Dispensations in the Bible
Dispensational theology is one that views all of biblical history and the future as a series of dispensations, or time periods when God dealt with mankind or with a certain people in a particular way. For example, a dispensational teacher may illustrate on a timeline chart all the epochs that have occurred since the world began, such as the age of innocence, the age of conscience, the age of human government, the ante-deluvian age (pre-flood), the age of Law, the age of grace or favor, the time of Jacob’s trouble or the Tribulation, and the millennial reign of Christ on earth.
The term dispensationalism itself is not a biblical term, but one that man has made up. However, even if we had never heard of dispensationalism before, and there was no such categorization for a field of theological thought, we could look at the Bible (like good Bereans should) and see there are clearly dispensations. The dictionary definition of dispensation is "a system of order, government, or organization of a nation, community, etc., especially as existing at a particular time."
So if I look at the Bible, I definitely see a "government" or "organization of a nation," or a "community" that was "existing at a particular time." I don't have to force anything to try and make it fit to support that point. It's just obvious. For example, there was the Israelite “community” during the period when they were in the desert under the leadership of Moses, as well as in the Promised Land under Joshua. They were “organized into a nation” called Israel. So without even trying, we can find that one easily.
And if we look at the period of judges, that was a government that existed at a particular time under leaders like Samson, Gideon, Barack, Deborah, and others. And the period of kings was another one. You cannot deny that these periods are in the Bible. And the fact that they were under the Law of Moses and the Mosaic covenant during a particular period is undeniable, too. When Christ came and instituted a New Covenant, He took preeminence from that point forward, while His teaching and His commandments took precedence. Like the Father said from the cloud, when Elijah and Moses appeared next to the Lord, representing the Law and the Prophets, "This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!" (Luk 9:35)
The “community” that existed in the book of Acts and still exists to this day is the Church under the government that is on Christ's shoulders (Is 9:6). The description of the congregation or “community” of believers in the following passage from Acts is unlike anything ever seen in any prior period in biblical history.
“And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness. And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all.” (Act 4:31-33)
This marked a new era, an age of grace, when all believers were filled with the Holy Spirit. The crucifixion of Christ on the cross and His subsequent resurrection was the turning point when this age began, which some might call the Church age.
The Lord Spoke of Ages and Time Periods
When the Lord began His public ministry, He announced this new age of grace by saying that He had come to proclaim the year of God’s favor.
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord." (Luk 4:18-19).
He read this from the scroll in the prophet Isaiah, and He stopped short of saying the very next words that Isaiah prophesied in that sentence. Isaiah prophesied, “…To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD And the day of vengeance of our God…” (Isa 61:2a). The Lord proclaimed the favorable year of the Lord, but did not finish the verse by the referring to the day of vengeance of our God, since that was yet another time period in the future. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that the Bible speaks of these two time periods, one of them of God’s favor and a subsequent one of God’s vengeance.
The Lord also spoke about the time of His Second Coming often, using various expressions like "which day your Lord is coming," "that day and hour no one knows," "the Master of that slave will come on a day," "the day that the Son of Man is revealed," "the days of the Son of Man," and "will the Son of Man be in His day." I would like to especially draw your attention to the expression, “the days of the Son of Man.” This clearly refers to a time period that was yet future at the time when the Lord spoke of it.
In the following passage, note the many uses of the expressions “the days” and “His day”:
“And He said to the disciples, ‘The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, “Look there! Look here!” Do not go away, and do not run after them. For just like the lightning, when it flashes out of one part of the sky, shines to the other part of the sky, so will the Son of Man be in His day. But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same as happened in the days of Lot: they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building; but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, the one who is on the housetop and whose goods are in the house must not go down to take them out; and likewise the one who is in the field must not turn back.” (Luk 17:22-31)
The Lord spoke of “the days of Noah,” “the days of Lot,” and “the days of the Son of Man.” These all refer to different time periods, and it is clear that “the days of the Son of Man” were still future at the time when Jesus spoke these words, since He referred to them as coming after His suffering and rejection.
By the way, I would like to point out that the word for “day” and “days” in this passage is “hemera”, which – depending on the context -- can mean either literally a 24-hour day or figuratively a period, such as an age or time or period of years. According to Strongs, hemera means “day, that is, (literally) the time space between dawn and dark, or the whole 24 hours (but several days were usually reckoned by the Jews as inclusive of the parts of both extremes), figuratively a period (always defined more or less clearly by the context): - age, time, while, years.”
