The steward
The stewardship
The word of God

From Paul’s mention of the Church at the close of Col 1:24 which brings to a conclusion his statements about suffering, the apostle seems to be deflected into commenting about his relationship to it, going on to speak of himself becoming a minister of the Church through an appointment which the RSV speaks of as being ‘divine’.

That Paul sees his own ministry as an apostle to be of a divine origin is certain - not just because he explains the ‘office’ which he has as being ‘of God’ (for many may make the same type of claim without having a firm basis for doing so) but because he perceived it’s birth when he first acknowledged Jesus as Messiah. When Ananias first came to the blinded Pharisee in Damascus, he was told (Acts 9:15) that the man to whom he was being sent

‘ a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel’

and, even though Paul may have, at times, wondered whether such a fulfilment would ever come about because of the years which passed in-between, nevertheless he never seems to have lost sight of the calling which he knew was his and to which God would eventually appoint him (Acts 13:2-3).

Paul has already spoken of himself as being a ‘minister’ in Col 1:23 but there it was a reference to his function in proclaiming the Gospel throughout the world rather than, as here, in the context of serving the Body of believers. However, there’s little difference between the two ideas for he goes on at the end of Col 1:25 to refer to his ministry as a commitment

‘ make the word of God fully known’

referring to both saved and unsaved. I defined the Greek word which is translated ‘minister’ in Col 1:23 in my notes under the heading ‘The minister’ and the reader should refer to them for a background. I shan’t be dealing with the implications of that word here but intend concentrating on the word for ‘office’ and the associated word which speaks of the one who holds the ‘office’ (the steward and the stewardship) but we should, briefly, note that it carries the implication of passing on to someone what has been provided by another, acting as an intermediary and as a representative.

As I noted, this ministry has to do with the past, present and future but that it begins with the former of these for nothing that a believer ministers comes from what is happening or will happen - it’s already an accomplished fact and a completed work so that

‘When a follower ministers, they minister the past, bringing life to the present and hope for the future’

The minister, as it says in Col 1:25, does so according to the stewardship which is given to him from God (the RSV’s ‘divine office’). It seems strange that Paul should speak of himself as a diakonos (the transliterated Greek word translated ‘minister’) who holds a oikonomia (an ‘office’) for it might have been naturally expected that he would have used the more logical oikonomos (the ‘steward’ who functions within the boundaries of his stewardship) but the reason seems to be to give an added dimension to what his ministry means out into the world but also to the individual believers in Colossae.

As such, we need to think about this stewardship by looking at the general meaning of both the words which are translated best as ‘steward’ and ‘stewardship’ (only the latter of which is being used in Col 1:25).

I should point out at the very beginning here that trying to ascertain all the occurrences of both words has been difficult (different sources - even different versions of Strongs Exhaustive Concordance! - state that the word is used in some places but not in others) and that the lists I provide at the beginning of each of the next two sections may not be complete.

The steward
Strongs Greek number 3623 - oikonomos
Luke 12:42, 16:1,3,8, Rom 16:23, I Cor 4:1-2, Gal 4:2, Titus 1:7, I Peter 4:10

Unless we misunderstand, we’d best note at the beginning that oikonomos doesn’t appear in the Greek text of Col 1:25 because Paul continues to use the Greek word for ‘minister’ that he’s previously employed in Col 1:23 (Strongs Greek number 1249). It’s the stewardship which he mentions (see the next section) which further defines the explanation of the minister but it’s best that we stop and look at the word normally translated ‘steward’ before moving on to the next section, for the man is difficult to separate from the office and, in explaining one, there’s a good basis for understanding the other.

The steward of Luke 16:1-9 appears to have been one who was employed by the master from outside his own household for, when it’s removed from him, the man reasons as to how he might now earn a living seeing as he’s incapable of doing some of the general tasks which could earn him a living (Luke 16:2-3). Had he been part of the master’s household, the slave would have still remained within the master’s employ unless sold and would have functioned in some sort of minor role.

