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The Divine Purpose: Understanding the Dispensations

Listening to S. Lewis Johnson’s “The Divine Purpose,” I’ve already learned a few more of the specifics of dispensationalism — evidence that after a year or so of study, I still have much to learn, and we can all still learn new things about God, man, and God’s purpose as expressed throughout human history.

I’ve only completed the first 8 out of 37 sessions, just getting started into study of dispensational theology.  The first sessions include an introduction to Covenant Theology, including the history of it and the three theological covenants, followed by a history of dispensational theology and an overview of the dispensations.

The basics include a list of the 7 dispensations and the associated failures and judgment that accompany each age.

Age of Innocence ==>  the fall, kicked out of the garden of Eden
Age of Conscience ==> the Flood
Age of Human Government   ==>  the scattering at the Tower of Babel
Age of Promise ==> sent down to Egypt for 400 years (situation with Jacob’s family by the end of Genesis)
Age of Law ==> Christ coming, atoning work on the cross to bring in the New Covenant
The Church Age ==> the apostasy that will come about, followed immediately by the rise of antiChrist and the Great Tribulation
Millennial Kingdom Age ==> The Gog and Magog event described in Revelation 20

The related biblical covenants, which will be covered in later sessions in this series:
Age of Innocence == Edenic Covenant
Age of Human Government == Noahic Covenant
Age of Promise == Abrahamic Covenant
Age of Law == Mosaic Covenant, also Land Covenant (Deuteronomy; a renewal of the Abrahamic Covenant)
Davidic Covenant, an expansion of the Abrahamic Covenant
Church Age == New Covenant

I knew most of the details regarding the dispensations, but was unclear concerning the specifics for the Age of Human Government and the Age of Promise.   I had realized that the added revelation given in each age wasn’t enough, therefore more help was given in each successive age.  But I tended to think of the early dispensations as being successive, adding to the previous, and didn’t know of the specific judgments that “ended” the age.  It makes sense, though, to point to the Tower of Babel for the “end” or “failure” of the Age of Human Government, and to reference the journey down to Egypt as the “end” of the Age of Promise.

As I think about each of the previous ages, one interesting point sticks out:  the early dispensations directly affected all humanity.  The Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel dealt directly with all of the humans that were around — and indirectly affect us as their descendants.  The next two dispensations, the Age of Promise and the Age of Law, dealt with a subset of humanity.  The sojourn to Egypt impacted only about 70 people, and their descendants during the next few hundred years.  The next dispensation, age of Law, impacted the whole nation of Israel — yet still a relatively small portion of the human population.  The next two dispensations — the current Church Age, and the future Kingdom Age — again affect the overall population.

Yet in each dispensation mankind is tested in reference to some task, with new assistance given that the previous dispensation lacked.  Just as Adam was the representative man in the Age of Innocence, so Abraham and his descendants to the fourth generation became the representatives for the Age of Promise, and the nation Israel representative during the Age of Law.

At first glance, the ending for the Age of Promise — the sojourn to Egypt — seems less like a judgment than the other end-points.  After all, the Bible does tell us that one reason for the 400 year delay was God’s mercy and long-suffering:  the iniquity of the Canaanites had not yet reached its full measure.  The event itself, the sojourn in Egypt, had been foretold to Abraham from the very outset, clearly as part of God’s overall plan.  Then again, the same can be said for other dispensation endings: the current Church age and the Kingdom age.

So here I further reflect on the lessons brought out during S. Lewis Johnson’s Genesis series (which I studied several months ago), and now I see the dispensational viewpoint of that era, straight from the pages of the lives of the patriarchs.  During that series SLJ frequently pointed out the characters’ shortcomings, such as Isaac’s focus on his enjoyment of certain foods and his determination to give the blessing to Esau when it had already been revealed that it was to go to Jacob (Gen. 25, verses 23 and 31-34).  Also Jacob’s behavior in Genesis 33-34:  his unfaithful dealings with Esau, and reneging on his vow to God to return to Bethel, which brought about the tragic story of Genesis 34 — which Jacob could have avoided since he should not have been at Shechem to begin with. Need anyone comment further on the sordid tale of Judah and his sons and daughter in law (Genesis 38)?  By that time the danger of staying in Canaan was clear, that Jacob’s family was in danger of assimilating with the Canaanites around them.  As S. Lewis Johnson pointed out (something I learned then), the reason for sending them to Egypt was that the Egyptians — though just as pagan as the Canaanites — didn’t take kindly to foreigners and kept themselves apart from others.  Egypt was necessary to preserve Jacob’s family as a separate entity, in a place where the Egyptians would keep them separate.  Still, that land that had been promised to Abraham, which they thought of as theirs as well, was land they had to leave, even if under relatively favorable conditions.  The stay in Egypt certainly became a judgment to the generations that followed, who experienced slavery and oppression from a Pharoah who did not know Joseph.

As a system of understanding God’s purposes throughout human history, dispensational theology comes closest to describing the truths contained in the Bible and relating how God has dealt with man throughout the ages.  The dispensations describe things from man’s viewpoint, and the biblical covenants look at God’s perspective.  With increased understanding of dispensational theology comes increase of faith and trust in our awesome, covenant-keeping God.  “The God of Abraham Praise!”

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