Why is it important to understand the Bible dispensations?

 
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Question / Comment -  Why is it important to understand the Bible dispensations?

Hi,

Can you explain about the 7 dispensations? Is it necessary to believe it? If yes, how does it help?

JPN Reply:


Hi,

thanks for the question. The Bible speaks of dispensations with the current one being 'grace':

Eph 3:1-2 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles-- if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you,

In his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.C. Vine states the following definition for dispensation: 

A dispensation is not a period or epoch (a common, but erroneous use of the word), but a mode of dealing, an arrangement, or administration of affairs.

Many Bible teachers have noted the various dispensations since the time of Adam and Eve and no doubt you have see a table similar to the following (taken from Charles Ryrie's book Dispensationalism):

Name Scripture Responsibilities Judgment
INNOCENCY

Genesis 1:3-
Genesis 3:6

Keep Garden
Do not eat one fruit
Fill, subdue earth
Fellowship with God

Curses
Physical and spiritual death

CONSCIENCE

Genesis 3:7-
Genesis 8:14

Do good

Flood

CIVIL GOVERNMENT

Genesis 8:15-
Genesis 11:9

Fill Earth
Capital Punishment

Forced scattering by confusion of languages

PATRIARCHAL RULE

Genesis 11:10-
Exodus 18:27

Stay in Promised Land
Believe and Obey God

Egyptian bondage and wilderness wanderings

MOSAIC LAW

Exodus 19:1-
John 14:30

Keep the law
Walk with God

Captiviites

GRACE

Acts 2:1-
Revelation 19:21

Believe on Christ
Walk with Christ

Death
Loss of Rewards

MILLENNIUM

Revelation 20:1-15

Believe and Obey Christ and His government

Death
Great White Throne Judgment


Some add the eternal order as an 8th dispensation, but the number itself is not critical. Others will call the dispensations by slightly different names. It matters not. What is important is that we recognise that God's divine administration and dealing with mankind has differed throughout the ages. At it's most basic, most believers can see that God's administration and dealing with mankind is different between the periods of 'law' and 'grace'. As William MacDonald writes in the Believers Bible Commentary:

Not all Christians are agreed on the number of dispensations or the names that should be given to them. In fact, not all Christians accept dispensations at all. But we can demonstrate the existence of dispensations as follows. First of all, there are at least two dispensations—law and grace: "For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). The fact that our Bibles are divided into Old and New Testaments indicates that a change of administrations occurred. Further proof is given by the fact that believers in this age are not required to offer animal sacrifices. This too shows that God has introduced a new order. Hardly any Christians fail to see this major break between the Testaments.

But if we agree that there are two dispensations, we are forced to believe that there are three, because the Dispensation of Law was not introduced until here in Exodus 19, hundreds of years after Creation. So there must have been at least one dispensation before the law (see Rom 5:14). That makes three. And then we should be able to agree on a fourth dispensation, because the Scriptures speak of "the age to come" (Heb 6:5). This is the time when the Lord Jesus Christ will return to reign over the earth, otherwise known as the Millennium.

Paul also distinguishes between the present age and an age to come. First he speaks of a dispensation that was committed to him in connection with the truth of the gospel and the church (1Cor 9:17; Eph 3:2; Col 1:25). That is the present age. But then he also points forward to a future age when (Eph 1:10) he refers to "the dispensation of the fullness of times." It is apparent from his description of it that it has not yet arrived. So we know that we are not living in the final age of the world's history.

Why is it important to understand the dispensations?

2Ti 2:5 And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

2Ti 2:15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

It is important because we want to be able to rightly divide God's word and understand what is asked of us today. By doing this we can then 'compete according to the rules' as Paul writes about above. Some try to place the believer in this age under sabbath or dietary laws from the Mosaic law because they can't differentiate the dispensations. But when the word is rightly divided, we can make sense and reconcile the scriptures that would seemingly contradict. For example, consider the following scripture:

Mat 10:5-6 These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: "Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. (6) But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Ryrie writes concerning this passage:

Anyone who attempts to interpret plainly this commission, which forbade the disciples to go to the Gentiles, and the commission that commands the same group to go to the Gentiles (Matt. 28:19-20) either (1) gives up in confusion or (2) resorts to spiritualizing one of the passages or (3) recognizes a dispensational distinction.

