Dispensation Study
Dr. Joe Temple

Rightly Dividing The Word

Open your Bibles, please, to Paul's second letter to Timothy, chapter 2, verse 15:

II Timothy 2:

15Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

We have learned in our perusal of this portion of the Word of God in times past that the word study in this verse does not refer primarily to study as we think of it. The word study could be translated by the words “be eager.” “Be eager to show yourselves approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” You will show the eagerness in study.

The workman is a skilled craftsman. He is not a day laborer. He is not an unskilled man. He is a skilled craftsman. How can we become skilled craftsmen in the Word of God? The answer is found in the last statement of the verse—by rightly dividing the word of truth. In other words, truth is the Scriptures. Rightly dividing the Word of Truth is an absolute essential if we are going to be skilled craftsmen in the Word. This is what we will discuss in this study, because I believe that the basic principle in learning to rightly divide the Word of Truth is related to a school of theological thought known as dispensationalism .

I never make any apologies for saying that I am a dispensationalist. I meet many people in the course of time who say, “I am a dispensationalist, but…” And then they begin to make all manner of apologies about their position. I'm that way about my faith in the premillennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ. I say without apology that I am a premillennialist. In the course of time, I've met a great many folk who say, “I'm a premillennialist, but I believe that you ought to win souls.” It's incongruous to me to think that anyone could be a premillennialist and not win souls. Where the problem is, I know not. I've had men say to me, “I'm a premillennialist, but I believe there are more important things to talk about”

When people hedge about where they stand in the interpretation of the Word of God, you can be sure they don't know what they are talking about. Or if they do know what they are talking about, they haven't the nerve to stand on what they believe. I say again that I believe that a study of dispensationalism is essential to being a skilled craftsman in the Word of God—the only basis of rightly dividing the Word.

Defining Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism may be a new word to some of you. It is simply that study of the Word of God based upon the plain evidence of the Scriptures that God deals with men according to dispensations. I realize that I am violating a rule. I am defining a word with the same word, but I am making a point.

What is dispensation? Many definitions have been given. Quite a controversy has arisen concerning dispensational definitions. It is said that no one definition examines every facet of truth. I will have to agree with that. But I want to say to you that, after much consideration, I do not believe that the definition of dispensation is any better stated than the manner in which it is stated in the notes of a Scofield Bible. I believe that that is the simplest and most basic definition of a dispensation. Many of you are familiar with it. Dr. Scofield says, “A dispensation is a period of time during which a man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” That's the simplest and the best definition I believe ever presented.

Described By Three Words

Since definitions, as we have already suggested to you, are lacking in different respects, I think the best thing for us to do is to find out what we are talking about by examining three basic Greek words with their different English translations, which words are used to define and describe a dispensation.

Turn in your Bibles, please, to Paul's letter to the Colossians, chapter 1, in which each one of the English equivalents of these three different Greek words are found. This is basic. If you want to find a passage of Scripture in which each of the three words are found which describe a dispensation, then you can always turn to chapter 1 of Paul's letter to the Colossians. The Apostle has been writing a word of encouragement to the Colossian Christians, and in verse 24, he says:

Colossians 1:

24Who [you] now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church:
25Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;
26Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:
27To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:
28Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus:
29Whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.

Notice in verse 25 the word dispensation . That's one of the words, as you already realize. Then notice in verse 26 the word ages . That's the second word. Notice again in verse 26 the word generations . That's the third word. These three words—dispensation, ages, and generations —are the three words which describe the periods of time in which God deals with men according to certain regulations.

Authority Of God

The word dispensation is the more familiar word of the three. So we will deal with it first because it comes first in the list. May I suggest to you that the word dispensation is a translation of the Greek word oikonomia . Very literally rendered, it is “the management of the house”—the administration, the responsibility, the plan. So when we are speaking of a dispensation, as is suggested in the original definition that we gave, we are speaking of God administering a certain plan within a specific period of time for a specific reason. Authority on the part of God is involved. Responsibility on the part of man is involved. Accountability on the part of those who live in that particular period of time is involved.

