(One of many Bible articles on the "Wielding the Sword of the Spirit" web site at www.matthewmcgee.org)
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Dispensational Guidelines

Matthew McGee

When studying any Bible passage, it is always very important to understand the context of the passage. If we do not understand the context of a passage, we will often misunderstand the passage itself. One aspect of the context which is often overlooked is the dispensation. God has provided His Word in the Bible in several different dispensations. Every Bible passage is written in the context of one dispensation or another. Therefore, proper understanding of the different dispensations is needed in order to understand the context of each Bible passage. After becoming aware of this need, many Bible students will then ask about how they can determine which dispensation any particular Bible passage is under, so that they can more fully comprehend the context of the passage. These questions are the focus of several of the articles on this web site, which cover this subject in detail, including The Basics of Understanding the Bible, Israel's Kingdom Gospel and Our Grace Gospel, and The Seven Churches of Revelation. In addition to these articles, it may be helpful to have a concise list of key guidelines for dispensational study of the Bible. Therefore, some general guidelines for determining the dispensation of almost any Bible passage have been listed below along with a diagram which illustrates the timeline of the dispensations. The discussion following each of the guidelines has been kept brief intentionally, in order to provide a concise listing. For further detail, please refer to the articles listed above.

1. The grace dispensation began in about 37 AD when God called Paul and saved him in Acts 9.

From the time God gave Moses the law in Exodus to the calling of Paul in Acts 9, the context of the scriptures had been the dispensation of the law. The book of Acts chronicles the transition from one dispensation to another. With the calling of Paul, God began a new dispensation, the dispensation of grace, which still continues today. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:15-16, "... Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting." Thus we see that Paul was the "first" in this dispensation of grace and a "pattern" for us who have believed the gospel of grace since then.

2. The dispensation of the law was put on hold when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 AD.

The destruction of the temple made it totally impossible for Jews to keep the law of Moses. Therefore the transition from law to the grace dispensation was completed in 70 AD. As shown in the diagram, the dispensation of the law will resume when the seven-year tribulation begins, after the rapture of the church. The dispensation of the law will have its fulfillment in the 1000 year kingdom dispensation.

3. During the transition period from 37-70 AD God revealed a multitude of mysteries to Paul to give to the church of the grace dispensation which was and still is mainly Gentile. God did not reveal the multitude of mysteries to Paul all at once, but gradually over many years.

In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul wrote, "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh ...." Just a few verses earlier, Paul had written in 2 Corinthians 12:1, "It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord." In these two verses, Paul lets us know that he has already received from the Lord many revelations of many mysteries (or as some would prefer to say it: "many revelations of many aspects of the mystery"). He is also letting us know that he will receive many revelations of many mysteries in the future. These words in 2 Corinthians were written in about 57 AD, while Paul was in Macedonia on his third journey. This was while the events recorded in Acts 20:4-5 were taking place. Therefore we see that Jesus Christ was revealing mysteries to Paul throughout the 37-70 AD transition period from Paul's calling some 20 years earlier in Acts 9 and continuing for the next few years.

Naturally, as Paul was given more and more knowledge of God and His will for this grace dispensation, the corresponding doctrines were in turn revealed in Paul's letters. Also some of the deeper mysteries are not revealed until the latter part of Paul's ministry, not showing up until the books of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians around 61-63 AD. But the earlier letters of Paul are still teaching and instructions for the grace dispensation as well.

4. The ministry of the twelve apostles of the circumcision was limited to the people of Israel.

The only exception was Peter's trip to the house of Cornelius. The proselytes were Gentiles who had converted to the Jews' religion including circumcision and keeping the law of Moses. They were treated no differently from the Jews, as was the case with Nicolas in Acts 6:5. The Samaritans were basically Israelites whose bloodlines had been blended with some Gentiles. The Hellenists (referred to in the KJV as "Grecians") were Jews that had taken on the Greek culture and language. Still, the proselytes, Samaritans, and Hellenists were all under the dispensation of the law. So those at the house of Cornelius are the only non-proselyte Gentiles to which any of the twelve ever ministered their gospel of the kingdom. Even in that case, the gospel of the kingdom was edited for Gentile consumption, since no requirement of circumcision or keeping the law of Moses was included. Many years later, Peter wrote two letters to Jews who had been scattered out of Israel during the transition period. But these were not the Jews that had received the grace teaching of Paul. These were Jews who had been saved under the kingdom gospel under the teaching of the twelve.

5. Paul's grace ministry was to the Gentiles and the Jews living among them, outside of the land of Israel.

The Jews in Israel would not be receptive to Paul's teaching, and God knew this. In Acts 22, Paul recounts to the Jews in Jerusalem, his experience when he was in Jerusalem many years earlier in Acts 9. Acts 22:17-21 says, "And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance; And saw him (Jesus) saying unto me, Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me. And I said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee: And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him. And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles." Even after nearly 20 years, the Jews in the land of Israel still would not accept Paul's message which included the Gentiles in this way. The next verse says, "And they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live ..." (Acts 22:22).

6. Along with the great wealth of knowledge found in the book of Genesis, we also find the history of the dispensations which came before the law of Moses.

These dispensations are (as shown in the diagram above) innocence (Genesis 1-3), conscience (Genesis 3-8), human government (Genesis 9-11), and promise (Genesis 12-50).

7. Exodus-Malachi, Matthew-John, and Hebrews-Revelation are written to the nation of Israel for the dispensation of the law which will have its fulfillment in the kingdom.

Galatians 2:7-9 says, "... when they (the other apostles) saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me (Paul), as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen (Gentiles), and they unto the circumcision (Israel)."

8. Romans-Philemon are Paulís thirteen letters to the Gentiles for this present dispensation of grace.

Paul wrote in Romans 11:13, "For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office ...." Paul is our apostle. Thus he says in 2 Timothy 1:13 "Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus." Also he says in Philippians 3:17, "Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample."

9. Acts is the book of transition between the law and grace dispensations.

Therefore, special care must be taken when studying the book of Acts to recognize the dispensational context of each passage. In general, if Peter is speaking to Jews, it is for the kingdom dispensation, but if Paul is speaking to Gentiles, it is for the grace dispensation.

Certainly this is not an exhaustive list of all points of consideration, but these are the essential points that can help a student positively determine the dispensation of almost any Bible passage.

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