In the Bible, there are several stages in how God reveals himself to man. Adam was forbidden to eat from the tree in the garden of Eden, and after they did, they received the promise of the Savior. God called Abraham and promised all peoples would be blessed through his descendant. God revealed the law to the people of Israel during Moses’ time. Jesus brought God’s salvation to all who believe in Him. One day, Jesus will come back and we will be happy in God’s presence on the new earth for all eternity. In every stage, people get to understand a little bit more of who God is and how He works. And when Jesus came, they understood a lot more! The glory that Jesus brought, far exceeds anything experienced before (see 2 Corinthians 3).
Some people call these stages ‘dispensations’. That is based on an old translation (the King James Version), in which Paul talks about ‘the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me’ (Ephesians 3:2). They think Paul is writing about dispensation as a time period here, that is the time period started with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. However, that is a mistake. Newer translation use words like ‘the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me’. It refers to a responsibility the Lord has given to Paul, not to a specific time period.
The people who talk about dispensations rightly see that there are different periods in the Bible, and that people in older periods do not have the full understanding that people later have, especially after the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. They also rightly understand that God does not have the same commands for all people at all times. For example, we do not have a tree of which the fruit is forbidden to us; and we do not slaughter sheep in church to sacrifice to the Lord.
Fulfillment in Christ
Yet the importance of this is sometimes overemphasized, which leads to the following mistakes:
- Believing that the Old Testament is all about law, while the New Testament is all about grace. But believers in the Old Testament were saved by grace like we are (see Romans 4). And we are not without law, but under the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21).
- Believing that large parts of the Bible are not for us. As a consequence, they overemphasize the importance of Israel. Dispensationalists believe that many prophecies are for Israel, and therefore do not have meaning for the church; that many prophecies are about what will happen after Christ’s return, and therefore do not directly apply to us; even that parts of the gospels (e.g. Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7) do not apply to us because the Holy Spirit had not come yet. But we should trust that all of the Bible is God’s Word for us, that is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
- Believing that Old Testament believers had a limited experience of God. While it is true that they missed God’s full revelation in Jesus Christ, just reading the Psalms should convince us of the depths of faith and experience with God that Old Testament believers had.
It is important to understand how God has worked in history, and how He planned everything to find its fulfillment in Christ. However, the framework of dispensationalism hurts more than it helps to grow in that understanding.