A dispensation is a way of ordering periods of time during which man is taught to respect the will and purpose of God. We know from Scripture that God does not change. However, God, in his great wisdom, has the right to change the way he operates in the world. In Scripture, we observe seven ordered and connected time periods of God dealing with man throughout history, but these are not seven different ways of salvation. God may deal with man differently based on circumstances and the progressive nature of divine revelation, but his method of saving man always remains the same.
During each of these seven dispensations, God establishes his relationship with human beings based upon grace through faith, without any contribution of human merit (Eph. 2:8, 9). In other words, he reveals his grace to man, creating faith in the heart and, thereby, bringing him to eternal salvation. In the Mosaic dispensation, for example, he used law to show the sinfulness and depravity of man, but he never used law as a means of justification. Even under the law, the just lived by faith (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17). Throughout the great “week” of human history, God shows his glory in different ways, as he showed his glory differently in each day of the creation week. Except for the Sabbath, he was always creating new life. Likewise, in each dispensation, God is creating spiritual life through faith in his holy word.
We call the first dispensation, “Innocence”, because man was created and placed in the Garden of Eden without the presence of sin (Gen. 1:28; 2:8). He was not compelled to sin but, after he was tempted by the serpent, he succumbed to temptation and fell. This period ended with expulsion from Eden and the introduction of the earth’s curse (Gen 3:17 – 24). By slaying animals to create clothing for Adam and Eve, God showed that without the shedding of innocent blood, there can be no covering for the shameful sin of man (Gen. 3:21).
The second dispensation is known as “Conscience” or “Moral Responsibility”. Having become like God in knowing good and evil, man was burdened with the responsibility of practicing good through the choosing of what is right. It is also evident that man was expected to practice blood sacrifices in anticipation of the coming sacrifice of the perfect Lamb of God, Jesus Christ (Gen. 4:4; Heb. 12:24). Once again, man fell short of God’s glory during the second dispensation (Gen. 6:5).
It ended with the flood, but man still had a moral responsibility to God as he added further revelation in succeeding ages.
We call the third dispensation, “Human Government”, because it details the delegation of God’s authority to man. Through civil government, God instituted a structured relationship between men. As God indicated to Noah, government’s highest function is the protection of human life (Gen. 9:5, 6). Restraint from evil would no longer be a matter of internal conscience as integrity would now be a matter of enforcement by men God has placed in authority (cf. Jn. 19:11; Rom. 13:1 – 6). This dispensation ended as man, under the leadership of Nimrod, boldly attempted to usurp God as King of creation (Gen. 10:8 – 10; 11:1 – 4). To prevent man from building a tower to the heavens, God scattered humanity by confounding language at Shinar, in the City of Babel (Gen. 11:5 – 8). From there, man spread over all the face of the earth and will remain scattered until the Lord’s final advent.
The fourth dispensation, the era of “Promise”, is so coined because it details the calling of Abram (later renamed, Abraham) and the unconditional pledge of blessings to him and his descendants after him. Some label it, “Family”, or, “The Patriarchal Age”, because God spoke directly to the fathers at that time, rather than through chosen prophets among the people. God promised Abraham that his name would be great, that he would be the father of a great nation, that all nations would be blessed through him, and that he would be the recipient of the whole land of Canaan as an “everlasting possession” (Gen. 12:2; 13:14 – 17; 15:1 – 7; 18, 19; 17:1 – 7).
This is where most of Christianity has become confused and misunderstand the promise. Today, the popular view holds that Abraham has already received all the promises God made to him, in a figurative sense, and there will be no personal inheritance of the land. However, the Bible teaches us that Abraham has not yet received his inheritance. Stephen’s inspired statement that Abraham has never received “even a foot’s length” of the promised land should be enough to end all debate (Acts 7:5). There can be no doubt that Abraham and his offspring will “inherit the world” and dwell upon it during the earth’s final dispensation, the Millennial Kingdom (Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:9, 15 – 18, 29).
