PART THREE: Understanding the Christian Dispensation and its Principles
In the sequence of the three Bible dispensations, the middle one is the Christian dispensation. We will find for it the same essential characteristics which generally identify any period as a Bible dispensation – a sovereign work of God begins the time; a specific corporate body given responsibility for the testimony of God in the earth, etc. But what we will find so surprising in our study of the Christian dispensation is just how different it is in comparison to the Jewish dispensation it replaced. Most central to these differences is the Christian’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ. While the Jews reject this profession wholeheartedly, it is the center piece of the Christian dispensation.
Chapter Ten – The Christian Dispensation
The Christian dispensation replaces the Jewish dispensation in the ways of God’s dealings with man on the earth. Although there was a lengthy period of transition bringing in this replacement – forty years from John the Baptist to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD – the Christian dispensation is seen, in a general sense, as coming after the Jewish one ended.
The present dispensation is the Christian dispensation. Those who are or were called Christians, regardless of when they lived or died, belong to this dispensation. And there are many other associations which also serve to characterize things. Under God’s approval and in God’s ways with man, Christianity is now the religion of practice (it replaces Judaism). What is the corporate body given responsibility for the testimony of God in the dispensation? The answer is Christendom.181 And how would we define Christendom? All those, individuals or groups, who name the name of Jesus Christ and profess to have faith in Him.
181 [This answer is given here for the reader to have the correct information now for discussing the dispensation in a general way. The biblical differences between the true church and Christendom at large are made in a later chapter, so that we may better comprehend that Christendom, being the outward body of Christian profession, is the corporate group given responsibility by God in the present dispensation.]
Christendom includes numerous groups which have various degrees of differences and divisions between them. Undoubtedly, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest and primary group forming it. The world sees Romanism and the pope as the undisputed leader of Christianity. If what man has built up in the world in the name of Jesus Christ holds the responsibility of the dispensation, then the biggest part of that which has been built is the Roman church. Yes, there was a new sovereign work of God in Christendom in the sixteenth century called the Reformation,182 where God exalted His word above the authority and control of the Roman church. But when responsibility for care of this new work was given to men, what were the results they brought forth in the church world? – a plethora of divided protestant groups: denominations many; independents and dissenters numerous; national churches baptizing everyone in the populous from kings to servants. However, all these many groups could not eclipse the expanse and reach of the Roman church. To this day nothing comes close. But all these groups (including the Roman church), great and small, have the common confession of Jesus Christ, and together form the corporate body of Christendom. For good or bad, success or failure, it is this corporate body which has been given by God the responsibility for testimony in the dispensation.
182 [There was a split in Christendom @1000 AD when the Greek Orthodox church split from the Roman church. From this point on, at least outwardly, there was no longer a true catholic church. The Roman claim as the “catholic church,” meaning “universal church,” was no longer valid]
Every dispensation begins with a sovereign work of God displaying His glory. The Jewish dispensation had the plagues of judgment on Egypt and Israel walking through the Red Sea on dry ground. They experienced many signs and miracles, both in the wilderness and in the Promised land.
The Christian dispensation officially began on the day of Pentecost. After the Lord completed the work of redemption, He returned back to heaven. Having fully glorified God by His obedience to the cross, God glorifies Him (as a Man, the Son of Man) by raising Him from among the dead and seating Him at His right hand (John 13:31–32, 12:23, Eph. 1:19–21). Only then could He send down the Holy Spirit, who begins to gather all Christian believers into one body, the church (Eph. 1:22-23, 1 Cor. 12:12–14, 27). Jesus had to go away in order to send the Spirit and begin the Christian dispensation (John 7:37–39, 16:7).
At the present time we are still in this dispensation. It has gone on now for nearly two thousand years. The practice of Christianity is the religion God has sanctioned for the dispensation. The external corporate body of Christendom is what has responsibility for the testimony of God in the earth during the dispensation. The true church, the body of Christ, is contained within the larger body of Christendom. Why then isn’t the church the corporate body given responsibility for the dispensation instead of Christendom? I do not doubt the body of Christ does have the same responsibility for testimony to the truth of God (I Tim. 3:15). The true church has the same profession of the name of Jesus Christ that all Christendom has. However, the presence of what is true does not excuse the responsibility of the mass that remains mingled in with it (Matt. 7:21–23, 13:24–29). All who profess having faith in Jesus Christ have the same responsibility for testimony to that name.183
183 [In this chapter, my intention is to outline the general facts which fulfill the necessary requirements that the Christian dispensation needs in order to be considered a new dispensation replacing the Jewish one. More scriptural proofs and details will be added in later chapters confirming these general dispensational truths]
As we examine the Christian dispensation in further detail, we will find the same general dispensational characteristics that we saw in the Jewish dispensation:
- an initial sovereign work of God’s power to begin the dispensation
- responsibility given to a certain corporate body to care for and testify about God’s work in grace
- failure of the corporate body in its testimony, and the dispensation continuing only by the long-suffering and mercy of God holding back His judgment
- When God’s patience runs out, His judgment ends the dispensation
- However, before judgment, God will always send out a testimony by which He separates a faithful remnant – “…those who have ears to hear.”
