The Dispensations And the Ages
Paul wrote to Timothy, “Study to show thyself approved of God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth.” (2nd Timothy 2:15)
The first thing to notice is that if there is an admonition to ‘rightly’ divide the Word of truth, then that is to prevent dividing it ‘wrongly.’
Having established from Scripture the possibility of wrongly dividing the Word, we need to understand what Paul meant by ‘dividing’ the Word to begin with.
The clearest and most obvious division is the one between the Old and New Testaments. Pretty much everybody agrees on that, across the spectrum.
The Omega Letter’s doctrinal worldview is shaped primarily by Dispensationalism, or systematic theology. Systematic theology views Scripture as unfolding progressive revelation and doctrine.
Dispensationalism means, “the act of dispensing or something dispensed; a specific arrangement or system by which something is dispensed.” The ‘something’ being dispensed in this case is God’s message.
Dispensationalism is one of those doctrines, like pretribulationism or a pre-trib Rapture, that has no specific bearing on salvation or eternity, in the sense that one needn’t be a Dispensationalist or believe in a pre-Trib Rapture to be saved.
But you wouldn’t know it from the heated debates it spawns among Christians. So I’ll say it again. One need not accept either Dispensationalism or pretribulationism to be saved. But without it, Bible prophecy loses its coherence.
One of the first objections offered to Dispensationalism is also one of the weakest – that Dispensationalism is a relatively recent doctrine. It isn’t. It is as old as the division of the Testaments.
But let’s stipulate that the modern understanding of Dispensationalism is relatively recent. If one wants to date it to Darby in the early 1800s or Clarence Larkin in the early 1900s, I’m ok with either one, because it makes no difference to the weakness of the argument.
Until the prophecies for the last days began to take shape in a coherent form, there was nothing around which to form a systematic understanding.
There was no need to seek a deeper understanding of the Scriptures until one became aware of existing misunderstandings.
The misunderstanding of the Law of Moses wasn’t apparent until Jesus delivered, or dispensed the Good News of the Gospel and explained the purpose for the Law.
The Law was given to convict sinners so that they would recognize the need for salvation by faith, since the Law proves salvation by keeping the works of the law an impossible mission.
The division between the Dispensation of the Law and the Dispensation of Grace could not be plainer. But when the signs pointing to the soon return of Christ started to take shape, so did the prophetic outline.
The doctrine isn’t of recent origin, but I’ll stipulate that its rise to prominence is as recent as the resurgence of prophetic fulfillment that demanded its exploration.
Although we often use them interchangeably, (myself included) there is a distinct difference between an “Age” and a “Dispensation”. An Age is marked by a period of cataclysmic change to the earth, like the Flood or the change at the 2nd Coming that ushers in the Millennium.
Properly, there are three Ages; Antediluvian (before the flood) this present Age (Age of human government: Flood to 2nd Coming) and the Age of Ages (2nd Coming to the New Earth)
But there are seven Dispensations of God’s revelation to man. God’s administration to man changes as God progressively reveals Himself.
The Dispensations are divided thusly:
Dispensation of Innocence: It is important to understand the difference between innocence and righteousness. Innocence cannot be righteousness (or holiness) until tested. Innocence is one step from either holiness or sin. Adam failed the test, beginning the next dispensation.
Dispensation of Conscience: During the Age of Conscience, God permitted man to do as his own conscience dictated.
It shows what man will do when guided only by his conscience. Adam and Eve had no conscience before the “Fall.” Conscience is a knowledge of good and evil, and this Adam and Eve did not have until they ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree.
Conscience may produce fear and remorse, but it will not keep men from doing wrong, for conscience imparts no “power.”
Dispensation of the Patriarchs: This extended from the call of Abraham through the Exodus, when God gave Moses the Law on Mount Sinai.
Dispensation of the Law: This Dispensation began with Moses and lasted for roughly 1500 years before it ended when the Messiah was ‘cut off, but not for Himself,” rending the Temple curtain at the Crucifixion.
Dispensation of Grace: This present Dispensation began at Pentecost and is distinguished by the unique indwelling of believers by the Holy Spirit. During this Dispensation, individual salvation is extended to “whosoever will” by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, ‘lest any man should boast’ (of his own righteousness). (Ephesians 2:8-9)
The Dispensation of Grace ends with the withdrawal of the restraining ministry of the Holy Spirit at the Rapture (together with the indwelt Church), which allows for the man of sin to be indwelt by Satan. This begins the 70thWeek of Daniel;
The Dispensation of Judgment, the Tribulation: There are three groups that face concurrent judgments during the Tribulation, not as individuals, but nationally or corporately.
