Dispensations Defined
Dr. Joe Temple

Review

We will be pointing your attention to several passages of Scripture as we continue our discussion of dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a segment of systematic theology. It is a method of the interpretation of the Scriptures. It is a method of rightly dividing the Word of Truth on the basis of dispensations.

We discovered by examining the Scriptures that the word dispensation is described in the Scriptures by three different English words which have their origin in three different Greek words. In the first chapter of the Colossian letter, verses 25-26, are found the words dispensation , age , and generation . We noticed the manner in which they are used in the Scriptures, and we said that no one could arrive at any better definition of a dispensation that the definition we find in the notes of a Scofield Bible.

Keep in mind that, according to the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible, a dispensation is a period of time in which man is tested in respect to obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Fix that firmly in our minds. A dispensation is a period of time in which man is tested in respect to obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. That revelation of the will of God, in most instances, can be described in the terms of stewardship committed to man for a certain period of time as a responsibility. At the conclusion of that stated period of time, man will be called to an accounting as to how he has discharged that stewardship.

Number Of Dispensations

What are the dispensations? If you have seen the notes of a Scofield Bible, you would probably say, “That's simple. Here they are.” And that would satisfy you. But it might not satisfy the people with whom you might discuss the subject. I never like for people who sit under my ministry to be able to only discuss what they believe. I like for them to know what is presented by others so that their views will not come as a complete surprise to them.

Let me suggest to you that there are a variety of opinions as to what the dispensations are. There are a variety of opinions as to how many dispensations there are. The very simplest opinion is expressed in the Gospel of John, chapter 1.

Let me remind you that there are varying degrees of dispensationalism. Everyone who believes the Bible is a dispensationalist in one sense of the word. For a man to say that he is a dispensationalist would not necessarily mean that he would agree with everything I am going to say. Nor would it mean that he would agree with what you might think you believe about Dispensationalism. Look at verse 15 of John, chapter 1:

John 1:

15John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.
16And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.

Notice verse 17 especially:

John 1:

17For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

Verse 17 suggests that there are only two dispensations. One of them is the Dispensation of Law; the other is the Dispensation of Grace. Some people speak of them even more simply by referring to the Old Testament and to the New Testament. And that is their extent of endorsement of dispensationalism.

If I were to be asked if I believed in two dispensations I would have to say, “Yes, I do. I believe in the Dispensation of Law and I believe in the Dispensation of Grace.” Keep in mind that a dispensation is a period of time in which man is tested in relation to his responsibility to certain revealed truth. Men were tested under the Law and men are tested under Grace.

Another suggestion concerning the number of dispensations is that there are not two, but there are three: the Dispensation of Law, the Dispensation of Grace, and the Dispensation of the Millennial Kingdom. For Scriptural verification of that, John chapter 1, verse 17, is used and coupled with Ephesians, chapter 1, verse 10. Turn there in your Bibles, please, and see it with your own eyes. Mark it in your Bible for future reference from time-to-time. In Ephesians, chapter 1, notice verse 8:

Ephesians 1:

8Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence;
9Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself:

Notice verse 10 very carefully:

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:

The Scriptures call this period of time the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times . The majority of Bible scholars think that this verse of Scripture refers to the millennial kingdom which Christ will establish on the earth. So there are three dispensations and with that I would have to agree: the Dispensation of Law, the Dispensation of Grace, and the Dispensation of the Millennial Kingdom. Keep in mind that we are suggesting there are a variety of opinions about the dispensations.

It would be well to remember that some people say there are not two dispensations; there are not three dispensations, but there are four dispensations. They describe those dispensations as the Dispensation of Law, the Dispensation of Grace, the Dispensation of the Millennial Kingdom, and the Dispensation of the Eternal State.

