Stepping back a little from the past and future historic details describing the Christian dispensation in the previous chapter, we will ask the same question we did earlier concerning the Jewish dispensation – what is God’s purpose for the Christian dispensation? Previously, we made the convincing scriptural argument that His purpose for the Jewish dispensation was to prove mankind’s depravity. This is a critical biblical truth that must be kept at the forefront of any theological understandings (God knew that the fall of man brought about his depravity, but He had to take the time to prove to man his true condition. This period when mankind was on probation included the Jewish dispensation; see appendix B). However, even though we have noted that dispensations will have certain general similarities and follow a similar course of human failure, is God’s purpose the same for both the Jewish and Christian dispensation? Is God’s intention to again prove the depravity of man in Adam, only now using Christendom instead of Israel?
If this were true, it would be quite absurd. It would mean that God is repeating the same thing in the two succeeding dispensations, only now using a different group. As is said, this is the definition of insanity – repeating the same thing while expecting a different result. No, mankind’s probation ended before the cross. The different ways in which God had tested Israel overwhelmingly demonstrated mankind’s depravity. God declares man disobedient and lost, and condemns the world in result. This was now settled. He would not need another dispensation to do the same thing. No, the Christian dispensation has a different purpose.
John 11:49–52 (NKJV)
“And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, 50 nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad.”
The work of the cross is the most critical event in human history. It provides a foundation for all God’s counsels and plans, from eternity past to eternity future. Scripture speaks of this event coming at the fullness of time and the end of the world (Gal. 4:4, Heb. 9:26). The above passage identifies Christ’s death as a hinging point of sorts, between the Jewish and Christian dispensations. It represents Israel’s rejection of their Messiah, which undoubtedly resulted in God setting the Jews aside and ending their dispensation. God was now free to move on to a new work in a new dispensation. He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad. In this passage, we see that the immediate object of the death of Christ would be the gathering in of the church.190
190 [From Israel’s side, the crucifixion of Jesus was the full display of their rejection of Him as their Messiah (at the same time, the cross was the full display of mankind’s depravity). In turn, God’s judgment was to reject them, setting Israel aside and ending their dispensation. Physically, many Jews were killed by the sword and the remainder were scattered into the nations when the Romans destroyed the city and temple in 70 AD (Luke 21:20–24). But the passage above declares that Jesus died for this nation. What does the Spirit of God mean by saying this, if Israel did nothing but reject Him? As was said, the work of the cross is the foundation for everything God has done in the past, for everything He does today, and for everything He will do in the future. Jesus dying for the nation of Israel and being raised from the dead three days later, as a distinctly separate outcome from that of the church, specifically secured for the Jews their future restoration and blessing in the Promised land. This is what is meant concerning the “sure mercies of David” when Paul was testifying to the Jews at Antioch in Pisidia – the death and resurrection of Christ secured all the promises God made to the forefathers of Israel (Acts 13:14–34).
Now, a dispensationalist should distinguish that God’s fulfillment of promises to Israel’s forefathers through the nation’s millennial restoration is a different/separate work of His grace from that of redeeming unbelievers out of all nations and gathering them by the Spirit into one as the church (although both, as the work of God, are based on the death of Christ). One of the simple differences is that these are two different works in two different dispensations. They cannot and should not be viewed as the same]
The purpose of the Christian dispensation is the gathering of a heavenly people into one body, the church. Scripture doesn’t classify true Christians as being of this world (John 17:14–16). The Holy Spirit was sent down from God for this purpose. Jesus had to leave the earth in order for the Spirit to be sent and for the dispensation to begin. The baptism of the Spirit started on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:4–5, 2:1–4, 1 Cor. 12:12–13). This baptism continues to form the body of Christ today. The church is not complete as yet. Jesus continues to build it (Matt. 16:18). As long as this is true, the Christian dispensation continues. But clearly, the feature which distinguishes this dispensation and makes it unique is the sending down of the Holy Spirit and the specific work the Spirit accomplishes.
