The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself the chief cornerstone (see Eph. 2:20), Who are the people who formed the foundation of God’s eternal church? Why were they chosen? What does this mean for us?
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
These men whose names I just read are the foundation “of apostles and prophets” on which the church of God is built, in which Christ Jesus himself is the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-20). When we look at these men and the people with them, we are seeing the proto church. We cannot call them the church yet, since they have not yet been bound to each other by the one Spirit, but they are the foundation of the church. And notice what work is being done at the foundational level: they are praying (v. 14). “…constantly in prayer” could be translated, “constantly attending to prayer…”
The word has the idea of being on call. It is used, for example, of a high ranking officer’s chief of staff, who was always at his beck and call. Here, the idea is not that prayer is always there for the apostles and others to use, but that the apostles and others are always there and ready to be used for prayer. I wonder if that describes us.
This is the proto-church, and there are some things to notice. They are still hurting from the defection of one of their closest friends, their fellow apostle, Judas. They can still hardly believe it. Judas was not simply these men’s co-worker; he was their brother. They were family. The Gospels make it clear that none of them had any inkling that Judas would betray them. His defection left them stunned, angry, and hurt.
Another thing to notice is the interesting association of Peter with John. Both these men have biological brothers among the Apostles. It was Peter’s brother Andrew who first introduced him to Jesus. And John’s older brother James was one of the first of the Twelve and was the first to die a martyr’s death. Yet it is Peter’s and John’s names that are linked here and then twelve more times in the first eight chapters of Acts. In every other catalog of the apostles, Peter and Andrew always head the list, followed by James and John, but here we have (literally) Peter and John, James and Andrew. The blood of Christ makes new family connections between people that are as just real, and can be even more permanent, than the connections made by the blood that flows through our veins.
Notice too that the apostles are “joined together” with the women, with Mary, and with Jesus’s brothers. “Joined together” expressed a Greek word that has often been translated, “of one accord” or “of one mind.” The idea behind this word is that something outside a group of people has united them. It could be used today to to describe Muslims, Jews, and Christians all pulling together to rescue earthquake survivors in Turkey. Something outside them has united them. Or it could be used of the 85 instrumentalists in an orchestra that are playing under the baton of one conductor. It is not that they have a natural affinity for each other (they may or may not); it’s that the conductor has united them around the one score.
During his time on earth, Jesus Christ promised to build his church and the men listed in verse 13 are the building materials he chose to use in the foundation. If you know anything of their history, you might think that Jesus had left himself open to the charge of using inferior grade building materials. If these guys are up to code, it would seem like the code needs to be revised.
It was not the natural quality of these men that suited them for their place in the church’s foundation; it was the bonding agent that hardened their resolve, cemented them together, and made them “strong, firm, and steadfast.” It was the addition of God’s Spirit into their lives that made all the difference. He is the Spirit of life, the Spirit of holiness, the Spirit of sonship, the Spirit of unity, the Spirit of power, the Spirit of revelation, the Spirit of grace. It was the introduction of the Spirit into these men and the immersion of these men in the Spirit that transformed them.
Christ did not choose them for their foundational role in the church because of their obvious superiority. After three years of discipleship, three years of living together day and night in the company of the committed, Jesus told these same men that they would all fall away. They insisted he was wrong. He told Peter that he was going to disown him. Peter adamantly denied it. Nevertheless, they all fell away, and Peter disowned his master. These men did not seem like the kind of quality building material needed for the church of the eternal God. They were not strong, firm, and steadfast.
Yet the Bonding Agent, the Holy Spirit made them strong. Each of them would remain true to Christ for the rest of their lives, serving sacrificially, and dying heroically. Tradition, not Scripture – these stories are not inspired – have Peter dying by crucifixion in Rome in 67 AD. John was exiled to the Island of Patmos for his testimony about Jesus. James was the first of the apostles to die, beheaded by Herod Agrippa. Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross in Greece after seven soldiers beat him mercilessly. Philip was executed on the orders of a Roman proconsul whose wife he had led to faith in Christ.
