The Dispensations (Ages of Biblical History – Oikonomia)
Colossians 1:25 (stewardship=”okoinomeō”); Ephesians 1:10; 1 Corinthians 9:17; Luke 16:16
Dr. Roger G. Ford, Ph.D., P.E.
Often, when one is asked about the Dispensations of God, the response is, “What is a dispensation?” The easiest answer is an age or a length of time that God has used to teach mankind a lesson. Formally, the dictionary refers to dispensation in a number of ways from a special permission or release from a rule or a law to an act of providing something to people, dispensing something. It can mean a general state or ordering of things; specifically, a system of revealed commands and promises regulating human affairs or a particular arrangement or provision especially of Providence (God). The best way to look at a dispensation is that it is a scheme over a period of time according to which God carries out his purposes towards men. Systematic Theology, whose author was the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary Lewis Sperry Chafer, views Scripture as an unfolding revelation and doctrine or as a process of on-going “dispensing” of God’s message to man.
Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “In many separate revelations (dispensations) – each of which set forth a portion of the truth – and in different ways God spoke of old to our forefathers in and by the prophets. But in the last of these days He has spoken to us in the person of a Son…”
The Greek word “oikonomia” signifies a disposition of affairs entrusted to one. Thus 1 Corinthians 9:16, 17, the King James Version says, “For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me,” the Revised Version (British and American) “I have stewardship entrusted to me.” In Ephesians 1:10, God’s own working is spoken of as dispensation. “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: that in the dispensation of the fullness 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.”
Later in Ephesians, Paul emphasizes the complete fulfillment of His will in Ephesians 3:1, 2, “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward”. Finally, Paul refers to his ministry as administration of God passed to him and intended to be given to a lost humanity in Colossians 1:25, “Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God”.
Is Dispensationalism necessary for salvation? Of course not! So, why is Dispensationalism important?
- Dispensationalism is a theological approach that teaches Biblical history as a number of successive administrations of God dealing with man
- Dispensationalism maintains fundamental distinctions of the way God deals with different tests for man to consider concerning sin and man’s responsibility for sin
- At each stage of Dispensationalism, man has failed to be obedient to the responsibilities set forth by God mainly because of man’s selfishness
- The method of salvation (justification by faith alone) never changes through all of the dispensations
- However, the responsibilities God gives to man, the questions God places into man’s conscious as to whether man can survive and exist outside of God, does change
Is this concept of the Dispensations anything new? Certainly not! Early church fathers Justin Martyr (2nd century), Iranaeus (2nd century), Clement of Alexandria (late 1st and early 2nd century), and Augustine (late 3rd and early 4th century) all wrote of Dispensationalism. More current and respected church leaders and pastors also wrote extensively on Dispensationalism, men such as Jonathan Edwards (1700s), Isaac Watts (1700s), C.I. Scofield (1800s and early 1900s), Lewis Sperry Chafer (early 1900s), Charles Ryrie (late 1900s and died 2016), Dwight Pentecost (1900s and died 2014), and John Walvoord (1900s and died 2002).
The very foundations of Dispensationalism stem from the Bible and are also the foundations of Christianity:
- A literal interpretation of the Bible in its entirety
- God works in different ways with man in distinct periods of history – example, the Old and New Testaments
- Israel is made up from descendants of Abraham literally not spiritually
- Israel is heir to the promises made to Abraham
- There are two distinct groups in the Bible and in God’s heart – Israel and the Church
- The Church began at Pentecost
- Salvation is by faith in accordance to the revelation given in a particular dispensation
- The Holy Spirit did not indwell permanently in all dispensations – only in the Dispensation of Grace
- Christ will reign in the future 1,000 year period known as the Millennial Kingdom which occurs after the Rapture and the Tribulation
Mankind fell from Grace in the Garden of Eden. As a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, sin and death entered the world. Sin can be thought of as an acronym. Selfish In Nature – SIN. Selfishness characterizes what each of us is born into, the very essence of our infancy is concentrating on what WE want to the exclusion of everyone else. What many refer to as the “age of accountability” is that particular age, and that age can differ from one individual to another, when we as one person standing in the presence of God are held accountable by God for our actions, emotions, spirituality, and behavior. And, as we all know all too well, we search for excuses for our sin if, that is, we are truly aware of hurt to others.
