by E.W. Bullinger
Philologos Religious Online Books
How to Enjoy the Bible
E. W. Bullinger
E. W. Bullinger
III. The One Great Requirement of the Word:—"Rightly Dividing" It.
iii. Rightly Dividing the Word as to its Times and Dispensations
"Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; For Jehovah hath spoken," Isaiah 1:2
God hath spoken, "at sundry times," as well as "in divers manners" (Heb 1:1).
And, if we are to understand what He has spoken, we must learn to distinguish, not only the various peoples whom He has spoken, but the "sundry times" at which He has spoken to them, and also the "divers manners."
It is true that the word polumerwV (polumeros) means strictly, in many parts, or portions. But it is equally true that these parts were spoken at different, or "sundry times"; so that the rendering of the AV is literal as to the fact, and to the sense—though not literal to the Words.
The "time" when God spoke "to the fathers" is manifestly set in contrast with the time in which He hath "spoken unto us." The "time" in which "He spake by the prophets" stands in contrast with the time in which "He spake by His Son." And the "time past" is obviously distinguished from "these last days" (Heb 1:1).
So that Times and Dispensations are inseparable from the Divine Word; not only the Times in which the Words were spoken, but the Times of which they were spoken, and to which they refer.
These different times are called Dispensations.
The Greek word rendered Dispensation is oikonomia (oikonomia), and refers to the act of administering. By the Figure Metonymy, the act of administering is transferred to the time during which that administering is carried on.
The word itself is from oikoV (oikos), house and nemw (nemo), to dispense, to weigh or deal out, as a steward or housekeeper. Hence the word was used of the management or administration of a household.
Our English word "Dispensation" comes from the Latin: dis (apart), and pendere (to weigh): a weighing out. We still use the word in this particular sense in connection with medicine which is dispensed, i.e., weighed or measured out: the place where it is done being called "a Dispensary."*
* The Church of Rome uses it of the giving out of privileges called "indulgencies"; but as these are generally privileges to do without certain things, or to do certain things without incurring the penalties or penances, the word comes to have the sense of "doing without" or "dispensing with."
The Greek word Oikonomia is transliterated in our English word Economy; and we still preserve its original meaning when we speak of Political, Domestic or Social Economy, etc. This was its meaning at the date of our AV 1611, and it was used in the sense of administration. But, like many other words it degenerated by its usage;* and, as such administration was carried out rather with the view to saving than spending, so Economy came to mean frugality or thrift.
* See Part II, Canon III, the Biblical usage of words.
But the meaning of the Greek in the New Testament is not affected by these modern changes.
It is always Administration.
In Isaiah 22:21 it is rendered "government," and in verse 19 it is rendered "station" (RV "office").
In the New Testament it is a question whether the word is used in any other sense than that of administration. It is either the ACT of administering or of the TIME during which such act of administration is carried out.
The word occurs in Luke 16:2, 3, 4, where it is rendered "stewardship."
In four other places it is rendered "dispensation."
In 1 Corinthians 9:17, Paul says that "an administration is committed unto me."
In Ephesians 1:10 we learn that God's secret purpose* which He hath purposed in Himself is with a view to (not "in") the Administration of the fulness of times (RV the times, marg. seasons); when He will head up (RV sum up) "all things in Christ."
* This is the meaning of the words rendered, "mystery of His will."
In Ephesians 3:2 we learn that the "administration of the grace of God" was committed specially to Paul, that he might be the means of first making known the Mystery (or Secret).
This is further shown in verse 9, where the rendering "fellowship" should be administration:—"to bring to light, or enlighten all [as to] what [is] the administration of the Mystery (or Secret)."
In Colossians 1:25 we read "I am made a minister, according to the administration of God which is given to me for you, to fully preach the word of God."
* It is oikonomia in the Received Text (1550), though the Translators of 1611 must have read it oikodomia (oikodomia), for they translated it "edifying." It is oikodomia in Beza's Text (1565) and Elzevirs (1624).
These are all the places where the word Oikonomia occurs, and, in each, the idea is the same.
Our use of the term, now, in these pages, agrees with this usage; i.e. either the act of administration; or, by an easy transition (Metonymy), the time or period during which any special form of administration is carried on. This transference, however, is not necessary; for we may still think of Dispensational truth as being the same thing as Administrational Truth.
It is manifestly clear that God's principles of administration must always have been perfectly adapted to the "times and seasons" during which they have been respectively carried out.
God's principles of administration with Adam, before the Fall, must have been quite different from those with his immediate posterity after the Fall.
His administration with Israel "under the Law" was carried out on different principles from those which obtain now, during this present administration of grace.
These again are obviously quite different from those which will characterize God's coming administration in Judgment.
And these, again, will be necessarily quite different from those which will belong to the administration of glory in "the fulness of times" when all things shall be gathered together in one under the Headship of Christ (Eph 1:10).
The present administration of God is in Grace; not in Law, Judgment, or Glory. It belongs to the time which is called "the Administration of the Mystery" (or Secret): that Secret (as the word Mystery means in the Greek) "which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men" (Eph 3:5). It was "hid in God from the beginning of the world" (Eph 3:9). It "was kept secret since the world began" (Rom 16:25). But Paul was made the special administrator of all the truth connected with it. It was committed to him by God: and the Word of God could not be "fully preached" without it (Col 1:25, margin). The Word of truth can be preached to-day, but it cannot be "fully preached" without the truth connected with this Mystery.
