SCRIPTURAL DEFINITIONS OF TERMS HAVING TO DO WITH DISPENSATIONAL TRUTHS
It has been my experience in discussing dispensational truths with other believers, that often times a Scriptural definition of a term will clear up doctrinal misunderstandings. I hope this paper will help solve difficulties that arise just from not having a Scriptural definition of a term. The following terms will be defined and or explained:
THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST
THE DISPENSATION OF THE MYSTERY
THE CHURCH OF GOD
THE CHURCH, WHICH IS HIS BODY
My intention is to define the word “dispensation” from its Scriptural use. But more than that, I will suggest a synonym for “dispensation” that will fit into the contexts of each of its occurrences.
The Greek word translated “dispensation” is “oikonomia” and occurs in the New Testament eight times. It is made up of two words, “Oiko” meaning “house” and” nomia” which means “law”. So literally, “oikonomia” means “house law“.
The first occurrences are in Luke 16:2-4, “…..How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship (Gr. “oikonomia”); for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship (Gr. “oikonomia”): I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship (Gr. “oikonomia”), they may receive me unto their houses”. To use the literal meaning of “oikonomia” we might translate this phrase, “Give an account of your house law”. It is clear that “house law” does not easily fit into an English translation. For that reason I believe that it would be helpful to find a synonym for “house law”. It is clear that the steward of Luke 16 is managing his master’s household. I would suggest therefore, the word “management” might be an adequate translation of the Greek “oikonomia”. “Management” is a synonym that is easier to adapt to the context of each of the occurrences of “oikonomia” and it means more or less, the same as “house law”. So then, we might translate these verses as, “give an account of thy management“, and “when I am put out of the management“.
I Cor. 9:17, “For if I do this thing willingly I have a reward: but if against my will a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me, what is my reward then?”. We might translate the phrase, “but if against my will a management or stewardship of the gospel is committed unto me”. Paul was given the gospel to preach. His reward, in regards to that preaching, depended upon how he managed (i.e. how he handled) the preaching of the gospel.
Eph. 1:10, “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times He might gather together in one all things in Christ….”. There will come a time when God will bring all things together in Christ. At that time God’s management of His household will be in accordance with that fact. To rephrase that, in the fulness of times, God will gather all things together in Christ; that is how He will manage His household. We might translate this verse, “That in the management of the fulness of times, God might gather together in one, all things in Christ”.
Eph. 3:2, “If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward”. I do not agree with widely held view of this verse so I would ask the reader to see the paper on this web-site, Is The Present Dispensation Called The “Dispensation Of The Grace Of God”?.
Eph. 3:9, “And to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery”. We could paraphrase this verse to read, “…to make all men see what is God’s management of His household in accordance with the mystery”.
Col. 1:25, “Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you. to fulfill the word of God”. We might translate this verse to read, “Whereof I am made a minister according to God’s management which is given to me for you…..”.
Let us try to put these verses together in an attempt to clarify the meaning of “oikonomia”. In every occurrence the word “management” may be used to translate the Greek word. Therefore, we may conclude that “dispensation” is the management of a household.
Let us look further at Eph. 3:9, as that is the key to understanding dispensational truth. “And to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery”. Or, as has been suggested above, “…to make all men see what is God’s management of His household in accordance with the mystery”. In order to understand the management of God’s household in the dispensation of the mystery, we must understand what that mystery was. That mystery is explained in verse six and will be discussed below.
As one examines the mysteries of the New Testament it is clear that a mystery was something that had not been revealed until the God appointed time for its revelation. The mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven were mysteries that were revealed at God’s appointed time.
In terms of understanding dispensational truth, it is imperative that the student of God’s Word understands that there is only one mystery that had been hid in God until He revealed it to the apostle Paul. Eph. 3:9 reads, “And to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ. We read of this one mystery that had been hid in God in Col. 1:26 also. “Even the mystery which hath been hid from the ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to His saints”. That mystery will be explained in the section below.
THE DISPENSATION OF THE MYSTERY
Eph. 3:6, “That the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel”. A better understanding of some of the Greek words used in this verse will help a great deal in determining the correct understanding of this verse.