When it comes to God, our excuses do not stop. We still think again selfishly that we can make it on our own. After all, we are good, basically, or the good we do outweighs the bad, right? So, when God says that there is only one way to Him and that way is through His Son, Jesus Christ, we sort of look for other ways that we think are better or more doable, then test them out on God. But, He is way ahead of us. God has from the very beginning been allowing us as a human race, made in His image, to test out all the excuses that we could possible come up with to avoid doing things God’s way.
Those tests that God saw we would ask to go through to prove our worth to Him (which we could never do because He is Holy and we are NOT) is what we call the dispensations. For instance, wouldn’t we think that if we knew EXACTLY what God thought was sin, we could avoid it and be pleasing in His sight? Sorry, He already did that when He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai in Midian (which, by the way, is not in the Sinai Peninsula but in Saudi Arabia in a place the Bible calls Midian). Or, how about this one, if Jesus Himself ruled on Earth and was visible to everyone, we would never do anything to displease Him. Sorry, again, because Revelation 20:7-9 says when Satan is loosed on the Earth after having been bound for a thousand years (while Jesus was ruling IN PERSON on the Earth), literally millions who have witnessed Jesus all their lives during the Millennium will rebel against Jesus and join in with the devil against Him. Of course, their outcome is being burned up by fire Jesus brings down upon them showing us all that even that strong argument against sin doesn’t work either.
There are actually seven dispensations that each answer a different situation or question or excuse that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we cannot please God on our own. Why? Because we are sinners, and Jesus was not a sinner. He lived a perfect life, sin free as a human, so He could sacrifice His perfect human life for us thereby covering our many sins with His shed blood, for the Bible says in Hebrews 9:22 that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood. And, since Jesus’ blood was sin-free, His sacrifice covered all sin, past, present, and future for all men, for all time. The only act on our part is the act of the humility of repentance and acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. Then we know that Jesus was raised from the dead and sits on the right of the Father in Heaven until He comes back for us in the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The seven dispensations are the dispensations of Innocence, Conscience, Human or Civil Government, Promise, Law, Grace, and the Millennial Kingdom.
The accompanying chart shows all seven dispensations and the questions that God answers in each of them. For each dispensation there is listed (1) the people who began the age, (2) the beginning event of the age, (3) the closing event of the age, (4) the Scripture that covers the age, (5) the condition or state of the age, (6) what responsibility God gave the people of the age, (7) what the particular failure was on our part during the age, (8) The judgment of God that resulted because of the sin of the age, (9) the Grace that God intervened with to save His people, (10) the actual question that the age answers, and (11) the dates and duration of each age.
As an example, let’s go through the dispensation of Grace, the dispensation that we are still in at this time in history. We, for the most part, are saved Gentiles. There are, of course, some completed Jews that have found their Messiah, but most Christians today are not Jews, therefor Gentiles. God’s missionary to the Gentiles was Paul who started his ministry very close to the Resurrection. The beginning event of the dispensation of Grace would be Pentecost since we date the beginning of the Church, or everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, to Pentecost when the Holy Spirit indwelt each and every Christian as He does today.
The closing event of the dispensation of Grace will be the Rapture of the Church set to come any day now since the signs of the times and the presence of Israel back in their land are very evident. (See “The Great Mystery”) The Scripture that covers the dispensation of Grace is most of the New Testament from Acts 2:1 to Revelation 3:22. Acts 2:1 is Pentecost and Revelation 3:22 is the last verse before the Rapture represented by Revelation 4:1. The state in which man is found in the dispensation of Grace is as an acknowledged sinner needing a Savior. The responsibility of the sinner, then, is to recognize the sin, believe that Jesus died to forgive that sin, all of it, and live a life pleasing to God in His service.
The failure mode of this dispensation is the rejection of the Truth, namely Jesus, then living in that rejection or in apostasy which is rejection of all things that God wants or demands. God’s judgment for the dispensation of Grace is the second death or spiritual death possibly through what happens in the Tribulation but certainly at Christ’s Second Coming. Grace intervenes in all dispensations because God does not want any to perish (2 Peter 3:9). And God intervenes in the dispensation of Grace with the choice to make Jesus Lord of one’s life and He personally reigns in one’s life.