An understanding of the dispensations and dispensationalism is also important because it ends up affecting what we believe in a number of other areas. Some examples would be the role of law and grace in our life and sanctification; God's purpose and distinction between the Church and Israel; Our understanding of end times and 'things to come'... even our method of interpreting the scriptures. The distinction between Israel and the Church is very important. Ryrie writes in Dispensationalism :

A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct. This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive. The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and one who does will.

For example, consider some of the differences in Covenantalism and Dispensationalism concerning the Church and Israel (from the following page: http://www.evidenceunseen.com/theology/scripture/hermeneutics/dispensationalism-versus-covenantalism/)

Covenantalism Dispensationalism
The Church inherits Israel’s promises (Rom. 2:28-29; Phil. 3:3). Israel forfeited God’s promises by rejecting and killing Jesus (Mt. 21:43; Lk. 17:20-21). Israel inherits Israel’s promises. The Church only inherits the “blessings” of the Abrahamic covenant (Gal. 3:6-9). Israel could never forfeit God’s promises—no matter what they do.
Israel is permanently out of God’s plan as a nation. God’s promises to Israel were conditional on their faith.

Israel is temporarily out of God’s plan as a nation. God’s promises to Israel were unconditional.

The “holy land” is where Christians dwell, because they have the Holy Spirit in them. We are the temple, and wherever we are, it is holy. The “holy land” is still the literal land in Israel, which will be reclaimed by the Jews at the end of human history.
The promised OT kingdom is spiritually fulfilled in the Church (Mt. 13). OT promises of Messiah reigning on a throne are fulfilled by Jesus reigning spiritually from heaven (Heb. 1:3). The promised OT kingdom is literally fulfilled by the nation of Israel at the end of history. OT promises of Messiah reigning on a throne are fulfilled by Jesus reigning literally on Earth (Mt. 19:28; Lk. 1:30-32).


So yes, an understanding of the dispensations is important to be able to divide the word of God correctly, to have a clear understanding on what God asks of us today in this age, and what prophecies are still to be fulfilled in the future. I hope this helps. It is a big topic and hard to answer in one page. People write entire books on this! If you want more I'll leave you with some concluding thoughts about the dispensations from the Believers Bible Commentary which are helpful. Note also the errors at the end of this quote in going too far with dispensationalism.

God Bless.


William MacDonald - Believers Bible Commentary:
Augustine once said, "Distinguish the ages and the Scriptures harmonize." God has divided human history into ages: ". . . by whom also he made the ages" (Heb_1:2 RV, marg.). These ages may be long or short. What distinguishes them is not their length but the way God deals with mankind in them.

While God Himself never changes, His methods do. He works in different ways at different times. We call the way God administers His affairs with man during a particular era a dispensation. Technically, a dispensation does not mean an age but rather an administration, a stewardship, an order, or an economy (our word "economy" comes from oikonomia, the NT Greek word for "dispensation" or "administration"). But it is difficult to think of a dispensation without thinking of time. For example, the history of the United States government has been divided into administrations. We speak of the Kennedy administration or the Bush administration. We mean, of course, the way the government was operated while those presidents were in office. The important point is the policies that were followed, but we necessarily link those policies with a particular period of time.

Therefore, we think of a dispensation as the way God deals with people during any period of history. God's dispensational dealings may be compared to the way a home is run. When there are only a husband and wife in the home, a certain program is followed. But when there are young children, an entirely new set of policies is introduced. As the children mature, the affairs of the home are handled differently again. We see this same pattern in God's dealings with the human race (Gal_4:1-5).

For example, when Cain killed his brother Abel, God set a mark on him, so that anyone finding him would not kill him (Gen_4:15). Yet after the Flood God instituted capital punishment, decreeing that "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed" (Gen_9:6). The difference is due to the change in dispensations. Another example is Psa_137:8-9, where the writer calls down severe judgment on Babylon: "O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!"

