The Beginning and the End of Dispensations
February 16th, 1986 @ 8:15 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-16-86 8:15 a.m.
We are going to stand in a minute, and we are going to read the first six verses of the third chapter of Ephesians. After the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, then the Book of Acts, then the epistles, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians: right in the middle of your New Testament. And we welcome the great multitudes of you who share the hour on radio. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Beginning and the End of Dispensations. Now if you have it, Ephesians chapter 3, the first six verses, let us all stand and read it out loud together. Ephesians 3, the first six verses:
For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,
If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
How that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words,
Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)
Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy prophets and apostles by the Spirit;
That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel.
Now may we be seated? And I would to the Lord that we had an hour or two to look at this marvelous revelation from God. The Lord says we are to love Him with all our minds, and our hearts, and our souls [Matthew 22:37], and I pray this morning that we will come with our minds and open them in a sanctified expectation that God will reveal His marvelous truth to us.
Nine messages have I prepared on the theme “The Beginning and the End”: The Beginning and the End of the World; of Sorrows; of Death; of Satan; last Sunday, of Grace; next Lord’s Day, The Beginning and the End of Israel; then The Beginning and the End of the Church; then the last one, The Beginning and the End of the Golden Millennium; this day, The Beginning and the End of Dispensations: something I have never discussed or preached on before. Why, I do not know. It’s one of the great foundational understandings of the Word of God.
Dispensation: in this New Testament language the word for “house” is oikos, and the word for “law” is nomos. When you put them together oikonomos, it refers to the law of the house, the management of a household. Translated, it’s the word in the New Testament for “steward,” the one who is responsible for the management of a household; a household that is owned by a master, and he is a steward. The word is built into one other New Testament nomenclature: oikonomia, oikos nomos, oikonomia refers to the administration, the management of a household. You spell it in the English language “economy,” oikonomia in the New Testament word; “economy” in the English, the exact word spelled out in English. When you refer to the American economy, you refer to the use of all the resources of the American nation. Sometimes that oikonomia is translated “stewardship.” Then sometimes it is translated “dispensation.” And in the passage that we just read it is translated “dispensation.” That is a Latin word, dispensare, which means the dispensing, on the part of the manager of a household, of the things that belong to the master.
Now that word oikonomia, translated “dispensation,” can be viewed from two different angles. First, from the Scripture: Scripture looks upon this world in which we live as a household that belongs to God, and we are stewards responsible to the great Lord God for the management of this household. In God’s view, this world is an economy. In a man’s view, this world is a stewardship responsibility. And in an historical view, this world is divided into epochs and ages.
Another way of looking at that oikonomia, that “dispensation,” is from theology, from the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. In the teaching of the Holy Scriptures from a theological point of view, a dispensation, an oikonomia, is a period of time in which God governs the affairs of men in a certain way. And God changes His way of administering the affairs of His household. And those different administrations are called dispensations. An example of that is in your life: you manage a child, a baby, in a certain way; then as time passes you manage, you administer, a teenager in another way; then finally you will manage and have relationship with a young adult, your child now, in still another way. So it is with God: God manages His affairs with men in different ways in different periods; and that is called dispensations.
In my humble persuasion, it is inescapable to blind our eyes to the dispensations in the Bible. Yet if you had a poll of all the professors of theology in practically all the seminaries of the world, without exception almost, they would say, “We are not dispensationalists.” I say they are, whether they recognize it or not. So, let’s look at it; let’s just ask them.
When you come before the Lord, do you come before the Lord with an animal sacrifice? And he will say, “No, I don’t come before the Lord with an animal sacrifice. According to the ninth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, I come before the Lord with the blood of Jesus” [Hebrews 9:12-28]. Then you are a dispensationalist. There used to be a time when we came before God with a blood sacrifice [Leviticus 4:27-31]. Now it’s another administration, it’s another dispensation: we come before the Lord with the blood of Christ.
May I ask that same professor again? When you come before the Lord, what day do you assemble with the saints? “Well, I come before the Lord on Sunday.” Well, then, why is it that you don’t come before the Lord on a Sabbath day? And the answer is very plain: in Colossians chapter 2 we are interdicted from keeping a Sabbath day [Colossians 2:16], because a Sabbath day belongs to an old dispensation, and we are now partners in a new dispensation [Hebrews 9:12-28].