And, the last description of the dispensation of Grace contains the dates, both start and finish, of the dispensation and the calculation of the duration of the age. In the case of dispensations before the Flood of Noah, those are dated A.M. or Anno Mundi meaning the year of the world from Creation. Other dates are designated the way they should be as B.C. or Before Christ and A.D. or Anno Domini, the year of our Lord. The dispensation of Grace begins about the time of the Resurrection since Pentecost occurred soon after. That was in approximately 28 to 30 A.D. since we know that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. (remember, there is no year zero). Counting from the Creation, that date would correspond to about 4028 to 4030 A.M. The ending date for the dispensation of Grace is approximate since the Rapture has not happened yet. So, let’s assume 2018 to 2020 A.D. or 6018 to 6020 A.M. That would make the duration of the dispensation of Grace to be approximately 1,990 years. Factoring in that a Jewish year was only 360 days and not 365 as ours is today adds another 28 years to the 1990 years resulting in 2,018 years since Jesus’ Resurrection. Interesting because of Hosea 6:2 that says, “After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight”. And, since we know that 2 Peter 3:8 says, “…that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”, then we are essentially in that 3rd day already. The people who are “raised up” from Hosea’s prophecy are Israel and Judah, the Jews. The third day is the Millennium when Jesus does indeed raise up the Jews and all Christians that believe in Him.
These descriptions of all seven Dispensations are in the following chart:
The Dispensations (Ages of Biblical History – Oikonomia)
Colossians 1:25 (stewardship=”okoinomeō”); Ephesians 1:10; 1 Corinthians 9:17; Luke 16:16
|Innocence||Conscience – Romans 2:15||Human Government||Promise||Law||Grace||Millennial Kingdom|
|People Beginning the Age||Adam||Cain – Seth||Noah||Abraham||Moses||Paul||Christ|
|Beginning Event||Creation||The Fall||The Flood||Abraham||Sinai – In Midian||Pentecost||Second Coming|
|Closing Event||The Fall||The Flood||Tower of Babel||Sinai – In Midian||The Resurrection||The Rapture||The Great White Throne|
|Scripture||Gen. 1: 26 – 3:3||Gen. 3:7 – 8:19||Gen. 8:20 – 11:19||Gen. 11:20 – Ex. 19:4||Ex. 19:5 – Acts 1:9||Acts 2:1 – Rev. 3:22||Rev. 20:4|
|State||Nothing said of sin in Gen. 1 & 2||Eyes opened to Knowledge of good and evil – Gen. 3:7||Knew God’s Revelation and were under it – Gen. 9:5,6||Abrahamic Covenant- Gen. 12||Under the Law – Ex., Lev., Deut.||Acknowledge self as sinner – Rom. 3:19,20||Personal Reign of Christ – Rev. 20:6|
|Responsibility||Not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil||Master Sin – Gen. 3:7||Scatter – Gen. 9:5-7||Go to the Promised Land – Gen. 26:1-4||Obey the Law – James 2:10||Believe in Christ – Acts 16:31||Submit to King of Kings and believe Him|
|Failure||Gen. 3:1-6||Gen. 6: 5, 11. 12||Don’t want to scatter -Gen. 11: 1-4||Permissive Will of God – Gen. 46: 1-4||Jer. 11:8||Rejection of Truth – Apostasy||Rev. 20:7-9|
|Judgment||Sin Nature, Death, Expulsion||Flood – Gen. 6:13 forward||Confusion of tongues and dispersion||Bondage and exodus||Dispersion – II Chron. 36:14, Lev. 26: 32-39||Death, Tribulation, 2nd Coming||Great White Throne – Rev. 20:9-15|
|Grace Intervenes||New Chance, Promised Redemption – Gen. 3:15||Noah & family removed from punishment||Abraham chosen||Moses the Redeemer||Savior & Restoration||Personal Reign of Christ||Tests Complete! New Heaven and New Earth|
|Question God Asks||Can I trust you?||Now that you know I mean it, can I trust you?||OK, can you govern and make it without me?||If I promise you to bless you, will you trust in me?||OK, here is exactly what sin is – will you not sin?||Your sins are forgiven, will you accept the gift on faith?||Will you obey if I am actually visible?|
|Dates & Duration
A.M.=Anno Mundi (year of the world)
1 A.M. (~4004 B.C.) to the Fall ~10 A.M.? (~3994 B.C.?)
~10 A.M.? (~3994 B.C.?)
To The Flood 1656 A.M. (~2344 B.C.) [1646 years?]
|End of Flood 1657 A.M. (~2343 B.C.) to Tower 1988 A.M. (~2012 B.C.) [355 years]||Abrahamic Covenant ~2000 A.M. (~2000 B.C.) to Mt Sinai ~2554 A.M.(~1446 B.C.)
|Mt. Sinai ~2554 A.M. (~1446 B.C.) to Resurrection 4028 to 30 (~28 to 30 A.D.
|Resurrection 4028 to 30 A.M. (~28 to 30 A.D.) to Rapture ~6018 to 20 A.M.? (~2018 to 2020 A.D.?) [1990 years]||2nd Coming ~6028 to 30 A.M.? to Great White Throne ~7028 to 30 A.M. (~3028 to 30 A.D.?)
