12. God’s Plan for the Present: Its Impact on Our Perspective and Our Plans
When I was in high school, one of my classmates fell into a very deep sleep in class. As the end of the class period approached, the teacher asked the class to file out very quietly without waking the sleeping student. Well into the next class, the sleeper awoke, gradually regaining his mental momentum. Looking around, he saw no familiar faces; even the teacher was different. When he noticed the time, his mystery was solved. Quietly, with some remaining dignity, he gathered his books and went to the next class.
The early church, especially the apostles, could identify with this “Rip Van Winkle” from my high school days. They did not wake up and find themselves in a different class, but in a different dispensation. The disciples were a part of the generation in Israel which looked on while the Old Testament economy passed out of existence, replaced by the church age or the “times of the Gentiles.” It was not an easy adjustment.
Throughout the Gospels, we find our Lord preparing His disciples for the new age, but they were only able to think in terms of the old. Because they did not clearly understand the age which was passing away, they could not understand the new age which was about to begin. In the Book of Acts, we find the apostles and the church in Jerusalem gradually waking up to the change which took place when the “times of the Gentiles” commenced. Reluctantly, these Jewish Christians, who supposed that God’s salvation belonged only to Israel, recognized that the coming of the Christ was for the salvation of the Gentiles as well (see Acts 10-11). Through the sovereign working of God, the Jerusalem church passed off the scene, and predominantly Gentile churches like the one in Antioch took the initiative in proclaiming the gospel throughout the whole world.
It was not the disciples of our Lord, but others like Stephen and Philip, Barnabas and Paul, who became the front-runners in the evangelization of the world. Paul was the instrument through whom God revealed His plans and purposes for the new age, the “times of the Gentiles” (see Luke 21:24; Romans 11:25). Paul explains in his epistles the eternal plan and purpose of God. The “mystery”148 of previous times was revealed to Paul, and he has revealed it to us.149
Our purpose in this lesson is to focus on the present dispensation and its implications for us as Christians in this age. Because our study is of vital importance, allow me to suggest some of the benefits at the outset.
(1) The study of dispensations enables us to better understand the perfect plan of God. God’s plan is an eternal plan, encompassing everything from eternity past to eternity future. It is a certain plan and one that includes all the details. The plan is worked out in various dispensations or phases, just as a book has chapters. When we understand the role of dispensations in God’s plan, we better understand the plan.
(2) The study of dispensations is fundamental to our study and interpretation of the Bible. Why do we seek to obey certain commands in the Bible but not others? Why, for example, do we feel free to eat those foods which the Law of Moses declared to be unclean (see Leviticus 11)? Why do we not keep the Sabbath as Old Testament saints were required to do? What parts of the Old Testament, or even the Gospels, are we not to apply directly? On what basis do we determine what applies to us, and how? The study of dispensations provides the key.
(3) A study of this present dispensation, and its relationship to the dispensation it replaced, will keep us from the errors of those who wish to turn back the dispensational clock. The disciples of our Lord and the early church had difficulty understanding the change from one dispensation to another which was taking place before their very eyes. Some sought to turn back the clock and merge the previous dispensation with the present age (see, for example, Acts 15; Galatians). The New Testament writers consistently warn their readers to avoid the errors of such men. These errors are still present today. Gaining insight into the way God employs various dispensations to accomplish His eternal plan is crucial to understanding the error of those who seek to turn back the clock.
(4) A study of this present dispensation, and its relationship to the age to come, will guard us from the errors of those who wish to turn the dispensational clock ahead. Some evangelical Christians and others have no desire to turn the clock back. They desire to turn the clock ahead. Some say we can experience in the present those blessings God has purposed and promised for the future. They strongly believe that suffering is simply the result of sin and our lack of faith. They believe those who have enough faith can expect, even demand, the blessing of God. Others are confident that Christians can achieve today what Christ is to achieve in the future. They also believe the church can take charge of this world and prepare it for the coming of the Lord Jesus, who will come once we have made things ready.
(5) Understanding the distinctives of this present dispensation is essential to good stewardship. In the New Testament, three terms based on the same root word are used for (a) a steward; (b) the action of stewarding; and, (c) the administration or dispensation which is the steward’s responsibility. Being a faithful steward therefore requires that the steward know his “dispensation” or “stewardship.”150
We are not slaves called upon to act mindlessly without a grasp of what God is doing in our time (see John 15:15; 16:13). We are God’s stewards, called to consider what He has revealed concerning His plan and purpose for the present, and then to take part in it. We cannot be faithful stewards until, and unless, we understand the stewardship God has given us in this age, and grasp the uniqueness of this dispensation from those which precede and follow it.
(6) Understanding what God is doing in this present dispensation provides the Christian with much guidance in the area of God’s will for his life. The plan of God for His creation, and His plan for our life, are directly related and intertwined. If we are to grasp God’s will for our lives, we must first understand God’s will for eternity and for this age in particular.
Allow me to illustrate this from the life of our Lord as described in the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Luke. Jesus was a Jew, “born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4). When tempted by Satan to act independently of the Father, Jesus turned to the Old Testament Law, particularly the Book of Deuteronomy (Luke 4:1-12). He understood that even though the dawning of a new age was at hand, the principles of the Old Testament Law guided Him in His response to Satan’s temptations.
In Luke 4:16-30, our Lord presents Himself as Israel’s Messiah to the people of Nazareth, His home town. After reading from the prophecy of Isaiah 61, Jesus tells the people that these prophecies are being fulfilled in their hearing (Luke 4:16-21). The people are delighted, until Jesus tells them more, based on His knowledge of the age which He is to inaugurate.
I have always thought Jesus informed the Jews that some Gentiles would be included in the salvation He was to bring about. I believed the Jews strongly reacted to the possibility of any Gentiles being included in the salvation promised in the Old Testament. But Jesus’ words are even stronger than this, with good reason. Jesus did not just say that some Gentiles would be saved. His words clearly imply that many Gentiles would be blessed, while few Jews would be. Listen to what He tells the people of Nazareth about His mission:
And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his home town. But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:24-27).
The facts are clear: the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah. As such, though the gospel was proclaimed first to Israel, the message of salvation would be offered to the Gentiles. As Paul explains in Romans 9-11, the present age is the “times of the Gentiles,” when few Jews come to faith in Messiah, and many more Gentiles do.
