ELEMENTS OF DISPENSATIONAL TRUTH
Several great principles of the Word of God that undergird and frame what can be called “dispensational truth”. Part 1 of a three-part series on Dispensational Truth.
The Big Picture
It is important, when reading the Bible, to understand Bible the “big picture”. You can think of the Bible as a large puzzle featuring a beautiful scene. If you only assemble a small number of the pieces, you will never understand the artist’s theme. Your vision is restricted to the small section you can see. But after assembling all the pieces, you are able to see how it all fits together into a grand theme. Many Christians struggle to understand the Bible simply because they are unfamiliar with the whole. They haven’t read Leviticus, Nehemiah, or Micah. They are missing portions of the Word of God, and therefore are unable to see the big picture.
Another mistake some Christians make is to lump the scriptures together and assume it is all one thing. This is simply not true. The Word of God is one harmonious whole, but within are stark and vital distinctions. Returning to the puzzle example; if you ignore the shapes and colors on each puzzle-piece, you will fail to assemble the whole. For this reason we are exhorted to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15); to observe distinctions in the scriptures. In addition to being familiar with the whole Word of God, we also must pay attention to the fine details.
These two errors are frequently to blame for Christians becoming confused about the “big picture” that God presents to us in His Word. In this article, we will look at “the big picture”, drawing from a large panorama of principles and details that can only be had through diligent Bible study.
The particular line of truth that encompasses God’s “big picture” has been called Dispensational Truth. Dispensational truth encompasses the purpose of God, and the steps God takes to accomplish His purpose. Dispensational truth is a great example of the interconnectedness of scripture (read more…) because there are a number of constituent truths that fit together as a whole, and which stand and fall together as a whole.
To give an outline of dispensational truth, we will examine five fundamental principles of the Word of God that frame this “big picture”. We may call these principles, some of the “elements of dispensational truth”.
God’s Eternal Purpose: the Glory of Christ
The Eternal Purpose. The ultimate purpose of God is the Glory of Christ. This foundational truth is declared most plainly in Ephesians 1.
“Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; 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, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:8-11).
What goes underneath and above all the activities of God as recorded in scripture is a certain purpose. This overarching purpose of God is called “the mystery of God’s will” (Eph. 1:9), “the purpose of the ages” (Eph. 3:11), and “the Mystery of God” (Col. 2:2). This is called a “mystery” because it is a secret that was hidden, but has now been revealed.
The mystery of God’s will. What is the “mystery” or the secret of God’s will? What has God had in mind all these long years? Why did He create anything in the first place? Why does He allow evil? Why does He allow suffering? Why did He ask His Son to go to the cross? Why did He work with the nation of Israel? Why did He form the Church? Why will He yet judge the world? Why do any of it? The secret, which God has whispered it in your ear, is that His great purpose in everything is to glorify Christ. In “the dispensation of the fullness of times” (a future time, elsewhere called “the Millennium”) God will gather all things and place them under the headship of Christ. These “things” are divided into two spheres: “things in heaven and things on the earth”. In both these spheres, Christ will be the exalted center and head. But the secret continues, as if Christ’s glory wasn’t already enough. The second part of God’s secret (v.11) is that God plans to give Christ a companion, to share all His glory! That companion is us, the Church of God.
The glory of Christ. This grand purpose can be seen throughout the whole Bible. Who is it that we read of from Genesis to Revelation? Shiloh, the Captain of the Lord’s host, Wisdom, the Ancient of Days, the Judge of Israel, Jesus, Emmanuel, Savior, the Lamb of God, the Prince of Life, the Mediator between God and Men, the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Living One, Him who was, who is, and who is to come, the Almighty, the King of kings and Lord of lords! Moses wrote of Him, David wrote of Him, Isaiah and the prophets wrote of Him, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote of Him, Paul and the others wrote of Him! The very office of the Spirit of God is to glorify the Son of God; as Jesus said, “He (the Comforter) shall glorify me” (John 16:14). It is all about Christ. That which has been in God’s heart from a past eternity, is an unswerving purpose to glorify Christ. Now looking back, we can see God’s fingerprints all through the pages of scripture, working toward that glorious end. This is where we must start.
1. The Testing of Man: The Landscape Established
The creation of man. Why didn’t God then simply create a world of obedient angels to worship and extol His Son? Because His glory would not be fully made known. God’s power could be declared in creation and in judgment, but “the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7) could only be known in the plan of redemption (Eph. 2:7). So God created man.
Capable of sin. God created man innocent, but capable of sin. Why make man capable of sin? Because redemption was required to display the riches of God’s grace, and also because it was necessary to show that nature can produce nothing for God. Adam was a natural man, and the test of obedience in Eden was this: can that which is natural fulfill the purposes of God? No. Adam sinned, and fell from that place, and had to be expelled from the garden. When Adam fell, his whole race fell with him (Rom. 5:12-21).