This is an unusual practice, however, for it was more often the case to elevate a slave of one’s own household to the position of steward - a slave set over slaves but still under the authority of the master. We see this in Luke 12:42-48 where Jesus speaks a parable concerning His return and appeals to the disciples as to who would be the faithful and wise servant who would be put over all the household of God to care for those within it. The idea here is that one from within the master’s servants would be selected to manage his affairs while absent and that, upon his return, he would find everything taken care of and in order.

In the OT also, Joseph was bought into Potiphar’s house as a general slave (Gen 39:1) but it wasn’t long before the captain of the guard recognised the potential and ability in him and appointed him the overseer of his house (Gen 39:4,8).

Lukmor observes (my italics) that oikonomos

‘...usually denoted a slave who was put in charge of an estate to relieve the owner of routine management...and it meant that the steward necessarily had considerable freedom of action

and Paul’s understanding of himself as being a steward of God relies mainly on the second consideration of the word where a slave from within the household is raised up to function in the position that’s required. Notice in I Cor 4:1 that he notes the apostolic band as being both

‘...servants [slaves] of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God’

where the elevation is only possible to be seen in these terms. It isn’t that the Father has chosen ‘outsiders’ to manage His own affairs but that He’s raised up men and women from within His own family to be used and to have the responsibility for dealing with the matters which concern Him. Ignatius’ first letter to Polycarp (chapter 6) also couples the concepts together and, though the translator has some serious work to do with his rendering of Ignatius’ call for unity (my italics) that they must

‘ together, suffer together, sleep together [!!!], rise together..’

immediately after, we read of him exhorting the recipients (my italics) that

‘As stewards of God, and of His household, and His servants, please Him and serve Him, that you may receive from Him the wages [promised]’

When the christian music and book business began taking off in the UK from being a few small outlets to one which attracted ever-increasing turnover, I remember that those who were appointed to positions of authority over the companies were becoming ever increasingly secular men and women who had good business sense, no doubt, but who cared little or nothing for the affairs of God’s people (except in so far as it effected the profitability of the stock!).

Here’s a clear indication that this sort of stewardship is not the way that God chooses for His own affairs - a point which makes one have to doubt whether the christian ‘industry’ is necessarily God’s vehicle. After all, there are only two possibilities as I see it - either the supply of christian material is a matter of service to God and was, therefore, put into the hands of those whom God wouldn’t have chosen or it was never a christian industry so that the appointment of secular leadership is entirely fitting. Which I would choose, I can’t decide and, not being a part of the industry, perhaps it’s not for me to suggest one avenue or the other.

Returning to Paul, though, he sees himself as simply a fellow slave elevated to a higher position than the others in order that he might look after the household of the Master, which is the Church (I Cor 4:1). As such, Paul is no super-apostle, no man-made minister who’s been set apart from the body by God’s appointment and neither part of a hierarchical elite who’ve grown separate from those under them. Rather, he’s every bit a part of those he serves and every bit identical to them - all that’s different is that God’s called him to one side to exercise a pastoral role over his fellow slaves that they might be fed, watered and generally built up to be more like Jesus Christ.

Other usages of the word are also significant and should alter our understanding of certain ‘positions’ within the Church. Paul writes to Titus that elders should be appointed in every town in Crete in which there are converts and then parallels them with ‘overseers’ (Titus 1:7 - the RSV renders the word as ‘bishops’ and shows itself to be sitting on the fence somewhat by interpreting the relevance of the word as a justification of a denominational hierarchy already in existence) commenting that such a person (my italics)

‘ God’s steward, must be blameless...’

It’s clear, therefore, that, like Paul is, so the leadership of local fellowships should be - that is, they’re no more than fellow slaves who’ve been set apart to look after God’s affairs where they are. Kittels (their further observation that the word seems to normally mean ‘treasurer’ seems to be without conclusive foundation from the context of the usage of the word) observes that it

‘...may...denote the head of a particular branch of a great house - for example, the chief cook’

so that the elder or overseer is only a fellow slave entrusted with authority over a particular area within the universal household of the Master. Although the appointment of such a leadership has often been external to the local body, Paul only envisages it as internal and, even more importantly, the inference is that they remain a part of the congregation rather than that they become an elite group who begin to function independently from those under them.