What Jesus says to the Jews in Nazareth simply foretells the age of the church or the “times of the Gentiles.” He reminds this rebellious, stiff-necked generation of Jews that during the days of Elijah and Elisha, the nation Israel did not receive the blessings of God, while Gentiles did. The widow of Zarephath was a Gentile, and so was Naaman, the Syrian. In that day, and in the day of our Lord’s ministry, unbelieving Israelites would not be blessed, but believing Gentiles would be. Jesus understood the new age which He would commence on the cross of Calvary. But when He tells the Jews about this, they are furious.
The end of Luke 4 provides yet another example of the guidance our Lord gained from an understanding of the present dispensation:
And when day came, He departed and went to a lonely place; and the multitudes were searching for Him, and came to Him, and tried to keep Him from going away from them. But He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.” And He kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea (Luke 4:42-44).
Jesus has just healed Peter’s mother-in-law, resulting in the word of our Lord’s healing power spreading among those who are in the vicinity (4:38-41). That evening, many came to our Lord and were healed or delivered from demon possession. The next day, a great crowd gathers for healing and deliverance. When the disciples look for our Lord, He has gone to a lonely place to pray. They urge Him to seize the opportunity and to take up the healing ministry He has so successfully begun. Jesus refuses. He tells them His primary ministry is not healing, but preaching,151 and that His mission is to proclaim the kingdom to many other cities. And so He moves on, continuing to preach about the coming of the kingdom of God.
Finally, we see in the life of our Lord a very clear understanding on His part of the distinction between this present age and the age to come, the time which commences with His second coming:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
The Old Testament prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah in two very different ways: the first was of a suffering Savior (for example, Isaiah 52:13--43:12); the second was of a triumphant King (for example, Psalm 2). This puzzled the prophets who did not understand that there must be two “comings” for Messiah (see 1 Peter 1:10-12). Jesus understood the difference between His first coming (and the dispensation it inaugurated) and His second coming (and the age which would result from it.) Thus, when speaking of His first coming, Jesus emphasized that He came to save men from their sins. It was entirely consistent for Him to seek sinners and associate with them. His second coming would be as the Judge of men, when sinners will be removed from His presence and punished for their sins. This is why Jesus refused to cast a stone at the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2-11). He came to bear the penalty for this woman’s sin, not to condemn her for her sins.
Many seem inclined to think Jesus received His guidance directly from the Father through specific guidance and instruction, something like the occasional guidance received by Paul or the apostles.152 This may have been so in some instances, although we have no record of such guidance. I believe Jesus, who took on human flesh, limited Himself to the same kind of guidance God gives to men. His guidance came largely from the Old Testament Scriptures and His understanding from the Scriptures of God’s plan and purpose for the past, present, and future dispensations.
The plan of God for this age is the basis for our Christian thinking and behavior. As we commence our study in this lesson and as we conclude this series, let Paul’s prayer be our own:
For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:15-23).
For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19).
You Do Not Have to be a
Dispensationalist to Recognize Dispensations
Does one have to hold to dispensationalism in order to view biblical history dispensationally? Not at all. Contrary to popular opinion, dispensations are not the private property of dispensationalists.153 While the term “dispensation” may not be used, almost every evangelical Christian will acknowledge that there are at least two dispensations: the time before Christ’s coming and the time after His coming. Even dispensationalists will differ over just how many dispensations there are.
What is a Dispensation?
A “dispensation” is an administration, a system of management. Every four years, our nation elects a new president. When the president takes office, he creates a new administration. Usually, this involves a new emphasis or philosophy (at least in terms of his campaign promises), new legislation proposed to carry out his plans, and new appointed officials (such as the cabinet). Certain things do change from one administration to the next. Other things seem to remain changeless from administration to administration.
God’s eternal plan is one which includes a number of administrations or dispensations. While there is one eternal plan, each administration focuses on a particular group of people, with a specific purpose and calling, and with different legislation. Each administration has its own focus and contribution to the plan of God, and all of them combined work together to produce that which God has planned and purposed--the display of His glory and the good of those who are His people (see Romans 8:28).
The essence of each dispensation is a divinely instituted program or administration, with specific requirements, duties, and obligations for the believer as God’s steward. Each dispensation builds upon the previous ones and prepares for what follows. Each dispensation has a continuity with the past and the future, but each also has a uniqueness distinguishing it from what has come before and what follows.
Certain elements are common to nearly every biblical dispensation. The following elements are found in many of the dispensations in biblical history.
(1) Divine revelation. God does not institute a new dispensation without defining it and declaring it to be in force. Nowhere in the Bible does a dispensation come into existence apart from divine revelation. Often, there is a prophet on hand through whom the revelation is disclosed to men. Abraham and Moses were both prophets with whom new dispensations came into being. The coming of the Messiah was also announced through the prophet, John the Baptist, and the two men who appeared at the Mount of Transfiguration (Moses and Elijah) were prophets.
(2) The making of a covenant. Often, though apparently not always, God institutes a new covenant in conjunction with the new dispensation. The covenant specifies the promises God makes to man and the obligations or actions this covenant requires of man. The covenant God establishes with men usually includes a designated “sign” of the covenant. The sign of God’s covenant with Noah was a rainbow (Genesis 9:8-17). The sign of the Abrahamic covenant was circumcision (Genesis 17:1-14). The sign of the Mosaic covenant was the keeping of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-17; Ezekiel 20:12).154
(3) The declaration of rules and regulations which are pertinent to the new dispensation. In each dispensation, God defines man’s duty and also declares any restrictions which men must obey. Sometimes the conduct required is similar to that God has required in the past; sometimes it is not. Rules and regulations apply to various areas. Religious ceremonies, rituals, and holidays may be instituted for one dispensation and ignored in another.
(4) A clarification of the relationship between men and God. God will indicate the way in which He will manifest Himself to men and where the meeting place between God and men will be. Just as the way in which God manifests His presence among men is indicated, so is the way in which men should relate to God. The place and the manner in which men should worship God is often modified from one dispensation to the next.
(5) A new dispensation signals the need for change, but it also reveals continuity. God has but one plan, worked out in time through various administrations. Each new administration brings change, but it also reveals continuity. Some things never change. Consider some of these: First, God’s character never changes (Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17). Second, God’s purposes and covenant promises do not change (Romans 11:29). Third, the principles which govern God’s dealing with men do not change. God has always blessed men on the basis of His grace and not human works or merit. Furthermore, men have always been justified by faith (see Romans 4; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 11).