Responsibility Of Man

Let us notice a verse or two as to how this word dispensation is used in the Scriptures to bear out what we have said. Turn, please to I Corinthians, chapter 9. In this verse, we realize that Paul uses the word dispensation as an illustration of the responsibility which he accepted from God in relation to the preaching of the Gospel. He is speaking of the manner in which he preaches the Gospel, and in verse 17, he says:

I Corinthians 9:

17For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.
18What is my reward then?…

Notice the phrase, “a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.” Paul says, “If God has thrust upon me the responsibility (that's the meaning of the word dispensation ) of preaching the Gospel, then I ought to preach it whether anyone likes me or not. I ought to preach it whether people say it is a good sermon or not. I ought to preach it if people say, ‘I hate your message and I hate you, too.' It's a responsibility.” There is no way in the world to get out from under that responsibility. Fix that firmly in your minds, because the word responsibility is vital in relation to dispensation.

Time Period Emphasized

Turn, please, to the Ephesian letter and notice in chapter 1 what the Apostle Paul has to say in verse 10. The Apostle has just said that God had made known unto believers the mystery of His will according to the good pleasure which He had purposed in Himself. Verse 10:

Ephesians 1:

10That 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:

Notice the phrase, “the dispensation of the fulness of times.” Here, the responsibility is not emphasized, but the period is emphasized. The Apostle says, “There is a period of time coming upon the earth that will be known as the dispensation of the fulness of times , and when that dispensation arrives, you will see manifested in the Church the glory of God as it has never been manifested in any other age.” Certainly Paul wasn't speaking of the time in which he lived, because he spoke of it as though it were yet future.

Notice chapter 3 of the Ephesian letter, verse 1:

Ephesians 3:

1For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you gentiles,
2If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:

Here is another dispensation mentioned. We've just talked about the dispensation of the fulness of times. Now Paul is speaking of the dispensation of the grace of God, a period of time when the grace of God prevails. We're living in that period of time now. That is the only reason someone can go out into the air and shake his fist into the heavens and say, “God, I don't believe you're up there. If you're up there, strike me dead,” and go home and smoke his pipe and say, “There's no God!” The only reason he can do that is because of the dispensation of grace. If he'd done that in the dispensation of law, he wouldn't have returned home to light his pipe. This is grace. So don't get the idea, just because God doesn't lower the boom on you the minute you do something silly, that he doesn't care. This is the dispensation of grace. There will come the hour when things will be different.

Four Characteristics Of A Dispensation

Turn, please, to chapter 16 of the Gospel of Luke, because there is an illustration of the meaning of the word dispensation which contains all the aspects of the word. This word dispensation , which is a translation of the Greek word oilonomia , is translated by our English words steward, stewards, and stewardship , because in the day when the New Testament was written stewardship was related to managing well the household of another. In Luke, chapter 16, the Lord Jesus Christ told this parable:

Luke 16:

1And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward;[the same word that is translated ''dispensation”] and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.
2And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? Give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.

Here is a rich man who had committed all his goods to a man who was called a steward . This steward was told to use the goods wisely and he didn't. Word came to the rich man that the steward had not used his goods wisely, and the rich man called him to an accounting. He said, “What have you done? Account. Why haven't you used the goods as I have told you to use them?”

You know how he connived to make the picture look better. But we read the story for emphasis upon four characteristics of a dispensation. One person delegates authority to another person to carry out. The rich man delegated authority to the steward. God, in any given dispensation, delegates authority to man to carry out for a specific reason. Specific responsibilities were assigned in chapter 16, because the rich man gave the steward all his goods. God gives to man certain responsibilities related to divine resources, and he is expected to act accordingly.

Just as certainly as a day of accountability came for the steward, so the day of accountability comes in each dispensation for the human race. They must give an account of the way they have handled that which has been entrusted to their care.

Just as certainly as a change was made in Luke, chapter 16, (The rich man said, “Thou shalt no longer be the steward.”), so changes are made in relation to responsibilities in connection with dispensations. That's the reason one dispensation gives way to another, as we shall see in this series of studies when we begin a study of the Dispensation of Innocence. When man was entrusted with care of the Garden of Eden, he failed in the midst of that care. God put him out of the Garden of Eden after an accounting, just as the steward was removed from responsibility. And God instituted a new method of dealing with man.

