[written and published Aug. ’15; edited Aug. 17] Summary: This article is packed with biblical arguments and information of a theological type, defining the three biblical dispensations worth studying for the purpose of gaining a solid understanding of God’s counsels. Because the Jewish dispensation has ended and is a matter of history, it is the one more easily understood in its character, principles, and expanse. We are now in the midst of the Christian dispensation, or as I believe, near its close and ending. However, I find that the Christian dispensation and its principles are not well understood, even by most genuine believers. Sadly, many teachers and theologians who hold to the dispensational system are weak and mistaken on its character and principles. This is where the transitions found in Scripture between the first two dispensations play an important role as presenting evidence of the validity of this theological system. I know this sounds complex, but if you take the time to read the article, I believe you will find the understanding of it fairly simple. Every Christian should aspire to comprehend the counsels of God – they are God’s work, through time and eternity, which glorifies Him.
There are only three dispensations in Scripture which carry enough weight to be of great significance. It is to these three the vast volume of God’s word refers. In studying Scripture, and in any of our efforts to rightly divide the word of truth, it is of the utmost importance to develop the proper understanding of these successive dispensations – not just their span of time on the timeline of human history, but a comprehension of God’s peculiar ways of dealing with man distinctive to each one. From the book of Exodus to the book of Revelation we may draw a timeline which would contain these three dispensations, while we should view the first book, Genesis, as that which introduces all God’s great biblical principles that are so intricate in the progression of the dispensations. This then would provide us with a simple way of dividing Scripture, and would provide many believers a basis for acquiring sound doctrine and theology.
What are the three dispensations?
1. The Jewish dispensation
2. The Christian dispensation (a.k.a. the kingdom of heaven in mystery)
3. The Millennium (a.k.a. the dispensation of the fullness of times; Eph. 1:10) This will be when the kingdom of heaven will exert its direct influence over the entire earth, in open and outward manifestation – a time when every eye will see.
Genesis – in this first book we have the principles of God entering into His revelation. In the garden with Adam we have the principle of creature responsibility being tested, God looking for the fruit of obedience from man. With the flood destroying the world we have God’s direct judgment of evil, and therefore thoughts of God’s sovereignty and government. But it is with Noah after the flood that human responsibility is mixed in with the principle of God’s government of the earth – the sword is placed in man’s hands to curb the growth of evil, in order to not have the need for God to soon repeat His judgment. There are other things developing as well – God would divide the earth, and man in the first creation into nations, and the principle of government seen with many rulers and kings among the Gentiles, the pharaohs and Egypt being most prominent. With Abraham we see the principles of God’s calling, sovereign grace, and unconditional covenant. We also see the principle of election associated with God’s calling.
The Jewish Dispensation – this starts with Moses and the deliverance of the nation of Israel out of Egypt. This was the beginning or birth of this nation. The dispensation includes Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law with the priesthood, the wilderness experience, and entrance into the land. This period also embraces the judges, prophets, and kings, of which Samuel, David, and Solomon are most significant. Soon after Solomon the nation was divided into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. The Assyrian conquered the northern ten tribes and dispersed them into the nations. After this we have the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians, and the captivity of a remnant of the two southern tribes. This destruction physically marks Israel’s failure with the law, by their idolatry resulting in rebellion and apostasy. It also marked the failure of the Theocratic kingdom, and Israel’s failure in the principle of government of the earth.
A remnant returns from Babylon to rebuild the city walls and temple, with the renewal of worship. Important distinctions however exist – the Ark of the Covenant is missing and Jehovah’s presence and glory has returned to heaven. God has given world rule and dominion into the hands of the Gentiles, and Israel is in servitude to them.
The dispensation ends with the events surrounding the coming and presentation of Messiah to Israel. He was rejected by His own people. They crucified and killed the Son of God. However, on the cross Jesus intercedes for the nation, asking for their forgiveness. God gives Israel one last chance with the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. But Israel rejects the testimony of a risen Jewish Messiah from the dead. This testimony generally ends in Jerusalem with the stoning of Stephen, and God distinctly turns to the Gentiles. This transition to the Gentiles is confirmed elsewhere through God raising up Paul, giving him his ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles. We clearly see this transition in the book of Acts after chapter seven, and especially so at the end of the book of Acts with Paul in Rome (Acts 28:28). Soon after, the Jewish dispensation is physically demonstrated as terminated by the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple a second time (70 AD by the Romans, see Luke 21:20-24, Matt. 24:1-2).
