The goal of this article is to provide an overview of God’s dispensations. Providing such an overview is not an easy task. The major tenets of dispensational truth are perhaps easier to explain. From the previous article, these major tenets were:
- God’s Ultimate Purpose: the glory of Christ in a future administration of the fulness of times.
- The Testing of Man: demonstrating the utter ruin of the First Man and the perfection of the Second Man.
- The Mystery: a new revelation of an old secret, the formation of the Church (heavenly people) as distinct from Israel (earthly people).
- Prophetic Events: the promises God made to Israel will be literally fulfilled in spite of Israel’s failure.
- The Cross: the foundation for all of God’s purposes and ways.
In the following article we will examine the importance of dispensational truth, especially in contrast with covenant theology. But in this article we want to look at the dispensations. The details of the various dispensations are more involved, so we will need to manage the scope of our study, to stay at a fairly high level.
How shall we approach this subject of dispensations? Our approach makes all the difference. One popular approach I would like to avoid is the task of applying a systematic theology to the Word of God. We always need to be careful about taking some system of doctrines and overlaying that system on the scriptures as an interpretive framework. We need to hear what the Word says without man’s interpretations. We need to interpret scripture by scripture alone.
Perhaps the leading approach for describing God’s dispensation is that of C.I. Scofield, who further developed a scheme proposed by Isaac Watts. This approach looks at periods of time, from Adam to the Eternal State, and divides the entire timeline into seven unique ages. While this approach is not wrong, it has its shortcomings. Scofield calls these various periods “dispensations”, which is a scriptural term. But if you examine the Scofieldian scheme, you find certain inconsistencies in it. He essentially reduces dispensations to periods of time. Nowhere in scripture do we read of a dispensation as a period of time. For example, how can the “age of conscience” really be called a dispensation? God didn’t “dispense” anything new at the start of that epoch. Just because something is a distinguishable period of time does not mean it is a dispensation.
The approach we must take is to draw principles from scripture as they appear in the divine record. We must look at each scripture in its particular context, as well as in view of the whole Bible.
What is a dispensation?
The word “Dispensation”. The word dispensation 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. There are four words which relate closely to dispensations. They are Strong’s numbers G3620-G3623. The words in this family all have to do with buildings or houses of some kind. For example, G3619 is “building” and G3624 is “house”.
The Economy Itself (Noun)
| trans-literated 'HOME-LAW'
| Strong's G3622
definition: the management of a household or of household affairs
- Economy or Stewardship; reference Luke 16:2-4, 1 Cor. 9:17,
- Dispensation or Administration; reference Eph. 1:10, Eph. 3:2, Eph. 3:9, Col. 1:25
The Administrator of the Economy (Noun)
| trans-literated 'HOME-LAWer'
| Strong's G3623
definition: the manager of household or of household affairs
- An Economist or Steward; reference Luke 12:42; 16:1; 1 Cor. 4:1, 2; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet. 4:10
- A Governor; reference Gal. 4:2
- A Chamberlain; reference Rom. 16:23
Building the Economy (Verb)
| trans-literated 'HOME-BUILDING'
| Strong's G3620
definition: the act of building a house or strengthening an established order
- Further God's dispensation (administration); reference 1 Tim. 1:4
It is 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 laws set out by the lord or lady, regulations and instructions set out by the steward or chief butler, etc. All this might be referred to as the “law of the house” 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 (think of supply and demand), dispensing different things (supply), and requiring different things from man in return (demand).
Changes in dispensations. Has God always operated on the same "rules" toward men? A simple test:
- Are Christians under the Law? No. (Rom. 6:14) Something has changed!
- Are Christians to defend themselves with physical violence? No. (Luke 6:29) Something has changed!
- Was the Spirit of God permanently on earth in the Old Testament? No. (John 3:34) Something has changed!
For a great 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
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).
A dispensation therefore, is an ordered dealing of God with men on the earth; i.e. a moral economy, comprised of certain principles that God has chosen to set forth on the earth for a specific purpose, with a view to the glory of His Son.