Here then, at the outset, we have various administrations suited to the various and corresponding Times and Dispensations, during which they were carried out, and in force. In "other ages" certain truths were hidden, which are contrasted with the truths which are "now revealed."
In the same way the Lord Jesus said, "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now" (John 16:12).
It is clear therefore that, while "God hath spoken," everything which He has said belongs to its own proper Time and Dispensation. These times in which, or concerning which, He spoke, must therefore be carefully distinguished. "The Word of truth" must be rightly divided in this important matter, or, clearly, we shall not get the truth.
If we read into one Time or Dispensation that which belongs to another, we must necessarily have only confusion; and, confusion so great, that it will be absolutely impossible for us to have any idea of the purpose or meaning of what "God hath spoken."
We are specially enjoined by the Lord not to separate what God hath joined together; and it is equally true that we must not join together what He has separated.
If we take what God said and did in one Dispensation, and carry it forward to another in which His Administration was on quite a different principle; or, if we take a truth subsequently revealed, and read it backward into the Time when it was hidden from the sons of men, it is impossible for us to understand what we read; we shall find ourselves taking what is quite true of one Time, and using it to contradict what is also true of another Time.
God deals not only with the three distinct classes of persons (the Jew, the Gentile, and the Church of God), but He deals with them in distinct ages and epochs; and on different principles of Administration. If therefore we mix them all up together, and indiscriminately take what was said of one time and interpret it of another, we only create insuperable difficulties, and make it impossible for us to arrive at the truth of the revealed Word.
When the Lord Jesus in Luke 21:24 speaks of "the times of the Gentiles," He necessarily, by implication, contrasts these "times" with other times which are, obviously, "times of the Jews." He thus divides off, in a very marked manner, two of these "times," and sets one in contrast with the other.
Leaving these to be considered in their proper place and order, we must note that the right division of the subject-matter of "the Word of truth" will thus necessarily lead us in the second place to a right division of
We shall find that there are at least seven distinct Administrations each having its own beginning and ending clearly revealed and marked off.
These seven are, in turn, characterized by the principles of God's Administration, which mark all that He said and did during each special and distinct period.
We have for instance, the Theocratic Administration suited to the time of Innocence before the Fall (Gen 1,2).
We have the Patriarchal Administration suited to mankind after the Fall, but before the Law was given (Gen 4-Exo 20).
We have the Legal Administration suited only to Israel under the Law.
We have the present Administration of Grace which is for Jew and Gentile alike, i.e., for individuals out of both, without the distinction previously made.
After this will come the Judicial Administration preparatory to the restoration of all things which were spoken before by the prophets.
Then will follow the Millennial Dispensation: ending with the Administration of Glory in the Eternal State.
A. The Edenic State (Innocence)A. The Eternal State (Glory)
B. Mankind as a whole (Patriarchal)C. Israel (under Law)B. Mankind as a whole (Millennial)C. Israel (Judicial)
D. The Church of God. The Secret. The Dispensation of Grace.
We thus see that these times and periods of different Administrations have their correspondence: in which
- The first corresponds with the seventh;
- The second with the sixth;
- The third with the fifth;
- The fourth, occupying the central position, stands out alone by itself, and has no correspondence with any of the others.
The first and seventh correspond, each being characterized as Divine, in its origin and principles, God being in direct communion and intercourse with man; the one before the entrance of sin, and the other after the ending of sin.
The second and sixth are each occupied with mankind as a whole, the former being Patriarchal and the latter Millennial.
The third and fifth are occupied with Israel; in the former being governed under Law, in the latter judged "by the law."
The fourth, the Church of God, stands alone and by itself, as occupying the great central position, showing the "purpose of God"—round which all His counsels circle, and with reference to which they all exist according to His eternal purpose.
Let us look at them in order:—
(a) The Edenic Dispensation.—It is clear that the period beginning with Genesis 1:26 and going down to the end of Genesis 2 is perfectly unique. There is nothing like it until we come to the last, or seventh, Dispensation, which is the Eternal state. In these two there is only the innocence of man; and both are characterized by the absence of sin and the presence of God. God came down and communed with Adam, revealing Himself to him: and the mark of the Eternal state is given in the words, "The Tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them" (Rev 21:3).
Adam was directly under the Divine administration and tuition of God Himself. God was his Teacher, revealing Himself and His wonderful works to Adam. He visited Adam at certain definite times, with audible sounds by which His coming was known (Gen 3:8*). He came for the definite purpose of teaching man. He brought the animals to Adam to instruct him (Gen 2:19,20); He gave him a companion (Gen 2:21,22); and we know not what else He did, and would have done, had not all this Divine communion been suddenly snapped and suspended by the Fall. Such direct communion of man with God has, since that moment, been in abeyance, and will continue to be so until the curse shall have been removed, and the Edenic state of bliss find more than its counterpart in the Eternal state of Glory.