The fifth dispensation is called “Law” for obvious reason. It begins with God giving his law to Israel through the prophet, Moses. As a result of transgressions, the physical descendants of Abraham would be placed under the very precise, disciplinary standard of God (Gal. 3:19). The law teaches the absolute holiness of God, the exceeding wickedness of sin, the importance of submission to God’s will, the universality of man’s failure, and the goodness of God’s grace. It also reveals the importance of God’s covenant people to God (Exo. 19:5, 6). Law did not change anything about the promises of God to Abraham, even though Israel failed to obey it (Dan. 9:4 – 11). It served as a tutor to bring Israel, and the whole world, to faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24).
The sixth dispensation is known as, “The Age of Grace”. It begins in the Book of Acts, but it was proclaimed in advance by Jesus in the form of parables (Matt. 13:1 – 52). He promised that he would build his Church upon the “rock” of Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15 – 18). Baptism in the Holy Spirit would place living believers into the Church, where there is salvation, the forgiveness of sins (Lk. 3:16; Acts 1:4, 5; 2:38, 39; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:7). Therefore, this dispensation is also called, “The Church Age”. The emphasis is on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s complete work on the cross. The Age of Grace will end abruptly with a series of prophesied events including, the Lord’s coming for his Church (the Rapture), the judgments of the tribulation period and the glorious return of Christ to this earth.
The seventh and final dispensation is called, “The Millennial Kingdom”. It will be a time of righteous rule, world-wide peace and glorious exaltation for the resurrected people of God (Isa. 2:1 – 4; 11:1 – 9; Jer. 23:5, 6; 33:14 – 16; Mic. 4:1 – 4). It begins with a great battle and the magnificent restoration of Israel, so that Gentile nations may flow into Jerusalem and bring honor and glory to Christ the King (Amos 9:11 – 15; Acts 15:14 – 17). Jesus, along with his kingdom of Jewish and Gentile kings, will reign in righteousness over all the earth (Matt. 19:28; 25:31, 32; Rev. 1:6; 2:26, 27; 3:21; 5:10; 11:15; 20:4 – 6).
Unlike the Age of Grace, the Millennial Kingdom is entirely future from our perspective. Since it contains the final thousand years of ordered, world history, it is called “the Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). After almost 6,000 years since creation, we are fast approaching the coming of Christ and the Sabbath dispensation, which is known, throughout prophecy, as, “the Day of the Lord” (Joel 1:15; 2 Pet. 3:10).
Hosea’s prophecy indicates the Lord will return after two “days” of Jewish rejection of Messiah, or around two thousand years after his first advent (Hos. 5:15 – 6:3). All signs point to the soon fulfilment of Hosea’s prophecy, when the Jews will finally acknowledge Christ as King and his kingdom will be established over all the earth for the final “Day” of world history (Heb. 10:25). The Old and New Testament prophets foretell Israel’s national repentance, which must take place before the Lord’s return (Zech. 12:10; Matt. 23:37 – 39; Acts 3:19 – 21; Rom. 11:23 – 29).
In the Millennium, the gospel of peace will be declared everywhere and there will be world-wide recognition of Jesus Christ as “the prince of peace” and “Lord of all” (Isa. 9:6; Acts 10:36). His greatness will reach the ends of the earth (Psa. 2:8 – 12; Mic. 5:4). Yet, the glory of the Millennium will not surpass his eternal reign in “new heavens and new earth”. The end of the Millennium will usher in a suitable dwelling place for God and man to live together in a perfect paradise of everlasting bliss (Rom. 8:19 – 23; 2 Pet. 3:10 – 13; Rev. 21:1 – 5).
We should be thankful that God has gradually revealed his plan, over a series of dispensations, to restore fellowship with man in new creation. We know more than previous generations could have ever known about God’s plan for “peace on earth, good will toward men” (Lk. 2:14). We must acknowledge God’s grace and approach him in faith, as believers of previous dispensations have done. In our case, we do so by repenting of our sins, being baptized in water and walking in the truth. All believers who do this will receive the Holy Spirit as “the gift” and “guarantee” of inheritance until the Lord comes and the final dispensation begins (Acts 2:38; Eph. 1:13, 14). Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! – MAH