This is part two of a three part series. I will look at the second crucial phrase Paul summarizes his ministry with in Ephesians—the economy of the mystery—and see what that means and how Paul demonstrates this in 1 Corinthians.
2. The Economy of the Mystery
And to enlighten all that they may see what the economy of the mystery is, which throughout the ages has been hidden in God… (Eph 3:9)
The economy of the mystery, or more simply God’s economy, is perhaps the most significant concept in the Bible that was embraced by the early church that has now nearly disappeared from the popular Christian view. Most Christians have probably never heard of this word or have a limited understanding of its meaning.
What is God’s Economy?
First off, the term itself. God’s ‘economy’, is a literal and transparent translation of the Greek word oikonomia (the modern pronunciation sounds like Mario saying our English word). It is an inspired, biblical word, appearing in Paul’s letters six times. Three times it is used in the sense of a stewardship (1 Cor 9:17; Eph 3:2; Col 1:25) and three times it is used in the sense of a household administration (Eph 1:10; 3:9; 1 Tim 1:4). Interestingly, the word is always used by Paul in some connection with Ephesus. Three times it appears in the letter to the Ephesians, once in Colossians. Paul wrote both letters at the same time and place, and they share many similarities. When he used it in 1 Corinthians, he was writing FROM Ephesus, at the end of three years of preaching there. And the usage in 1 Timothy is about prohibiting any other teaching besides God’s economy IN Ephesus.
Generally, in English translations the word appears as ‘plan’ or ‘administration’ (that is, for Eph 1:10; 3:9; 1 Tim 1:4). The Recovery Version is the only version that I know of that translates it as ‘economy’ (although plenty of commentators recognize this word choice). This rendering more precisely captures the meaning of the Greek word, which is not as generic as ‘plan’. The Greek word oikonomia refers to a household administration—the distribution of the resources and wealth of a house to the members of the house. This makes sense in light of its rendering elsewhere as ‘stewardship’—the responsibilities of one to distribute resources. Luke 12:42 captures this well when the Lord says, “Who then is the faithful and prudent steward, whom the master will set over his service to give them their portion of food at the proper time.” A steward dispenses; an economy is an arrangement for dispensing. In God’s economy, what is being dispensed is grace, which is the unsearchable riches of Christ for our experience and enjoyment (Eph 3:2, 8; John 1:17).
Although the term does not occur often in the New Testament, the places where it does occur are very significant and suggest that oikonomia was, for Paul, a succinct and comprehensive way of referring to God’s full operation among and in His people for their full salvation. The high profile words in Ephesians that form its retinue highlight its importance—mystery of His will, good pleasure, eternal purpose, fullness of the times, counsel of His will.
The Usage of God’s Economy in Ephesians
Paul inserts the word ‘economy’ right in the middle of two epic passages in Ephesians—chapter 1 and 3. These are critical and cosmic chapters, zooming out as far as possible to view God’s purpose from the heavenlies and from eternity, unbounded by earthly or temporal concerns about ‘God’s will for my life’ or the personal problem of sin. To understand these two chapters is to understand what God’s economy is.
Since many Bible versions translate this word as ‘plan’ (ESV, RSV, NRSV, NLT, NAB, NET, AMP, MSG), many people take this to mean God’s plan of redemption (understood as judicial redemption, penal substitution, or reconciliation alone). Some commentators even speak of an economy of redemption. But while redemption is a key component in God’s purpose, it is not the purpose itself. God’s economy is a plan and arrangement that far transcends redemption. This is clear in chapter 1 since redemption (v. 7) and the economy (v. 10) are clearly not the same thing. This is clear in chapter 3 since Paul says this mystery was not made known to men in other generations (v. 5), whereas the matter of redemption is clearly made known in the Old Testament (Exo 15:13; Lev 16; Job 19:25; Psa 111:9; 130:7). God’s economy involves the entire operation of the Divine Trinity to dispense Himself as life into His chosen people to produce the Body of Christ for His corporate expression.
