Unfolding the counsels of God.
When studying the Word of God, we need to remember that while it encompasses an infinite array of lessons, historical facts, etc., at the same time the themes are very simple. Here is a chart that I hope will be helpful in the study of God’s dispensations.
In the past I have struggled to explain dispensations in a way that fits with a “common sense” approach to studying the Bible. The major tenets of dispensational teaching are easy to see from scripture, and are easy to communicate:
- The Church (heavenly people) is distinct from Israel (earthly people).
- The promises God made to Israel will be literally fulfilled in spite of Israel’s failure.
- God’s ultimate purpose is the glorification of His Son!
However, the details of the various dispensations are not so easy to capture or explain. It is a little like running an experiment. A scientist will try to develop a mathematical model for some physical phenomena. He or she will try a certain approach with a number of independent variables. If the data doesn’t fit, they know that either the approach is wrong, or they are missing a variable. The same is true when making a chart such as the one above to describe a coherent dispensational framework. For instance, C.I. Scofield’s approach looks at dispensational periods only, and he comes up with seven unique periods. But if you examine his scheme, you find holes in it. For instance, Scofield’s “age of conscience” can’t really be called a true dispensational period because God didn’t “dispense” anything new at the start of that epoch. Scofield was missing something in his approach! I believe that there are at least three great things that need to be considered when making a chart such as the one above; principles, periods, and progression.
- Dispensational Principles
- Dispensational Periods
- Dispensational Progression
Man Left to His Conscience
In the time period between Adam and Noah, man was left to himself without any restraint other than his conscience, which quickly became corrupted. The result was that “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). God saw in the corruption of the antediluvian world “the end of all flesh” come before Him… that the flesh can produce nothing for God. He resolved to remove from the earth the race of Adam, “the First Man”; for he said “Behold, I will destroy them with the earth” (Gen. 6;13). This showed that without any dispensation, evil in the earth would grow at a tremendous rate to a point where God would have to press the big “reset” button.
All this occurred on “the world that then was” which “being overflowed with water, perished” (2 Peter 3:5,6). Peter speaks of three worlds:
- the “world that then was“ [before the flood],
- the “heavens and the earth which are now“ [from flood to when elements dissolve], and
- the “new heavens and new earth”.
Dispensations have to do only with “the heavens and earth that are now”, which is why the period before the flood cannot be called a dispensation.
Destroying man from the earth was necessary, but something God never wanted to do again; for God said “neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood” (Gen 9:11). But God was still dealing with the First Man, so what would He do? He gave the first great dispensational principle; government!
“And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” Genesis 9:5-6
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Romans 13:3-4
Government was given to restrain evil, and it has been used by God for that purpose until the present day. All we need to do is look at countries were they don’t have an organized government… and we see that chaos reigns.
Government continued on, and when Israel became a nation, God centered his earthly government in Jerusalem. Later, when Israel sinned and refused to return to Jehovah, the sword of God’s government was transferred to the Gentiles, beginning what is called “the Times of the Gentiles”. It was committed initially in its purest form to Nebuchadnezzar the Head of Gold; “whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down” (Dan. 5:19). Nebuchadnezzar abused that power (Dan. 3-4), as have all the gentile powers that have followed the Head of Gold. At the appearing, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands”, will smash the image of Gentile power to splinters. The great Gentile power-structure will become “like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors”… and Christ will set up His kingdom, a “great mountain” which will fill “the whole earth.” Thus we see the failure of the First Man in the dispensation of Government, and finally the success of the Second Man in a future day.
But, returning to Genesis, was government enough to set the First Man on a righteous course? Never. Nimrod rebelled against this Patriarchal form of government, and he went out and laid the foundations for two great empires; Babylon and Assyria. He used slaves (violence) to build his empires; “wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD” (Gen. 10:9). He brought in the first recorded idolatrous system of worship (corruption)… the roots of pagan idolatry that continues to this day. Once again, the flickering flame of moral fidelity to God burned low. And once again, God moved in grace to give another dispensational principle!
God made an unprecedented move in Genesis 12, to call out one man from all the corruption; his name was Abraham. Abraham’s family was steeped in idolatry, and God called Abraham out from all of it. God called him out from every circle of life that had become corrupted; his country, kindred, and his father’s house.
“Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood [or, river Euphrates] in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods.” (Josh. 24:2)
“Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.” (Gen. 12:1)
God wouldn’t reform the world, instead he would reach in – by sovereign grace – and call a chosen man. And God always follows up His calling with unconditional promises. As if to say, “I want to separate you from everything else around, and I am going to bless you, and give you far more that this world could ever offer you.”
“And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:2)
Abraham’s history was a mixture of success and failure, but finally, he obeys the call of God. This principle of calling was later extended to the great nation that descended from Abraham, as it is written;
“When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” (Hos. 11:1)
When Israel descended into the very idolatry that Abraham had been called out from, God had to set aside His earthly people; “Then said God, Call his name Loammi: for ye are not my people, and I will not be your God” (Hos. 1:9). After Israel rejected the Messiah, God turned to the Gentiles, and unfolded a different calling; “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling…” (Heb. 3:1). Yet those unconditional promises made to Abraham will still be fulfilled, and so, after the Christian testimony has finished its course, God will take up with Israel again, and make good on those promises made 3500 years ago!
Returning to our narrative, we now have a nation that has been “called” by God with a national calling, and they are the heirs of God’s unconditional promises. Was calling enough to set the First Man on a righteous course? No. They came up out of Egypt a murmuring and rebellious people. They couldn’t see their own need of dependence on God. They couldn’t see that they were incapable of continuing apart from His grace. And once again, God moved in grace to give another dispensational principle!
The next great principle God gave was Law. Contrary to common belief, God did not give the law to improve the flesh or to restrain evil… He gave it to show man his true moral condition.
“Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions“ (Gal. 3:19)
“But law came in, in order that the offence might abound.” (Rom. 5:20)
God proposed the law to Israel (Exodus 19), at which time they ought to have seen their true moral condition and fallen back on the unconditional promises of God. Instead they said, “we can do it all”, and so they misused God’s diagnostic tool, and fell under its curse (Gal. 3:10). Despite this, the law has done its job in “concluding all under sin” (Gal. 3:22) and now those who inherit the blessing by faith do so on the ground of God’s grace alone, knowing the flesh had no part in it.
Was the Law enough to set Israel, a sample test of the First Man, on a righteous course? No. Under the Law, God dispensed the priesthood, then judges, then kings, then prophets… but the First Man did not change course. Israel was that vineyard which produced no fruit for God (Isa. 5; Matt. 21). Finally, God sent His Son… the ultimate test of the First Man.
“And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise. But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him.” (Matt. 21:34-39)
Israel failed the ultimate test. They had the very Son of God walking among them, the One in Whom “dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” They heard His words, and saw His miracles but they put Him on a cross. This was the end of the testing of the First Man. And yet, in grace, God moved to give another dispensational principle!
The final witness to Israel was the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and the signs of power that accompanied it. This was something brand new. Truly, Christ as a man on this earth was the greatest test for Israel, but now the Spirit was here indwelling men!
“God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?” (Heb. 2:4)
God was extending a second offer to Israel, knowing full well that it would be rejected. Israel is the fig tree in Luke 13 that produced no fruit, and was about to be cut down when the vine-dresser requested one extra year, with special cultivation and fertilization.
“And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.“ (Luke 13:8-9)
Thus, Peter’s preaching in Acts 2-4 carried that tone:
“Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all.“ (Acts 3:19-21)
But they rejected this dispensation of the Spirit, and after Stephen’s faithful message, they “stoned Stephen, (and he) calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59). But God had in store something much greater than Israel’s national restoration, and to reveal the truth of it, He was preparing a special vessel; “the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.” This Saul, later renamed “Paul”, would take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts. 28:28), and unfold the truth of the Church, which was a Mystery, “kept secret since the world began” (Rom. 16:25). The unfolding of this Mystery was a new Administration characterized by the Spirit of God, marking yet another change in the dispensational ways of God.
To summarize, God has given successive dispensational principles, which run on together until the present time. Under each the First Man has FAILED, but all look on to a coming day in which the Second Man will be revealed, and He will take it all up in PERFECTION!
There are really three great dispensational periods. First, the Administration of the Law, during which the First Man was tested, and proved an utter failure. Finally, “the Administration of the Fullness of Times“ (Eph. 1:10), during which the Second Man will be glorified in the Earth (where the First Man has failed) and in heaven (where the First Man could never go). In between these two, a parenthetical period called, “the Administration of the Mystery“ (Eph. 3:9), in which God is gathering out of the Jews and (primarily) the Gentiles, a bride and companion for His Son.