The Christian Dispensation (the Kingdom of Heaven in mystery) – When the Baptist came he taught that the kingdom of heaven was “at hand.” Jesus taught the same thing (Matt. 4:17). When He sent His disciples out in Matthew ten (10), He instructed them with the same message. The new dispensation was soon to begin. This term or label – the kingdom of heaven – is unique to the gospel of Matthew. Only there does the Holy Spirit use it. The most important teaching to understand concerning the constitution of this new dispensation is the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30). The dispensation, and therefore the kingdom of heaven as it presently exists, takes the form of a spoiled crop in a field, remaining there unchanged to the end of this age. The spoiled crop is Christendom developing in the world (Matt. 13:37-43). Also it is characteristic of the Christian dispensation that it doesn’t begin until the Son of Man goes away. This paves the way for the Holy Spirit being sent down from heaven, and the true church beginning on the day of Pentecost. Until then, the dispensation, the kingdom of heaven, was still “at hand.” The “when?” isn’t directly answered in Matthew’s gospel, but it certainly is taught by Jesus in John’s (John 7:37-39, 16:7).
“Mysteries” are associated with this dispensation (Matt. 13:11), the most prominent ones being: a new planting by God, faith (Heb. 11:1), the profession of faith, a walk by faith, an absent King, the body of Christ (the church), the rapture, false doctrine spreading, or at the very least a false profession spreading (Matt. 13:33), Christianity as the religion replacing Judaism, Christendom as a worldly power and corporate entity looked at by God having responsibility in the dispensation (Matt. 13:31-32), God allowing the true church to be hidden (Matt. 13:44), the revelation of the Father by the Son sent into the world (Matt. 11:25-27), and finally, the Father’s kingdom (Matt. 13:43).
All these mysteries are mentioned or implied to some extent in Matthew thirteen (13). Greater details concerning them may be found elsewhere, especially in the epistles. Christendom is the corporate body during the dispensation, therefore the specific teachings and instructions for Christendom are found in the letters written to the church (the epistles). The gospels are a mixture of Jesus teaching Israel and Jesus teaching His own sheep – the disciples. The teaching in the gospels must be divided out correctly, especially the synoptics. In John’s gospel, Israel is set aside in the first chapter (John 1:11).
There will also be a period of transition for the Christian dispensation to end and the following dispensation to begin. The rapture of the true church out of the larger body of Christendom is the event which will begin this transition. Many who profess Christ in Christendom are not known by Christ and are not His – certainly, a big part of the corruption and ruin of Christendom as a corporate body having responsibility to God is the amount of false profession that has spread throughout its expanse (Matt. 7:21-23, 13:33, 25:11-12). The tares of Christendom are bundled together and left in the world, destined to be judged with the world (Matt. 13:24-30, 38-42). A seven-year tribulation is the transition which will conclude the Christian dispensation, and involves great wrath and judgment from God on all things associated as part of the world and earth.
The Millennium (the Dispensation of the Fullness of the Times) – this will be when Jesus Christ, the second Adam, makes good all that the first Adam brought to misery and ruin. The Son of Man will return on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory, and every eye will see Him. He will be physically present on the earth. It is not a time of faith or mysteries, but a time when every eye will see. He will reign on the earth for a thousand years – what we call the millennium. The Son of Man’s kingdom will be for Jesus to rule over all the first creation. As Messiah He will rule over a united Israel, restored in the Promised Land. He will also be King of kings, Lord of lords, ruling over the Gentile nations, breaking them with a rod of iron. He will judge in righteousness, according to God’s law, bringing in peace and prosperity to Israel, and through them blessings to the Gentiles. At this time they will be the greatest nation on the face of the earth. Earthly Jerusalem will be the capital city of God’s government over the earth through the glorified Son of Man. But Jesus will be head over all that belongs to the first creation – whether they are things in heaven or on earth (Eph. 1:10), things visible or invisible (Col.1:15-17, 20).
The church is the new creation of God, and will not be ruled over by Christ, but will rule with Him as His bride and help-meet over all that He inherits. The believer, as a son, is an heir of God, and a co-heir with Christ. The church will live in the heavens. Our habitation will be the New Jerusalem above, the city of our God and Father. The church will be the tabernacle of God in the heavens, the source of the Most High’s grace and blessings over the millennial earth. All the sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26), along with Jesus, the Son of God, are subjects in the Father’s kingdom (Matt. 13:43). There we will shine as the sun out over the earth.
The Transitions found in Scripture that signify the ending of the Jewish Dispensation and the beginning of the Christian Dispensation (the Kingdom of Heaven) I chose the words “ending” and “beginning” because I want you to be aware that dispensations do not necessarily begin or end at one moment in time. The ending of the Jewish dispensation can be seen as spanning a period of time or transition – from the first heralding of the new dispensation being “at hand” by John the Baptist in the gospel of Matthew to the physical destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This is a span of some thirty years. This is the period of transition.