Let me ask again. Do you tell me that you eat bacon? And you eat pork? And you eat ham sandwiches? And you eat shrimp? And you eat lobster? And you eat catfish? According to the eleventh chapter of the Book of Leviticus, these are interdicted [Leviticus 11:7-11]. “Oh, but you don’t understand. I belong to another era. I belong to another dispensation. In that dispensation, they were interdicted, but in this dispensation God let down that sheet before Simon Peter—it was filled with all kinds of things interdicted in the old dispensation [Acts 10:10-14]. And look, we are commanded to eat anything that is clean, that is lawful; anything that is good to eat [Acts 10:15-16]. It’s a new dispensation.”
When December comes, do you light the eight candles of Hanukkah, or do you light Christmas lights? “Well, we being in this dispensation, we light Christmas lights.”
It is a difference between Judaism and Christianity, between an old dispensation and a new dispensation. You see that constantly in the Bible. For example, in the tenth chapter of the Book of Matthew: “These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and do not go into a city of Samaria: but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” [Matthew 10:5-6]. Yet in the last chapter, in the last verses of this same Gospel of Matthew, we are commanded to go into all the world to preach the gospel [Matthew 28:19-20]. There is a difference in dispensations. This one to which Jesus is speaking, they were alone to Israel [Matthew 10:5-6]. After the death of Christ and His resurrection, there is a new era, there is a new dispensation: we’re to go to the whole world [Matthew 28:19-20]. There’s a change in God’s government of His people; and so through these pages of the Bible.
As I look then at the Holy Scriptures, I can easily see changes in God’s government of His people, in God’s management of His household, in the way God directs the affairs of this world. For example, when I hold up my Bible I see here kainê diatheke: “a new dispensation, a new covenant, a new management, a new gospel, a new era”; and it is forcefully announced as from heaven. John 1:17 will say, “For the law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” There was an old dispensation, and there is a new dispensation. The apostle Paul will preach on Mars’ Hill, “The times of this ignorance of you Gentiles God overlooked, but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” [Acts 17:30]. Or as the marvelous beginning of the Book of Hebrews: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past to our fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son” [Hebrews 1:1-2]. There is a difference in administration. There is a difference in management. There is a difference in the way God is conducting the affairs of this world.
Now that leads me—and I don’t have time to go into these other dispensations, these eras in God’s management; I pick out two of them, and I have just a moment to speak of them. I speak of the first one, and I speak of the last one: the first dispensation and the last dispensation. The first dispensation is in the beautiful garden of Eden, in all of its pristine beauty and its face-to-face fellowship with Jehovah God [Genesis 2:8-15]. The Lord made the man for Himself. He couldn’t visit with oceans and mountains and planets and systems; they don’t talk back. They can’t love God, but the man that God created can. God made him in His image [Genesis 1:26-27], so he could understand His thoughts and respond to His grace and love and mercy. And in the beginning, in the first dispensation, the relationship of God with the man that He made was pure, and holy, and personal, and face to face. It was in every way beautiful. And God said, “I want you to replenish the earth; to build families and children who also will love the Lord, and be with Me as the children of a family in a household, in an oikonomia” [Genesis 1:28]. That was the first one. And just one thing our first parents had to do in that dispensation, in that oikonomia, in that household, just one thing: “Of all of these trees in the garden you may freely eat; just one is interdicted: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” [Genesis 2:16-17].
The end was catastrophic. The end was sad and tragic beyond any way that man could ever know, except as you come to the breaking up of your household and these whom you love so well are buried in the heart of the earth. It ended in death [Genesis 3:19].
But that first dispensation also ended in something else: it ended in a glorious promise: the Seed of the woman shall one day crush Satan’s head; the Seed of the woman [Genesis 3:15]. Through her, salvation, and grace, and restoration, and regeneration, and resurrection will come. That was the promise. And one other: God set on the east side of the garden of Eden a shrine, presided over by cherubim—always angelic symbols of the grace and mercy of God—and there the man was taught the way back to the Lord that sin had driven away, closed the door, hid His face [Genesis 3:22-24]. That’s the first dispensation.