The word “dispensation” [oiko-nomia] is a compound word, being composed of two smaller words; “house” and “law”. Its primary meaning would be the administration of a household, including the law, rules, regulations, and administrative order of the household. It could be translated “dispensation”, “stewardship”, “administration”, or “economy”.
It’s helpful to picture a large nobleman’s house, with dozens of rooms and dozens of servants. There is an administrative order to the house including certain regulations and instructions set out by the steward or chief butler, etc. All this might be referred to as the “law of the house”, “the economy” or the “dispensation”. When the house gets a new owner, some of those things will change, and a new administration will be set up.
God has not always kept the same “house law” down through the millennia. At times He has changed His economy with man, dispensing different principles (supply) as we have already seen, and requiring different things from man in return (demand). An “administration” therefore, is a set of principles that God has chosen to set forth for His collective people on earth, all working together for the glorification of His Son.
To see an example of how the “house rules” have changed, look at the restrictions God has put on eating meat and blood. Previous to the flood, God had only approved a vegetarian diet. Then, coming off the ark, Noah was told that man could now eat meat, but not the blood. In the Law, God told Moses that animals were divided into two classes; clean and unclean (Leviticus 11). The added restriction was that Israel couldn’t eat the unclean animals. In Acts 10, God told Peter that the restriction on unclean animals had been repealed, but in Acts 15 we find that the prohibition against eating blood still remained. In the Millennium, hunting of animals will be completely eliminated (Hos. 2:18) with the exception of fishing (Ezek. 47:10)! So we can clearly see how the “house rules” changed with regard to meat, and yet the prohibition of blood remained constant!
|Noah to Moses||The Law||The Church||The Millennium|
All meat allowed
Only clean animals
All meat allowed
Only fish allowed
Whenever we read of God repenting (or changing His mind) it has to do with His dispensational ways. His moral ways never change (Mal. 3:6), and His eternal purpose never changes (Eph. 1:10).
1. The Administration of the Law
This first great period properly began with Moses (“For the law was given by Moses” John 1:17), and ended at the cross (“for Christ is the end of the law” Rom. 10:4). Under the Law, God was testing Israel as a sample of the human race. The Law was:
- a prison-guard (Gal. 3:23) to keep Israel separated from the idolatrous nations around.
- a schoolmaster (Gal. 3:24) to teach them the futility of the flesh, and to point to the coming of the Messiah.
But when Christ came, there was no more need for either Israel’s prison-guard or schoolmaster. A great dispensational change occurred when Christ came; “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” The law and all its rules and regulations was set aside. For a Christian to put themselves under law is a huge mistake, as Romans and Galatians would tell us. Even to remain mixed up in the ceremonies and rituals of Judaism (the Epistle to the Hebrews) is to make a grave mistake.
2. The Administration of the Mystery
This second great period, which we are in now, is unique from the other two, in that it has to do with heaven, and is characterized by the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth. We have a new focus as well: Christ glorified and seated at God’s right hand! And we have new relationships. The Christian Church is the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the House of God, and the Family of God. We are connected to Christ by the indwelling Spirit, and we are waiting the coming of Christ, not only to take us up to heaven (the Rapture) but to return to this earth “with all His saints” (the Appearing). The Church is brand-new in its composition, being made up of Jews and Gentiles, forged into “one new man” (Eph. 2:15), the Church of God! The Church is different from Israel in her destiny, for the Church will share the closest place with Christ, the heirs of all that He has and is, in the third and final administration. During the last 2000 years, God has been gathering together those whom He has chosen to be “heirs with Christ” of the entire universe!
3. The Administration of the Fullness of Times
This third great period is the culmination of all of God’s dispensational ways. We are told in Ephesians that God is moving everything toward this great day:
“Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: In whom also we have obtained an inheritance.“ (Eph. 1:9-11)
It tells us that God’s great purpose is to glorify His Son by concentrating under Him the rule of two spheres: (1) heaven, and (2) earth. The center of the heavenly sphere will be the Church, reigning with Christ, sharing in all things that He will possess. The center of the earthly sphere will be the purged and restored Nation of Israel, under the leadership of the Messiah, at the head of all other nations. Christ is the exalted pinnacle of both spheres of glory, as (1) Head to the Church and (2) the King of Israel, and King of Nations. This dispensational period is called in Rev. 20, the “thousand years” or in Latin, “Millennium”.
