Prof. Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (December 2010)
There is a progressive revelation of God and His plan for the ages in human history on earth since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden until the end of time when humanity will reach its final destination. Seven clear dispensations can be distinguished in the counsel of God, and they are characterised by increasing knowledge of good and evil. As the dispensations follow one another, greater clarity is obtained on the kingdom of Christ which will be revealed in all its glory and splendour at His second coming. At the same time, more detail is given on the opposing kingdom of darkness which will be revealed in all its evil depravity at the time of the coming of the Antichrist.
Although there are certain timeless principles which remain the same in all seven dispensations, e.g. God’s righteousness and His abhorrence of sin, there are also new principles which are introduced to every new dispensation. These differences are often so important that a custom which was highly regarded in one dispensation, e.g. circumcision in the Old Testament, is described as an act of betrayal of Christ during the subsequent dispensation. Paul said to the legalistic Galatians: “I say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing” (Gal. 5:2).
The seven dispensations in God’s plan of salvation for humanity are the following:
The very first dispensation in which Adam and Eve found themselves was that of innocence in Eden as they had no knowledge of good and evil. God had forbidden them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and warned that they would surely die should they eat of its fruit (Gen. 2:17). With great cunning Satan deceived Adam and Eve to rebel against God by disobeying Him (Gen. 3:1-5). They foolishly heeded Satan’s advice and yielded to his evil influence, thus becoming sinners. Not only did they become aware of the distinction between good and evil but they also became victims of evil. Spiritual death immediately set in, while they also physically became mortal beings. The original sin of our first parents gave rise to a fallen, sinful nature which was inherited by all their descendants (Rom. 5:12). This situation can only be changed by a spiritual rebirth. The dispensation of innocence ended with the Fall, leading to the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
For a long time after the Fall humanity had no laws and could only distinguish between good and evil by way of the voice of conscience. In spite of this innate knowledge Cain preferred to sin (Gen. 4:7-8). Various other people pursued righteousness in accordance with their inner convictions and whatever personal revelations God gave them. Some of them, like Abel, Enoch, and Noah, became preachers of righteousness. At times during this dispensation evil was so intense and pervasive that God’s anger was kindled against humankind. During the Flood all but eight people were destroyed.
After the Flood God concluded a covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:1-9) and subsequently held the leaders of family groups responsible for their decisions and the spiritual wellbeing of their followers. According to Romans 13:1 these authorities, or human governments, were instituted by God. Genesis 10 contains a list of Noah’s descendants through Shem, Ham and Japheth, who all became heads of extended families which later developed into distinct peoples or nations. When these leaders became involved with idolatry, the whole group followed suit. Abraham was also a patriarch with a large following, but he believed in the Lord and taught his followers to do the same. The consolidation of human governments gave rise to the establishment of the Babylonian world empire which constituted an extreme form of rebellion against the kingdom of God. It formed the basis for apostate government and world empires that followed, but also offered the possibility for the establishment of God-fearing governments.
With the introduction of the dispensation of the law a much clearer distinction was made between good and evil. Not only in the Ten Commandments, but through a great number of other laws and decrees, God defined righteousness and sin. In this way Israel became better acquainted with God’s kingdom and the kingdom of Satan. In spite of all the serious warnings they repeatedly worshipped the gods of the heathen nations around them because their inner motivation to serve the Lord was weak. They hardened their hearts and refused to repent to the Lord and to obey His commandments (Jer. 5:3; 23:14; 44:5).
With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the church age was ushered in. After the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Holy Spirit was poured out to regenerate people and to guide them into all truth. Because He convicts them of sin and righteousness, they have clearer discernment between good and evil. The New Testament reveals to us deeper knowledge of God. The devil and his works are also more extensively revealed (Col. 2:15). We know much more of Satan, his demons and how they go about to deceive people. Although we have enlightened eyes of the mind (Eph. 1:18) to understand much more about spiritual light and darkness than was the case during preceding dispensations, we still only know in part (1 Cor. 13:9). However, since the divine agape love is the guiding principle of our lives the Holy Spirit enables us to be rooted and grounded in love, to comprehend with all the saints what the width, length and depth of Christ’s love is, so we may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19). The Holy Spirit imparts the heavenly life of Christ to us. We should decrease so that Christ can increase in our lives (John 3:30).
When the one who withholds – i.e. the true church indwelt by the Holy Spirit – has been taken out of the way during the rapture, the Antichrist will be revealed (2 Thess. 2:6-12). He will be globally accepted as spiritual and political leader (Rev. 13:3-8). Strong delusion will prevail on earth and the masses will blindly follow and worship the Antichrist. Evil will develop to its fullest extent and there will be no limits to blasphemous and sinful conduct (Rev. 12:12; 13:4). Satan will be worshipped as the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4). In contradiction to this situation, the true church that will have been removed by way of the rapture will receive glorified resurrection bodies and will fully know all goodness. They will see Jesus Christ face to face and will never again be separated from Him (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
During the Millennium the true believers will rule with Christ in His kingdom (Rev. 5:10; 20:6). They will have glorified, immortal bodies, fullness of joy and perfect knowledge of God. There will be no more pain, suffering, death or tears. During that time the spiritually restored Israel will proclaim the praises of the Lord everywhere and the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9). Satan will be bound (Rev. 20:2-3) and the righteousness of the Lord will reign supreme everywhere on earth. Harmony and good order will also prevail in nature. This seventh dispensation will eventually be followed by the eternal order of the new heavens and the new earth.