Now the last one: there is coming a time, a day that lies before us, there is coming a time when that relationship between the man that God made and the Lord Jehovah Jesus will be restored. We shall see Him face to face. We shall walk in His presence. We shall live in His city. And we shall be fellow heirs of the kingdom of God [Ephesians 3:6]. All that we have lost in that first oikonomia we shall gain; it will be restored in that final dispensation, all of it [Romans 8:22-24]. And that is why there is in the Christian faith an undying and abounding hope, an optimism that is found nowhere else in this world.
The materialist faces nothing but a blank nothingness. A great astronomer, looking up into the sky, exclaimed, “The silence of the universe terrifies me!” [Blaise Pascal]. They don’t speak, they don’t answer, they don’t reply.” The materialist finds nothing but ultimate death in this world. The evolutionist has no ultimate hope. His doctrine is one of inevitable progress. But, as there is progress admitted, known, demonstrable, there is progress in science and in knowledge and in education, there is also progress in war, and bombs, and chemical destruction. There is no evidence that we ever evolve into a more beautiful or perfect society; and we will never evolve out of age and death. It is hopeless. It has no future.
The sociologist faces nothing but ultimate and final despair. The sociologist has to do with social relationships, all kinds of laws and all kinds of things that help our people live together in society. But with all of the passing of the years, crime, and violence, and murder, and bloodshed, and thievery are just as rampant among us as it was in the beginning. And the atheist is the most pitiful of all: he has nothing to face but ultimate oblivion. As the incomparable scientist and atheist Albert Einstein said, “I want it understood that I am an atheist. And when I die, there is to be no service; and my body is to be burned, and the ashes scattered to the wind.” In keeping with his last will and testament, when Albert Einstein died, they burned his body. There was no service, and they scattered his ashes to the wind because there’s no hope, there’s no life, there’s no promise, there’s no tomorrow.
That’s why it is wonderful to be a Christian. It is glorious to believe in the Lord Jesus. Beyond death and beyond the grave, and beyond the tragedies that we find in human history, repeated in every generation and in the story of every nation, above it all, as He said, “Lift up your heads, lift up your eyes, your redemption draweth nigh” [Luke 21:28], God having provided some better thing for us [Hebrews 11:40]: a beautiful world, Edenic, pristine and lovely, a perfect society, and God in Christ living in our midst; our fellowship with Him, face to face [Revelation 22:4].
I feel the throb of that hope in this beautiful poem:
O! golden Hereafter, thine ever bright rafter
Will shake in the thunder of a sanctified song;
And every swift angel proclaimed an evangel,
To summon God’s saints to the glorified throng.
A host without number, awakened from death’s slumber,
Who walk in white robes in the emerald shore;
The glory is o’er you, the throne is before you,
And weeping shall come to your spirits no more.
O! Jesus, our Master, command to beat faster
These weary life pulses that bring us to Thee,
Till, past the dark portal, we stand up immortal,
And sweep with hosannas the jasper lit sea.
Oh the chorus of fire, that will burst from God’s choir
Where the loud hallelujahs leap up from the soul,
Till the stars and the skies and the tears in our eyes
Shall tremble with joy in the music’s deep roll.
[“Chorus of Fire,” Robert Lowry]
That is Christian. That is the hope of those who find refuge in Him. And outside of that promise of re-creation, Edenic sublimity and beauty in our Lord, there is no hope. With what grace God hath reached down for us, and with what tenderness has Christ loved us, and with what assurance has He promised us, we who have found refuge in Him.
And that is our appeal to your heart: coming to the Lord in faith, in commitment, in love, in prayer, in devotion, in service: “Lord, bless Thou the work of my hands, the emotions of my heart, every relationship I sustain in life. And as the days come, and they draw nearer to a sweet face-to-face meeting with Thee, may every day be sweeter than the day before; not in despair, but in infinite hope and assurance, looking forward to the great rendezvous with our Lord and with His saints.” Come, and welcome. “Pastor, today I accept Jesus as my Savior in my heart; and I’m on the way.” “Pastor, this is my family, and all of us are coming in the fellowship of this precious church.” “Pastor, this is God’s day for me, and here I stand.” May angels attend you in the way as you come. In the balcony, down a stairway; in the throng on this lower floor, down one of these aisles: “I’m coming, pastor, I’ve made that decision in my heart for God; and here I am.” Do it now, while we stand and while we sing.