Sermon preached on Ephesians 2:11-3:13 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/25/2018 in Novato, CA.
Apostles and Prophets of the New Covenant
Today we continue a three-week miniseries advocating cessationism. Cessationism is the doctrine that the supernatural gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healings have ceased with the close of the apostolic era. In other words, we don’t expect Christians to possess those gifts any longer. This is certainly a challenge as a pastor to try to handle this subject in just three expository sermons because this doctrine doesn’t come down to just a few proof texts in Scripture. Rather, the doctrine of cessationism is a good and necessary consequence that comes as you study all the Scriptures. In other words, different passages of Scripture each contribute in different ways to the subject which keep pointing us to a cessationist position. So, I am not able to make an exhaustive case for this in just three sermons. That being said, what I hope to accomplish is to set out the important principles in Scripture that are involved in a cessationist position. That will help you to notice this doctrine more in your own personal Bible reading as well. So today then, I want to talk about apostles and prophets of the new covenant. I want to make the case that they played a foundational role in the new covenant, ultimately in the forming of the New Testament cannon. Consequently, we don’t expect to receive new revelation or prophecies, either in the form of a book of the Bible, or in people receiving personal “words” from the Lord.
So then, we’ll especially be looking at chapter 2, verse 20 today. Notice with me first it speaks of a foundation. This is part of a metaphor for the church. As explained further in verse 21, the church is being built up into a temple for the Holy Spirit. Using the building metaphor, we remember that buildings have foundations. That’s what verse 20 is about. The foundation is key. The whole building has to be resting and built upon that foundation.
Well, the cornerstone of this foundation, it says, is Jesus. For Paul to say that, connects this passage to many other similar passages in the New Testament, which themselves quote the Old Testament to establish that the Messiah is a foundational rock for God’s kingdom. God was to build his people upon the Messiah. For example, 1 Peter 2:1 quotes Isaiah 28:16 and says that Jesus is the foundation cornerstone upon which God’s people are being built upon, being built into a spiritual house founded upon Jesus. And so, today’s verse reminds us Christians that our faith ultimately relies upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. That’s why we make such a big deal about Jesus actually rising from the dead. If he didn’t actually rise from the dead, the very foundation of our faith would be destroyed. But since he did rise from the dead, we know that it is foundational to our Christian faith, since the gospel that Christ paid for ours sins at the cross is foundational. And our own resurrection hope like Christ is foundational!
Starting with this, I remind you of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11. There he speaks of his work as an apostle in laying the foundation; but then he clarifies. He says that no other foundation can be laid than Jesus Christ. Similarly, in Galatians 1:8, Paul says even if he or an angel were to give a gospel contrary to what he already preached, may such a person be accursed. You see, this is the importance of laying a foundation. You lay the right one and you build off of it. You can’t keep putting new or different foundations. You can’t even imagine that in building terms. In a building, you can only have one foundation, otherwise whatever else you have, it’s not a foundation. There is something unique about a foundation.
And yet, even though I’ve pointed to Christ as the foundation here, our passage specifically says he’s the cornerstone of the foundation. Verse 20 actually speaks of the foundation being that of the apostles and the prophets. How then are they part of this foundation? Well, as I mentioned in that 1 Corinthians 3 passage, Paul says that he as an apostle is the one laying the foundation of Christ for the church. But that doesn’t say enough. Chapter 3, verse 5, gives us a little more insight. That verse speaks of revelation. There it has in mind a specific piece of revelation, very relevant to the context of this passage. It speaks of revelation about the Gentiles becoming one with Jews in the church of Jesus Christ. But notice in 3:5 who gets the revelation. It says its these same apostles and prophets! And then notice what they do with it in 3:9. They bring it to light. Apostles like Paul, along with the prophets, received revelation for the church that was foundational for the new covenant church. They then delivered this revelation, bringing it to light, proclaiming it to the world. The church is then built upon this revelation that they revealed. Ultimately, the revelation they received and then revealed was about Christ, and thus makes sense for Paul to speak of Christ as the cornerstone for this foundation which the apostles and prophets lay.