Dispensations and Ages
. Titus 1:2 tells us that ages
are certain epochs within the long range of time. Dispensations
, on the other hand, are never defined in terms of time, although they do occur within the framework of time. It is important to distinguish between ages ('aion'
) and dispensations ('oikonomia'
Dispensations and Administrations. As we have already shown, the word 'oikonomia' is translated as both 'dispensation' and 'administration'. However, the word is used in slightly different ways to convey a slightly different thought, just as the words dispensation and administration convey slightly different thoughts. The word dispensation conveys the thought of something dispensed, or given by God. You might refer to a new law passed as a new dispensation. For instance, the Affordable Care Act was a new dispensation. The word administration conveys the thought of those new laws being carried out in practice. For instance, you might refer to the entire government of the United States over the years of 2009 to 2016 as the Obama Administration. So in scripture, there are certain principles that God gave at various times for His people on earth; principles which can be called 'dispensations'. There are also broad dealings of God with men where those principles are carried out; i.e. periods which can be called 'administrations'. There are two administrations that are explicitly identified as such in scripture, and a third that can be identified indirectly. These three administrations are: (1) the law, (2) the mystery, and (3) the millennium.
We will start with the history of God’s ways on the earth, and observe the various principles of His ordered dealings with man. We will especially note the changes in God’s dealings. Before we get to the first dispensational principle, a few comments are in order concerning man before the flood, before any dispensation was given.
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 and declared that “the end of all flesh” had come before Him. It was evident that the flesh could produce nothing for God. He resolved to wipe out 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 destroy man along with the earth.
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 the flood to when the elements dissolve], and
- the “new heavens and new earth”.
Dispensations have to do only with “the heavens and earth that are now”. The period before the flood cannot be called a dispensation, because it pertained to the old world, and there were really no dispensational principles given before the flood.
The Principle of Government
Destroying man from the earth was necessary, but something God never wanted to do again; for God said “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done” (Gen. 8:21). 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 where they don’t have an organized government, and we see that chaos reigns. This was a new principle on the earth. Before the flood, a mark was put on Cain (the murderer) so that no one would kill him to avenge his brother’s blood (Gen. 4:15). After Cain, we find that Lamech (another murderer) took what God did for Cain and twisted it for his own use (Gen. 4:24). This chain of undeterred violence was checked by God with the dispensation of government.
Government was instituted in Genesis 9, but it continued on afterwards. 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” (Luke 21:24). 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 risen since Babylon in the times of the Gentiles. Those in government, the very ones that are responsible to guard the sanctity of human life according to Genesis 9, are the ones responsible for the greatest loss of human life. Often human government, fallen into a state of corruption, is to be blamed for the wars and genocides down through the history of man. 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 smithereens. The great Gentile power-structure will be blown away “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 on one hand the failure of the First Man in the dispensation of Government, and on the other hand 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 continue 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!
The Principle of Calling Out
God made an unprecedented move in Genesis 12, to call out one man from all the corruption: a man named Abraham. Abraham’s family was steeped in idolatry (Josh. 24:2), and God called him out from all of it – from every circle of life that had become corrupted – from his country, kindred, and his father’s house. Calling is a higher principle than government. Governments, families, and nations may (and will) become corrupted by sin. The principle of calling transcends those other relationships, in order that man might walk in fellowship with God.
“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. 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 than this world could ever offer you.” God promised Abraham, “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 obeyed 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 could not see their own need of dependence on God. They could not see that they were incapable of continuing apart from His grace. Once again, God moved in grace to give another dispensational principle!
The Principle of Law
The principle of special calling and the principle of government were first united in the nation of Israel. As the chosen earthly people of God, Israel was given the sword of government, conditional on their obedience to the law. This was a remarkable thing. In the years when Israel was in the land, you could sometimes say that the Lord was “on their side” in a battle. You cannot say that about the Gentile wars which go on today. Israel alone was to be “a kingdom of priests”. This means that government (Kingdom) and special calling (priests) were to be united in the nation of Israel.
