The What and Why of Biblical Dispensations

by John Hutton

Dispensation of the Mystery - R Davidson

(Click on the image above to enlarge a chart of dispensations by Robert Davidson.)


PART 1 – ‘What’ are Dispensations?

In Ephesians 3:2 Paul says that he had been given a dispensation. The NIV uses the word ‘administration’ instead of ‘dispensation’. The purpose of this article is to find out what dispensations are, and the purpose behind them.

The word ‘dispensation’ is not in common use today, but it is an important word in the Bible. It translates the Greek word oikonomia, which is made up of oikos – a house, and nemo – to administer, to deal out or to distribute. So, oikonomia means the rule or administration of a house.

Here are a few occurrences of the word and its variants in the New Testament:

Oikonomia – dispensation, stewardship

  • ‘Give an account of thy stewardship.’ Luke 16:2. The NIV has the word ‘management’.
  • ‘Taketh away from me the stewardship.’ Luke 16:3. NIV has ‘my job’.
  • ‘That in the dispensation of the fullness of times…’ Ephesians 1:10. NIV has no word here.

Oikonomos – the person in charge of the house rule, i.e. the steward

  • ‘That faithful and wise steward.’ Luke 12:42. NIV – ‘manager’.
  • ‘Which had a steward.’ Luke 16:1. NIV – ‘manager’.
  • ‘Erastus the chamberlain of the city.’ Romans 16:23. NIV – ‘director’.
  • ‘Stewards of the mysteries of God. 1 Corinthians 4:1. NIV – ‘servants’.
  • ‘It is required in stewards that they be found faithful.’ 1 Corinthians 4:2. NIV – ‘those who have been given a trust’.

The opening verses of Ephesians 3 are, of course, a continuation of what Paul has been saying in the previous two chapters, so to help us discover what a dispensation is, we will start with what he says in chapters 2 and 3 about the standing of Jewish and Gentle believers. I don’t have space to quote the whole passage, so please read Ephesians 2:11,12 and 3:1,2 before proceeding. I will quote selected parts: ‘Wherefore remember… that… in times past… Gentiles in the flesh… at that time… without Christ… aliens… strangers… having no hope… without God. But now… ye are made nigh by the blood of Christ. He hath made both one… having abolished… the enmity… to make… one new man. Now… ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens… For this cause, I Paul… if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given to me to you-ward…’

What Paul is saying in these passages is not all that dramatic to believers today. Many seem not to have noticed it at all. But when Paul wrote, in about AD 62, that there was a new and complete equality between Jewish and Gentile believers, it would have blown his readers away.

The Ephesian church had a Jewish beginning, which later included Gentiles, and everyone in that church knew that the Jews had a very different position with God than did Gentiles. The last letter that Paul wrote before writing to the Ephesians was Romans in which he had stressed the great difference between Jewish and Gentile believers.

It seems as if Paul realised that the new revelation he had been given would be hard for many to accept, so in Ephesians 3:1,2 he reminds them that they had heard about this dispensation of the grace of God given to him.

So what is a dispensation?

Did you notice that in the references given earlier, the words ‘steward’ and ‘stewardship’ were often used? These words are good translations, but unfortunately, their meaning has changed to some extent over the last 400 years.

‘Steward’ comes from an old English word ‘styweard’, which is derived from ‘sty’ and ‘weard’. Today, ‘sty’ means a pigpen, but in olden times, the sty was the estate, the owner’s property. The ‘weard’ or ‘ward’ was the keeper of the estate, the steward. The owner of the estate set the rules for the house management, and the steward had to administer everything according to those rules. ‘Ward’ has become ‘warden’, and a good example is the Warden of a prison. He is in charge of administering the prison, but he has to keep to the rules set by his superiors.

The word oikonomia has come into English practically unchanged as ‘economy’. When a new government is elected, some laws get changed, particularly in the fiscal area, and whether we like it or not, we have to obey the new rules. These points illustrate what happens when God introduces a new dispensation, and should be kept in mind.

In the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16, the steward’s lord said to him, ‘Give an account of your stewardship’ (verse 2). That thought is behind Paul’s statement in Romans 14:12: ‘So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.’

Some things in Scripture, such as basic doctrine, never change. For example, redemption by the blood applied in the Garden of Eden and it applies today. Justification by faith applied to Abel and it applies today. The same is true of other fundamentals of our faith. The important question at the moment, however, is this: Do the rules by which someone can please God in their walk ever change? Let’s begin our search for an answer at the beginning.


