The Basics of Understanding the Bible

Matthew McGee

In order to understand the Bible, one must study dispensationally, that is, rightly divide the scriptures (2 Timothy 2:15). But what does it mean to study dispensationally or to rightly divide? On the most basic level: It is reading a Bible passage and asking, “Am I in the group of people being spoken to here?” That is, “Is this passage speaking to Christians?” Most commonly, we are taught that the entire Bible is written to us. But that is not entirely correct. The whole Bible is written for us, for our learning, but not all of it is addressed to us.

For example: When God gave the law to the people of Israel through Moses in about 1500 BC, one of the laws was to do no work on the Sabbath. The Sabbath lasts from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. When a man was found picking up sticks on the Sabbath in Numbers 15:32-36, God commanded the people of Israel to put him to death by stoning. Now does that mean if we see our neighbor mowing his grass on Saturday morning that he is committing a sin? Should we round up the whole neighborhood and kill him? Of course not. We must realize that the children of Israel were not Christians. We are not under the law of Moses like they were then. They lived in a different dispensation from us.

The word “dispensation” comes from the word “dispense”. So a dispensation is an administration (or dispensing) of God’s will over a certain period of time to a certain group of people. In other words, a dispensation is God’s way of dealing with a group of people during a particular time period. To properly understand a Bible passage, it is important to know both the time period to which it refers, and the group of people to which it applies. This way, you can determine which dispensation applies to each Biblical passage.

God has had different rules for different groups of people in different time periods. Not only may the rules be different, but the punishment for not keeping the rules may be different. The way God interacts with man may be different. Sometimes even the environment man lives in may be different.

Here is an easy example that illustrates the point: Capital punishment.

1. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, there was no capital punishment for murder. For that matter there was no sin at all for which to be punished. On top of that, there was no death at all, since the fall of man had not yet happened. 2. A few years after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, Cain, their son, murdered his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:8-15). But there was no capital punishment for Cain. God had not yet allowed it. Furthermore, God put a mark on Cain so that no one would kill him. 3. After the great flood, God instituted capital punishment for murder (Genesis 9:6). 4. And as just explained, when God instituted the law of Moses, capital punishment was administered for working on the Sabbath. Some other offenses would also result in death by stoning, such as the worship of idols, adultery, homosexual acts, and consulting spirit mediums (Leviticus 20).

In this simple example alone, we see four distinctly different sets of rules regarding capital punishment that applied in different dispensations.

Below is a summary of all of the dispensations:

Eternity Past – Even before God created the world, He always was, having no beginning or end.

1. Innocence – from the creation to the fall of man (the first sin) – Although the Bible does not say specifically, this dispensation probably did not last very long, perhaps only a few days. It ended about 4000 BC. This dispensation is covered in the scriptures from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 3:22.

2. Conscience – from the fall of man to the great flood – This dispensation lasted from about 4000 BC to about 2350 BC and is covered in the scriptures from Genesis 3:23 to Genesis 8:19. With very little instruction from God during this time, man acted according to his own conscience. The evil became so overwhelming, that this dispensation ended when God destroyed all but Noah and his family in the great flood.

3. Human government – from the great flood to the call of Abraham – This dispensation began in about 2350 BC and is still in effect. Although Abraham and his descendants went under the dispensation of promise around 2000 BC, as explained below, the remainder of mankind remained under the human government dispensation. It is covered in the scriptures from Genesis 8:20 to Genesis 11:32. God began allowing humans to govern themselves and to punish criminals.

4. Promise – from the call of Abraham to the giving of the law to Moses for the children of Israel – This dispensation applied only to Abraham and his descendants through his son, Isaac, and Isaac’s son, Jacob (Israel). It lasted from about 2000 BC to about 1500 BC is covered in the scriptures from Genesis 12:1 to Exodus 19:7. God promised Abraham that He would give land to Abraham’s seed and that all the nations of the world would be blessed by his seed. Although Israel went under the law described below around 1500 BC, the promise God made to Abraham is still in effect.

5. Law – from the giving of the law to Moses for the children of Israel to the calling of Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles (those not of Israel) – This dispensation applied only to Jacob’s descendants, Israel. It began about 1500 BC and lasted until it began to fade away about 37 AD and stopped in 70 AD. It will resume for seven years during the future tribulation after the dispensation of grace listed below. It is covered in the scriptures from Exodus 19:8 to Acts 8 and from Hebrews to Revelation. The book of Acts is a book of transition from law to grace. During the period covered by Acts 9 to 28, we see the grace dispensation coming in and the law dispensation fading away. God chose Israel as the apple of His eye. He gave Israel strict laws, harsh punishments, and prophecies of worldwide prominence in the future kingdom of their coming Messiah.

6. Grace – from the calling of Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, to the rapture of the church – We are now in this dispensation. It began in about 37 AD and will last until the future rapture. Hopefully it will be soon, but we do not know when the rapture will occur, except that it will occur before the seven-year tribulation. This dispensation of grace is covered in the scriptures in Paul’s letters from Romans to Philemon. When Israel refused to accept Jesus Christ, who had ascended to heaven, as their Messiah, God turned to the Gentiles to provoke Israel to jealousy (Romans 11:11).