The reason for testing the First Man. Why didn’t God come in after the fall and bring the whole history of Adam’s race to a close? Why not send the woman’s promised Seed to crush the serpent’s head? As we find in Genesis 4, without the testing of man to prove what man really was, man would maintain confidence in himself. “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord” (Gen. 4:1). Eve had to learn that this “man” – the first child ever born in the world – was a murderer. So God left man to his conscience for 1700 years, and at last He said to Noah, “The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth” (Gen. 6:13). This is where the whole order of natural man ended… thoroughly corrupted.
Successive tests given. After the flood, God did not let the first man go any longer with nothing but a conscience to restrain him. Coming off the ark God gave Noah the principle of government whereby evil might be retrained. For the next 2300 years God gave one thing after another for the blessing of man, and also as a test to show whether the first man was recoverable. These successive tests are the dispensations, and will be taken up in the next lecture.
The final test. The final test came when God sent His Son into this world; “But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours” (Mark 12:6-7). The cross is the end of the testing of the first man. Thenceforward, the Spirit employed the word “now”; e.g. “now is the judgment of this world” (John 12:31; Rom. 3:21; 2 Tim. 1:9-10; Eph. 3:10; Heb. 9:26). A tremendous change occurred at the cross. You can’t ignore what happened there. Do you think there is something good in man? Do you think there is something in the first man that can be salvaged? Impossible! The first man proved his ruination at the cross, by crucifying the Lord of glory. The testing of man is over. J.N. Darby remarked:
In what condition did Christ find the first Adam? In a condition into the lowest depths of which He was obliged to enter, as responsible head of all creation. He found man in state of ruin – entirely lost. It was needful that this should be unfolded before the coming of Christ; for God did not introduce His Son into the world as Saviour until all that was necessary to shew that man was in himself incapable of anything good was brought out. The whole state of man, before and after the deluge, under the law, under the prophets, only served as a clearer attestation that man was lost. He had failed throughout, under every possible circumstance, until, God having sent His Son, the servants said, “This is the heir; let us kill him.” The measure of sin was then at its height…1
The Second Man. But thanks be to God, there is not just one man… there is a Second Man! In 1 Cor. 15:46-47 we find that “that which is natural” had to come first, “and afterward that which is spiritual”. The utter ruin of one had to be proven, then the glories of the Second could be manifested. This principle is key to understanding dispensational truth. God is no longer looking to the First Adam, but to the Last Adam. Who is this Last Adam? “The first man is of the earth, earthy” but “the second man is the Lord from heaven”. It has been well said, that the Bible is the history of two men; the first man in all his failure under responsibility, and the Second Man in all His perfection, and as the man of God’s counsels.
God’s original purpose for man fulfilled by Christ. God had a purpose for man, and even though Adam sinned and man fell from his God-given place, God’s purpose hasn’t changed. God’s original purpose for man was to place him at the head of creation; “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and splendour. Thou hast made him to rule over the works of thy hands; thou hast put everything under his feet” (Psa. 8:4-6). When Adam fell, it became clear that the first man could not fulfill that purpose. So, “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). God said, as it were, ‘I want you to go down to where they are, to walk in their shoes, and fulfill my purpose for man’. And the Son, always delighting to do His Father’s will, said ‘Here am I, send me… I’ll go down, and I will fulfill your purpose, and bring you more glory than ever before’. On earth, the incarnate Son of God was the perfect man, always dependent on and obedient to His God. After finishing the work of the cross, He “sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3), and Jesus is still sitting there today, waiting for His enemies to be made His footstool (Heb. 1:13). Shortly, God will unleash a series of judgments on this world that will result in Christ’s enemies being placed under His feet. These judgments are described in Bible prophecy. Then Christ will set up His kingdom and reign for one-thousand years. This is called “the administration of the fullness of times” (Eph. 1:10), or the Millennium. Then at the end of the Millennium, Christ “gives up the kingdom to him who is God and Father; when he shall have annulled all rule and all authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:24). When the end comes, the Second Man will “deliver up” the kingdom to the Father after all enemies have been put down. He will deliver it up, as it were, on a silver platter. He will give back to God the universal power which had been committed to Him; as if to say, “see here, I have accomplished Your will perfectly, to Your Divine satisfaction”. This is when the Second Man presents the creation back to God – the original purpose (Psalm 8) accomplished – for the glory of God. God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28)! Every institution of God committed to man has descended into ruin under man’s responsibility. From the very moment of the fall, the history of mankind has been one unending succession of failures, and the increasing reign of sin and death. But Christ will accomplish the purpose of God. He is “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending” (Rev. 1:8), He is “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” (Rev. 3:14).
