The Scriptures divide the entire period of time from the creation of Adam to the time of the "new heaven and a new earth" foretold in Revelation 21:1, into seven unequal periods called dispensations in Ephesians 3:2. They are also called ages in Ephesians 2:7.
These periods are marked off in Scripture by some changes in God's way of dealing with mankind, or a portion of mankind, in respect to two questions: sin; and of man's responsibility.
Each of the dispensations may be regarded as a new test of the natural man, and each ends with utter failure and God’s judgment in every dispensation. Five of these dispensations, or periods of time, have been fulfilled; we are living in the sixth, probably toward its end, and have before us the seventh and last: the millennium.
These different dispensations are not separate ways of salvation. During each of them man is reconciled to God in only one way, by God's grace through the work of Christ that was accomplished on the cross and His resurrection. Before the cross, man was saved by prospect of Christ's atoning sacrifice, through believing the revelation thus far given him. Since the cross, man has been saved by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. On man's part the continuing requirement is obedience to the revelation of God. His obedience through faith is evidence of his salvation. The revelation leading up to Christ’s saving work unfolds progressively. The truth revealed in the earlier time periods is cumulative. Consequently conscience, or moral responsibility, is a continuing truth in human life, although it does not continue as a dispensation. The saved of this present dispensation are "not under law" as a specific test of obedience to God’s revelation (Galations 5:18.) However, the Law remains an integral part of the Holy Scriptures which are profitable to the redeemed for "instruction in righteousness."
The purpose of each dispensation is to place man under a specific rule of conduct, but it is not a condition for salvation. In every past dispensation, unregenerated man has failed, and he has failed in this present dispensation and will in the future. But salvation has been and will continue to be available to him by God's grace through faith.
1. Dispensation of Innocence.
This dispensation covers from Adam’s creation in Genesis 2:7, to the expulsion from The Garden of Eden.
Adam was created innocent and ignorant of good and evil. When he was placed in the Garden of Eden with his wife Eve, they were put under responsibility to abstain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2:16. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 17. "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
Man was created in innocence, placed in a perfect environment, subjected to a simple test, and warned of the consequences of disobedience. He was not compelled to sin but, tempted by Satan, he chose to disobey God. The woman was deceived; the man deliberately sinned. Their tenure in the age of Innocence ended in the judgment of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as sinners. Consequently, all descendants of Adam and Eve, including you and I, are born sinners.
Obviously, the dispensation of innocence resulted in the first failure of man, and its disastrous effects are far-reaching. It closed in judgment: "So he drove out the man."
Genesis 3:22-24. “Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" 23. therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. 24. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”
2. Dispensation of Conscience (Moral Responsibility)
Man had now sinned. God gave the first promise of redemption. Genesis 3:15. “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise His heel."
Man's sin was a rebellion against a specific command of God and marked transition from innocence of any knowledge of good and evil to a personal experience of the difference between good and evil. God placed man under the stewardship of moral responsibility that made man accountable to do all known good and to abstain from all known evil, and to approach God through blood sacrifice. (The coats of skins that God presented to them typifies the blood bought cloak of righteousness we receive when we get saved in this present dispensation.)
Adam and Eve transmitted to the whole human race the knowledge of good and evil. However, this gave man’s conscience a basis for right moral judgment, and thereby the race came under this measure of responsibility - to do good and refrain from evil. The result of the dispensation of conscience, from Eden to the flood, was that "all flesh had corrupted his way on the earth," and the "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” God closed the second testing of the natural man with judgment: the flood.
3rd Dispensation - Human Government
God saved eight people from the fearful judgment of the flood. After the waters abated, God gave man the power to govern the purified earth. Noah and his descendants were responsible to do this so this dispensation began when Noah and his family left the ark.
With this new dispensation, God again subjected humanity to a new test. Before this time no man had the right to take another man's life. In this new dispensation, although man's direct moral responsibility to God continued, God delegated certain areas of authority to man. God instituted a relationship where man was subject to the men God chose to govern them. That provision by God is still in affect today in this country and elsewhere. Romans 13.
The highest function of government is the protection of human life; this provision gives rise to capital punishment. Man is not individually to avenge murder, but as a corporate group he is to safeguard the sanctity of human life as a gift from God which can’t rightly be disposed of except as God permits. The powers that be are ordained by God, and to resist the powers is to resist God.
