In our previous message on “What Is a Dispensation?” we examined both the English word “dispensation,” which means to deal out or administer, and the Greek word that is sometimes translated as “dispensation,” oikonomia. We saw that this word comes from the words oikos, which means house, and nomos, which means “law.” Thus, an oikonomia is the working out of the rule, management, or administration of one who is ruling over others.

Now that we have established what a dispensation is, it is time to turn to the pages of Scripture, and to see what God has to say about dispensations. We will now go through all the occurrences of the word oikonomia as it is used in Scripture.

Biblical occurrences of the word oikonomia.

Luke 16:1. He also said to His disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. 2. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’”

In Luke 16:2, we have the word oikonomia translated as “stewardship.” This steward had charge over a rich man’s household, which meant he had a dispensation or an active administration over it. The rich man had heard, however, that his policy was wasteful and his dispensation was squandering his wealth. Thus, the rich man called this steward and demanded that he give him an account of his dispensation, since he was being removed from being steward.

The word “steward” here is again the word oikonomos. A completist will want to study out this word as well in all its occurrences to relate it to this word oikonomia. Here, the dispensation is clearly one of a man, not of God, and it relates to his rule over a household.

Luke 16:3. “Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg.’”

The story of the wasteful steward continues with another occurrence of the word oikonomia. The steward is pondering what he can do in light of his master removing him from his office as steward. He calls this “taking the dispensation (oikonomia) away from me.” He knew that his authority and control over his master’s goods was about to be rescinded, and when that happened, his dispensation would end. Again, the New King James translates this as “stewardship.” The bottom line is that he was going to lose his authority, so he would have no dispensation.

Luke 16:4. “‘I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’”

Again the word oikonomia occurs in this story of the wasteful steward. The steward now forms a plan. He knows he will soon be put out of the stewardship, and so will no longer be in charge of anything. Yet he believes he knows how to make friends, so they will receive him into their houses once his master has fully dismissed him. Again, the word oikonomia is translated as “stewardship.” When he lost his job as steward, he would no longer have a dispensation.

This is the last occurrence of “dispensation” in this story of the steward. This is a very interesting teaching of our Lord. I believe it is an inspired satire of the unfaithful actions of the Pharisees and religious leaders who claimed to lead Israel on God’s behalf but instead only served themselves, and seemed to think they would get eternal rewards from doing it. We will not take the time to further examine this story now, but this is discussed in further detail in my study on the book of Luke.

I Corinthians 9:16. For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! 17. For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship.

Paul had been called and chosen by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. As the Lord declared to Ananias in Acts 9:15, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” God had chosen Paul, and thus it was necessary for him to preach the gospel. It was his job, given to him by God, and thus he had little choice about doing it. As a representative of God, he was almost forced to do what the Lord wanted him to do. As he says here, it would have been bad for him indeed if he had refused to preach the gospel!

Yet though he had little choice in the matter, still Paul testifies that there was a reward for him if he would do this willingly. The Lord valued the attitude with which Paul would carry out his will. Yet again Paul testifies that he must preach even if against his will, and he explains it this time by saying that he had been entrusted with a stewardship. Again here the word “stewardship” is a translation of the Greek word oikonomia. Paul had been entrusted with a dispensation. He was to give out (dispense) God’s truth. This was his authority, and it was his responsibility. It had to be his policy to preach the gospel. This charge had been laid upon him by God, and he could not neglect it. Truth had been entrusted with him, and he was liable before God for how he managed that truth he had been given. We can choose to do what we wish with the truths that God has revealed to us. We can choose to tell others about them, or to not tell others about them, as we wish. No penalty or divine judgment will fall upon us if we choose to keep silent. Yet this is not the way it was with Paul. Paul had been given a dispensation by God, and he could not neglect it. Preaching the gospel was his oikonomia. Preaching the gospel was Paul’s dispensation.

Now we come to the occurrences of the word oikonomia in the book of Ephesians. This is an important word in Ephesians, and Ephesians is an extremely important book for discovering what God’s will is for believers of today. In fact, I have called Ephesians “the book of God’s present purpose.” Ephesians is the primary book that tells us what God is doing today and why He is doing it, so that we can know how He expects us to live and how we can be good servants of His.

Ephesians 1:9. having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10. that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.

Here we come upon our first occurrence of the word oikonomia that is actually translated as “dispensation” in the New King James Version. Verse 10 speaks of the dispensation of the fullness of times, which is also the first name of a specific dispensation of God that we have come upon in Scripture. In verse 9, Paul spoke of how God has made known to us the secret of His will, doing this according to the good pleasure which He had purposed in Himself. In verse 10, Paul reveals by inspiration of the Holy Spirit what that will is. It is that in the dispensation of the fullness of times He will gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth.