7. Kingdom (or divine government) – from the return of Jesus Christ to the great white throne of judgment – This begins at the end of the seven-year tribulation mentioned above and lasts for 1000 years. During this time, Jesus Christ will reign as King in Jerusalem. This dispensation is covered in Revelation chapter 20. However, much more detail on this dispensation may be found in many prophecies in various other parts of the Bible. I have summarized many of these in my article, “The Millennial Kingdom Reign of Jesus Christ”.

Eternity Future – This dispensation begins at the end of the 1000 years mentioned above and lasts forever. It is covered in the scriptures in Revelation chapters 21-22.

Understanding the dispensations clears up all sorts of confusion. For example, many people cannot understand who Cain married. Obviously, he married one of his sisters, since there were no other women to marry. These people know that today, a man should not marry a near relative, or perhaps they are aware that the law given to Moses for Israel says not to marry near relatives. However, people often assume that this rule was always in effect. But in reality, Cain lived 2500 years before God instituted the statute against marrying a near relative. People who do not study dispensationally will find themselves mixing up the rules intended for different people in different dispensations. Thus, they have little chance of gaining a clear understanding of the scriptures and even God’s will for their own life.

Notice that sometimes dispensational time periods can overlap one another, with two different dispensations applying to two different groups of people. For example, the whole time that Israel was under the law (#5) dispensation, all of the Gentile nations were under the human government (#3) dispensation. A similar overlapping occurred from about 37 AD until 70 AD. During this time the Jews in Israel were still under the law (Acts 21:20-21) which ended when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD. But the Gentiles and Jews living outside of the land of Israel were already under grace (#6), the dispensation committed to Paul (Ephesians 3:2), the apostle of the Gentiles (Romans 11:13).

Now at this point I should explain something that has been a great source of confusion for most Christians (including myself in the past). Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:8 “Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel ….” How can Paul say that it is “my gospel”? Paul explained in Galatians 1:11-12 that he did not learn the gospel that he preached from any man, but rather, was taught it “… by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The ascended Lord Jesus Christ revealed the mystery of the gospel to Paul. The fact that it was a mystery means that no one knew it before. It had been a secret.

John the Baptist, Jesus, and the twelve apostles preached the gospel of the kingdom to the people of Israel only. This good news was that the kingdom, promised in the Old Testament by the prophets was ready to come in. It required the repentance of the entire nation of Israel. Hence, the gospel message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, and 10:7). Even after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the offer of the kingdom was still valid and available to Israel. Peter offered the kingdom to Israel again in Acts 3:19-21 if they would only repent as a nation. But they would not. So the kingdom was postponed, and God called Paul and made him “the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles ” (Romans 15:16) and “the apostle of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13). That makes Paul “our apostle“.

God gave Paul information that no one knew before. It was a new gospel, which Paul calls the gospel of grace or my gospel. The gospel of grace is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, freely gave His life as the perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins. He was crucified, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Look at the early parts of Acts. You will never see the twelve apostles talking about Jesus Christ’s redeeming blood or saying how He died for our sins. Oh, they mention His death and resurrection, but only as a great miracle to prove to Israel that He is alive and can return to be their King as the Old Testament prophesied. The twelve do not tell the Jews that Christ gave His life as a sacrifice, but rather, that they (the Jews) had murdered Him. The twelve never associate Christ’s death with forgiveness of sins. The fact that His death and forgiveness are related was still a mystery at that point. But it was later revealed to Paul. “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8). So, you see, God, knowing the future before He even created the world, had to keep the plan of our redemption (our gospel) a secret (a mystery), and He did not reveal the secret until after He had called forth Paul. Also see also Romans 16:25.

So God had a “kingdom” program for the nation of Israel. It is described in great detail in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the early chapters of Acts. After Israel refused to repent as a nation, God began His “grace” program for the Gentiles (with some Jews included).

The following example will illustrate one of the key differences in the two programs:

Jesus, talking to people in His earthly ministry, said in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Notice that you will only be forgiven if you first forgive others.

But Paul tells us the opposite in Ephesians 4:32, “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” If you are a believer, God has already forgiven you. Not of just some sins, but of all the sins we will ever commit (Colossians 2:13). Certainly, God wants Christians to forgive others, and we will receive rewards in heaven according to our works (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). But our salvation does not depend on the works at all (Romans 4:5).

Paul was not contradicting Jesus. After all, Paul received his message from our risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, Himself. Their messages are not contradictory because they were to different audiences in different dispensations. If a man tells his son to empty the garbage and his daughter to vacuum the floor, he is not contradicting himself. Jesus Christ, in his earthly ministry, was teaching Jews who were under the law of Moses. But later, Jesus Christ (through Paul) was teaching Christians (mostly non-Jew) who were not under the law of Moses, but under grace. We are still in the dispensation of grace today, which will continue until the rapture of the church. So our salvation comes by believing the gospel of grace that our Lord Jesus Christ revealed to our Apostle Paul.

I realize that this is a lot to consider, so I welcome questions. To study this further, see the articles below which further explain the differences between the kingdom program and the grace program:

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