Yet another changeless reality remains constant throughout each and every dispensation: man does not change. In every dispensation, man fails, due to his sin. Each dispensation shows man to be helpless and hopeless, in need of God’s grace. Each dispensation proves God to be faithful, in spite of man’s unfaithfulness.
I say this with a particular point in view. Christians seem willing and able to admit that men fail in every dispensation, but we are not so ready to admit this in our present dispensation. We know that Adam failed, as did Noah and the nation Israel. We readily admit this. We also acknowledge that even after 1,000 years of justice on the earth, unbelievers will seek to rid themselves of the rule of God (Revelation 20:1-10). But we seem a bit reluctant to see the church failing in this present age.
The Book of Acts describes the church in its “golden age,” those first days of its existence and ministry. Yet it is very clear that the church was far from perfect. There were hypocrites like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-6). It may have acted hastily (Acts 1:15-26). It was reluctant to accept the evangelization of the Gentiles (Acts 8:1-3; 10-11). There were disputes and differences of opinion (Acts 15).
The Epistles do not depict improvement in the church over time. All of the churches mentioned in the New Testament had their struggles and failures. The seven churches of Asia addressed in Revelation 2 and 3 were not the picture of success either. Descriptions of the church in its last days are far from flattering or encouraging (see 2 Timothy 3-4). Our Lord’s own words give us pause for thought:
And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:6-8).
The church, in this age, will fail too just as Israel did and men before that. As there was but a small remnant of faithful saints in Israel, we should expect no greater success in the church. Men will fail, but God will not. Herein is our hope (see 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Hebrews 13:5-8).
Recognizing Dispensations in Time
It is easier to recognize a dispensation than to define one academically. When we study the Scriptures, dispensations begin to stand out and are difficult to miss. Dispensational differences become rather dramatic when we trace the theme of worship through the Bible. We see that while people of faith have always worshipped God, they have done so very differently, depending upon the time in which they lived. These differences are by divine definition and are a matter of obedience to that divine revelation. Consider the chart on the following page to see how worship has changed from one dispensation to the next.
In the chart we see different dispensations indicated not only by the changes evident in man’s worship of God but also in what men of faith eat. When a restaurant menu changes, there is usually only one explanation--new, higher prices. In the Bible, man’s mealtime menu changes for a different reason--a new dispensation.
The chart which goes on this page is at the end of this document. It requires running off and then pasting the appropriate titles in their places. See hard copy master.
When we trace the theme of man’s food through the Bible, we find ourselves making our way through the dispensational framework of Scripture. In the Garden of Eden, the menu for both man and animals was strictly vegetarian. Both men and animals were allowed to eat every green plant (Genesis 1:29-30). After the
flood, God changed the menu. Now, men were permitted to eat meat too, as long as the blood was drained from it (Genesis 9:3-4). When the Mosaic covenant commenced, certain kinds of meat were declared “clean,” which could be eaten; others were “unclean” and thus forbidden (Leviticus 11). This definition of “clean” and “unclean” remained in existence until the coming of Christ and the commencement of the present dispensation (see Mark 7:14-23; Acts 10-11). When the menu changed, so did the dispensation. God chose something close to a man’s heart to call his attention to a dispensational change.
The dispensational change which took place during the lifetime of the apostles was dramatic and, for them, traumatic. Consider how God signalled the change from the dispensation where men had to identify themselves with Israel to become part of the “people of God,” to the new age, when men (including the Jews) had to identify themselves with Christ and His church to be numbered with the “people of God.”
While various labels have been applied to the previous dispensation under the Law of Moses, and the present dispensation of grace,155 let us for the moment label them the “times of the Jews” and the “times of the Gentiles.” In the times of the Jews, only those who believed God’s promise of a Messiah were justified by faith, like Abraham (see Romans 4). The Gentiles who wished to become a part of the people of God had to separate themselves from their heathen culture and creed and identify themselves with Israel, much as Ruth did (see Ruth 1:15-18). In the “times of the Gentiles,” all men, Jew or Gentile must identify themselves with the “people of God” by their identification with Christ and with His church. Just as the Gentiles had to renounce their pagan religion and to identify with Israel, lost Israelites also must acknowledge their sin and the worthlessness of any “righteousness” obtained through Judaism, trusting only in Christ and His righteousness for salvation (see Philippians 3:1-11).
What God required of the Jews for salvation during the “times of the Gentiles” came as a great shock to them. They were used to having the Gentiles come to Judaism, or so they thought, for salvation. Now they would have to come through a “Gentile” door to enter into God’s promised blessings. Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus indicated that His coming was to include blessing for the Gentiles, a revelation which greatly angered the Jews (see Luke 4:22-30).
There were other indications that a change of dispensation was coming. The first is our Lord’s practice and teaching concerning the keeping of the Sabbath. (The Sabbath, remember, was the sign of the Mosaic covenant.) On various occasions, Jesus performed miracles on the Sabbath. This, to the legalistic Pharisees, was work, and thus was the breaking of the Sabbath. The Sabbath issue became one of several matters of conflict between Jesus and His opponents among the Jews.
His response to their Sabbath objections took several forms.156 While most of the “violations” with which Jesus was charged should have been thrown out of court, Jesus made a point of emphatically declaring that He did indeed have the right to actually violate the Sabbath. More than this, Jesus indicated that the basis on which Sabbath-keeping was practiced had changed, and thus Sabbath-keeping was soon to be set aside altogether. Jesus encountered a man in pitiful condition laying beside a pool in Jerusalem. He healed the man and then instructed him to take up his pallet and walk. The man was rebuked by the Jews for “working on the Sabbath.” Jesus also was accused of wrong-doing. Our Lord’s response is laden with meaning:
Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do no sin any more, so that nothing worse may befall you.” The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. And for this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:14-18).
The keeping of the Sabbath was a sign that the Jew had submitted himself to the Mosaic Law. It was also man’s imitation of God, who rested on the seventh day. Both of these bases for keeping the Sabbath were being set aside as obsolete, replaced by something else. The Father had finished working and was at rest. Jesus’ words indicate that He is once again at work. He was at work accomplishing man’s redemption, through the sending of His Son to the cross of Calvary. Jesus was working because the Father was working. It was no longer a time to rest. Furthermore, Jesus came to inaugurate the New covenant. There was no longer a need for the Mosaic covenant, and thus there was no need to keep the sign of that covenant.