The Lord also spoke explicitly of a future "age". Jesus said to them, "The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; for they cannot even die anymore, because they are like angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection." (Luk 20:34-36)
The word "age" is "aion" in the Greek, meaning "properly an age; by extension perpetuity (also past); by implication the world; specifically (Jewish) a Messianic period (present or future): - age, course, eternal, (for) ever (-more), [n-]ever, (beginning of the, while the) world (began, without end)." -- Strongs. In the context of Luke 20, "age" is the appropriate translation of "aion."
So He taught that you and I are "sons of this age." And He also taught about those who are considered worthy to attain to "that age and from the resurrection from the dead." Therefore, according to Christ, there is "this age", which we are presently living in, and there is "that age", which is future, after the resurrection.
Likewise, he also referred to "this age" and "the age to come" in other passages. For example, in His teaching about the unpardonable sin, He said, "Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." (Mat 12:32). And in His teaching about rewards for service, He said, "...he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life." (Mar 10:29-30)
Moreover, the Lord also used the expression "end of the age" to refer to the last days. Here are some examples:
"So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous," (Mat 13:49; also see Mat 13:39-40)
"Teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Mat 28:20).
Finally, while speaking about the signs that would occur at the end of the age, the Lord spoke of a period that He called "the times of the Gentiles." He said, "...Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." (Luk 21:24; cf., Rom 11:25). (See The Times of the Gentiles).
The Apostles Spoke of Ages and Times
The apostles spoke about ages and times. One example was when they spoke to the Lord right before His ascension. “So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority;’” (Act 1:6-7)
The apostles used the expression “at this time,” and the word “time” is “chronos,” meaning “a space of time which designates a fixed or special occasion; it denotes a particular period or interval; by extension an individual opportunity; by implication delay: season, space, time, while.” They were asking whether this was the space of time when He was going to restore the kingdom to Israel. They referred to a government and a particular period of time, which is the precise definition of the term "dispensation."
The Lord did not deny that there would be a time or period when he would restore the kingdom to Israel. He simply told them that it was not for them to know the times or epochs which the Father has determined by His own authority. The word for “times” in verse 7 when Jesus replied to the apostles was the same word used in verse 6 in their question to the Lord, which was “chronos.” The word used for “epochs” in verse 7 is “kairos” meaning “an occasion, that is, set or proper time: opportunity, (convenient, due) season, (due, short, while) time, a while.”
While these two words, “chronos” and “kairos” have different shades of meaning, they are also used somewhat interchangeably in the Bible.
For example, both Jude and Peter wrote about a period called the “last time”, but one of them used the word chronos and the other used the word kairos.
Jude wrote: “But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, ‘In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.’" (Jud 1:17-18). In Jude’s expression “last time”, the word for “time” is “chronos.”
Peter used this same expression “last time”, when he wrote: “…who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1Pe 1:5). However, in this passage, the word “kairos” is used instead of “chronos.” Nevertheless, whether kairos or chronos is used, we cannot deny the fact that the “last time” refers to a particular period. It is a period that occurs at the end and happens last, at the end of time.
There is another expression similar to “last time”, which is “last days.”
Peter used this expression when he wrote in his epistle, “Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts,” (2Pe 3:3). This corresponds exactly to what Jude wrote in the passage I have already cited above in Jud 1:17-18, except that instead of calling it the "last time," Peter calls it the "last days."
Peter had also used this same term on the Day of Pentecost. He proclaimed, “'And it shall be in the last days,' God says, 'that I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;’” (Act 2:17).
Peter was quoting from the prophet Joel, chapter 2. He was teaching that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit happening on that day was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy regarding the last days. From this we can ascertain that the last days began with Pentecost.
Paul spoke of the last days, too. He wrote, “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.” (2Ti 3:1)
James wrote, “Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!” (Jas 5:3)
In the book of Hebrews, we learn that at the time it was written, the last days were already in progress, and were called “these last days.” It says, “In these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” (Heb 1:2)
The apostle John affirmed that the last days had already begun during his days, when he wrote, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.” (1Jn 2:18). He spoke of the last hour in the present tense.
The apostles asked Jesus about the end of the ages. "As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, 'Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?'" (Mat 24:3)
In Hebrews, it says, "But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." (Heb 9:26). Other versions have it as "the fulfillment of the ages" or the consummation of the ages," but they all carry the same meaning, which is that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins happened at the end of the ages.
In Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, he also wrote, "Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come." (1Co 10:11). He spoke of the end of the ages as having come upon him and his readers. The end of the ages began with the earthly ministry of Christ, especially His crucifixion, and continued throughout the first century. Since it has not yet reached its conclusion, we know it continues to this day.
