The Examination of Biblical Words in Their Context
by James T. Bartsch
"He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in heavens and things on the earth...." (Eph. 1:9-10)
Oikonomía, "Household Management"
The noun oikonomía (3622) appears 9X in the Greek New Testament. In its most basic sense it is translated "stewardship," and refers to the task and responsibility of a "household steward," oikonómos (3623), the noun from which oikonomía is derived. Both words are a compound word composed of the simple nouns oîkos (3624), "house," and nómos (3551), "law." So an oikonómos is a trusted person who carries out or implements, the verb oikonoméō (3621), the "house law" of the owner of the house. Since he carries out the wishes and implements the values of the owner, he carries a certain amount of authority vested in him by the owner. He represents the owner. He is trustworthy, presumably. Of course he must be careful, for he will be called to give an accounting of his stewardship or management of the owner's "household law." So the word oikonómos is most often translated as "steward." He is a household manager. His task, or responsibility, is that of oikonomía, that is, "household management." It is this latter word that we wish to examine in this word study.
There is a passage in Luke 16:1-8 which graphically illustrates the relationship between these three words. In this passage Jesus told His disciples a parable about a wealthy man who had a household manager oikonómos (3623) (Luke 16:1). It was reported to the owner that his trusted servant was squandering the owner's possessions (Luke 16:1). So the rich man called him in and said, "What is this I hear about you?" "Give an accounting of your [household] management oikonomía (3622), for you can no longer be manager" (literally, "manage household") oikonoméō (3621). The rest of the passage tells what the household manager did to ingratiate himself with his master's debtors so they would look out after him when he was fired from his job (Luke 16:3-7). In the end, the master praised his unrighteous household manager for acting shrewdly (Luke 16:8). Jesus' applied His teaching in this regard to His disciples in Luke 16:9. He amplified that instruction in Luke 16:10-13.
On another level, Paul accurately claimed that, as an Apostle, he had been entrusted by Jesus with the household management task of proclaiming the good news about Jesus (1 Cor. 9:17). [NASB here translates oikonomía (3622) as "stewardship."] He was under compulsion to perform his task (1 Cor. 9:16). The only way he could be rewarded for performing his unavoidable assignment was if he were to do so without pay (1 Cor. 9:18). Paul refers again to this household management task (NASB "stewardship") he had received from God in Colossians 1:25. There he says "of this I became a servant according to the household management task (oikonomía) from God - the one having been given to me for your benefit to complete the word of God" (JTB). According to Constable, "Paul's role in the "household, or house management of God" (the literal meaning of "stewardship from God") was that of a servant-manager who fully expounded God's revelation for the benefit of his Gentile readers." Quoting Vaughn, he goes on to say, "He was a servant of the church, but in the deepest sense he was a steward of God." One more time Paul used the term oikonomía in this sense. In Eph. 3:2 he referred his readers to "the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you." The word translated "stewardship" is the word oikonomía (3622). It refers to the "household management" assignment Christ had given to Paul as an Apostle of Jesus Christ.
Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy, whom he had left at Ephesus. His purpose was that Timothy should "instruct certain individuals not to teach strange doctrines, (1 Tim. 1:3) nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration (oikonomía, 3622) of God which is by faith" (1 Tim. 1:4). In my understanding, Paul was communicating that these teachers of heterodoxy, myths, and endless genealogies were detracting from God's "household management" plan for the present age, that is, the Church Age. God's "household management" program for today is to establish Christ's assembly (Church), which is entered by faith in the Messiahship and salvation of Christ. God's plan of attack is glimpsed in passages such as Matt. 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8. These teachers of heterodoxy were detracting from the promotion of God's "household management" for the present age.
There is a final way in which Paul used the word oikonomía (3622). Twice in his letter to the Ephesians he used it to refer to God's own "household management," or method of implementing His own program in a particular age. The first instance appears in Eph. 1:10 (broader context, Eph. 1:9-10); the second in Eph. 3:9 (broader context, Eph. 3:8-10).
In the opening chapter of Ephesians, Paul outlines some of the incredible spiritual blessings He has given us as believers in Christ (Eph. 1:3). For example, (1) He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world so that we would be holy and blameless before Him (Eph. 1:4). (2) In love God predestined us to "placement as sons" through Jesus Christ to Himself to the praise of the glory of His grace (Eph. 1:5-6). (3) In Christ we have redemption through His blood, i.e, forgiveness of sins. This comes about through the riches of God's grace which He lavished upon us (Eph. 1:7-8). And finally, more to the point of this study, (4) God, in all wisdom and insight, made known to us the mystery of His will, which He purposed in Christ, culminating in the "household management" oikonomía (3622) of the fullness of the times (Eph. 1:8-10). Paul defined "the fullness of the times" as heading up (anakephalaióō, 346) of all things in Christ, including the things up in the heavens and the things upon the earth (Eph. 1:10).