In the preceding dispensation of conscience, restraint upon men was internal. It was God's Spirit working through moral responsibility. Now a new and external restraint was added, the power of civil government.
Man failed to rule righteously and both Jew and Gentile have governed for self, not for God. Man’s rule was seen in the confusion of man when trying to build the tower of Babel whereby they could get to heaven without the help of God. God confused their language and man had to abandon their efforts and was dispersed all across the world.
The dispensation of Human Government was followed by a specific test of man’s obedience to God by the dispensation of Promise when God called Abram as His instrument of blessing to mankind. However, man's responsibility for government did not cease but will continue until Christ sets up His kingdom.
4th Dispensation - Promise
The book of Genesis, which opens with the words, “in the beginning God created,” closes with, “in a coffin in Egypt.” Genesis 1 through Genesis 11 covers over 2000 years and three dispensations. This fourth dispensation extended from the call of Abram to the giving of the law at Mount Sinai.
Out of the dispersed descendants of the builders of Babel, God called one man, Abram, with whom He entered into a covenant. Some of the promises to Abram and his descendants were purely gracious and unconditional. These either have been or will yet be literally fulfilled. Other promises were conditional upon the faithfulness and obedience of the Israelites. Every one of these conditions was violated and the dispensation of promise resulted in the failure of Israel and closed in the judgment of bondage in Egypt.
This stewardship was based on God's covenants with Abram, first cited in Genesis 12:2-3, and confirmed and enlarged in Genesis 13:14-17; Specific provisions affected Abram himself and his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob. Individual blessing dependent upon individual obedience were included in these covenants.
God made an unconditional promise of blessings through Abram's seed to the nation of Israel to inherit a specific territory forever. Genesis 12:2-3. “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you, and to the Gentile nations” 3. God said “I will bless those who bless you And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
That was the promise of blessing upon those individuals and nations who bless Abram's descendants, and a curse laid upon those who persecute the Jews. Consequently this dispensation had varied emphases. To the Gentiles of that period, there was little direct application other than the test implied by Geneses 12:3.
Blessing or judgment came on individuals such as Pharaoh and Abimelech, or nations such as Egypt, who treated Abram or his descendants well or badly and this truth continues today. Believers of the Church Age are called on to trust God as Abram did and thereby enter into the blessings of the covenant which inaugurated the dispensation of Promise.
Both the Old Testament and New Testament are full of promises concerning Israel and the land which is to be Israel's everlasting possession.
But as a specific test of Israel's stewardship of this truth, the dispensation of Promise was superseded, though not annulled, by the Law that was given at Mount Sinai.
5th Dispensation of Law (Exodus 19:1):
This dispensation began with the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai and closed at the time of the sacrificial death of Christ. Christ fulfilled all the provisions and types of the Law. The Dispensation of Law covered about 1550 years from Moses to Christ.
In the previous dispensation of promise, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as multitudes of other individuals, failed in the tests of faith and obedience. Egypt also failed to heed God's warning and was judged. God nevertheless provided a deliverer (Moses), a blood sacrifice (Passover lamb), and His miraculous power to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Some of the judgments on Egypt were the 10 plagues, death of all the firstborn of Egypt by the destroying angel, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea deliverance of the Israelites.
The Israelites, as a result of their transgressions, were now placed under the precise discipline of the Law.
The Law teaches:
(1) the awesome holiness of God
(2) the exceeding sinfulness of man
(3) the necessity of obedience
(4) man's universal failure and
(5) the marvel of God's grace in providing a way to approach Him through a blood sacrifice of a lamb which looked forward to a Savior who would become the Lamb of God to bear away the sin of the world, as "witnessed by the law."
The Law did not change the provisions or change the promise of God as given in the Abrahamic Covenant. It was not given as a way to life or a means of justification but was a rule of living for a people already under the covenant of Abraham and covered by a blood sacrifice. One of its purposes was to make clear the purity and holiness which should characterize the life of a people with whom the law of the nation was at the same time the Law of God.
The Law's function in relation to Israel was one of disciplinary restriction and correction to hold Israel in check for their own good until Christ should come and until the Father's appointed time that the heirs (called children of promise) should be removed from a condition of legal minority into the privileges of heirs who have come of age. This God did in sending His Son, and believers are now in the position of sons in the Father's house.
But Israel misinterpreted the purpose of the law and sought righteousness by good deeds and ceremonial ordinances and rejected their own Messiah.