However, this special privilege (government invested in a called nation), was conditional on Israel’s obedience to the Word of God. How would it reflect on the character of God if He allowed His chosen people to continue as the center of earthly government while they carried on contrary to God’s own nature? It would be unrighteous, or inconsistent with God’s character. Therefore, the special place that Israel had in the land of Canaan was conditional.
In Galatians 3, Paul goes to great lengths to explain the difference between promise and law, and between unconditional promises and conditional promises. Can the law, with its conditions that Israel failed to meet, set aside the unconditional promises made to Abraham? No. God allowed 430 years of separation between the unconditional promise and the conditions of law to show this. The promises to Abraham were simply “I will bless thee…”, but to Israel it was ” if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be…” (Exodus 19:5), etc. But since Israel failed to keep the law, on what basis can God act for their blessing? God acts on the ground of His own sovereign grace. Paul shows in Gal. 3 that God made those promises to Abraham and to his Seed, which is Christ. God acts on a promise made to His own Son!
Why was the law given? Contrary to common belief, God did not give the law to improve the flesh or to restrain evil. God never wavered in His intention to fulfill the promises, but because Israel transgressed, in order to be righteous God would ensure Israel (and all men) would understand it was not by their faithfulness but only by God’s grace. Man is so bold that he would claim the fulfillment of unconditional promises as earned through his own efforts. Sin was not imputed without law. So God proposed the law, that transgressions might be manifested. With the law, God started counting sins. At this time Israel ought to have seen their weakness and fallen back on the unconditional promises made to them in God’s sovereign grace. Instead they said, “we can do it all”. In human pride, they totally missed the point. Instead, they misused the law, and fell under its curse.
“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)
And so the law became a special test of the first man. Without the law, man might deny the results of the test. With the law, the conclusion was undeniable.
Israel continued to sin. Yet, in spite of this, the law continued to fulfill its purpose; i.e. to show man that he was incapable of obtaining blessing through his own efforts. Did Israel eventually listen? Was the Law enough to set Israel, a sample test of the First Man, on a righteous course? No.
The Ruin of Israel. When we come to the kingdom of Saul we get the completion of Israel’s ruin, quintessentially. They had failed under priest (Eli’s house), prophet (rejected Samuel), and king (choosing Saul). David was the gift of God’s grace to Israel. It was under David and Solomon that Israel became rich and glorious. But even the royal line of David became corrupted. It was when Ahaz brought the altar of Damascus and set it up in place of the brazen altar that the ruin of the royal line was established. That is when the great prophets were given, and Isaiah was sent to speak to Ahaz, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field (Isa 7:3).
Yet the LORD testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, [and by] all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments [and] my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets. Notwithstanding they would not hear, but hardened their necks, like to the neck of their fathers, that did not believe in the LORD their God. (2 Kings 17:13-14)
When the ten northern tribes were taken into captivity by Assyria, God used it as a warning for Judah. But the iniquity of David’s family reached its full height in the person of Manasseh, who “shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (2 Ki 21:16). The judgment which took the northern kingdom would now descend in fury upon the southern kingdom. It was after Manasseh’s sin that the Lord pronounces an irrevocable sentence of judgment on Judah;
And I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria, and the plummet of the house of Ahab: and I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of mine inheritance, and deliver them into the hand of their enemies; and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies. (2 Kings 21:13-14)
The ruin of Israel was complete. Yet God sent prophets to warn them, and to turn them from their evil way. God’s heart for His people was unchanged, but theirs was hardened.
And the LORD God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy. (2 Chron. 36:15-16)
Israel had proven the words of the Well-Beloved in Isaiah 5; they were that vineyard which produced no fruit for God. Finally, the judgment fell. In 589 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed the city and its temple, and took the children of Judah captive.