These two chapters have a lot in common and basically say the same thing from two different angles:
Both chapters show how the Divine Trinity works historically and then internally to transmit and dispense all Christ is into His elect to produce the Body of Christ as His fullness for His expression. God’s plan is not merely a judicial solution to man’s sin; it is to dispense Himself into man. This is what the tree of life was all about in the beginning. This is where the literal sense of the word economy obtains—a management and distribution of riches. It would take too long to look at all the connections in these two chapters, but as you can see they are strongly related, are about way more than redemption, and both have as their linchpin the word economy.
The Early Church’s Usage of God’s Economy
Although this word is used sparingly in the New Testament itself, it was used broadly in the early church and “quickly acquired a central place in the patristic understanding and vocabulary for God’s providential plan of salvation” and “was used to refer to the whole series of events pertaining to Christ.” Ignatius was using the word in the first century, while the apostle John was still alive, and Irenaeus established its centrality for the whole patristic era.
Catherine Mowry LaCugna says this about him:
Irenaeus uses economy as synonym for the Incarnation, but it also includes the new relationship to God that results from being redeemed, namely, divinization of the human nature elevated by grace. Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation (anakephalaiōsis) must be seen in light of his emphasis on oikonomia. The Christ who was always with God emptied himself of divinity and took on our humanity “by means of the whole dispensational arrangements” and gathered together all things in himself. As a result of the work of Christ, all are restored to communion with God and human nature is elevated (divinized). The economy is the whole plan of God realized through Christ since the beginning of the world, up to its final consummation.
The two key ideas for this whole period come together in this quote—God’s economy and man’s deification. Others who used the term ‘economy’ include Tatian, Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus. AKA lots of people.
God’s Economy Demonstrated in 1 Corinthians
In 1 Corinthians, Paul accounts of himself as a steward (4:1, oikonomos) entrusted with a stewardship (9:17, oikonomia).
A man should account us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Cor 4:1)
The phrase Paul uses here to describe himself is nearly identical to the phrase in Ephesians he uses to describe his commission.
Stewards (oikonomos) of the mysteries (mysterion) → economy (oikonomia) of the mystery (mysterion)
1 Corinthians is detailed footage of a steward in action. All the problems in the church in Corinth provided Paul much opportunity to dispense Christ as food. Paul is like a chef serving Christ in 20 different ways. Paul knew the root of the Corinthians’ problems was their lack of growth in life and their distraction from the all-inclusive Christ as their God-given portion. So in this letter Paul doesn’t come with wordly wisdom or a problem-solving mentality. He comes as a steward to dispense food. He said “I gave you milk to drink , not solid food, for you were not yet able to receive it” (3:2). This indicates at least three things. First, it indicates Paul was able to minister Christ as food in different ways according to the maturity level of his children (4:14). Second, it indicates that his expectation was that they would grow and be able to receive something more substantial. Finally, it indicates that his ministry was a dispensing of food, a stewardship in God’s economy; his teaching was feeding.
God’s economy, in demonstration, in 1 Corinthians looks like Paul’s stewardship. This was something way beyond the basics of redemption. In fact, Paul opens the letter with absolute assurance of their redemption. They were chosen (1:27), predestinated (2:7), bought with a price (6:20), called (1:2), justified (6:11), begotten through the gospel (4:15). They had had their Passover (5:7), they had believed (15:11), they were saints (1:2). They were as redeemed as anyone could be, and eternally (1:8). What they needed was not an economy of redemption, but an economy of dispensing. They were still in the process of being saved (1:18; 15:2). Thank God for faithful stewards! They bring us Christ as food for our growth in life and call us back to the central lane of God’s economy. Through this economy and dispensing, the all-inclusive Christ becomes the multifarious wisdom of God to us (1:30) for our glory (2:7) and in this way the multifarious wisdom of God will be made know through us (Eph 3:10) to the praise of His glory (Eph 1:14).
1. English Bible versions like the KJV with ‘fellowship’ or ‘godly edifying’ in these places reflect less attested textual variants in the Greek manuscripts, aka those versions are translating different Greek words into English in those instances.
2. Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us, p. 25
3. Ibid., p. 26