According to tradition, four soldiers in India ran Thomas through with spears. Batholomew was martyred in Arabia. Matthew was stabbed in Ethiopia. James son of Alpheus was clubbed to death, then beheaded. Simon was killed in Persia. Judas son of James, also known as Thaddeus was shot to death with arrows.
If tradition is true, all these men remained faithful to Christ through serious suffering. They lived heroically and died martyrs’ deaths. Their lives proved that Jesus was right to choose them for the foundation of his church. But who would have guessed that before God reinforced them, transformed them, and bonded them together by his Spirit? I can imagine the angels in heaven looking at these guys and saying to the ascended Jesus: “Lord, we were just wondering if … if you have a backup plan in place.”
Why? Because these men all blundered at one time or another. They were constantly misunderstanding what Jesus told them – right up to his ascension. They quarreled. They said and did the wrong thing, not once but time and time again.
Take Peter, who is always mentioned first in every list of the apostles. Was he a spiritual superstar or a spiritual blunderer? The Gospels present him as impetuous – the kind of guy who speaks before he thinks. When he was on what he later referred to as “the holy mountain” (the mount of transfiguration), he blurted out something ridiculous, and Luke comments that “he did not know what he was saying” (Luke 9:33). Peter could be counted on to talk when he didn’t know what he was saying.
Peter was the guy who jumped out of the boat and tried to walk on the water. You have to admire his zeal, but he sank and would have drowned had Jesus not saved him. Peter was the guy who took a knife to a gunfight (or something like that) and tried to use it; Jesus rebuked him.
And speaking of rebuking, Peter was the only apostle who was insolent enough to rebuke Jesus. We read the story in Matthew 16:21-22: “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” What kind of guy rebukes Jesus? Peter. Speak first, think later Peter.
Peter had his high points too. In fact, it is an interesting study to see how his high points seem to coexist with and even precipitate his low points. Peter was quick to obey, but he was slow to listen. He was the first to act, but it was frequently the wrong action. He was self-confident, but it was a misplaced confidence that let him and others down.
The greatest example of this misplaced confidence happened on the night Jesus was betrayed. Peter guaranteed his loyalty to Jesus (while casting doubt on the loyalty of his fellow disciples’). He vowed that he would die before he would desert Jesus. After Jesus’s arrest, Peter bravely followed him right into the enemy’s compound. But then he denied Jesus not once but three times in a matter of an hour or two. And, I think, once again he hardly knew what he was saying. Speak first, think later Peter.
And what did Jesus do? He made this man Chief Apostle and placed him in the foundation of his glorious church. Some of us have messed up as badly as Peter. Does that mean we have ruined our chances of ever getting close to Christ and serving him? Do our failures disqualify us? No. Our sins will only stop us if we refuse to leave them.
Peter was not the only stone in the church’s foundation that was chipped and uneven. In fact, with the exception of Jesus himself, who is the chief cornerstone, all the rest are flawed and lopsided. It contributes greatly to God’s glory that he builds his beautiful church out of such people – people like us.
Take Philip for example. If I have a favorite apostle, it is Philip. After his calling, every time he appears in the Gospels, he seems confused. Philip is the disciple who just didn’t get it. On one occasion, while they were out in the wilderness, Jesus asked him where they might buy food to feed a crowd of thousands. Jesus was obviously testing Philip but he didn’t realize it, and blurted out, “Two hundred denarii” – a huge amount of money – “wouldn’t buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (John 6:7).
In what might be the silliest thing any of Jesus’s disciples ever said, Philip urged Jesus to “Just show us the Father” – bring the eternal, infinite, sovereign God into this room; put him on display – “and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). If Peter was impulsive, Philip was befuddled.
And yet, of all the disciples, Philip is the only one we know of that Jesus went out personally to find and commission. Jesus wanted Philip the Befuddled. Philip didn’t have to “get it”; Jesus got him.
Next in the list is Thomas. If Philip was befuddled, Thomas was gloomy. He was a dark cloud on a sunny day, the Eeyore of the apostolic band. Here is how he encouraged the other disciples: “Let’s go with Jesus so that we might die with him” (John 11:16). Jesus once gave his apostles the beautiful promise that he would come back for them and take them to be with him. He then added, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas interrupted with characteristic bluntness: “We don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?”
Thomas is best known for his stubborn refusal to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:25).
What did Jesus do with that storm cloud of a man? He made a believer of him: “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27). According to tradition, old storm cloud Thomas brought showers of blessing to India and many people there were converted to Christ under his ministry.
We could go on. Matthew was a traitor who sold out his nation for financial gain. He became the author of the Gospel that bears his name. Simon the Zealot was a guy who advocated the execution of people like Matthew without trial or jury. Jesus put them in the same squad.
And don’t forget that this group included early joiners besides the Apostles– the women and Jesus’s brothers. His brothers did not have any confidence in Jesus until after the resurrection. In fact, they disparaged him: “Why don’t you go to the big city and do your shtick there? No one who wants to be a celebrity hangs out in a Podunk place like this” (my very loose paraphrase of John 7:3-4). Yet brother James would go on to become the leader of the church in Jerusalem and brother Jude would write one of our New Testament letters.
What can we learn from this? Jesus Christ started the church with very imperfect people. People who didn’t get it. People who failed spectacularly. People who had a history. He is building his church with the same kind of people today. Remember what Paul said to the Corinthians: “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were” (1 Cor. 6:9c-11a). And it’s what some of us were too.
Jesus isn’t building his church out of people who have it all together but people who are placing all their hope in him. They get to be part of something bigger than themselves. They are connected. They are doing something that makes a difference. They are part of a story that will be told forever. They get off the sidelines and fulfill the role God has prepared for them.
Now remember that in the foundation-laying days of the church, these first believers were joining constantly in prayer. Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4) but, interestingly, Jesus had not told them to pray. Yet, they joined constantly in prayer, were on call for prayer. Why?
I think it was because Jesus had modeled prayer for them. Luke tells us that before his baptism, Jesus prayed and it was while he was praying, that the Spirit descended on him from heaven (Luke 3:21). He taught them that the Father would give the Spirit to those who asked him (Luke 11:13) and told them to keep praying and not give up (Luke 18:1). And so, they prayed while they waited, and it was while they were praying that the Spirit, the bonding agent, was poured out on them. The Spirit transformed them into the firm, sure, and steadfast foundation of which Christ is the chief cornerstone.
It was not just in the foundation-laying stage of the project that prayer is important, but at every phase of the construction of Christ’s church. And notice that these men and women didn’t just pray privately in their homes; they prayed together. If you want to see Christ’s church – including our church – be all God can make it, you should be praying together with other people.
There is a Friday morning, 9:00 prayer meeting for the church that has been happening for years in room 303, right by the church office. If you cannot come together with others to pray then, start something yourself. Invite a few people to join you in prayer on a regular basis.
April will be a month of prayer at Lockwood, bookended by two days when we will pray together. We will be seeking God’s will for us in this year of transition. Decide right now that you will be a part of that.
Something else we see here: our unity as a church family does not come from within us but from without. As we move closer to Christ, we get closer to each other. We are not bonded together by race or class or education but by the bonding agent, the Spirit of God. Do you want to fit in, find friends, be part of a vibrant community? The best thing you can do is move closer to Christ.
Finally, I’ve notice that many people veto themselves, keep themselves at a distance. Don’t do that. I’ve known people who have been at Lockwood for years who, when they’re talking to me, say, “Your church really is this or that” instead of “Our church is this or that.” Could it be that they think they have no share in the church because of what their life has been?
But look at who God chose to be the foundation of Christ’s church—people like us! People who have a history. People who have a personality. People who fail. Don’t veto yourself. Present yourself to God, submit to Jesus, and see what he can do with you.