* The Hebrew lwq (chol), rendered voice, means any sound or noise in an extensive sense; e.g. crackling, Ecclesiastes 7:6; trumpet, Exodus 19:16; thunder, Exodus 20:18; noise, 1 Kings 1:45; sound, 2 Kings 6:32; proclamation, 2 Chronicles 24:9.
In this first Administration Adam was dealt with as innocent; and man can never be dealt with in a corresponding manner during all the succeeding Dispensations, until the curse and all its effects shall have been done away.
Man was then what is called "under probation." This marks off that Administration sharply and absolutely; for man is not now under probation. To suppose that he is so, is a popular fallacy which strikes at the root of the doctrines of Grace. Man has been tried and tested, and has been proved to be a ruin. Ever since that moment man has been dealt with as lost, guilty, ruined, helpless, unclean, and undone; and all this because of what he is, and not merely from what he has done. That is to say, he is not only a ruined sinner, but a ruined creature.
Man failed, just as Satan and Angels before him had failed under their trial. Man showed the same result, and proved that, apart from the Creator, no created being could stand. By Christ, the Creator, all things not only exist; but in Him only can they consist (Col 1:16,17).
The one test was THE WORD OF GOD. God had spoken; and the question was; Will man believe God or Satan?
This was the one simple test. It was not what man whittles down by his tradition to the "eating of an apple"; but in Genesis 3 the first crucial words are, "Hath God said?" (v 1).
Satan is introduced to us as using these words, and as substituting two lies for what God had said:—
- "Ye shall be as God";
- "Ye shall not surely die."
These two lies are the foundation of Satan's old religion and man's "New Theology," and are the hall-marks of the coming Apostasy, under the Beast of Revelation 13.
Our first parents believed Satan's lies, and their descendants have followed in their steps. Part of them believe neither God nor the Old Serpent; the bulk of them believe only Satan.
The teaching of demons is to-day embraced by the strictest of Evangelicals and Protestants, as well as by the Heathen, by Romanists, and by Spiritists: and they all unite in endorsing these two great lies of the Old Serpent. They all believe and hold (1) That man has within him the Divine ("Ye shall be as God"): (2) that "There is no death" ("Ye shall not surely die").
Man was under probation, and he failed in the proving.
Never again in any succeeding Dispensation has he been, or can he be thus tried.
Popular theology still teaches that "man is under probation." It is false! Man has been tried, and declared to be, in consequence, utterly ruined, and "at enmity with God"; he is not "subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be," and has "no good thing" in him.
Man needs no further probation to verify this solemn fact.
But we must return to our special point, which is this: All that was said and done by God in that first Administration, the Edenic State, was peculiar to, and appropriate only to that state, and to no other. It can never be characteristic of any other Dispensation.
God was man's teacher—God was His own Revealer. He gave man his trial and his test, and after these had done their work God pronounced His sentence on man, and his doom on the Old Serpent.
(b) The Patriarchal Dispensation.—In the second Administration, the one great principle on which mankind was treated was as a whole, and as having completely failed under the probation in which man had been placed. Having lost the Divine teaching, the Dispensation is characterized as the "Times of Ignorance" (Acts 17:30).
Mankind fails collectively, as man had failed individually; and furnishes another example of the fact that, no created being or beings can stand, apart from the upholding power of the Creator (Col 1:16,17).
All the words and actions of Jehovah were appropriate to this second Administration.
The "times of ignorance" are contrasted in Acts 17:30 with later times, which are distinguished by the words, "But now."
In those times God "overlooked" that which He could not overlook after He had given the Law; those things which, before the Law, were "sins," became afterward "transgressions."
The principles which governed God's Administration in those "times of ignorance," could not be appropriate for the times when He revealed His Law by Moses, and made known His will to the sons of men.
It is clear, therefore, that these Dispensations must be rightly divided; for even the future judgment of mankind is based on the distinction which we must make between these two periods, viz., "without law" and "under law." See Romans 2:12.
shall PERISH also without law;
And as many as have sinned IN THE LAW
shall be JUDGED by the law.
It is evident that these two principles belong to the two different Dispensations (before and after the Law) respectively. They teach us that the same principles must prevail when the final judgment of those who have lived in both Dispensations shall come.
We may well believe also that the same principle will be acted on in the future judgment of those who are living in this present Dispensation; for there are, to-day, those who sin without having heard the Gospel, and there are those who have heard it and have not obeyed it (2 Thess 1:8).
If we rightly divide these, and their judgments also, as announced in Romans 2:10, 12, we shall have the key to a problem which has perplexed many a child of God.
These then are the great principles which govern God's dealings with mankind; those that were "without law," and those who were "under law": those that are without the Gospel, and those who are under the Gospel.
It was not merely, or only, that one dispensation was "without law" and another "under law," but that there were those in each who knew the law and those who did not; those who obeyed and those who obeyed not.
And God dealt with mankind on this principle of judgment in all subsequent dispensations: for all were under His administration as to government.
The second Dispensation, that which succeeded the Fall, was governed by Patriarchal Law, as the following one was governed by Mosaic Law.
Both laws were given by God.
It is often supposed that before the Mosaic Law mankind were left to themselves.
But such was not the case. Mankind as a whole was in a sense "under law," but it was "unwritten law"; while Israel was under written law, "written by the finger of God" (Exo 31:18).
No sooner had our first parents been driven out from their first abode and passed from God's administration which corresponded with and marked their state of innocence, than the different character of His new administration was seen.
His first act was to point out THE WAY BACK to Himself and to peace with God.
(1) It is evident that the way back was declared to be by sacrifice, by substitution, and by blood.
Those who believed God obeyed the commands which He must have given and made known.
It was "by faith" that Abel brought his substitute—the Sacrificial Lamb—to suffer in his stead. But "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom 10:17). Abel, therefore, with the rest of mankind, must have heard and known God's command. Abel obeyed it. It was "by faith": otherwise it would have been by fancy. Hence, Abel "obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of His gifts" (Heb 11:4).
God testified of Abel's offering by consuming it with "fire from heaven."
For only by such fire God "accepted" sacrifice (Psa 20:3, margin and compare Lev 9:24; Judg 6:21; 1 Kings 18:38; 1 Chron 21:26; 2 Chron 7:1): not by any fire emanating from or kindled on this earth. Only by such formal acceptance with "fire from heaven," did God "testify" of and have respect to Abel's gifts. Only by such acceptance did Abel "obtain witness that he was righteous." Only by such witness did God show, and Cain know, that He "had not respect" to the offering that Cain brought unto the Lord.
The fire fell upon Abel's lamb, instead of upon Abel; upon the substitute, instead of upon the sinner.
But it fell not on Cain's offering—for God did not accept it. It was the "fruit of the ground" (Gen 4:2,3), the fruit of that which God had only just declared, "Cursed be the ground" (Gen 3:17).
Thus was the way back to God opened and made clear; and thus was man's disobedience manifested.
There was God's way, which Abel took; and there was man's way, which Cain invented. There have been but those two ways back to God from that day to this.
- One was God's, and the other was man's.
- One was by faith, the other by works.
- One was Christ, the other was Religion.
- One was by God's grace, the other was by human merit.
This is God's way now, by faith through Grace—faith in Christ—the Saviour whom God has provided, which is summed up in the words,
All other ways are one; for however they may differ, they are all alike in saying,
They differ only in what that "something" is to be; and those who differ from them, as Abel did, are ever in great danger of getting killed, as Abel was. For nothing is so cruel as "Religion."
Thus the first act in God's changed administration after the Fall was to open the way back to Himself; and it is placed unmistakably on the forefront of revelation.
But there are many other marks as to the character of God's administration.
If we will search for its principles we shall find various words, expressions, and hints, casually dropped, which give us some insight into the principles which characterized that administration; for there is no attempt to give a detailed description of them. We are left to note and mark them for ourselves.
(2) It is evident that there was a Place of worship, a place set apart where access to the LORD was to be had.
At the moment of the Fall, when man was driven out, the LORD God "placed [as in a tabernacle], at the east of the Garden of Eden, Cherubim" (Gen 3:24). The word "placed" is Nka#$af (shakan), to place, station or dwell in a tabernacle. Hence it is used of God's dwelling-place among His people.*
* Exodus 25:8, 29:45,46; Joshua 18:1, 22:19; 1 Kings 6:13, 8:12; 2 Chronicles 6:1; Psalm 68:18. It is from this word that we have the word shekinah, that glorious light which was the symbol of God's presence in that tabernacle.
Hither Abel and Cain brought their offerings (Gen 4:3,4; compare Lev 1:3). Thither Cain "went out from the presence of the LORD" (v 16). At its "door" lay the sin-offering which Cain might have brought as well as Abel (Gen 4:7).
Hence, the statement that certain things were done "before the LORD" expressed a great reality (Gen 13:13, 18:22, 19:27, 27:7. Compare Exo 16:9,33, 23:17, 33:7, etc.).
(3) Certain persons evidently had official positions. Shem was one who probably had charge of this tent or tents (Gen 9:26,27).
Melchisedek was "a priest of the Most High God" (Gen 14:18). Heads of families so acted (Gen 8:20, 12:8, 35:7).
Tithes were already paid (Heb 7:9).
The first-born evidently had certain privileges, among them the duty of offering sacrifices. Who else can "the young men" be whom we find so acting in Exodus 24:5, before the consecration of Aaron and his sons under the Law, as priests of the nation as such?
If there were priests, so were there preachers also (2 Peter 2:5), and prophets (Gen 20:7; Jude 14,15).
(4) Certain official garments appear to have been worn by those who thus officiated. What was the "goodly raiment of her eldest son Esau," which Rebekah stored so carefully, but clothes or garments afterward used by the priests under the Law? (compare Lev 21:10; Exo 35:19; Lev 10:6*). The word "goodly" is also used (though not exclusively) of sacred things in connection with the Temple (2 Chron 36:10; Isa 64:11; Lam 1:10**).
* In all these passages the Hebrew word Mydigafb: (begadim) is the same; but not so in Deuteronomy 29:5, where Moses says of the ordinary clothes of the people, "your clothes waxed not old." Here it is, hmafl:#&a (salmah).
** Rendered "pleasant" in the latter passages.
If this be so, we can understand why Esau was "profane" when he despised his birthright (Heb 12:16).
Joseph's "coat of many colours," instead of being (according to some) a peculiar coat of "gaudy patchwork," or, according to others, an ordinary "long tunic" in general wear, seems to have been a special garment by which Jacob designated him for one, at least, of the three parts of the birthright which Reuben had forfeited.* At any rate, the word rendered colours (Mys@ip@a, passim) is always used of colours** and never of pieces; and though Aaron's coat is not actually so called, it was so in fact, as we see from Exodus 39:1 and Exodus 28:4, 39, where it is said to be embroidered. The word rendered "coat" (tnt&ek@:, k'thoneth) is also associated with the coats of the priests,*** or with those of royalty (2 Sam 13:18,19).
* According to 1 Chronicles 5:1,2, Reuben forfeited his birthright (Gen 35:22; compare 49:3,4). This birth-right consisted of three parts. Levi obtained the priestly office; as Judah had the part connected with rule, indicated by the possession of the tribal "staff" or "sceptre," and as Joseph had the firstborn's double portion, in Ephraim and Manasseh, according to Deut 33:17.
** Genesis 37:3,23,32; 2 Samuel 13:18,19.
***See Ezra 2:69; Nehemiah 7:70,72.
(5) Again, certain forms and ceremonies are also incidentally mentioned, which give us a still further insight into the nature of the administration of that dispensation. Thus we have anointing or consecration with oil (Gen 28:18, 31:13); building of altars (Gen 8:20, 12:7, 35:1,3, etc.); pouring out drink offerings (Gen 35:14); the making of a covenant by sacrifice (Gen 15:9-18); the keeping of the Sabbath, before the actual proclamation of the Law (Exo 16:23; compare Exo 15:25 and Deut 5:12); the offering of "seven ewe lambs" (Gen 21:31); the distinction between "clean" and "unclean" (Gen 7:2, 8:20); the prohibition of blood as food (Gen 9:4); the execution of the murderer (Gen 9:6, 42:22); the prohibition of adultery (Gen 12:18, 26:10, 39:9, 49:4); the binding nature of oaths (Gen 26:28); the obligation of vows (Gen 28:20-22, 31:13); the sin of fornication (Gen 34:7); marriage with the uncircumcised (Gen 34:14; compare Exo 34:16); honouring of parents (Gen 9:25,26); purification, or ceremonial cleansing for worship (Gen 35:2); the birthright of the firstborn (Gen 25:31; compare Exo 22:29 and Deut 21:17); and the marrying of the brother's widow (Gen 38:8).
What are all these but so many hints and glimpses which reveal the existence of an orderly administration, which must have been Divinely promulgated, and exactly suited for that dispensation? All was not confusion as the unobservant reader might suppose. Men were not left to themselves during that Patriarchal Dispensation.
But to bring the laws of that administration into another dispensation, either for the purpose of limitation or supplement, is to mix up together things which are perfectly distinct, and to introduce confusion where all is otherwise in perfect order.
(c) The Israelite Dispensation "under Law."—In the third Administration we have a totally different principle involved. All is changed by the giving of the Law. This third Dispensation stands out in contrast with the previous one, which was "without Law"; as it does from this present Dispensation, which is characterized by Grace.
The communications of God, and His dealings with Israel, were appropriate to, and in harmony with, the principles of His administration "under law."
If we read all that into this present Dispensation, and interpret it of ourselves, we at once place ourselves under a covenant of works, and practically deny our standing in grace.
Unless we rightly divide the Word of truth in this matter we shall be filled with confusion.
It was true, in that Dispensation of Works, to say: "When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save himself [Heb., his soul] alive" (Eze 18:27). But to interpret that of ourselves, now, is contrary to fact: and to do so is to flatly deny our true church-standing which declares, that we are not saved by works,* but by grace (Titus 3:5; Rom 11:6).
* If any think of James 2 as contradicting this, let them turn to James 1:1, and they will see that the Epistle is addressed "To the Twelve Tribes," and is therefore quite in harmony with that Epistle (see above).
The Ceremonial Law was given to Israel; not to Assyria or Egypt, or any other nation. Any precepts, of course, that may be of universal application will be wisely applied. The commands as to the food to be used or avoided were neither meaningless nor arbitrary, but were given according to the infinite knowledge of God. It will be our wisdom, therefore, if we are guided by them for our health's sake; but in no sense as being "under law."
The Ceremonial Law continued down to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the burning of the Temple, when it ceased absolutely, as it had already ceased relatively, by the death and sacrifice of Christ, which fulfilled the law (Col 2:14, etc.).
The four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles do not belong to this present Gospel Dispensation of Grace, but they rather close up the Dispensation of the Law (the Acts being transitional).
Christ did not come "to found a church" as those assert who do not heed the difference between the various Dispensations. That is man's, and Rome's, constant assertion. But God's revelation tells us that "Jesus Christ was a MINISTER OF THE CIRCUMCISION, for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the Fathers, and that the Gentiles (after Israel's salvation) might glorify God for His mercy" (Rom 15:8,9).
Christ's coming had reference to the Jew and Gentile, not to the founding of a church.
The Jews rejected the Kingdom and crucified their king. And the Gentiles (as such) have not yet glorified God for His mercy.
A subsequent offer was afterward made by Peter, to whom "the keys of the kingdom" were given (not of the Church, but of the Kingdom). The Kingdom was again proclaimed in the Acts, and the promise of Christ's return on their national repentance was repeated (Acts 3:19-21, RV).
But the command to repent was unheeded by the nation and its rulers; and so, in the Acts of the Apostles, we see the gradual transition taking place, until the final pronouncement of God's rejection of the nation is formally made by Paul in Acts 28:24-28.
(d) The Ecclesia: the Dispensation of Grace.—In this the fourth Dispensation neither Jews nor Gentiles are dealt with as such: but, individuals, both "transgressors" of the Jews and "sinners of the Gentiles," are called out, and made into a new body, a third People, called "the Church of God," in which now "there is neither Jew nor Gentile...but all are one in Christ Jesus"; being baptized into the body of Christ, not with the old material element of water, but with the new spiritual medium or element of pneuma hagion (Gal 3:27,28).
All this had been kept secret until it was revealed to Paul and made known by the prophets and apostles in "prophetic writings" (Rom 16:25,26).
Had it been made the subject of prophecy the Jew, to-day, could reply against God and say that he was obliged to fulfil prophecy. It was therefore "hid in God" (Eph 3:9). God kept the secret to Himself. What He would have done had the nation of Israel obeyed the command to repent, in Acts 3:19, 20, none can tell. God is sovereign, and we may be perfectly sure that the Scripture would have been fulfilled. Nothing was unforeknown, or unforeseen; for the members of the Church of God were "chosen in Christ BEFORE the foundation of the world" (Eph 1:4). All we can say is that "the secret things belong unto God." Those that are revealed alone concern us.
One of these secrets, the "Great" one (1 Tim 3:16; Eph 5:32), has been revealed; and we now rejoice in its revelation.
This Dispensation of "the Church of God," of "the grace of God," and of the "Spirit of God" commenced outwardly by the ministry of Paul, in the Dispensation or administration committed formally to him; and inwardly by the revelation of the mystery as further set forth in its fulness in those epistles which he wrote from his prison in Rome: Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.
This Dispensation will end by the members of Christ's body, the Church of the living God, being "received up in glory" (1 Tim 3:16); "caught up to meet the Lord in the air, so to be ever with the Lord" (1 Thess 4:17; Phil 3:20,21). This is called in 2 Thessalonians 2:1, "our gathering together unto Him"; and this glorious rapture will close this fourth Dispensation. The one object, therefore, of this Dispensation is not, as is popularly supposed, the conversion of the world; still less its social improvement: but the formation of the one spiritual Body of Christ by calling out those who were chosen in Him "before the foundation of the world."
To that end, and that alone, is this good news made known to-day in all the world. In no former Dispensation was such a Gospel ever preached; and in no subsequent one will the good news of such free grace be proclaimed.
Before this Dispensation, and after it, all is connected with man, and what he is, and what he is to do. But in this Dispensation it is a question of what Christ is, and of what He has done.
This Dispensation of grace will be followed by:
When the Church, the mystical body of Christ, has been "received up in glory" the day of grace will be over. And Israel will once more be dealt with, not again under law, but under judgment.
The present Dispensation is (apart from God's purpose in the election of grace) called "Man's Day" (1 Cor 4:3, marg.), because it is during this present period that man is judging. But, the next Dispensation is called "the Lord's Day" (Rev 1:10), because that will be the time when He will judge. Man's day of judging will be closed and the Lord's day of judging will begin.
Hence "the day of the Lord" is the day of the Lord's judging and ruling; and the first occurrence of the expression gives us its essential meaning; and the object and aim of that judgment.* It will be the day when
And the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down:
And the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day."
The exaltation of Jehovah.
The whole of that dispensation is called "the Day of the Lord." It is the day which has to do with "times and seasons"; with Israel and the Gentiles. But which has nothing to do with "the Church of God."
This is clear from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-5. That day cannot overtake the Church of God "as a thief," because the Church has nothing to do with "times and seasons." That day has to do with those whom it will thus "overtake."
All that is said and done in that coming dispensation is appropriate to, and in harmony with, the great principle which will characterize God's administration in that day.
It will then be right for Israel to rejoice over the judgments inflicted on all their enemies.
Then, the "Imprecatory Psalms" will be in their appropriate place.
That dispensation of judgment will have its own peculiar characteristics; and language is therefore used of it which could never have been used in any former dispensation.
Israel will not again be under law; but it will be under a "new covenant," when the stony or hard heart of flesh will be taken away, and a new heart implanted within them, and a new spirit imparted to them (Jer 31:31-34; Eze 36:24-38), making Israel, then, the only indefectible nation that the world has ever seen.
This belongs, with the Dispensation which follows it, to "the times of the restitution of all things which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began" (Acts 3:21).
So that, here again, we have certain definite times spoken of.
These "times of restitution" include the succeeding, or
(f) The Millennial or Theocratic Dispensation.—The Sixth Dispensation, in which mankind will again be dealt with as a whole. It will begin with the binding of Satan (Rev 20:1,2) and will end with the great white throne and the lake of fire (Rev 20:15). A thousand years will be the period of its duration.
The principle of God's dealings with men during these Millennial days will be neither Law, nor Grace, nor Judgment; but Righteousness, Power, and Glory. It will be the administration of Righteousness in all its purity. The prayer for the coming kingdom will then, at length, find its abundant answer; the kingdom of God will have come at last; and His will will then be done on earth as it is done in heaven.
That dispensation is characterized by the binding of Satan. It is clear, therefore, that language peculiar to that time would not be appropriate to any other preceding dispensation, in which Satan is not bound.
It stands alone, unique; and it issues in the last or seventh Dispensation, which corresponds with the first Edenic state, and may be called
(g) The Eternal State.—Very little is said about this last. In this respect it is like the first. It begins at Revelation 21:1, with "the new Heavens and the new Earth," and nothing is said about its end.
Beyond this, therefore, we cannot go. In these last two chapters of Revelation we have all that can be known.
These, then, are the seven Times or Dispensations; each of which has its own defined beginning and ending; and its own special characteristics. It is necessary for us to rightly divide them, and rightly to divide the Word of truth which tells us of them.
It may help us if we summarize these, by connecting each with a definite characteristic word or thought.
- 1st. Innocence
- 2nd. Without Law.
- 3rd. Under Law.
- 4th. Under Grace.
- 5th. Under Judgment.
- 6th. Millennial.
- 7th. Glory.
- 1st. The Edenic state ended in the expulsion from Eden.
- 2nd. The Period without Law ended with the Flood and the Judgment on Babel.
- 3rd. The Period under Law ended in the Rejection of Israel.
- 4th. The Dispensation of Grace will end in the Rapture of the Church, and "the Day of the Lord."
- 5th. The Dispensation of Judgment will end in the Destruction of Anti-Christ.
- 6th. The Millennium will end in the Destruction of Satan, and the Judgment of the Great White throne.
- 7th. Will have "no end."
It must be evident that, in all these seven Dispensations, we have a variety of different characteristics which demand the utmost care and attention which we are able to give them.
There are, however, two further matters on which to speak; for beside these distinct landmarks by which these dispensations are known, there are larger "times" which embrace or overlap more than one of these divisions.
We have "the times of the Gentiles," which not only embrace this present Church Dispensation, but stand specially in contrast with the Jews. They commence with Jerusalem falling under the power of Babylon; they continue during the whole period while Jerusalem is "trodden down of the Gentiles" (Luke 21:24); and they will end only when the Gentiles shall cease thus to tread down Jerusalem, and its streets shall be again trodden by its rightful owners, the People of Israel. Then those "times of the Gentiles" will be changed for the times of the Jews.
These same times are referred to in Romans 11:25: "Blindness in part is happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in." This is usually spoken of as pertaining to the completion of the Church. But the Church is not in question here at all. It is the relation between the Jews and the Gentiles; and the Church is not composed of Gentiles as distinct from Jews, or of Jews as distinct from Gentiles. For it is made up both of Jews and Gentiles, who, on becoming members of "the Church of God," lose this distinction altogether, being made members of a Body in which now there is neither Jew nor Gentile. This is expressly stated in Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11. (Compare Rom 10:12; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 5:6; Eph 2:15.) This must therefore refer to the fulness or filling up of the times of the Gentiles; and the word "Gentiles" must be understood as being put for the "times" which they fill up.
Moreover, Israel will not be saved by the Rapture of the Church, but by the coming of "the Deliverer out of Zion, turning away ungodliness from Jacob." It is Isaiah 59:20 that is being quoted in Romans 11:26, and not 1 Thessalonians 4:16; and there is nothing about the "fulness" or completion of the Church in Isaiah.
Before the Deliverer comes there must be that from which Israel is to be delivered; and that will be the great Tribulation, "when the enemy shall come in like a flood" (see Isa 59:19-21).
It is clear, therefore, that Romans 11:25 refers to the same "times of the Gentiles" of which the Lord speaks in Luke 21:24.
There is another matter connected with these Times and Dispensations. This is revealed by our Lord's own action in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-20). He stood up and read Isaiah 61:1, 2. He read the first verse; but, after He had read the first sentence in the second verse, "HE CLOSED THE BOOK, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down" (Luke 4:20).
Why did the Lord close the book at that point? The answer to this question is the revelation to us of the great principle which we are now, and here, insisting upon. The next sentence belonged, and still belongs, to a yet future dispensation. "The acceptable year of the Lord" had come. But "the day of vengeance of our God" had not (and has not even yet) come. The Lord divided these two Dispensations off by closing the book, and that is what we must do if we are not to join together, and thus confuse and confound, to our own great hindrance and loss, that which God has separated and distinguished. But alas! most Christians insist on keeping that book open, and refuse to learn the lesson here emphatically taught and enforced by the Lord.
There is no mark in the Hebrew text to indicate such a break, which involves an interval of nearly 2,000 years: and yet the break is surely there.
As to "the acceptable year of the Lord," Christ could and did say: "This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears" (Luke 4:21). But He could not have said it if He had read the next sentence, "and the day of vengeance of our God." And yet the whole of this present Church Dispensation, the present interval of the Dispensation of Grace, comes between those two sentences. Only a comma divides them in our English Translation.