The chart below will show how Christ, as Second Man, will succeed in all of those principles under which the First Man has utterly failed:
|Dispensational Principle, or Sub-Principle||Fulfillment by Christ, the Second Man, in the Millennium|
|Government||Christ will be “King of kings and Lord of lords”|
Christ will be the center of
|Promise||Christ will be the depository of all the promises of God|
|Law||Christ will be the “mediator of the New Covenant”|
|Priesthood||Christ will come forth as “a priest after the order of Melchizedek”|
|Judges||Christ will come forth as “He that is to be ruler in Israel”|
|Kings||Christ will sit upon the “throne of David”|
|Prophets||Christ will be “that Prophet” raised up unto Israel|
|The Spirit||Christ will “pour out [the] Spirit upon all flesh”|
Other Pseudo-Dispensational Periods
Truly, there are three “great” administrations; the Law (1500 years), the Mystery (2000 years), and the Millennium (1000) years. But some would ask, what do you do with the periods from Noah to Abraham (400 years), and from Abraham to Moses (400 years)? I feel comfortable calling them Pseudo-Dispensational Periods because they are periods in which dispensational principles were given, and yet during them there was no distinguished collective people of God.
Government Only: Noah to Abraham. During this period we have very few details given in scripture. Mainly we find that the nations grew in moral and religious corruption until Abraham’s day. The Tower of Babel was a defining moment of this period, when man refused to “swarm” (spread out and cover) the earth as God had commanded (Gen 9:1).
Government and Individual Calling: Abraham to Moses. During this period we have the history of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. We find in these patriarchs a double struggle: (1) a struggle to obey the call of God in separation from the world, and (2) a struggle to trust God to fulfill His promises, rather that trying to fulfill them through the energy of the flesh.
Changes in House Rules
If we lay out the three great dispensational periods, we can clearly see the changes in economy:
|#1. The Administration of
|#2. The Administration of
|#3. The Administration of
the Fullness of Times
|an earthly people||a heavenly people||an earthly people|
|earthly hopes (future)||heavenly blessings||earthly hopes (realized)|
|geographical worship center at Jerusalem||within the holiest, the very presence of God||geographical worship center at Millennial Temple|
|sacrifices that look forward to the cross||no sacrifices, we look back to the one offering of Christ||commemorative sacrifices that look back to the cross|
|approach to God is Old Covenant Judaism||approach to God is Christianity outside the camp of Judaism!||approach to God is New Covenant Judaism|
|the Spirit given by measure, came “upon” men||permanent indwelling of the Spirit, dwells “in” us||the Spirit poured out “upon” all flesh|
Is the Church a dispensation?
It is important to understand that the Church itself is not a dispensation, rather it is a living organism on earth, made up of Christians. However, we realize that during the time when Christ is building His Church, God has different dealings with His people on earth; so in that sense, we are living in a dispensation. Notice that (#1) and (#3) have more to do with the earth, and (#2) has more to do with heaven. If it helps, think of an Oreo cookie; black, white, and black again. We live in that heavenly parenthesis between two earthly administrations. It should make us realize that we live in a very special time. Some have even said that the Church period is not really a dispensation at all… and I can see why. Dispensations have to do with this earth, and the Church and her hopes are completely detached from earth! When the Church is taken out, the prophetic timeline will resume again with Israel and the Gentile powers. In fact, the Law is more similar to the Millennium than it is to the Church! In spite of this fact, I would still refer to the Church (more properly, “the Mystery”) as a dispensational period (or an Administration), because while we are a heavenly people, we are still on earth, and the “house rules” are different for us than they were for the Old Testament saints, or for the saints that will be on earth in the Millennium.