2. The Mystery: A New Thing Revealed
The mystery of Christ and the Church. The headship of man over creation is one part of the purpose of God, and we see that in the Old Testament; i.e. Psalm 8. But there is a second part to “the mystery of his will” (Eph. 1) that was completely unknown in the Old Testament. This secret was kept by God for centuries, until the work of the cross was complete. Then He revealed it to “His holy apostles and prophets”, and commissioned the Apostle Paul to make it known. That revelation is called, “the mystery”.
A mystery hid in God. It is called “the mystery” because there is nothing that compares to it. Nor can its importance be overestimated. The mystery which Paul preached “filled up” the void in revealed truth (Col. 1:26). Without it, the Word of God would be substantially incomplete. Furthermore, the mystery is the key to all treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). If you fail to see the mystery, the rest of scripture will be “a mystery to you”. In Rom. 16:25 Paul says that his desire is to establish the saints in “my gospel”and in the “revelation of the Mystery”. We need both to be established! Peter perhaps acknowledged the importance of it in his second epistle, when he spoke of the “wisdom” given to Paul, and that his epistles contained “some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures…” (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
What is the mystery? First of all, the mystery is not the gospel. It was no secret that there had to be a Savior. The prophets testified that Christ would come and deliver His people from their sins. Thankfully, Paul tells us exactly what they mystery is in Eph. 3. The mystery is no longer a secret to those of faith… we have been enlightened! The mystery, according to Eph. 3:6, is the fact that “they who are of the nations should be joint heirs, and a joint body, and joint partakers of his promise in Christ Jesus by the glad tidings”. The mystery therefore is the truth that believers from among the Gentiles now join believers from among the Jews, to become something brand new, that is neither Jew nor Gentile; one body! As one body of Christ, believers are co-heirs of Christ’s possessions in the kingdom, and co-partakers of the promises God has made in Christ. Wow! That is new. The Old Testament spoke about Gentiles coming into blessing in the Millennium, but only in an earthly way, and in subservience to the nation of Israel. This is something altogether new and wonderful.
A heavenly people. The Mystery discloses the formation of a heavenly Companion for a heavenly Christ. The testing of man discloses the failure of all things earthly and natural under the first man, and reveals also the glories of the Heavenly Man. As the Church, our object is in heaven, our hopes are in heaven, our blessings are in heaven, our destiny is in heaven. We are ONE with Christ, the Last Adam, the Heavenly Man. For the Church to take up with earthly interests, or with the law, or with the trappings of natural religion like Judaism is to completely miss our place in the big picture.
3. Prophetic Events: The Old Promises Upheld
God’s Faithfulness. Does the mystery (a new revelation) set aside the promises of God made in the Old Testament? Does the formation of a heavenly companion for Christ displace Israel in the purposes of God? No.
What is prophecy? Prophecy, in this sense, refers to the revelation beforehand of future events in connection with God’s interests in the earth. Some prophecy has been fulfilled, but much of it is still future. The study of prophecy is very rewarding, and very practical. Peter says that prophecy is like a light shining in a dark place, looking on to the dawning of day. A large part of the word of God is prophetic in character. Christ Himself is the subject of prophecy. “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). To be unconcerned with prophecy is to be unconcerned with Christ. His character and interests are wrapped up in it.
Prophetic Events: The future judgment and blessing of Israel and the Nations, and the steps God will take to vindicate and glorify His Son on the earth.
The Tribulation Period. This world is destined for judgment. The scripture speaks of “the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10), of “the hour of trial, which is about to come upon the whole habitable world, to try them that dwell upon the earth” (Rev. 3:10). The Church will not suffer the wrath of God, but will instead be raptured out of this world before the judgment falls. Then, once the Spirit and the Bride are taken out of the world, the apostasy of man will rise to its full height. All that God has committed to man will be so thoroughly infected by evil, and this will be displayed before the eyes of men and angels. God will pour out judgments on the world in a period of seven years, which is described in Daniel 9. Of the “seventy weeks”, this seven year period is the last or “seventieth week”. Read more…
- Christianity will continue into the tribulation 3 1/2 years, growing in wickedness until she is judged (Rev. 18:5-6).
- Judaism will be revived in unbelief, and the Jews will take up with their old tactics of independence and self-will. A king will rise up among them, and they will receive him; that king is the Antichrist, who, rather than deliver them, will lead them headlong into destruction. God will raise up the ancient enemies of Israel, who will threaten and terrorize them. At last, the great Assyrian or “king of the north” will sweep down through and put an end to apostate Judaism forever.
- Government also will apostatize. In the west, the totalitarian government will force all citizens to worship the leader of the west (called the Beast) in a most awful form of idolatry under the penalty of death. Satan will align most of the inhabitants of the world under great confederacies: the western confederacy (the Beast), the eastern confederacy (the Assyrian), the southern confederacy (King of the South), and the northern confederacy (Gog and Magog). Each will play out their role in the terrible drama which Jehovah calls, “my indignation”. Absent from the earth in this tribulation period.