Still later the Lord taught His people: "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Mat_5:44). It seems clear that language suitable for the psalmist living under law would no longer be suitable for a Christian living under grace. In Leviticus 11 certain foods were designated as unclean. But in Mar_7:19 Jesus declared all foods to be clean. In Ezr_10:3 the Jews were told to put away their foreign wives and children. In the NT, believers are instructed not to put them away (1Co_7:12-16). Under the law only the high priest could enter the presence of God (Heb_9:7). Under grace all believers have access into the Most Holy place (Heb_10:19-22).

These changes clearly show that there has been a change of dispensations.

Dr. C. I. Scofield lists seven dispensations, as follows:

1. Innocence (Gen_1:28). From Adam's creation up to his fall.
2. Conscience or Moral Responsibility (Gen_3:7). From the fall to the end of the Flood.
3. Human Government (Gen_8:15). From the end of the Flood to the call of Abraham.
4. Promise (Gen_12:1). From the call of Abraham to the giving of the Law.
5. Law (Exo_19:1). From the giving of the Law to the Day of Pentecost.
6. Church (Act_2:1). From the Day of Pentecost to the Rapture.
7. Kingdom (Rev_20:4). The thousand-year reign of Christ.

While it is not important to agree on the exact details, it is very helpful to see that there are different dispensations. The distinction between law and grace is especially important. Otherwise we will take portions of Scripture that apply to other ages and refer them to ourselves. While all Scriptures are profitable for us (2Ti_3:16), not all were written directly to us. Passages dealing with other ages have applications for us, but their primary interpretation is for the age for which they were written. We have already noted the dietary restrictions of Leviticus 11. While this prohibition is not binding on Christians today (Mar_7:18-19), the underlying principle remains— that we should avoid moral and spiritual uncleanness.

God promised the people of Israel that if they obeyed Him, He would make them materially prosperous (Deu_28:1-6). The emphasis then was on material blessings in earthly places. But this is not true today. God does not promise that He will reward our obedience with financial prosperity. Instead, the blessings of this dispensation are spiritual blessings in the heavenly places (Eph_1:3).

While there are differences among the various ages, there is one thing that never changes, and that is the gospel. Salvation always has been, is now, and always will be by faith in the Lord. And the basis of salvation for every age is the finished work of Christ on the cross. People in the OT were saved by believing whatever revelation the Lord gave them. Abraham, for example, was saved by believing God when He said that the patriarch's seed would be as numerous as the stars (Gen_15:5-6). Abraham probably did not know much, if anything, about what would take place at Calvary centuries later. But the Lord knew. And when Abraham believed God, He put to Abraham's account all the value of the future work of Christ at Calvary.

As someone has said, the OT saints were saved "on credit." That is, they were saved on the basis of the price that the Lord Jesus would pay many years later (that is the meaning of Rom_3:25). We are saved on the basis of the work which Christ accomplished over 1900 years ago. But in both cases salvation is by faith in the Lord. We must guard against any idea that people in the Dispensation of Law were saved by keeping the law or even by offering animal sacrifices. The law can only condemn; it cannot save (Rom_3:20). And the blood of bulls and goats cannot put away a single sin (Heb_10:4). No, God's way of salvation is by faith and faith alone! (See Rom_5:1.) Another good point to remember is this: When we speak of the present Church Age as the Age of Grace, we don't imply that God wasn't gracious in past dispensations. We simply mean that God is now testing man under grace rather than under law.

It is also important to realize that the ages do not close with split-second precision. Often there is an overlapping or a transition period. We see this in Acts, for instance. It took time for the new church to throw off some of the trappings of the previous dispensation. And it's possible that there will be a period of time between the Rapture and the Tribulation during which the Man of Sin will be manifested and the temple will be built in Jerusalem.

One final word. Like all good things, the study of dispensations can be abused. There are some Christians who carry dispensationalism to such an extreme that they accept only Paul's Prison Epistles as applicable for the church today! As a result they don't accept baptism or the Lord's supper, since these are not found in the Prison Epistles. They also teach that Peter's gospel message was not the same as Paul's. (See Gal_1:8-9 for a refutation of this.) These people are sometimes called ultradispensationalists or Bullingerites (after a teacher named E. W. Bullinger). Their extreme view of dispensations should be rejected.