I believe that this dispensation he is speaking of is a reference to the coming kingdom of God. When God takes control of the governments of this world and makes them His Own, then He will gather together in one all things in Christ. The idea conveyed by “fullness of times” is that this is a dispensation which God will bring about when times are fully ready for it. In other words, when God thinks the time is right, He will do this gathering together in one all things in Christ. This is yet another glorious aspect of His coming government upon earth.

Thus the “dispensation of the fullness of times” is our first dispensation of God that we have encountered in the Scripture. This is one of God’s titles for that great, future day when His kingdom rules over this world at last.

Now, we move on to our next occurrence of the word oikonomia, which takes place in Ephesians chapter 3. If the book of Ephesians is the book of God’s present purpose, then Ephesians 3 is the Divine summary of that purpose, for it sets forth in detail what God’s present work really is. And it is here that we discover the next great statement of a dispensation of God in the Bible.

Ephesians 3:1. For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles— 2. if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you,

In verse 2, we read of the dispensation of the grace of God. Paul identifies himself as the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the nations in verse 1. Then, he interrupts himself, asking if indeed they have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to Paul for them. I believe that what he means by this is that God gave Paul the revelation of this dispensation, and he was therefore responsible for making it known to the believers in Christ Jesus. It was not Paul’s dispensation, but God’s, just as in Paul’s dispensation to preach the gospel, it was God’s gospel and God’s work, not Paul’s, though he was tasked to do it.

This oikonomia that Paul is setting forth is called the dispensation of the grace of God. I believe that this defines God’s stewardship of the world today. It tells us how He manages the world, and what His policy is towards all men who dwell in it. His rule over all men is in grace. His policy towards the world is to be gracious. Grace is love and favor shown to men regardless of any consideration of whether or not they deserve it, and it is by grace exclusively that God acts today.

This dispensation of grace is a unique thing. It is not that grace is new, for God has always had grace as an important part of His character. When Adam sinned, he deserved to die. Yet God suspended the sentence long enough for him to have offspring. Ever since then, God’s forgiveness has been graciously given to many who did not deserve it. Moreover, the Bible is full of references to Him giving gracious gifts to men. His glorious promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, His favor upon the nation of Israel, and His promise of a throne that would last for the olam to David are all examples of gracious blessings to men who overall were not deserving of any such favor.

Yet the fact is that, in spite of the fact that God was very gracious in many dealings of the past, we could also point to many other times where God acted in judgment, in government, and in fairness. God’s grace gives favor to men who do not deserve it, but God’s government gives men exactly what they deserve. For example, in the flood, God wiped out all life on the earth save what was in the Ark, which was a very governmental act. God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites when He sent them to inherit the land, which was a definite act of government by God upon the Canaanites. When God finally brought destruction upon Jerusalem for all their sins and unfaithfulness to Him, this was an act of judgment, and totally the opposite of grace. Yet God saved Noah and his family in the Ark, which was a very gracious act. He delivered Israel from slavery and brought them to their promised land in spite of all their stubbornness and rebellion, which was also a very gracious act. He allowed a small remnant of Israelites to escape the destruction of Jerusalem, and later brought them back to their land, which was certainly gracious and undeserved. In all these things, God acted toward some in judgment, and toward others in grace.

So in the past, God has worked sometimes in grace, and sometimes in government. Yet in the dispensation of grace, God has limited Himself to only acting in grace. It is like He has two hands, one of government, and the other of grace. Yet in this dispensation of grace, He has tied the hand of government behind His back, and will only act with the hand of grace. Note that He has limited Himself. No one else could limit Him. He has tied His Own hand behind His back. No one else could tie His hands.

When I declare that God will only act in grace today, never in government, some will accuse me of “limiting God.” How silly! As if I could. God cannot be limited by men. He can only limit Himself. Yet God is limited. Anyone who looks at the world today must admit that He could do far more than He is doing for the world. Either this is all that God is capable of doing, or He is limiting Himself somehow. This passage tells us what He is doing, how He is limiting Himself, and why. We can “not want to put God in a box,” and so refuse to believe this passage. Many prefer to think that God is kind of flying by the seat of His pants in how He governs the world. Yet if we study this passage out, we can find the truth. We can know what God is doing today.

