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Dispensationalism

 
 
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(By Mark Fontecchio)

At the forefront of many theological discussions is a central truth of Scripture known as dispensationalism. This particular word carries great importance. What is it, and how does it fit into our biblical worldview?

Dispensationalism is an understanding of Scripture that relates to our theological process and our worldview. It is the understanding that God communicated to us a plan for the ages in His Word, from Genesis to Revelation, which makes sense out of everything that we see in Scripture. In other words, this is the grand story, or plotline, of human history. It begins with creation and ends with re-creation, with a great amount of truth recorded in between. Dispensationalism is the biblical system that most accurately portrays what God is trying to reveal to us in His Word. A consistent literal interpretation of the Word of God will inevitably lead to a dispensational perspective.

Where does the term dispensation come from? It may surprise you to learn that it actually comes from the Bible. It comes from the Greek word oikonomia. We see that both the King James translation and the New King James translation, in Ephesians 1:10 and Ephesians 3:2, actually use the word dispensation.[1] The New American Standard translation uses the term administration in Ephesians 1:10 and uses the word stewardship in Ephesians 3:10.[2] The general idea is that of accountability, stewardship, or management. The understanding is that God, at various times in human history, interacted with man according to different sets of rules.

Let us be particularly cautious at this point. This does not mean that dispensationalism teaches that God has different methods of salvation for men during different periods in human history. One of the recurring criticisms against dispensationalism is the myth that dispensationalists teach different approaches to salvation in the Old and New Testaments. There is absolutely no truth to this claim. This is an assumption critics make out of ignorance and theological bias. Dispensationalists passionately affirm that salvation in all ages is by grace through faith alone.

Dispensationalism is a definite truth from Scripture. It is self-evident that God interacted differently with mankind over time. It is indisputable that God interacted differently with Adam and Eve than He does with us today in the Church Age. It is obvious that God interacted with Noah differently than He does with us today. It is also clear from Scripture that God has dealt with Israel differently than the Church. These changes have nothing to do with how we receive eternal life. Mankind has always received individual salvation by faith, although it is evident that the content of that faith changes over time. Abraham did not believe the full content of the Gospel of Christ that we preach today. Abraham did not believe in Jesus Christ of Nazareth who died on the Cross to pay our penalty for sin. Yet, he certainly believed in God. He believed in Yahweh to provide a Redeemer in substitutionary atonement for him. Abraham may not have known the Redeemer’s name, but the Bible clearly teaches us that his salvation was by faith. The Apostle Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:6-7). Salvation has always been by grace through faith in every age; this has not changed. However, the precise content of that faith has changed as more of God’s revelation has been made known to mankind.

Consider the following: “Corporate Jewish hope for the advent of the Messiah developed dynamically from the period of David’s reign when it was prophesied that his kingdom would endure to the end of time (2 Sm 7:16). Israel was told that, through David’s descendants, his throne would exert a never-ending dominion over all the earth (22:48–51; Jer 33).”[3] This is a significant point to be understood because this is what the Jewish people were looking for in the first century concerning the Messiah. Yet, when people receive the Gospel of Christ today they seldom have any understanding of the Messianic promises to Israel. As men and women respond to the Gospel of Christ, very few understand that Jesus is the Son of David who will one day take the Davidic Throne to rule with a rod of iron. This is not a problem. In the Church Age you can receive eternal life without knowing that Jesus will one day establish a never-ending Kingdom. There is no need today to understand all of the Jewish implications of the Messiah in order to be saved.

The Gospel of Christ that must be preached during the age of the Church includes the understanding that Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb who died for our sins and rose again. Paul states this very truth in 1 Corinthians 15. This is the content of the gospel, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Christ took our place on the Cross; He bore our penalty for our sins. Anyone who recognizes these truths, while placing their faith in Christ alone, is saved. There is no requirement in the present age to understand the Kingdom and the Jewish Messianic implications of the Savior for eternal salvation. The great majority of people today, when they come to faith in Christ, have little understanding of the Davidic Covenant, the Messianic Kingdom, or that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel.

The content of the message of salvation was also different during the ministry of Jesus. He came testifying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Matthew also records, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” (Matt. 3:1-2). The King was among them; He was offering the Jewish people the Kingdom. You could not (whether you were a Jew or Gentile) reject Jesus as the Messiah, who will rule on the throne of David, while accepting Him as Savior because those two aspects were connected. To believe in Jesus for eternal life was to trust that He is exactly who He said He is, the Messianic King of Israel. This is what the entire Gospel of John is all about. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, which has clear Messianic implications.