The transition is seen in many different ways and forms, both by general impressions of Scripture and in specific passages. I will attempt to show you examples of both, starting with the general.
How should we characterize the different books of the bible? In a general way the Old Testament includes the Law, Psalms, and Prophets. This should be classified as Jewish teachings. The Law forms the religion of Judaism. Although over time Israel’s leaders added much ritualism to the practice, which cannot be found in God’s revelation, nevertheless the practice of the law is the practice of the religion of Judaism as God gave it. Also the Prophets are Jewish prophets speaking to Israel about Israel – mainly they refer to future things. Prophecy has a distinct three-fold character of its subject matter: the earth, God’s government of the world, and the nation of Israel. Then in the Psalms we see the cries and pleadings of a future Jewish remnant looking for vengeance and deliverance on the ungodly oppressors, who are their enemies. All three sections of the Old Testament apply directly to Israel.
For some time now I have gotten uncomfortable when I hear ministers teach sermons whose content is entirely out of the Old Testament. They never give an explanation why and make none of the necessary distinctions. It is as if they do not understand they teach the church with Jewish teachings, effectively Judaizing Christianity as they go, or they do not comprehend the importance of absolutely distinguishing between Israel and the church. I would understand better if they were all replacement theologians – those who reason the church has replaced Israel in Scripture, becoming the new Israel. But many of these ministers are not replacement theology adherents. They see the need to differentiate between Israel and the church, yet cannot entirely accomplish this in their teachings.
Where do we find the instructions and communications from God through the Holy Spirit to the church? They are the epistles written to the church. These is the teachings for the body of Christ, and for that matter, Christendom, which is the larger corporate body containing the church. Look at the initial salutation to the Corinthians. It is clear from whom the communication originates, and to whom the communication is intended; Paul is simply the instrument the Spirit of God uses.
1 Corinthians 1:1-3 (NKJV)
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,
To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We can say that Old Testament Scripture is Jewish in character. It is not that we should not read the Old Testament. There are benefits to be gained from reading any and all Scripture, regardless of where it is found. But that in itself doesn’t make all Scripture to be about the believer or about the church. This is the important distinction. All Scripture is given by God to the church, but that does not make all Scripture to be about the church or applicable to her. As believers, we should say that the epistles are the letters written to us from our God and Father.
Where does that leave the gospels and the book of Acts? These are a mixture of Judaism and Christianity and need to be treated as such. Jesus often taught directly to Israel, while other times He was only teaching His disciples. Jesus spoke of the law and commandments as addressing Israel (Matt. 19:17-19; 22:36-40). Yet He also encouraged disciples to believe on Him and to believe on the one that sent Him (John 14:1; 12:44-45), and that they would need to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life (John 5:37-40; 6:53-58). This last involves faith, the eye of faith seeing what is unseen. This is characteristic of Christianity – Christians have a walk by faith (II Cor. 5:7). But the Jews demand a sign and walk by sight and the senses. The law, Judaism, is not of faith (Gal. 3:12). Most of this is a simple but insightful comparison of Judaism to Christianity. If Israel is the corporate object under God’s eye in the Jewish dispensation, while Christendom is the one in the dispensation of the kingdom of heaven in mystery, then the differences and distinctions between Judaism and Christianity are the same ones for the two dispensations.
If you never distinguish the contrasts and differences between Judaism and Christianity, you will have the tendency to view all of God’s word as directly applicable to you. There will be no need to rightly divide the word of truth. Your thoughts will be that it is all God’s word, it is all good for me. You will have the tendency to believe that everything is the same, and everyone is the same – we’re all the people of God, we all are God’s children, we all are the image of God, and that is what is really important. There may be a sliver of truth in all these statements, but the full extent of meaning by those who have such thoughts always goes far beyond the small truth and proper understanding of the phrase. It isn’t politics, but it is an effort to be politically and socially correct. Yet this only serves to water down the truth of God, and exalt man. All lines of differences are credulously erased between Judaism and Christianity. All lines of distinction are obscured between Israel and the church.
Another general way we may see the transition of the two dispensations is in the use in Scripture of two different titles of Jesus Christ – Messiah and the Son of Man. These two are often misunderstood. Often they are seen as the same and substituted one for the other. But this leads to unsound doctrine and poor understandings. Ministers get into trouble and confusion when they cannot properly see the contrasts and differences Scripture makes between two subjects under comparison – i.e. Judaism and Christianity, Israel and Christendom, law and grace, etc. The two titles are not the same, and are not substitutionary for each other. Their commonality is only that they refer to the same person – Jesus.