Therefore, we know from the apostles’ use of the terms “last time,” “last days,” “last hour,” and "end of the ages," that there is such an age or period that began in the first century and continues up until now. If the first century was considered the last days, then we in this present generation are living in the last of the last days! If it was considered the last hour in the apostle John's day, then we are in the last minute or the final second! We can truly say that the end of the ages has come upon us! This present age that Paul spoke of is about to conclude, and "the age to come" is about to commence (Eph 1:21; Heb 6:5).
The apostle Paul also wrote about the time of God’s favor, which I have already mentioned was part of Christ’s teaching. Paul quoted from the prophet Isaiah (49:8), when he wrote:
“For He says, ‘At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation.’" (2Co 6:2)
In saying this in the context of God’s grace (2 Cor 6:1), Paul declared that the acceptable time, which the Holy Spirit had spoken about through Isaiah, had begun, and the day of salvation was now in progress. This is the same time period that the Lord referred to in Luke 4:18, calling it “the favorable year of the Lord,” as I have already mentioned. Incidentally, the word for “time” in 2 Cor 6:2 is “kairos” and the word for “day” is “hemera”, both of which I have already defined.
Finally, Paul taught that God has set a certain day when He will judge the world with justice. He said, "For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.” (Ac 17:31, NIV). (See The Judgment Seat of Christ).
The Prophets Spoke of Ages and Times
Not only did the Lord and His apostles speak of ages, times, and days, but so did the prophets, which they often quoted. I have already mentioned some such passages from Isaiah, but another example is found in Daniel. Here is how that book ends:
“As for me, I heard but could not understand; so I said, ‘My lord, what will be the outcome of these events?’ He said, ‘Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time. Many will be purged, purified and refined, but the wicked will act wickedly; and none of the wicked will understand, but those who have insight will understand. From the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. How blessed is he who keeps waiting and attains to the 1,335 days! But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age.’" (Dan 12:8-13)
As we can clearly see from this passage, there will be a future period, which the angel Gabriel referred to as “the end time” (v. 9). Gabriel told Daniel specifically when this time would occur, and exactly how many days it would last (v. 11). He also made reference to “the end of the age" (v. 13).
The Hebrew word for “time” in verse 9 is “eth,” which can mean literally a 24-hour day or figuratively an age. And the word for “age” in verse 13 is “yom”, which can either literally mean a day or figuratively an age or season, depending on the context.
The Time of Jacob's Trouble
Another age that I would like to mention from the prophets is a time period known as Jacob’s Trouble. Jeremiah wrote, “Alas! for that day (Hebrew, yom) is great, There is none like it; And it is the time (Hebrew, eth) of Jacob's distress, But he will be saved from it.” (Jer 30:7). Jeremiah described it as a time of terror, of dread, when there is no peace, when every man has his hands on his loins, as a woman in childbirth, and all faces are turned pale (Jer 30:5-6). Jeremiah prophesied of these coming days when the Lord would restore the fortunes of His people Israel and Judah, and bring them back to the Promised Land (Jer 30:3). It will be a time when the Lord will destroy completely all the nations where He has scattered His people Israel and Judah, But He will not destroy His people Israel and Judah completely. He will chasten them justly and will by no means leave them unpunished (Jer 30:11). The Lord will wound them with the wound of an enemy, with the punishment of a cruel one, because their iniquity is great and their sins are numerous (Jer 30:14). But Jacob will eventually be saved from it (Jer 30:7). Therefore, once again we have in the prophets a future age foretold, which corresponds with "the day of vengeance of our God" that Isaiah and Christ spoke of.
The Day of the Lord
The prophets also spoke of the day of the Lord. They referred to it as a coming day of clouds, of darkness and not light, even gloom with no brightness in it, a time of doom for the nations, as destruction from the Almighty, great and terrible, very awesome, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation and exterminate its sinners from it. It will be a day when the warrior cries out bitterly, a day of wrath when all the earth will be devoured in the fire of His jealousy, for He will make a complete end, indeed a terrifying one, of all the inhabitants of the earth. (Isa. 13:6,9; Eze. 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1,11,31; 3:14; Amos 5:18,20; Oba. 1:15; Zep. 1:7,14,18; 2:2,3; Mal. 4:5).
