Summary: Published October 2023: This article defines what a bible dispensation is and how many are found in Scripture. It is by far the easiest way to understand the entire bible.
A bible dispensation is more than a designated period of time. If that alone was its defining feature, our man-made systems would be both numerous and arbitrary, completely dependent on human reasoning. But Scripture always holds far more structure and truth in its passages than the human mind ever can or will. It may be a discipline but it is also a comfort to become completely dependent on God’s word and the Holy Spirit unveiling its truths to our hearts and minds.
Dispensations are periods of time in which God assigns to a corporate group of people the “responsibility” for the testimony of His glory and blessings in the world. During a dispensation, God will acknowledge a certain group as, “My people,” and He will be called by them, “Our God.” At some point you may have heard the phrase, “God’s chosen people” in reference to Israel. This passage from Deuteronomy makes clear why this phrase is spoken so often.
Deuteronomy 7:6-9 (NKJV)
6 “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. 7 The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; 8 but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
9 “Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments;
This brings us to another defining point – dispensations are periods of time in which God acknowledges “His calling” of a particular corporate group. And in this point Scripture is simple. There are only two corporate callings by God that can be found in His word. The first calling is of Israel and the second is of the church. In ancient times, beginning with Exodus, God acknowledged His calling of Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This calling, and God’s recognition of it, determines who had the assigned “responsibility” in the time of the dispensation.
The calling of Abram in Genesis (Gen. 12:1-3) is where the institution of calling is established in Scripture. Other saints before Abram were surely called of God, but here we have it clearly set in His word. What was Abraham’s calling? He was to leave his country and kindred and go to a different land that God would show him. God promises to make of him a great nation. He would bless him and make his name great. Through this process God would bless all the nations on the earth.
But Abraham’s time has long ago passed. God did prosper him and made his name great, and his descendants formed the nation of Israel. But we can’t say that Israel was ever great in the world or that in Abraham all the nations of the world were blessed. As yet, this “calling” remains unfulfilled. However, in Genesis twenty-two God tells Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” We would be correct in thinking that since Abraham has long passed, that God’s blessing of the world would eventually come only when Israel is made by God into a great nation.
Exodus 6:2-8 (NKJV)
2 And God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them. 4 I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. 5 And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. 6 Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. 7 I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the Lord.’ ”
Scripture shows us that Israel acquired Abraham’s calling. As his descendants, the nation was to inherit the land that God showed to him. Although Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spent different amounts of time living in the land, they never possessed it. God always considered them pilgrims and strangers while there. But God tells Israel that He would have them inherit the land of Canaan.
Let me show you the different possibilities implied in Scripture concerning God’s calling of a corporate group. We mentioned previously there are only two callings in Scripture – that of Israel and the church. It is an implied biblical principle that God will only acknowledge one calling at any given time. If He is recognizing Israel’s calling, then the time period is the Jewish dispensation. If God sets Israel aside and begins to acknowledge the calling of the church instead, then it is the time of the Christian dispensation. God will never acknowledge two different callings at the same time – that would be shear chaos.
Israel’s calling is to inherit the Promised Land. The calling of the believer/church is heavenly (Heb. 3:1). The similarity is that both are God’s calling and that both are a destination to which God wants/promises to bring the group. That’s probably an important point to make note of – “God’s calling” is to a destination.
It is equally important to realize the vast difference between the two callings. Israel’s is to inherit a large portion of land on the earth in the Middle East. The church’s calling is to be removed from the earth and taken by God to heaven (1 Thess. 4:13-18, John 14:1-4). We could say that the difference is as great as the perceived distance between heaven and earth.
It is critical that we not only recognize these two callings found in Scripture but that we keep them separate. It is miserable confusion to allow in your faith and thinking the mixing together of these two groups and their callings. And here is another important point Scripture makes (Rom. 11:29), “…the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” God may not be acknowledging Israel’s calling during the present Christian dispensation, but that doesn’t mean He has rescinded it. God’s callings are irreversible and permanent. We know that at some point in the future God will turn back to Israel to recognize and fulfill their calling.
Let’s look for more understanding about God’s callings. We are now aware that Israel and the church are the two corporate entities who legitimately have a calling from God in Scripture. God actively acknowledging a particular calling is an important perception on our part as well – that’s what determines the dispensation. So hopefully we can recognize the different times (different dispensations). The term “dispensation” means stewardship. The responsibility of the group is to produce “fruit” for God. In Israel’s case this is illustrated in the following passages:
Now let me sing to my Well-beloved
A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard:
My Well-beloved has a vineyard
On a very fruitful hill.