An Outline Of The Ages

Go back to Colossians, chapter 1, verse 25, and notice the second word that was brought to our attention:

Colossians 1:

25Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;
26Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:

Notice the word ages . This is the second word which is used throughout the Old and New Testaments to describe this period of time which we have referred to as a dispensation . This word ages is a translation of the Greek word aion . The Hebrews spoke of it as a messianic period, present or future. The New Testament uses this Greek word to describe periods of time—past, present, and future. Notice verse 26 again:

Colossians 1:

26Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages…

That is speaking of the ages past. Paul was writing in the Old Testament period of time, but he said, “I've got a mystery—a secret, a revelation—which men in past ages didn't know.” He declared in that statement that God dealt with men on the basis of periods of time known as ages.

Turn, please, to Ephesians, chapter 2, and notice verse 4:

Ephesians 2:

4but God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us,
5even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
6and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:

Notice verse 7 particularly:

Ephesians 2:

7That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.

In Colossians 1:26, he speaks of the ages past. In Ephesians 2:7, he speaks of the ages yet to come. In the light of this passage of Scripture, how could anyone honestly say that God does not deal with men on the basis of dispensations and on the basis of ages?

I heard someone say recently that dispensationalism couldn't be true because no one had ever heard of it until the eighteenth century. We will grant you that men did not emphasize it in any great detail until the eighteenth century, as far as Protestant pulpits were concerned, but to say that dispensationalism was not heard of until the eighteenth century shows a crass ignorance of the Word of God. We are told in God's Word that God planned it that way from the very beginning.

Turn, please to the book of Hebrews, chapter 1, and notice verse 1:

Hebrews 1:

1God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
2Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

You will notice a division of time in these two verses. In times past, God did one thing; in the present time, God is doing something else. That's the thought. Notice that last statement, “by whom also he made the worlds.” Look at the word worlds . It is the translation of our word aion , except it is in the plural. It could just as well be translated “ages.” Christ made the ages. And the word made could be translated by the word appointed . Here is a plain statement from the Word of God that God, in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, outlines the ages in which He was going to deal with men.

Turn, please, to chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews and notice a similar statement in verse 3:

Hebrews 11:

3Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

Look at the word worlds . It's our Greek word aion again, which is translated “ages.” What are we reading? We understand by faith that the ages were framed by the Word of God, at the Word of God. The word framed means “bounded,” “outlined,” “encircled.” God blueprinted the ages before they ever started. So for an individual to say that the teaching of dispensationalism couldn't be true because no one emphasized it until eighteenth century shows a crass ignorance of the Word of God. God says in His Word that He purposely outlined ages through which the world would go, and the only way that we can understand God's Word is to understand His reference to the ages.

Personality Emphasized

The third word of the four which is presented is the word generation . This word is a translation of the Greek word genea , and it refers to an age or a period of time with the personal element emphasized. Dispensation refers to the manner in which God works. >Age refers to the period in which God works. Generation is a word to describe the periods of time with emphasis upon personality.

Turn, please, to chapter 12 of the Gospel according to Matthew. You will notice the Lord Jesus Christ is speaking in this portion of the Word of God concerning personal responsibility. The Lord Jesus Christ says in verse 34:

Matthew 12:

34O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
35A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.
36But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
37For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
38Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.
39But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:
40For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
41The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.
42The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.

Four times over the word generation , which is the translation of the Greek word genea , is presented in this passage of Scripture to refer to a period of time then present. The Lord Jesus Christ says, “This generation in which I live—this age of which I am a part—is an age that some day is going to have to account to God for their failure and responsibility to take advantage of the things that were offered them.”

Importance Of Understanding Dispensations

That generation failed when they turned their back on the Lord Jesus Christ. We will discover as we pursue this study that each period of time began with a great opportunity and ended in dismal failure.

Someone hearing me say that may say, “But that puts God in a bad light. It looks as though God failed. It looks as though God didn't know for sure what to try, so He said, “I'll try this,” and that didn't work so He said, “I'll try something else.'”

Oh no. Keep in mind that before the ages ever began, the Lord Jesus Christ outlined them. He knew what was going to happen before it occurred so that men in every age might come face-to-face with their responsibilities. They could accept them; they could reject them. If they accepted them, there was blessing. If they rejected them, there was punishment. Each dispensation had its own opportunity and responsibility.

The reason it is so important to rightly divide the Word of Truth is that if you are reading in your Bibles something that is related to one dispensation and you try to apply it to the dispensation in which you live, there will be confusion. That's the reason there are so many strange ideas delivered from our pulpits in the land today. Men have not learned to rightly divide the Word of Truth. Confusion is the result.


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