The Greek word translated “Gentiles” in the KJV of Eph. 3:6 is “ethnos”. “Ethnos” is the noun of this sentence and, as with many other languages, the adjective must agree in number with the noun it modifies. Because “ethnos” is obviously a plural noun, the adjectives must also be plural.
The three adjectives translated “fellow-heirs”, “same body” and “partakers” are, “sunkleronoma”, “sussoma” and “sunmetocha” respectively. Note that each begins with the preposition “sun” (The prefix in the word “sussoma” is spelled differently, but is the same prefix as is used in the other two words under consideration.) As always, we must understand the meaning of the Greek word by how it is used in Scripture by the Holy Spirit. I will give just a few examples of how the prefix “sun” is used with other roots, as “sussoma” is used only one time and would not give a clear picture.
It is translated “with” 15 times, as in Mark 14:54, “And Peter followed Him from afar…….and he sat with the servants….”. It is translated “together”13 times, as in “….and were set down together.…”. It is translated “fellow” and “joint” one time each. I believe it is clear that the prefix “sun” means “with” or “together”.
The root of “”sussoma” is “soma” and is used of the body. I believe that just two occurrences of “soma” should suffice to determine what “soma” means. Matt. 5:29, “….for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish and not that the whole body should be cast into hell”. And Matt. 6:22, “The light of the body is the eye….”.
As mentioned above, the Greek word “sussoma” is found only in Eph. 3:6 so we cannot determine its meaning by how it is used by the Holy Spirit. But we are not left in the dark as to the meaning. We know by its usage that “soma” means “body”. And we have learned above that the prefix “sun” means “together” or “with”. That tells us that the most literal translation of “sussoma” is “together bodies”. How are we to understand the literal term, “together bodies”? I believe we will understand it best if we consider two Old Testament passages that tell us that Israel had been separated by God as a nation apart from all other nations.
I King 8:53, “For Thou didst separate them from among all the people of the earth, to be Thine inheritance….”. Lev. 20:24, “……I am the Lord your God Which hath separated you from the people”. In other words, part of the mystery hid in God was that Israel was no longer a separated nation, all nations are now “together bodies”.
Let us return to the discussion of “ethnos” as used in Eph. 3:6. “Ethnos” occurs 164 times and is translated “Gentiles” 93 times, “nations” 64 times, “Heathen 5 times and “people” 2 times. Does the Greek “ethnos” in Eph. 3:6 refer to individuals or does it refer to nations?
I believe that “ethnos” should be translated “nations” in Eph. 3:6. That nations are “together bodies” is the translation that makes the best sense and it is the only Scripturally accurate one. That is to say, it makes much better sense to say that nations are together bodies than to say that Gentiles are together bodies. Also, it certainly was not a mystery hid in God that Gentiles were together. But it was indeed a mystery hid in God that nations are together bodies. That nations are together bodies stands in sharp contrast to the situation as it existed before the dispensation of the mystery. Before the dispensation of the mystery Israel had been separated unto God as a holy nation. With the putting aside of Israel at Acts 28:25 all nations are now together, none are separated from the others in God’s sight.
Nations are made up of individuals, and the Bible uses the word “ethnos” in reference to the individuals in the nations as well as the nations as an entity in themselves. The truth that “ethnos” is used of people in the nation is seen in John 11:51-52, “…..he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation (ethnos); and not for that nation (ethnos”) only…..”. It is clear that Jesus died, not for a nation as such, but for the people in the nation(s).
The truth that “ethnos” is used of a nation as an entity is shown in such verses as Romans 4:17, where in reference to Abraham we read, “I have made thee a father of many nations“. I believe the reader will see that to translate “ethnos” in this verse to read, “I have made thee a father of many Gentiles” totally destroys the sense of this verse. In other words, we must use common sense when determining whether “ethnos” means nations or individuals in the nations.
Consider also Acts 13:18-19, “And about the time of forty years suffered He their manners in the wilderness. And when He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He divided their land to them by lot”. Obviously, God did not destroy seven Gentiles and give their land to Israel. Again, common sense tells us that in this verse “ethnos” does not means individuals in the nations, but nations as an entity.