2 He dug it up and cleared out its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
He built a tower in its midst,
And also made a winepress in it;
So He expected it to bring forth good grapes,
But it brought forth wild grapes.
3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
4 What more could have been done to My vineyard
That I have not done in it?
Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes,
Did it bring forth wild grapes?
5 And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned;
And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will lay it waste;
It shall not be pruned or dug,
But there shall come up briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds
That they rain no rain on it.”
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant.
He looked for justice, but behold, oppression;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.
Matthew 21:33-40 (NKJV)
33 “Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. 34 Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. 35 And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. 37 Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?”
God’s vineyard symbolically represents Israel. As long as God acknowledged Israel’s calling, He could do nothing different than seeking fruit from them. The judgment of the vineyard in Isaiah’s passage refers to when a remnant of Jews was taken captive to Babylon and Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. The Lord’s parable in Matthew gives us a general history of Israel’s responsibility to produce fruit for God. The Jews and their leaders miserably failed, putting to death many of the prophets God sent and last of all crucifying God’s Son. Then, in our Lord’s time, the nation was depicted as a fig tree God would plant in His vineyard:
Luke 13:6-9 (NKJV)
6 He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ 8 But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. 9 And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’ ”
But what was left of Israel in the land again failed to produce fruit. Jesus goes to the fig tree and finds no fruit, only leaves:
Matthew 21:18-19 (NKJV)
18 Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.
We all know the Old Testament history. God first begins to acknowledge Israel’s calling in Exodus. He delivered the entire nation out of slavery in Egypt with the intent of bringing them into the land. However, because of disobedience, rebellion, and idolatry, Israel spent forty years in the wilderness. When they finally did enter the land under Joshau, their continued disobedience brought them limited success. Idolatry was the continual blight of their presence in the land until they were delivered of this unclean spirit by the Babylonian captivity (Matt. 12:43-45). Even though the nation was now “empty, swept, and put in order” concerning its idols, from that time many Jews returning to the land would be under the authority of the progressive Gentile world powers – Mede-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Then when Israel’s Messiah came, they got the Romans to crucified Him. They failed to produce any fruit. Although the fig tree had the leaves of profession, God never found any worthy fruit from His vineyard or fig tree.
Israel’s calling was never fulfilled during the Jewish dispensation. It is one thing for God to acknowledge a calling, it is another thing to have that calling fulfilled. And this brings us to another biblical principle. The things involved in God’s calling are absolutely dependent on sovereign grace. It is God who gives His calling. It is God who decides which calling He will acknowledge and when. And God alone can fulfill the calling. He accomplishes all without human help, without human hands.
These principles are easily followed in Scripture. Although God transferred Abraham’s calling to Israel and began acknowledging it when He delivered the nation out of Egypt, still their calling never was fulfilled. Instead of Israel continuing in the mercy and sovereign grace of God demonstrated in their deliverance, when at Mt. Sinai they chose their own responsibility as the terms for receiving the blessings and promises from God.
Exodus 19:7-8 (NKJV)
So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the Lord commanded him. Then all the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” So Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord.
Under the law, the promises and blessings of God would be conditioned on Israel’s obedience. This decision by the nation proved ruinous. Israel couldn’t keep God’s covenant, failing repeatedly. Soon after they rejected their Messiah, God rejected them and no longer acknowledged their calling. This is the story of Israel’s Old Testament history. It is the reason why the Jewish dispensation failed – it was a time of testing and probation, all of which was based on Israel’s responsibility.
Does God no longer acknowledge Israel’s calling? The biblical evidence that brings us to this conclusion is overwhelming. In the time of the Babylonian captivity, God says to Israel by the prophet Hosea:
Hosea 1:9 (NKJV)
9 Then God said:
“Call his name Lo-Ammi,
For you are not My people,
And I will not be your God.
Jesus declared that having killed the Son, the kingdom of God would be taken away from Israel (Matt. 21:33-44). He predicted that in His disciples’ lifetimes they would see Jerusalem and its temple destroyed (Luke 21:5-6, 12-24). The Jews who survived this were led away captive into all nations. Paul says in Hebrews that in ending Israel’s first covenant God would disregard them (Heb. 8:7-9). In Romans eleven the apostle says that, in general, the nation of Israel was hardened by God and that the election of grace (in Christianity) was only of a small remnant of Jews (Rom. 11:1-10). In that same chapter Paul describes Israel as the natural branches God broke off His olive tree of earthly blessings, so He could graft into the tree the Gentiles as wild branches (Rom. 11:15-20). The natural branches being broken off was God no longer recognize Israel’s calling.