We are presently in the church dispensation, which is the dispensation of grace. This dispensation was made possible by the atoning death of Jesus on the cross, and started on the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out to convict people of their sin, to regenerate them, fill them and guide them into all truth. Before the crucifixion of Christ the law still applied and people were commanded to observe it. But subsequent to these events people had to come to Christ for salvation and were instructed to walk in the Spirit if they wanted to prevail against sin and the flesh. The Lord Jesus fulfilled all the sacrifices and feasts of the Old Testament, thereby introducing a new dispensation.
It is imperative that we make a clear and complete transition to the dispensation of grace and avoid trying to mix the Old Testament law with the grace of Christ as that would jeopardise our salvation. Paul says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” We are saved only by faith based upon Christ’s completed work of grace on the cross. The Holy Spirit, not the law, convicts us of sin, righteousness and judgement. In the New Testament, sin is identified as the works of the sinful flesh, and includes everything that falls short of the righteousness of Christ. Our command is not to be conformed to the law but to the holiness of God as revealed to us by Jesus Christ.
Should we in any way try to supplement our salvation by Old Testament law observance, regardless of whether it is circumcision, Sabbath-keeping or any other law, we will thereby minimise the grace of Christ and even deny the basis of our salvation. Many of the Galatians followed this course and Paul warned against the serious consequences of their actions: “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). This warning refers to people who were already saved by grace, but subsequently nullified their salvation by their legalism.
We too, after our salvation, are not subjected to the law for the upholding of moral standards, but to the principles of God’s grace: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). The law renders people slaves of sin as it can only convict them of sin but cannot save them from their sins. But when the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, He leads us to the cross where we can obtain full salvation.
When we are born again we are endued with the new nature of Christ which is based upon the principles of God’s love and grace. When we completely surrender our lives to the Lord, the Holy Spirit fills our life and richly pours out the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:5). When we live in accordance with the demands of God’s love which has graciously been given to us, we have fulfilled the law: “For the commandments, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not covet, and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Rom. 13:9).
We are indeed on a higher level than the law since the Holy Spirit convicts us of sins which are not even mentioned in the law. He also promotes Christian virtues to which the law makes no reference, e.g. evangelisation, prayer, the filling of the Holy Spirit, as well as spiritual warfare by putting on the whole armour of God. The love of Christ which was given to us by grace, has its own nature and principles which teach and motivate us to live on a much higher level than was expected from people under the law: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13).
The love of Christ is the basic command or principle of life in the New Testament. Jesus said to His disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). From this commandment flow various other New Testament commands or instructions, including the Great Command to evangelise the entire world. The commandments of Christ should not be equated with the Old Testament law.
Why would people reduce this sublime life which is lived in the love of the Lord Jesus and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to the shadowy practices of the law? Among the Galatians there were believers who again started observing Old Testament Sabbaths and sabbatical years. Paul said to them: “Now after you have known God… how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have laboured for you in vain” (Gal. 4:9-11).
How can we revert to the shadows of the law if we have its complete fulfilment in the New Testament? Nevertheless, in the early church there were Judaisers who went around and proclaimed that salvation in the Name of Jesus was not enough – believers also had to observe the Law of Moses to obtain salvation. Shortly after Paul and Barnabas were commissioned in Acts 13 to evangelise the Gentiles, Judaisers endeavoured to yoke these converts together under the law. This matter also became a serious dispute among the disciples and, according to Acts 15, gave rise to the first meeting of the early church’s synod in Jerusalem. The decision taken by this council was that the Gentiles were not under the law as the Lord purifies their hearts by faith through His grace (Acts 15:8-11). The Gentiles were never under the law – neither before nor after their salvation.
Only the people of Israel were under the law as, for many centuries they brought sacrifices, all of which were fulfilled by the slaying of Christ as the Lamb of God. The Messiah did for them what the law could not accomplish, i.e. to deliver them from their sin (cf. Matt. 1:21). The law kept them under guard and served as a tutor to bring them to Christ. After their salvation they no longer need a tutor since they are now guided by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:23-25).
It is of the utmost importance that we should stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, that we should strictly walk according to the principles of His divine love, and that we should refrain from putting ourselves in bondage to the law. We must not, in the church dispensation, try to live under the shadow of the law, thereby undermining the principles of Christ’s saving grace by trying to supplement them by laws.
