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Good reading comprehension means considering many layers of context: writer, genre, topic, language, culture, etc. This is especially important when reading the Bible, and it must be applied consistently. To neglect this approach, especially by ignoring genre and treating everything as allegory or symbolism, is to make Bible study less about finding out what God is telling us, and more about what we can make the Bible mean.

By using the principles of reading comprehension, Dispensationalism simply recognizes how God’s ways of dealing with people have gone through a series of stages or dispensations, two of which remain at this time. This is not to say that God could ever change, since the scriptures expressly say otherwise, and since anyone can change their ways of doing things without changing who they are. This is also not to say that need for faith in God has ever changed, just the conditions and security of what it means to be saved or considered righteous.

The Seven Dispensations

Although authors differ on the exact number and duration of the dispensations, we will use the common one which contains seven ages from the creation of Adam to the end of the Millennium. These ages are marked by a change with respect to sin and people’s responsibility, and can be seen as a series of tests by God. Each dispensation is listed below, with the condition of its end:


This dispensation begins with the creation of Adam and Eve as innocents. They had not yet disobeyed God and everything God created was very good. But as sentient beings, they had the capacity to either obey God or defy him. Some will say that God put the one restriction against eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to tempt them, but the scriptures clearly say that God tempts no one. Their potential for sin came from their sentience, their free will. So in theory they could have sinned by disobeying any of God’s commands, which included managing the earth and multiplying. But they failed to obey God in everything, and at the moment of that first sin innocence was lost. People could no longer enjoy direct communion with God, and physical death would be the fate of the first humans and all their offspring. The consequence of sin was mortality (death) for people and animals, and curses on the earth itself.


People had now acquired a conscience, an inner moral code showing the difference between good and evil. There was as yet no formal government, so each individual did whatever they chose. But as time progressed, humanity regressed— to the point that the Bible says But the Lord saw that the wickedness of mankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5). This brought on the Flood (deluge), which destroyed all but eight people, the only ones in the world who found favor with God.


After the Flood, God established a rudimentary form of government. Its purpose was to slow down the spread of evil and punish it. God gave nations the right of capital punishment, a right which he did not give to the individual. Yet even then people found a way to corrupt this and use collective power to defy God again. The Tower of Babel was to be their triumph over God’s authority, so he scrambled their language into many pieces in judgment. The different languages prevented people from communicating with each other, so they scattered (dispersed) over the earth and divided into ethnic groups.


In time, God then chose one man, Abram (later to be called Abraham), to establish a unique people group that would eventually produce the Messiah, the Savior. God made prophetic promises to Abram, some conditional and some not. But Abraham’s descendents through Isaac and then Jacob (later renamed Israel), had a habit of seeing God’s power and rejecting him anyway. Though he moved them to Egypt where they prospered for a time, they became enslaved and seemingly deserted by God.


After allowing Israel to be enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, God had Moses lead them out and gave them a written law to obey. No more were people left to be on their honor to obey God, no more would there be any excuses. They would now have specific written regulations to abide by. Sadly though, Israel repeatedly strayed from God and suffered repeated judgments, until finally God had to drive them out of their land. Only after several centuries were they allowed to return, and then only in very small numbers, a mere remnant. It was to this remnant that Jesus came, only to be conspired against and crucified. Thus the kingdom promised to Israel would be delayed.


It wasn’t just the people of Israel who demonstrated their complete failure to obey God no matter what the circumstances. So Jesus came to do for the whole world what we were unable to do for ourselves: be cleansed once and for all from sin, from separation from God. The Bible holds Law and Grace in opposition, meaning Grace is the absence of Law. Jesus took away the written code, which was against us, and nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:14). This was the way out of our hopeless condition: to trust in Jesus’ ability to keep the law, not our own ability. But even with this incredible demonstration of love and mercy from God, people still refuse to bow to him, to the point where now we can see the signs of impending worldwide judgment once again.

Although some authors treat the seven-year Tribulation as a separate dispensation, it is really the culmination of the Age of Grace. After rejecting God’s own Son, there is no more sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:26). But the unique thing about the Age of Grace is that individual believers are personally and permanently indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit. Therefore, in order for God to judge the unbelieving world, he must first remove Jesus’ Body, meaning everyone who belongs to him. At that point the prophetic timetable given to Daniel and John will finish its course, the last seven years of life without the direct rule of God on earth, ending in complete devastation.

Christ’s Rule

The last dispensation is known as The Millennium, meaning a thousand years featuring the kingdom of Israel on earth. Mortals will be once again in direct communication with God, who will rule the nations with a rod of iron; there will be zero tolerance for rebellion. People will again live many centuries with only sinners dying at younger than 100 years of age. The judgment-mangled earth will be restored and repopulated, and there will at last be real peace. But at the end of it people are tested a final time, and again they fail. Rebellion in the midst of Eden brings us full circle through human history, and God must again defeat the wicked.

Implications of Dispensationalism

Knowing all this, the Bible student can then avoid the misapplication of scripture. For example, the issue of security of salvation (whether it can be lost) hinges upon a proper understanding of the Age of Grace in which we now live. It is only the believer indwelt by the Holy Spirit who is guaranteed eternal life, due to the promise of God and the fact that we are new creations who belong to God and not to ourselves. Any commands to endure, if they are clearly on the issue of salvation and not service, are for those believers of other ages.

The Age of Grace, also called the Church Age, is referred to in scripture as a secret that has only now been revealed (Ephesians 3:2). It is an interruption of the prophetic timetable given to Daniel, so if we think of this age as a kind of parenthesis in prophecy, we will see a clear and continuous sequence. This effectively clears up a lot of other theories, such as Preterism, rejection of the pre-tribulation Rapture, or legalism for church-age believers.

if indeed you have heard of the stewardship [dispensation] of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that by revelation the divine secret was made known to me, as I wrote before briefly. When reading this, you will be able to understand my insight into this secret of Christ. Now this secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. I became a servant of this gospel according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the exercise of his power. To me, less than the least of all the saints this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ and to enlighten everyone about God’s secret plan— a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who has created all things. The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. (Eph 3:2-10)

In light of this, we should not try to mix teachings about this current age by going to the law of Moses. More about that in a separate chapter.

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