Let us continue our study of the Greek word “ethnos”. If we translated it as “Gentiles” that limits its meaning to only individuals. But if we translated it as “nations” we may understand it to refer to either nations as an entity, or to individuals in the nations. Because “Gentiles” cannot be together bodies, we must translate it as “nations” with the understanding that nations as an entity are together bodies, But individuals in the nations are together heirs and together partakers.
It may seem strange that the same word (“ethnos) could be used of both nations and individuals in the nations. But consider that the word translated “sleep” is used of a normal sleep and of death. And the Greek word “egiro ” is used of a normal rising up and of resurrection. I will not attempt to explain why that is, I believe we should accept that as fact. But I would like to say a word about how the use of “ethnos” in Eph. 3:6 is quite profound in its perfection.
The event that made nations together bodies was of course, the putting aside of Israel as God’s chosen nation. That is to say, that as long as Israel was separated unto God the nations could not be “together”. As we have already seen, the prefix “sun” is used three times in Eph. 3:6. Three times we are told that all nations and all individual believers in the nations are together. But we are not told that Gentile nations are together with Israel (even though that is obviously the implied message). No, instead the Holy Spirit directed Paul to write that all are together without even bringing Israel into the discussion. In my opinion, this makes the point so beautifully, and so much stronger than if Paul had written that Gentile nations are together with Israel. That is to say, it is one thing to say that Gentile nations are together with Israel but Paul, through the Holy Spirit, by not even mentioning Israel, makes the point so obvious that Israel is reckoned among the nations, and that being the case, all are together.
Let us try to summarize what we have learned by a different translation of Eph. 3:6, one that more accurately represents the meaning of the original Greek. “That the nations should be together heirs, together bodies and together partakers of His promise in Christ by the Gospel”.
Now that we understand that “ethnos” of Eph. 3:6 should be translated “nations”, we must consider the phrases “together heirs” and “together partakers”. May I remind the reader that “ethnos” is used for both the nation as an entity and for individuals in the nation. It is clear that in regard to being together heirs and together partakers it is not nations as such that is intended, but the individual believers in the nations. We might ask then, if “ethnos” refers to individuals in regard to heirs and partakers, shouldn’t we translate it as “Gentiles”? Let’s try that out. “Gentiles are together heirs”. Together heirs with whom? If we take the Bible as it is written and not add words that are not in the texts, we must conclude that Gentiles are together heirs with Gentiles. But the fact that Gentiles are heirs with Gentiles was never a secret hid in God. Paul could not write that Gentiles are heirs with Israelites, because Israel no longer occupied a position separate from the nations. Israel, after She was put aside, was numbered among the nations.
To what are those of the nations partakers? We read in verse 6, “partakers of the promise in Christ by the gospel”. I believe that once we determine which gospel Paul had in mind, we will then be able to determine to what those Gentiles were together partakers.
If, for the sake of clarity, we omit the phrases about Paul’s unworthiness to preach this gospel, it will become more clear what the gospel of verse 6 is. Verses 6c to 9 would read, “together partakers of the promise in Christ by the gospel whereof I was made a minister….. that I should preach among the ethnos (people of the nations) the unsearchable riches of Christ; even (Gr. “kai”) to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery”. The gospel Paul is preaching is not the gospel of salvation, it is the gospel, i.e. the good news, concerning the fact that all nations are together. In other words, the fact that all nations are together is the subject of this passage. Salvation has nothing to do with all nations being together, therefore, the gospel of Eph. 3:6 has nothing to do with salvation.
But if the gospel of Eph. 3:6 is not the gospel of salvation what are these “unsearchable riches” to which Paul refers? The answer to that question is found in the parallel passage, i.e. Col. 1:26-27. Col. 1:27 reads, “To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the ethnos (people of the nations) which is Christ in you, the hope of glory“. The Greek word translated “in” is the preposition “en” and the Companion Bible tells us that when used with a plural it should be translated “among”. So the riches of the mystery among the people of the nations is “Christ among you, the hope of glory“. To whom does the “you” refer that Christ is among? The epistle to the Colossians, like all Paul’s epistles, are written to believers (see Col. 1:2). That means that Christ is among believers. What does that mean? The next phrase will help us to answer that question. “Christ is among you (believers of the nations) the hope of glory“.
