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AN INTRODUCTION TO DISPENSATIONAL TRUTH

AN INTRODUCTION TO DISPENSATIONAL TRUTH

Why is it necessary to understand dispensational truth? It is necessary because most people who do not approach the Bible dispensationally assume that God has only one plan for the ages, and that plan is for human beings to be saved. But if one desires to understand what we can of God, one must understand that God’s plans for the ages certainly include salvation, but there is so much more to understand than just that. I do not mean to imply that salvation is not an important plan, only that it is just one of God’s plans. The more we understand what His plans and purposes are, the more we understand Who God is. And isn’t that one of the most important reasons for studying God’s written Word, i.e. to know God?

I believe the Bible is clear on the fact that God is to be praised both in heaven and on earth. Because that is so, God has a plan for the earth and another plan for heaven. Basically dispensational truth is an understanding that Israel is at the center of God’s plans for the earth and that the church is at the center of His plans for heaven. It’s really that simple. Allow me to quote two scriptures that will prove the preceding statement.

“But ye (Israel) are a chosen generation (race), a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should shew forth the praises of Him Who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9). Note the reason Israel was chosen. It was to shew forth the praises of God. To whom? To the nations. In short, Israel was to be God’s witness to the nations of the earth as to Who He is.

But how do we know that Peter is speaking of Israel? The only way to answer that question (or any question relating to the study of God’s Word) is by comparing Scripture with Scripture. Indeed we do have a comparable scripture. We read in Ex. 19:3-6, “And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians…..Now therefore if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people, for all the earth is Mine, and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words that thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel‘”. In both I Peter 2 and Ex. 19 the phrases a kingdom of priests”, “an holy nation” and “peculiar treasure ” are used. It is obvious that in Exodus these phrases are used of Israel. By comparing Scripture with Scripture we must conclude that Peter is also speaking of Israel. May I also respectfully remind the reader that the church is not a nation.

We read in Eph. 3:10 “…..unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God“. In other words, the church was chosen by God to witness to principalities and powers in heavenly places of His manifold wisdom.

There are two different bodies (Israel and the church) to witness to two different beings (earthly and heavenly) in two different places. If one does not know which scriptures speak of which plan, I don’t see how one can understand God’s Word. A dispensational approach to Bible study then, is an approach which distinguishes between the two plans, in other words, it “rightly divides the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15).*

We will consider the following:

A. THE SCRIPTURAL DEFINITION OF “DISPENSATION”

II. DISPENSATIONAL TRUTHS AND UNIVERSAL TRUTHS

A. DISPENSATIONAL TRUTHS

B. UNIVERSAL TRUTHS

III. A STUDY OF DISPENSATIONAL TRUTH: GOD’S TWO PLANS

A. GOD’S PLANS FOR THE EARTH

B. “NOT MY PEOPLE”

C. ISRAEL IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

D. THE CHURCH WHICH IS HIS BODY

E. RIGHTLY DIVIDING THE WORD OF TRUTH

III. SOME OF THE MORE IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH

IV. SOME OF THE MORE IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PREVIOUS DISPENSATION AND THE PRESENT DISPENSATION 

V. THE EPISTLES WRITTEN TO THE CHURCH WHICH IS HIS BODY

VI. CONCLUSION

A. THE SCRIPTURAL DEFINITION OF “DISPENSATION”

My intention is to define the word “dispensation” from its scriptural use. But more than that, I will suggest a synonym for “dispensation” that will fit into the context of each of the eight occurrences (Luke 16:2-4- three times, I Cor. 9:17, Eph. 1:10, 3:2, and 9 and Col. 1:25). I will not quote each of these verses but the reader is encouraged to test the suggested synonym with all eight.

The Greek word translated “dispensation” is “oikonomia”. It is made up of two words, “Oiko” meaning “house” and” nomia” which means “law”. So literally, “oikonomia” means “house law”. The type of law and the household will be gleaned from the context. We might also think of “dispensation” as a dispensing of one’s will in how a household is managed.

The first occurrences are in Luke 16:2-4, “….give an account of thy stewardship (Gr. “oikonomia”); for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship (Gr. “oikonomia“): I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship (Gr. “oikonomia”), they may receive me unto their houses”. To use the literal meaning of “oikonomia” we might translate this phrase, “Give an account of your house law”.

“House law” does not easily fit into an English translation. For that reason I believe that it would be helpful to find a synonym for “house law”. It is clear that the steward of Luke 16 is managing his master’s household. I would suggest therefore, the term “management style” or “management” might be an adequate translation of the Greek “oikonomia”. Management style ” is a synonym that is easier to adapt to the context of each of the occurrences of “oikonomia” and it means the same as “house law”. So then, we might translate these verses as, “give an account of thy management“, and “when I am put out of the management“. In this context then, the management style is the steward’s and the household is the master’s.

In each of the eight occurrences the word “management” may be used to translate the Greek word. Therefore, we may conclude that “dispensation” is the management of a household. It is how one dispenses their will in terms of the managing of their household.

In terms of God’s plans for the ages, because God “manages” the entire world, let us consider His “household” as the world. As the reader continues in this study, it will become clear that God’s management of the world is very different in the present dispensation than it had been in the previous dispensation.*

II. DISPENSATIONAL TRUTHS AND UNIVERSAL TRUTHS

If one is to understand dispensational truths, one must understand that there are dispensational truths and there are universal truths. The former may change, but the latter are always true.

A. DISPENSATIONAL TRUTHS

Acts 28:8-9 is a passage that tells of the sick father of Paul’s host. We read in verse 8b-9, “Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured”. We learn from this passage that, as late as Acts 28, Paul had, and used, the gift of healing by the laying on of hands.

But Paul no longer had the gift of healing after Acts 28. We read, for example in II Tim. 4:20, “…..and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus”. If  the gift of healing  was still in evidence after Acts 28 Paul would certainly not have left his co-worker sick.

This is an example of God’s dealing one way in one dispensation and another way in a different dispensation. When we see a change in God’s management style (dispensation) we begin to see dispensational truth.*

B. UNIVERSAL TRUTHS

As stated above, a universal truth is one that is always true, it never changes, it is true in every dispensation for every person. An example of a universal truth is found in John 4:24 where we read, “God is spirit” (the indefinite article “a” is not in the manuscripts). It is true that God did take on the form of man when Christ was born to Mary, but that form did not replace the very nature of God, Who is spirit. God has always been and always will be spirit, that is a universal truth.

Another very important universal truth is God’s plan of salvation. God’s plan of salvation has always been the same for all persons regardless of the dispensation in which they lived or their national origin. We read in Eph. 2:8-9, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast”. This is a universal truth. It has always been true of every person before, during and after God dealt with Israel in terms of their obedience to the law.

As we shall see in the paragraphs below, it is belief in God’s message that makes one righteous. That message may vary from one person to the next, but if one believes that message he is saved by God’s grace. (“For by grace are ye save through faith”).

We read in Gal. 3:6, “Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness”. What was the message that Abraham believed? That question is answered in Gen. 15:5-6, “And He brought him forth abroad, and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them’; and He said unto him, ‘So shall thy seed be’. And he believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness”. So when Abraham believed the message that God had for him, ( i.e. his seed would be as the stars of heaven in number) that belief was counted to Abraham as righteousness.

The Greek word translated “believed” in Gal. 3:6 is “pisteuo“. The Greek word translated “faith” in Heb. 11 is “pistis” and is obviously from the same root. Dr. E. W. Bullinger gives the following definition of “pisteuo“, “To have faith in, hence to believe“. Therefore, when we read of those mentioned in Heb. 11 who had faith, we know that they believed God. For example, we read in Heb. 11:7, “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house: by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith“. Noah believed the message that God had for him concerning the flood, and that belief made him righteous. In other words, Noah was saved by his belief, i.e. his faith in God’s message for him. (“By grace are ye saved through faith”).

Certainly, the message that Noah believed was different than the message given to Abraham, but they were both made righteous and thereby saved from eternal death, because they believed the message that God had for them.

As we consider Rom. 4:1-8 we shall see that even those under the law were saved by faith.  “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath thereof to glory: but not before God. For what saith the Scripture” ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness‘. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying ‘Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin'”. The point is that just as Abraham (who lived, of course before the law was given) was saved when he believed God, the testimony of David (who, of course, lived after the law was given) was the same, i.e. that salvation was through faith.

We read in Rom. 2:13-17, “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another”. This passage tells us that Gentiles who were not under law and may not even have ever heard of the Law of Moses were justified (saved) by their obedience to their own conscience. That was the message that they had been called upon to believe. If they obeyed that message (i.e. their consciences) they were saved by His grace. (“For by grace are ye save through faith”).

To reiterate, I believe that the teaching of Scripture is that God’s plan of salvation is a universal truth, i.e. that it has always been the same for every person of every dispensation. That plan is that when one believes the particular message that God had for him, that belief, i.e. faith, is counted to him as righteousness. The message itself may change, but the basic plan of salvation is a universal truth, it never changes. (“By grace are ye saved through faith”).

I must add however, that we may not pick and choose which message to believe. Since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ one must believe that Christ is the Son of God. “…these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name” (John 20:31). Of course, if one had never heard that message he is made righteous by his obedience to his conscience as were those of Rom. 2, quoted above.*

II. A STUDY OF DISPENSATIONAL TRUTH: GOD’S TWO PLANS

A. GOD’S PLANS FOR THE EARTH

Why did God create the earth or why did He create Adam and Eve? I don’t pretend to know the full answer to that question as I don’t believe we are told. But I believe we have a clue in Gen. 3:8 as to what might be one of the reasons God created man. We read in that verse in the NIV, “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day”. It would seem that God walked in the Garden of Eden desiring the fellowship of man.

But we read in Rom. 1:21-24 how man became mired in sin, the consequence of which was that God “gave them up”. “…..Because that when they knew God they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened, professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness.….”.

When God gave up man to their uncleanness, it was, I believe, at that point at which He chose Abraham to be the father of Israel, the nation through which God would show Himself to the world. May I remind the reader of the reason Israel was chosen. “But ye (Israel) are a chosen generation (race), a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should shew forth the praises of Him Who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9). How did God testify to the world through Israel?. One example is the way in which He led Israel out of Egypt. The reader will recall the plagues about which the surrounding nations must have heard. And what must have those in the surrounding nations thought when God led Israel through the Red Sea on dry land and then caused that sea to swallow up Israel’s enemies? The point is that while it is true that God certainly worked through individuals, He worked through the nation of Israel to testify to the world of Who He is.

So when we read in God’s Word of an earthly inheritance we are reading of one of God’s plans. But when we read of an heavenly inheritance we are obviously reading of a different plan. With a change in plan comes  a change in God’s management style, i.e. a change in dispensations. As we recognize two plans we “rightly divide the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15).*

B. “NOT MY PEOPLE”

When God led Israel out of Egypt He gave them a law upon which He established a conditional promise. In essence, that promise was that if Israel obeyed the law of Moses God would bless them with earthly, temporal blessings. But if they disobeyed He would punish them with earthly, temporal punishments. It is part of that punishment that I would like to focus on in this section.

We read in Lev. 26:27-39, “And if ye will not for all this hearken unto Me, but walk contrary unto Me; then I will walk contrary unto you….and I will chastise you seven times for your sins. And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons…..I will destroy your high places…..I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries unto desolation….. I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it. And I will scatter you among the heathen…..and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste. Then shall the land enjoy her sabbaths…..And upon them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts……and ye shall have no power to stand before your enemies. And ye shall perish among the heathen, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. And they that are left of you shall pine away in their iniquity in your enemies’ lands and also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away with them”.

The historical books of the Old Testament tell, in large part, of Israel’s failure to live in obedience to the law. And in II Chron. 36:17-21 we read of the Babylonians coming against Israel and fulfilling the words of Lev. 26. “Therefore He brought upon them the king of the Chaldees (Babylon), who slew their young men with the sword……He gave them all into his hand. …..and they burnt the house of God and brake down the wall of Jerusalem and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels.. And them that had escaped from the sword were carried away to Babylon…….”.

Hosea was one of the prophets who prophesied to Israel that She would be taken captive. We read in Hosea 1:2, “….And the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredoms, departing from the Lord'”. In verse 3 we read that Hosea did as he was told and took Gomer for his wife. Gomer had three children, the last was named “Lo-ammi”. We read in Hosea 1:8-9, “Now when she (Gomer) had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived, and bare a son. Then said God, ‘Call his name Lo-ammi: for ye are not My People, and I will not be your God'”. We learn from this that the Hebrew “lo-ammi” means “not My People”. That is to say, God put Israel aside as His chosen nation.

Israel was held in captivity in Babylon for seventy years. During those seventy years Israel was lo-ammi, “not My people”. At the end of those seventy years Cyrus, King of Persia (Babylon had been conquered by the Medes and Persians during those seventy years in fulfillment of Dan. 5:24-28) released the Israelites as is recorded in II Chron. 36:22-23.

What is essential in terms of understanding dispensational truth is that when Israel had sinned beyond what the Lord could overlook, Israel was put aside as God’s chosen nation, they became “lo-ammi”, i.e. “not My people”. The seventy year Babylonian captivity was but a foreshadowing of the lo-ammi period that began around 63 AD and continues until the present day in the 21st century.*

C. ISRAEL IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

As mentioned above, Israel had been set aside as God’s people for seventy years, at the end of which He took them back. This brings us to the opening of the New Testament. Israel was still God’s people. We know that because we read in John 1:11, “He came unto His own but His own received Him not”. To whom did Christ come? In one sense He came as “the Lamb of God” to the world, but in another sense He came as King to Israel. We read in Matt. 10:6, “…..I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel“. I believe this dual role in the coming of Christ to be a very important issue so I will ask the reader’s indulgence as I digress a bit.

When Christ came to earth, He came for two basic reasons. 1) He came to offer Himself as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world so that “whosoever believeth on Him shall not perish, but have have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). 2). But He also came to Israel as King of Israel. If Israel had accepted Him as their King He would have established the millennial kingdom in which the world would have been blessed by His righteous judgments and rule. So, even though He came in one sense, to Israel, if Israel had accepted Him as King the entire world would have been the recipient of His blessed reign.

But Israel did not accept Christ as their King, they crucified Him. But as He was on the cross our Lord prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. That prayer was answered when for the entire Acts period the message was preached to Israel of their risen Messiah. But Israel did not accept their risen Messiah either. We read in Acts 28 of Paul’s meeting with the leaders of Israel in dispersion and they refused to accept his message.

It was at that point that once again, God put Israel aside as His chosen nation. And it was at that point that God revealed to Paul a new dispensation, i.e. the dispensation of the mystery.*

D. THE CHURCH WHICH IS HIS BODY

The church of the dispensation of the mystery is referred to in Eph.1:-22-23 as the “church which is His body”. I will quote that passage beginning with verse 19, “And what is the exceeding greatness of His power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of His mighty power. Which He wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power, and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come; and hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the church which is His body, the fulness of Him That filleth all in all”.

Let us dwell just a moment on the phrase “the church which is His body”. It is, of course, a metaphor. That is to say, Christ is seated in heavenly places and has His own body. Metaphors are used in literature (including the Word of God) to enhance a truth. The truth that is being enhanced by this metaphor is, in my opinion, the relationship of believers (His body) to the Head (Christ). Just as in the human body, the head (or rather the brain) is so crucial to life, so too, for the believer, Jesus Christ is the source of all life, both temporal and eternal.

I have tried to show that while Israel is at the center of God’s plans for earth, the church is at the center of God’s plans for heaven. In one sense this truth is consummated in Eph. 2:6 where we read, “And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus”. The church is seated with Christ. Where is Christ seated? We are told in Eph. 4:10, “He that hath ascended far above all heavens….”.

The church is seated with Christ in the heavens.*

E. RIGHTLY DIVIDING THE WORD OF TRUTH

I have tried to show the importance of dividing the Word into two distinct and separate plans of God. I would like to touch very briefly on “rightly dividing the Word of truth”.

As mentioned above, when God’s plans change from the earth to heaven so too does the dispensation change. That is to say, God manages His household in a different style. Israel was God’s nation throughout most of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament. The church which is His body is God’s people in the present dispensation. In God’s management in which Israel was dominant we see signs and miracles in abundance. In His management in which the church which is His body is dominant we see none of those signs that we know for a certainty are from Him. (In my opinion, God does work miracles today, but we accept them by faith as having come from Him, i.e. most  are not clear and indisputably from Him).

Obviously, if we are to correctly understand each dispensation (i.e. each management style), we must understand when one ended and the other began. I will say only that the dispensation of the mystery, in which the church which is His body is being built, could not have begun until Israel was set aside, i.e. until She became “lo-ammi“, “not My People”. Why? Because believing Gentiles in the Acts period were grafted into Israel (see Rom. 11:11). They could not have been part of Israel whose inheritance is on the earth in resurrection life, and at the same time be part of the church which is His body whose inheritance is in heaven in resurrection life. Because resurrection life in heaven is not even hinted at until Ephesians,  we must conclude that the new management style was revealed through Paul in Ephesians. It is also helpful to know that Israel was put aside at the end of the Acts period and Ephesians was written shortly afterward

It behooves the student of God’s Word to understand when God began dealing with His household differently. I believe that that difference began at Acts 28. Because this paper is meant to be only an introduction to dispensational truth, may I encourage the reader to read the paper on this web-site When Did The Church Begin? for the scriptural reasons for that belief.*

III. SOME OF THE MORE IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH

1) Israel is to witness to the peoples of the earth, the church to principalities and powers in heavenly places.

2) Israel’s hope is the land of Canaan. The hope of the church is heavenly places.

IV. SOME OF THE MORE IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PREVIOUS DISPENSATION  AND THE PRESENT DISPENSATION, I.E. THE DISPENSATION  OF THE MYSTERY

1) Israel was judged according to its obedience to the Law of Moses. The church which is His body was never a recipient  of the Mosaic Law, and therefore was never under the law.

2) Israel required signs. There are no clear visible signs of God’s working, the church lives by faith.

3) In order to be blessed in the previous dispensation, a Gentile had to become a Jew (except in the Acts period during which he was grafted in to Israel). In the dispensation of the mystery God has no favored nation, all are the same in His sight and in fact, there are no Jews and Gentiles in His eyes.

V. THE EPISTLES WRITTEN TO THE CHURCH WHICH IS HIS BODY

I believe that at this point it might be helpful to the reader to know which epistles were written to the new household, (the church) in God’s new management style. Those epistles are:

Ephesians

Philippians

Colossians

I Timothy

II Timothy

Titus

Philemon

VI. CONCLUSION

I have tried to show the importance of seeing the two plans of God in dealing with His household. The one is His plan for earth, the other His plans for heaven. Surely, if one fails to recognize these two separate and distinct plans one cannot understand either one correctly.

The wonder and the beauty of God’s written Word is its utter perfection. Without the recognition of two plans that perfection is not in evidence.

If we are to attempt a more mature understanding of God we must attempt a mature understanding of His plans for His household. A dispensational approach is key to that understanding.

*The bold type in quotations were added.

This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. If you would like to respond, please e-mail me at: janjoyce@aol.com

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