Suppose that a man was married to a woman for many years, but she died. The man remarries. On his finger, he places a new wedding band, symbolizing his new marriage, alongside the old wedding band, symbolizing his former marriage. Is this not inappropriate? It is the same with the keeping of the Sabbath, for those who have died to the Law and become the bride of Christ.
The second clear indication of change is our Lord’s teaching concerning the ordinance of communion and its relationship to the New covenant. The New covenant had been promised by the Old Testament prophets. One of the clearest prophecies comes from the pen of the prophet Jeremiah:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Just before His death, our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper with these words:
And having taken some bread, when He had given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:19-20).
The New covenant was that which Jesus instituted by His death (Hebrews 9:16), by His shed blood. Because the death of our Lord inaugurated the New covenant, the old must be put away. This is one of the principle themes of the Book of Hebrews. The Judaisers continued to seek to carry over the old covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and to somehow blend it with the New. God will have none of this. If the New covenant commenced with the death of Christ, the dispensation changed at the same period of time.157
The New Testament reveals yet another indicator of a change in dispensation growing out of the first coming of our Lord. It pertains to the removal of the Old Testament distinctions of “clean” and “unclean.” In the Gospel of Mark, the Lord Himself declared all things “clean”:
And summoning the multitude again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” And when leaving the multitude, He had entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all food clean.) Mark 7:14-19.
The meaning of implications of this declaration were not fully grasped until after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension. It is in the Book of Acts that the significance of our Lord’s declaration becomes apparent. The event and its outcome are described by Luke in Acts 10 and 11.
Peter was about to be summoned to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile who feared God. Prior to the invitation to come to the home of Cornelius, Peter was given a vision, a vision which forever changed his outlook and his ministry. The vision was of a sheet, let down from heaven. On this sheet were all kinds of animals. In the context, we realize that some of the animals had to have been unclean by Old Testament definition (see Leviticus 11). In spite of this, Peter was instructed by the Lord to “kill and eat.”
How could Peter possibly do so? To do so would have been to violate one of the Old Testament regulations, given to the Jews. When Peter objected, the reason for God’s command (and Peter’s obedience) is given:
“What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15; 11:9).
Peter comes to understand, along with the church, that this was to convey the message to the Jews that the gospel was not just the private possession of the Jews, but was to be proclaimed to the Gentiles as well:
“Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
For longer than I would wish to admit, I thought that this object lesson was primarily about food and dispensations. So it is, in part. Since the old dispensation has been set aside by the New covenant in Christ’s blood, distinctions between “clean” and “unclean” are unnecessary.
The fear of contamination through contact with the Gentiles, particularly their food, was a great excuse for practicing segregation and racism. As the “change of menu” had signalled a new dispensation in the past, so it would do once again. Jesus taught that contamination was not a matter of external things, like food. Contamination came from sin. Contamination comes from within our own hearts!
Why, then, did God distinguish between “clean” and “unclean” in the first place? For a very important reason. The lesson here was important for the Jews and is equally important for us. Many have tried to explain the “clean-unclean” distinctions by way of explanation. For example, some would say that the “unclean” foods were, at that time, unhealthy. Pork, without refrigeration, would spread disease.
I differ. I differ strongly. There is one fundamental difference between that which is “clean” and that which us “unclean”--a divine declaration. Under the Law, something was “clean” because God declared it to be clean. So too something was “unclean” simply because God declared it so. The “clean” food was really no better than the “unclean,” other than the fact that it was declared clean. The difference was divine declaration.
The Jews thought they were better than the Gentiles. This is the real reason why they did not associate with them. It was the real reason why they, like Jonah of old, did not want to evangelize among the Gentiles. They thought themselves worthy of God’s blessings and the Gentiles worthy only of divine wrath. The truth is that the Jews are no different from the Gentiles. They were no different except for the fact that God set them apart from the rest of the nations.
Salvation does not come through works or through Law-keeping, but only through justification by faith. When men are saved, it is on the basis of the work of Christ. Men are righteous because God declares them to be righteous. The difference between the “clean” and the “unclean” is the same difference between “righteous” and “unrighteous.” Peter’s dream reminded him of this fact. The church would, reluctantly (see Acts 11:19), acknowledge this as well. In the case of those who were saved at the home of Cornelius, God had clearly declared them righteous, a part of the church. How could the church refuse to acknowledge this fact? Men are saved by God’s choice, by God’s activity, and by God’s declaration. Those who are saved are no better than those who are lost; they are just as worthy of divine wrath. Peter’s vision dramatically reminded him and the church at Jerusalem of this truth.
The “unclean” was cleansed by the blood of the Lamb and was thus declared to be “clean.” What God has called holy, let no man call otherwise. Cornelius was just the first-fruits. Many more Gentiles were to follow in his steps. The change of dispensations was a change from the believer’s identification with Israel to the believer’s identification with Christ and with His church. Since the Jews had rejected Jesus as their Messiah, they would now have to hear the gospel from Gentiles, share it with them, and be but a minority of those numbered among the elect in the present age. No wonder the Jewish church was reluctant to recognize this change of dispensation. The change was neither flattering to Israel nor did it reflect the favoritism they wrongly desired.
The Unique Role
of the Present Dispensation
Hopefully we have come to see that there are different dispensations. A dramatic change in dispensations occurred during and shortly after the days of our Lord upon the earth. Since each dispensation has its own unique characteristics and its own distinct purpose, it is imperative that we seek to understand the unique nature and function of this present age in which we live. To do so is the first step to being a faithful steward.
This past week, my wife and I took a late evening walk in our neighborhood. As we were walking, we passed a neighbor who was outside with a telescope, peering into the sky. We paused for a brief conversation, and he informed us of a rare convergence of three planets: Mars, Jupiter, and Venus. These three planets were not really close to each other, but from our perspective, they appeared quite close to each other in the sky. The man with the telescope invited us to look for ourselves, which we did.
This convergence during a certain period of time is very much like the present dispensation, as I understand it. This present dispensation not only follows the previous administrations of God, it brings them all together in a climactic, culminating way. This dispensation is the convergence of all previous dispensations. Let me first demonstrate that this is true, and then seek to spell out some of its implications.
