Stewards After Eden
Adam and Eve’s first job involved stewardship. The garden and all creation were given to them to care for, to enjoy, and to have dominion over (Gen. 2:15), even though they owned none of it. Instead, they were stewards of what the Lord had entrusted to them.
This week, we will look more closely at the definition of a steward but after the Fall, after our first parents were driven from Eden. That is, we also are stewards, but we are stewards in an environment quite different from the one Adam and Eve first enjoyed.
What is stewardship? Certain Bible characters reveal what a steward is by how they lived. Other scriptures define it more clearly. When we become God’s stewards, our focus on the world and its materialistic values changes to a focus on the Creator and His mission. As with Adam and Eve, God entrusts to us responsibilities of divine origin.
Since the Fall in Eden, however, the task of stewardship has changed; along with the responsibilities of caring for the material world, we are also entrusted to be good stewards of spiritual truths.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, February 3.
The word steward itself is translated only a few times in the Old Testament. In most cases, it comes from the phrase regarding the one who is “upon the house,” the idea of being in charge of the running of a house; that is, a “steward” (Gen. 43:19; 44:1, 4; 1 Kings 16:9).
Stewards had responsibilities to manage household affairs and their master’s possessions, doing whatever was asked of them. The definition of a steward in the Old Testament can be found by identifying the characteristics of a steward. Stewards cannot be separated from their stewardship, for it reveals their identity.
Some characteristics of a steward are made clear in the Old Testament. First, the position of a steward was one of great responsibility (Gen. 39:4). Stewards were chosen because of their abilities, and they received respect and trust from their owners for getting the job done. Second, stewards knew that what had been entrusted to them belonged to their owner (Gen. 24:34–38). This is the supreme difference between a steward and an owner. Stewards understand their position. Third, when stewards took for their own use what had been entrusted to them, the relationship of trust between them and the owner was broken, and the stewards were dismissed (Gen. 3:23, Hos. 6:7).
“A steward identifies himself with his master. He accepts the responsibilities of a steward, and he must act in his master’s stead, doing as his master would do were he presiding. His master’s interests become his. The position of a steward is one of dignity because his master trusts him. If in any wise he acts selfishly and turns the advantages gained by trading with his lord’s goods to his own advantage, he has perverted the trust reposed in him.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 246.
The two basic words for “steward” in the New Testament are epitropos, occurring three times, and oikonomos, occurring ten times. Both of these words describe positions that incorporate managerial responsibilities entrusted to the steward by the owner.
In both the New and Old Testaments, stewards are defined by what they do. The New Testament specifically describes the steward in terms of accountability (Luke 12:48) and expectations (1 Cor. 4:2). The Old Testament, though, is more focused on declaring God’s ownership than on directly defining us as His stewards. Thus, while the concept of a steward is very similar for both Testaments, the New Testament expands the concept beyond only household management.
In the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1–15), Jesus expands the definition of steward. His lesson is about more than a steward escaping financial disaster. It is also applicable to those escaping spiritual disaster through a wise manifestation of faith. A wise steward will prepare for the future of Jesus’ return beyond the here and now (Matt. 25:21).
“Shall I open my heart to the Holy Spirit, that every faculty and energy may be aroused, which God has given me in trust? I am Christ’s property, and am employed in His service. I am a steward of His grace.”—Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 301.
In Luke 12:35–48, Jesus also uses the term “steward” metaphorically. He tells of the wise steward being ready for the Son of man’s return and describes the unfaithful steward as one who has given up caring because the master has delayed His return. The unfaithful steward has turned into a tyrant and has become abusive to those around him. He is no longer a pattern of good works or a manager of grace.
When we accept Christ, we are stewards, called to manage God’s resources. But more important, we are to manage the spiritual realities of the Christian life in preparation for heaven.
Zophar the Naamathite says to Job, “ ‘Can you fathom the mysteries of God?’ ” (Job 11:7, NIV). The word mystery means “puzzling, obscure, unknown, unexplained, or incomprehensible.” The mysteries of God have been recorded in Scripture, even though understanding them fully is still beyond our comprehension. That’s why they are mysteries. It is as if each of us is a nearsighted person looking into the heavens, hoping to see the smallest detail. We can’t see that far unless God reveals it to us.
We are stewards of things that we do not understand fully. We know only as much as revelation and Scripture reveal. Our greatest stewardship is to live “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1, NKJV).
