“having been built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, having as the cornerstone, Christ Jesus,”
The language of the church being like a great building and temple goes all of the way back to the prophesies of Haggai, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. They are also picked up by both Peter and Paul in their epistles. Christ is the greater Temple of which Haggai prophesied and we (believers) are the building blocks from which it is built (1 Peter 2). Yet, buildings are established upon a foundation…in this case, that of the Apostles and Prophets — the authors through whom the Scriptures are given to us. And Christ is the cornerstone — he is the first stone laid on the foundation with which all of the subsequent building blocks must be aligned. In other words, if we do not align ourselves with Christ, the writings of Scripture will make no sense.
Before we go too far, it should be noted that some theologians have enjoyed poking fun at the old hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” because it speaks of Christ being that foundation (in contrast to what Paul writes here). In defense of the hymn’s author, he was speaking of 1 Corinthians 3:11, where Paul speaks of Christ as the foundation, not of this passage here. Maybe the author could have clarified his text somewhat, but it is not inconsistent with Scripture to think this way (sorry R.C.). Nevertheless, in Ephesians, Paul further clarifies the word picture somewhat to speak of Christ as the cornerstone and the Apostles and Prophets (the inspired Writ) as the foundation on which the church is built.
The question should be asked, then, as to what it means for a church to be built upon the Scriptures. Certainly, most churches would say that they were, but if we raise the question, I fear that most congregations fall far short from the scriptures. So let us start by the notion that if a church is built upon the scriptures, every part of what it does is then dictated and governed by the scriptures. That includes the church government, church discipline, the sacraments, and the attitude toward confessions and creeds (what Jude refers to as the faith that was “once and for all time delivered to the saints”). This includes activities in the church life. This includes the whole of worship. What is read? What is preached? What is sung? What governs our prayers and elements of worship? If it is not the word of God, then the church is not built on the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets. How does your congregation hold up? Are you in a position to bring reform where needed? If not, flee to a congregation which is intentionally built on these things.
I grant, that sounds a little harsh to our western ears, but listen to a few additional things the the Bible says about this foundation and its cornerstone. This church is chosen and precious to God and made to be a spiritual household, holy, set apart for God’s purposes and not men’s. God is zealous toward his church. He has chosen her unconditionally, but he does not leave her in her rough form. Stones must be shaped prior to being useful in the building of the Temple. Isn’t it interesting that when Solomon’s Temple was being built, the stones themselves had to be shaped (chiseled) away from the Temple Mount — in the world (1 Kings 6:7). What a picture that presents for those of us still being sanctified. We are being sanctified in the world to be prepared for eternity in God’s presence. Sanctification does not take place in heaven nor in the new creation; it takes place here in the fallen world. Thus, if we are to be useful to God, shall we be content with the rough-cut stone all around our being and in our church? Or, shall we desire to be properly dressed and ready for use in the Temple?
We are also told that there is a seal laid into the firm foundation of the church (2 Timothy 2:19). This seal makes two very strong statements about those who are part of the house. First, it reads, “The Lord knows those who are his.” This, of course, speaks very clearly of Election and the fact that when Jesus made atonement for sins, he did not do so for some unnamed masses, but he did so for those whom he knew. Just as the High Priest knew for whom he made atonement and only made atonement for said persons, so too, our great High Priest only made atonement for the elect of God and knew precisely for whom he atoned.
The second part of the seal on the foundation of the church contains the words, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” The life of a Christian is to be such that sin is contended against. For the Christian, being content with indwelling sin is never an option. And that idea really brings us full circle to where we began. For, if a church is contented with functioning in a way not dictated by the Scriptures and they become aware that they are doing so, the right response would be repentance. Yet, such is a rare trait. Most, instead, content themselves with compromise rather than submitting to the will of God.