We grieve the Holy Spirit when we infringe the high moral standards of our life in Christ. The solution to this problem is not to revert to the law, but to more intimately identify with Christ: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil its lusts” (Rom. 13:14). We should walk by the Spirit in the footsteps of Christ until He is fully formed in us – then He will also be to us the end of the law towards righteousness. When my heart has been filled with His love, I do not need outward laws to govern my relationship with God and with other people. He who truly loves has fulfilled the law.
Not only is the dispensation of grace undermined and rendered powerless by integrating it with the dispensation of the law, but there are also those who give a false character to it by integrating it with the future dispensation of God’s kingdom on earth. If the future dispensation of the kingdom – that is the millennial reign of Christ – is not clearly distinguished from the present church dispensation, it can give rise to serious theological confusion and also promote wrong expectations. When these two dispensations are merged they lead to a form of dominionism (kingdom-now theology) in which signs and wonders are pursued, as well as transformation meetings and manmade revivals aimed at taking control of the world. Many Christian leaders want to live as kings now and be able to wield great powers.
It is completely impossible to establish millennium-like conditions on earth right now. Only the Lord Jesus can save a remnant of Israel and the nations, have the devil bound in a pit, restore the throne of David, and ensure that peace and harmony prevail on earth. If we are prepared to suffer now and fulfil our ministry in the midst of great opposition, we will be worthy to rule with Christ in His kingdom which will soon be revealed (Rom. 8:17). We are not kings now who are ruling, but soldiers of the cross who are strangers and sojourners in a world which lies in the sway of the evil one.
However, it is not only deceived people who are intent on establishing a big and mighty kingdom on earth before the second coming of Christ – the devil also has similar plans. He knows very well that Christ will return to the earth as King of kings, destroy His enemies and found a worldwide kingdom of righteousness. At the present moment Satan uses all his power in various efforts to forestall this kingdom by offering an alternative kingdom to humanity. According to Revelation 6, the Antichrist will appear on the scene as a false prince of peace, conclude a covenant with all the false religions, systematically destroy all his enemies, and rule over a global kingdom of Satan.
According to the Bible these evil plans will indeed materialise, leading to a short but very distinct dispensation of the Antichrist’s rule on earth which will run its course between the church dispensation and the dawning of Christ’s kingdom. The true church is withholding the revelation of the Antichrist. Paul says, “He who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming” (2 Thess. 2:7-8). After the rapture there will be a seven year-long rule of the Antichrist on earth, which will last until the second coming of Christ when He will destroy this evil kingdom and establish His own kingdom of righteousness.
The plans and expectations of the kingdom-now theologians are dispensationally completely out of place. Through their actions they do not only erode the principles of the dispensation of grace but they are actually preparing the way for the alternate kingdom of the Antichrist. The ecumenical ties which they forge, the strong emphasis on signs and wonders, their interest in extra-Biblical revelations by false prophets, as well as denying the uniqueness and deity of the Lord Jesus, will also be used as building-blocks for the kingdom of the Antichrist. He will be such a crafty deceiver that very few people will be able to see through his obscured stratagem. John says that the whole world will follow him in amazement and also worship him as prince of peace and messiah (Rev. 13:3-4).
When the Antichrist establishes his kingdom on earth he will also make concerted efforts to discredit the saving grace of Christ by means of the law and also by adherence to kingdom theology. He will encourage orthodox Jews to live according to the law, to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and to again put their trust in animal sacrifices. In doing so they will explicitly reject the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross, thereby opening up the way towards accepting another (false) messiah. The Antichrist will also use the third temple to declare himself in the Holy of holies to be God and king (2 Thess. 2:4). Israel as well as the nations will be deceived to conclude a covenant with him.
The Antichrist will build a mighty kingdom on earth, based upon false peace and unity. He will only institute a military dictatorship in the middle of the tribulation period when revolt will occur against his kingdom, leading to an attempt against his life. At that time he will declare himself to be God. Israel and many of the Gentiles will only then realise that he is a false messiah, and consequently reject him. These actions will give rise to the large-scale persecution of Jews and Christians during a great tribulation as has never been on earth (Matt. 24:21).
Christ will return after the 3½ years of great tribulation, destroy the antichristian powers, bind the devil and institute His thousand-year reign of peace. That will be the seventh and last dispensation in God’s plan of salvation for humanity. At the end of that dispensation the final judgement will occur and a new heaven and new earth will be created. Then, the narrow way and the broad way will each reach its final destination – the one in the new Jerusalem and the other one in the lake of fire.
We are still in the dispensation of grace and can, by faith in Christ, be transferred from the broad way of sin to the narrow way of God’s righteousness. Did you come over from the darkness of sin to His marvellous light? This dispensation is racing to its end and we have little time left to settle our case with God. Soon, the Lord will come for His bridal congregation, after which the Antichrist will extend his power over a deceived world. During that time it will be much more difficult to become a Christian and to remain standing against the powers of darkness. “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near” (Isa. 55:6).