Understanding the Biblical usage of terms such as dispensation, covenant, and kingdom of God can go a long way in helping is recognize what God’s big picture is, and how He intends to fill in the details. Let’s take a look at some definitions and explanations of these terms and how they are related.
From the Latin dispensatio, translated from the Greek economia, the term generally references an administration, an economy, or a stewardship. There are three readily identifiable references to administrations in Scripture: (1) an administration suitable to the fullness of the times (Eph 1:10), which seems a reference to the kingdom summation (2) the administration of the mystery (the church) (Eph 3:9), and (3) there is an indirect reference to the stewardship model in Hebrews 3:1-5, indicating that the Law of Moses was a stewardship or dispensation. It is on this basis that it is generally concluded that there is an administration of law, grace, and kingdom. With those three administrations being understood, we can also recognize that there is (at least one) a pre-law administration (before the giving of the Law at Sinai), thus it is not inappropriate to conclude that there are at least four administrations or dispensations (pre-law, law, church, and kingdom). Elsewhere Paul refers to “The administration of God which is by faith” (1 Tim1:4), indicating that there is a continuous overlapping of an administration of salvation or redemption by faith. So it is difficult to pin down exactly how many dispensations there are, and what are their exact nature. But from the NT uses of oikonomia(n), in recognition of God’s doxological purpose in all things, a dispensation might be understood as: “a particularly distinctive economy or administration in and by which God demonstrates or expresses His own glory” (Cone, Prolegomena on Biblical Hermeneutics, 2nd Ed. (Ft. Worth, TX: TSP, 2012), 305.). Dispensations are not necessarily time bound, though we do see them in time, and they can even be seen as overlapping (cff. 1 Tim 1:4 and Eph 3:9). Luke 16 presents the concept of a stewardship as including four elements: (1) master or rich man, (2) steward or manager, (3) possessions or goods, (4) and house (implied, but addressed in Heb 3). Some draw the conclusion from that illustration that all administrations or economies or stewardships should bear each of the four characteristics. While it is certainly possible that the four characteristics might be apparent in some Biblical administrations (and may be true of all), it is not advisable to understand that all four must be present in order for there to be an administration, economy or stewardship.
In ascertaining the overarching purpose of these administrations, some view the kingdom as the theme of Scripture, and conclude that there are essentially four dispensations, others view redemption as the central theme, favoring seven dispensations, and this writer considers God’s doxological purpose to be the revealed theme (Prolegomena, 15) and thus perceives a number of additional administrative distinctions. Beginning with the four obvious ones, we might add eternity past and future, we might divide the pre-Law period, recognizing a unique administration before the Fall, another after the Fall up to the flood, and another from the flood to Abraham. Because of the distinctiveness of the era immediately preceding the Law (Abraham to Moses), we might view that also as a separate administration. We might see a transitional administration during Christ’s ministry up to the beginning of the church at pentecost, and we might also view the tribulation as distinct from the church age.
Within the framework of a literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic, it is fair to say that we might identify anywhere from four to twelve distinct administrations of God throughout the course of revealed history (including eternity past and future). It is also fair to say we cannot be absolutely certain regarding the exact number, because the Bible has not explicitly revealed the administrations in that level of detail.
The term, translated from the Hebrew berit, and the Greek diatheke, generally refers to a cutting, a treaty, or a covenant. While the difference between a promise or a simple commitment and a covenant is not readily quantifiable, it is exegetically better not to call something a covenant that is not referred to as a covenant. For example the first usage of the term is in God’s announcement of a covenant in Genesis 6:18. In Genesis 9 that covenant is established by God. The “Noahic” covenant is easily discernible as a covenant. Genesis 2:17, on the other hand, is more a declaration than covenant, as the context does not call it a covenant, and a questionable translation of Hosea 6:7 is the only evidence for God’s declaration as a covenant.
Genesis 12:2-3 provides a similar declaration, repeated and delineated in Genesis 15, in a passage specifically referenced as a covenant. Consequently, the promises that God makes to Abraham in Genesis 12-17 are considered to be related to the “Abrahamic” covenant. The descendant recipients of that covenant are through the line of Isaac (Gen 17:21), and further specified as through Jacob (Gen 25:23, 32:28, Ex 2:24, 6:3-5; 1 Chron 16:15-17).
Exodus 19:5-6 describes the formation of a conditional covenant with Israel, through Moses. Leviticus 26:42-45 distinguishes this from the earlier covenant(s) made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. This “Mosaic” covenant is also referred to as the “Old” covenant in Jeremiah 31
Numbers 25:10-13 records an unconditional covenant of peace and perpetual priesthood for Phinehas and his descendants.
Deuteronomy 29:1ff considers a covenant God made through Moses with Israel, and distinguished it from the earlier Mosaic covenant. Because this covenant dealt with an eternal restoration to and (spiritual) blessing in the land (29:5-6), some refer to it as the “Palestinian” covenant (because it dealt with the land sometimes referred to as Palestine), though this writer prefers to refer to it as the “Land” covenant.
