A dispensation is a period of time in which God has given responsibility to a particular corporate group of people on the earth. This group is specifically chosen by God to represent Him, testifying of His glory. God looks for obedience to His will in this representation. Dispensations may not be precise as to their beginning or ending time, and usually will have a period of transition when one ends and another begins. But the central feature of all dispensations is the principle of human responsibility (duty) looked at by God. The Creator expects obedience of the creature to His will.
Every dispensation begins with a distinctive manifestation of the glory of God, His sovereign work and grace displayed. A corporate body chosen by God is given responsibility to care for the work and to testify of it before the world. However, mankind’s fallen nature always is the cause of decline from the practical faith associated with the original display of divine glory, which eventually results in the corruption, ruin, and apostasy of the corporate group. The dispensation continues by the mercy and long-suffering of God. Eventually the corruption of the group ripens to its full, and God brings in judgment. However, the judgment of God will always be preceded by testimony, that they who have ears to hear may escape the judgment. This judgment from God brings an end to the dispensation.
This was the course or pattern of the Jewish dispensation, which ended with the rejection of Jesus Christ as Messiah by the Jews and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The Christian dispensation, that which we are presently in, hasn’t fared any better. It follows the same course of failure as the Jewish dispensation. It only continues in the mercy and long-suffering of God (II Pet. 3:8–9).
Consequently, dispensations fail due to human responsibility, and this, usually at the outset of the dispensation. The dispensation carries on in the patience and mercy of God, until His long-suffering is exhausted, and the evil has been filled up. All dispensations end by judgment from God for the evil. Every dispensation ends in failure and judgment from God, every single one except the last dispensation, which will be held up and sustained by the power of God in the perfect and glorified Son of Man physically present on the earth.
There is one more characteristic needed to be discussed. Above we have mostly spoken of the defining characteristics of individual dispensations and their general course or pattern. But a proper dispensational system, in its entirety, will itself have a defining characteristic (other than being a theological system simply based on divisions of time). A genuine system of dispensations will be founded on either one of the following two biblical principles.
1. God’s corporate calling: This is the system we present in most of the chapters of this book. Apart from individual calling, there are only two corporate callings found in Scripture – that of Israel and the church. This leads to just three dispensations in a proper system as we will see in the following chapters.
2. God’s government of the earth: This system is slightly different from the one based on corporate calling, although it is equally easy to see from Scripture. It also has just three dispensations in which God recognizes two distinct groups associated with His government of the earth – Jews and Gentiles. As a system, it is less elaborate or involved than one based on calling. Therefore, its explanation of Scripture is less comprehensive and satisfying (this system is discussed in the last chapter of this book).
The importance of this point cannot be over-emphasized. Proper dispensationalism will be a theological system where the entirety of that system is based on just one biblical principle. The two principles mentioned above are the only ones that can be seen in Scripture associated with corporate bodies/groups that God chose. (This critical characteristic is missing from most revised and contemporary dispensational systems.)
There are only three dispensations in Scripture which fit the definitions discussed above and carry enough weight to be of significance. The greater part of God’s word refers to these three. In studying Scripture, and in any of our efforts to rightly divide the word of truth, it is of the utmost importance to develop the proper understanding of these successive dispensations. Not just their span of time on the timeline of human history, but a comprehension of God’s peculiar ways of dealing with man in each one. From the book of Exodus to the book of Revelation we can draw a timeline which would contain only these three dispensations. [As we explained in the previous chapter, the book of Genesis introduces all God’s biblical principles which are intricate in the progression of the dispensations] They are not difficult to see in Scripture. With only three to learn, it provides us with a simple way of dividing Scripture and acquiring sound doctrine and theology.
What are the Three Dispensations?
• The Jewish Dispensation – Israel (corporate body). God recognizes the corporate calling of Israel.
• The Christian Dispensation – Christendom (corporate body). God recognizes the corporate calling of the church.
• The Millennium – Jesus Christ, the glorified Son of Man, ruling and reigning on the earth. God again recognizes the corporate calling of Israel and brings an elect remnant of Jews back to the Promised land. Israel will be restored and become the most exalted nation on the earth, the Gentile nations gathered unto them for blessing.