Two “Stewards”—A Study in Contrast
The term “steward” derives from a compound Greek term, oikonomos, signifying “house arranger.” Employed ten times by the New Testament writers, it basically has to do with one who has been entrusted with the responsibility of managing a household, i.e., the property belonging to another.
It is used of church leaders, “elders” (Titus 1:7), of teachers of the word, e.g., Paul and Apollos (1 Corinthians 4:1-2; cf. 3:5), and of Christians generally (1 Peter 4:10).
It has been said that there are three basic philosophies regarding the ownership of property. Communism alleges that the state is to own and control all. Capitalism contends that every man owns whatever he can accumulate. The ideal of Christianity is that of stewardship, i.e., God possesses the entire world and everything within it, and men are responsible to him for how they use it.
For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains; and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is mine, and the fullness thereof (Psalm 50:10-12).
The Lord’s people must acknowledge this truth, and joyfully serve as overseers who ultimately will give account to the Creator for the stewardship over their soul, body, and all earthly possessions (cf. Luke 16:2; 1 Corinthians 4:2).
There is an interesting contrast in “stewardship” that is worthy of serious study, and to these cases we would invite your attention.
The Rich Young Ruler
Three of the Gospel narratives relate the incident of an encounter between Jesus and a young ruler. A comparison of all three accounts is a fruitful endeavor (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23).
A young man “ran” to Christ, “kneeled” before him—circumstances that compliment him—and asked: “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” The Lord instructed him that he must “keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” — the young gentleman inquired. Jesus cited several representative requirements from the Ten Commandments, along with Leviticus 19:18. Each had to do with the man’s moral obligations to his fellows.
Amazingly, the response was: “All these things have I observed from my youth up: what do I yet lack?” Christ, with keen perception, identified a serious flaw in the ruler. Hence, focusing upon the spiritual malignancy, the Lord responded:
One thing you lack: if you would be perfect [i.e., attain the goal, be complete], go and sell whatever you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me.
A number of observations assist us in putting this episode into sharp focus.
- The man had a number of noble qualities, for the text indicates that Jesus, “looking upon him loved him” (Mark 10:21). The youth was attracted to the goodness and gracious influence of the Lord, and this was commendable.
- God had blessed the lad immeasurably. He had position (he was a ruler; possibly of a synagogue), he had his youth (presumably was in good health), and he was “very rich.”
- He had submitted to many of the Lord’s commands; he honored his parents and refrained from many actions that would have been hurtful to others. His character was to be admired from several vantage points.
On the other hand:
- He had a most limited view of service. He entertained the illusion that there was some “good thing” he might do, and eternal life would be his henceforth. Jesus subtly corrected that error when he said, “Come, follow [present tense] me,” thus indicating that a sustained commitment of service would be required.
- The man had an inflated assessment of himself. To suggest that he had done “all” of the required commandments fell far short of reality (Romans 3:10, 23).
- The youth’s soul was blemished with a significant measure of materialism. He was willing to trade the eternal “treasure in heaven” for the “great [temporal] possessions” at his disposal. How very shortsighted he was not to know that rust and moths consume, and thieves may break into one’s house and take from him of all that is material (Matthew 6:19-20)! Quite obviously he was more inclined to “trust in riches” (cf. Mark 10:24) than he was to trust in him “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden” (Colossians 2:3).
- As a consequence of his defect, he became “exceeding sorrowful,” his “countenance fell,” and he went away—and so far as anyone knows, never sought the Savior’s blessings henceforth.
- As a “steward,” he had been blessed with much, but with that he did little in the final analysis.
This is a most distressing case study, but one from which the conscientious soul may learn—if he is anxious to learn.
A final point is worthy of reflection. The fact that the Lord commanded the youth to “sell all that you have” does not imply that all Christians are required to do so. This is evident from the fact that there were faithful people of God in the first century who owned property (Acts 4:36-37; 12:12). This gentleman had a particular problem that constituted a make-or-break situation for him. If he could not overcome this “idol” in his heart, he was unworthy to serve otherwise (cf. Ezekiel 14:3ff; Colossians 3:5).
The Joyful Macedonians
On the second missionary campaign (Acts 15:40-18:22), Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke entered the Roman territory of Macedonia (most of the area now occupied by modern Greece). Churches were established in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. Philippi especially had been exceedingly generous in its support of Paul for a protracted period of time—approximately a decade (Philippians 4:16-18).