The history of Israel in the wilderness and in the land is one long record of flagrant, persistent violation of the Law, and at last, after multiple warnings, God closed the testing of man by law in judgment. First Israel, and then Judah, were driven out of the land by dispersions which still continue.
A small remnant returned under Ezra and Nehemiah, of whom, in due time, Christ came "Born of a woman, made under the law." Both Jews and Gentiles conspired to crucify Him.
6th Dispensation - Man under grace. - The Church
A new age was announced by our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew chapters 12 and 13. The Church was clearly prophesied by Him in Matthew 16:18. It would be purchased by the shedding of His blood on Calvary. After His resurrection and ascension at the day of Pentecost, and in accordance with His promise, individual believers were for the first time baptized by the Holy Spirit into a unified spiritual body of which Christ is the Head. Because of the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, this age sometimes has been called "the dispensation of the Holy Spirit."
In this dispensation, the good news is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection. The revelations of all the previous dispensations are now combined with this fuller revelation to emphasize the utter sinfulness and lostness of man and the adequacy of the completed work of Christ to save by grace through faith all who come to God by Him.
During this age, God is taking out from both Jews and Gentiles a people for his name called "the Church." The saved individuals who compose Christ's true Church are to fulfill their Lord's command to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
The first event in the closing of this dispensation will be the descent of the Lord from heaven, when sleeping [deceased] saints will be raised and, together with believers then living, caught up "to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord."
The predicted result of the testing of man under grace will be judgment upon an unbelieving world and an apostate church. After God's seven years of judgments on all the people of the earth, Christ will return to the earth with the Saints, and He will reign over all the earth for one thousand years. This is the period commonly called the millennium. The seat of His power will be Jerusalem.
The Millennial Reign is not promised to the church. Only the Old Testament saints received that promise. There is only one mention of the church in the book of Revelation and that is as the Bride at the marriage supper of the Lamb of God. The promise for those saved during the Church age is heaven. Luke 23:43.
This dispensation is the longest of all and has continued for over 2000 years. It will end with the rapture of the saved of this dispensation of God’s grace, followed by the seven year Great Tribulation period of world wide judgment.
7th Dispensation - The Kingdom
This is the last of the ordered ages of human life on the earth. It will begin “immediately thereafter” the Tribulation.
It will be the kingdom covenanted to David. David's greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, will rule over the earth as King of kings and Lord of lords, for 1000 years. Associating with Himself in that reign will be His saints of the ages (Old Testament) who were promised in the Old Testament Scriptures to reign with Him.
Christ will establish His kingdom and reign in complete righteousness. Those who were saved during the Tribulation and are still alive at the beginning of the Millennium will have all the same abilities they had before the new reign. There will be children born as sinners the same as now. There will be sin and judgment. There will be peace worldwide. Animals evidently will be vegetarians like it was in the Garden of Eden. Deserts will bloom. There will be longevity, persons a hundred years old will be considered a child.
At the conclusion of the thousand years, Satan will be released for a little season and instigate a final rebellion. Satan’s army will come from those who were born during the thousand years and have rebelled against Christ. He will find the natural heart of man as prone to evil as in the earlier dispensations and Satan will easily gather the nations to battle against the Lord and His saints.
It will be put down “by fire which will come from God out of heaven and devour them.” Revelation 20:9.
Then Satan, who is "loosed for a little season," will be cast into the lake of fire to be eternally tormented, and the last enemy to mankind, death, will be defeated.
This last dispensation closes in judgment like all the others. The Great White Throne is ready, and the wicked dead will be raised and judged. And all verdicts there will be “guilty as charged.”
Then Christ will deliver up the perfected kingdom to the Father and the "new heaven and a new earth will come down."
Eternity will begin.
For a review I want to mention the approximate events that define the seven dispensations.
1- The Dispensation of Innocence.
From the creation of Adam to the first sin by mankind in the Garden of Eden.
2- The Dispensation of Conscience.
From the expulsion of man from the garden to the world wide flood.
3- The Dispensation of Human Government.
From when Noah leaves the ark to the Tower of Babel.
4- The Dispensation of Promise.
From the call of Abraham by God to the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai.
5- The Dispensation of Law.
From the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai to the death of Christ.
6 - The Dispensation of Grace.
From the death of Christ to the return of Christ in judgment.
7- The Dispensation of The Kingdom.
From the rule of Christ to the final defeat of Satan.