One must have a knowledge of “dispensational truth” to properly understand the Bible. God has dealt with men in different ways at various times and brought in fresh revelations of Himself and of His will. Dispensational truth teaches us to rightly distinguish these different ways and to discern their nature so that the outstanding features of each dispensation will be understood. We thus learn the true character of our calling and of our particular dispensation.
The prominent feature of the previous dispensation was Israel, God’s chosen earthly people. Our present dispensation began at Pentecost (50 days after Christ’s resurrection) and is marked by completely different features: the church not Israel is prominent in God’s thoughts.
We do not mean the Jews when we speak of Israel. We mean what that nation was in God’s original plan for them. In like manner, by the Church, we do not mean any building or denomination or group of professed believers banded together at some location but simply all those called out of the world to God by Himself during this dispensation of Christ’s rejection--- the Church according to God’s original design and thoughts. The Greek word translated “church” in the KJV simply means “called- out ones.” So by God’s calling and the indwelling Holy Spirit all believers are banded together into God’s Assembly or Church.
The word “church” (ecclesia: called-out ones) is used in three ways in Scripture: to denote the total number of Christians in any given place (1 Cor, 1:2, Col 4:15), the total number of Christians on the earth at any one time ( 1 Cor 10:32, 12:28, Eph 1:22) and the total number of Christians (called out and sealed by the Holy Spirit) between Pentecost and the Rapture--the Lord’s coming in the air (Eph 3:21, 5:25). We will generally use the word in its last (universal) usage although if we speak of the church as it exists on earth today, we obviously mean the previous usage where we saw the Church to be like an army which remains the same even though the units that compose it are changing in both number and personnel.
Having defined our terms, let’s observe some distinctions. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, was the last of a long line of prophets of the previous dispensation. God’s utterances under the old dispensation stopped with him. “The law and the prophets were until John; since that time, the kingdom of God is preached” (Lk.16:16).
The coming of Christ into the world was described by Zacharias as the coming of the dayspring (sunrising) from on high (Lk. 1:78). His appearance on earth proclaimed the dawn of a new day-not its actual beginning as yet. The Lord Jesus had a mission to fulfill in the midst of Israel so He needed to present Himself to them as their long-promised Messiah. Moreover, the foundations for blessing must be laid amid the sufferings of Calvary. But when all this was past, when the Lord Jesus had died, risen again, ascended to heaven and sent down the Holy Spirit, then the new day (dispensation) began; it was indeed new: it was completely different from all that had gone before.
The characteristic feature of the old dispensation was law whereas grace is the main feature of the new dispensation. The old dispensation began with the giving of the Law at Sinai. Under the Law, God demanded from men. God was to receive His due from men. The fact that man immediately and completely failed did not in any way relieve men of their new responsibilities. However, God told Moses that in mercy, He would withhold the threatened destruction in view of the coming of Christ (Ex. 33:19). The law, however continued to be a schoolmaster (Gal. 3:24) until Christ came.
In time, Christ came. A Power stronger than law was present in Him, as seen in the case of the sinful woman in John 8:1-11. Under the potent influence of grace, the hypocrites were convicted far more effectively than under law. Further, the sinner was forgiven; something that the law could not do. Thus, today, God gives and man receives. The new dispensation is thus marked by grace which “reigns through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ro. 5:21).
The old dispensation centered around Israel whereas the new is connected with the Church. The law was only given to Israel as God’s attention was focused on Israel as a nation. Their privileges were national, not individual although God always had His secret dealings with individuals and these dealings were more prominent in the days of the national failure. But at their beginning, God took them up nationally without reference to spiritual state of individuals: Israel’s standing before Him was on a national basis.
On the other hand, there is nothing national about the Church. Today, God visits all nations “to take out of them a people for His name” (Act 15:13-14). Those thus gathered out for His name comprise the Church. The Church is thus extra-national, not national or even international. It is completely outside of all national distinctions and totally independent of such. The Church is one flock (John 10:16, RV), one body (1Cor. 12:13), a spiritual house, a holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5) and a family comprising the children of God (1 John 2:12, 3:1).
Moreover, the Church comprises individuals who have personally been made right with God, are forgiven and are indwelt by the Holy Sprit. Only then do they become members of the body and “living stones” in the spiritual house.
A ritualistic worship was connected with Israel--a worship that only pictured the future workings of God. The Church’s privileges are connected with the eternal realities themselves--with substance rather then shadows. The Church’s worship does not consist of sacrificial offerings and symbolic ceremonies but of “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). The law (Judaism) had only a “shadow of good thing to come and not the very image of the things” (Heb. 10:1). But for us, the good things have come. Christ has established them (He 9:24, 10:12), the Holy Spirit has revealed them (1 Cor. 2:9-10) and the believer may gaze upon them with the eye of faith (2 Cor. 4:18).