The church in Jerusalem had suffered persecution over the years, and some of the saints were in dire need. Accordingly, a number of Gentile congregations throughout the Mediterranean world had pledged to help these struggling brothers and sisters.
Christians in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and in Ephesus were participants in the benevolent endeavor (cf. Romans 15:25-26; 1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 8:1ff; Acts 20:4; 21:29). Paul had been very active in this campaign (cf. Galatians 2:10), for he knew, as some today do not, that benevolence is a form of evangelism (cf. Matthew 5:16; Galatians 6:10).
The churches of Macedonia were models of generosity, and Paul praised them highly (as an incentive to “nudge” the church in Corinth to complete its own pledge of assistance – 2 Corinthians 8:6-11).
Our study will now involve the qualities of the ancient saints that made them “stewards” par excellence.
It is meaningful at this point to recognize that, according to the generally accepted approximate chronology, the Macedonian churches were established between A.D. 49-52, and Second Corinthians was penned around A.D. 56. Hence, these precious souls were still “babes in Christ,” relatively speaking (see: Thompson, 1.825-826).
- The Macedonians “had been given the grace of God” as a result of their initial obedience to the gospel. A consideration of the conversion elements pertaining to Lydia and the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:13-15, 19-34) clearly will reveal how Heaven’s grace was accessed. It was not unconditional. When one recognizes what God gave on his behalf (John 3:16), how can he shut up his heart to others?
- The “grace of God” was not a “secret influence” exerted by the Holy Spirit (Hodge, 192). The grace that “had been given” [perfect tense; thus retained] either was the favor of God shown in their salvation from sin (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9; 9:14), or else the blessing bestowed by God in allowing them the privilege of assisting in this magnificent benevolent enterprise. For a consideration of several possibilities, see: Harris, 367.
- A stark background provides emphasis to the great love and dedication of these people. There was overwhelming proof of their affliction (perhaps persecution), combined with rock-bottom poverty. In years gone by Macedonia had been rich in gold and silver, but Rome had raped the land and gutted the people. But the imperial powers had not ripped the “heart” from these people! Too, wars had ravaged the region.
- In spite of their meager resources (“deep poverty”), accompanied by “affliction,” these tough Christians possessed “riches” of a different sort, hence their spirits overflowed with joy. The young ruler was rich, yet sorrowful; the Macedonians were poor, yet joyful. What a contrast! Happiness is in the heart — not in the bank! Note the phrase “riches of their liberality” (2 Corinthians 8:2). Their wealth was in their disposition to serve others. They did not wallow in the self-pity of their own dire circumstances. The word that is translated as “liberality” denotes a “simple goodness, which gives itself without reserve, ‘without strings attached,’ ‘without hidden agendas’” (Danker, 104). This is a secret that many have yet to grasp.
- It is always proper for children of God to give “according to their ability” (Acts 11:29), or compatible with their prosperity (1 Corinthians 16:2), but the precious saints of Macedonia “gave beyond their power,” and not of coercion. How many children of God possess the internal initiative to give more and more to the Lord, without the pressure of special drives or pulpit pounding? Such may be a disposition more rare than many suppose.
- The poverty-stricken Christians of Macedonia literally begged [present tense – to keep pleading, after being initially resisted] Paul and his companions to accept their contributions. Their generosity rivaled that of ancient Israel in donating materials for the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 35:5-9). They gloried in the opportunity to help others, savoring the sweet fellowship of sharing. Their hearts were separated by the width of a universe from that of the rich young ruler. Where is the church today on this scale?
- The key to this uncommon mystery is to be found in verse 5. They first had given themselves to the Lord, and to the apostolic ministry. In this they followed the example of Christ, who gave himself for our sins (Galatians 1:4; Philippians 2:5ff). Once the soul is committed, all else will follow. These were stewards who had little, but did much with what was in their hands.
For every negative there is a positive, and there is much instruction in contrasts. Each child of God should strive for that quality of “joy” that found a home in the hearts of the Macedonian saints, and pray that the sort of “sorrow” that haunted a young Jewish man of twenty centuries past will never darken his soul and detour his destiny.
- Danker, F.W., et al. (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University Press).
- Harris, Murray J. (1976), 2 Corinthians – The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelein, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
- Hodge, Charles (1860), An Exposition of Second Corinthians (New York: Robert Carter & Bros.).
- Thompson, W.R. (1975), “Chronology of the New Testament,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Merrill Tenney, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).