So then, this is our first point. To recognize this foundation. Notice what the foundation is. It’s a focus on Christ and it’s a focus on revelation. Of course, elsewhere Scripture repeatedly says that all revelation is focused on Christ. That’s our foundation: Christ as revealed. So, the point is that our foundation for the church is really the revelation received and delivered about Christ and his gospel under the new covenant. And it’s the apostles and prophets that have given us this revelation. They’ve delivered the foundation to the church under the new covenant.
That brings us to our second point. Having thought about the foundation, I want to explore next from verse 20 to think further about these apostles and prophets. Let’s begin with the apostles. An apostle was a specially commissioned messenger sent by Christ on his behalf and with his authority. When we think of the office of apostleship, it’s typical to think of the original twelve disciples who then become apostles. We see in Acts that number is special because after Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus and then kills himself, the rest of the twelve determine there is biblical warrant to replace him, to get back to the number of twelve. And in Acts 1:22, we see a major requirement they determined to be one of the twelve apostles. The person who would be the twelfth apostle must have been an eye witness from the very beginning; from the time of John the Baptist up through the resurrection and ascension. The reason they say this is needed is so they can be a witness to Christ and his resurrection. So, the eye-witness aspect was deemed very important to them. It tells us a significant role of what it means to be an apostle, as defined in the Bible. They saw the life and ministry of Jesus, especially his resurrection. They then bear witness to Christ and the gospel.
This is clearly a foundational role. It is surely why after these twelve apostles start dying, there is no record of the apostles appointing new people to replace those who died. For example, the Apostle James is martyred in Acts 12, but there is no move then to appoint a replacement like they had done with Judas Iscariot. And obviously, future generations weren’t going to be able to serve as eye witnesses to Christ since they won’t have been eye witnesses. This unique role of the twelve apostles is also reflected in Revelation 21:14. There, in looking to glory, it speaks of the wall of New Jerusalem having twelve foundation stones, with the names of the twelve apostles written on them. Again, that foundational element is seen in regard to the twelve apostles.
That being said, it would be fair to note that the New Testament does use that word of apostle beyond simply the twelve. Some of the other usages of that word in the New Testament are arguably a bit ambiguous. Some might just be referring to the twelve. Others might just use the word in a non-technical sense to refer to a messenger in general. Yet, that’s not the case with Paul who clearly is an apostle in the technical sense of an office. Possibly there are also one or two others in the New Testament like this, such as Barnabas. For example, in Acts 13, the church receives a special prophecy that tells them to set apart Paul and Barnabas for a mission to the Gentiles. Then in the next chapter, in Acts 14:14, Paul and Barnabas are referred to as apostles. Well, Scripture doesn’t tell us much more about in what sense is Barnabas an apostle, but we do learn a lot more about Paul as an official apostle in the sense used here in verse 20. For example, even in this letter, Paul begins by clearly identifying himself as holding the office of apostle. Here, in chapter 3 he is describing his unique role in receiving revelation to serve in this foundation laying function. I mentioned last week in 2 Corinthians 12:12 that Paul talked about how his apostleship had been validated with the typical signs of an apostle: through performing various miracles. In Acts 15:12 it sounds like Barnabas also was involved in the working of miracles with Paul, which might further suggest that he too held the formal office of apostle too, though I don’t think we need to be dogmatic about that.
What’s my point? The reference here to apostles makes us especially think of the twelve but here it must also include at least Paul and possibly a few other apostles beyond that. Yet, even with that wider group in view, we see the extraordinary character of the office of apostle. We see God supernaturally commissions such apostles through prophecy. They have to be called and commissioned by Christ – that’s the heart of being an apostle, you are being authorized by Christ to go in his behalf with his message and his authority! Thus, we see signs and wonders happening through such apostles to confirm their ministry. We such apostles themselves receiving revelation from God to give to the churches to lay out the foundation of divine revelation for the church. In this all, they are proclaiming Christ and the gospel and building Christ’s church. So, whatever wider group of apostles there was beyond the twelve, they were ultimately doing the same foundation laying work as the twelve. The reason why there were at least Paul and possibly Barnabas as apostles beyond the twelve seems to be captured well in Galatians 2. There Paul reflects on how the twelve had been particularly made apostles to the Jews, where he and Barnabas had been commissioned in their apostolic ministry to go to the Gentiles. But all the apostles are involved in foundation laying. That is what Paul affirms here in 2:20.