Israel’s blessings were mainly earthly and material whereas the Church’s are heavenly and spiritual. Israel was instructed to thank God when they finally possessed their promised land by taking the first of all their crops and placing them in a basket before the Lord, with an acknowledgment of His goodness on their lips (Deut. 26:1-11). But the Christian’s approach to God is far from this materialistic way. Our heavenly inheritance is spoken of thus: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). How complete a contrast!
Israel’s destiny is to be the channel of blessing to all nations during the Lord’s future 1000-year reign (Isa. 60). The Church’s destiny is association with Christ in heaven (chapters 19 and 21 of Revelation, showing the Church as the Lamb’s wife).
Although the death of Christ marked the close of God’s dealings with Israel as a nation (they reached their climax at the cross) God nevertheless continued certain supplementary dealings with Israel until the death of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) and perhaps even to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Likewise, although our present dispensation (and the Church itself) began on the day of Pentecost, God gradually revealed His plans for His Church over many years, particularly through the Apostle Paul. Also, we should note that God’s ways with Israel have only ended for a time. In the future, all the glorious promises made to that favored nation will be fulfilled. Israel has simply been put on a siding while the Church occupies the main tracks. When the Church is transferred to heaven, Israel will again be brought out upon the main line of God’s dealings.
In Acts 7:38, Stephen speaks of “the church in the wilderness” and the headings of many Old Testament chapters in the KJV also speak of the church. Thus many believe that the Church existed in Old Testament times. Israel was the “assembly” in the wilderness just as the unruly mob of Diana’s worshipers were called an “assembly” in Acts 19:41 but these can in no way be connected to the Church of the New Testament. Further, the chapter headings in the KJV are not inspired, and thus to apply certain prophetic utterances to the Church is simply the mistaken views of well-meaning men. However, the mistake is a very serious one because this confusion of Israel with the Church has been used by men to bring Jewish principles and ceremonies into Christianity.
Men like Abraham, Moses and Elijah were thus never part of the Church: they were of the past dispensation. Morally, these men were giants while many of us believers are only pigmies. God will bless them because of their godliness but not as part of the Church. Even John the Baptist of whom none was greater, was, when viewed dispensationally, less then the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt, 11:11). He belonged to the dispensation-of-servitude, we to the dispensation-of-sonship (Gal, 4:1-7). While on earth, the Lord Jesus pronounced a new thing, a future work, of which these great men of old had no part. On Himself, the Rock, He said “I will build My Church” (Matt. 16:18). It was to be founded on the Son of the living God, not on a mere prophet, no matter how great. This is our portion!
Israel was called to take possession of the Promised Land for God as a pledge that the whole earth belonged to Him even though Satan had usurped dominion over it. When they entered the Land, they crossed the Jordan as the people of “the Lord of all the earth” (Josh. 3:11-13). Further, their calling was to preserve in the world the people “of whom as concerning the flesh, Christ came” (Rom. 9:4-5). Also God used Israel as the final proof of the utter depravity of man. Israel was separated from all the surrounding corruptions and privileged beyond all others and yet, as shown in the records of their own law (Rom. 3:9-18), they completely failed and proved in this way the hopelessly fallen condition of all. If, as Rom. 3:19 puts it, the law completely condemns even the specially treated and blessed nation of the Jews who were under the law, then every mouth is stopped and all the world is “guilty before God”.
On the other hand, God’s object and purpose with the Church is that He is to be expressed in it. It is Christ’s body (Eph. 1:23). We live and express ourselves in our physical bodies; so Christ lives and expresses Himself on earth through the Church. The Church also represents Him on earth during this time of His earthly rejection and absence. Satan has gotten rid of Christ personally from the earth but He is here as represented in His people. To touch the Church or any who belong to it, is to touch Him. Saul had been persecuting the believers and yet the Lord’s words to him were, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).
The Church is also God’s house, the only house He has on earth at the present time (1Tim. 3:15). God will not be turned out of His own world! Therefore, He dwells today in a house that no worldly king can burn to the ground or destroy.
God’s ultimate purpose is to have a bride for Christ (Eph. 5:25-27), a people who, although presently sharing His rejection as heavenly strangers, will eternally share His heavenly glory.
We have still other blessings which Israel never had. One of the greatest is the knowledge of God as Father, as fully revealed in Christ. “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18). Then we have the fact, not the promise, of accomplishment of redemption. The I.O.U. has been exchanged for the pure gold of the finished word of Christ. Further, the Holy Spirit now indwells believers (John 14:16, Acts 2:1-4). Although the Holy Spirit has always exerted His influence on earth, His abiding-presence here is a new thing. Also new is our relationship with God. We are no more servants but sons (Gal. 4:4-7).
Much more could be said but these four facts should show us something of the wealth of blessing that belongs to us as Christians. Let us thank God that we live on this side of the cross of Christ!