In Matthew 16:18 Jesus announces to Peter and the other disciples that “on this rock” He would build His church. Peter understood that Jesus was the rock on which the church would be built. Peter also recognized that Jesus was referencing Isaiah 8:14, and that Jesus was the Messiah, the rock of offense (1 Peter 2:8). And Peter also understood that the psalmist had indicated that the Messiah would be the cornerstone (1 Peter 2:7). Paul uses this same imagery when he explains that the church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, saying that believers are “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19–20).
The Hebrew prophets had illustrated the Messiah’s role using an architectural word picture. While the Messiah would be the rock over which the nation of Israel would stumble (Isaiah 8:14), He would also be the cornerstone of something new (Psalm 118:2). God would do something significant to fulfill His promise to Abraham that in Abraham all the peoples of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3b). One of the ways God would fulfill that promise was by Jesus building His church and serving as its cornerstone. In construction, the cornerstone was the first stone laid by which the entire building had a point of reference and could base its structure. After the cornerstone was placed, the foundation was laid. Paul explains that the church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20).
God’s household (Ephesians 2:19), which is made up of Jews and Gentiles—people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 5:9)—is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Himself being the cornerstone. In the building up of the church, God gave apostles and prophets. Their message gave the church a solid foundation. Jesus chose the apostles and commissioned them. They were empowered by the Holy Spirit who guided them into all truth, helping them to remember all that Jesus had spoken to them (John 16:13). Peter explains that the Holy Spirit moved these men, and they spoke from God (2 Peter 1:21). Jesus also gave prophets to the early church. Though their ministry was temporary (1 Corinthians 13:8), it was a way that God communicated with the church in those early, foundational days (see also 2 Peter 1:20–21).
Christ is the cornerstone, and the church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Once the foundation was complete, the building project moved forward with evangelists and pastors and teachers. Evangelists are those who proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to those who don’t yet know Him. Pastors and teachers are those who are leading in the church, especially by the teaching of the Word of God to those who do know Jesus. Both roles are needed as the church continues to be built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
It is important to note that, once the foundation is laid, it is not laid again. The gifts of the apostles and prophets were foundational and necessary in the early days of the church, but their purpose has been completed. There are no apostles or prophets today. Once the Holy Spirit had fulfilled His ministry of guiding the disciples into all the truth (John 16:13) and inspiring prophecy (2 Peter 1:20–21), He began using evangelists and pastors and teachers to accomplish the next stage of the building.
Today, all believers are being equipped by God’s Word (supplied by the first-century apostles and prophets) to do the work of God so that the body can continue to be built up (Ephesians 2:21–22, 4:12–13). The church is built upon the rock, the cornerstone that was placed first, then it is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and it continues to be built with evangelists, pastors and teachers, and you and me.