When Scripture speaks of the time of the Tribulation, we once again see a shift in the terminology of the gospel. The wording changes, and the good news is now referred to as the Gospel of the Kingdom. This can be seen in Matthew 24 where we read, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). Why is different wording used? This is where we need to put the pieces together. Revelation 7 teaches us there will be 144,000 Jewish missionaries. In other words, there will be 12,000 servants of God from each of the 12 tribes of Israel pronouncing the same message that both Jesus and John the Baptist were proclaiming at the First Advent of Christ. Both John the Baptist and Jesus were proclaiming to the people that they should get ready because the King and His Kingdom were coming. During the Tribulation this will once again be the message that is proclaimed before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Jesus promised, while speaking to the Jewish leaders, that Israel as a nation would not see Him again until the people corporately cry out, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 23:39). Jesus was quoting Psalm 118, which is a Messianic Psalm. During the Tribulation the content of saving faith will have Messianic implications as the witnesses proclaim the coming of the Messianic King and His Kingdom. People will be told to believe in Jesus the Messiah, the One who is coming to take the throne to rule and reign. In the Tribulation the Gospel of the Kingdom will have a very Messianic tone; in order to be saved, people will have to believe more about Him than we do in the present age.

Dispensationalism recognizes the teaching of Scripture which proclaims we are in a different dispensation today. Ephesians 3 makes this quite clear. Notice what Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles— if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)” (Eph. 3:1-4). These words have significant implications. The word revelation means the unveiling of something by God to man. In other words, Paul was testifying that God revealed something to him. The word mystery means something previously undisclosed. This was something new; it was new information. Paul was proclaiming that by revelation God gave him new details about His plan of the ages.

Take another look at verse 4 along with verse 5, “By which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ, which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets” (Eph. 3:4-5). Again, this was something totally new. When non-dispensationalists talk about the continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament they ignore this important phrase in verse 5 that says, “which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men” (Eph. 3:5, emphasis added). Paul was announcing that the Church was not revealed in the Old Testament. Israel is not the Church. Israel is not the Bride of Christ. Israel was not baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ. Israel was not positionally in Christ. This was new information.

Notice what Paul proclaims:

Which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:5-9).

The word translated fellowship, in verse 9 of the New King James translation, is once again the Greek word oikonomia. There is usually a note in most Bibles which indicates the meaning of stewardship or dispensation. It is the same exact word that was translated in Ephesians 3:2 as dispensation. This is precisely the point of what we are talking about. Replace the word fellowship with some of the other accepted definitions of oikonomia, and then we would have: to make all see what is the plan of this mystery, to make all see what is the stewardship of this mystery, or to make all see what is the dispensation of this mystery. Paul explicitly proclaimed the dispensation of this mystery, “which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 3:9).

Again, another word of caution is in order. This was not new to God, but it was newly revealed by God. In other words, God did not have a Plan A and a Plan B. God was not taken by surprise when Israel rejected the Messiah. He was not wondering what to do next. The Church was not created by God just because He had a problem now that the people of Israel had rejected their King. This was a part of God’s plan all along; it actually goes back to the Abrahamic Covenant. Daniel 9 specifically tells us that there is going to be a gap of time in God’s plan with Israel. Even though the Church is not predicted in the Old Testament, the Old Testament plan allows for it. The New Testament is simply God giving the rest of the story. He was filling in the missing pieces, which is why the two testaments fit together perfectly. They are not the same, but there is progressive revelation. God was unfolding and revealing His plan that involves, in the present age, a mystery called the Church.

A natural question arises at this point: how many dispensations are in the Bible? Most dispensationalists recognize seven ages, as seen in the chart that follows. These would include:

  • Innocence (the Garden of Eden) in Genesis 1:28-3:6
  • Conscience (Adam and Eve’s Family) in Genesis 3:7-6:7
  • Human Government (Noah) in Genesis 9-11
  • Promise (Abraham) in Genesis 12-Exodus 19
  • Law (Moses) in Exodus 20-Acts 2
  • Church (Christians) in Acts 2-Revelation 3
  • Kingdom (Christ) in Revelation 19-22

There is no right or wrong answer for how many dispensations there are because God does not directly tell us that there is a specific number. It is a matter of interpreting Scripture and observing when there is a major shift in the way that God deals with mankind.

It is worth mentioning at this point that some scholars suggest that, in addition to the Kingdom Age, there are other dispensations yet to come. One of these is the Tribulation. While this is not a point worth contending over, let us remember that the Tribulation is really just an extension of the fourth dispensation—God dealing with the nation of Israel. God promised in Daniel 9 that His program for Israel would last 490 years before the Kingdom would come. Specifically, it would be 490 years from the decree of Artaxerxes (to restore and rebuild Jerusalem) until the time when the Kingdom would arrive. Daniel 9 is quite clear that 483 years would pass and then there would be a gap in time in which the Messiah would be cut off (crucified). Then, after the Messiah would be cut off, the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed. After this, there would still be seven more years.