The olive tree example is one of the portions of New Testament Scripture which clearly shows God’s dispensational system. The natural branches were exclusive to the olive tree during the time of the Jewish dispensation. The Christian dispensation began when the natural branches were broken off and wild branches grafted in. That is the present state of the olive tree. Israel will remain hardened until the longsuffering of God is exhausted in His dealings with the Gentiles (Rom. 11:21-25). But the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). In this Paul is speaking specifically of Israel. The final dispensation will see God grafting back in the natural branches (Rom. 11:23-24, 26).
Someday in the future God will again acknowledge Israel’s calling and resume His relationship with them. The bible confirms this in its final book (Rev. 7:1-8). In the middle of the future seven-year tribulation God will seal a Jewish remnant 144,000 strong, 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes. At the beginning of the millennium, after Jesus Christ has returned to this world, He will send forth His angels unto the ends of the earth to gather this remnant back to the Promised land (Matt. 24:30-31). God will make a new covenant with them, personally writing His laws in their minds and hearts (Heb. 8:6-12). By this they will keep His covenant and prosper. He will re-establish Israel in the full extent of the land where they will enjoy the fulfillment of all the promises God made to their forefathers. This is God fulfilling Israel’s calling by sovereign grace.
The present time is the Christian dispensation. God is acknowledging the heavenly calling of the believer/church (Heb. 3:1) instead of the earthly calling of the Jews. After going back to heaven to prepare mansions for us in His Father’s house, Jesus said He would return to take us there (John 14:1-3). This is the rapture of the heavenly saints that Paul spoke of to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:13-18). This is God fulfilling the calling of the heavenly saints by sovereign power and grace.
Another biblical truth that parallels this dispensational requirement of corporate calling is the fact that God has only ever sanctioned the practice of two religions in the history of the world – Judaism and Christianity. Judaism was first and was practiced by the Jews. When God no longer acknowledged Israel’s calling, He no longer sanctioned the practice of Judaism. Instead, God sent the Holy Spirit down to begin gathering in the church. It is the church’s calling that God recognizes today, and along with this the practice of Christianity.
Both religions worshipped the true living God. However, in Scripture and for proper dispensational understandings, this is the practical end of their similarity. In so many ways the two religions are in contrast with each other. Judaism is law, which is human performance and works based. Christianity begins with the gospel of God’s grace through Jesus Christ and continues by every true believer walking by God’s grace in this world. It is critical to proper dispensational understandings that we never mix the two religions together, just as it is equally important never to confuse the two different callings or the two separate corporate groups.
With these biblical truths we can easily see three dispensations in Scripture – a Jewish, a Christian, and after Jesus Christ returns to this world, a millennial dispensation (Rev. 20:2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). During the Jewish dispensation the nation of Israel was the corporate body responsible for the testimony of God’s glory. If the Jews would have been diligent to keep God’s covenant, they would have been privileged with God’s favor and blessings on the earth. What we call Christendom, all who claim to profess faith in Jesus Christ and are water baptized, is the responsible corporate body during the Christian dispensation. At this present time Christendom is privileged to enjoy God’s goodness and blessings in the world today.
During the Jewish dispensation God acknowledged Israel’s calling and sanctioned the practice of Judaism. After the Jews rejected their Messiah, God in turn rejected them. He no longer acknowledges their calling and allowed the Romans to destroy Jerusalem and the temple, effectively ending any real practice of their religion. God sent down the Holy Spirit to begin gathering in the church. He now recognizes the calling of the believer/church and sanctions the practice of Christianity. The rapture will fulfill this calling and bring an end to the Christian dispensation. Soon after, during the future seven-year tribulation, God will again acknowledge Israel’s calling by choosing and sealing a Jewish remnant. After Jesus Christ returns to this world, He will fulfill Israel’s calling by sending out His angels to the four corners of the world to gather this remnant back to the Promised land (Matt. 24:30-31). The millennium, the last dispensation, will begin with Jesus/Jehovah dividing up the land to this remnant as an inheritance. He will rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, restore the Levitical priesthood, and again sanction the practice of Judaism (Ez. 40 – 48). As it did in ancient times, only now likely more glorious, the manifest glory of the Lord will again fill the Jewish temple.