As the Jewish dispensation followed this general course, we will find that the Christian dispensation will do the same. The Spirit of God through Paul confirms this dispensational pattern in Romans.
Romans 11:21-22 (NKJV)
21 “For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. 22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.”
The natural branches refer to Israel. During the Jewish dispensation they were connected to the olive tree of God’s earthly blessings. Their dispensational responsibility was obedience to God by obeying His law. Apostasy came in at the very beginning with the golden calf, and idolatry grew and ripened from that point. Their disobedience was consummated with their rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. This chapter tells us how God morally judged the Jews:
Romans 11:7–10 (NKJV)
7 “What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. 8 Just as it is written:
“God has given them a spirit of stupor,
Eyes that they should not see
And ears that they should not hear,
To this very day.”
9 And David says:
“Let their table become a snare and a trap,
A stumbling block and a recompense to them.
10 Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see,
And bow down their back always.”
God did not spare the natural branches. The Jews, in general, were broken off (Rom. 11:17, 19, 20). This was the Jewish dispensation ending.
Will the Gentile dispensation follow the same course?184 The passage quoted above implies the definite possibility it would (Rom. 11:21–22). The Gentiles were placed under the dispensational responsibility of continuing in the goodness of God – otherwise you (Gentiles) also will be cut off. This cutting off would be the Christian dispensation ending, much like the Jewish dispensation did.
184 [Here I use the term Gentile dispensation as synonymous with the Christian dispensation. In Romans eleven, Paul never uses the word “church,” but rather emphasizes God turning to the Gentiles after setting Israel aside and that he is God’s apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:11–13). The contrast he makes is between Jews and Gentiles in a dispensational way, with many of the defining characteristics of dispensations contained in the passages found in this chapter.]
Romans eleven (11) is a critical chapter for the dispensational system based on corporate calling. In it, Paul shows certain truths associated with all three dispensations forming this doctrinal system (as emphasized in this book).
As the natural descendants of Abraham, during the Jewish dispensation, the Jews enjoyed earthly blessings and privileges from God – the fatness of the olive tree. Because they didn’t continue in the goodness of God, they were cut off as the natural branches and their dispensation ended. In a new dispensation, God turns to the Gentiles, but saves a remnant of faithful Jews (11:2–7) – this forms the church/Christendom on the earth, where some of the natural branches were kept in the olive tree, while many wild branches (Gentiles) are grafted in (11:17). During the Christian dispensation Israel is blinded, and they become enemies of the gospel (11:7, 25, 28) – the gospel being the main instrument used by God during the Christian dispensation. The Gentiles/Christendom are threatened with being cut off, if they do not continue in the goodness of God in the new dispensation. Regardless of the failure and ruin and Christendom not “continuing” in God’s goodness (11:19–22), still the Christian dispensation will go on in the mercy and long-suffering of God, until the “fullness of the Gentiles” comes in (11:25).185 Then Christendom will be “cut off” and this leads to the millennium, when Israel will be saved as a nation and restored in the land (11:26–27). This restoration of Israel will mean the greatest earthly blessings for the world during the final dispensation (11:12, 15).
185 [The Spirit’s use of this phrase is a label which references the Christian dispensation – the ‘fullness’ refers to Christendom, and not the church. This is true simply because the Gentiles will be cut off for not continuing on in the goodness of God, ending the Christian dispensation. The true church, the body and bride of Christ, could never be cut off by God (we will give a more detailed explanation of this truth in later chapters). But please note: The Holy Spirit’s use of this phrase, “the fullness of the Gentiles,” legitimizes our dispensational system based on corporate calling (Rom. 11:29)]
Further, what legitimizes only three dispensations of time in our system is the Spirit showing through Paul the cutting off and adding back of the natural branches (the Jews) as bookends to the time when the Gentiles are in the olive tree as wild olive branches]
The main emphasis of Romans 9, 10, 11 is for the apostle to explain God’s ways and dealings with Israel as His earthly people (Rom. 9:1–5, 10:1–3, 11:1–2). Chapter eleven portrays Israel’s place/position in each of the three dispensations. The olive tree refers to God’s earthly privileges and blessings. In the Jewish dispensation, the Jews are the natural branches in the olive tree; in the Christian dispensation they are “cut off” from the tree; in the millennium, Israel is grafted back into their own tree (Rom. 11:23–24). Three different periods of time in view of Israel’s relationship with the earthly blessings of God. Nothing could be simpler.186
186 [By the Holy Spirit’s use of the olive tree metaphor in Romans eleven, we have the biblical teaching which legitimizes the consideration of a dispensational system based on the corporate calling of God, and one which contains only three dispensations of time]
Are there any specifics found in the chapter concerning the Christian dispensation? Israel stumbled and fell; as a consequence, the Jews are now “cut off”; they have been blinded by God; they are enemies of the gospel. The Gentiles have been grafted into the olive tree; Christendom enjoys the earthly privileges and blessings from God that the Jews once enjoyed. But Christendom is placed on the responsibility of the dispensation – the “continuing” on in the goodness of God, or being “cut off” like the Jews.