The obvious question is this: "What is the fullness of the times in God's universal household management program?" I think the answer is two-fold. First, God will head up all things in the Messiah during His kingdom reign upon earth from Jerusalem. Satan and his demons will be subject to Christ during that time. Satan himself will be captured, chained, and imprisoned in the abyss during Christ's thousand-year reign. This will be so that he will be unable to deceive the nations during this time (Rev. 20:1-3). Moreover Christ will be king over all the earth (Zech. 14:9). He will break the nations with a rod of iron and shatter them like earthenware as He descends from heaven to earth (Zech. 14:1-15; Rev. 19:11-21) and reigns over all the earth from His throne upon Mount Zion, Israel (Psalm 2:4-9; Zech. 14:9, 16-21; Rev. 20:4-6). This is the first installment of "the fullness of the times."
Second, after the destruction of the existing heavens and earth (2 Pet. 3:7-12; Rev. 20:11; 21:1) God will create new heavens and a new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; Rev. 21:1) in which only righteousness and righteous people exist (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:8, 27; 22:15). God and Christ will reign as co-regents over New Earth from their throne in New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2, 10; 22:1, 3). There will no longer be any tears, death, mourning, crying or pain (Rev. 21:4). The curse will be removed (Rev. 22:3). The slaves of God and the Lamb will serve Him (Rev. 22:3), and see His face (Rev. 22:4), and they will reign forever (Rev. 22:5). This is the interminable, unmarred, ultimate stage of the fullness of the times.
We have already mentioned that Paul stated in Eph. 3:2 that God had given to Paul a household management assignment (NASB, stewardship) on behalf of the Gentiles to whom he wrote. But we have, so far, neglected to explain what that assignment was. Though other apostles wrote about the church, Paul had a unique responsibility in explaining the church primarily to Gentiles, but also to the sons of Israel. There was revealed to Paul a mystery (Eph. 3:3), something that was unrevealed in the OT. He defined this as being "the mystery of Christ" (Eph. 3:4). In generations past this mystery was unrevealed, but now it has been revealed by the Holy Spirit to Christ's apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). The contents of this mystery are this, that believing Gentiles are "fellow heirs," "fellow members of the body" of Christ, and "fellow partakers of the promise in Christ through the gospel" (Eph. 3:6). In the past, God had revealed Gentile salvation, but through Paul and other apostles, God revealed that believing Jews and believing Gentiles would be united in one body, the Body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:27; Eph. 3:6; 4:12; 5:23; Heb. 13:3) , also known as the Church universal (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:24).
Paul continued to speak of the grace that had been given him (Eph. 3:8). This grace was two-fold: (1) to proclaim to the nations (Gentiles) the immeasurable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8); and (2) to bring to light the "household management" (oikonomía, 3622) of the mystery which for ages had been hidden in God (Eph. 3:9). Putting all this together, Paul is asserting and explaining that an extensive "household management" strategy of God is the Church. The Church, made up both of believing Gentiles and believing sons of Israel, is God's way of doing business in the world today. Christ began His Church on the Day of Pentecost. His Church will be completed when Christ himself returns to retrieve His Bride from this earth. There will be a glorious meeting in the air. Then He will take us with Him to His Father's house and refine us and purify us so that we will be a beautiful, unblemished bride (Eph. 5:25-27), ready for the marriage of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-8) and participating in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).
The alert reader will notice that I have so far refrained from using the word "dispensation" in this article. My reasons are these: (1) I do not wish people to have a negative knee-jerk reaction to a word which some, unfortunately, consider distasteful. (2) I want readers to understand the meaning of the Greek word without any negative baggage. (3) To me, the word "dispensation" does not immediately denote or connote the true meaning of this Greek word. I think "household management" is better, and it actually fits all contexts, even if it is a bit cumbersome, perhaps. For the record, theologians derive the term "dispensation" from four uses in the KJV: 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10; Eph. 3:2; Col. 1:25. And of course, from these occurrences they have coined the word "dispensationalism." I personally am a staunch proponent of "dispensational premillennialism" because it most accurately, in my view, interprets the details of all of Scripture.
The word oikonomía is used on several different levels. But clearly, on two or three occasions, it expressly refers to a particular way of God's working in this world. There is a system of theology that understands this fact. For better or for worse, we call it "Dispensationalism." My own definition is a simple one. Dispensationalism is a theological system which acknowledges that God works in different ways with different peoples at different times. I believe in the Scriptures we have cited, there are three distinct ways in which God works with people: These three are (1) the Church age; (2) Christ's future Millennial Kingdom; and (3) the Co-Regency of God and Christ aided by His slaves, all of whom reign forever and ever in what we sometimes call the Eternal State.
Past Dispensationalists confined themselves to seven dispensations or ways of God's dealing with humanity. Personally, I have come up with nine stages. Here is a brief list (with links) outlining the various "household management" systems God has used in the past, is using in the present, and will use in the future:
God's Household Management Strategies
Innocence: Creation to the Fall of man
Conscience (or Moral Responsibility): The Fall to the Great Flood
Human Government: God's covenant with Noah to the dispersion of humanity at the Tower of Babel
Promise: God's promise to Abraham to the giving of the Law
Law: Giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai to the crucifixion of Christ
Grace (the Church Age): Day of Pentecost to the Rapture
Tribulation (Daniel's 70th Week): The establishment of a seven-year peace treaty with Israel to the Second Coming of Christ.
Millennial Kingdom: The Second Coming of Christ to the destruction of the universe and the Great White Throne Judgment
The Eternal Kingdom: The creation of the New Heavens and Earth. There is no end.