The Word dispensation is found numerous times in the New Testament:
I Corinthians 9:17 For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.
Ephesians 1:10 That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:
Ephesians 3:2 If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
Colossians 1:25 Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;
In its simplest terms a dispensation in scripture is a MORAL PROBATIONARY PERIOD of time in which God tests mankind as a whole, or a specific people-group. While men are always saved by GRACE in any dispensation from Genesis to Revelation, the TEST OF OBEDIENCE will vary. Adam and Eve failed their test of obedience by eating the forbidden fruit and introducing sin to the whole human race, God intervening with GRACE by blood-sacrifices and the promised seed (Genesis 3:15,21). By contrast, some four thousand years later, we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life by BELIEVING IN THE FINISHED WORK OF CHRIST on the cross for the complete redemption of our souls. Salvation comes to us as a FREE GIFT, in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:14, Romans 6:23), our TEST OF OBEDIENCE revolves around faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross (Romans 10:16).
Two examples during the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ serve to demonstrate some of the more nuanced aspects of God’s probationary dealings with the nation of Israel:
The Constrained Commission
Anyone familiar with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-21), with its missions emphasis of the gospel to all the world, will be immediately struck by the contrast that Christ’s earlier commission of his disciples presents:
Matthew 10:5 These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:
Matthew 10:6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
See also all of Matthew 10:1-15. Little wonder that Peter, as late as Acts 10, was still learning to get comfortable with the concept of witnessing to a Gentile, an idea that most of us would take for granted. What happened? Between Matthew 10 and Matthew 28 Israel was failing its TEST OF OBEDIENCE and rejecting their king. The narrow and constrained emphasis in Matthew 10 with its restricted audience of the Jew only has now blossomed into the gospel to all the world (Matthew 28), which commission would later find its fullest expression in the ministry of the Apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
A WOMAN OF CANAAN
Our next example represents an on the ground example from a broader panorama that the constrained commission (Matthew 10) represented. A Canaanite woman who seeks deliverance for her daughter is initially refused by Christ himself on the basis that “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). By her determination and persistence the woman, a Gentile, finally gets what she came to Christ for. See Matthew 15:21-28.
What stands out, for the purpose of our discussion, is that Christ at this point in his ministry is still working from the constrained commission of Matthew 10. All of this would change after Israel flunks its final exams by crucifying Christ and rejecting the attempts of the Apostles, in the early part of the book of Acts (Acts chapters 1-7), to make them see the error of killing the rightful king of their nation.
An Open Bible
An acceptance and basic understanding of God’s dispensational dealings with man throughout the Bible will yield much light and understanding. Portions of Scripture that previously seemed contradictory to the tenor of the Bible as a whole, will be understood as harmonious when viewed in the Biblical context of dispensations.
Hurdles of Tradition
A careful study of the Bible will yield the truth that testaments, covenants and dispensations run concurrent and parallel to each other from Genesis to Revelation. They sometimes intersect with each other as well.
In spite of this, some are loathe to even consider a dispensational approach to Bible study. For those who would never let the Bible interfere with their doctrinal traditions, there is nothing left to say. But, for those who are tired of having to sweep large portions of scripture under the rug of man-made doctrinal traditions and hope that they don’t surface any time soon; I invite you to consider the dispensationalism of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible will start to open up to you in ways you never previously thought possible. What have you got to lose?