A “dispensation” refers to God’s way of administering, or dealing with mankind in any given period or epoch. The present period is described as “God’s dispensation which is in faith”. Without an understanding of these ways of God with mankind over the millennia, it is impossible to get a clear picture of the mind and will of God. It leads to the mixture of law and grace and to confusion in what constitutes Christian conduct and practice.
These periods have been broadly described as follows:
Innocence – Adam and Eve failed. This ended in judgment - the flame of the flashing sword, exclusion from Eden, extended childbirth and labour, thorns and briars and the earning of a livelihood by the sweat of the brow.
Conscience. Until the flood man was left to his own devices, with the conscience that he acquired after the fall. Failure meant that the earth became filled with violence and corruption and thus ended in judgment, the flood.
Government . God committed government into the hands of man. “Whoso sheddeth Man’s blood, by Man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God he hath made Man”. Genesis 9:6. Made in the image of God, man was to represent God here on earth. Again failure came in and mankind turned to idolatry. This resulted in God’s judgment again, this time seen at the tower of Babel and the confusion of language.
Promise. The idolatry was such that God chose to bring Abraham out of it and gave him and his seed a promise of an inheritance and that through him all nations would be blessed. This period closed (although the promises remain) with the destruction of Egypt, as a result of the persecution of the children of Israel, the seed of Abraham.
Law. This period began after the exodus from Egypt and the law given to Moses for Israel. Remember, it was given to one nation in one language. Man had failed in all of God’s previous dealings with him. Now God had formed a nation, marked them out for blessing, and gave them a written set of laws that demanded obedience - a perfect code of conduct for man on earth, a standard against which wrong conduct could be measured. God gave them a means of approach to himself, a formal priesthood and system of worship and offerings for sin, so that relationship with him could be maintained. They were to be “the head” [of the nations] and the nations “the tail” – Deuteronomy 28:13. Even with all this, despite the provision later of a king, and prophets – Israel had all the offices, prophet, priest and king - all failed. Judgment followed. The ten tribes were taken captive by the Assyrians; later Judah and Benjamin were taken to Babylon. Complete destruction of Jerusulam occurred in 70 A.D.
Grace. “The law and the prophets were until John…” Luke 16:16; “For the law was given by Moses: grace and truth subsists through Jesus Christ” - John 1:17. Salvation now is all of grace. Ours is the period when God’s revealed thoughts have been fully manifested [see Ephesians] and the Holy Spirit indwells persons to form the body and bride of Christ. It is characterized by the formation of a heavenly company who will reign with Christ in the coming kingdom. As always, failure has come in; judgment will precede the ushering in of the kingdom – see Revelation 4-19.
The Kingdom. The millennial reign of Christ is the seventh period – the day of Jesus Christ, when righteousness reigns. The prophets and the Psalms look on to this period when peace and joy will fill the earth. Israel will have their promises fulfilled and will enter into the good of the New Covenant; Jerusalem will become the centre on earth (the city of the Great King) and they will enjoy their sabbath, the seventh day. Despite all the advantages and blessing bestowed on mankind, even in this period there will be decline and again judgment at the end of it – see Revelation 20:7–10.
This then ushers in the day of God, or the eternal “day” when God shall be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28) and when “righteousness dwells” (rather than reigns, as it does in the kingdom) – see 2 Peter 3:13. The scripture in 1 Corinthians 15 tells us that Christ gives up the kingdom to the Father – verse 24, “Then the end, when he gives up the kingdom to him who is God and Father; when he shall have annulled all rule and all authority and power”. The kingdom then is an administration which Christ will have perfectly and gloriously completed, and himself gives back to God. No other has ever done this.