This final seven years (referred to as Daniel’s Seventieth Week or the Tribulation) is really just the end of this 490 year period. We happen to be living in an inter-advent age, the time between the cutting off of the Messiah and His return to take the throne. In regard to the Tribulation, God’s way of dealing with mankind will not be new. It certainly will change from the way He is dealing with us right now, but it will not be new. It will just be reverting back to the way He dealt with Israel before. God will once again deal with Israel, this time through the 144,000 witnesses. God will be confronting Israel once more with the truth about the Messiah.

Another future dispensation that is sometimes suggested in addition to the Kingdom is the Eternal State. Those who see the Eternal State as a distinct dispensation usually refer to the Kingdom age as the Millennial Kingdom. However, it is best to see the Millennium and the Eternal State as two aspects of the future earthly kingdom. According to Scripture, the Kingdom actually encompasses both of these. When Christ comes back to take the throne, the Kingdom begins. Scripture is clear that it is a Kingdom without end. The distinction between the Millennium and the Eternal State is the location. The first 1,000 years (known as the Millennium) will be on the old heavens and old earth, and the rest of it (for all eternity) will be on the new heavens and new earth. There will be some obvious changes between the two, but not from a dispensational perspective.

In contrast to the dispensational understanding of God’s plan of the ages is covenant theology. Unlike the term dispensation, covenant theology is not actually a biblical phrase. Covenant theology is based upon two hypothetical covenants that are not mentioned anywhere in Scripture; these were supposedly made in eternity past between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is all theological construction. There is no Scripture verse that specifically mentions covenant theology, but as we have seen, Scripture explicitly says there is a mystery, a new dispensation, one that God had just instituted. Recognizing these dispensations in Scripture is only a part of dispensational theology.

Consider the following definition from Paul Enns:

Dispensationalism is a system of interpretation that seeks to establish a unity in the Scriptures through its central focus on the grace of God. Although dispensationalists recognize differing stewardships or dispensations whereby man was put under a trust by the Lord, they teach that response to God’s revelation in each dispensation is by faith (salvation is always by grace through faith). Dispensationalists arrive at their system of interpretation through two primary principles: (1) maintaining a consistently literal method of interpretation, and (2) maintaining a distinction between Israel and the church.[4]

A much more concise definition is, “Dispensational Theology can be defined very simply as a system of theology which attempts to develop the Bible’s philosophy of history on the basis of the sovereign rule of God. It represents the whole of Scripture and history as being covered by several dispensations of God’s rule.”[5]

Charles Ryrie gives a well-known and well thought out definition of dispensationalism. Ryrie suggests three distinctions that make up the sine qua non of dispensationalism. This Latin term, sine qua non, simply means that without which it would not exist. Another way of stating this, is that these are the core essentials of dispensationalism; without them dispensationalism would not exist. One of these three core essentials is the important distinction of a consistent literal interpretation.[6]

The dispensational method of interpretation is referred to as the literal-grammatical-historical approach. The words on the page mean something in their context. When the words were first written down, God was intending to communicate something. Dispensationalists do not search for the deeper, hidden, mystical meaning of the text. Instead, a literal interpretation means taking the words and sentences of Scripture as they would be understood in their plain meaning, the way that words are normally used to communicate. The literal meaning of words is the very basis of communication. It is impossible to communicate with words, if the words themselves do not have a normal meaning. A literal interpretation is the normal, plain, customary usage of language. Literal interpretation does not preclude the use of figurative language because we use figures of speech all the time. In fact, all the time is a figure of speech. People do not stumble over this phrase, all the time. We understand what people mean when they say, “I am so hungry I could eat a horse” or “the kids are driving me up a wall.” Literal interpretation does not preclude the use of figures of speech. Literal interpretation takes into account the grammatical-historical context of a passage. It precludes spiritualized or allegorical interpretation.

According to Ryrie, a second core essential of dispensationalism is the distinction between God’s program for Israel and His program for the Church.[7] God clearly has a program for Israel that has not been completed. If you believe the Bible is true, you cannot deny this fact from Scripture.

Finally, the third aspect of Ryrie’s definition of dispensationalism involves the doxological purpose of God in human history.[8] Part of God’s plan involves the redemption of individual human beings, but that is not the ultimate goal of the plan. Human history, biblical history, and the metanarrative of Scripture are all about bringing God glory.

How we approach the Bible greatly impacts our ability to grow in Christ Jesus. These foundational principles demonstrate themselves to be essential in understanding the beautiful truth of God’s Word. They prove to be the keys that unlock the glorious future hope we have in Christ Jesus!

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[1] The Holy Bible: King James Version.

[2] New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[3] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1446.

[4] Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1997), 513.

[5] Renald E. Showers, There Really Is a Difference! A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1990).

[6] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Rev. and expanded. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1995), 46-48.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

 

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