Messiah is the title associated with the Jewish dispensation. It refers to the Anointed One of Jehovah. It also has a direct reference to son of David, King of Israel, sitting on the throne of David forever. He would be a descendant of the tribe of Judah. David, king of Israel, and Solomon, son of David, king of Israel, serve as two special types of the Messiah – David as the suffering king, then victorious king, and Solomon as the king of Israel that reigns in peace and prosperity. But we should notice that this is all Jewish in character, and according to Jewish prophecies and promises.
The promise of Messiah, and therefore the title of Messiah, only begins to take shape in promissory covenants God made with David concerning his throne and the nation of Israel. The title doesn’t precede this point in history or in the revelation of God. There was no connection of the Messiah title to the Theocratic kingdom that started with Moses after the deliverance of the nation from Egypt. The promise of Messiah was given to sustain the faithfulness of the elect remnant of Israel in the midst of a nation growing in apostasy and rebellion.
The coming of Messiah was according to Jewish promises and prophecy. When He came, it was to His own, which were the Jews. His coming was near the end of the Jewish dispensation. God wouldn’t do anything different in the world contrary to His faithfulness to Israel until the nation itself had rejected the fulfilment of their own promises. They crucified and put to death their own Messiah. This rejection brought on the ending of the Jewish dispensation. God could turn a different direction, sow a new planting, and begin a new dispensation.
With the ending of the Jewish dispensation God sets aside the title of Messiah and all promises associated with it – sort of placing it up on a shelf for a future time of His choosing. Israel is set aside the same. Their earthly calling is set aside – God says to them, “…you are not My people, and I will not be your God.” (Hos. 1:9) With the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD God stops the practice of Judaism. The Jews are scattered into the nations to live there as the Gentiles. Their covenant vanishes away (Heb. 8:13). If we know God’s biblical principles we understand that at the same time Israel is set aside, prophecy is set aside. In Scripture the subject of prophecy involves Israel, the earth, and God’s government of the earth – all three are set aside by God. Also the counting of prophetic time on the earth is only associated with Israel being acknowledged by God. If this nation is set aside by God, then the counting of time has stopped (Dan. 9:24-27). Through God’s biblical principles we understand these truths and may easily explain them.
The title of the Son of Man is very different from the title of Messiah. It is associated with an entirely different set of thoughts and events, none of which are necessarily Jewish. Jesus is the Son of Man because He is the second Adam. The first man, Adam, was a type of Him – a pre-figuring shadow, so to speak, of the true substance which is Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:14). So we rightly reason that the Son of Man title is equivalent to the second Adam title, and has reference to mankind as a whole.
In the judgment of the serpent in Genesis three (3) God declares that the seed of the woman would crush the power of Satan. God is not speaking of Adam when He references the seed of the woman. Rather He is by-passing Adam entirely and referring to the second Adam, the Son of Man, as the Seed. It is also clearly not a reference to a Jewish Messiah, the nation of Israel, or any thought of a kingdom, even the kingdom of God. We cannot willy-nilly give license to creating, seemingly out of thin air and without scriptural support, a broad-based and expansive range of meaning to the title of Messiah. It will always be the title of the Son of Man that carries with it a broader and more expansive scope of meaning. The Messiah title and Messianic kingdom is limited to Jewish promises and prophecies. It will always be a subset fitting under the title and kingdom of the Son of Man. Messiah is the king of Israel, while the Son of Man is the King of kings, the Lord of lords. The Son of Man title is far more comprehensive in its application.
The two titles have different meanings from Scripture. The Messiah title is completely Jewish, and should always have this limited meaning in our thoughts. Messiah directly references David, and the throne of David (I Kings 9:5, II Chron. 7:18, Psa. 132:11, Isa.9:7, 16:5, Luke 1:32, Matt. 22:42). It is the title associated with the Jewish dispensation which ended. The Son of Man title references Adam (Psa. 8). It is applicable to the entire human race, and eventually speaks of universal dominion over all created things. It is also the title associated by Jesus in His teachings and parables concerning the new dispensation – the Son of Man planted the wheat (Matt. 13:24, 37). (I have treated this important topic and understanding in numerous places in many different articles on this website, but more extensively it is addressed in my first book, The Son of Man Glorified.)
