Does Ephesians 2:19-20 Prove That God No Longer Gives the Gift of Prophecy?
Ephesians 2:19-20 is a passage that is often said to prove that God no longer gives Christians the gift of prophecy.
In this passage, the apostle Paul, speaking to Gentile Christians, states:
“19 So then, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with the Messiah Jesus Himself as the cornerstone.”
Christians who claim that God no longer gives the gift of prophecy frequently argue in the following way about this passage:
Paul uses the metaphor of a foundation to describe the apostles and prophets of the church, and he implies that the rest of the church is built on this foundation. A foundation is the first part of a building to be built. Therefore, the fact that Paul uses this picture to describe the apostles and prophets shows that they had a role only in the early stages of the church. This must mean that God no longer gives the gift of prophecy.
Not the only possible interpretation
This is not a forced or unnatural way of taking Paul’s words. Nevertheless, it isn’t the only way they can be interpreted, as I will argue below.
Before I give an alternative interpretation, I want to make some preliminary points about this passage. I won’t try to defend them, because in all of them I agree with at least the majority of those who say that God no longer gives the gift of prophecy.
(1) We should understand the foundation in this passage to consist of the apostles and prophets (and Jesus). It is not something that is laid by the apostles and prophets.
(2) Although Paul doesn’t refer to the church explicitly in these verses, that is what he is talking about. And he is saying that the apostles and prophets (and Jesus) form a foundation, on which the rest of the church is built.
(3) The apostles and prophets here are two separate groups, as in Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:29. The text is not referring to a single group of Christians, each of whom is both an apostle and a prophet.
That is not to say that no Christians fell into both categories. But basically, Paul is referring here to two groups of Christians.
(4) The prophets in view are Christian prophets, not Old Testament prophets.
(5) The foundation is apostles and prophets who ministered in the early decades of the church. The idea is not that apostles and prophets who minister throughout the church age are a foundation.
(6) Although in the Greek text there is a definite article before “apostles” but not before “prophets,” “prophets” should be regarded as a definite noun. The text could just as easily have been written, “the apostles and the prophets.”
(7) From other passages of Scripture, I accept that there have been no apostles, in the full sense of the word, since the original apostles. I also believe that Ephesians 2:20 is referring only to apostles in the full sense, not to any lesser sort of apostles (whether or not lesser apostles have ever existed). I therefore believe that this verse has in view all the apostles, in the full sense, that there have ever been and that they all lived in the first decades of the church age.
(8) As a related point, I accept that Ephesians 4:11-13 doesn’t prove that apostles and prophets exist throughout the church age.
These are the preliminary points, and in all of them I agree with at least the majority of those who say that the gift of prophecy has ceased.
The alternative interpretation
Let’s turn now to the alternative interpretation.
I believe that this is the scenario underlying this passage:
Apostles, in the full sense of the word, had a role only in the early stages of the church. Prophets exist throughout the church age (although much more commonly at some times than at others). But crucially, the most important prophecies were all given in the first decades of the church age, meaning that all the most important prophets lived at that time.
It is entirely plausible that this scenario could be described by saying that the church is built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” as we find in Ephesians 2:20.
Let me now defend this interpretation in a bit more depth.
Biblical metaphors often correspond loosely to reality
To begin with, there is the nature of biblical metaphors to consider.
Those who say that this passage proves that the gift of prophecy has ceased typically take the foundation metaphor in v. 20 in a very precise way. They look at the picture Paul is giving and seem to assume that it must correspond to reality very precisely.
When we look at how the Bible uses metaphors, however, we often find that they don’t correspond precisely to reality.
A good example of this can be seen in Matthew 20:28. Here Jesus says:
“. . . the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
In this verse, Jesus’ death is metaphorically described as a ransom for people.
This is an excellent metaphor for illustrating what His death accomplished. Nevertheless, this metaphorical ransom doesn’t correspond to a literal ransom in every respect. A literal ransom has to be paid to someone. Yet if we ask to whom Jesus’ metaphorical ransom was paid, we are demanding too much of the metaphor. There is no one to whom Jesus’ ransom was paid.
This metaphor of ransom, then, corresponds quite loosely to reality. It is a mistake to interpret it too precisely.
Another good example can be found in Hebrews 12:1. Here the author encourages his readers with these words:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a large cloud of witnesses, let us get rid of every weight and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that lies before us . . .”
In this verse, the Christian life is described using the metaphor of a long distance running race.
Again, this is a great metaphor, but we mustn’t demand too much from it. In a literal race we run against competitors. However, in the metaphorical race being described in this verse there are no competitors we run against.
This is another metaphor, then, that corresponds quite loosely to the reality it is describing. And many more similar examples could be given from Scripture.