The one central, unifying center of gravity for all dispensations is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the “head of all things.” We may safely say, “In Christ, all things come to a head.” He is the converging point of God’s plan for creation and for all of human history.
For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body though death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach--if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister (Colossians 1:9-23).158
Let us very briefly walk our way through the course of human history and the dispensations into which it is divided.159 If we begin at the beginning, with Adam and Eve after their fall in the Garden of Eden, what is their one overriding hope? It is the hope of the promised “seed” who will bring about Satan’s downfall and man’s salvation (Genesis 3:15). Jesus Christ is that “seed.” Christ is the fulfillment of the promise of God to Adam and Eve and their hope of salvation.
In Noah’s day, divine wrath was poured out on the world through the flood. God’s covenant with Noah promised that mankind would never again be wiped out by means of water. How, then, will God’s promise be fulfilled? How will God deliver sinful men from the wrath they deserve? The answer, once again, is Jesus Christ:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you -not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him (1 Peter 3:18-22).
This text in 1 Peter is perplexing, but we can see the parallel which Peter draws between the flood and the work of Christ on the cross. All who were in the ark were spared from the flood of God’s wrath. All who are in Christ are likewise spared from the coming wrath of God, which will be poured out upon all mankind and destroy the present heavens and earth (see also 2 Peter 3:8-13). The Noahic covenant points forward to Christ.
God’s covenant with Abraham is fulfilled in Christ. He was promised a seed, and this seed was to be a source of blessing for all the world. This “seed” was none other than Jesus Christ:
Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “AND TO SEEDS,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “AND TO YOUR SEED,” that is, Christ (Galatians 3:15-16)
Abraham’s faith looked forward to Christ (see Romans 4). Abraham saw, by faith, the day of our Lord’s coming:
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56).
The sacrifice of Abraham’s only son was a prototype, an anticipation of the sacrifice of God’s son, “the Lamb of God,” the Lord Jesus Christ (see Genesis 22). The Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled in Christ.
The Law was given, not as a means by which men could be saved by their good works, but as a standard of righteousness which all men would fail and thus shown to be sinners in need of God’s grace. God’s grace was manifested to sinners in Jesus Christ. He bore the curse of the Law in the sinner’s place. He provided the righteousness which sinners lack. Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Law. In Him, we are righteous, under the Law, by grace.
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:19-26).160
The present age is unique in that it is a reversal of the previous dispensation. Under the old (Mosaic) covenant, Israel was chosen as the people of God. The Jews were not made righteous by law-keeping, but by their faith (Romans 3:19-20). Like Abraham, those who believed in God’s promise concerning the Messiah to come were justified on the basis of their faith (Romans 4). Gentiles could enter into the promised blessings of God by trusting in the God of Israel and by identifying themselves with Israel as the people of God. The Israelites were to be a holy nation, and thus they must beware of the influences of the Gentiles. The Canaanites were so wicked the Israelites were commanded to annihilate them all, including their livestock (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).
Now in this present age the tables are turned. The exact opposite is taking place. This is not the age of the Jews, but the “times of the Gentiles.” The “people of God” are those who are “in Christ” by faith in Jesus of Nazareth as God’s chosen Messiah. This Messiah is the one whom the Jews rejected and put to death. They must repent, acknowledging their sin and turning to the Lord Jesus (see Acts 2). As the Gentile of old was required to identify with Israel, so the Jew is now required to identify with Jesus, with His church, and with the Gentiles who are the bulk of its members. And just as the danger for the Jews was corruption by the Gentiles, now the great danger for the church is corruption by Judaism and the Judaisers.
Israel relished its role under the old covenant and in the former dispensation. They chafe over their role in the present age, because they do not appear to have the status they once believed they possessed as Jews. The Gentiles now find themselves in the privileged position, but the same dangers of pride and presumption threaten the church, and thus we find Paul’s warning to the church in Romans 11.
If, in the Old Testament time, the unbelieving Gentile must find salvation through faith and obedience in the God of Israel, then in this age unbelieving Jews must find salvation only “in Christ” just as the Gentiles are saved. Both are saved equally, without distinction, without favoritism. There is no special caste of Jewish Christians, only those who are “in Christ.”
Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands --- remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments, contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? We are Jew by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up forme. I do no nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Galatians 2:11-21).
The Practical Implications
of this Present Dispensation
As we come to the end of this lesson, let us reflect on the importance of understanding the age in which we live.
(1) Understanding our present age greatly contributes to our understanding of God’s eternal purpose. We are able to view time, our times, in the light of eternity. We can see the present from the perspective of the past and the future. We should be impressed and grateful that God has included us in His plan and that we have a part to play in the purposes of God.
(2) Understanding our present age enhances our understanding of the Old Testament. We can see that God’s Word and His work in times past was preparatory. We can delight that many of those things which were a mystery to the saints of old have been made clear to us (for example, Ephesians 1-3; 1 Peter 1:10-12; Hebrews 11:39-40).
In addition to gaining a broad perspective from which to view the events and revelation of the past, we gain a good deal of guidance as to how we should interpret and apply the Scriptures. We have, for example, the perspective of fulfilled prophecies. If we would rightly interpret those prophecies which are as yet unfulfilled, let us do so in a way consistent with the prophecies we know have been fulfilled.
We know there is a consistency and continuity in God’s plan and program, as well as diversity due to different dispensations. When we read the Old Testament, we should look for the things which never change: God’s promises, His character, His standard of holiness, His grace, mercy, and justice. As a result, we can apply much of the Old Testament directly, because it is changeless truth.
Conversely, we should be sensitive to those things which do change. The distinctions between “clean” and “unclean” do not apply today nor does the obligation to observe the Sabbath. The way of worship has also changed. But even when we recognize that what we are dealing with in the Old Testament does not apply directly, it still has something to teach us today. We see this from the way Paul and the other apostles use the Old Testament. The text which commands that men not “muzzle the ox” is based upon a principle which still applies today: “the laborer is worthy of his hire” (see 1 Corinthians 9:3-10). I believe God’s instruction not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk” has a very clear application to abortion.161 As we have seen, the “clean” and “unclean” distinctions teach us the eternal principle that it is God whose definition or declaration makes things clean or unclean. That is what justification is all about.