All true Christians have received the Holy Spirit when they believed on Christ (1 Cor. 2:12). He is the Spirit of adoption by which we are sealed as sons of God (Rom. 8:9, 14–16, Gal. 4:5–6). All believers have trusted in Jesus Christ after hearing the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation; in Christ also, having believed, we were all sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph. 1:13). To this point, the work God does is all for the individual. But then, the Spirit baptizes each Christian into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). It is this body that is in union with Christ. He is the glorified Son of Man, and the church is this Man’s body. In it, we are members one of another. As individual believers, we do not have union with Jesus Christ; but the body is in union with its Head, Jesus Christ, and we are members together in this (Col. 1:18).
But allow me to ask – where is the Head during the Christian dispensation? Where was He when the Spirit was sent down to the earth to gather in His body? He was glorified to the right hand of God in heaven (Heb. 10:12), and sat down on His Father’s throne (Rev. 3:21). Here is the necessary and crucial understanding – His present position as seen in heaven, gained by His obedience to the cross and the will of God for us, is that which singularly determines the spiritual realities of His body, the church – its place, its blessings, and privileges. Jesus has been raised from the dead and glorified to the heavens. In God’s mind, so has His body, the church (Eph. 1:19–23).
All the members of this body are given by God a heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1), and a heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20). The calling is our destiny. Our citizenship is in a country where we truly belong, where we have a permanent residence. God sees us as raised up together and seated together in heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 2:5–6). At this present time, being still in these bodies of flesh, we may only realize these things in a small partial measure – now, during the present dispensation, we see in a mirror, dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). But God is not a man that He should lie. Every promise He has made to the Christian will have its full fulfilment in glory. All the promises will have a physical reality. We will sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. And to what end or purpose is this?
“…that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:7)
The church is a heavenly body. Her destiny is to be removed from the earth and taken to the heavens. In Christ Jesus, this is her rightful and privileged place. It is God’s intention to have the church as His tabernacle, containing Himself and His glory, for all eternity. God is the Father of all His sons, who became so by faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26). Their proper place is to reside in the Father’s house. This house is not on this earth or in this world, but in heaven. It is where Jesus went away to, in order to prepare places for us (John 14:1–3). This is the Christian’s eternal abode. Our destiny is to shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of our Father (Matt. 13:43).191
191 [In the interpretation given privately to the disciples by Jesus of the Wheat and Tares parable, He refers to the existence of two distinct kingdoms after the harvest at the end of the age and in the time of the future millennium. The kingdom on the earth is that of the Son of Man (Matt. 13:41), while the one of the heavens is that of the Christian believer’s Father (Matt. 13:43)]
What is God’s purpose for the Christian dispensation? The Spirit was sent down to gather together in one all the sons of God. The baptism of the Spirit forms the body of Christ in union with its glorified Head. This is a heavenly body with a heavenly calling, a heavenly destiny. The gathering does take place on the earth, but those gathered are not of this world. This is the Lord’s work; Christ builds the church; the Lord knows those who are His (2 Tim. 2:19, Rom. 8:9). The rapture will remove all saints, both Old and New Testament, from this world to heaven (I Thess. 4:13–18). It will do this by glorifying them in their bodies, conforming them into the image of God’s Son (Rom. 8:29–30, 23–25, 11). This is God’s purpose for the Christian dispensation. It is His intention to surround Himself with a heavenly family, born of Him and conformed into the image of His Beloved Son.192
192 [There is an observation that can be made concerning the three dispensations which should be helpful for a better understanding of them, especially the Christian dispensation. The continuous succession of the dispensations is this:
- the Jewish dispensation first,
- then the Christian dispensation,
- and last, the millennium.
Observe that the Christian dispensation is sandwiched in-between the other two. These two – the Jewish dispensation and the millennium – are very similar to each other in many respects. They both are about the nation of Israel and Jewish things; both deal with Israel’s relationship to God’s calling and earthly government; both will feature Israel with the law and their Messiah; both involve God bringing the Jews into the Promised land so they may possess it as an inheritance; He would bless and prosper them there. It is remarkable how, in so many ways, the Jewish dispensation that was, is like the millennium that will be. We might say the two are linked together in character and principles. Only this difference – by the sovereign power of God the millennium will succeed in every point in which the Jewish dispensation was a complete failure.