There is another striking example of Dispensationalism in the Word found in Chapters 2 & 3 of the Book of Revelation. There are seven churches Jesus describes and there are four purposes in describing these typical churches of the new Christian Church around 95 A.D. These churches were all located on the West end of Asia Minor within about a hundred mile radius centered around Ephesus. These churches were all around the same age probably having sprung from Paul’s efforts in establishing the church at Ephesus of which he, himself, pastored for about three years around 60 A.D.
These churches and their descriptions by Jesus Himself were accurate and current descriptions of those churches as they existed in the first century. But, the very interesting thing is that those churches exactly trace the characteristics and personality of the Church of Jesus Christ throughout the Dispensation of Grace or the Church Age. The general format for each description of the seven churches in Asia Minor in Chapters 2 and 3 in Revelation is:
- Destination of the letters to these churches, or, in other words, the town the church was located in
- Description of Christ specifically crafted to fit the needs of the church being addressed
- A commendation for that particular church (Laodicea did not get one)
- A rebuke directly from Jesus (Smyrna and Philadelphia did not receive a rebuke)
- An exhortation from the Lord aimed at, again, the specific need of each church
- A promise of blessing from the Lord, again, individualized
Each of the churches in these seven towns in ancient Asia Minor, in sequence, parallel the condition of the Church starting in the first century and culminating in the present time. Each church has a prophetic application to the Church Age that history has proven to be accurate. Here is a listing of each church and the corresponding six descriptions along with the time period represented by that church in the overall Church Age:
First – the church at Ephesus – “Duty Without Love” [temples of Diana and silver house idols of her]
- Destination – Ephesus
- Description of Christ – Jesus is aware of all thoughts and attitudes at all times
- Commendation – zealous in service and works
- Rebuke – their focus is on their own actions and not on Jesus
- Exhortation – works alone is rebuked
- Promise – if they will listen, repent, and turn away from their works, theirs is the Tree of Life
- Prophetic Application – A.D. 33 to 100 – the Apostolic church, wayward in heart attitude
Second – the church at Smyrna – “Poor and Persecuted, but Rich” [temples of Zeus, Cybele, and Julius Caesar]
- Destination – Smyrna
- Description of Christ – Jesus refers to Himself as persecuted, but He overcame and they can too
- Commendation – very rich in God’s eyes even though poor in world’s eyes
- Rebuke – NONE!
- Exhortation – suffering is rewarded with the Crown of Life
- Promise – never to face the second death
- Prophetic Application – A.D. 100 to 312 – the era of the Caesars (10 of them) where millions of Christians died, some in the Roman Coliseum (lions)
Third – the church at Pergamos – “Compromise with the World” [capitol of Asia Minor where political power, pagan worship, and academic sophistication blended]
- Destination – Pergamos
- Description of Christ – Jesus’ Word is sharper than a two-edged sword discerning thoughts and motives
- Commendation – location of Satan’s throne but still proclaim Jesus as Lord even though it puts them in great danger
- Rebuke – those who follow Balaam and the Nicolaitans (false teachers among the leaders over the laity) or merging Christianity with paganism
- Exhortation – expel those false teachers or Jesus will do it with His sword (His Word)
- Promise – overcomers will eat of His hidden manna and a white stone with a new name only the receiver and God knows will be given to each believer
- Prophetic Application – A.D. 312 to 590 – the church merged with the state – emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, but compromise set in
Fourth – the church at Thyatira – “The Great Counterfeit” [temple of fortune tellers and Lydia of the dyed purple cloth became first believer in Europe]
- Destination – Thyatira
- Description of Christ – Jesus’ eyes of flaming fire piercing hearts and motivations judged symbolized by bronze feet will come on this church if they don’t shape up
- Commendation – for their love, faith, service, patience, and works
- Rebuke – for allowing the occult and fortune telling to ensnare young believers
- Exhortation – most severe of all churches! – abandon occultism in every way (astrology, tarot cards, fortune telling, etc.) or perish!