In a general way it is easy to see the transition between the two dispensations by comparing the differing principles that are characteristic of each. The Jewish dispensation, and Judaism, and the law, has as its founding principle human responsibility – do this and live (Lev. 18:5, Neh. 9:29, Gal. 3:12, Rom. 10:5). Under it God is known as a Judge looking at the works of man. In contrast to this, the Christian dispensation (the kingdom of heaven), the gospel, Christianity, and Christendom as the corporate entity, has as its principle the sovereign grace of God through faith (what characterizes the Christian dispensation is the profession of faith in Jesus Christ, who has gone away and is unseen, being glorified to the right hand of God. All who profess Christ, whether it is a true or false confession, forms the corporate body of Christendom). When we look at God’s grace we are looking at God’s workmanship, not man’s work. The Jewish dispensation is looking to see what man can do, or what man can be for God; the Christian dispensation is looking at what God has done, or what God is, through Jesus Christ, for man. The hinging point of human history is the cross. It is where life, and the means of receiving life, changes principles.
Another general way to see the transition is to simply compare Judaism with Christianity. Judaism is associated with the Jewish dispensation obviously, while Christianity is associated with the Christian dispensation (the kingdom of heaven in mystery). One is a walk by the flesh and by sight, while the other is a walk in the Spirit and by faith (II Cor. 5:7, Rom. 8:4). One is to go by senses and signs (I Cor. 1:22), while the other is trusting in sure hopes and that which is unseen and eternal (Heb. 11:1, II Cor. 4:18). The nation of Israel is formed by physical birth, the natural descendants of Abraham; true Christians must be born of God and born of the Spirit, sons of God by faith in Jesus Christ. Judaism reinforces the earthly calling of Israel, while Christianity takes the believer/church into the heavens, fulfilling our heavenly calling. One of the clearest contrasts of the two religions is seen as a transition of the dispensations found in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4:3-26). I will list the salient points from the passage:
— The Jews worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans followed Jacob’s example and worshiped on a mountain in Samaria. Both are fixed locations to travel to in order to properly worship God according to the dictates of their religion and traditions. This is the Jewish dispensation, and what preceded it in the forefathers.
— The new dispensation is described like this: Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.”
The second point above is quite a contrast with the first. What describes Christianity, and therefore a difference between the two dispensations, is worship of God as He is now truly revealed. It is worship in Spirit and truth, instead of that which is in a permanent earthly structure or location. Also what is central to understanding the passage is the revelation of God as the Father of all true believers – all the sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26). The revelation of God as Jehovah, the covenant Keeper, is what was common to the Jewish dispensation (Ex. 6:2-8). The new dispensation and Christianity as its religion, has the unique revelation of God as our Father, and believers as sons together with the one Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore we are made brethren with Him, all sons before God and our Father. The use of the name Father in the New Testament is distinctly a Christian truth and understanding – it is unmistakably a Christian perception and relationship (Matt. 11:25-27, John 1:18, 14:6-7, 17:1-3, 25-26). And this we see in the above passage; “…for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.”
There are specific passages in John that point to a transition between the two dispensations:
John 1:17-18 (NKJV)
“For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”
The Jewish dispensation is associated with the Law of Moses, but grace and truth (the complete revelation of truth) finally come through Jesus Christ in the new dispensation. Also you see in verse eighteen the revelation of the Father by the Son being sent – this is distinctly the new dispensation.
John 1:49-51 (NKJV)
“Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
50 Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And He said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
This passage uses the two titles of Christ- King of the Jews (Messiah), and the Son of Man. Nathanael, being an Israelite, declares what was the great expectation of the Jews at that time. But notice how quickly Jesus moves past the title of Messiah and on to His title as the Son of Man. In Scripture, Jesus refers to Himself 82 times as the Son of Man, while only referring to Himself once as Messiah. This statistical difference is quite remarkable. It shows that Jesus understood that the Messiah would be rejected by Israel, they would not have Him as King. The title would be put aside, along with all the promises and prophecies associated with the Messiah. Israel would be put aside, God saying to them, “You are not My people, and I will not be your God.” (Hos. 1:9) The Jewish dispensation would end. God’s work in the new dispensation would be based on the suffering and death of the Son of Man, and this Man being raised and exalted to the right hand of God. In the gospels it is these events – suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and exaltation – that are particularly associated with the Son of Man title. Then the church is the body of this Man, united to Him when He went up into glory. These are not Messianic thoughts.
In specific instances when the Messiah title is forced into the conversation around Jesus, He quickly puts the title behind Him and immediately references the Son of Man title in its place. This you saw in His conversation with Nathaniel, and we see a similar thing in all the following passages (Matt. 16:20-28; 26:59-64, Luke 9:20-22; 22:66-70). The proper Jewish understanding of the Messiah was when He came to Israel He would stay forever (John 12:34). But the Son of Man would be lifted up and He would go away, that is, back to heaven. This they did not understand at all. Neither did the disciples understand, even though they were closest to Him (Luke 18:31-34).