God has chosen, in our time, to limit His rule of the world to acting only and exclusively in grace. This is summed up for us in Ephesians 3:2 by this phrase, “the dispensation of the grace of God.” His past dispensations were a mixture of both grace and government. Sometimes, God would act graciously, and sometimes, He would act governmentally. Yet now, God has limited Himself to only one of these. Now, He will only act in grace. That is the truth of God’s present dispensation of grace. Paul was given authority regarding this dispensation for a time to tell people about it and show it to them. Now that Paul is dead, God alone is dispensing His grace. Yet if we want to learn about it, we must turn to the writings of Paul, and especially to this book of Ephesians.

Our next occurrence of the word oikonomia is in the book of Colossians. If Ephesians is the book of God’s present purpose, Colossians is its companion. It reiterates many of the truths of Ephesians, while giving us more truths and more testimony concerning them.

Colossians 1:24. I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, 25. of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God,

Paul speaks of a stewardship which he had been given from God for the Colossians. He declares that he was given this stewardship to fulfill the word of God. The word “fulfill” here means to “fill full” or to complete. I believe that Paul is telling us here that his stewardship from God to reveal truth to them will result in him being the one to complete the Bible, the Word of God.

The word “stewardship” here is again a translation of the Greek word oikonomia. Notice again here, as we have noted before, that this was God’s stewardship, but that He had given it to Paul to give to them. I believe that, like in Ephesians 3:2, this means that Paul was the one who was supposed to reveal the truth about God’s current house-law to people. He had been given authority over the revelation of the truth, and his faithful stewardship was to set that truth forth. He had received the authority of a dispensation over the truth, and it was his job to reveal that truth to others. This time, I do not believe the truth he is speaking of is the truth of the gospel, but rather the further revelations of God’s purpose during this current dispensation of grace. Paul had received these revelations, and now it was his job to set them forth.

These seven occurrences of oikonomia are the only times this word appears in the Greek of the Received Text. But there are two other occurrences in some texts that we have good evidence to believe probably should be the word oikonomia. These two are debatable, but the evidence is good enough for us to consider them as if they definitely are occurrences of the word oikonomia. The first is back in the crucially important chapter of Ephesians 3.

Ephesians 3:8. To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9. and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ;

In verse 9 of this passage, we read of “the fellowship of the mystery,” which Paul declares it was his gracious gift to proclaim. The word “fellowship” here in Greek is the word koinonia, yet many texts read oikonomia. These words are similar enough that we can see how some copyist, writing out Ephesians by hand, could be in such a hurry that he mistook one word for the other and replaced oikonomia with koinonia here. So I believe that this should read “dispensation,” and tells us that what Paul wanted all to see was what the dispensation of the mystery is.

To understand what this means, we need to know the definition of the word “mystery.” This word in Greek is actually the word musterion. Since “u” and “y” are the same letter in Greek, you can see how the translators just took this Greek word and changed it into an English word by changing the “u” into a “y,” and taking off the Greek ending “ion” and putting instead the English ending “y.” Thus, this word has been transliterated, that is, the Greek letters have been exchanged for English ones, rather than translated.

I do not believe that the Greek word musterion has anything to do with something puzzling or mysterious. Rather, it has to do with a secret, and this is how the word should have been translated. This tells us, then, that Paul wanted all to see the truth regarding the dispensation of the secret, or, to put it more plainly, God’s secret dispensation.

I believe that when God works today, whenever He acts to administer His power and authority over the world, He always does this in secret. He does not act openly. He does not act manifestly. This truth is called in verse 8, “The unsearchable riches of Christ.” Christ is at work today in the world, and His actions are a great benefit to the world. His acts enrich the world, and we have really no idea how much. Yet these acts are also unsearchable. They are untraceable. They are done in secret. None of them can be proven. You could never go into a court of law and prove that God has done anything. You cannot pin Him down for certain. You cannot demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt just where and how He has worked.  This is because He is careful to always do every action in secret. Every move He makes is hidden in some way, so an observer could easily credit it to something else, to some natural cause.

When you think about it, it makes sense that the dispensation of the grace of God and God’s secret dispensation would go hand-in-hand. All the best grace, after all, is done in secret. For example, if my neighbors were poor, and I knew they needed help even to feed themselves and their children, it would seem a very gracious act for me to go over to their house and to give them two hundred dollars. Yet if I hired someone to roll out a red carpet before me as I walked over there, if I hired a brass band to play a majestic song, if I hired a crier to go before me declaring, “This man is giving $200 to his starving neighbors! This man is giving $200 to his starving neighbors!” I say, if I did all this, would my actions still seem gracious? Not at all! Now it would seem that I was giving my neighbors this money just for the praise and glory I could get out of it. Far better would it be if I just sneaked next door and stuck an envelope with the money in it into their mailbox or under their door. Then, no one except me would ever know that I had given them the money. Then, my actions would truly be totally self-sacrificial, and what I did would undoubtedly be totally gracious.

