The glory of God is an ocean in which many have swum, but none have ever touched bottom. It is a great theme in the scriptures perhaps even the central theme or motif. Hence, there are many ways in which this truth is revealed in the bible. Yet, the primary focus of the following paper is to discuss the glory of God as it is seen in the dispensations. In order to accomplish this a definition of glory will be offered followed by a definition of a dispensation. Then each of the seven classically held dispensations will be defined and related to the greater theme of God’s glory as seen most clearly in His sovereignty, holiness, grace, wisdom, and faithfulness over and above the wickedness of man.
The glory of God is His intrinsic greatness or weightiness, His manifold majesty, brilliance, depth, awesomeness. It is all His attributes to infinity in perfect balance. Everything He does is simply a reflection of His glory. Hence, His plan for the ages will reflect His greatness and glory (Eph. 1:11).
The word dispensation means an ‘order of things regarded as established or controlled by God’ (Oxford Dictionary, 4th edition, p.233). According to Walvoord it is a “stage in the progressive revelation of God constituting a distinctive stewardship or rule of life.” Ryrie says it is a “distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose.”
There are, as characteristically understood by many dispensationalists, seven such economies running through the Word of God (Nevin, p.99). The major characteristics or features of a dispensation have been and continue to be debated, but it is believed that there are two primary characteristics, namely the governing relationship which God enters into with the world and the resulting responsibility on mankind. There are three secondary elements. They are: 1) some test given to man, 2) resulting failure on the part of man and 3) the subsequent judgment of God. The seven dispensations of scripture have been titled as 1) freedom, 2) conscience, 3) civil government, 4) patriarchal rule, 5) Mosaic law, 6) grace and 7) Messianic rule. Let us now look at the dispensations.
In the dispensation of freedom (freedom seems better to me than does innocence. I can dispense my freedom, not my innocence). God created man with a perfect heart and put him in a perfect environment (Gen.1:27, 2:15) and commanded man to reproduce and to work the garden (2:15), but not to eat of the tree “of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:16). Satan tempted man and he rebelled against the word of God and fell into sin. The dispensation ended with judgment upon the man, his wife and upon Satan. God would no longer rule man as if he were “innocent” or “free” because he wasn’t. God’s glory or weightiness is seen in his final and exacting judgment upon Satan (3:14-15), thus demonstrating His sovereignty (He is the highest court of appeal) and His judgment and mercy extended to heads of the human race. He expelled them from the garden but promised a redeemer (3:15) typified by garments of skin in Genesis 3:21 (Allen P. Ross, p.33 in Bible Knowledge Commentary, vol. 1).
The subsequent arrangement or order of things has been referred to as the dispensation of conscience (3:6-9:19). In this dispensation man was left to the dictates of his conscience which could produce guilt (Jn.8:9;1Tim.4:2) but was powerless to promote righteousness (Romans 3:10). He was to learn to deal with sin (Gen.4:7) and understand the need for a sacrifice; the penalty of sin being death (cf. Abel in 4:4). However, man was utterly unable to keep God’s standard and murder resulted immediately and as the population grew the wickedness of the earth grew greatly in God’s sight (Gen.6:5). Judgment (i.e. the flood) followed man’s failure, but grace was evidenced in the salvation of Noah and his family (6:8, 7:13) and the possibility of a redeemer was kept alive through Noah’s family. In this dispensation God’s glory or brilliance is seen in his holiness which parceled out justice and judgment not on just two or three individuals but on a great population-the whole earth. There is no man who can escape from God (Jer.23:24) and man should not take a God such as this lightly.
After Noah came out of the ark, God blessed him and his sons (9:1) and gave them further revelation with accompanying responsibility to be fruitful and multiply (8:17), eat anything he wanted except animals with their life blood still in them (8:19) and maintain the practice of sacrifice (8:20). God promised not to destroy the earth by water again and then laid down the authority basis for civil government(8:15-11:9)-capital punishment. In connection with this Ryrie notes, “ unless government has the right to the highest form of punishment, its basic authority is questionable and insufficient to protect properly those whom it governs” (Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 60). Human or civil government did not curb man’s sin as Noah’s drunkenness and the tower of Babel indicate. Man is unfit to govern himself and the end result will be world-wide disobedience and turning from God and the marring of His glory (Rom.1:23). Again, the unquestioned judgment of God in the confusion of the languages and dispersing of the people (11:9-8) shows forth His glory (in His sovereignty) and greatness as above the peoples of the earth. His glory shows through His wisdom in this judgment because with different languages sin now has a barrier and will not spread as fast.