Hebrews 12:25 (NKJV)
“See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven.”
The contrast between things in the heavens and things on the earth is an important overall theme in the book of Hebrews. If any believer would go back and again read this book with the thought of this difference in mind, the impression that this contrast gives is quite profound. This understanding translates into stark differences between Judaism and Christianity, and therefore again we may say, differences and transition between the two dispensations. In this passage, ‘He who spoke on earth’ is Jehovah speaking to Israel at Mt. Sinai. What this references is not something obscure; it references the law and Judaism, and the Jewish dispensation. The contrast to this is ‘He who now speaks from heaven.’ This references Jesus Christ our High Priest, who has sat down at the right hand of God, and speaks of the Christian dispensation. The epistle views Him as Christianity’s High Priest who has passed through the heavens, who is higher than the heavens. It sees Judaism’s priests as limited and frail, subject to their own sins and death, and confined to the earth. Then the direct contrast of Christianity is made:
Hebrews 7:26-28 (NKJV)
“For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; 27 who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever.”
Another obvious difference in the dispensations is that God spoke (past tense) on the earth. The Jewish dispensation has ended; it is in the past tense. If Israel’s covenant became obsolete, grew old, and has vanished away (Heb. 8:13), then the Jewish dispensation has done the same. For this reason Israel has been set aside by God, as well as their religion. But now, presently, God is speaking (present tense) from heaven. Christianity takes the believer into the heavens. Jesus is raised from the dead and exalted into glory (in the heavens). We are members of His body, in union with the Head, Jesus Christ, the glorified Man, who has ascended, and is now at the right hand of God. Every association we have as Christians is dependent on this truth, this fact – this glorified Man is presently in the heavens, sitting at the right hand of God.
This is a difficult understanding and reality for most Christians to comprehend. We easily become bogged down with earthliness. And then it is a very small step to worldliness. Paul tells us not to set our minds on earthly things (Phil. 3:18-19). But in truth, most Christians willfully do this. They are caught up in the cares of this world. They haven’t the first clue as to how to set their mind on things above, instead of things on the earth (Col. 3:1-3). But Paul says, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.” The true believer has been raised with Christ. If so, then our business, our occupation, is to seek those things above in the heavens, in the place where Christ presently is, sitting at God’s right hand. Then set your mind on those things above. Do not set your mind on things on the earth – earthliness. Jesus is not of the world; the believer in Christ is not of the world (John 17:14-16). Our calling is not of this world; our calling is not earthly (Heb. 3:1). And Hebrews is an epistle that distinguishes these things, especially Christianity as the heavenly religion in contrast to Judaism as an earthly one.
Matthew’s gospel is ripe with passages pointing out the transition. Each of the gospels have certain differing character. Matthew’s view is the presentation of Jehovah/Messiah to Israel according to prophecy, promises, and the Jewish dispensation (Matt. 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 21:4-9). Consequently, his gospel shows the rejection of Messiah by Israel in numerous passages (Matt. 9:3, 34; 11:16-24; 12:1-50; 16:1-4, 20, 21; 21:15; 21:33-39, 42; 26:2-5, 14, 15, 16; 26:46-50, 59; 27:1; 27:15-23, 25; 28:11-15). And we also see God’s rejection of Israel (Matt. 8:10-12; 9:15-17; 11:16-24; 12:30, 34; 12:39-50; 13:11-15; 15:1-9, 12, 13, 14; 21:18-19; 21:40-44; 22:7; 23:2-39; 24:2). Further, we see in Matthew what is unique to his gospel – the use of the label or name that Jesus gives to the new Christian dispensation, “the kingdom of heaven.” And with this we have multiple passages that show the transition between dispensations – Matt. 3:16-17, 8:5-13, 11:9-13, 12:43-50; 13:1-3; 13:11-17; 13:24-53; 16:13-21, 17:1-13; 21:18-19; 21:33-44; 22:2-9; 23:13, 37, 38, 39; 24:1-2 are just a few. Even the apostolic commission at the end of Matthew is a resounding dispensational transition (Matt. 28:18-20).
(1) Although many would argue with me on this point, yet I believe this is an apostolic commission. I do not believe this is an ecclesiastical commission, that is, for the entire church. The church did not exist at this point. This commission is specifically for ministry to the Gentiles, and was formally given up to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2, 22:21, 26:15-18, Rom. 11:13, I Tim. 2:7, II Tim. 1:11). This commission was not kept by the original eleven standing here on this mountain in Galilee – they became Jewish apostles, the apostles of the circumcision (Gal. 2:1-9). “All the nations” applies to the Gentiles, and this was not a commission given in Jerusalem, but in Galilee of the Gentiles. Everything in this commission is a transitioning away from the Jews, from Jewish things and the Jewish dispensation. It most appropriately is placed in Matthew’s gospel by the Holy Spirit.