When Israel was taken captive, the principle of earthly government was removed. It was always connected with the land of Canaan; “When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me…”
(Deut. 17:14). Not only was Israel dispossessed of the land, but
God took the government away from Israel, and gave it into the hand of the Gentiles. This began a period we know as “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24). During this period, the Gentiles hold the balance of power in the earth. The first great king to hold this power was Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. In Daniel chapter two, Nebuchadnezzar has a dream. Daniel the prophet gives Nebuchadnezzar the interpretation of what he had seen. The great statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision had multiple layers; the head of gold, the chest and arms of silver, the belly and thighs of brass, the legs of iron, and the feet of iron mixed with clay. The statue represents a timeline of the great Gentile powers. Daniel tells us the names of the first three empires: the head of gold is Babylon, the chest and arms of silver are the Medes and Persians, the belly and thighs of brass are Greece, and the fourth empire is not named but is described in detail. We can compare with other scriptures and clearly identify this fourth empire as Rome. Daniel tells us what the characteristics of those Gentile powers would be (Dan. 3 – 6). Would they turn out any better than Israel? No. These Gentile powers would force idolatry on their subjects, persecute the faithful (Dan. 3), use their power and riches to glorify themselves (Dan. 4), and dishonor God in the most immoral ways (Dan. 5). This is the same pattern we see with everything committed to the First Man.
The “feet” of the statue have not taken place yet… that empire is still future. In the dream, a great stone comes flying into the scene and smashes the statue on its feet. The whole thing is shattered to bits and pieces, and blown away “like the chaff of the summer threshing floor”. The stone grows into a huge mountain that fills the whole earth. Daniel says that this mountain is a kingdom that will be set up by “the God of heaven” which “shall never be destroyed.” This will be a kingdom whose capital is not Babylon, nor Susa, nor Athens, nor Rome… but heaven itself! It will be a kingdom on earth, but the seat of its authority will be in heaven. This is what is referred to as “the kingdom of heaven”.
While government was transferred to the Gentiles, the Jews still had their earthly calling; “for the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Romans 11:29). So God graciously revived a small group of the Jewish captives, and put a desire in their hearts to return to Palestine and rebuild.
The Final Test of the First Man
Under the Law, God dispensed the priesthood, then judges, then kings, then prophets, yet 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 make a provisional offer of pardon to the nation of Israel, which remained open for several years after the cross.
The Provisional Offer to Israel
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.
Summary of Dispensational Principles
The principles are mainly twofold: government and calling. The principles of government and calling were introduced individually, but they are combined in the nation of Israel. The joining of there two principles began the administration of the law. Under law, the first man was tested under various phases (priesthood, judges, kings, and prophets), but failed every test. The final test was the sending of the Second Man, the Lord from heaven. Israel rejected their Messiah, and thus failed their final test. And yet God held out a provisional offer of pardon in the early chapters of Acts, after the testimony of the Holy Spirit had been demonstrated. This too, they rejected. God then ceased to speak “to the Jew first”, and unfolded the true characteristic of the church period, and the administration of the mystery.
There are really three great dispensational periods, or administrations. 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 is 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.
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. The law was also 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. Instead, the law was exposed to be the “ministration of death” and the “ministration of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3), because it could not give life to the first man. A great dispensational change occurred when Christ came; “for grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” The law with all its rules and regulations was set aside. For a Christian to put themselves under law is a great mistake, as Romans and Galatians would tell us. Even to remain mixed up in the ceremonies and rituals of Judaism is condemned as a form of idolatry (Gal. 4:9). Paul writes especially in Romans, Galatians, 2 Corinthians, and Hebrews to show that we are not in the Administration of the Law.