As we noted, the Christian dispensation finds itself sandwiched in-between these two. However, in principle and character, it is not similar, but very different from them (we will see more comparisons showing this in later chapters). Keeping in mind that in the future millennium God will make good all the failures of the Jewish dispensation, we should ask the question, “When will God make good the failures of the Christian dispensation?” Is there going to be a future time when God will return and again deal with Christian things, much like the millennium will be a time far beyond the Jewish dispensation in which God deals again with the nation of Israel? The answer is, there isn’t a future time, beyond the Christian dispensation, for this.
It is plain from Scripture that the Christian dispensation is, in a sense, self-contained. From its beginning to its consummation, the particular and characteristic work of God involving Christians and christian things must come to its completion. The rapture, which will occur towards the end of the dispensation, is the sovereign work of God’s grace to glorify all the saints of God up to that time, taking them as completely perfect to heaven. Ephesians 5:25-27 tells us, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” The Son Himself is without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. He is holy and without blemish. Through sovereign grace the rapture will make us like Him. This is the fullness of His humanity as the glorified Man – His relationship before God as the resurrected Man (John 21:17), as well as His perfect obedience at all times to the will of God (John 4:34, 5:30, 12:49, 14:30–31, 17:4–5, Rom. 6:8–10, Phil. 2:5–8, Heb. 10:5–6).
You can see that God makes good and perfect all Christian things within the time of the Christian dispensation – it is all self-contained. It doesn’t come to perfection on the earth – the church is a heavenly body. The rapture fulfills the Christian’s calling by conforming him into the image of God’s Son and taking him to his Father’s house in heaven. With this fulfilled, and the church completed and perfected, God is now free to turn back and deal with the world and the earthly calling of Israel. After the rapture, when the true church is no longer present in the world, the Christian dispensation will soon come to an end. The tares of Christendom were bundled together and left in the world to be burned (Matt. 13:29–30, 37–42). This is one of the reasons why the Christian dispensation is referred to as a parenthesis of sorts – this different dispensation fits in nicely between the other two that are similar to each other.
All things Christian are limited to the time of the Christian dispensation. They will not merge into the millennium. We will see more proof of this from Scripture in the following chapters. But the failure to understand this dispensational truth only leads to error in the teaching of Christian doctrine. Here are the important points which proper dispensational thinking should embrace:
- The Jewish Dispensation has ended and Israel was set aside by God. Jewish things do not become part of the new Christian dispensation
- Israel is not the church, and the church is not Israel
- Judaism is not Christianity, and Christianity is not Judaism
- Jews are not Christians, and Christians are not Jews
- Jewish teaching came from Moses and the prophets; Christian teaching comes from Jesus Christ and a few of His apostles (John 1:17, 15:12–17, Matt. 28:18–20, 7:24–27)
- The law is not grace, and grace is not law. The Jews were under law; Christians are under grace (Rom. 6:14). Works are not grace, and grace is not works (Rom. 4:2, Rom. 11:5–7, 2 Tim. 1:9). Judaism is a religion of works; Christianity starts with the gospel of grace, and the Christian continues to require God’s grace in order to stand and walk in this world (Rom. 5:1–2, 2 Cor. 12:9–10, Gal. 3:1–3)
Because the Jewish dispensation is similar to the future millennium, we see in Scripture how everything associated with Israel and their dispensation spills over into the millennium. But here is what isn’t happening – the Jewish dispensation doesn’t spill into the Christian dispensation with its religion and with its Jewish things. When we aren’t careful and allow this error to occur, we quickly become guilty of Judaizing the Christian faith. And this leaven is far subtler today in contemporary Christianity than it was in the days of the apostle Paul (Gal. 5:1–9). And it is a similar mistake if we allow ourselves to think that Christian things associated with the Christian dispensation will continue on into the millennium. This is just not proper dispensational thinking and isn’t supported by Scripture. The dispensationalist should be careful never to allow these “spill overs” into his teachings. The Christian dispensation is self-contained.