So it is that all the best grace is done in secret. And so, God having determined to administer His rule over the world totally through grace, it makes sense that He would determine at the same time to administer His rule totally in secret. The two fit together. They go hand-in-hand.

Many ask the Lord to abandon His secret policy, and to act openly. “Reveal Yourself to me, God,” they cry. “Show me You are real.” Yet no matter how they beg and plead and cry, God does not do so. If He did, what good would it do us? Perhaps we would pat ourselves on the back and say, “I knew I was right.” Yet I don’t think those who ask such things of God in this dispensation know what they are asking for. The truth is that it is a very blessed thing indeed to be like we are, believing in God without any evidence. The Lord Jesus said to Thomas in John 20:29, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We are those He was speaking of, a company of people who have believed in Who and What He is, and in His death, burial, and resurrection, all without seeing any evidence that these things are true whatsoever. This places us in a most blessed company. Yes, there are rewards for faithful service that we must earn if we wish to receive them in the future. Yet whether we serve God faithfully or not, I believe that we are simply blessed just because we are in this current company. To be a believer in a day when God never works openly, and when we have seen no evidence whatsoever to cause us to believe…that is an impressive thing, a most impressive thing. We have a right to have Godly pride in the fact that we believe in the Lord without seeing.

Thus we learn that the Lord does not work in such a way that would “show Himself to the world,” as Christ’s brothers urged Him to do in John 7:4, “For no one does anything in secret while he himself seeks to be known openly,” they argued to Him. “If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.” Sometimes we too wish He would do this. And what a glorious thing it will be when He does! This world is so dark, so messed up, so hopeless. We cannot help but pray, “Thy kingdom come.” We cannot help but wish with all our hearts that God would act and show Himself openly to the world. I do not think God blames us for wishing this. It is His desire as well to show forth Himself to all who are in darkness. And yet, I cannot help but think that God answers us the same way as He answered His half-brothers through Mary when they urged Him this. Perhaps He smiled, maybe patted one of them on the shoulder, and said, “My time has not yet come.” And neither has it now. But someday it will come, when the dispensation of the fullness of times has come, and when the time is fully ripe for it to happen. And when it does, it will be a glorious thing indeed! Yet there is great glory in the truth of God’s current, secret dispensation, and I believe He wants us all to see and understand it.

There is one last occurrence of the word oikonomia in some manuscripts, this time in the book of I Timothy.

I Timothy 1:4. nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.

The Holy Spirit through Paul here urges Timothy not to give heed to fables and endless genealogies rather than godly edification which is in faith. The word “edification” in Greek is the word oikodomia. Yet there is evidence that this should be oikonomia. The earliest Greek manuscripts were written in all capital letters, and a Greek capital “D” is delta, whereas “N” is neu. You can see that if an “N” got a smudge under it, it might look like a triangle or delta. Thus, oikonomia could easily have changed mistakenly into oikodomia. So what Paul was talking about was not edification which is in faith, but rather a godly dispensation which is in faith. This is what he wanted Timothy to give heed to. We too should pay attention to God’s stewardship of the world today, which is in faith. It is faith by which we must come to God. It is by faith that we receive eternal life. It is by faith that we obey Him and live as He wants us to.

Again, I believe that God’s dispensation towards us through faith goes hand-in-hand with the fact that this is God’s secret dispensation. In a day when God does not work openly or manifestly, no one can respond to God in any way but by faith. If God is not demonstrating Himself openly, the only way for us to know anything about Him is for us to believe what He has revealed about Himself in the Word. We must have faith to have any kind of relationship with God. The response He looks for from us is faith. That is how it has to be in a secret dispensation.

So this completes our study of all occurrences of the word oikonomia in the Greek New Testament. I believe that from these passages, especially Ephesians 3:2, 3:9, and I Timothy 1:4, we can learn that God’s current policy for managing the world has three basic, important characteristics:

1. God’s dispensation is one of complete grace. In the past, God has worked in grace at some times (like in the salvation of Paul on the road to Damascus,) and in government at others (like the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit.) Now, He only works in grace. He has tied His hands, so that He can show forth His pure grace to the world.

