A Bible dispensation is defined as a period of time in which the world, or a portion of it, is being tested in regard to some specific revelation of the will of God. Scripture seems to indicate seven such periods.
Sufficient to say that a knowledge of the dispensations is absolutely requisite to a satisfactory harmony and understanding of the Bible (II Tim. 2:15).
In each of these periods there seems to be the same issue at stake: whether under the test man would choose the right and do what God was requiring. We may think of each dispensation under four divisions: the test, the failure, the righteous judgment by God, and the gracious intervention by God.
First of the dispensations is that of Innocence. In the ideal environment of the Garden of Eden the test was whether man would obey God by refraining from eating from the forbidden tree. The failure is well known and the judgment was that of expulsion from the Garden and God's fellowship, with resultant sin, sickness and sorrow following (Gen. 1:28-3:22).
The dispensation of Conscience followed. Man who was now possessed of the knowledge of good and evil, was required by the aid of his conscience to choose the good and reject the evil. This test led to terrible failure with mankind growing so wicked before God that the age closed with a flood of waters destroying everything that breathed with the exception of one family (Gen. 3:22-7:23).
Under Noah and his three sons another dispensation was ushered in known as Human Government. Man was now given the responsibility of governing for God and given the power to take human life as the supreme penalty for sin. Again failure was written in large letters over this age which ended with the divine judgment of the confusion of tongues (Gen. 8:20-11:9).
In all of these periods the grace of God is exhibited in that despite man's frightful failure, God does not make a full end of man.
Promise is the next period. God now turns from dealing with mankind as a whole and selects one family to which He makes great and far-reaching promises. The man was Abraham, and the test was to stay in the land of promise. The period ends again in failure with Abraham's descendants in bondage in Egypt (Gen. 12:1-Exod. 19:8).
As God brought up the children of Israel from Egypt about the year 1500 B. C., He proposed to them a new covenant of works known as the dispensation of Law. The test here was whether under a detailed and complete set of instructions they would fully obey God. The extent of the failure is well known, as not even one Israelite ever fully kept God's law, and the nation sinned grievously against God. The greatest of Israel's sins was the rejection of her promised Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. For this failure God scattered the Jews among the nations for nearly two thousand years (Exod. 19:8—John 19:15).
The present age, which began at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and will end with the personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ to the earth, is known as the age of grace. The test is whether or not the world including both Jew and Gentile will accept the full grace of God as provided in the sacrifice and resurrection of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. The outstanding group in this age is the Church which is entrusted with the task of proclaiming the gospel of grace to the ends of the world. The failure is dearly seen when we remember that after nearly 2000 years of preaching the gospel, more than half the world's population has yet to hear of Christ (Acts 2:1—Rev. 3:22).
Following the rapture of the Church there is to be a brief but terrific period of judgment known as the Great Tribulation. This seven-year period seems to belong to the dispensation of the law. With the frightful judgments of this time the Book of Revelation mainly deals.
The last dispensation is that of the Kingdom. Following the personal return of Christ in power (Rev. 19:11-21) there will be the establishment of a thousand year reign of peace and blessing. Christ will rule personally, and the Devil will be bound. Strangely enough, this time too will end in failure as the world revolts against Christ (Rev. 20:1-6; 20:7-15).
From Believer's First Bible Course by William W. Orr. Wheaton, Ill.: Scripture Press, 1956.
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