What does the term "dispensationalism" mean?
Dispensationalism is a word used to describe a particular position that is found within the bible. Although the bible does not subscribe to this term necessarily, we can use it to help us understand the overarching pictures in Scripture.
Dispensational theology is the view that God has instituted seven distinct periods in His plan of redemption, as revealed to us in the Bible. We can summarize them as follows:
4) Patriarch Rule
Dispensationalism has two primary purposes: A) a consistent literal interpretation of scripture, especially bible prophecy, B) a view of uniqueness of Israel as being separate from the Church in God’s redemptive program.
The word “dispensation” occurs in 1 Corinthians 9:17, Ephesians 1:10, 3:2, & Colossians 1:25. The word dispensation is translated from the Greek word oikonomia which refers to an office and management functions of an office. The term dispensationalism became prominent in recent eschatological movements dating back to 1830 in Scotland.
Let’s break each period (or “dispensation”) down:
1. The Garden of Eden. (Genesis 1:1-3:7)
Here God has created the perfect world and filled it with His glorious creations. Adam and Eve lived in harmony, until the snake deceived them into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
2. The fall of Adam and Eve, till the flood (Genesis 3:7-8:22)
Following their eviction from Garden, this period highlights how sin has tainted human nature once we give in to the desires of our own conscience, eg. The murder of Abel
3. From rescuing Noah’s family to creating a tower to reach the Heavens (Genesis 8-12).
God saves the righteous Noah and his sons, and gives them instructions on food and populating the earth. When instead of parting ways the families decide to erect a monument showcasing their pride and unity, God divinely divides the people through language.
4. From Abraham to Moses (Genesis 12:1-Exodus 19:25)
God raises up a leader, the start of the nation of Israel. Through Abraham and his descendants, God delivers a promise to bless this chosen people. The Abrahamic Covenant is then applied to Isaac and Jacob (later known as Israel) and their tribes that eventually escape Egypt under Moses.
5. The Law and the Prophets, until John the Baptist. (Exodus 20:1- Acts 2:4) (Matthew 11:13 & Luke 16:16)
Through Moses God gives the people of Israel rules to follow as a way to bring about their sanctification. As the Israelites eventually disobeyed this Mosaic Covenant, the nation lost access to the promised land until such time that Jesus Christ came to fulfill the Law and offer a complete sanctification through His death on the cross.
6. The New Covenant and the Church Age (Acts 2:4-Revelation 20:3)
Christ’s death ushered in a new era of relationship with the Father, and welcomed the Gentiles as part of the church (in addition to, not replacing, the Jews). Following Pentecost, the Holy Spirit now lives inside the hearts of every believer.
This period will end with the rapture of the Bride of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:51-58 & 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18) until the second coming of Jesus Christ. (Matthew 24:29-41 & Revelation 19:11-21) During this time while Bride of Christ is in Heaven there is, on earth, a time commonly referred to today as the “great tribulation” (Matthew 24:21) which will last 7 years. The rapture is an act of grace in which the church is spared from the Lord’s wrath.
7. The Millennial Kingdom (Revelation 20:4-6)
Following the end of the Tribulation period, Christ will return to Earth to reign for 1,000 years. Jesus Christ will be visible to everyone on the earth. (Zechariah 12:10 & 13:1-6), and the Jewish people will receive all they were promised under Moses.
Apart from Classical Dispensationalism (as described above), one may find extreme views within the dispensational camps which diverge from solid biblical teaching and can move into the realm of heretical teaching. This particular teaching is known as “hyper-dispensationalism” which believes that the church only started after Paul’s imprisonment. They claim the Gospels are relevant to the Jews only, and bear no importance for the Gentile church. These errors in interpretation lead to other false doctrines.
Classical dispensationalism simply points to the reality that 1) The Church and Israel are distinct and separate, 2) God’s purpose in all He does is for His Glory, and 3) sticks to a literal hermeneutic in interpreting scripture.
For further on this topic, we would recommend listening to Lesson 5B of Acts.