Understanding the various dispensations, especially our own age, must not be an excuse for doing away with all those teachings in the Bible we do not want to acknowledge or obey. All of the Bible is for our edification and instruction (see 1 Corinthians 10:11; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Understanding dispensations helps us interpret and apply the Bible in a way consistent with God’s eternal plan, and especially in a way consistent with His plan for the present.
(3) Understanding our present age greatly enhances our understanding of the New Testament. Once we see that the Gospels and Acts describe the transition from the old order to the new, from a previous dispensation to the present administration, we have a context within which to interpret and apply the New Testament Scriptures.
Jesus spoke of the days from His crucifixion to His second coming in the three synoptic162 Gospels (Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21). John’s Gospel did not repeat our Lord’s teaching. John complimented it with the discourse and prayer of our Lord recorded in John 14-17. As I understand this passage, Jesus’ teaching assumes the outline of history laid out in the three synoptic Gospels. It assumes our Lord’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. It assumes the difficulty of the last days as well as the opposition of unbelievers to the gospel and the saints who believe and proclaim it.
John 14-17 focuses on God’s provisions for this present age, the “times of the Gentiles.” Several truths emphasized in this text of Scripture tend to characterize the ministry of the saints and the provisions of God in this present age. These same areas of emphasis are apparent in the Epistles, especially the Epistles of the apostle Paul.
The first area of emphasis is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our present age, more than any other, is the age of the Spirit. It is not that the Holy Spirit was absent in the past, but only that He is much more visibly apparent. His ministry is necessitated by the physical departure of Jesus to the Father. He is the One who reveals truth to the apostles and reminds them of the truth Jesus had already taught them. He is the One who enables them to understand mysteries previously not understood. He ministers the presence and power of Jesus. He convicts sinners, regenerates them, and draws them to faith in Christ. He seals every believer and gives each a spiritual gift, enabling them to play a part in the work of God through the body of Christ, the church. The more one studies Paul’s Epistles, the more one sees his emphasis on the ministry of the Spirit. Paul’s methods were not those proven to be most persuasive or successful, but those which demonstrated His reliance on the ministry of the Spirit.163
The second area of emphasis is unity. As the return of our Lord draws nearer, men’s opposition to the gospel and to believers will increase. Men’s love for one another will grow cold. Unity of the faith and love for the brethren is prominent in the teachings of our Lord and of His apostles. The unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ is a strong area of emphasis.
For thousands of years, the Israelites have struggled with the Gentiles about them. At times, the Israelites have been subject to the Gentiles. At other times, the Gentiles have been subject to the Jews. There has been, since the days of Abraham and the births of his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, a tension, a hostility between Jews and Gentiles. That tension can be seen in the days of our Lord and in the days of the early church as described by Luke in the Book of Acts. That hostility has been dealt with, once and for all, in Christ. That is what Paul has written in Ephesians 2:11-22 (see above). There is no such thing as a “Christian Jew” or a “Christian Gentile.” There are only those “in Christ” and those “separate from Christ.” This mystery is much more fully expounded by Paul, but it is rooted in the work of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2). This unity is to be promoted and protected (see Ephesians 4).
(4) Understanding this present dispensation gives insight into God’s will and plan for our lives. The purpose of God for this age is for Christ to come as the Lamb of God and to provide salvation for all who will believe and receive Christ. God’s purpose for our Lord was suffering--and then glory. So it is for us. As He was rejected by men, so must we suffer in Him, and for Him. Life in this age includes suffering and groaning, due to man’s sin and its consequences (see Romans 5:3-11; Romans 8:18-25). In our suffering, we find opportunity to identify with Christ (Philippians 3:10). We see our sufferings as a gracious gift of God (Philippians 1:29)--something we are called to do in following His example (1 Peter 2:18-25), an extension of His sufferings (Colossians 1:24). We suffer knowing that as suffering was the path to His glory, so it is for all who are in Him by faith (1 Peter 1:10-12; Hebrews 12:2; 2 Timothy 2:12; 1 Peter 5:10).
Our Lord was called to proclaim the kingdom of God, to offer to men the salvation which He was to accomplish. Our task, our calling, is also the same as we see in the Great Commission:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
In days of old, the Jews were to be holy by keeping themselves separate from the Gentiles. Indeed, they were to kill the Canaanites. Now that is separation! But the incarnation of our Lord brought a change. The God who would not allow men to draw near to Him is the God who drew near to sinners in Christ. He not only came to the earth, He associated with sinners. His holiness was not physical separation but spiritual separation, a holy life.
Separation for the Christian is to be the same. We are not to isolate ourselves from sinners, but we are to keep ourselves pure from the defilement of sin, by His grace. Just as we are to draw near to sinful men to proclaim the good news of the gospel, so we are also to draw near to God in an intimacy which far surpasses that of the saints of old. Our Lord removed the barrier between a holy God and sinful men. The barrier was our sin and the law which condemned it. In Christ, we have died to the condemnation of sin and the law. We may now draw near to God in a way men before could not do. Our way of worship is thus different from that of men of previous dispensations.
If Christ Jesus is our Savior, we are members of His body, the church. Corporately and individually, we worship and serve Him. Individually, we each have a task to perform as faithful stewards. He has enabled us with spiritual gifts to fulfill our task. His will for us is to take part in His plan for this age through His body, the church, by means of the gifts He has given each of us.
Like our Lord and the apostle Paul, we do not need frequent revelations concerning His will, for He has revealed His will in His Word. When specific individual guidance is required, He will provide this through His Spirit. The greater our grasp of God’s plan for this age, the greater our guidance for our own lives.
God is orchestrating human history so that all things will be summed up in Christ. As God’s holiness and justice has been more fully revealed, the sinfulness of man has become more apparent. Man’s need for salvation has been fulfilled in the work of Jesus Christ.
The majesty of Christ and the magnitude of His work and worth is far beyond human comprehension. God has used the various dispensations to focus on different facets of Christ, His person and His work. With the first coming of Christ has come the beginning of a new age. Many facets of the Messiah’s person and work have converged, being fulfilled in His first coming and now being displayed in this present age.
How often have I heard Christians speak nostalgically of some past dispensation as though it were preferable to our own time. They want to live at a time when God spoke to men directly, like Abraham, or Moses. But we live in that age when God has spoken fully and finally in Christ. Never before has man had such revelation as we have in Him!
For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:16-18).
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and uphold all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they (Hebrews 1:1-4).