The first to face judgment will be the Church caught up at the Rapture and judged at the Judgment Seat of Christ at the beginning of the Tribulation. (2nd Corinthians 5:10).
Obviously, if the Church is being judged at the Bema Seat, they can’t also be under the judgment of Tribulation.
This period is known as the Time of Jacob’s Trouble (Jeremiah 3:4-7, Daniel 12:1) during which time the Jews will be judged during the Tribulation under antichrist and saved nationally at the 2nd Coming.
The third group to face judgment during the Tribulation are the Gentile nations. The Gentiles will be judged at the end by Jesus and divided into ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’ nations based on how they treated Israel.
The ‘goats’ will be destroyed on the spot. The ‘sheep’ will be permitted to enter the next Dispensation, (which is also an “Age”)
The Millennial Kingdom: This is a Dispensation in that it marks a shift in God’s relationship to man (Jesus rules Personally) and an Age, in that it marks the end of Human Government at His cataclysmic Return.
Bible prophecy follows a beautifully organized, progressively revealed plan whose Divine nature is revealed in that it can only be read from back to front;
“telling the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done.” (Isaiah 46:9-10)
I would not be afraid to mount the argument that there has been more Divine revelation concerning unfolding Bible prophecy in the past six decades than in all the centuries from the conclusion of the Book of Revelation to the restoration of Israel in 1948.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, the divisions between each of the Dispensations are distinct and identifiable. The Dispensation of Grace is clearly divided in Scripture from the Dispensation of Judgment.
The Bible clearly identifies three separate judgments during the Tribulation Period and three different groups to be judged. Each is judged differently and each judgment is rendered at a different time.
The Jews are judged under antichrist during the Tribulation and are redeemed by the Messiah (Zechariah 12:10) at its conclusion.
The Gentile nations are judged at the end by Jesus Christ, with the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the left. The sheep nations are permitted to go on into the Millennial Kingdom
The Church is judged at the beginning of the Tribulation at theJudgment Seat of Christ which is then followed by the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Do you see the systematic nature of Bible prophecy? Bible prophecy is by definition Divine revelation, and for the generation that witnesses it unfold, that revelation is progressive; more is revealed with each passing day.
However, if the Church is physically present during the judgment of the Tribulation, the system collapses.
There is no explanation for how the Church can be overcome by Satan as recorded in Revelation 13:7 without directly contradicting the promise of 1st John 4:4.
John tells me that He that is in me is greater than he that is in the world.
But the Tribulation Saints are overcome by Satan. Is He that is in me also in them? If so, this is impossible. If not, but I am present at that time, is He still in me?
If He is, then I cannot be overcome. If He is not, then He forsook me before Jesus came, directly breaking His Promise.
Returning to my earlier point, NOBODY is saved according to what they believe about the Rapture or the Tribulation. We are saved by grace through faith in the finished Work of the Cross, not by our understanding of Bible prophecy.
But Paul called Timothy “a workman” – a laborer of Christ. As such, his toolbox is the Word of Truth. Not all Christians are called to be workmen. And not all Christians heed the call they are given.
But if one is to be a workman for Christ, he will only be as good as his tools. I’ve examined the other toolboxes carefully and repeatedly to see if I could find evidence of a similarly clear system.
Scripture says that God is not the Author of confusion. But the moment that one erases the line between the Dispensation of Grace and the Dispensation of Judgment, the system of progressively unfolding revelation collapses into confusion.
Where is the Holy Spirit? I am still indwelt? Are the Tribulation Saints? Can they be overcome? Can I be overcome? What about the Promise?
Am I judged under the Cross at the Bema Seat? By antichrist during the Tribulation? Or both? Or at the end, with the sheep and goats? Or must I endure all three judgments?
Bible prophecy, systematic theology and Dispensationalism are mutually dependent disciplines in that one cannot fully understand any one of them without a grasp of all three.
You needn’t believe it to be saved. But you do if you want to understand Bible prophecy.
You can try to invent your own system — lots of them do. Look at the all the failed efforts to pinpoint the date of the Rapture or to identify the antichrist.
And in the end, they were all wrong. The dates came and went. The candidates rose and then fell. If these workmen weren’tashamed, they should have been.
The Apostle Peter explained, “Knowing this first” that the prophecies of Scripture are of no ‘private interpretation’. That particular Scripture is often used to refute Pre-tribulational Dispensationalist doctrine by those who have what amounts to their own different and therefore private interpretation.
They were sincere. But they stepped outside of Scriptural boundaries as necessary to make their scenario work. Those workmen failed to rightly divide the Word.
Whereof I am made a minister, according to thedispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to His saints.” (Colossians 1:25-26)
It wasn’t the Bible that was wrong. But that’s not what their disappointed students thought.
Originally published: May 11, 2010