God wants us, as His stewards, to preserve, teach, protect, and care for divine truth that He has revealed. How we do this is the ultimate stewardship, and it means we are “holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9, NKJV).
The greatest of all mysteries is that we all can experience Christ, the “hope of glory.” The plan of salvation is supernatural and impossible for us to understand fully. That the Creator of all that was made (John 1:1–3) would come down to this earth and be “manifested in the flesh” (Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 6, p. 112) only to offer Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity entails mysteries that probably never will be comprehended fully by any of the creation. Even angels study to understand the mystery of why Jesus came to earth (1 Pet. 1:12). Nevertheless, what they do know causes us all to praise the Lord for His glory and goodness (see Rev. 5:13).
When we think of stewardship, we think of tangibles—and rightly so. But as we have now seen, stewardship goes beyond that. Like tangible possessions, intangible gifts come from God, as well. These intangibles are spiritual possessions that God gives to us (1 Pet. 4:10) so that we can, in Christ, develop Christian characters and become the people we can be in Him. Thus, we must manage intangible gifts even more carefully than tangible ones, because they are infinitely more valuable.
“The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23, NKJV). The world, and all that it offers, cannot offer us the redemption that we have in Christ. Redemption, a gift God gives to us, is our most valuable possession. Keeping the reality of this redemption always before us helps us maintain perspective in our stewardship of other possessions given to us from God, as well.
“Only in the light that shines from Calvary can nature’s teaching be read aright. Through the story of Bethlehem and the cross let it be shown how good is to conquer evil, and how every blessing that comes to us is a gift of redemption.”—Ellen G. White, Education, p. 101. Redemption is ours only because Jesus paid the ultimate price. Paul clearly states, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7, NKJV). The words “we have” mean that we have “redemption.” It is ours, but only because God has given it to us. How crucial, then, that we keep on “the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11, NKJV), in order that the evil one doesn’t come and take it away. For the only way he can do this is if we allow him to, which will happen only if we don’t obey what is revealed to us in “the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). Our greatest protection is by obeying, in faith, the light we have been given.
Wise stewards are defined by their willingness to accept and execute the moral principle of personal responsibility. Acceptance of personal responsibility is the choice we make and the actions we take. It recognizes the relationship between cause and effect. Willingness to accept personal responsibility is a key trait that cannot be ignored when we define what a steward is, for stewards must be single-minded in having the best interest of the Owner at heart. Hence, such willingness is a choice that defines the desired relationship a steward has with God.
“God desires to bring men into direct relation with Himself. In all His dealings with human beings He recognizes the principle of personal responsibility. He seeks to encourage a sense of personal dependence and to impress the need of personal guidance. His gifts are committed to men as individuals. Every man has been made a steward of sacred trusts; each is to discharge his trust according to the direction of the Giver; and by each an account of his stewardship must be rendered to God.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, p. 176.
When we become stewards, we will not shift our responsibility to another individual or to an organization. Our personal responsibility is to God and will be reflected in all of our interactions with those around us (Gen. 39:9; see also Dan. 3:16). We will embrace the task at hand to the best of our abilities. Success in God’s eyes will depend more on our faith and on our purity than on intelligence and talent.
For centuries, theologians and philosophers have debated the difficult question of free will. But the Scripture is clear: we as human beings do have free will and free choice. The idea of being judged by our deeds makes no sense otherwise. Hence, we do have a personal responsibility, by the grace of God, to choose to make the right decisions in all that we do, which includes being faithful stewards of all our Master’s goods.
Further Thought: The word translated as “steward” in a few Old Testament texts comes not from a single word but from a phrase: asher al bayt, the “one who is on or over a house.” For example, Genesis 43:19 can be translated: “When they drew near to the steward of Joseph’s house, they talked with him at the door of the house” (NKJV, emphasis added). If one considers that the family that resides in the house is part of the house itself, then what is more valuable to a person than his or her own home? Hence, a steward is someone being entrusted with something very valuable that, nevertheless, does not belong to him or her. In many ways, that makes the responsibility even greater than it would be if the steward were in charge of his or her own possessions.
This same idea is continued in the New Testament, as well. “The NT takes OT ideas and joins them with first-century ideas, concepts, and words, thus enriching and enlarging the biblical teaching on stewardship.
The most common Greek words used in relationship with stewardship are derived from oikos and oikia, ‘house.’ The oikonomos is one who keeps the house: the steward or manager. Oikonomia is the abstract noun, ‘management of the house,’ the meaning of which is often much broader.”—Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2000), p. 653.