The Bible tells of only three instructions given to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Two were things they had to do; the third was something they were not to do. We’ll look at the negative one first. ‘But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’ Genesis 2:17. The positive instructions are in verse 15. ‘And the LORD God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden (1) to dress it and (2) to keep it.’ The word ‘keep’ comes again in the next chapter. ‘So He (God) drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. Genesis 3:24

In both the above references, the meaning of the word ‘keep’ is to guard. The flaming sword guarded the way to the tree of life, preventing access, and, similarly, Adam was to guard the Garden. But he obviously did not succeed. The enemy, Satan, got in, and inexperienced Adam and Eve were no match for him. Could they have kept Satan out? Yes, I think so, because God does not ask of us what is impossible. So God set the rules and their job was to be good stewards and keep them.

I suggest that the time before the Fall is the first dispensation in Scripture, and I will call it the Dispensation of Innocence. That dispensation finished when they were cast out of Eden. We can certainly say that the first dispensation ended in failure, because it depended on the actions of man and the flesh is weak. Even without the fallen nature, Adam and Eve failed to serve God properly.

From Adam to Noah

There were about 1500 years between that ‘casting out’ from the Garden and Noah’s flood. How was man to walk worthily before God during that time? Without doubt, it was different to the way Adam had been required to walk before his fall. Romans 2:14-15 shows that during that time, God allowed people to live by their consciences. By the time of Noah, sin was rampant and only Noah and his family had kept themselves from the degradation around them. Things were so bad that God decided to destroy all the human race, with the exception of Noah and his family. I will call this the Dispensation of Conscience. Did this dispensation end in success? Obviously not, otherwise the flood would not have been necessary.

From the flood to the Law of Moses

During the time from the flood to the giving of the Law, God rewarded those who did the right thing, and punished those who did not. The Book of Job provides us with an insight into that time. In Job, there is no mention of Israel, Jew or Gentile – it is simply the relationship between a man and God.

The book opens with a wonderful testimony to Job, and the Lord repeats this to Satan. Because of Job’s goodness, God had greatly blessed him. But Satan is allowed to persecute Job, who could not understand why terrible things were happening to him, for he knew that he was a good man. We can see the way things were at that time from the reactions of Job’s friends. They said in different ways, ‘You are suffering troubles, Job, so that means you must be a sinner.’ In other words, rewards or otherwise were according to works. So I will call that dispensation the Dispensation of Good Works.

Once again, we can see that it was a failure, otherwise there would have been no need for the Law.

The Law of Moses

The next great turning point between God and man was the Law given through Moses. Israel had now been chosen by God as His special people, and the Law reached into every aspect of their lives. The rules changed dramatically with the giving of the Law. An important reason for the Law was to make Israel different from the other nations, and if the Israelites wanted to please God, then they had to walk according to God’s Law – the new rules.

In Romans 7:12,14 Paul says that the Law was holy and spiritual. So what was the problem? The answer is in Romans 8:3: the Law was weak ‘through the flesh’. When the Lord came, Israel had largely moved away from the spirit of the Law, and they were called to repentance. This would have been unnecessary if Israel had successfully kept the Law. I will call this period the Dispensation of the Law, and just like the ones before it, it ended in failure because of the weakness of the flesh.

The Acts period

Following the earthly ministry of the Lord which concluded with His death, resurrection and ascension, we have another change – no longer was the requirement obedience to the Law, but simply to believe the Gospel concerning Jesus the Messiah. As Paul said to the Philippian jailer, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’ Acts 16:31. God had changed the rules again, and many of them were big changes.

I want to consider five conditions that existed in this new dispensation:

1. The Jew had advantages over the Gentile

Paul outlines the Jews’ advantages in Romans 3:1,2 and 9:1–5: ‘What advantage then hath the Jew? Much every way… unto them were committed the oracles of God… to them pertaineth the adoption… the covenants… the law… the service of God and the promises… of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came.’

Romans chapters 9, 10, and 11 make the position of the Gentile believers plain during the Acts period – they were like wild olive branches grafted into Israel’s olive tree to stimulate the Jews to accept God’s offer, even through a spirit of jealousy. An example, not only of the superior position Jews had at that time, but also of the difference between unchanging doctrines and practical rules that do change, is found in Romans 1:16: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.’ That is a marvellous statement, and I’m sure we all say ‘Amen’ to it. But the verse goes on to say: ‘to the Jew first, and also to the Greek’. Can we say ‘Amen’ to that part today? I don’t think so. It was true when Paul wrote Romans that the Gospel had to be preached to Jews first, but it is not true now.

