God deals with man according to dispensations. In every age God has His own way of dealing with man. In one dispensation He deals with man one way. In another dispensation He deals with man another way. In one dispensation man is saved through one means. In another dispensation he is saved through another means. In one dispensation God has one kind of requirement for man’s conduct. In another dispensation He has another kind of requirement for man’s conduct. If we are not clear about the different dispensations, we will think that some statements in the Bible are confusing. But once we distinguish between the dispensations, the confusion will disappear.
Some expositors have divided history into seven dispensations. But according to the Bible itself, there should only be four dispensations. The first is the dispensation of the patriarchs. This dispensation began with Adam because Romans 5:14 clearly says, “From Adam until Moses.” Although there were many fine differences within this period, on the whole, it was “from Adam until Moses.” This is the first dispensation. The second is the dispensation of the law, which spans from Moses to Christ. But at which point in the history of Christ did this dispensation end? The Lord Jesus said that the law and the prophets ended with John (Matt. 11:13; Luke 16:16). He meant that this dispensation ended with John. The third dispensation is the dispensation of grace, which spans the time from the first coming of Christ to His second coming (Acts 3:20-21). Although the Lord still cares for the Jews during this period, the focus of His attention is on the Gentiles. We are in the dispensation of grace. The fourth dispensation is the kingdom, which spans the time from the second coming of Christ to the end of the kingdom age (Rev. 20).
In every dispensation we have to pay attention to man’s original position, his responsibilities, his failures, and God’s way of dealing with him. After we study these points carefully, it will be easy for us to solve all of the seemingly contradictory problems.
The Bible contains many topics, including: 1) creation, 2) man, 3) angels, 4) sin, 5) the satanic kingdom, 6) salvation, 7) repentance, 8) the person of Christ, 9) the work of Christ, 10) the life of Christ, 11) the Holy Spirit, 12) regeneration, 13) eternal life, 14) eternal security, 15) sanctification, 16) justification, 17) selection, 18) forgiveness, 19) righteousness, 20) freedom, 21) law, 22) inspiration, 23) revelation, 24) the Body of Christ, 25) ministers of the word, 26) God’s authority, 27) the second coming of Christ, 28) judgment, 29) the kingdom, 30) eternity, etc. At the beginning we can study one topic a year. After a while we can study two topics a year, and later, even four topics a year.
For example, the person of Christ is a big topic. How should we begin such a study? We can divide this topic according to the following subtopics: 1) He is God. As God, He has the aspect of being the Word as well as the aspect of being the Son of God. 2) He is man. This relates to how He became Jesus and how He expresses Himself as a man. 3) He is both God and man. He slept in the boat; this shows that He is a man. Yet He woke up to rebuke the wind and the waves; this shows that He is God. He attended the wedding feast; this shows that He is a man. But at the feast He changed water into wine; this shows that He is God. He asked for water from the Samaritan woman; this shows that He is a man. Yet He explained to her about the living water; this shows that He is God. 4) His history. This refers to His living on earth. 5) His position today, that is, His position after His ascension. 6) His future position, that is, His place in glory when He comes again.
We can also classify the work of Christ into different categories: 1) The relationship between His person and His work, 2) His substitution, 3) His satisfaction of God’s requirement for the redemption of sin, 4) His reconciliation of men to God, 5) His acceptance and receiving of men, 6) His priesthood, and 7) His mediatorial work.
The life of Christ can be classified under the following categories: 1) His birth, 2) His death, 3) His resurrection, 4) His ascension, and 5) His coming again. In speaking of His birth, we have to see what incarnation is. The crystallized view of His incarnation is that everything abstract and divine has become concrete and human. What is God’s patience? We do not know what it is, and we cannot know what it is. But the Lord Jesus has come. This is not only the Word becoming flesh, but Patience becoming flesh. The abstract and invisible Patience has now become tangible. The principle of incarnation is the principle of Love becoming flesh, Holiness becoming flesh, Joy, Obedience, etc. becoming flesh. In other words, what was intangible as God’s virtues have now become tangible. When God became a man, the abstract became tangible. Jesus is the standard man that God is after. We cannot come up to God’s standard. This is the reason we cannot draw near to God. A veil was present, and the more beautiful the veil looked, the harder it was for man to enter in. But thank God that death has come in. What is the meaning of death? On the one hand, it means redemption; and on the other hand, it means the termination of everything of the old creation. Death is the end of the old creation, and the death of Christ is the end of the whole creation. The veil was split from top to bottom; this is death. After this, there is resurrection, which is a new beginning. It is God’s creation. It is the new life, and this life is not bound by death. Death cannot hold this life or keep it from coming alive. It does not have that power. Resurrection means the passing away of death and trials; it is a vindication of His power. Then there is the ascension, which is victory over Satan positionally. Satan is under us. Christ’s ascension has put us on the same ground as Himself. We now enjoy His victory. The Lord’s coming again is the manifestation of the dawning of a new order of authority. Simply put, incarnation speaks of God’s standard. Death speaks of the termination of the old creation which has fallen short of God’s standard. Resurrection speaks of a new beginning, while ascension speaks of a new position. His coming again is His manifestation in glory. How precious are all these things in the eyes of God!
(How to Study the Bible, Chapter 5, by Watchman Nee)