You already have John, chapter 1, verse 17, for the dispensations of Law and Grace, Ephesians chapter 1, verse 10, for the Dispensation of the Millennial Kingdom, and for the Dispensation of the Eternal State your attention is directed to what is recorded in Paul's first Corinthian letter, chapter 15. Chapter 15 is a description of the Resurrection and the order which will be followed in that Resurrection. In verse 19, the Apostle says:

I Corinthians 15:

19If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
20But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
21For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
22For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
23But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.

Notice verse 24 now:

I Corinthians 15:

24Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power.

Notice particularly the last part of the verse. There is a period of time coming when the Lord Jesus Christ will deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father, and that will occur when He has put down all authority and all power. Those of you who are familiar with your Bibles know that the last rebellion against the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ will occur at the end of the millennial reign on the earth, and so the eternal state will begin. There are those dispensationalists who feel that there are four dispensations.

Three Distinctive Characteristics

This is a brief survey of dispensationalism as you find it as a segment of systematic theology. From this point on, we are going to specialize and remind you that all dispensationalists are not dispensationalists as you are, or as I am. There are three distinctive characteristics for dispensationalists of the kind that I am and the kind of dispensationalism which I have taught you from time to time. I mention them so that you will be able to classify yourself or perhaps those with whom you speak.

Difference Between Israel And The Church

The first characteristic is that dispensationalists such as I recognize that there is a definite difference between the Church and the nation of Israel. Fix that firmly in your minds. When you read of Israel in your Bible you are reading of Israel, and you are not reading of the Church. When you read of the Church in your Bible, you are not reading of Israel; you are reading of the Church. The church of the Old Testament does not exist if you follow this interpretation of dispensationalism. The nation of Israel exists, but the Church did not begin until the day of Pentecost.

Literal Interpretation Of The Scriptures

Another characteristic is that dispensationalists such as I follow a literal interpretation of the Scriptures where such an interpretation is indicated in the context. I want you to understand that, because I don't want you to misquote me on it. Yes, I am a literalist. I believe in the literal interpretation of the Scriptures, but I recognize even in the midst of the literalness of the Word of God that there are symbols and there are signs. Symbols and signs should be recognized as such when they are found. But no one should spiritualize the literal meaning of the Scriptures when there is no reason to do so.

I repeat, a dispensationalist such as I will recognize that there is a difference between Israel and the Church, and they will recognize the literal interpretation of the Scriptures when the context indicates that such a course should be followed.

Ultimate Purpose Of God

The third characteristic will make a significant difference for dispensationalists such as I do not believe that the salvation of man is the ultimate purpose of God. Dispensationalists such as I believe that the ultimate purpose of God with man is the glory of God. And there is a vast difference. If you believe that the ultimate purpose of God in relation to man is only salvation, then there is a great body of Scriptural truth for which you have no explanation. But if you believe that the ultimate purpose of God in relation to man is God's glory, then you have an explanation for all that happens in the Scriptures.

Seven Dispensations

In view of that statement, I am going to say to you that if you accept this interpretation, you will have to realize that there are more than two dispensations, more than three, more than four. I think you will have to settle for seven. You might settle for eight, but certainly not less than seven. I am not particularly concerned what you call them. I don't know that you could improve on the terms which are used in the notes of a Scofield Bible. I see no particular reason to change those terms since they have done a good job all down through the years.

If there are seven dispensations, we would have to recognize that one of the four which we mentioned earlier—the Eternal State—could not be a dispensation in the light of the definition which I gave you. The Eternal State is not a time in which man will be tested according to a specific revelation of God. The Eternal State is a time when it is all finished, and we enjoy that for which we have been redeemed.

I suggest to you that the seven dispensations certainly include some of these which I have already suggested to you as some that are taught in the Scriptures. But they go beyond that. For example, dispensationalists such as I would be willing to accept the Dispensation of Law, but they would recognize that in order to correctly understand everything that occurs in the Old Testament, the Dispensation of Law would have to be expanded to include three other periods of testing. And dispensationalists such as I would be willing to accept the Dispensation of Grace, but they would realize it would have to be expanded to include another period of time that would not necessarily be a dispensation in itself but certainly must be included in the thinking of men if they are going to correctly understand the subject.