2. Every believer was given at least one gift by the Holy Spirit

Paul speaks at some length about these gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, and several points need to be made. The gifts were exercised without failure. The healings and miracles were instantaneous and complete. Then, there was a diversity of gifts. Not all had the same gift, and Paul talks about the more important gifts. Also, the gifts given to the believers were proof that a remarkable change had taken place in their lives and that God was working through them.

3. The Acts believers had a new hope – the New Jerusalem

See Galatians 4:26 and Hebrews 12:22. What was the hope of the faithful through the Gospel years and up to the beginning of Acts? It was the Kingdom of God to be set up by the Messiah. In Hebrews, the New Jerusalem is called a ‘better country’. Better than what? Better, surely, than the Millennial Kingdom.

4. There were miracles of judgement in the Acts period

Ananias, Sapphira and Herod were examples of these. See Acts 5:1–11; 12:21–23; 13:6–12.

5. There were several baptisms in the Acts period

First was water baptism, then the baptism in or by the Holy Spirit, and thirdly, there was also a baptism into Christ’s suffering and death, which could be called a spiritual baptism. The Lord speaks of His impending death as a baptism, Luke 12:50, and in Romans 6 Paul speaks about the believer having died and then lived with Christ in His death and resurrection. These are the three baptisms in the Acts period.

Here is a summary of those five points:

1. The Jew had many advantages

2. Miraculous gifts were in operation – instantaneous and complete

3. The Hope was the New Jerusalem – a better country

4. Miracles of judgement were in operation

5. There were multiple baptisms

Not only do we find these conditions in Acts itself, but they are also in the epistles written during the Acts period. This is an important point. Those epistles are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Galatians, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, Jude and, arguably, Revelation. We must be careful, when reading these epistles, about what we take from them and apply to ourselves and our Christian walk today. Remember, basic doctrine does not change when there is a change of dispensation, but many rules dealing with the believer’s walk do.

I will call this Acts dispensation the Dispensation of the Holy Spirit. Again we must ask, did it end in failure? Yes indeed! It was a time when God graciously gave Israel a second chance to accept Jesus as their Messiah, but we find, as we follow the account in Acts, that the Jews everywhere hardened their hearts and effectively said for the second time, ‘We will not have this man to rule over us.’

On the personal level, we also see from what Paul has to say to the Corinthian believers for example, that their standard of conduct was not honouring to the Lord. In spite of the gifts of the Spirit, they served God no more successfully than others had in previous dispensations.

After Acts 28:2528

I started this study by referring to Paul’s claim in Ephesians 3:1,2 that he had been given a special dispensation (or stewardship) by God. This change of dispensation came after Paul had pronounced God’s sentence on Israel at Acts 28:25. Have you ever wondered why Acts finishes so abruptly with so many things left up in the air? It is simply that God’s offer to Israel had run out. Both the Jews living in Palestine, and those living in the wider Mediterranean world, made their rejection of God’s second offer very plain. And with Paul’s quote from Isaiah 6 in Acts 28:25,26, Israel’s special place and privileges in the plan of God were suspended temporarily. Please note that I said temporarily – when the right time comes, all of Israel’s promises will be fulfilled.

I don’t have to think of a name for the new dispensation given to Paul, because the Bible names it for us – the Dispensation of the Grace of God. Ephesians 3:2

The changes to the rules in this dispensation are significant. We find them in the epistles of Paul written after the Acts period finished. They are: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon. We will examine some of these epistles with the five points in mind that we considered in the Dispensation of the Holy Spirit.

1. The place of the Gentile

No longer does the Jew have many advantages, for things have changed dramatically. Look at Ephesians 2:12–15: ‘… at that time, that is, before Ephesians was written and the middle wall of partition broken down, ye were without Christ… aliens… strangers… having no hope… without God… But now in Christ Jesus ye… are made nigh. For he… hath made both one (who are the both? Jew and Gentile!) and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us… to make in himself of (the) twain one new man… that he might reconcile (the) both unto God… having slain the enmity…’

Since the call of Abraham in Genesis 11 and 12, this is the first time in the Bible that the Jew and the Gentile have been equal. Prior to Paul writing Ephesians, Gentiles were to be blessed through Israel. I said earlier that Ephesians 3 continues Paul’s line of thought from chapters 1 and 2, and I hope you read them through. But now, look at verse 9: ‘And to make all men see what is the fellowship (NIV ‘administration’) of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ.’

If this dispensation of the mystery has been hid in God from the beginning of the world, it means that you won’t find anything about it in the Scriptures from Genesis up to the time when Paul was commissioned to reveal it after Acts 28:28.

In the new dispensation, there is no longer any need to preach the Gospel to Jews first. The privileges of the Jew on the one hand, and the disadvantages of the Gentile on the other, have now been abolished. God deals now with all people simply on the basis that they are fallen children of Adam.

