and their message. In fact, Jesus sees himself as the Son who has been sent by the Father (cf. John 20:21) who then sends out the twelve. The sent-ness of the apostles finds its root in Jesus’ own self-understanding and mission (Matt. 15:24, 21:37; Mark 9:37, 12:6). Kim Riddlebarger notes: “The church was not organized by Jesus’ disappointed followers trying to cover-up their embarrassment. The church was founded by Jesus Christ Himself.”[iii] It is important for us to rightly understand the singular identity of this foundation of the church. The apostles in their unique role bear witness to this singular identity: the person and the work of Jesus Christ.

Encouragements for the Church Today

The church today has the great privilege to stand firmly on the unshakeable foundation of the church and pass the truth of the gospel to others as it has been passed down to us. This ought to give us boldness in proclaiming the gospel even in today’s world. The task is not easy. We can always feel like we are fighting uphill battles. What we can hold onto is that the advancement of the kingdom of God through the gospel ultimately stands on the very heart of the apostolic foundation: the person and the work of Jesus Christ. This has already been established. There is no need to further establish this once-and-for-all foundation. It is because of the strength of this final and authoritative revelation that the church today can be encouraged and motivated to further extend the work of gospel proclamation. As D.A. Carson once said, “The best way to preserve the gospel is by giving it away.”[iv] We must engage in the ministry of the Word with hunger and expectancy as we seek to share the gospel with anyone who comes in contact with us. We can do this with courage and resilience because of our great privilege to be an apostolic church that stands on Jesus, our chief cornerstone. Through it all, in this God-honoring work of sharing and spreading the apostolic Gospel, Jesus guarantees his presence to the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20).

Footnotes

1Ephesians 2:20 groups apostles and prophets together when describing the foundational role of the church. Who are these “prophets”? Paul is likely referring to the New Testament prophets who also received divine inspiration at the time of the apostles to work alongside and/or assist the work of the apostles.
2Edmond Clowney, Called to Ministry (Phillipsburg, P&R, 1976), 45.
3Kim Riddlebarger, “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,” Tabletalk Magazine (June 2004).
4D. A. Carson’s opening statement from The Gospel Coalition National Conference in 2019.

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