In preparation for this series of messages, I want to tell you what these dispensations are; and then as the Lord permits, we will discuss them in later lessons to find out what bearing they have on the human race.

First Dispensation - Innocence

The first dispensation to which I call your attention is called the Dispensation of Innocence . The Dispensation of Innocence is characterized by a verse of Scripture found in the first chapter of the book of Genesis, verse 28. Recognize that we are giving you a characteristic verse of the dispensation—not all of the Scriptures related to it, not all of it that will present the entire matter, but a characteristic verse of the dispensation. In Genesis, chapter 1, after God had created man, He says, in verse 28:

Genesis 1:

28And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

If you think about this verse for a moment, you will recognize that God created a perfect world, and He placed man in that perfect world and said, “Everything is under your control.” And man lived for a period of time in such an atmosphere as that. His was the Dispensation of Innocence in that he knew not sin, and he knew not a world that had been marked by sin.

If we wanted to speak hypothetically, we could suggest to you that if man had not failed in this dispensation, the world would have remained as it was after God's restoration to perfection. A very normal question in the minds of men is: “Well, then we wouldn't be here, would we?” Unthinking man relate the procreation of the human race to sin, and there is no such suggestion in the Bible. God commanded men to replenish the earth, literally “fill the earth.” It doesn't mean there was someone here beforehand, necessarily. God commanded man to fill the earth, and just because the first record of any offspring is reserved until after man is excluded from the Garden is no reason to think that the race could not have procreated before the Fall. This is the Dispensation of Innocency.

Second Dispensation - Conscience

The second dispensation which we will be discussing is found in chapter 6 of the book of Genesis. For want of a better term, we will refer to it as the Dispensation of Conscience. The characteristic verse of this Dispensation of Conscience is verse 5 of Genesis, chapter 6:

Genesis 6:

5And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

This is a characteristic verse of the Dispensation of Conscience, because man lived according to the thoughts of his heart. He lived according to the moving of his conscience, and when God looked upon the human race, which lived according as its conscience dictated, He could see nothing but wickedness. A New Testament comment on the Dispensation of Conscience, as far as characterization is concerned, is in chapter 2 of the book of Romans. You might like to turn there and see what the Spirit of God says about the people who lived during this period of time and followed their consciences. In Romans, chapter 2, notice verse 15:

Romans 2:

15Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)

It was as though God said to man after he failed in the Dispensation of Innocence, “If you don't want to do what I want you to do, you do what you want to do and see how you fare.” Man was tested under the responsibility of conscience. He could do as his conscience led him to do. Did he pass the test or did he fail? The answer will be self-evident as we continue this discussion. But let me say, for the sake of clarity, that he failed, as he has failed in every dispensation in which he has been.

I would like for you to recognize something to keep in mind with the rest of these dispensations. When the Dispensation of Innocence ended, it ended. It has never continued even for half a second. But the Dispensation of Conscience, though it came to a dismal end, still continues in a sense. Men do have consciences, and men are guided by their consciences. It would be wise for us to emphasize that your conscience is not a safe guide. Men are guided, nevertheless, by such consciences.

Third Dispensation - Human Government

The third dispensation which we will be considering is the Dispensation of Human Government. Some people refer to it as Civil Government . The characteristic verse is found in chapter 9 of the book of Genesis:

Genesis 9:

1And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
2And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.
3Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.
4But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.

Notice carefully verses 5 and 6:

Genesis 9:

5And 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.
6Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

Verse 6 is the Scriptural grounds for capital punishment. God committed civil government to men, and He emphasized final, climactic rule of human authority by instituting capital punishment. I will say, though it may be a slight digression in our discussion, that as countries continue to revoke capital punishment, authority will fail. There will be nothing left but civil disobedience, for this is what the Word of God declares.

