This material comes from Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Ariel Ministries, San Antonio, Texas
One of the most important things in understanding the Bible is rightly dividing the word of truth (Second Timothy 2:15 NJK). There are a number of ways we can divide the Bible to understand the different parts of the whole. One of the ways is by the dispensations contained in God’s Word. To understand what a dispensation is, we need to take a look at two Greek words. The first word is oikumenei from which we get our English word ecumenical. It means to manage, to regulate, to administer, or to plan. The second word is aion and it means age. It emphasizes the time element of the dispensation. So the term dispensation refers to a specific way by which God administers His program, His will, His rule and His authority. Each dispensation is an age, because each dispensation covers a period of time. Dispensations are periods of time in which God governs in a different way than He did previously.
There are seven dispensations described in the Bible: (1) the Dispensation of Innocence or Freedom (Genesis 1:28 to 3:5); (2) the Dispensation of Conscience or Self-Determination (Genesis 3:6 to 8:14), (3) the Dispensation of Civil Government (Genesis 8:15 to 11:32), (4) the Dispensation of Promise or Patriarchal Rule (Genesis 12:1 to Exodus 18:27), (5) the Dispensation of Torah (Exodus 19:1 to Acts 1:26), (6) the Dispensation of Grace (Acts 2:1 to Rev 19:21), and (7) the Dispensation of the Messianic or Millennial Kingdom (Isaiah 4:2-6, 11:1 to 12:6, 54:11-17, 60:1-22).
There are six specific elements involved in each dispensation. First, each dispensation has a key person to whom special revelation is given. Secondly, each dispensation provides a responsibility to man because each dispensation begins with new revelation that requires a human response. Thirdly, there is a specific test. Fourthly, following the test comes a specific failure. Fifthly, there is a judgment that brings the dispensation to an end. Sixthly, each dispensation has something that characterizes divine grace.
The first dispensation has two names: the Dispensation of Innocence or the Dispensation of Freedom. The two names are used to emphasize different aspect of this dispensation. The first name emphasizes the fact that Adam and Eve were innocent of any sin or sin-nature at this time. They were created holy, but their holiness had not yet been confirmed because they had not been tested as to whether they would stay true to the Word of God. The second name emphasizes their freedom from sin (they were not slaves to sin).
At the beginning of each dispensation there is one key person through whom God reveals the new features of that particular dispensation. For the first dispensation, the key person was Adam. Elohim revealed His will, divine economy, and divine administration through Adam.
Each dispensation also had a specific responsibility. During the Dispensation of Innocence or Freedom, man’s responsibility was to work the garden of Eden, to take care of it, and guard it.
Not only does each dispensation come with a responsibility, but each also comes with a test. The specific test here concerned the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was a test of obedience. They were commanded not to eat from that specific tree. They had complete control over the Garden and the right to eat of every other tree in the Garden, including the tree of life. So the test was very minimal.
There will also be a failure during this dispensation. If they had passed the test they would have become immortal. But, unfortunately, they failed the test. They ate of the very tree that God had forbidden them to eat from. So their sin permeated every part of their being, physical and spiritual. And their sin nature would be passed down to their children and the human race (Romans 5:12 and 19).
After the failure there is the judgment. In this case, the judgment was to be driven from the Garden and the curse upon the earth. Being driven from the Garden meant they were expelled to a place were they would no longer be able to eat from the tree of life. Instead of having an easy working relationship with the earth so that his labor was easy and light, Adam would now have to work the earth by the sweat of his brow in order to be able to eat. Work was no longer easy, it was toilsome. In addition, the curse meant that the earth would no longer be his friend, but his enemy. As Adam would try to produce food to eat from the earth, he would continually be at war with thorns and thistles.
In every dispensation there is also the display of God’s grace. In this case, ADONAI promised a Redeemer. In 3:15 He promised that a Messiah would someday come and do two things. First, He would defeat the Adversary, the deceiver, who brought about the fall of man, the curse, and the expulsion from the Garden through his temptation. And secondly, He would conquer physical death, which was the result of the Fall, by the resurrection.