So then, what about the prophets that are mentioned here? Who do they refer to? Well, I have to confess that for much of my life, I’ve read that and thought they referred to the Old Testament prophets. That is clearly one interpretation that you will find out there for that passage. Well, though the Old Testament prophets spoke of Christ to come, I don’t think the context would allow for that meaning here. Once we remember that the chapter and verse markers were a later addition to the text, we see how 3:5 clearly has in mind the same group as 2:20. And in 3:5 it is clear that the prophets mentioned are the prophets of their day, under the new covenant. There is a similar reference in 4:11, same order of “apostles and prophets” and again clearly referring to contemporary prophets at that time. The Old Testament prophets prophesied up through John the Baptist. But after that, we see in the New Testament that after the day of Pentecost, other new covenant prophets begin to serve in the church.
We don’t have a lot of data on such prophets under the new covenant. The language of prophet tells us that they received revelation from God which they then communicated to God’s people. That is what we see described in 1 Corinthians 14. There in 1 Corinthians it also describes some degree of priority in the church among its offices and gifts, mentioning apostleship first, and the ability to prophesy as second; that’s 1 Cor 12:28. That surely reflects the same order Paul uses in Ephesians, always mentioning apostles first, then prophets. That lines up well with their foundational importance that is mentioned here in 2:20. As for actual prophets mentioned in the New Testament, we don’t know of too many by name. Agabus is a prophet mentioned in Acts. Philip’s four daughters are also mentioned in Acts that they prophesied. But we really don’t have that much about these prophets’ ministries. Yet, Paul tells us of their importance here. These new covenant prophets together with the apostles provided foundational revelation for establishing the church under the new covenant.
I’d like to now turn in our third point to make some further application to the doctrine of cessationism. My main application is this: We aren’t to expect new apostles or prophets just like we aren’t to expect any new divine revelation, either corporately or personally. Their ministry was a foundation laying ministry in the new covenant, and the foundation has been laid. I mentioned that Ephesians 4:11 references apostles and prophet again, that time alongside a list of several other roles including evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Yet, it’s clear apostles and prophets are held out in a distinct way in Ephesians, and rightly so. The apostles and prophets are mentioned twice together in our passage, before Paul ever mentions those other roles in the church. The reason is clear. What distinguishes an apostle and a prophet from those other roles? The answer is revelation. Apostles and prophets both were recipients of new revelation from God that they then would communicate to the people. Evangelists, pastors, and teacher all simply work with revelation from God that has already been received. Thus, the roles of apostle and prophet involve supernatural communication from God and are inherently extraordinary ministries. Pastors and teacher in comparison have ordinary ministries. As such, we see how the apostles and prophets functioned in the church. What made their offices unique was that they were receiving new revelation. This new revelation is what made their ministry foundational. They laid the foundation with the revelation they were receiving, and you don’t keep laying a new foundation. Otherwise, if the foundation has already been lain, what sort of new revelation could a prophet or an apostle bring that wouldn’t inherently infringe upon that existing foundation? And so, since the apostles and prophets have already laid the foundation, it’s also why their ministry is no longer needed. If you get rid of the revelation component, then an apostle or prophet really would just become a pastor or teacher. Revelation is what made their ministry unique and its also what makes their office now obsolete. They’ve accomplished their job.