2. The Administration of the Mystery
This second great administration, which is going on presently, is unique from the other two administrations. It has to do with heaven, and is characterized by the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth, and Christ glorified and seated at God’s right hand! It is called “the Administration of the Mystery” (Eph. 3:9). Paul writes in Ephesians 3 of this administration, explaining that it was kept secret; “which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men” (Eph. 3:5). He further explains that it was his special responsibility to make the truth of the mystery known. The truth of the mystery, as Paul explains in Eph. 3, it that God has brought believing Jews and Gentiles into one body, uniting them to Christ the Head in glory. The Church is brand-new in its composition, being formed into “one new man” (Eph. 2:15). God’s people in this administration are brought into completely new relationships! The church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, and the house 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 different from Israel in her destiny. The church will share the closest place with Christ, as co-heirs with Him, in the third and final administration. In the last 2000 years, God has been gathering together the co-heirs, and as the administration of the mystery unfolds in the church, He is “making known unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places… the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10)!
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: “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 heading up all things under Himself in two spheres: (1) in heaven, and (2) on earth. The center of the heavenly sphere will be Christ with His Church, reigning together, and sharing the Son’s inheritance. The center of the earthly sphere will be Christ as the glorified Son of Man and Son of David, leading the purged and restored nation of Israel, at the head of all other nations. Christ is the exalted pinnacle of both spheres, in one united system of glory! We are given the duration of this final administration in Rev. 20, where it is called 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
|| Christ will be “King of kings and Lord of lords”
Christ will be the center of
(1) His Heavenly People the Church
(2) His Earthly People Israel
|| Christ will be the depository of all the promises of God
|| Christ will be the “mediator of the New Covenant”
|| Christ will come forth as “a priest after the order of Melchizedek”
|| Christ will come forth as “He that is to be ruler in Israel”
|| Christ will sit upon the “throne of David”
|| Christ will be “that Prophet” raised up unto Israel
| The Spirit
|| Christ will “pour out [the] Spirit upon all 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)
||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
The Church’s Place in the Dispensations
In 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. Instead, the Church is in a dispensation, called "the administration of the mystery". During the time when Christ is building His Church, God has a different economy (ordered dealing) with His people on earth; so in that sense, we are in a dispensation.
The Oreo™ Cookie.
Notice that the Law
and the Millennium
have more to do with the earth, and the Mystery
has more to do with heaven! If it helps, think of an Oreo™ cookie; black cookie, white icing, and black cookie again. Only in our case we have; earthly, heavenly, and earthly again. The mystery is really a 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 for good reason. 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, we can 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. There are two errors of the Oreo™ cookie: (1) to think we are under the law, and (2) to think we are in the Millennium. The Galatians made the first error (Gal. 5:1), and the Corinthians made the second error (1 Cor. 4:8). Both errors had practical ramifications. Knowing what time we are in will help us walk more appropriately.
A Heavenly Parenthesis. As we have already remarked, the mystery is really a heavenly parenthesis between two earthly administrations. A parenthesis in a sentence is something that could be skipped over without a discontinuity, and yet it contains helpful information. In the same way, the entirety of the administration of the mystery (some 2000 years), was totally unknown in the Old Testament. In fact, the setting of the world-stage in the tribulation period will line up very closely with the setting at the time of Christ. The nation of Israel will be largely apostate. A small remnant of the Jews will be seeking the Lord. The Roman Empire (revived) will be in power, etc. Prophetically speaking, there was no reason, in foresight, for an Old Testament saint to expect a 2000-year space between Daniel's 69th and 70th week. You could remove the parenthesis, and there would be prophetic continuity. However, there would still be something missing! Christ would not have His bride, and God's heart would not be fully displayed if the gospel of His grace was never preached to the Gentiles. The tremendous importance of the mystery is unfolded by Paul in Ephesians 3. The angels could not learn "the manifold wisdom of God" apart from the administration of the mystery!
