Dispensation

Concise Bible Dictionary:

This is literally “administration of a house,” an “economy,” and hence an ordered dealing with men by God in the varied administration of his ways at different times. In reviewing God’s administrations with man, we may notice the state of innocence in Eden, though it hardly partook of the character of a dispensation. One law was given to Adam and Eve, and obedience was required, the penalty being announced if they failed.
This was followed by the lengthy period of nearly 1600 years till the flood — a time of no ordered dealing of God with men, during which men corrupted their way, and the earth was filled with violence. Then the world was spoken to by God in the person of Noah, who was “a preacher of righteousness”; and their repentance was waited for in longsuffering mercy while the ark was preparing (1 Pet. 3:2020Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. (1 Peter 3:20); 2 Pet. 2:55And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly; (2 Peter 2:5)). They repented not and the old world was destroyed. In the postdiluvian world government of man by his fellow was established by God, while a knowledge of God, as a God who judged evil, was spread abroad by the descendants of Noah; traditions of the Flood being found all over the earth. This was an additional testimony for God. Then followed the division of the earth into various nations and tribes, according to their families and tongues. Among these ignorance of God prevailed in spite of the testimony of God’s power and divinity, and the admonition of conscience spoken of in Romans 1-2.
About 360 years after the deluge the Patriarchal Age was begun by the call of Abraham, a new and sovereign dealing of God; but this was confined to Abraham and his descendants.
The Dispensation of the Law followed, strictly the first publicly ordered system of God’s dealing with men, and administered by angels. The oracles of God were given to a nation, the only nation in all the earth that God had known in this way (Amos 3:22You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities. (Amos 3:2)). It was the dispensation of “Do this, and live and be blessed; disobey, and be cursed.” This dispensation had three phases:
1. About 400 years under the Judges, when God would have been their king, but during which time everyone did that which was right in his own eyes.
2. 500 years as a kingdom under royalty. And
3. 600 years from the captivity to the coming of Christ. Connected with this was prophetic testimony: the law and the prophets were until John (Luke 16:1616The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. (Luke 16:16)).
The Dispensation of Grace and Truth commenced, after the preaching of John, by the advent of Christ. During this economy the gospel is preached to every creature under heaven, and the calling out of the Church takes place, extending as a parenthesis, from the day of Pentecost to the rapture of the saints (Acts 2:1-41And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1‑4); 1 Thess. 4:13-1813But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. 14For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 15For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 16For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 18Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13‑18)). Paul had a special “dispensation” committed to him by God, both as to the gospel and to fulfill the word of God by the doctrine of the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 9:1717For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me. (1 Corinthians 9:17); Eph. 3:2-32If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: 3How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, (Ephesians 3:2‑3); Col. 1:25-2625Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; 26Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: (Colossians 1:25‑26)).
The Dispensation of the Reign of Christ over the earth during the millennium. It is also called “the dispensation of the fullness of times” (Eph. 1:1010That in the dispensation of the fulness 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: (Ephesians 1:10); Rev. 20:1-61And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. 2And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, 3And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. 4And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years. (Revelation 20:1‑6)). See MILLENNIUM.
Under these varied administrations the goodness and faithfulness of God shine out, and the failure of man is everywhere made manifest.

From Anstey’s Doctrinal Definitions:

The word dispensation means "the administration of a house," or "the management of a household," or "a house-law." In the sense that it is used in Scripture, it is a publicly ordered dealing of God with men in the administration of His ways in His house during various ages.
Since God's house on earth was not established in any real sense until He formally took up relations with Israel on the ground of redemption, and built the tabernacle wherein He could meet with them (Exodus 25-40), we could say that from that time forward there are three main dispensations in the ways of God (See The Concise Bible Dictionary — pp. 216-217). Prior to that, men walked with God as individuals, but there was no publicly ordered
system of God's dealing with men collectively in relation to His house.
The first of these is the Dispensation of the Law which was an ordered dealing of God with men (the nation of Israel) whereby the legal obligations and requirements of the Law were to be fulfilled by the people in order for them to walk in fellowship with God. This administration passed through three phases:
•  About 500 years of kingship (from Saul to the Babylonian captivity).
The second dispensation is the present “administration [dispensation] of the Mystery(Eph. 3:99And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: (Ephesians 3:9) – W. Kelly Translation footnote; Bible Treasury, vol. 13, p. 379). This is a special administration for the governing of a heavenly company of people (the Church) in this present Day of Grace. The Apostle Paul was commissioned to “enlighten all” as to what this administration entailed (Eph. 3:99And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: (Ephesians 3:9)). Three times he speaks of having been “given” a special revelation of truth for the present “dispensation” (1 Cor. 9:1717For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me. (1 Corinthians 9:17); Eph. 3:22If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: (Ephesians 3:2); Col. 1:2525Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; (Colossians 1:25)). He was to teach the great truths of the Mystery that had been "hidden throughout the ages" concerning “Christ and the Church” (Eph. 3:9; 5:329And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: (Ephesians 3:9)
32This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32)
). This would include everything from the Church’s calling to its practical arrangements for the saints meeting together for worship and ministry. The Church itself is not a dispensation but rather it is governed by a dispensation or house-law of God in relation to the truth disclosed in the Mystery.
The ministry of grace actually commenced with the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1717For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)). But when His earthly people rejected Him, God opened the present dispensation of the Mystery in the heavenly calling of the Church with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4; 11:151And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1‑4)
15And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. (Acts 11:15)
). Believers today are being called out of the Jews and Gentiles to be part of a new heavenly thing—the Church, the body and bride of Christ (Acts 15:14; 26:1714Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. (Acts 15:14)
17Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, (Acts 26:17)
). The burden of true Christian ministry is to "further God's dispensation" by helping the saints who compose the Church to understand their heavenly calling in Christ and to live their lives in accord with the present administration of His house (1 Tim. 1:44Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do. (1 Timothy 1:4)).
The third dispensation is yet to come—"the dispensation of the fulness of times" (Eph. 1:1010That in the dispensation of the fulness 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: (Ephesians 1:10)). This will be a special ordering of God with men during the public reign of Christ in the Millennium. The restored remnant of Israel and the Gentile nations will enjoy an earthly portion of blessing under the administration of Christ and the Church, who will reign over the universe from the heavens (Psa. 103:1919The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all. (Psalm 103:19); Rev. 21:1010And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, (Revelation 21:10)).
These three dispensations (or administrations) of God's house are vastly different. In fact, the more we study them, the more we will see how different they are. For instance, the Dispensation of the Law has to do with a people who have an earthly portion and destiny, whereas the Dispensation of the Mystery—sandwiched between the Dispensation of the Law and the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times—has to do with people who have a heavenly calling and destiny (the Church). Presently, God's dealings with the nation of Israel have been suspended (Dan. 9:24-2724Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. 25Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times. 26And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. 27And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate. (Daniel 9:24‑27); Hos. 5:15-6:315I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early. 1Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. 2After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight. 3Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth. (Hosea 5:15‑6:3); Micah 5:2-32But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. 3Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. (Micah 5:2‑3); Rom. 11:11-2411I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. 12Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness? 13For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: 14If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them. 15For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? 16For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. 17And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; 18Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. 19Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. 20Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: 21For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 22Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. 23And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again. 24For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree? (Romans 11:11‑24), etc.); in the meantime He is calling believers out of this world by the gospel of His grace to comprise the Church (Acts 15:14; 26:1714Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. (Acts 15:14)
17Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, (Acts 26:17)
). When the full number of elect believers are saved and brought into the Church (Rom. 11:2525For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. (Romans 11:25)), God will resume His dealings with Israel and will bring a remnant from all 12 tribes into blessing (Rom. 11:26-2726And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: 27For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. (Romans 11:26‑27)). The Gentile nations will also be blessed under them in Christ's millennial kingdom. Hence, there has been a change in the dispensational ways of God from Law to Grace, administered in the Mystery, and there will be another change from the administration of the Mystery to the administration of the millennial kingdom. In a coming day, when the purpose of God will be fully worked out, the kingdom will have people on earth blessed in relation to Christ, and also people in heaven blessed with Christ.
Dispensations have often been confused with ages. Some have tried to homogenize them and make them into the same thing. For instance, Unger's Bible Dictionary says, "A dispensation is an era of time during which man is tested." C. I. Scofield's scheme of "Seven Dispensations" is another example of this mixture. However, ages and dispensations are not the same. W. Kelly said, “The word ‘dispensation’ has no reference to a particular period or age” (Lectures on the Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 27 – footnote). An "age" is a period of time, and a "dispensation" is a moral and spiritual ordering of God during a period of time, in relation to some specific truth that He has given to His house. In accord with this, J. N. Darby spoke of being "in" an age, but "under" a dispensation (Collected Writings, vol. 10, p. 12).
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