2. The evidential gifts of the Spirit, so prominent in the Acts period, have disappeared

For example, during Acts Paul had raised Eutychus from the dead. Acts 20:9,10. But in Philippians 2:25–27, after Acts ended, we read that Epaphroditus nearly died, but Paul couldn’t heal him. He had to wait to see if God would spare him. In the early part of Acts 28, Paul healed many diseases on Melita, but he later had to leave Trophimus behind sick. 2 Timothy 4:20

I know that some believers today believe that healings and miracles still take place, but I have talked to many of them and they all agree that they have never seen anything like the miracles in Acts. There are, however, gifts in the Dispensation of the Grace of God. We have them listed in Ephesians 4:11,12: ‘And he gave some, apostles; and some prophets…’ The offices of apostles and prophets are now finished, because the Scriptures have been fully given. ‘Whereof I am made a minister… to fulfil (that is, to complete) the word of God.’ Colossians 1:25

But look again at Ephesians 4:11,12, for there are more gifts: ‘…and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ’. Sounds like the same conditions that are operating today, doesn’t it?

3. The Church of this new Dispensation has a new hope and a new name

Ephesians 1:20–23: ‘…and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be head over the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.’ Christ is also given a new title. He is now Head of the Body. And not only that! The believers were given a new hope. Ephesians 2:5,6 ‘…God… hath raised us up together with Christ… and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.’ Where are these heavenly places? ‘Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.’ Ephesians 1:21

In the Dispensation of Law, Israel was looking for the Kingdom on earth. In the Acts dispensation, the believers were looking for the New Jerusalem, and were told it was a ‘better country’. If the place where Christ is seated is ‘far above all’, then it must be above even the New Jerusalem.

4. In this Dispensation of the Grace of God, there are no miracles or judgement

We saw earlier that both Peter and Paul exercised judgements on those who sinned. Reader, have you ever seen anyone struck blind or dumb, or slain on the spot as a direct punishment from God (like Ananias and Sapphira)? We should be very grateful that we are not living in the Acts dispensation!

5. There is only ONE baptism, not several

We have an astonishing statement in Ephesians 4:5: ‘There is… one baptism…’ We could spend much time discussing the meaning of baptism, but do I need to explain the meaning of ‘one’ to any reader? One cannot mean two or three. Try to imagine the problem that statement caused the believers in Ephesus. They had all been baptised in water and had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit with some evidential gift. They would also claim to have been baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ, the spiritual baptism. But, suddenly, Paul is saying that now there is only one baptism. Which one? Surely the spiritual one which, after all, is the real one.

Here is a summary of the five points in the new Dispensation:

1. The Jew has no advantages – absolute equality between Jew and Gentile

2. No miraculous gifts – gifts now are evangelists, pastors and teachers

3. The Hope is now the Heavenly Places – co-seated in Christ, far above all

4. Grace rules – no public judgements

5. One baptism – spiritual

We must ask the same question of this Dispensation as of the previous ones. Is it being successful or not? To help us answer, we could also ask this: is God being honoured by the witness of the Church today? Is the world being saved or getting worse? I think we have to say, that like all the others, this Dispensation is also a failure. But there is one more Dispensation that must be mentioned.

The Kingdom of Heaven (or of God)

When Christ returns to this earth and takes up His purposes with Israel again, He will set up a kingdom that will last for 1000 years. Satan will be bound and will be unable to deceive the nations during that time. The Lord will rule with a rod of iron, and sin will be dealt with every day.

Psalm 101 is about that kingdom, and verse 8 says, ‘I will early destroy all the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the Lord.’ The NIV has, ‘Every morning I will put to silence all the wicked in the land; I will cut off every evil doer from the city of the Lord.’ The judgements on Ananias, Sapphira and Herod were foretastes of the judgements that will take place every day in the Kingdom on earth. At the end of the thousand years, Satan will be loosed and most of the world will follow him once again. Obviously, it ends in failure.

I know that the Kingdom is often referred to as the Millennium, but I prefer to call it the Dispensation of Direct Rule.


PART 2 – Why all these Dispensations?

We must now ask why God instituted these different dispensations if they were all to fail? It may help to think about it like this: the Bible is clear that all humanity will be resurrected to stand before God and be judged. The verdict on the believers will be ‘in Christ’, and they will pass into life. The unbeliever, however, will be found guilty and the sentence will be death.

But let us suppose that, at the Judgement, an unbeliever brings a defence something like this. ‘God, I didn’t ask to be born a sinner. I got that from Adam, and I don’t think I deserve to pay for someone else’s sin. If you had made me without the fallen nature, my inherent innocence and goodness would have triumphed and I would have obeyed you.’