- Promise – those who do not go after occultism, those will be co-rulers with Christ with power over the nations
- Prophetic Application – A.D. 590 to 1517 – the Middle Ages where superstition, image worship, and the occult flourished
Fifth – the church at Sardis – “Dead Orthodoxy” [ethically and morally degenerate city with a temple to Cybele (mother of the gods)]
- Destination – Smyrna
- Description of Christ – Jesus is described as having the seven spirits of God (the seven-fold Holy Spirit [Isaiah 11:2]) that He has and they do not – that’s why they are “dead”
- Commendation – very sparse because “only a few” have not “soiled their clothes” with unbelief
- Rebuke – Everywhere because they were “in the flesh” or “dead”
- Exhortation – remember what they learned and “wake up” before it’s too late
- Promise – to the overcomer the will walk with Christ in white, his name written in the Book of Life, and Jesus will openly confess his name before God the Father and His angels
- Prophetic Application – A.D. 1517 to 1750 – the Reformation Era – church was reformed but not revived! Because of legalism!
Sixth – the church at Philadelphia – “Revival and Evangelism” [wine industry, so Bacchus, the god of wine, worshipped – chronic alcoholism]
- Destination – Philadelphia
- Description of Christ – Jesus opens or shuts doors of evangelistic opportunity and He reminds the Jews that He has the key of David (He is the Messiah)
- Commendation – Praise for evangelism and their dependence on Christ as their Guide
- Rebuke – None because of their steadfastness
- Exhortation – encouragement to keep on as they were
- Promise – to be “kept out of” the Tribulation by the Rapture promise
- Prophetic Application – A.D. 1750 to 1925 – the Missionary Era – spiritual revival of the Church – Christian Universities and churches established, but post WW I many abandoned Christian heritage
Seventh – the church at Laodicea – “Compromise and Apostasy” [extremely wealthy banking center, medical school known for eye healing ointment, city very pleasure conscious]
- Destination – Laodicea
- Description of Christ – Jesus is describing Himself in a way to remind this church that He is the “Faithful and True Witness” and a name used nowhere else “The Origin and Beginning and Author of God’s Creation”
- Commendation – NONE! Jesus hates compromise and spiritual indifference
- Rebuke – Divine denunciation of their luke-warmness like today – not apathetic nor fervent – also, rebuke of focus on material wealth as criteria for success – in Christ’s eyes they were “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked”
- Exhortation – use your ”wealth” to buy gold from Jesus that has been refined in the fire – buy white raiment to cover spiritual nakedness – anoint your eyes to see (a reference to Jesus’ ointment of the Spirit, not the ointment they made)
- Promise – the overcomer will share Christ’s Throne!
- Prophetic Application – A.D. 1925 to Tribulation – seminaries teach “higher criticism” and “replacement theology (supercessionism)”, ecumenism, prosperity gospel, etc.
So, what does this all mean and why is this an example of Dispensationalism? Again, these messages to those specific churches of the first century certainly pertained to them and individuals within those churches. The purpose or reason behind the messages was to confer on them just what Jesus thought about the church and individuals within the church and whether they need encouragement, judgment, or exhortation in order to bring them back to their original faith or to urge them to soldier on. But, the fascinating extension of these letters is that the churches, in order, correspond to the Church as a whole throughout the Church Age or the Dispensation of Grace. The Church has gone through times of true faith and true prosperity having little to do with material things, but the church has gone through and is going through a time of great compromise, great apostasy, unbiblical false teaching, human interpretation of the scriptures, and outright rejection of the Word of God replaced by man’s doctrine to play to itching ears.
The Laodicean church is exactly what the Church in America is today. Lukewarm! Materialistic! Replacement theology/anti-Israel/two-state/pro-Palestinian apostates, compromising uneducated-in-the-Bible apathetic sluggards! Jesus said he would have today’s believers be either cold or hot, but not lukewarm because lukewarm is disgusting, having a sense of the truth but not reaching the mark. Jesus said He would spew the lukewarm out of His mouth because their beliefs fall short of true faith meaning they are not saved – just think they are. What a lesson for all of us to do introspective examination to be sure that we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator, who died for our sins, is Lord of our lives, and He is coming again to a restored Israel and a restored Chosen People – the Jews!
From all of this, it is easy to see how prophecy fits into Dispensationalism and Israel’s as well as the Church’s future. Bible Prophecy, Systemic Theology, and Dispensationalism are mutually dependent disciplines that show that any one of them cannot be fully understood without a full knowledge of all three. To fully understand the signs of the times and Biblical prophecy, we all need to understand all three thereby being able to be “watchmen on the wall” (Ezekiel 3:17-19; 33:6) fully prepared for the lord’s return. Luke 21:36 – “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man”.