Bible prophecy demonstrates the above-mentioned dispensational pattern. Prophecy is directly or indirectly about Israel, about the earth, and about God’s government of the earth (refer back to page note #157 in chapter six). Therefore, all prophecy will refer to either the Jewish dispensation, or to the future tribulation and millennium. Actually, many prophetic passages will start with the failures of the Jewish dispensation and immediately “spill over” into the millennium, where we will see the fulfillment of all Jewish promises. The general course of Bible prophecy simply jumps over the Christian dispensation as if it doesn’t exist (Dan. 9:24–27, Isa. 9:6–7, Ez. 36:16–38). There are reasons for this. The church is the mystery of God hidden from ages past – hidden from the content of O.T. prophecy. Therefore, Christendom and the Christian dispensation are mysteries hidden as well. Also, prophecy will count time on the earth in relation to Israel (Dan. 7:25, 9:24–27, Rev. 11:2–3, 12:6, 14, 20:3, 7–9). But it never does so in reference to the church, Christendom, or the Christian dispensation. The church is a heavenly body with a heavenly calling – there is no counting of time for heavenly things. All that is written above in this chapter note may seem matter of fact and technical in nature, but these thoughts and principles help form what has to be considered proper dispensational understandings]
God’s purpose for the Christian dispensation is to gather into one the children of God who were scattered abroad. This one body is the true church, the body of Christ. God’s mind from His word was for this body to exhibit a oneness, a unity of family, a union of the saints into one body. Although John never writes directly about the body of Christ, he does quote Jesus speaking about the unity of the Father’s family in back to back passages. Below is the first.
John 17:19-21 (NKJV)
19 “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.
20 I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
This first passage references the Christian dispensation (vrs. 19–21). The context leading up to it places it there (John 17:1–18).
- Jesus would no longer be in the world but was leaving to go to the Father. However, He was leaving His disciples behind; they would remain in the world (v. 11). This is the reality of the present dispensation, and unique to it.
- Jesus doesn’t pray for the condemned world, but only for His disciples, those who belong to Him and the Father (v. 9). This is a great dispensational truth. For the entire Christian dispensation, Jesus is the believer’s High Priest at the right hand of God, continuously interceding for us – Heb. 7:25–26. The Lord washing the disciple’s feet in John thirteen (13) is symbolic/typical of His priestly ministry in heaven.
- He doesn’t pray that they should be taken out of this world, but that the Father should keep them from the evil in it (v. 15).
- Their true Christian position during the dispensation is as one left in the world, but not of the world (v. 14, 16); believers are strangers and pilgrims here (Heb. 11:13, 1 Pet. 2:11)
The above passage tells us Jesus not only prays for those disciples with Him, but for all who would believe on Him through their testimony (v. 20). This encompasses both the dispensation and the family (church). He prays that, while He is away from them, they would have a unity and oneness which would cause the world to believe that Jesus was sent by the Father (v. 21). God’s will for the dispensation was to gather together His family in Christ, which would exhibit this oneness and unity. This is directly referring to the Christian dispensation. Also, what is characteristic of this period are the matters of faith – believing – while Jesus is away and unseen. The unity and oneness of the church should have been the most effective testimony to the world, encouraging them to believe in Christ.
It is remarkable how much the Lord’s teaching in His final discourse with His disciples references the soon to be established Christian dispensation (John 13–17). Considering how this gospel, in its first chapter, shows Israel’s rejection of their Messiah (John 1:11), John’s writings always seem to depict Israel as rejected by God and set aside (John 5:37–47, 8:21–26, 37–47, 10:24–27, 15:21–25). The passage we are considering above (John 17:19–21) is all the more remarkable because it shows God’s purpose for the dispensation, as well as the church’s/Christendom’s responsibility throughout – that they should be one, so that by this testimony the world might believe.
The following two verses follow after the others, but instead of being descriptive of the Christian dispensation, they reference the millennium:
John 17:22-23 (NKJV)
22 “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”
The church will be glorified (perfected) in one, and share in Christ’s glory. When Christ appears again to the world, it will be in this glory. The world will see the glorified saints with Him (Col. 3:4), for He shares everything He receives with them – the glory which You gave Me I have given them.