What might God’s answer be? ‘In the Dispensation of Innocence, I created Adam and Eve just like that. They failed and so would have you.’

The next defence might go like this: ‘God, I failed because you asked things of me that were too hard. So many laws to keep and unbelievable things to believe in! If you had just let my conscience guide me, I’m sure I would have obeyed you.’

What might God’s answer be? ‘In the Dispensation of Conscience from Adam to Noah, I let conscience rule mankind, but they failed so badly I had to wipe them all out except for one family. You would have failed too.’

The next defendant steps up: ‘God, it is alright to judge me for failing, but if you had offered worthwhile material rewards for being good and took them away if I was bad, then I certainly would have obeyed you.’

How might God answer this? ‘In the Dispensation of Good Works from Noah to the giving of the Law, I ruled exactly like that, but everyone failed and so would have you.’

Yet another defence: ‘God, I know I am basically good, and I’ve tried hard to obey you, but somehow I keep making wrong choices So if you wrote down your laws and punished me when I broke them, then I would have done what was right.’

And God could well answer like this: ‘In the Dispensation of Law, from Moses to My Son’s death, I gave many laws in writing, but man failed to obey them, and so would have you.’

Another possible defence: ‘God, my conscience is not so reliable, and though I’ve tried to keep your laws, they are so hard. If you made the way easier, and gave us something simple to believe with something tangible to show we were your people, then I would have believed and been obedient to you.’

How might God answer this one? ‘In the Dispensation of the Holy Spirit, all I asked was that people believe on my Son, and when they did, I gave them special gifts of the Holy Spirit. But people did not believe, and neither would have you.’

Then there was this defence: ‘God, if all I had to do was believe in your Son, not having to fear your immediate judgement if I came short, and just let the new nature and your completed Word guide me, I would have believed and followed you then.’

God’s answer? ‘In the Dispensation of Grace, from the setting aside of Israel to the kingdom being set up on earth, I did exactly that, but once again man failed, and so would have you.’

Now the last defence: ‘God, if you were to come and rule personally with a rod of iron, then if nothing else, my fear of death and reprisal would ensure that I obeyed you.’

And God could answer that like this: ‘In the Dispensation of Direct Rule, when My Son ruled directly for 1000 years in just the way you suggested – I even took Satan out of the way for that whole time – yet once again man failed, and so would have you.’

Throughout the ages, God has given mankind every conceivable opportunity to obey Him, and mankind has failed every time. This not only leaves the unrepentant sinner without any excuse, it also shows clearly, that God’s judgement on sin was justified and that He is just in punishing sin.

The believer today

So how does this affect us now? Once we recognise that God has dealt – and indeed, still is dealing – with mankind under various dispensations, then we will see why there are differences in the various parts of the Bible. But most importantly, if we think it through properly, we will understand that we must focus on the way God has decided to deal with us.

In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul gives a very important instruction, which, unfortunately, seems to have been missed by many believers: ‘Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.’ The New King James Version translates the first part of the verse like this: ‘Be diligent to present yourself approved unto God…’ This is more understandable. Paul is exhorting us to put our best effort into gaining God’s approval. The phrase ‘rightly dividing’ in the AV may be puzzling, and the NIV’s ‘correctly handling’ is not really what Paul said. The phrase ‘correctly apportioning’ is accurate. It means that we must identify those parts of the Bible that tell us how God wants us to walk before Him, and not try to put into practice things that belong to other dispensations.

Paul makes another important statement about the Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3:16,17: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration, and is profitable for doctrine (teaching), for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (so) that the man of God may be perfect, (that is, mature) throughly furnished unto every good work.’

Accepting that all Scripture is inspired of God and is profitable is one thing, but if we are to walk faithfully, it must also be recognised that not all Scripture is about us in particular. We will only introduce confusion and fail to please our Master if we do not focus on the Scriptures written especially to us. These are the epistles of Paul written after the end of Acts that were listed earlier.

Two simple ways of applying the principle of right division to the Bible are firstly, to decide if the passage you are reading is dealing with doctrine or practice. Basic doctrines such as redemption by blood, justification, etc. apply to us all in every dispensation.

Secondly, if the passage is speaking about practice, that is, how we are to walk as believers, then it may not apply to ourselves. This is where we must ‘rightly divide’ the Scriptures, or as Paul says in Philippians 1:10, we must ‘test the things that are different and approve the more excellent thing (margin).’

What makes the principle of rightly dividing the Word of Truth so important? Simply this: it is the rule that God will use in deciding whether we stand before Him as unashamed workers or not.

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