In order to fully appreciate that the believers of the nations have the hope of glory we must understand the place of the believing Gentiles before the mystery was revealed. We read in the Old Testament that Israel will be glorified in the millennial reign of Christ. Gentiles were grafted into Israel but the glory was not theirs as such, it was Israel’s glory. There was no glory for believing Gentiles apart from Israel. Let’s look at just a few of those Old Testament passages that speak of the glory of Israel in the millennium.
Is. 60:14,”The sons of your oppressors will come bowing before you (Israel); all who despise you will bow down at your feet and will call you ‘The City of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel'”
Isaiah 60:3, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn”.
Is. 60:5,”Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you riches of the nations will come”.
Is. 60:10, “Foreigners will rebuild your walls, and their kings will serve you”.
These passages all show the glory of Israel in the millennium. But in the dispensation of the mystery, believing Gentiles have been promised glory in resurrection that has nothing to do with Israel. Where we read of the “riches of the glory of this mystery” we are reading of the fact that Christ is among the Gentiles apart from Israel, and that glory will be theirs in resurrection, again apart from Israel.
The dispensation of the mystery is that dispensation in which all nations are together bodies, i.e. there is no nation separated unto God from another. And that individual believers in the nations are together heirs and together partakers of the promise given to them by God that because Christ is among the believing Gentiles, they will be glorified apart from Israel.
THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST
The mystery of Christ is, unfortunately, often confused with the dispensation of the mystery. That is to say, the mystery of Christ is misunderstood to include the dispensation of the mystery. It is said by some that the dispensation of the mystery was the “apex” of the mystery of Christ. But as the reader shall see as he/she continues in this study, the two mysteries of Ephesians three are totally unrelated in their very nature, and contradictory as to how they were revealed, and as to whom they were revealed. It is therefore, simply not possible to conclude that one was the apex of the other. In order to understand the mystery of Christ we must distinguish between it and the dispensation of the mystery.
Eph. 3:1-9, 1) “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles (2) If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward; (3) How that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery; as I wrote afore in few words, (4) Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ; (5) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; (6) That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel; (7) Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of His power, (8) Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; (9) And to make all men see what is the fellowship (dispensation – same word as in verse 2) of the mystery, which hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ”.
I believe that a careful consideration of the passage quoted above will prove that there are indeed two mysteries spoken of in this passage. Consider for example verse 5 which explains that the mystery of Christ “was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets”. The Greek word translated “as” in the phrase “as it is now revealed” is “hos”, and is used as a comparative. It is used for example in I Cor. 13:11 where we read, “when I was a child I spoke as a child”. That comparative”as” tells us that the mystery of Christ had been revealed to some extent to the “holy apostles and prophets”. But we know from verse 9 that the mystery of verse 6 had been hid in God. Logic will simply not allow for a mystery to have been both revealed to some extent and to be hid in God. We are forced to conclude therefore that there must be two mysteries in this passage, i.e. the mystery of Christ and the mystery of verse 6.
Let us also consider the fact that the mystery of Christ had been revealed to the holy apostles and prophets, note the plural. It had been revealed to them “by the Spirit”. There is absolutely no Scriptural evidence that the mystery of verse 6 was revealed by the Spirit to anyone but Paul. Again, we are forced to conclude that there are two mysteries in this passage.
Let us add one more piece to this puzzle. We learn in Col. 4:3 that Paul was in bonds “for the mystery of Christ”. But Paul was in bonds as early as Acts 22. In fact we read in Acts 26:32-27:1 that Paul was still in bonds. “Then said Agrippa unto Festus, ‘This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar’. And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius……”. Note the phrase “and certain other prisoners”. That tells us that Paul was a prisoner, i.e. in bonds before Acts 28. Paul could not have been in bonds for the mystery of Eph. 3:6 because that mystery had not been revealed to him until after Israel was set aside at Acts 28. Here again, we are led to the inescapable conclusion that there must be two mysteries spoken of in Eph. 3.