(2) This commission is the most formal statement of the Christian revelation replacing Judaism – although Paul baptized few, those working with him would baptize Gentile believers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Paul taught Christ’s commands, which replaced the teaching of the Mosaic law – we saw this substitution/transition in the sermon on the mount in Matthew; we see the same thing here.
(3) This is a kingdom commission, but it refers to “the kingdom of heaven.” Upon resurrection from the dead, Jesus is given all the power of heaven. Again, the use of this specific term in Matthew always refers to the Christian dispensation and Christendom as the corporate body under responsibility to God in that dispensation. If there are kingdom thoughts in this commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel, then they have to be referencing the new dispensation if we stay true to the character of this gospel.
All this transitioning becomes part of the distinct character of Matthew’s gospel. After Jesus is rejected in chapter twelve, He breaks all ties with Israel in the flesh (Matt. 12:47-50). He describes Israel as a house swept clean and empty, ripe for the perfection and completeness of evil to inhabit them (Matt. 12:43-45). He quits the house of Israel (Matt. 13:1) and becomes the Sower going out to sow – a new planting by God as the kingdom of heaven developing on the earth and in the world to the end of the age (Matt. 13:24-52). The old vineyard that was Israel would be set aside and destroyed by God (Isa. 5:1-7). The new planting would be Christendom developing in the world, and the parables as similitudes of the kingdom of heaven teach this simple, but new truth (Matt. 13:24-30). In this chapter Jesus liberally quotes Isaiah to confirm the Jews being set aside (Matt. 13:10-17).
Not only does Jesus say that Isaiah’s prophecies are fulfilled in Israel, but Paul in speaking to the Jews in Rome at the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28:23-29) essentially says the same thing – “The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet…” This was after Jesus on the cross interceded for Israel, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34). The book of Acts, particularly the first seven chapters, represents Israel’s last chance for a Messianic kingdom under the principle of responsibility. In Acts three (3) the Jewish authorities reject the testimony of the Spirit and disciples of a glorified Messiah who would return to Israel if the nation repented. In Acts seven (7), by the mouth of Stephen, God closes His dealings in testimony to Israel, and the heavenly gathering begins (Stephen’s spirit being received up on high). With the stoning of Stephen there is a definite turning by God to the Gentiles in the book of Acts, and you can see the transition between dispensations for yourself. Israel committed sin against the Holy Spirit, refusing and rejecting His testimony of Jesus (John 15:26-27), and it would not be forgiven them (Acts 7:51). The kingdom of God is taken from Israel (Matt. 21:43). But with Paul in Rome this turning of God to the Gentiles and the setting aside of Israel is obvious in his words (Acts 28:28). The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in 70 AD is the obvious bringing in of physical judgment by God to end the Jewish dispensation judicially, to end the practice of Judaism, and to set aside the Jews in a very physical way – death by the sword or scattering into the nations (Luke 21:20-24, Matt. 22:7).
The passage in Matthew 11:7-15 is a particularly interesting concerning the two dispensations. “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” This is when the Jewish dispensation ends, with the coming of the Baptist. From the days of John the Baptist it has been the kingdom of heaven at hand. Then Jesus says that John is greater than all the prophets and all those born of women – these words can only be associated with the Jewish dispensation. Yet He says, the least one in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. How is this if it is not understood dispensationally? The least one in the new dispensation, in the kingdom of heaven, is born of God. This will always be greater than the greatest born of women.
The last point of the passage is figurative, dealing with the two kingdoms – the future Messianic kingdom for Israel and the kingdom of heaven – and how Elijah, in figure, will precede both kingdoms in time (Mal. 4:5-6, Rev. 11:3-12, Matt. 11:14, Luke 1:17). John the Baptist is Elijah in figure, preceding the kingdom of heaven at hand (Matt. 3:1-2). This does not negate the one in the spirit of Elijah that is yet to come during the coming tribulation, associated with the future Messianic kingdom in Israel.
If we are spiritually taught of God, we see the transition in Scripture from the Jewish dispensation to the one that involves Christendom developing in the world – the kingdom of heaven in mystery. We have shown this as seen in many different forms and ways. We may even see these distinctions by considering the differing ministries of three apostles- Peter, Paul, and John.