It is paramount for all dispensationalists to fully understand the biblical principle of creature responsibility and how it is intimately related to any proper dispensational thinking or system. There just wouldn’t be any dispensations unless there were corporate groups given responsibility by God. If the Christian dispensation follows the same course as the Jewish one, it too will end in failure and judgment. A new dispensation comes in only because of the failure of the previous one. In this book we entertain the existence of only three dispensations. What this means is that the first two end in failure and progress on to the next one in line. This also is simple to perceive.
This gives us a good reason to now look at the biblical history of man under the principle of responsibility. It is a solemn but instructive understanding to realize that in everything God has set up, and then giving man responsibility for the care of it, the first thing man has done has been to ruin it. Adam did so in the garden. The consequences were tragic. He lost both innocence and paradise. Judgment was pronounced on him, his wife, and the serpent. Futility and corruption were placed on God’s creation (Rom. 8:19–22). Man was now a fallen sinner, and subject to death (Rom. 5:12), and all his children would be born in sin. The entire human race, through natural birth, would automatically share in the same fallen state – born in sin, all sinners. The immediate results are found in Genesis.
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually… the earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:5, 11)
Even though God had His testimony in Abel, Enoch, and Noah, still He was forced to end this world in the judgment of the flood. Depravity was man’s fallen state. Then Noah, the new head of the world in which God institutes the principle of government, gets drunk in his first act. God calls Abram out of idolatry. Later in his life, because of his fears, he plays a game of deception involving his wife (Gen. 12:10–20). And we can’t forget Hagar and Ishmael as part of Abraham’s work. Later, when the nation of Israel agreed to obey everything Jehovah said to do (Ex. 19:8), they made and worshiped a golden calf before Moses made it down the mountain with the tablets of stone. The Jews broke the first commandment at the very beginning. When priesthood was instituted, they offered strange fire on the first day of service, Aaron’s two sons falling dead by the judgment of God. In consequence, Aaron never enters the holy place in his garments of glory. When Israel rejects God as their King, asking to be like the Gentiles, their first king is according to the appearance of the flesh, and what suited the nation. Saul was a colossal failure in leading Israel. Even though David was chosen by God, his sins are well known in Scripture, so that he says,
“Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is righteous.” (Ps. 143:2)
Solomon, the first son of David in the royal line, turns to idolatry and ruins the kingdom. From his time to today, Israel remains a divided nation, the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. When the principle of government was given by God to the Gentiles, Nebuchadnezzar, their first king given world dominion, makes a golden image and persecutes the people of God. Later, when Jesus was first sent to Israel as their Messiah, according to Jewish prophecies and promises, God’s own people refused and rejected Him (John 1:11). God came and visited the world which He created, and this world could not recognize Him (John 1:10).
Through all these events and situations, through all advancement of biblical institutions, God shows his long-suffering, moving forward in mercy and grace. However, mankind’s historical record does show the system from Adam was fallen. Whatever God set up in goodness, man was sure to ruin and corrupt, and this at the very first. I have no hesitation in saying I do not doubt the same result for Christianity, Christendom, and the Christian dispensation we are currently in (Matt. 13:24–43). Men have failed in their responsibilities early on, and the general ruin of Christendom in its public testimony ensued.
We know the Christian dispensation will be replaced by a final one – that which is called the millennium. This ending dispensation will be upheld by the direct display of the power of God and the physical presence of Jesus Christ on the earth; Satan will be removed from the world for the thousand years, bound in a bottomless pit and out of the way.187 All will be made good, and more gloriously, by/in Jesus Christ, the glorified Son of Man and the second Adam. All biblical principles, institutions, and dispensations, made good in Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.
187 [As the different dispensations have differing principles and teachings influenced by the physical presence or absence of Jesus Christ on the earth, so are all three dispensations affected by the relative position of Satan, mankind’s adversary. In both the Jewish and Christian dispensations Satan was/is at liberty, having access to the heavens and earth. But he will be bound during the future millennium (Rev. 20:1–3). This is the only dispensation which will enjoy relative success. This biblical reality needs to be understood, and its influence on the character and principles of the different dispensations acknowledged. More will be discussed on this topic in later chapters]
But if the Christian dispensation is still ongoing, how can we be sure it will follow the same course of failure? 188 Besides consulting mankind’s own historical writings and doing an honest evaluation of Christendom’s moral history over the past 2000 years, we have something of a much higher authority – God’s testimony of the Christian dispensation found in His word. Let’s keep in mind, He sees the end from the beginning.