The Wisdom of God in the Dispensational Scheme
If Another important point that can be made is that (#1) is a Jewish administration that ends in failure, and (#2) is a Gentile administration that ends in failure. Furthermore, (#3) is the Jews restored and the Gentiles blessed under the reign of Christ personally! Romans 11 remarks on this change, picturing the Jews as natural olive branches (#1) cut out because of unbelief, and the Gentiles as wild olive branches (#2) grafted in upon Israel’s rejection of Christ. He goes on to say that if and when the Gentiles fail in unbelief (they most certainly have) the wild branches will be cut off, and the natural branches (#3) grafted in again! This is a clear outline of the Oreo cookie effect. Moreover, Paul lets us in on the secret: why would He let the Jew fail, then the Gentile fail, if Christ was going to set it all straight when He came? The answer is given in Rom. 11, where we are allowed to consider the counsels of God:
“For as indeed ye [Gentiles] also once have not believed in God, but now have been objects of mercy through the unbelief of these [Jews]; so these also have now not believed in your [Gentiles] mercy, in order that they [Jews] also may be objects of mercy. For God hath shut up together all in unbelief, in order that he might shew mercy to all.” (Rom. 11:30-32)
God did it this way so that in (#3) He could come forth in blessing to the whole world on the principle of sovereign mercy; neither Jew nor Gentile will be able to raise their head, thinking “I did it right.” Amazing wisdom… it exceeds the human mind! This dispensational scheme was all thought out beforehand by God, so that He could glorify His Son, bless mankind, and still let no one walk away with pride! It is no wonder that a doxology follows:
“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:30-32)
The third element that we need to complete our comprehensive framework is progression. If we didn’t have this third element, we would miss seeing the grace of God that accompanies His ways. The progression is as follows:
This progression can be seen in the three great dispensational periods. The pattern for this progression is first given in the antediluvian period:
|Antediluvian Period||#1. The Law||#2. The Church||#3. The Millennium|
|1.||Garden of Eden||Sinai||Day of Pentecost||The Glorious Appearing|
|2.||Sin of Adam and Eve, the Fall of Man||Israel’s Sin of the Golden Calf||Sin of Ananias and Saphira||Children of the Gentiles Apostatize|
|3.||History of Cain to Lamech||Israel’s History of Rebellion and Idolatry||History of the Seven Golden Candlesticks||General Spiritual Decline, a Final Rebellion|
|4.|| Enoch Preaches
Noah finds grace
|Disciples of John and Jesus Converted||Real Believers (Wheat among the Tares)||Believers Congregate Around Jerusalem|
|5.|| Enoch taken out
|Flee at Warnings of Olivet Discourse||The Catching Out of the True Saints||The Camp of the Saints and Beloved City|
|6.||The Flood||Destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70)||Judgment of the Harlot
& Harvest Judgment
|Fire Comes down From God Out of Heaven|
|7.||A New World||Christian Church||The Father’s House||New Heavens & Earth|
This progression teaches us some very important things. I will touch on a few of them briefly:
The Apostasy of the First Man in Every Dispensation
Notice that the First Man always fails. No matter which administration, all breaks down into ruin under man’s responsibility. This is one of the chief lessons of the Bible, and one that Covenant Theologians deny.
- The failure of Israel was that they thought that they could fulfill the laws demands, and that they denied that Jesus was the Messiah.
- The failure of the Christian Testimony is that we have denied the fundamental truth of our dispensation; that the Spirit is on earth indwelling the Church for power and direction.
- The failure of the apostates in the Millennium is that they will rebel under Christ’s authority as King of kings and Lord of lords.
The Grace of God to Recover a Remnant
Notice that God always maintains a remnant… this shows His grace. The remnant in each case is spared from the judgment that falls on the mass. If we study these remnants, we will find that they are marked by:
- a repentant attitude concerning the low state,
- holding fast to the original principles given by God at the beginning of that dispensation, and
- the approval of God in spite of small numbers.
Rapid Transition between Administrations
Notice too that at the end of each Administration there is a short period of rapid change.
- At the close of The Law – within a few years we had the first coming of Christ, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, and descent of the Holy Spirit!
- At the close of The Church – within seven years we will see the destruction of Christianity, the formation and destruction of huge world confederacies, the second coming of Christ, and the setting up of His glorious kingdom!
- At the close of The Millennium – within a short period we will see Satan loosed from the abyss, the apostates deceived, the final rebellion mounted, the rebellion put down, the dissolution of the elements, the great white throne, and a new heaven and new earth!
Understanding this progression is critical to “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). We don’t want to be confused about the day we live in, and what is coming next.
In conclusion, we can see that we are living in the Church Period, and we are in the closing days. The next event will be the rapture, when the true believers of the present dispensation will be caught up the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. He had given to us, the remnant of this dispensation, to understand “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and to think His thoughts. After all, what God wants is communion (“common thoughts”) with Himself, concerning the greatness of His Beloved Son, and His plan to glorify Him in heaven and earth.