In view of how biblical metaphors often correspond imprecisely to reality, it is a mistake to simply assume that the metaphor of apostles and prophets as a foundation must be interpreted very technically and precisely. And once we allow that Paul could have used this metaphor loosely, it is easy to fit what he says with prophetic ministry continuing throughout the church age at a lower level than in the first few decades.
The Bible often makes simplifications
Something else we need to take account of is how the Bible often simplifies things. This actually overlaps with the point about loose use of metaphors.
A good example of simplification can be seen in 1 Kings 9:4. In this verse, the LORD says the following to Solomon:
“As for you, if you will walk before Me as your father David walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness . . .”
God says here that David walked with integrity of heart and uprightness.
We know, however, that David was in fact guilty of no less sins than murder and adultery (2 Samuel 11:1-27). And we know too that as a sinful human being he must have sinned in a multitude of other ways too.
In saying that David walked before Him with integrity and uprightness, then, God is making a big simplification.
Another example of a verse that simplifies matters is Matthew 5:42. Here Jesus teaches:
“Give to the person who asks you, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow from you.”
Actually, there are many situations when we shouldn’t give to a person who asks us for something or wants to borrow from us. For example, if someone asks us for money to buy illegal drugs, we should certainly not oblige.
It would be a big mistake to take what Jesus says in this verse precisely. Instead, His words give a general principle that allows for numerous exceptions. Jesus is simplifying things greatly.
The Bible also contains many other similar simplifications.
Given that Scripture often simplifies things, it is wrong to just assume that Paul is not making a simplification in Ephesians 2:19-20. When he says that “the apostles and prophets” are a foundation of the church, we should be open to the possibility that he could be simplifying things somewhat. There could potentially be other, less important prophets, who are not actually part of the foundation.
Paul’s emphasis is on the existence rather than timing of the apostolic and prophetic ministries
Those who say that this passage proves that God no longer gives the gift of prophecy place a lot of weight on the temporal aspect of Paul’s metaphor. They claim that the fact that the apostles and prophets are a foundation, together with the fact that the foundation in a literal building is the first part to be built, shows that the apostles and prophets existed only in the first part of the church age.
However, the metaphor itself encourages us not to emphasize its temporal aspect:
The Greek word underlying “built” in the above translation is epoikodomethentes, which is a past tense participle. The fact that it is a past tense means that some of the non-apostolic and non-prophetic part of the church had already been built on the foundation at the time Ephesians was written.
Yet it is Paul, an apostle, who is writing this. So the apostolic ministry is envisaged as ongoing at the time of writing.
Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to say that the foundation refers to something that is temporally completely before the part that stands on the foundation. Otherwise, how could Paul’s apostolic ministry still be ongoing when there is already a structure standing on the apostolic (and prophetic) foundation?
This shows that temporal factors are not at the heart of what this metaphor is being used to express. Rather, the metaphor places more emphasis on the existence of apostolic and prophetic ministries than on the time of operation of these ministries. That is where the stress lies.
Given that the emphasis is not on timing, it is unwise to use the metaphor to draw firm conclusions about the time of operation of apostolic and prophetic ministries.
Paul’s focus is on the early stages of the church and not a later time
Not only does Paul place more emphasis on the existence of apostolic and prophetic ministries than on their time of operation, but, even as regards timing, his focus is on the early stages of the church rather than on a later time.
By using the metaphor of a foundation, he is telling his readers that apostles and prophets had key roles in the early stages of the church. However, he is not attempting to comment on the roles, or lack of roles, of apostles and prophets after the early stages. That is not his concern.
Therefore, since Paul’s focus is on the early decades of the church, it would be unwise to use his words to draw any firm conclusions about the place of prophecy after the first decades.
This clause is very brief
Finally, it is important to note how few words Paul uses to form his metaphor of a foundation.
Paul really says very little here, and it would be a mistake to draw confident conclusions from these few words.
In the above discussion, I have noted several things.
First, the way that the Bible often uses metaphors loosely makes it easy to think that the metaphor in Ephesians 2:19-20 could be a loose one that allows for the gift of prophecy to continue throughout the church age in a less important way than in the first few decades.
Second, the way that Scripture often simplifies things suggests that “the apostles and prophets” could easily be a simplification meaning the apostles and most important prophets.
Third, the emphasis in the metaphor is more on the existence of apostolic and prophetic ministries than on their time of operation, so it is unwise to use the metaphor to draw firm conclusions about timing.
Fourth, because Paul’s focus is on the first decades of the church, it is unwise to use his words to draw confident conclusions about the place of prophecy after that time.
Fifth, the fact that Paul says so little also makes it unwise to draw firm conclusions.
Given all these points, Ephesians 2:19-20 can easily be interpreted to fit with a scenario in which God still gives the gift of prophecy today. If all the most important prophets lived in the first century, yet God continues to give this gift in our day, there is nothing in these verses that would conflict with this understanding of things.
At the very least, this passage falls far short of proving that God no longer gives the gift of prophecy today.
See also my longer article:
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