2 Samuel 7 describes a covenant God makes (so called in Ps 89:3, 28, 34), regarding an eternal house and kingdom for David, who later refers to this as an “everlasting covenant” (2 Sam 23:5). This covenant is reiterated to Solomon and will be established through him (2 Chron 7:18), and described as a covenant of salt (2 Chron 13:5).
Isaiah 42:6 announces that Yahweh would appoint His Servant as “a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations.”
Isaiah 59:20-21 connects the coming of a Redeemer to a covenant He makes with Israel, involving the ministry of the Spirit in Israel. This is connected in context to the Anointed One coming and the making of an everlasting covenant with Israel (Is 61:1-8). This appears to be the “New” covenant announced in Jeremiah 31:31, which is contrasted to the Mosaic covenant, and which will be made with Israel and Judah.
The only one of these covenants that has to this point been fully fulfilled is the Mosaic Covenant, and the conditions were fulfilled literally with the original recipients to whom it was made, leading to a reasonable conclusion that God intends to keep the other covenants in literal fashion with the recipients to whom He promised them. That conclusion is supported by Jeremiah 33:20-22, which describes the fulfilling of His covenants with David and the Levites as certain as the day and night.
Kingdom of God
The kingdom of God and the kingdom of the heavens are interchangeable titles referring to the eternal, spiritual, sovereign rule of God come to earth in a physical manifestation as implied in Genesis 12:2-3 and 2 Samuel 7, and fulfilled in Revelation 20-21. Matthew uses primarily, though not exclusively, the phrase the kingdom of the heavens, in keeping with his emphasis of the Davidic aspect of the kingdom – that the kingdom to come to earth was indeed the heavenly kingdom, not some different rule or authority. The other Gospel writers use exclusively the phrase the kingdom of God, as they don’t seem to be emphasizing the Davidic covenant aspects to the same degree as does Matthew.
Regardless of which phrase is used, it is evident that the kingdom is not here in the church age, as believers are transferred to the kingdom (Col 1:13), and called to focus on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (Col 3:1-4), awaiting His revelation (and ours) in glory. The disciples asked the pre-ascendant Christ whether the (Davidic) kingdom was being restored to Israel at that time. Their anticipation was that the kingdom would be a physical kingdom for Israel, as promised to David. Jesus did not directly address their question, but implied that before the kingdom promises would be fulfilled, they would fulfill their commission of being His witnesses worldwide (Acts 1:8) – something that certainly was not completed within the chronology of the book of Acts. Further, the disciples would have anticipated, when told of Christ’s future return (Acts 1:11), that such a return would have kingdom implications. They continued to proclaim the message of the kingdom of God, but acknowledged that they were not in the kingdom at that time (e.g., acts 14:22). It is worth noting that Paul’s present-tense reference to the kingdom of God in Romans 14:17 includes no implication regarding geography (despite Ladd’s assertion that the passage means that the kingdom is here in the present tense). Paul’s final exhortations to Timothy also include statements of future anticipation of the kingdom with no implication of a local (physical) version of the kingdom in the church age. Finally, while some classical dispensationalists (e.g., Walvoord) have inferred from Matthew 13:11 a present tense mystery form of the kingdom, as an accommodation to an already not yet idea, neither Matthew or the other Gospel writers, in their references to the mysteries of the kingdom, indicate that these mysteries represent a present tense element of the kingdom on earth.
The disciples anticipated a literal fulfillment – a Davidic covenant, physical manifestation of the spiritual heavenly kingdom of God. And they gave no indication that view was insufficient (nor did Christ, in His interaction with them).
Of all the terms defined here, this is the only purely artificial, theological term. This writer understands the concept of God’s program as His ultimate purpose in all things (the doxological purpose) unfolding in actuality. Salvation (e.g, Ps 79:9, Eph 1) and His kingdom (e.g., Php 2:11, 1 Thes 2:12, Rev 1:6) both serve His doxological purpose, thus it is not advisable to understand either the plan of redemption nor the kingdom program as the central theme of Scripture, which provides us His revealed record of the unfolding of His program.
Once we have workable definitions of these terms and a reliable grounding of them in Scripture, we can begin to deduce thee relationship of one to the other. To sum up these relationships simply, we can say that God’s program is for His own purpose of expressing, demonstrating, and receiving glory, that He makes covenants and fulfills them literally with those to whom He makes them, in order to fulfill that program and achieve that purpose. By virtue of His being the Creator, He is the Sovereign, reigning over all. One significant component of the covenant promises is that His heavenly sovereign rule will have an earthly, physical manifestation at the summing up of all things. Finally, we observe that in the process of unfolding this program, He works within the framework of different and distinct administrations, stewardships, or economies, to intensify the magnitude of His glory. Thus we can see the dispensations, the covenants (which include the plan of salvation [see Gen 12:3b, the proto-gospel]), and His kingdom working in concert to fulfill His grand program – His own glory.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).