By scriptural authority we may regard Peter as the apostle of the circumcision (the Jews), while Paul became the apostle of the uncircumcision (the Gentiles – Gal. 2:7-8). Peter and the twelve remained in Jerusalem when the disciples were scattered, and continued the work of Christ in the remnant of Israel – the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Paul however, having received the ministry of the assembly, as to preaching the gospel to every creature under heaven (Col. 1:23-29), as a wise master-builder, lays the foundation (I Cor. 3:10). Peter sees the believer as a pilgrim on a journey to follow a risen Christ towards an inheritance above. But Paul, in fully developing his doctrine of the church, shows us the results of our pursuit of Christ (the upward calling and singular thing we do – Phil. 3) – the end being the saints sitting in heavenly places, having heavenly citizenship, and blessed with all heavenly blessings in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1; 2; 3). Believers are presented as joint heirs with Jesus of all which He is heir of. All this concerning Peter and Paul is dispensational, and full of godly insights.
But John holds a very different place. He is not so clearly dispensational as the other two; nor does he take us up into the heavens as does Paul. In the majority of John’s gospel, as well as his three epistles, Jesus is presented as a divine Person, the Word made flesh manifesting God and His Father, the eternal life as the bread of heaven come down to earth. His first epistle regards the believer as partaking of this life (I John 5:9-12). However at the end of John’s gospel, in his last two chapters (John 20; 21), Jesus opens out, albeit in a mysterious way, the continuation of God’s dealings with the earth, of which John’s ministry in the word is representative. These two chapters link together the manifestation of the first and second coming of Christ. They form a link to John’s writing the Revelation of Jesus Christ – God’s judgment of the world and all that is earthly and prophetic to the end.
But we have to remember this is obscurely spoken of by the Lord, and of necessity, requires the Spirit to teach us divine truth and understanding. This will not be found by dissecting Hebrew and Greek words. In John twenty (20) the Jewish remnant in the latter days is represented by Thomas looking on a living but pierced Jesus Christ, and believing by seeing (Zech. 12:10). This chapter represents God’s ways from the resurrection of Jesus until the pouring out of the Spirit on an Israeli remnant before the great and terrible day of the Lord – that which will be the complete fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-32), of which Pentecost was only a partial. In chapter twenty-one (21) we have the end-time remnant in the boat, fishing all night without catching anything. At the dawning of a new day for Israel the physical blessings will come (the millennium), when they see Jesus on the shore in the daylight. When they make it to the shore and join Jesus, we have the full millennial gathering (this is similar to Jacob wrestling in the flesh all night with God, his name being changed to Israel so that in all his experiences he represents the nation of Israel, and he only receives a blessing in the morning, at the dawning of a new day – Gen. 32:24-32).
At the close of John twenty-one (21), the special and distinct ministry that Peter and John would have is pointed out. Peter is to feed the lost sheep of Israel, a remnant of the nation which would come to faith through the ministry of the twelve. Although, importantly, he is used of God to bring into the church the first Gentiles, Peter’s ministry of the circumcision would end. And he never really takes up the open door to the Gentiles presented to him by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:9-21). This ministry to the Gentiles, along with the dispensation of the mystery and the church, is given to Paul. He is the apostle to the Gentiles and the uncircumcision (Rom. 11:13, Gal. 2:7-8). But the Spirit through John never mentions Paul or any characteristic of his ministry or stewardship for the church in this chapter (21). Actually John never uses the term ‘the body of Christ’ or uses the word ‘church’ to refer to the universal assembly in all his writings (neither does Peter). For Paul the assembly belonged to heaven, and wasn’t to be mingled with earthly things. It is Paul alone who teaches the doctrine of the church and is given this responsibility.
When Peter is told by the Lord to not concern himself with John, He mentions a mysterious description of what would turn out to be John’s role and service to Christ – “If I will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.” (John 21:22) Through the word John would have a ministry that would span over the stewardships of both Peter and Paul’s ministries. And what John brings to us through his writings is the divine Person of Christ, and having the Son in order to have life, eternal life. This is the individual stability to be held to in the midst of the obvious decline and ruin of the dispensations – Israel being first set aside by God, then Christendom losing its first love, being spewed out, and her candlestick being removed (Rev. 2; 3). Dispensationally, the Gentiles would not continue in the goodness of God (Rom. 11:22). Peter’s ministry would close. Paul’s ministry would also. But the close of John’s ministry is put off by the Lord, prolonging it in possibility until Christ came (John survived all the other apostles. Jesus could have returned in his lifetime). Yet his ministry through the word, which was all that remained when no apostle was left, even himself, did go on to the return of Christ.