As I noted on Zech 10:1-3, when a leadership becomes separated from the people it serves, God once more has to raise men and women up from the flock itself to rule over His sheep and removes or disregards those who sit as authorities, separated from those for whom they were appointed to serve.

I Peter 4:10 is also illuminative as an indication that even lowly men and women within congregations are important for the overall function of the local church. The apostle writes that

‘As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace’

Each believer, then, by being given a particular gift, has been appointed as a steward over other slaves. The person who has the gift to teach has authority over he who has not and, likewise, the teacher must be prepared to submit to the stewardship of he who prophesies (so long as everything is done soundly). Therefore, in the Body of Christ there should be mutual subjection where even the appointed elders or overseers must subject themselves to those who have a stewardship in areas where they lack that divine anointing and appointing.

The other two occurrences of the word are used for different concepts. It’s employed to denote a city official, a treasurer, in Rom 16:23 and, in Gal 4:2, of one who’s been given authority over a minor until he comes of age.

Finally, we should note the descriptors that are given to the word in the NT in passing which make it plain that it isn’t the appointment which is significant but the way that the individual fulfils the stewardship which has been given. Therefore, we read of the need for the steward to be faithful and wise (Luke 12:42), shrewd (Luke 16:8 - but not underhanded!), trustworthy (I Cor 4:2), blameless (Titus 1:7) and good (I Peter 4:10).

The stewardship
Strongs Greek number 3622 - oikonomia
Luke 16:2-4, I Cor 9:17, Eph 1:10, 3:2,9, I Tim 1:4

As oikonomos of the previous section denotes the person of the steward, so oikonomia represents the office and function of the steward. It does have various other meanings and Kittels notes that, in Eph 1:10 and 3:9, the meaning inherent in its use is probably something like ‘the divine plan of salvation’ (RSV renders it ‘plan’) while in I Tim 1:4 it means something akin to the RSV’s rendering of ‘training’

However, its primary meaning as Vines notes is to denote

‘...the management of a household or of household affairs...’

being a compound word from two others which gives the more literal rendering of ‘house law’ - that is, the rules and regulations which pertain to that particular function of the steward and then, as it seems to apply in most of the NT occurrences of the word (my italics), to

‘...the management or administration of the property of others...’

Kittels notes three main meanings but comments that its usage applies

‘ household administration...’

In the NT usage of the word, the translation ‘administration’ is possibly nearer the intention of meaning of the writers on the whole rather than any other single word for it denotes a task or responsibility which is passed on to another that’s expected to be performed and fulfilled.

Paul, then, has ‘something’ to administer in the Household of God, the Church, and speaks of this in three places where the word’s used. In I Cor 9:17, the RSV translates the word as ‘commission’ and renders the apostle’s words as noting that his stewardship doesn’t come about as a product of his own will but that constraint is laid upon him. This commission is explained in I Cor 9:16 as being the preaching of the Gospel and which seems to be paralleled in Col 1:25 where he goes on to expand upon the mention of

‘...the divine office which was given to me for you...’

by explaining himself that it’s seen as being outworked as he makes

‘...the word of God fully known’

something on which we’ll comment briefly in the next section. The only possible different content of this stewardship is in Eph 3:2 where he talks about

‘...the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you’

but, even here, the close connection with the revealed mystery (Eph 3:3 paralleled by Col 1:26 following on closely from Col 1:25) makes one think that the declaration of the Gospel is what’s primarily in view - that the administration of God’s grace into the world is primarily brought about through the preaching of the Gospel to any and all.

Paul sees himself as having been placed as a steward above others in the Master’s household to administer, very simply, the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its fulness and power, with all conviction and with the authority of the Master being demonstrated as the stewardship is being outworked.

The minister, the diakonos, who passes on to another what has been provided for them by the Master, is also the one who has a stewardship, an oikonomia, that has specific boundaries around which Paul must seek to serve and obey and to fulfil the commission.

This stewardship is further explained as previously mentioned as being (Col 1:25)

‘ make the word of God fully known’

which, in turn, is further illuminated by the statement in the subsequent verse (Col 1:26) that it’s

‘the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to His saints’

The word of God

We’ve seen above that Paul’s stewardship is summed up in the last phrase of Col 1:25 that he was

‘ make the word of God fully known’

We’ll continue on the next web page to discuss the content of what this message is and how it’s a similar phrase to the further description that the apostle gives that it’s none other than the mystery which had been hidden for generations but which had now been revealed to those of His followers.