2. God’s dispensation is secret. God does not act openly or manifestly today. If He cannot act in secret, He does not act at all. His riches dispensed to the world are unsearchable and untraceable. No one could prove anything God has done in a court of law, for all His actions are secret. This is how His stewardship today works. This is obviously very different from what He has done in the past!

3. God’s dispensation is in faith. When God acts only graciously and secretly, the only way we can respond to Him is in faith. God wants faith from His people today. We fulfill John 20:29, for when God acts in secret, we must believe without seeing. He manages us in faith alone.

In my last message on “What Is a Dispensation?” I set forth the common scheme of seven dispensations that most dispensationalists believe, and expressed my own difficulties with this idea. Now, we have examined the Scriptures, and found four dispensations of God that He Himself defined. The fourth, added to the one above, is that of the fullness of times, which is future, and which I have identified as being the same thing as the kingdom of God. So no matter what other dispensations there may be, we know that there are at least four defined by God Himself, with three of them taking place concurrently. But why does He only mention four? Is it because He wants to suggest that intelligent men and Bible scholars try to work out the others for themselves? Perhaps. But I believe that there is a different reason for His mentioning these in particular.

There is one attribute of quite a few of the dispensations listed in the common seven dispensations chart which, I believe, disqualify them from being the same kind of dispensation as those mentioned in the New Testament. That is, they are not world-wide dispensations. For example, considering the Dispensation of Promise, we notice that the promise was given to Abraham and to his descendants, and to no one else. Lot was his relative, his very kin, but Lot could not participate in any way in the Dispensation of Promise. Why? Because Lot did not fall into the category of being Abraham or one of his descendants. Therefore, the Dispensation of Promise could not apply to him! Therefore, this dispensation is not just qualified by method of dealing and by time, but also by who you are…in other words, it is only for certain men and not for others. The same is true of the Dispensation of the Law. These dispensations are only to certain men at a certain time and place and who meet certain qualifications. These dispensations are not to all people everywhere.

But it is very different when we look at the Dispensation of the Grace of God, the Dispensation of the Mystery, the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times, and the Godly Dispensation which is in Faith. These dispensations cover all men everywhere without any qualifications other than that these men be living at the time when the dispensation is in effect. In other words, it does not matter if I’m a Christian living in the United States, a non-Christian living in the USA, a Muslim living in Africa, a Mormon living in Salt Lake City, or a native living in the deep jungle who has never even heard of Jesus Christ. All these people are dealt with under one unifying principle, that is, they are all dealt with under grace! The actions of God towards them are all defined by one great principle, and that is that they are in secret. And if they are to respond to God, they must do so by one universal route, and that is by faith. God may view me differently as a believer than He does an unbeliever, and He may judge men differently in the resurrection when they all stand before Him and are set in order for the things they have done in this life. Yet still through all His dispensations today extending to all people run the unifying principles of Grace, Secrecy, and Faith. In other times He may have dealt with men sometimes under judgment and sometimes under grace as He so willed, He may have worked openly, and He may have allowed men to believe after seeing evidence, but today these things have changed. Only grace is dispensed and never judgment. God only works secretly and never openly. And faith without seeing is the only way to respond to God. These are the governing principles of all His work today.

This universality of the dispensation that is true of our day will likewise be true in the coming Dispensation of the Fullness of Times. When God determines that the time is ripe for His government to take control of the earth, then it will be right for all, not just for some. There are those who have tried to limit the kingdom to just the land of Israel, leaving the rest of the world in relative darkness. Yet this is not what the Bible reveals to be true. When God decides the time is full for Him to take control of this earth, then the effects will be felt in the entire world. This too will be a universal dispensation.

We could make a distinction between two kinds of dispensations of God: absolute ones and limited ones. If we wanted to make a dispensation very small, God could even have special dispensations to only one person! For certainly God has acted to administer His will to certain individuals exclusively at various times and in various ways, as we can read about in Scripture. But the Bible’s dispensations, the ones called oikonomias of God by the New Testament, are to everyone at once. It is the absolute ones that God mentions in Scripture. Though undoubtedly there have been other administrations of God, these have not been listed specifically. I believe that the dispensations that God has called such are those we must study most carefully and these especially that we must understand if we are to fully grasp God’s truth for today.

So now we have a good grasp of the meaning of “dispensation,” and of the various dispensations set forth in the Bible. Yet there are many questions yet to answer. What is the real significance of all this? Then, when did the current dispensations of God begin? Why don’t all men believe in dispensationalism, and what is the alternative viewpoint? We will start discussing the answers to some of these questions in the next message.