Reign of Christ on Earth
One last future age I would like to mention is that of the literal reign of Christ on earth. This is spoken about in the Psalms and the Prophets. For example, Isaiah wrote, "Then the moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed, For the LORD of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, And His glory will be before His elders." (Isa 24:23). There are too many passages to cite, but many people have spiritualized them, rather than taking them literally. One that I will mention that explicitly states Christ will reign as king on earth is found in Zechariah. It states:
"Behold, a day is coming for the LORD when the spoil taken from you will be divided among you. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured, the houses plundered, the women ravished and half of the city exiled, but the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city. Then the LORD will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. You will flee by the valley of My mountains, for the valley of the mountains will reach to Azel; yes, you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the LORD, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him! In that day there will be no light; the luminaries will dwindle. For it will be a unique day which is known to the LORD, neither day nor night, but it will come about that at evening time there will be light. And in that day living waters will flow out of Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern sea and the other half toward the western sea; it will be in summer as well as in winter. And the LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one." (Zec 14:1-9)
In this passage, it says, "in that day..." (Hebrew, yom), meaning that this is an age or time period. Moreover, it says that "His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem," and "the LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one." This is precisely the same time period as described in Revelation 20, which says:
"Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time. Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years." (Rev 20:1-4)
Here we are told that this age of Christ's reign on earth will last for a thousand years, which is where we derive the term Millennium. I choose to take that literally, rather than figuratively or spiritually.
Dispensation is a Biblical Word
While the term "dispensationalism" itself may not be a biblical term, the word “dispensation” is in fact found in Scripture. You won't find it in most of the modern translations, but the Geneva Bible, King James Bible, and American Standard Version all contain it. It comes from the Greek word "oikonomia," which means “a (religious) ‘economy’: - dispensation, stewardship.”
Paul said, "That in the dispensation of the fullness of the times, he might gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are in earth, even in Christ." (Eph 1:10, GNV).
John Wesley commented on this verse, "That in the dispensation of the fullness of the times" means "In this last administration of God's fullest grace, which took place when the time appointed was fully come." This is the dispensation we live in today, the final administration of God's grace. The time appointed for it by God was fully come during the life of Christ on earth, and is now about to reach its conclusion. You may not agree with Wesley's viewpoint, but it makes no difference, because I have already proven (without using the word "dispensation") that there are dispensations in the Bible.
In connection with that same passage above in Ephesians, I would also like to present one final passage, in order to further demonstrate that the word "dispensation," or "oikonomia," is in the Word of God. In the third chapter of that same epistle, the apostle used four terms that are synonymous with "dispensation," as shown in the chart below:
|Dispensation of the fullness of the times||"That in the dispensation of the fullness of the times, he might gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are in earth, even in Christ." (Eph 1:10, GNV).|
|Dispensation of the grace of God||"if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you." (Eph 3:2, NKJV).|
|Mystery of Christ||"That by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ,” (Eph 3:3-4, NASB)|
|The Gospel||"This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." (Eph 3:6, NIV)|
|Dispensation of this mystery||"and to make plain to everyone the administration (oikonomia) of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things." (Eph 3:9, NIVUK)|
This chart shows that "the dispensation of the fullness of the times," "the dispensation of the grace of God," "the mystery of Christ," "the gospel," and "the dispensation of this mystery" are all interchangeable expressions. They mean exactly the same thing in this context. What is true of one is true of all five expressions. Therefore, the current dispensation of grace that we are in today was not made known to men in other generations, but was kept hidden in God for ages past as a mystery, only being revealed at the appointed time in the gospel, and is now made plain to everyone through the preaching of the gospel.
Putting it All Together
As we can see, the Lord, as well as the prophets and apostles spoke of times, epochs, days, ages, and years. I don't derive that from any man, but from the Lord and His Word. That's what we've got to base our lives on, rather than the traditions of men.
We have established the fact that there are definitely dispensations in the Bible. Dispensations are not unbiblical or erroneous. That does not mean that I promote any particular brand of dispensational doctrine. It just means that we do not need to be afraid of the concept of dispensations. So as we study God’s Word, we can expect to learn about ages or periods of time when God is dealing with people, including His own people, in a particular way.
Therefore, be free, as you study God’s Word, to learn directly from the Holy Spirit about these interesting, wonderful -- often frightening and terrible, as well as glorious ages. In eternity, which is outside of time, time is not kept by days or weeks or months or years, according to the movements of the sun and moon. But there will always be ages throughout eternity, for Scripture speaks of "the coming ages" (Eph 2:7). God changes not. He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Mal 3:6; Heb 13:8). He has always been, is now, and always will be the King of the Ages. "To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen." (1Ti 1:17 ESV).
Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. "Time is At Hand" painting © 2012 Danny Hahlbohm, all rights reserved by the artist.
Author's note: You may also want to read my other related posts:
You may also visit our Signs of the Times Directory, and access my complete blog directory at Writing for the Master.
Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus personally, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Jesus. Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?
“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15). He preached that we must repent and believe.
Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"
Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International. He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission.