Dispensations in the Bible
The divine history of humanity is ordered within the framework of the following eight dispensations. These dispensations are characterised by a progressive revelation of the knowledge of good and evil, which increases through various stages until we will fully know as we have been known fully by God (1 Cor. 13:12). In this process there is not only an increase in the knowledge of God and His righteousness, but also in the works of the opposing kingdom of darkness. The most important characteristics of the eight dispensations are as follows:
1. The dispensation of innocence
The very first dispensation in which Adam and Eve found themselves was that of innocence in Eden. They had no knowledge of good and evil and were not ashamed of their nakedness (Gen. 2:25). God had forbidden them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and warned that they would surely die should they eat of its fruit (Gen. 2:17). With great cunning Satan deceived Adam and Eve into rebelling against God by disobeying Him (Gen. 3:1-5). They foolishly heeded Satan’s advice and yielded to his evil influence, thus becoming sinners. They did not only become conscious of the distinction between good and evil, but became victims of evil. Spiritual death immediately set in, while they also physically became mortal beings. The dispensation of innocence ended with the Fall, which was the result of Satan’s deception. Adam and Eve were driven from Eden.
2. The dispensation of the conscience
For a long time after the Fall, humanity had no law and could only distinguish between good and evil by way of the voice of their conscience. Various people pursued righteousness in accordance with their inner convictions and whatever personal revelations God gave them. Some of them, like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph became preachers of righteousness. At times during this dispensation evil was so intense and pervasive that God’s anger was kindled against humankind. During the Flood all but eight people were destroyed.
3. The dispensation of human government after the Flood
After the Flood God concluded a covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:1-9), and since then held the leaders of family groups, tribes or nations accountable for their decisions and the well-being of their followers. According to Romans 13:1, God instituted these authorities, or human governments. Genesis 10 has a list of the descendants of Noah through Shem, Ham and Japheth, all of whom became family heads, and later heads of nations. When these governments lapsed into idolatry, all their subjects followed them in their evil ways. Abraham was one of these patriarchs with a large following, but he believed in God and taught his followers to do the same. The consolidation of human powers gave rise to the establishing of the Babylonian world empire, which constituted a severe form of rebellion against the kingdom of God. It laid the foundation for various godless governments in the subsequent history of humanity.
4. The dispensation of the law
With the introduction of the dispensation of the law at Sinai a much clearer distinction was made between good and evil. God defined righteousness and sin in the Ten Commandments, but also through a great number of other laws and decrees. Satan concentrated on Israel to induce them to sin in an effort to subvert and nullify their calling as a special people of God. In spite of extensive warnings, Israel often became backsliders who worshipped the idols of the heathen nations. Their inward motivation to serve God by observing His commandments was weak.
5. The dispensation of grace (the church age)
With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the church age was ushered in. The Holy Spirit was given to guide people into all truth, to convict them of sin and righteousness, to regenerate them, and also to endue them with power from on high to serve Christ in a spiritually dark world. The knowledge of good and evil was increased through spiritual discernment – we have enlightened eyes of the mind (Eph. 1:18), but still not to its fullest extent: “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). Despite Christians now having a strong weapon against Satan, his efforts to thwart God’s plan intensified as, for many centuries, he has conducted an all-out war against Christ’s church using Roman emperors, the medieval Roman Catholic Church and, later, secular humanism, communism, the interfaith and new age movements, in an attempt to destroy it – which has also failed.
6. The dispensation of the Antichrist’s reign
When the one who withholds – i.e. the true church indwelt by the Holy Spirit – has been taken out of the way during the rapture, the Antichrist will be revealed (2 Thess. 2:6-12). Strong delusion will prevail on earth and the masses will blindly believe the lies of the Antichrist. Evil will develop to its fullest extent and there will be no limits to blasphemous and sinful conduct. The second half of the Antichrist’s reign of seven years will be a time of unprecedented demonic activity (Rev. 12:12). In contrast with this, the true believers who have been raptured, will have perfect, immortal bodies, perfect joy and perfect knowledge. They will be with Christ forever (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
7. The dispensation of the millennial kingdom
During the Millennium the glorified believers will rule with Christ (Rev. 5:10; 20:6). As immortal beings they will not be subjected to pain, sorrow, misery or death; neither will they be limited by any form of imperfectness. Their knowledge of God will be perfect. During that time, the spiritually restored Israel will proclaim the praises of the Lord, and the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9). The devil will be bound in a bottomless pit (Rev. 20:2-3) and the peace and righteousness of God will prevail upon all the earth.
8. The dispensation of eternity
This dispensation will be endless. In the new heaven and on the new earth “there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of life” (Rev. 21:27). Perfect peace and joy will prevail as the believers will be in the presence of God forever. The lake of fire where Satan, his demons and all lost people will be confined and punished for their rebellion against God, will also exist for all eternity (Rev. 14:9-11; 20:15; Dan. 12:2). There will never again in the same place, as presently on earth, be a co-existence of the opposing kingdoms of light and darkness. Satan’s kingdom will be utterly destroyed, and he and the millions of fallen angels and unsaved sinners will be punished in the lake of fire forever.
Christians need to understand the nature of the different dispensations in the Bible. To the people of every dispensation it was imperative to have the best possible knowledge of good and evil, so they could please God and take the right decisions to be victorious in their struggle against sin. Early in the dispensation of the conscience, God explained the nature of this struggle to Cain, as well as the need to rule over temptations and sin (Gen. 4:7). However, he rejected the knowledge of the Lord by not walking in the ways of God, thereby allowing evil to overcome him and ruin his life. Because Cain, like all people, had a free will, all options were open to him. What happens to people is the result of their deliberate choices.
During the dispensation of the law God revealed Himself in a very special way to Israel (Ex. 20). But Israel soon forgot the ordinances of the Lord and went spiritually astray on Satan’s ways of deception and sin. These wanderings were the direct result of a lack of knowledge of God and His holy will (Hos. 4:1,6). God often called Israel to repentance from this backslidden condition (Jer. 4:1; 5:3; 18:11; Hos. 14:2).
During the church dispensation it is also vitally important that we are filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, that we may lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:9-10; John 8:31-32). God Himself is the truth, Jesus is the truth, and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth who will guide us into all truth (John 17:17; 14:6; 16:13). How well do you know the truth? Without a good knowledge of divine truths you will not be able to walk in these truths always, and consequently fail to do God’s will in all aspects of your life.
During the coming tribulation period, the knowledge of God and His Word will be so scarce on earth (Amos 8:11-12) that people will wrongly accept the Antichrist as the true Christ and also worship him (Rev. 13:4,8). If we do not increase in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18), we will be victims of Satan’s spirit of deceit.
What a privilege to have a biblical perspective on God’s plan for mankind. In the light of this knowledge I understand that we are now living in the time of the great falling away from the truth, and that every effort must be taken to remain standing against the wiles of Satan. I thank the Lord for His Word and His Spirit, giving me insight to grow in the knowledge of God (Eph. 1:17-18; Col. 1:9-10). We are to be blamed if we lack this knowledge and spiritual power in our lives (Matt. 22:29). In a time such as this, very close to the end of the church dispensation, we should have a clear knowledge of contemporary trends and guard against growing cold in our love for the Lord when iniquity increases (Matt. 24:12). We should also be informed about Satan’s mystery of lawlessness to be able to actively restrain it (2 Thess. 2:7). May the Lord find us watching and praying when He comes (Luke 21:36), busy fulfilling the Great Commission which He gave to His disciples.
1. What does the dispensation of the law comprise of?
2. What are the principles of the dispensation of grace?
3. What are the differences between the church dispensation and the dispensation of the kingdom?
4. What are the main characteristics of the coming rule of the Antichrist?
Prof. Johan Malan