The entire period of time, from the creation until “the new heaven and earth” is in place, is divided by the Scriptures into seven unequal administrations sometimes called “Dispensations”.
“to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment” < Eph.1:10 (NIV)>
“That in the dispensation of the fulness of times” < Eph.1:10 (KJV)>
“A period of time under which mankind is answerable to God for how it has obeyed the revelation of God which it has received. The term dispensation is found twice in the NKJV: “The dispensation of the fullness of the times” (Eph 1:10) and “the dispensation of the grace of God” (Eph 3:2). The KJV uses the term four times (1 Cor 9:17; Eph 1:10; 3:2; Col 1:25).
Many Bible students believe all of history can be divided into several dispensations. According to this view, all of history has been pointing toward the SECOND COMING of Christ, when salvation will be made complete. Others reject this view, insisting that God has had faithful, loyal followers in all times who have lived according to His COVENANT with them.
Seven dispensations are commonly identified: Innocence, from Creation to the Fall of man and God’s sending them out of the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24); Conscience, the covenant with Adam, ending with the judgment of the Flood (Gen 9); Human government, the covenant with Noah, extending to the time of Abraham; Promise, from Abraham’s call (Gen 12:1) to Moses; Law, from the giving of the Law to Moses (Ex 19:8; 20:1-31:18) to the death of Jesus Christ; Grace, from the death and resurrection of Christ to His Second Coming; Kingdom, the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth and the thousand year reign of Christ over the nations.” (from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)
1. THE INNOCENCE OF MANKIND
Extending from the creation of Adam <Gen.2:7> to the expulsion from Eden. Adam and Eve were created innocent and ignorant of good and evil and placed under the responsibility of abstaining from eating the fruit of the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil” <Gen.2:15-17>. This dispensation ended in the failure of mankind, producing far-reaching effects, resulting in the judgment of God in expulsion from the garden <see Gen.2:17; 3:6, 22-24>.
2. MANKIND UNDER CONSCIENCE
The sin and ultimate “fall” of Adam and Eve caused them to transmit through their descendants, and consequently to all mankind the “knowledge of good and evil” imparting a basis for right moral decisions, and so mankind came under this measure of responsibility. This resulted again in the total failure of mankind <see Gen.4:1-11; 6:1-7; 11-13; 7:24>.
3. MANKIND IN AUTHORITY (HUMAN GOVERNMENT)
After the judgment of the Flood, God gave the purified earth to Noah and his descendants making them responsible to administer it. Again, the failure of mankind is displayed by Noah’s descendants as they attempt to become independent of God, and this dispensation closes in judgment, in the “Confusion of Tongues” <see Gen.11:1-9>.
4. MANKIND UNDER PROMISE
Out of the dispersed descendants of Noah’s sons Japheth, Ham, and Shem, God calls out Abram, a descendant of Shem <Gen.11:10-26>, with whom He enters into covenant. Some of these promises to Abram and his descendants were “unconditional” and have been or will be completely fulfilled literally. Others are “conditional” upon the faithfulness and obedience of the Israelites; however, every one of these have been violated, and this dispensation closed in judgment in their period of slavery in Egypt <see Gen.12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:5; 26:3; 28:12-14; Ex.1:11-14>.
5. MANKIND UNDER LAW
From the outset of the Fall God’s grace has been seen in the way He has dealt with mankind under each dispensation, and again we see this grace extended to the Israelites in their freedom from slavery in Egypt. As they enter the desert to begin their return to their Promised Land God gives them a choice to continue under His grace or to be governed by Law. Their choice being: “The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.” <Ex.19:8 (NIV)>. Their history of journeying through the desert and their life back in the Land was one of constant and persistent violation of the Law, and after numerous warnings from God through the Prophets, this dispensation closed again in judgment. The Jews went into exile and were dispersed throughout all the other nations of the world. A small and feeble remnant returned to the Land under Ezra and Nehemiah of which Christ was born, and they finally sealed their fate when they totally rejected Christ and crucified Him. So, their dispersion continues, and will continue, until God closes this chapter of their history <see Rom.3:19-20; Acts 2:22-23; Rom.10:5; Gal.3:10; cf 2 Kings 17:1-18; 25:1-11; Acts 7:51-52>.
6. MANKIND UNDER GRACE
Christ’s sacrificial death introduced the dispensation of Grace, a period of time when mankind is under the “undeserved favour of God”; God now offers us His righteousness instead of requiring it as the Law does. Salvation (freedom) from sin is now offered to all mankind, regardless of race or circumstance, upon the acknowledgment of sin and repentance, and faith in Christ <see Jn.6:29, 47; 5:24; 10:27-28; Eph.2:8-9>.
The end result of mankind under grace will be God’s judgment upon an unbelieving world and an apostate Church <see Lk.17:26; 18:8; Rev.3:15-16; 2 Thess.2:7-12>.
The first event as this dispensation closes will be the call of Christ for His followers, dead (asleep) and alive, when we will all be “caught up” to meet Him in the clouds <see 1 Thess.4:16-17>. Then follows a period called “the great tribulation” <see Matt.24:21-22; Dan.12:1; Zeph.1:15-18; Jer.30:5-7>.
This dispensation closes with the personal return of Christ and the judgments introducing the final dispensation <see Matt.24:29-30; 25:31-46>.
7. MANKIND UNDER THE PERSONAL REIGN OF CHRIST
Once the purifying judgments are complete at the personal return of Christ to the earth (His second advent), He will reign over the earth for a period of one thousand years called the “Millennium”; ruling from Jerusalem, while the saints, which will include those saved during the Dispensation of Grace – the Church, will be associated with Him in His glory <see Acts 15:14-17; Rev.19:11-21; 20:1-6; Isa.2:1-4; 11:1-16>. After the thousand years “Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth…” <Rev.20:7-8 (NIV)>, finding the “natural heart” of mankind is still prone to sin and rebellion against God, he assembles the nations in battle against God and His saints, and this last dispensation closes, like all the previous six, in judgment. The “great white throne” will be set and all the wicked dead will be raised and will stand before God to give an account of their lives and their total rejection of Christ <see Rev.20:11-15>. Then the “new heaven and the new earth” will come into being as eternity begins <see Rev. 21:1 – 22:21>.
NOTE: This outline should not be considered as the only correct outline. Many competent Bible scholars would suggest the following as a possible alternative:
- The age from Adam to Noah
- The age from Noah to Abraham
- The age from Abraham to the Cross of Christ
- The present age of Grace
- The Tribulation Period
- The Millennium
- The Eternal State
Whichever format of dispensation one chooses to accept, the important truth to remember is that Salvation has always been, and will ever be, by Grace through Faith in Christ. In the O.T. mankind was saved by faith on the basis of the future work of Christ. Today we are saved by Faith on the basis of the work of Christ when He offered Himself as our sacrifice for our sins. (Emmaus Correspondence School)