The rapture will take place close to the end of the Christian dispensation (John 14:1–3). But Christ does not appear to the world until the very end of the future tribulation and near the beginning of the millennium. This is when the world will be made to know that Christ is sent of God, and that the Father loves the church as He loves Christ – when they see the church with Christ in glory. In the Christian dispensation, nobody can see Jesus with their eyes, and therefore must believe without seeing (John 20:29, Heb. 11:1). But in the millennium, every eye will see Him – they will not have to believe, but at that time the world will know.193
193 [“Every eye will see Him” becomes the distinctive character of the future millennial dispensation. This equates to a walk by sight and the character of Jewish things. However, in the present Christian dispensation, nobody’s eyes see Him. He is hidden from the world at the right hand of God (Col. 3:3). Christians walk by faith in things unseen during the Christian dispensation (2 Cor. 5:7, Heb. 11:1). The life the believer now lives in the flesh is by faith in the Son of God (Gal. 2:20) – by faith in the One who is absent and unseen]
As the point of emphasis, we find in the passages two verses associated with the Christian dispensation (John 17:20–21), and two associated with the millennium and glory (John 17:22–23):
- the first involves the corporate responsibility of God’s family acting in unity as one in the world, and this being the characterizing testimony of the present dispensation under the care of men (professing Christianity).
- the second involves a future dispensation when God, by sovereign power and grace, will make good and perfect the unity of His family in the same glory He gives to Jesus Christ.
But our subject in this chapter is the present dispensation. God’s purpose in it is to gather in the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit sent down. Its testimony before the world, when the professing church was given the responsibility for it, was to be one body in the unity of the Spirit. God builds the church; God glorifies the church; God will display the church in glory with Christ. This is His workmanship in Christ Jesus, and it will be perfect in results. But dispensations depend on the responsibilities given to certain groups of men, and the testimony they render for God as a corporate body.
What is characteristic of the Christian dispensation is the fact that Jesus had to go away so that the Holy Spirit could be sent (John 16:7). God would dwell in the corporate body of the church during the dispensation – the body would be His habitation by the Spirit (Eph. 2:21–22, 1 Cor. 3:16). The unity and oneness of the family/church was to be through the presence and power of the Spirit. Manifesting outwardly this unity and oneness was the responsibility of the family/church – it was to be her testimony before the world to the glory of Christ during the dispensation. We must affirm this truth and allow it to weigh on our consciences. The church is gathered on the earth in order to display, in the unity of one body, the glory of Jesus Christ her Head, by and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 20, 27 (NKJV)
12 “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit…20 but now indeed there are many members, yet one body…27 now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.”
This visible unity of the body, where the Holy Spirit displayed His power, so that the grace and power of Christ manifested in the body of the church was seen by the world itself, characterized the church in the days of the apostles. This is the distinct testimony of the book of Acts (Acts 1:8, 2:1–4, 42–47, 4:23–37, 5:1–20). And the apostle, specifically given the stewardship to reveal the mystery of God – the body of Christ, and all its doctrine – constantly emphasizes in his teachings the responsibility the church has for this unity.
Ephesians 4:1-6 (NKJV)
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, 2 with all lowliness and gentleness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love, 3 endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
This was the dispensational responsibility of the professing church – her task was to display before the world the oneness of the body in the unity of the Spirit. Although the failure of the dispensation is not the topic in this chapter, we would be negligent to not bring to the reader’s attention what should be obvious. This unity no longer exists today, and in consequence, the power of the Spirit has all but disappeared in the church world. And the expression of the apostle, ‘so also is Christ,’ is no longer observable in Christendom (I Cor. 12:12).
God’s purpose for the dispensation? As for God’s own work, the Holy Spirit gathers the church, the body of Christ. Jesus said, I will build My church. God brings certain ones to faith in Christ, giving them life, and then He uses them as living stones to build Himself a dwelling place, Jesus Himself the chief cornerstone of the building. During the time of the Christian dispensation, God is gathering the body of Christ on the earth. The church has a heavenly calling, a heavenly destiny. Towards the end of the dispensation, God will remove the church from the world, taking her into the heavens, fulfilling her calling.
However, God’s purpose for the Christian dispensation is not the same as the responsibility on which the success or failure of the dispensation depends. God’s work is eternal, and can never fail. Responsibility is man’s work and duty. In dispensations, it is never an individual’s responsibility, but a corporate body’s responsibility for the testimony of God. In the Christian dispensation, specifically, the professing church was to show itself to the world as one body, in the unity of the Spirit.