This is because the Mystery (or Secret) of the Church was "hid in God," and had not yet been revealed to the sons of men. How then could mention be made of it? It was necessarily passed over. Hence the Lord "closed the book" and "sat down."
This was why the prophets who spoke and wrote "as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Peter 1:21) "enquired and searched diligently what, or WHAT MANNER OF TIME (concerning Christ) the Spirit which was in them could signify, when it testified beforehand of the SUFFERINGS of Christ, and the GLORY which should follow" (1 Peter 1:10,11). There was nothing to tell them what length of "time" should elapse between "the sufferings and the glory"; whether the glory should follow immediately on the sufferings; or whether there should be any interval of time at all between them. Hence, their enquiry, and their search. The prophets themselves revealed the sufferings; they saw them, and, just as it is when one views the outline of a nearer range of mountains, they saw the outline of another range beyond them as they testified of the "glory": but what distance separated those two mountain ranges, or what valleys and hills, and cities and lakes, lay between them they could not see. In like manner the events which lay between the "sufferings" and the glory that should follow was not revealed either to them, or by them. We know, now, that nearly 1,900 years have passed since the first coming and the "sufferings" of Christ; but the "glory" has not yet been revealed. Notwithstanding this, many treat these times and dispensations as of no account, and of no importance in their study of the Scriptures. The majority of Bible Students do not "enquire" at all; they neither search, nor "search diligently," as to these times; nay, they even reproach those who would thus search. Those who, like ourselves, would thus humbly search are derided; and this special time between the present and the coming Dispensation has been nick-named by them "the Gap theory." But it is no theory at all. The action of our adorable Lord in the Synagogue at Nazareth when He "closed the book" was no "theory." He showed that there was a gap, and that gap was a fact and not a fiction.
We are content to follow His example and share His rejection when at Nazareth. We would learn the lesson that He there taught. We would "open the book," the Bible, like Ezra, and search, and try and find out why the Lord "closed the book" of Isaiah; and, like the prophets of old, would search diligently as to "what manner of time" is taught by the Holy Spirit of God in these Scriptures of truth.
In the English Bible there is only a comma between the "sufferings and the glory" in 1 Peter 1:11. See also 1 Peter 4:13, 5:1; and Luke 24:26, where we have the same two "times" spoken of, with the "gap" of our present Dispensation passed over, as silently as though to the inspired speakers and writers this Dispensation of the Church of God were non-existent.
This is why the closing words of the Four Gospels do not lead us on into this present Dispensation, but leap over it. Having been occupied with the proclamation of the Kingdom they "close the book," and when it is opened again, it is opened at the Apocalypse, where we see the Kingdom set up with Divine power and glory.*
* See further on this point in Section II of Chapter II of Part I, page 16.
The period during which the rejected kingdom is in abeyance is not taken account of in the four Gospels, for it had not yet been revealed.
It was one of "the secrets of the kingdom" spoken of by our Lord in Matthew 13:11, and then made known by Him.
The seven parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13 leap over this present Dispensation, as if it had no existence. They carry over the truths concerning the Kingdom, and continue them as though the Kingdom had never been in abeyance. To understand these seven parables aright we must entirely exclude the Church of God, and the period of its Dispensation, and read them without any reference whatever to it. We can then easily see which part of each parable belongs to the past Dispensation, and which part belongs to the next.
There are many places in Scripture in which this passing over of the present Dispensation is very plainly evident; and where, in our reading, we have, like our Lord, to "close the book." If we fail to do this, and if we refuse to notice these so-called "gaps," we cannot possibly understand the Scriptures which we read.
We give a few by way of example, placing this mark (—) to indicate the parenthesis of this present Dispensation, which comes between the previous Dispensation of Law, and the next Dispensation of Judgment which is to follow this Present Dispensation of Grace.
Psalm 118:22, "The stone which the builders refused (—) is become the head-stone of the corner."
Isaiah 9:6, "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: (—) and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." (Compare Luke 1:31,32.)
Isaiah 53:10, 11, "It pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief; when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin (—) he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hands. He shall see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied."
Zechariah 9:9, 10, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass. (—) And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth."
Luke 1:32, 32, "And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. (—) He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David."*
* Others may be seen in Amos 9:10,11; Dan 9:26,27; Hab 2:13,14; Zeph 3:7,8; Zech 8:2,3; Luke 21:26.
All this shows us the far-reaching consequences of the Lord's example in the Synagogue at Nazareth. Far-reaching in the confusion which arises from not heeding it; and far-reaching also in the happy results of applying the same principle that He applied to Isaiah 61:1, 2, in all the other passages where the present Dispensation is passed over, and indicated only by a comma.
This applies only to Scriptures where the two other Dispensations are actually referred to. But there are many where only one is in question; and more care is then required to detect it, so as not to interpret of one Dispensation that which refers to another.
God's dealings in each period correspond with its distinct character; and if we would understand those dealings we must be able, readily, to classify the truth appropriate to each.
This classification forms a subject quite distinct from the Dispensations themselves, and demands separate treatment, which we propose to give in our next chapter.