Shawn Abigail, Ottawa, Canada [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Dispensationalism is a theological system which brings a unified order to the natural divisions we see within the Bible. By definition, a dispensation is ‘a distinguishable stewardship in the outworking of God’s purpose, where mankind or representatives of mankind are tested and found wanting in regards to God’s revelation’. Dispensationalism is a theological system that understands the various ways in which God has dealt with man as a series of stewardships (or dispensations). Some of these dispensations are explicitly mentioned in Ephesians chapter 3 verses 2 and 3, Ephesians chapter 1 verse 10 and Colossians chapter 1 verses 25 and 26. Most dispensationalists see seven dispensations in the Bible. In this article we will examine the first three dispensations in detail
The first dispensation was the dispensation of innocence. God revealed His will to Adam and Eve. They were to have children and to rule God’s creation, Gen. 1. 28. This was the stewardship which was given to them. Perhaps this accounts for the reason why abortion is so popular in the Western world! God’s first command was to be fruitful and so the sinful nature wishes to shake its fist at God’s command right from the start. In addition a test was placed before them; they were not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Gen. 2. 16, 17.
Now, let’s ask a question. In this first stewardship, how did man respond to the test? Regrettably, the answer is that man initiated the first of a series of failures. Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and Adam ate as well, Gen. 3. 1-6. They believed the half-truth of Satan; their eyes were opened and all mankind has paid the price ever since. The judgement was described in Genesis chapter 3 verses 16 and 17. The birth of children would now be an event preceded by pain. There would be discord between a husband and wife. And God’s blessing of provision would now be accompanied by toilsome effort.
Here we see a pattern which is often repeated throughout the dispensations. A stewardship was established. A test was placed before mankind. Man failed the test and was judged. But frequently we see this judgement accompanied by an additional Messianic revelation. In this case, the Messiah was predicted in Genesis chapter 3 verse 15. In the years following, Eve must have wondered at this statement. How could one of her offspring crush the head of an angelic being? But this was the self-revelation of God, that the Messiah would be truly human. As for Satan, he has now done his worst. At a place called Calvary Satan struck the heel of the Messiah, and now there is nothing left for him but to wait until Messiah crushes his head.
So this was the first dispensation; innocence. But let’s pause to consider what we know about human nature. Given the choice between confessing on one hand that God is just and man is sinful, and on the other hand blaming God, fallen man will certainly choose to blame God. And so it is not too hard to imagine mankind complaining against the judgement of God, ‘But we didn’t know what it would be like to know good and evil. We had God’s words, but there was nothing within us that could help us discern good from bad’. And so God instituted the next dispensation. One stewardship has been taken away and another stewardship takes its place. God gave them something that will allow them to discern good from bad; a conscience. And God instituted a new dispensation, the defining characteristic of which was conscience.
In the previous dispensation God spoke directly to Adam and Eve. But now a change is effected and God spoke to His people through their conscience. He provided a means by which all people could discern good and evil, Rom. 2. 15.
So, the stewardship placed before mankind was simply to obey the dictates of their conscience. But how did mankind respond this time? Once again we see failure on the part of mankind. Cain and Abel offered God their sacrifices, Gen. 4. 1-7, but Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted. Cain was told, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?’ God didn’t need to instruct Cain that murder is wrong because He didn’t have to; Cain already had a conscience. And so we see a test placed before the representative of mankind, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?’ But in Genesis chapter 4 verse 8, Cain failed the test and murdered his brother. God gave mankind a conscience. He helped them distinguish good from evil. And almost immediately Cain committed one of the worst imaginable sins.
As in the previous dispensation the test was failed, and judgement needed to come. We read about this judgement in Genesis chapter 4 verse 11. If life was difficult in leaving the Garden of Eden, life now became worse. Cain was a man of the soil. He was a man who tilled the ground to yield its crops. And so his judgement was related to that in which he had his pride; he was to be a restless wanderer for whom the ground would no longer easily yield crops.
But the judgement didn’t end there. This whole dispensation was filled with rebellion against the conscience which God had provided and, quite tellingly, we read, Gen. 6. 5, ‘And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’. And so while Cain was a representative of mankind in this dispensation, there was a further judgement on all mankind; the great flood.
So we see the typical pattern of a stewardship: a test, a response and a judgement. But there is a further revelation of God’s Messianic purpose, for in the middle of this story, at the end of chapter 4, we read of the birth of Seth. And it was through the line of Seth that the Messiah came. Messiah didn’t come through Cain, the murderer. Messiah didn’t come through Abel, the victim. Messiah came through a different line, that of Seth.
But once again, it is not too hard to imagine mankind complaining against the judgement of God, ‘You gave me a conscience, but there was nothing to restrain me. When my conscience became dull, there was nothing to stop me from sinning’. And so God instituted the next dispensation, giving them something that would restrain them; human government.
3) Human government
The third dispensation was the dispensation of human government, which began after the great flood. To understand why human government was the defining characteristic of this dispensation, we must understand something about human government itself. Government is nothing more and nothing less than how we organize ourselves as a society, and the defining characteristic of government is that it tends to have authority and powers which are not granted to individuals. This is most evident in a criminal justice system. While most countries allow citizens the right of self-defence, individuals are typically not allowed to punish crimes. That is a task for the governing authorities. And the ultimate expression of this authority is in the death penalty. This is why the dispensation of human government was inaugurated, Gen. 9. 6. This verse does not teach the start of a private code of vengeance, but rather human government being given the ultimate authority to restrain evil behaviour. Human government is a force of restraint on society. Even if people have dull consciences, the knowledge that society will punish wicked behaviour is a restraint. Of course, human government, if inaugurated by God, must serve God’s purpose. So God placed another stewardship responsibility before mankind, ‘And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein, Gen. 9. 7.
How did mankind exercise the responsibilities of this stewardship? Did mankind obey God and spread out across the face of the earth? Regrettably mankind’s reaction to God’s command was to build the Tower of Babel, ‘Lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’, Gen. 11. 4. And so judgement once again came, this time in the confusion of languages, Gen. 11. 7. Mankind used his power of governmental organization to stay in one place, so God confounded their ability to organize themselves and spread them out across the face of the earth.
In this dispensation too, we see the Messianic purposes of God. Human government has failed, but we know that there is One who is worthy of governmental rule. Indeed, as Isaiah chapter 9 verses 6 and 7 tell us, ‘Unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder . . . of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end’. Where man failed, Messiah would succeed magnificently. As for man, he might complain that God has scattered the nations, so God will begin to deal with a single people and nation in the dispensation of promise.
To be continued
AUTHOR PROFILE: Shawn Abigail was saved while at university. He is married with three young children and fellowships at the Bridlewood assembly in Ottawa. He exercises a teaching and writing ministry in the area and is webmaster of www.brethrenonline.org