The Wisdom of God in the Dispensational Scheme
Another important point that can be made is that the Law (Jewish) and the mystery (predominantly Gentile) are both administrations that end in the public failure of man. Furthermore, in the millennium the Jews are restored and the Gentiles are blessed under the reign of Christ! Romans 11 remarks on this change, picturing the Jews as natural olive branches (#1) cut off 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 (and they most certainly have) the wild branches will be cut off, and the natural branches (#3) will be grafted in again! This is a clear outline of the “Oreo cookie effect”. Moreover, Paul lets us in on the secret: why would God let the Jew fail, then the Gentile fail, if Christ was going to set it all straight when He returned? 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 ordered things in such a way that in the Millennium, when He comes 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.” ALL glory will go to God! What amazing wisdom! It exceeds the human mind. This dispensational scheme was all determined by God beforehand, so that He could glorify His Son, bless mankind, and still allow no one be lifted up 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 consider 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 administrations. The pattern for this progression is first given in the antediluvian period:
||#1. The Law
||#2. The Church
||#3. The Millennium
|| Garden of Eden
||Day of Pentecost
||The Glorious Appearing
||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
|| History of Cain to Lamech
||Israel’s History of Rebellion and Idolatry
||History of the Seven Golden Candlesticks
||General Spiritual Decline, a Final Rebellion
|| Enoch Preaches
Noah finds grace
|Disciples of John and Jesus Converted
||Real Believers (Wheat among the Tares)
||Believers Congregate Around Jerusalem
|| Enoch taken out
| Flee at Warnings of Olivet Discourse
||The Catching Out of the True Saints
|| The Camp of the Saints and Beloved City
|| The Flood
||Destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70)
||Judgment of the Harlot
& Harvest Judgment
| Fire Comes down From God Out of Heaven
|| A New World
|| The Church
||The Father’s House
||New Heavens & Earth
Does this pattern hold true with the other dispensational principles? Absolutely! The characteristic failure of government in the hands of man was the drunkenness of Noah; he failed to govern himself, and became the object of his son’s mockery. The characteristic failure of man “called out” of the nations was when Abraham brought his family into Egypt. He returned into what he had been called out of.
The Apostasy of the First Man in Every Dispensation
Notice that the First Man always fails. No matter which dispensation, everything under man’s responsibility breaks down. This is one of the chief lessons of the Bible, and one that Covenant Theologians deny.
- The failure of Israel was their assuming they could fulfill the laws demands, as well as denying that Jesus was the Messiah.
- The failure of the Christian Testimony is our having denied the fundamental truth of our dispensation; that the Spirit is on earth, indwelling believers individually and the Church collectively, for both power and ministry.
- The failure of man in the Millennium is the final rebellion against Christ’s authority as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Every dispensation begins well, but decays under man’s responsibility. We see this in Matthew’s account of the parable of the sower. In Mark, the emphasis is put on the Sower Himself, the Perfect Servant, whose early crop was small (thirty-fold), but ends in a full harvest to the glory of God (an hundred-fold). In Luke, the emphasis is put on the seed, and the rate is “an hundred-fold” uniformly (Luke 8:8), because the seed of the Word will never return unto Him void. But in Matthew, which presents things in a dispensational order, the kingdom in man’s responsibility begins pristinely (an hundred-fold) but ends in decline (thirty-fold). This pattern follows with every dispensation.
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 various 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.
One thing to note is that God never restores a dispensation back to the same condition as at the beginning. In His government, God does not reverse the departure that comes in through sin. To do so would be to ignore the evil. Instead the remnant in each dispensation is separated to the Lord, and is taken out and brought into something new after judgment falls on the evil.
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, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the destruction of Jerusalem!
- At the close of The Church Period – within seven years after the rapture, we will see the destruction of Christianity, the destruction of huge world confederacies, the appearing 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.
We have seen in scripture three great things which are important in understanding God’s ways with men on the earth; principles, periods, and progression. Here is a chart that combines all three:
We can see that we are living in the second great administration. We have seen the distinction between God’s economy in the present administration, and His ways in the Old Testament, as well as in the Millennium. It is His will for us to be like “the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel [God’s people in the present dispensation] ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32). As to where we fall in time, I believe we are in the closing days of the Church’s time on earth. The next event will be the rapture, when the true believers of the present dispensation will be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. He has given to all those of faith today, the “remnant” of this dispensation, to understand “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). 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.