188 [The biggest issue facing dispensationalists is not how many dispensations they see and how they should label them. I would hope most would agree that limiting the system to the three dispensations we refer to in this book is sound thinking and really serves to simplify the system overall. The real problem is understanding dispensations have certain defining characteristics and follow a general course of progression (the reason why there are only three dispensations). Above we reviewed the biblical history of man under his responsibility so we may see, and possibly admit, that in all cases, unless directly sustained by the power of God, mankind always fails in his responsibility involving everything that God has set up in grace. Consequently, we must look forward in time to a future dispensation (the millennium) where this course and pattern will be broken. But comprehending this, admitting its truth, enables us to hold an accurate viewpoint of the realities of the present Christian dispensation. Especially needed is the comprehension that it will end in the judgment of God because Christendom has failed in its corporate responsibility (1 Pet. 4:17). This is a humbling reality. But if we fail to see this, or worse, contrary to all the evidence deny its truth, then we become no more than the blind leading the blind. Our leaders and ministers need to follow the example of Daniel – he realized the failure of his people before God, confessed it, and asked for forgiveness (Dan. 9:1-19)]
We mentioned earlier there was a transition between the first two dispensations lasting approximately forty years. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans (70 AD) was the definitive end of the Jewish dispensation. However, God had morally judged the Jews long before this (Matt. 12, 13:11–15, 21:19,33–44, 23:1–39, John 1:10–11, 5:38–47, 7:28–29, 8:23–26, 39–47, 54–55, 12:31, 37–40, 15:22–25, Acts 7, 28:25–29). The Christian dispensation officially began on the day of Pentecost with the sending down of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). The resurrected and glorified Son of Man went back to heaven ten days previous to this (Acts 1:9).
It is characteristic of the Christian dispensation that Jesus, the object of faith for Christians and Christianity, is not physically present on the earth and remains unseen (John 16:7, 20:29). When Jesus was raised from the dead, He did say to His disciples (Matt. 28:18), “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” What delineates certain understandings are the following negatives.
- He isn’t present on the earth and He doesn’t now exercise His power over the world.189
- He isn’t on the throne of David or a throne that is His own but has sat down on His Father’s throne (Rev 3:21, Heb. 1:3, 10:12–13).
- His present-day position and ministry doesn’t concern any dealings with the world, but only with the true Christian/church – He is Head of the body (Eph. 1:22–23), and High Priest before God for the believer (Heb. 4:14–16, 7:26–28, 8:1–2).
These things characterize the Christian believer, the church, and the present time of the Christian dispensation.
189 [This helps to explain why God does not judge and stop evil in the world at this present time, but it seemingly grows and worsens. The gospel is God’s offer of grace and mercy to all the world, and this characterizes the Christian dispensation. The Holy Spirit has been sent down to gather in the church, a heavenly body destined to be taken to the heavens. The Spirit has not been sent to judge and correct the evil of the world at this time. Although Jesus has been given all power over the world, He sits now on His Father’s throne – not His throne, not the throne of the Son of Man glorified (Matt. 25:31), and not the throne of David, Messiah and King of Israel (earthly thrones). As for the judgment of the world’s evil, Jesus is sitting and waiting until it is time to make His enemies His footstool (Heb. 10:13). This will be at His physical return to this world, which will begin the millennium (a new dispensation). What is characteristic of the present Christian dispensation is Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, and His ministry on behalf of the true Christian]
The transition period from the Christian dispensation to the millennium is the future seven-year tribulation. The Christian dispensation will officially end somewhere near the middle of that seven-year period. What ends the tribulation will be the physical return of Jesus Christ to the earth. The millennium, the last dispensation, will soon begin after His return (Rev. 20:1–6). It will be a dispensation characterized as a time when every eye will see Him, not only the Jews, but the entire Gentile world (Rev. 1:7, 19:11–21, Matt. 24:30, Zech. 12:10–14, Acts 1:10–11).
For this chapter it is enough that we can see the great possibility of a present Christian dispensation in the plan of God, and its existence predicated on the fact that God has ended the previous Jewish dispensation. This seems fairly straightforward, if not even obvious to our physical senses. Although God providentially preserves Israel during the Christian dispensation, He is presently engaged in a new work – building the church. His present ways and dealings in the earth are with Christianity and Christendom, where the responsibility for the present dispensation must reside. All who claim a profession of Jesus Christ and in any measure call themselves Christians are part of this corporate body. This is the general picture; in later chapters we will add details and specifics, the biblical evidence which justifies having this picture.