A remnant of the Jews. Throughout the tribulation period, God will stir up a remnant of the Jews that have faith. The majority of the nation of Israel will be unbelievers, and they will follow Antichrist. The faithful will hold onto the Word of God, in spite of vicious persecution from the unbelievers. Many of the Psalms are prophetic of what this remnant will feel as they pass through the tribulation.
The appearing and kingdom of Christ. As the climax of all prophetic events, the Lord will appear at the end of the seven years (Rev. 19:11) to defeat all enemies, and deliver the faithful among His people. At last Christ will set up His kingdom on the earth, and righteousness will reign. Israel will be reborn, and will possess all the land promised to them almost 4000 years beforehand. The curse will be lifted from off this groaning creation. All of the prophecies regarding Christ, Israel and the Gentiles will be fulfilled to the letter. Christ will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords for 1000 years. Then God will make a new heavens and a new earth, which is totally free from sin, and that will be the eternal state of the universe.
The literal fulfillment of prophecy. There are many Christians who do not believe these events will literally take place. They believe that passages dealing with prophetic events should be interpreted allegorically, not literally. For instance, the Bible says that messengers will take the gospel of the kingdom to every nation on earth, that Antichrist will try to make everyone worship some king of image, that Christ will return to the Mount of Olives, that Jerusalem will be rebuilt according to the blueprint of Ezekiel, and that Israel will become the leading nation in the world in the kingdom of Christ. These events are prophesied about as if they were literal. Often the language used in prophecy is figurative, but the events are literal. Those who deny the literal fulfillment of prophecy unwittingly tarnish the character of God, by denying Christ His rightful place as king, and asserting that God will not fulfill His promises literally.
Prophetic Events and the Big Picture. Prophecy shows that judgment will fall on all the First Man has built… on all his accomplishments. It also shows how Christ, the Second Man, will take His place at the head of creation, and will fulfill God’s original purpose for man (Psa. 8:4-6). Prophecy fits with the Mystery because the Mystery is like a heavenly parenthesis that opens up in the timeline of prophecy. In Daniel 9 we see that there is a break between the 69th and 70 week of Daniel; i.e. a break before the last week, the seven-year tribulation period begins. Prophecy has to do with the earth, not with the Church. We are a heavenly people. The Church began after the “prophetic clock” was stopped, and we will be taken out before it resumes again. Israel will be literally restored as the earthly people of Jehovah. The Church is totally distinct from anything connected with the earth. The outcome of prophetic events is that Christ will accomplish the purpose of God, and restore all things for the glory of God. The Second Man will succeed in all that the first man has ruined. Christ alone will be exalted in a coming day, and He will share His glory with us!
The foundation of all. At the foundation of all these elements is the cross. When sin came into the world through man, two things occurred. First, man offended the holiness and majesty of God. Love for His Father and zeal to defend His glory motivated the Son to go to the cross and make propitiation… to satisfy and glorify God in every way through the sacrifice of Himself. Second, man’s sin separated him from God. Since God is love as well as light, and since He desires to have a relationship with man, God (in eternity) took counsel within the communion of the Trinity, and devised a plan to save rebellious man. Furthermore, the Father chose to give His beloved Son a companion, fashioned like Himself. In order to redeem man, to reconcile all things to Himself, and to secure a bride for His Son, God needed a lamb. God provided Himself a lamb… in the Person of the Son. In perfect obedience to His Father’s will, the Son became a man. He took manhood into union with Himself forever; the God-man. As a man, the Son was capable of suffering and death – though not capable of sin. He went to the cross and suffered the wrath of God against sin, offering Himself up to God as a sweet-smelling savor, bearing our sins in His own body, and propitiating forever the throne of God! The foundation for all of God’s purposes and counsels is the work of Christ on the cross.
Summary and Conclusion
In review, we have considered five great elements of dispensational truth, and their relation with each other. First, God’s ultimate purpose is to glorify His beloved Son. Second, God has tested the first man with successive dispensations to show that the natural man cannot fulfill the purpose of God. Thirdly, God has reveal His deepest secret, of His purpose to give His Son a bride, to be His special companion for all eternity. Fourthly, prophecy shows that the promises of God are sure and stable, and He will finish the work He has begun. Evil will be judged, Christ will be glorified, and the whole creation will be blessing in and through Him, the glorified Second Man! Finally, the cross is the center of all things, the foundation for all of God’s plans and purposes. The two things come together in the grand scheme: the goal of everything is the glory of Christ, and the foundation of everything is the suffering of Christ!
These elements can be visualized like the framing of a house. A foundation first, three supporting pillars, and a roof. The roof represents the purpose, the foundation represents the provision, and the pillars represent the ways God will accomplish His purpose.