Christ is not just a part of our life; He is our life. As He is central in every dispensation, especially in our own, He is to be central in our own life. What is life? To the apostle Paul, life was Christ. Death is but a doorway, the opportunity to be with Christ:
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).
We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
The great danger, as Paul and the apostles so often speak of it, is losing the simplicity of Christ, the centrality of Christ, and the sufficiency of Christ. No age has ever had so full a revelation of Him. He is our salvation, our life, our hope, our all. May God grant that He is the focus of our life, and may life for us be Christ--and Christ alone.
Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology
Two dominant and somewhat opposing schools of theology exist within evangelical circles: dispensationalism and covenant theology. I must admit that I find myself somewhat “between a rock and a hard place,” as we Texans say. I feel a debt of gratitude to J.N. Darby, the founder of dispensationalism, not only for his insights into the various dispensations, but even more so because of his teaching on the New Testament church. I hold many of the views which Darby brought into focus, which are practiced by churches sometimes known as the Plymouth Brethren. I do not agree with all of Darby’s views, but I sense a debt of gratitude to this man and to the school of thought to which he gave birth. Needless to say, I also feel a great debt of gratitude to Dallas Theological Seminary, from which I graduated. This school has historically held and taught dispensational theology.
On the other hand, I am also greatly indebted to covenant theology, or more precisely, to covenant theologians. Covenant theologians played a dominant role in the reformation and have historically been some of the greatest defenders of the faith, taking a stand against liberalism and heresy in various forms. Many of the great commentaries have been written by covenant theologians. Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the greatest American theologian, and J. I. Packer are examples of men who hold to covenant theology who are highly regarded in the Christian community.
Most Bible teachers and Christian leaders have identified themselves with one of these two schools of theology. Some who sit under my teaching would probably prefer for me to identify myself with one school of thought or the other, but I find this impossible to do. Quite honestly, both sides have strengths, and both sides have weaknesses.
Dispensationalists are not unique because they believe in dispensations. So do almost all covenant theologians, even though they may choose different labels or definitions for their views. In my assessment of the two schools of thought, dispensationalists stand apart from covenant theologians in several ways:
(1) Dispensationalists make a strong distinction between Israel and the church; covenant theologians do not. Dispensationalists believe that the promises which God made to Israel must be literally fulfilled. Consequently, dispensationalists believe that the millennium is necessary for the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to the Jews to be literally fulfilled. Covenant theologians believe that while the nation Israel was once the “people of God” they have forfeited this privilege by their disobedience and rejection of the Messiah. Now, they believe, the people of God are all those in Christ, without distinction. Thus, they believe that the promises made to the Jews will be fulfilled in Christ through the church. They do not look for a literal fulfillment during the millennium. I find myself agreeing with the dispensational position on this point.
(2) Dispensationalists view the plan and purpose of God in terms of two tracks: one track is the outworking of God’s plan for Israel; the second track is God’s plan and purpose for the church. They see God’s plan, His promises, and His covenants as being specified for one group or the other, but not for both at the same time. Covenant theologians see both Jews and Gentiles as one body through faith in Christ, with one plan, one set of covenants, one fulfillment. I (along with some others who would call themselves dispensationalists) agree with the covenant theologians here. I believe there has always been but one “people of God.” In the Old Testament times, believing Jews were a part of the “people of God,” while unbelieving Jews were not (see Romans 2; 4; 9:6-13). Those Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel identified themselves with the “people of God” by renouncing their heathen religion and by identifying themselves with the God of Israel (like Ruth--see Ruth 1:15-18).
When the nation Israel disobeyed God, especially when the nation rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God rejected the nation. The Jews who were once God’s people were declared to be “not My people.” Conversely, those who were “not My people” were to become the “people of God” (see Hosea 1-3; Romans 9-11). The “people of God” in Old Testament times were those who, by faith, were in Abraham; those in New Testament times who are God’s people are those who, by faith, are in Christ. There are not two, but one people. The Jews are set aside during the “times of the Gentiles,” and once the “times of the Gentiles” end, then God’s program for His people, Israel, commences once again. Thus, I see one people, not two, and one plan, not two.
(3) Dispensationalism tends to view the Old Testament Scriptures and even much of the Gospels as primarily directed to the Jews, while the New Testament Epistles are directed to the church. Many dispensationalists will probably disagree with this statement, but I still believe it to be accurate: Dispensational teachers seem to teach disproportionately from the New Testament, and particularly from the Epistles, while giving less attention to the Old Testament, particularly the Law. Covenant theologians seem, in theory, if not in practice, to give the Old Testament Scriptures a more even treatment.
I believe all the Scriptures have been given for all the saints in every age (see Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1). The Scriptures do not all apply directly, but they all have something to teach us. When we study any text, especially an Old Testament passage, we must (as my former professor, Dr. Bruce Waltke, used to say) ask the question, “Does the New Testament ratify, modify, or nullify this teaching?” Even those things which the New Testament sets aside may have something to teach us. While Sabbath keeping is not carried over into the New Testament, the other nine commandments of the “Ten Commandments” are virtually carried over into the New Testament.
(4) Dispensationalists sometimes disagree more sharply with other dispensationalists than with some covenant theologians. Hyper-dispensationalists believe that the New Testament Epistles have a strong priority over the rest of the Scriptures. They may not even attempt to teach or to apply some other portions of Scripture. For example, some dispensationalists avoid the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), because they believe it to be directed to the Jews, particularly to the millennium. Other dispensationalists agree that the Sermon on the Mount is directed to the Jews but seek to apply this text to contemporary Christian living. In so doing, they would find themselves, in practice if not in theory, in closer proximity to the covenant theologian than to the hyper-dispensationalist.
I find myself preaching very much as I would expect a covenant theologian to preach. The great temptation a dispensationalist faces is in using his dispensationalism as an excuse to avoid or excuse himself from obeying clear commands. Do some want to use dispensationalism to do away with the Sermon on the Mount because it is so hard to obey? After all, who wants to “turn the other cheek?” Many of our Lord’s commands are explained away dispensationally when I wonder if they ought not to be taken seriously, and even literally.
(5) Dispensationalists emphasize the biblical covenants of the Bible, those covenants clearly identified as covenants: the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9), the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12), the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5), and the New covenant (Jeremiah 31). Covenant theologians base their theological system on three implied or assumed covenants: the covenant of works; the covenant of redemption; and the covenant of grace. I find implied covenants and doctrines (like limited atonement) less convincing and compelling than clear-cut covenants and doctrines.
For Further Study and Meditation
(1) What is a “dispensation”?
A dispensation is an administration, a specific period of time, which defines the nature and requirements of man’s relationship to God and men. A dispensation is always defined and described by divinely inspired revelation (Scripture), often stated in the form of a covenant between God and men.
Some Christians may prefer to use some other term than dispensation. I have no argument with this, so long as we grant that there are differences in the way God has dealt with men throughout history.
Considerable difference exists among Christians concerning what each of the dispensations should be identified as. Nearly everyone acknowledges the difference between the Old Testament dispensation under the Mosaic covenant and the New Testament “times of the Gentiles,” under the New covenant.
(2) How important is it to understand dispensations, especially the present dispensation?
We are God’s stewards who have an administration, a task, to carry out. Our task is to carry out God’s plan and purpose for this age. If we do not understand what God is doing in this age, we cannot be good stewards. Knowing God’s will for this age supplies us with much information concerning His specific will for our lives. God’s will for us must be compatible with His will for this age.
Many of the errors prevalent among Christians have their basis in a misconception of this present age. Some errors are attempts to import into this age that which belonged to a previous age (such as keeping the Sabbath and infant baptism). Other errors are attempts to introduce into this age those things which are a part of God’s purpose for a future age. Much of the “prosperity” movement seems to go wrong here, insisting that the suffering God has purposed for us in the present is due to sin and unbelief, and that future blessings can be claimed now. The reconstruction movement seems to err here as well. They appear to believe that what God will do upon His return, we can do now to hasten and prepare for His return.
(3) How would you characterize this present dispensation? What is unique about the dispensation in which we live?
This present age reverses the past dispensation. The curse which the Law pronounced on every man has been borne by our Lord on the cross of Calvary. In the past age, God saved some Jews and fewer Gentiles. In this age, God is saving some Gentiles and fewer Jews. In the former dispensation, Gentiles had to identify with Israel (in particular, the God of Israel) in order to be saved. In this age, the Jews must identify with and submit to the Lord Jesus Christ, and His church, which is primarily Gentile. This age draws together the hope of all previous dispensations, centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Now, through His church, God is displaying the wonders of His glory and grace.
(4) What things have changed in the various dispensations? What has not changed?
The way in which God rules over men changes with the various dispensations. The way in which men were instructed to worship and serve God has changed in some ways. That which men have been allowed to eat has changed. The way that men could meet with God has changed.
What has not changed is the overall plan and purpose of God for His creation, God’s promises, God’s character, God’s standards of holiness, and man’s sinfulness.
(5) Why has God employed dispensations?
God has employed various dispensations to demonstrate in a variety of contexts His holiness and grace, man’s sin, and the need for a salvation which is by grace rather than works. God’s glory is so great it must be revealed
progressively, and it should be viewed from various perspectives. No matter how God’s way of governing man changes, He is always faithful, and we are always sinful and rebellious. Only by His grace will any of us enter into His blessings.
Luke 4; 21
John 4:19-26; 14-17
Acts 10-11; 15; 28
1 Corinthians 1-3; 12-14
2 Corinthians 3-6
148 As I understand the term “mystery” in the New Testament, a “mystery” is not something never before referred to but something which has never been understood. The “pieces” of the puzzle (mystery) are there, but they are not seen as a whole picture. The “mystery” is solved in Christ. The “mystery” of Messiah’s suffering and His glory, which perplexed the prophets, (1 Peter 1:10-12) has been revealed in Christ, who came first to die for sinners and who comes again to condemn those who have rejected Him.
151 In the Old Testament, the miraculous ministry of the prophets was a ministry of compassion, but it was primarily for the purpose of underscoring the power of God in the prophet and of the truth of the words which he spoke in the name of the Lord. Thus, miracles were subordinate to preaching. This is exactly what our Lord understood and practiced. He knew what it was that He had been called to do. He also knew that in spite of His many miracles and signs, men would not be convinced or converted (see Matthew 12:38-45).
154 Is there any specific sign associated with the New covenant? Some might think it is baptism or the Lord’s Supper. It almost seems as though the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church (as seen in Acts) could be viewed as the sign of the New covenant.
155 I do not like the labels “Law” and “Grace” because they do not convey the essence of the distinction between these two dispensations. In both (indeed, all) dispensations, men are saved by grace, through faith. Men have never been saved by the “Law” but only condemned by the Law (see Romans 3:19-20).
156 First, Jesus responded by pointing out their hypocrisy and lack of compassion. They would “work” on the Sabbath if their ox were in the ditch, and yet they had no compassion on those whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-18). It was lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-13; Luke 14:1-6). Second, Jesus was able to “break the Sabbath” (like David did) because He was greater than the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). Third, many of the acts of our Lord which the Jews considered a violation of the Sabbath were really just an infraction of their rigid rules and interpretations and not violations of the Law of Moses (Matthew 12:9-13).
157 I have tried to carefully choose my words to leave room for the fact that while the change from the old to the new was instituted by the death of Christ, the transition from the old to the new took longer. I believe the transition occurred over a period of about 70 years, from the time of our Lord’s birth to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. The accounts of the Gospels and Acts indicate that it took considerable time to convince the disciples and the church of the change that had happened. Even after this, there were dangers of lapsing back into an old dispensation mode of thinking and acting (see, for example, Galatians 2:11-21 and the Epistles which warn of Jewish error).
159 I am making an effort here not to be dogmatic about each and every dispensation, as there is not unanimous agreement on each particular dispensation which some propose. Even if one were to reject dispensations altogether, it can still be shown that all of human history leads to the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the divinely appointed goal of history.
161 See Exodus 23:19. The mother’s milk was designed to sustain the life of her kid. It was inappropriate to employ that which was given to support the life of the kid (its mother’s milk) to prepare the dead animal for eating. The mother’s milk was for the kid’s food, and it should not be used in the process of making the kid our food. The mother’s womb is designed by God to sustain and protect the infant. How inconsistent for the mother to have an abortion, which is to produce the opposite of what she (her womb) was designed for.
162 The term “synoptic Gospels” applies to Matthew, Mark, and Luke because they, unlike John, tend to view the life of our Lord in the same general light. John’s Gospel is unique, for which we can be deeply grateful.