Now to be fair, some would say that this argument is saying too much. Just because apostles and prophets laid the foundation doesn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t go on to do other work in the church. I’ll grant that specific point theoretically, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily will either. Let’s not be presumptuous. But when we come to this question of whether to expect more apostles and prophets or not, we have to see what Scripture teaches us about their ministries. It does tell us that they play a foundational role. It does tell us that what makes their ministry unique is their receiving of divine revelation, to establish that foundation. It does speak of the apostles being eye witnesses to Christ. Not to mention the Bible does say there would come a time when the gift of prophecy will cease (1 Cor 13:8). And so, these and other statements in the Bible about the ministry of the apostles and prophets would lead us to the conclusion that they had a specific purpose in the church which has come to an end with the close of the apostolic era and the completion of the canon of Scripture.
If some would want to say otherwise, I would push back and ask where is the proof of someone today being an apostle or a prophet? Those who would claim today to be apostles, they should be producing the signs and wonders that Paul said apostles do. Some have made claims for such, but they repeatedly are debunked when put under even the most basic inquiry. This is the same for any so-called modern prophets. The Old Testament test for a prophet in Deuteronomy 18 is very helpful here. It says that if the what the prophet speaks doesn’t come to pass, then they aren’t a true prophet. It says they have spoken presumptuously and should be put to death. Well, the sad reality is that those who claim to be able to prophesy today, repeatedly have ended up giving prophecies at some point that don’t come to pass. They fail this test of being a valid prophet. Amazingly, some continuationists today (like Wayne Grudem, for example) have tried to resolve this problem by saying that new covenant prophets only get fallible prophecy; in other words, prophecy that could be incorrect. Yet, how is that biblical? How would that even be prophecy? It would only be false prophecy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we go out and start stoning charismatics. But as your pastor, I’m concerned to bring us Scripture’s concerns. I don’t see a good case to be made that we should expect continuing apostles or prophets or continuing new revelation. But what I do find repeatedly in the Bible is a warning that there will be false apostles and false prophets that come into the church. 2 Corinthians 11:13 and Revelation 2:2 both warn about people who declare themselves apostles but are actually liars. Mark 2:13 and 1 John 4:1 are two of several passages that warn against false prophets. Matthew 24:24 is especially scary because it says that such false prophets might even come performing signs and wonders! So, this greatly concerns me. The Bible commands me that as a pastor I have to be on the lookout for false prophets and false apostles. So, when suddenly a new Pentecostal or charismatic movement rises up, getting people to focus their Christian life more on supposed signs and wonders than on God’s Word, I get concerned. When those movements get people to somehow try to receive individual prophecies from God instead of driving people back to the written Word, I get concerned. When such movements give prophecies that fail, how can we not call them out as false prophets? Again, I’m not suggesting we start stoning people. But I do want to affirm truth from error. And I want each of us in the church to be growing as a Christian through legitimate spiritual experiences. The ordinary way the Holy Spirit works in us and grows us is through his Word. I don’t want any of us here to be taken astray by counterfeit claims of some new spurious revelation.
There’s more I want to say here, but I will cease today’s sermon with this final encouragement and exhortation. With all our discussions today, I hope we don’t miss in this passage the glorious gospel that is presented here. God has made people like us who before were not saved, to be forgiven of their sins and made part of his covenant. He’s done this through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross for our sins, verse 2:13. I love the way he describes this in 2:12. Jews and Gentiles in Christ now make up one nation, one commonwealth, of Israel. In other words, we are all part of one redeemed kingdom ruled by Jesus, the Messiah. What a joy to be a part of this kingdom, and to have such a kingdom. What a joy it is to know the kind of peace talked about in 2:14-17. Christ’s blood has reconciled us with God and thus reconciles us with one another. Praise God for this glorious gospel that we’ve been given. Praise God that he now builds us up, founded on this glorious good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus!
Let us then continue to build on this foundation, and not some other spurious or apocryphal foundation that would be offered through some other claim of prophecy or apostolic message. Let us rejoice to bring this apostolic Word to the world, that which we have recorded here in Scripture. Let us rejoice to see how it is this gospel which is the power of God for salvation, first for the Jew and also for the Greek, for everyone who believes. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.