The next dispensation is that of promise (11:10-Ex.19:2). In this dispensation promises were given to Abraham and his seed. There were failures on the part of the patriarchs and of the Nation of Israel (and subsequent judgment) but God in His grace will yet fulfill the promises in spite of human inability to believe (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-33). God’s glory is revealed in His utter faithfulness to Israel, who was chosen for His glory, and who will finally possess the land as promised.
The next dispensation, that of Mosaic Law, conditioned Israel’s life while in the promised land (Deut. 4:1-2). It was given to teach them and by extension to the whole world, their need for a Saviour. Israel disobeyed many times leading to their Exile in 722 BC and 586 BC. Yet, God dealt with them graciously and revealed His glory at the beginning of the Law (Ex.19,33,40) during the Law (Is. 6:3) and at the end of the Law in the coming of Christ (Jn.1:14). The Law had moral, civil and religious components which taught Israel of the glory of their God above the pagan non-gods of the nations around them. The Law itself was the revelation of the glory of God, especially His holiness and grace, and man’s utter sinfulness. The judgment on Israel for the rejection of their Messiah has been dispersion from the land for over 1900 years.
The dispensation of grace begins in Acts 2 and carries through to Revelation 19:21. The Church is the main revelation of this period and is made up of all those who are baptized by the Holy Spirit. The Church is to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth and rely on the indwelling Spirit to overcome sin. The ultimate end of the church age is apostasy (Tim.4:1-3) and judgment in the great tribulation (after the rapture of the church). Since the revelation extends to the whole world, the whole world will experience God’s judgment (Rev.3:10). The glory of God is seen primarily in His grace to undeserving sinners through the loving sacrificial death of His Son and His wisdom in devising such a plan to include everyone in his mercy (Romans 11:33).
The final form of testing or administration is the dispensation of the Messianic Rule. This will commence at the return of Christ through a one thousand year period and will spread over the whole earth with Christ Himself ruling and Satan bound (Rev.20:3). It will be a righteous and good rule, yet it will end in rebellion with armies gathered at the direction of Satan (then released) to defeat Christ. The glory of God is seen world-wide in the presence of the glorified Christ in all His majesty. It is always amazing to me how God can have such patience with sinners like us. “The dispensation of the kingdom differs from all preceding dispensations in that it is the final form of moral testing. The advantages of the dispensation include a perfect government, the immediate glorious presence of Christ, universal knowledge of God and the terms of salvation, and Satan rendered inactive” (Walvoord, In the dispensations God has demonstrated every possible means of dealing with man. In every dispensation man fails and only God’s grace is sufficient. In the dispensations is fulfilled God’s purpose to manifest His glory both in the natural world and human history. Throughout eternity no one can raise a question as to whether God could have given man another chance to attain salvation or holiness by his own ability’.
In conclusion, the dispensations reveal the glory of God primarily in His sovereignty over the earth, sovereignty that was perhaps questioned in eternity past when Satan fell. It seems that it has been the eternal purpose of God to show forth His glory (cf. Eph 3:10,11-here through His wisdom) to Satan and his cohorts (as well as to man as was previously mentioned) and settle an issue concerning the righteous character of God before all the heavenly hosts. Hence, the glory of God is eternally revealed to men and angels.
Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Major Bible Themes. 2nd ed. Edited by John F. Walvoord. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974.
Hottel, W.S. The Dispensations of the Ages. Cleveland, Ohio: Union Gospel Press, 1953.
Nevin, Paul D. “Some Major Problems in Dispensational Interpretation” Unpublished PhD Diss., Dallas Theological Seminry,1956.
Talbot, Louis T. God’s Plan for the Ages. Grand rapids, Michegan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1936.
Ross, Allen P. “Genesis.” In Bible Knowledge Commentary. Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985.
Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press, 1965.