What is the mystery of Christ? I believe the answer to that question is found in Luke 18:31-34, “Then He took unto him the twelve, and said into them ‘Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. For He shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitten on; and they shall scourge Him, and put Him to death: and the third day He shall rise again.’ And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken”.
The mystery of Christ is that Christ would be killed and rise again. That truth had been hid from the disciples, but it had been written in the prophets. It was not understood until Christ explained it to His disciples just after His resurrection.
The Greek word translated “church” is “ekkleesia”. It is used in the Septuagint for the Hebrew “kahal”. We read it first in Gen. 28:3, “And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude (kahal) of people”. “Kahal occurs 123 times: rendered ‘multitude‘; 3, ‘ assembly’ 17, ‘congregation‘ 86, ‘company‘ 17″ (quoted from the Companion Bible note on the word “multitude” in Gen. 28:3).
The Greek “ekkleesia” is used in Acts 7:38 of Israel in the wilderness. “This is he that was in the church in the wilderness with the Angel Which spake to him in the mount Sinia, and with our fathers; who received the lively oracles to give unto us.”
“Ekkleesia is used of a local church as in, among many places, Acts 8:1 which speaks of the “church that was at Jerusalem”.
Basically “ekkleesia” is a group that is called out.
THE CHURCH OF GOD
The term “church of God” is sometimes used of a local church, but even when it is, the context will show, in most cases that it is a church of believers of every dispensation. There are two things which point to it being used of all believers of every dispensation. 1) The term is used of believers in both the present dispensation and in the preceding one. 2) The context of each occurrence also points to it being a universal term. Let us consider the context of where the phrase “church of God” is used.
Acts 20:28, “Be shepherds of the church of God which He bought with His own blood”. All believers were bought with the blood of Christ.
I Cor. 1:2, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. In point of fact, even though the term “church of God’ is used in reference to a local church in this verse, the term is defined in this very verse. The church of God are all those who are sanctified, called to be holy and who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I Cor. 10:32, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews or Greeks-nor the church of God”. The Greek word translated “nor” in the phrase, “nor the church of God” is “kai” and is often translated “even”, as it should, in my opinion, be translated here. Paul’s point is that nothing we do should be the cause of any believer to stumble. Surely that is a principle that should apply to all believers in every dispensation.
I Cor. 11:22, “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing…….?” I believe that Paul’s point, although addressed to a local church, is applicable to all believers of every dispensation.
I Cor. 15:9, “…..because I persecuted the church of God”. We know that Paul persecuted all the believers he could find in various locations (see Acts 26:11), so the phrase cannot be taken here as a local church. In this verse it refers to all believers of Paul’s time.
II Cor. 1:1, “Paul…..unto the church of God which is at Corinth….”. Here Paul is writing to believers of a specific location. But the very fact that he wrote, “the church of God which is at Corinth”, tells us that the phrase “church of God” does not refer to a specific location. Here too, the phrase refers all believers.
Gal. 1:13, “…..I persecuted the church of God”. As mentioned above, Paul went to many cities to persecute believers. So here too the phrase “church of God” refers to believers and is not limited to believers of any particular location.
I Tim. 3:5, “For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how can he take care of the church of God”. I believe that this is a general statement. That is to say it does not refer to a particular gathering, but refers to the fact that if any man cannot rule his own house, he cannot take care of any congregation of believers. Here too then, the phrase, “church of God” refers, in my opinion, to believers regardless of location.
THE CHURCH, WHICH IS HIS BODY
Eph. 1:22-23, “And hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him That filleth all in all.” The church, which is His body is the out-calling of all believers of the dispensation of the mystery.
What else can we learn of the church, which is His body? In Eph. 5:23 we read that “Christ is the head of the church and He is the Savior of the body”. And in Col. 1:18 we read again that “He is the Head of the body, the church”.
In Eph. 3:10 we learn of God’s eternal purpose for the church which is His body, “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be know by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Just as Israel was to be a witness to the nations of the earth (see I Peter 2:9) so the church which is His body will be a witness to beings in heavenly places.
This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. I would like to hear your comments. Please e-mail me at:firstname.lastname@example.org