The word “dispensation” is used four times in the Bible by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10; 3:2; Col. 1:25). A dispensation is basically a dealing out, distribution, or dispensing of something. It is an administration or stewardship. The Bible was given by progressive revelation. A biblical dispensation is a dispensing of divine revelation. It is a particular way that God deals with man. Dispensations are not periods of time. Ages are periods of time (Eph. 2:7; 3:5), but dispensations operate within ages.
A biblical dispensation is marked by five things:
1. Divine revelation (brings about clear change in God’s dealings with men)
2. Human spokesman (e.g. Moses for the Law and Paul for the Mystery)
3. Human responsibility to the revelation (testing)
4. Human failure (every dispensation ends in apostasy except the last one)
5. Divine judgment
There are at least five different dispensations that the apostle Paul refers to:
1. Promise (Gal. 3:16-18) – began with Abraham (2,000 BC)
2. Law (Gal. 3:19-23) – added 430 years later, began with Moses
3. Grace, or Mystery (Eph. 3:1-7; Col. 1:24-27) – began with Paul
4. Kingdom (1 Cor. 15:24-28)
5. Fulness of Times (Eph. 1:9-10) – the eternal state when God’s purposes as revealed in the times of human history will have finally come to fulness.
Paul also refers to man before the fall (innocence, 1 Cor. 15:45-47; 1 Tim. 2:13-14), conscience (Rom. 1:19; 2:14-15), and human government (Rom. 13:1-7).
By following the five marks of a biblical dispensation, I see seven dispensations in human history (7,000 years) with the eighth and final dispensation being the eternal state. In the Bible, seven is God's number of perfection and eight is the number of a new beginning (Rev. 21-22).
I will present an overview of the seven dispensations in my next post.