Many people don’t like the expression “dispensational” Bible study, but the fact is that the word “dispensation” is a Biblical word. We read in Ephesians 1:10 of “the dispensation of the fullness of times” and in Ephesians 3:2 of “the dispensation of the grace of God.”
The Greek word that is translated “dispensation” is “oikonomia.” It consists of two different Greek words: “oikia” which means house or household and “nomos” which means law, arrangement, order, or management. Hence, “oikonomia” refers to “the law or arrangement of a household.” We get our English word “economy” from this Greek word. The word is also translated “stewardship” in the gospel of Luke in reference to the responsibility given to a house “steward” to take care of the management of his master’s household. The steward managed the affairs of the household as directed by the master of that household.
A dispensation, as used in the Bible, refers to a particular order or arrangement of God (i.e. a plan or purpose) which He established for a given group of people. For example, the apostle Paul, in Colossians 1:25, describes a “dispensation” or “stewardship” which was given to him by God for us (i.e. the church, the body of Christ—verse 24). This was a body of truth which revealed God’s plan and purpose for believers today. Though it was known in the mind of God before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), this dispensation of grace remained a mystery (or secret) until God revealed it to Paul, and then to us through Paul’s writings.
God also established other “dispensations” throughout the history of His dealings with mankind. These include God’s original plan and purpose for Adam and Eve when He placed them in the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:7-25), God’s plan and purpose for His chosen people, Israel, under the Mosaic law (Exo. 19:3-8), as well as many others. These dispensations are God’s divisions of the Bible, not man’s divisions. As we study God’s Word, we must “rightly divide” or distinguish between these different dispensations of God, so that we may know how God would have us worship, walk, and work for Him today.
There are many different views of Bible scholars on how many actual dispensations there are. Some prefer to see things in more general terms. They look at basic differences in God’s programs and come up with a fewer number of dispensations. Others prefer to be more specific about the differences in God’s programs and therefore come up with a larger number of dispensations. The specific number is not as important as the principle of “right division” of God’s Word.
For the purpose of this series of lessons, we will use the chart shown at the end of this chapter, which depicts ten different dispensations. We will use this chart as we examine and discuss the different plans and purposes of God revealed in His Word.
Please keep in mind that a chart such as this is limited in the amount of information it provides. This is especially true in regard to Biblical truth. The truths of God’s Word are much too deep to be depicted on a simple chart. The chart is only intended to be a tool to help us visualize the relationships and distinctions between the different dispensations.