Fourth Dispensation - Promise

The next dispensation which we will be discussing is the Dispensation of Promise. The key verse of Scripture is in chapter 12 of the book of Genesis, when God found a man by the name of Abraham and gave him a promise. Notice verse 1:

Genesis 12:

1Now 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:
2And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:
3And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

This was a promise to Abraham, and the promise given to Abraham names this particular dispensation. I suggested to you that the Dispensation of Conscience continues. The Dispensation of Human Government continues in a sense, and the Dispensation of Promise continues in a sense, for God is not through with the nation of Israel.

Fifth Dispensation - Law

Turn, please, to chapter 19 of the book of Exodus, as I remind you that the fifth dispensation is the Dispensation of Law. It is called the Dispensation of Law because of what we find in Exodus, chapter 19, where God gave to Moses the Law of God and encouraged the people to obey the Law. The nation of Israel accepted the Law of God and promised they would obey the Law no matter what the cost might be. Notice, please, verse 14 of Exodus, chapter 19:

Exodus 19:

14And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes.
15And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives.
16And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.
17And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.

The story of God's giving the Law from Mount Sinai that rocked with thunder and fire characterized this that is known as the Dispensation of Law .

You will recognize that we said, in the beginning of our discussion, that most people believe in the Dispensation of Law, and they do. We have amplified it to include the Dispensation of Innocence, the Dispensation of Conscience, the Dispensation of Human Government, and the Dispensation of Promise.

Sixth Dispensation - Grace

The Dispensation of Law is followed by the Dispensation of Grace. The key verse is in the Gospel according to John, chapter 1, verse 17. Notice the verse, please:

John 1:

17For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

We are living in the Dispensation of Grace, reaping all the benefits of the blessings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Seventh Dispensation - Kingdom

The seventh and the last dispensation is the Dispensation of the Kingdom, and the key verse for it is in Ephesians, chapter 1, verse 10. We read:

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:

In the Dispensation of he Fulness of Times, the Lord Jesus Christ will be supreme in relation to His rule of the world and the needs of men.

Tribulation In Relation To Dispensations

Those of you who are familiar with the terminology of the Scriptures recognize another term which we have not discussed in the immediate discussion other than what we said in the very beginning,. And that is the term “Tribulation.” Where does this period of time, lasting seven years, come in dispensational teaching? Some people think that the dispensation should be an eighth one, the Tribulation being the seventh of eight dispensations, coming between Grace and the Kingdom. Others believe that this period of time, the Tribulation, is a reversion to the Dispensation of Law as though God has a Dispensation of Law, then a Dispensation of Grace, and then reverts to the Dispensation of Law and then to the Dispensation of the Kingdom.

It is a distinct period all by itself. I prefer to think of it as part of the Dispensation of Grace, because, even though God's judgment will be put out upon the earth in an immeasurable manner, grace will still be operating because men will come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, there will be more people saved during this seven year period—if we wanted to be very specific, more people saved during only half of that period—than in all the rest of human history put together.

The reason that men feel that this should not be part of the Dispensation of Grace is that somehow they have arrived at the conclusion that the Holy Spirit will not be operating in this hour. That is an erroneous conclusion which is based upon the suggestion that the Holy Spirit indwells the Church and when the Church is gone the Holy Spirit of necessity must not operate. Examine your Bibles carefully and you will see that though the Holy Spirit is indwelling the Church in this hour, and when the Church is raptured He will have no permanent abiding place upon the earth, it does not follow that He will not be here to do what the Holy Spirit needs to do in relation to the conviction of sin in relation to Jesus Christ and man's need of Him.

Conclusion

I would like to say to you in conclusion that I am a dispensationalist who believes in seven dispensations in which men are put to the test in relation to specific revelation. When we have completed our study of these seven dispensations, I believe that we will have to say from the bottom of our hearts, “To God be the glory!” because man couldn't possibly be worthy of any of it.


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