by Ken Symes
To understand the Bible we must recognize that the Bible is God’s infallible Word, that there are no contradictions, and that God’s revelation to man is progressive (cf. Isaiah 28:9-10). Additionally, an understanding of Biblical dispensations is foundational to understanding the Bible.
A biblical dispensation is characterized by two parties, one who delegates the duties, and the other responsible for carrying them out. In the Bible, it is God delegating and man responsible for carrying them out. In every instance there is a specific test establishing accountability. The test changes as God’s revelation of truth progresses but the tests are never contradictory.
A dispensation involves a specific time frame determined by God. The words dispensation and ages (aion, translated ages in Ephesians 2:7 and Colossians 1:26) are interchangeable (cf. Ephesians 3:1-5, 21). The word oikonomia appears twenty times in the New Testament, four of which are translated “dispensation.” The other sixteen times it is translated “steward” or “stewardship.” A third word, genea (cf. Ephesians 3:5, 21), means a generation or specific period of time that has significant character (an era). Oikonomia emphasizes stewardship, whereas aion and genea refer to the time period. Thus the two words, as they relate to one another, may be defined as: A period of human history wherein man is given specific stewardship responsibilities, expressed in terms of divine revelation, which is divine categories of human history. The emphasis of dispensations is on the time period and thus may be regarded as a test of man with each test ending in judgment marking man’s utter failure. There are seven Biblical dispensations.
The Dispensation of Innocence begins with man’s creation and ends with his fall (cf. Genesis 1:26-3:24). The test of obedience was in not eating the forbidden fruit whereby they were to recognize God’s headship and authority in the earth (Genesis 2:16-17). But man failed even in this perfect environment. By Adam’s failure death and sin came into the world (Genesis 3:7, 17; Romans 7:15-25). But God was gracious.
The second dispensation is “Conscience.” It begins with man’s fall and ends with the flood (Genesis 4:1 – 8:14). With this dispensation the principle of the blood sacrifice was established in Genesis 3:21 and confirmed in Genesis 4:3-7. Hereby the principle of salvation through a blood sacrifice and not of works is established. Man’s responsibility was, with the guidance of conscience, to do good and to approach God through a blood sacrifice. Again we see God’s grace as He saves Noah and his family.
The third dispensation is “Government” which begins after the flood and ends with God’s judgment after the Tower of Babel (Genesis 8:15-11:9). Man, with practical knowledge of his failure under conscience, is now made responsible to impose law, order and government upon his fellowman. (Genesis 9:6). Man’s failure is recorded in Genesis 11:1-4. God’s judgment is seen in Genesis 11:5-9. God does not make a full end of man as He chooses Abram to establish Israel to be a showpiece of His grace.
The Dispensation of Promise (Genesis 12:1 – Exodus 18:27) begins with Abraham. Man became the recipient of unconditional promises respecting Abraham and his seed. This dispensation is elective in that God chose out one man. The responsibility of Abram and his descendants was to remain obediently in the land. Their descent into Egypt was judgment and punishment as well as failure. God’s grace delivered them out of Egypt destroying her army.
The Dispensation of the Law is covered from Exodus 19:1 through Christ’s death and burial. The purpose of the Law was to establish a unique relationship between Israel and God, requiring man to perfectly fulfill the law (Leviticus 19:2). It was intended to show man his need of redemption that only God Himself could provide. Israel’s sins resulted in her eviction from the land in 70 AD. God’s grace is seen in His promised protection for her even to Israel’s promised future re-establishment in the land.
The Dispensation of Grace begins with Christ’s resurrection and concludes with Revelation 19:21. This dispensation and the Church age are not interchangeable as the church age begins with Pentecost and concludes with the rapture. In this dispensation man is responsible to recognize himself as a lost sinner and “to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” as his only hope of redemption (Romans 3:10; Acts 4:12). Man again fails. God brings His judgment upon the unbelieving “church” and all the lost in the period we know as the Tribulation.
The “Millennium” is the final dispensation. The scriptures describing this dispensation are scattered throughout the Bible concluding with Revelation 20. The characteristic of this age will be righteousness enforced by the personal reign of Jesus. Man’s failure is prophesied in Revelation 20:7-9. The resultant judgment of the wicked will be their destruction by fire from heaven.
Grace will have provided, by means of the dispensational dealings of God with man, every conceivable test to show completely that man is lost and without hope apart from God’s grace. The only way to “rightly divide the word of truth” is to understand the dispensational framework of the Scriptures.