Dispensations - A Short Review (2)

Leslie Wells

We have very briefly tried to establish in Part 1 the base for reviewing the doctrine of the dispensations. We read all the Word of God in its simple, plain meaning. We of course understand that God has sometimes used figures of speech, such as comparing one thing to another( a simile) or saying that one thing is another ( a metaphor), and many other commonly known and expressive ways of communicating to us. Secondly, if we so read and understand the Word, we can arrive at no other conclusion than that God makes a distinction between Israel and the Church. In this article let us advance towards actually considering the foundation for dispensations.

Does God Relate in Various Ways with Men?

Surely, some will say, if God is the great unchangeable and eternal God, He will never change in His dealings with men. He will always act towards them in the same manner. Yes, that is true as to His character. He is unchangeable, holy, just, true, loving and gracious. But His methods of relating to mankind vary according to His sovereign will. Have we any simple evidence of that? In answer let us consider some well-known passages. In John 1: 17 we read, " The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." God, then, has dealt with men by the law in the past. Now He is dealing by grace and truth. Hebrews 1: 1 and 2 clearly states, "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son." In other words, God related to the patriarchs and Israel in the past through the prophets, but now He has changed in that He speaks by the instrumentality of His Son. Acts 17: 30 tells us that "the time of this ignorance (i.e, past Gentile history) God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent." So God "overlooked" (RV) Gentile behavior in the past. Vine in his dictionary says that "God bore with them without interposing by way of judgement." But now God orders all mankind to repent and turn to Him. God has changed His dealings with the Gentile world. These three passages are enough to establish the fact that God does change His way of dealing with the human race. If he does that, can we then discover from the written Word indications of what these changes are? If so, then we have established the truth of dispensations.

The Meaning of the Word "Dispensation"

Before we proceed to find out what God's various ways with humanity are, let us look at the word "dispensation." Is it a Bible word? What is its meaning? Firstly, it most certainly is a Scriptural word. The original Greek word is used 7 times in the New Testament. Secondly, 5 times it is translated as "dispensation" and 3 times as " stewardship. " In fact we derive our word 'economy' from this Greek word. Luke uses this word with the meaning of a stewardship in his account of the Lord's parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:2-4). The four other times it is used all occur in Paul's epistles, (1 Corinthians 9:17; Ephesians 1: 10, 3:2; Colossians 1:25).

Luke gives us the basic meaning of this word in reporting the Lord's parable. It means "management of a household or household affairs, management, administration of the property of others. " (Vine's Dictionary). Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:17, "a dispensation of the gospel has been committed to me," or as the RV says "I have a stewardship entrusted to me." Paul has been entrusted with the message he carries and, in declaring it, he is acting for another, that is, for the Lord Himself. To Him Paul is responsible. In Ephesians 3:2, the word is used of Paul to whom was given a stewardship to unfold the truth of the Church; in Colossians 1:25 it is his stewardship to declare fully the revelations from God, in actual fact the one about the Church, the body of Christ. In Ephesians 1: 10 the word is applied to the way God will administer the future universe.

We should be able to grasp now what the Scriptural sense of the word "dispensation" really is. The use of this word among assemblies comes close to its usage in Ephesians 1: 10. A "dispensation" is the fact that God gives man the responsibility to act as His steward on earth. God tells him what His will is and expects man to administer faithfully what He has committed to him. Man is then responsible to God for his discharge of the revealed divine will. If he fails as steward, man can expect his removal from his charge and consequent chastisement. Thus the word "dispensation" does NOT mean a period of time, an age. That is an abuse of its biblical meaning. Perhaps one could use it in a very secondary way in that sense. One is talking, in that case, rather of the time period in which a certain dispensation is working. But, let us emphasize, that is not its first and Scriptural meaning.

Discovering God's Ways of Dealing with Men.

If it is true that God has varied His ways of relating to the human race, can we discover what these may be in the Word of God? We believe that earnest students, taking the Bible in its plain meaning, have done so already. Indeed even in the time of the so-called Church fathers, we can perceive that the idea of dispensations had already been born. Any interested person can find the sources. They have been researched in the writings of Justin Martyr and of Irenaeus, both of the second century. We are not saying that they had grasped the fully developed form in which this doctrine is found today. But the concept had already occurred to their minds and they used it in defending the truth of Christianity. Here and there the idea of varied divine dealings emerges through the centuries. By the end of the 17th century the same thought came to the surface again and began to develop. We are the heirs of those searchings of the Word. What then did Bible students see to bring them to hold the doctrine of dispensations?

First of all we cannot read much of the New Testament before we see that God dealt with Israel through the law. But now God is dealing on the grounds of grace with all nations, including with Jews as individuals. See the epistle of Galatians. We have then already established two dispensations at least. We no longer worship God at Jerusalem only and do not bring our sacrifice. We no longer observe the Sabbath as did the Jews. We read in the Old Testament how Israel will be the first nation in the world, that the Gentiles will come to Jerusalem to worship and that Messiah will reign over the whole Earth. In the New we learn of the thousand years of Christ's reign. That is a different way for God to deal with humanity, hence it is a different and a third dispensation. Go to Genesis and notice how God related to Adam at the start of creation. It was unlike either law or grace or the millennium. We have clearly a fourth dispensation.

There remains the period from the fall to the law. Did God deal with humanity in the same manner throughout? We may say with certainty that something changed at the time of the flood. How God dealt with men before the flood was altered after the flood. The Lord began relating to Adam from the Fall through his conscience. He acted the same way with Cain. In addition, He did not allow others to kill Cain because of his murder of Abel. But after the flood, He instructed Noah, and his posterity, as to their responsibility to execute the murderer. He introduced other changes concerning their food. We have no difficulty, then, in seeing 2 more dispensations, one before and up to the flood and another after the flood. The ruin of the tower of Babel was also a landmark event in the story of mankind. God had worked with peoples and new emerging nations from the flood to Babel.

The scriptures now turn in another direction to show us his dealings with Abraham and his family. That went on until that family grew to become a people and on the Passover night it was born as a nation. Hence the story of the Bible presents us with another divine way of relating to man. Through Abraham all nations would be blessed. God held relationship with the peoples of the world through one family, that of Abraham. At the time of the law, He was to relate to a new nation, Israel, who had now made a covenant with Him. So from Babel to the law we observe another dispensation, the seventh. In order, the seven are the dispensations of Innocence, of Conscience, of Human Responsibility or Human Government, of Patriarchal Promise, of Law, of Grace and of the Thousand year Earthly Reign of Christ, called normally the Millennium.

- To be continued