But we should begin by observing that the phrase ‘the Word of God’ needs a radical and fresh interpretation if we’re to understand it correctly. Perhaps, though, the problem isn’t so much with our interpretation of the phrase as it occurs in this passage where it quite obviously means the public pronouncement of the Gospel of the Kingdom but in our own shallower definition of the phrase which ties it down to mean the sum total of the Biblical account and not one letter either more or less.

Such a position is impossible to maintain on the majority of verses which occur in the NT as I showed on my previous web page under the heading ‘Scripture and the Word of God’ where I discussed the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and listed all the occurrences of the English word ‘word’ in the NT to show that only on three occasions could it be shown with any certainty that it meant that which was written, but that on thirty-eight appearances it had to refer to that which was being spoken and proclaimed for men and women to hear.

The same is true here, of course. Those who stand on the equation

Word of God = Bible/Scripture

have to understand the verse to be rendered more appropriately by the English

‘...I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the Bible fully known’

a statement which is so crass as to render it meaningless. After all, even though we might like to read between the lines in Luke’s ‘Acts of the Apostles’ and think of the apostle as primarily being concerned with taking printed manuscripts to the unsaved as a fulfilment of his stewardship, there’s no way that such a possibility could even be marginally honest to what the believers did.

Of course, no one who asserts the above cited equation would be so mad as to suggest that this was the ministry of the NT Church - but it’s the logical necessity of the assertion that the Bible is the Word of God rather than, as the NT asserts, that it’s Scripture.

In Paul’s letters as well as the other writings, the Word of God primarily means the message of salvation which was being brought to the unsaved by the verbal proclamation of message of the Gospel - and the meaning can’t be accepted as anything else in this place, either.

Paul will go on to speak about what this word is - how it’s the revealed mystery that had been kept concealed until the days in which they were now living (Col 1:26) - and this will be the content of the next web page on which we’ll attempt a definition of the phrase to show the force of Paul’s meaning.

Colwright disagrees with the RSV’s rendering of the Greek which yields ‘fully known’ and prefers the concept which sees the Word of God being ‘fulfilled’, commenting that the phrase is

‘...for Paul, a power let loose in the world, embodied in the true Gospel message...It must be allowed to have its full effect, to be fulfilled in that sense’

The meaning isn’t necessarily that Paul is commissioned not to hold back on the fulness of the Gospel message but that he’s to allow the Word to have its full effect in the societies in which he finds himself. That Paul would have brought the message in all its fulness to the people he met is not in doubt here but that it might have its full effect in individual lives and, corporately, in individual societies is what he’s been entrusted with doing. Colbruce sees this fulfilment as being achieved when

‘ is freely proclaimed in the world and accepted in faith; thus it achieves its purpose’

so that proclamation is only the first aspect of fulfilment and, to be fully complete according to Colbruce, must find adherents in the lives of those who hear. The meaning in this case is more like ‘to bring to completion’ and points back to the prophet Isaiah (Is 55:11) who recorded YHWH’s observations concerning the

‘...word...that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it’

a verse which seems to demand a wider interpretation of Paul’s words than that which Colbruce anticipates. Not only is a positive response expected from those who hear but the Word of God may also go out from His people to bring accountability. Therefore, a negative as well as a positive response to the message is what completes the function of God’s word and there can be no sitting on the fence when the demands of the Gospel are made plain in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It should be pointed out, however, that the previous phrase’s statement that Paul’s stewardship was given to him ‘for you [that is, the Colossian believers]’ demands that only the positive aspect is in mind at this juncture.

That much of present day proclamation has failed to reap either whole-hearted commitment or fiery rejection is not a comment on the ineffectiveness of the Word of God but it hints at the possibility that the word being spoken, although Scripturally correct, is not empowered with God’s Spirit and, therefore, will never achieve anything worthwhile.

A trait of the Gospel, then, is that it divides (Mtw 10:34-36) as well as unites all things back under the Sovereignty of God (Eph 1:10).