Five Outstanding Features of the Dispensation
We have read these somewhat rather isolated passages for reasons which will soon become apparent. The first one is in First Timothy chapter 1, part of verse 4. This is my subject for tonight. You notice at the end in the KJV it says, "godly edifying which is in faith." If you have Mr Darby's translation, it looks very different. We read of "God's dispensation which is in faith". God's dispensation which is in faith; that is our subject in this address.
The second scripture is in the Psalms. Psalm 110:1: "The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool."
The third Scripture is in John's gospel, chapter 7. We will read a slightly more extended passage here, verse 37 through 39: "In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." Then look particularly at verse 39: "But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive". Notice this please: "the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified."
And now read Matthew's gospel chapter 16 verse 15: ".whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will," notice the future tense, "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
The next scripture is in First Corinthians chapter 8, the end of verse 5: ". gods many, and lords many," this is the heathen world outside, "yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him."
And now First Thessalonians chapter 4, verse 15: "For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words."
Finally, Philippians 1, verse 21 "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
I wish to speak tonight about the five outstanding features of the present dispensation. Some of you will say, 'well, that's a very simple subject'. It is. Some of us who are younger have to have the truth restated, and restated regularly. So I want to take up the five points tonight for a rather special reason. We live in a day when it is customary to question practically everything. The enemy comes along to challenge these things "most surely believed amongst us". We don't have to be disturbed by that. Oftentimes, truth is learnt in the context of conflict. Indeed, as these truths come home to us in that context, they come home to us in increased power, and the reality of them not only sets our souls free in God's presence, but also furnishes us with substance both in our worship Godward and our testimony manward. So I want to linger a little while on these five outstanding points in the present dispensation.
Now even the very word dispensation is being called in question. Amazing, isn't it! Most of us in the meetings have learnt to thank God for the opening up to our hearts of the scriptures brought to us in dispensational teaching. The very word, dispensation, is a very useful one. For example, in the dispensation of the fulness of times, God will head up all things in Christ, the things in heaven and the things on earth (Ephesians 1:10). We are moving forward to the climax when God will gather out of all the previous dispensations that which will be for God's glory and for Christ's honour and glory. That is the next dispensation. I won't dwell on all the previous dispensations but I just want to remind you that we are living in "God's dispensation which is in faith" (1 Timothy 1:4 JND) and our subject tonight is to notice the five outstanding characteristics of that particular dispensation.
It is not the Lord Jesus in His pathway here that terminated at the cross. The work has been well done, and God has been glorified. Christ is now at the Father's right hand. He has been raised, He has been taken up, He has been carried up, and now He sits at the Father's right hand waiting till His foes be made the footstool of His feet. This scripture, you may have heard, is said to have the distinction of being the Old Testament Scripture most quoted in the New Testament, I think about 14 times, if my count is correct.
This fact that there is a Man in the glory of God, is the first and outstanding feature in this dispensation. His presence there is proof of the work well done. His presence there is the certain assurance that we shall be there also in due course - "the forerunner is for us entered" (Hebrews 6:20 ). His presence there means that all the promises of God in Him, yea and amen, are established. He is like a nail in a sure place (Isaiah 22:23 ) and everything hangs on that blessed Man at the Father's right hand. Many glories are connected with Him there: Lordship, Headship, Priesthood, Kingship, and He is the Son, One great enough to establish them and to hold them in the dignity of His own person. We have to lift our eyes heavenward to let our souls be filled with this wonderful fact that there is now a Man in the glory of God. 'Elementary', you say. Well, it is fundamental and take a good grip of it.
For such an important truth, the enemy comes along and he has a great deal to say, and sadly many believers accept what he says. Some of you are in contact with evangelicals and also read their literature. If this is your position, you will know now that there has been a tremendous shift in emphasis amongst Christians, particularly in recent years. The emphasis now is upon social involvement. We have to take account of the real situation in this world, so they say, socially, politically and economically. It is our business, say these Christians, that we must involve ourselves in regard to the affairs of men. It is not the man up there , it is the man down here they say, and in this way the move is from the Man in the glory to the man down here. There is a very quick answer to this one of course - 'do you believe in the truth as it is in Jesus?' Why, of course we do. What was His attitude, the Lord's attitude to these things? Did He become involved in politics, in the social problems of the day, slavery, the moral corruption of His day? Oh no! "My kingdom," He said, "is not of this world . then would my servants fight" (John 18:36 ), and we find our pattern in walking in the steps of Jesus. He is our perfect example. Stephen, in the seventh chapter of Acts, "looked up stedfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus." (Acts 7:55 ). This is the model for you and me and in the midst of enemy attacks and voices that would be different; we have to keep our eyes fixed and focussed on the blessed man at the Father's right hand. Point number one.
Now the second point is in the seventh chapter of John where we read concerning the Holy Spirit, and this is the second great fact in the present dispensation: there is a Divine Person upon earth. Now how important is this? If you open your Bible to Genesis chapter 1 you find the Spirit moving on the face of the waters. In the last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, the Spirit and the bride say, "Come". A Divine Person: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit came upon men; the Holy Spirit clothed Himself with men; but He was a visitor, and the distinctive feature of the present dispensation, now that the work has been done and Christ is glorified, is that the Holy Spirit has taken up His residence in the saints, permanently.
To put it in the language of Old Testament types, the oil has come down upon the blood. The importance of this in practical Christian living just cannot be overestimated. You nearly always find with young souls when they are converted, if they mean business with God, very shortly they make a study of the presence of the Holy Spirit - a very profitable study. The eighth chapter of Romans and the Epistles, John's gospel - the well of water springing up (4:14), the streams flowing out (7:38), the wonderful upper room ministry (ch. 14-17), the leading of our souls into all truth, the One who shows the things to come, the One who glorifies Christ (16:13,14). It just cannot be overestimated. The Holy Spirit is responsible for all subjective work in our souls from new birth onwards. One baptism, many "fillings", and we make a great mistake if we don't give a prominent place to this Divine person. Indeed it has sometimes been said that the presence of the Holy Spirit is the creed of brethren. Well if it was so, I hope it still is.
As usual, the enemy comes along and what does he say? Well, if you turn over the pages of church history, you will find that oftentimes this subject has gone overboard. Nearly always it is the reaction to a rather dead and cold and lifeless profession. Other Christians have seized on upon this truth and the subject has got out of proportion. The Montanists in the second century, the enthusiastic anabaptists who caused trouble to Martin Luther, the "shakers" amongst the Quakers and the Irvingites who were speaking in tongues just when the brethren began to break bread in 1830.
The modern pentecostal movement started in about 1901 and the neo-pentecostals in the 1960s, and you don't need to be very much in contact with Christians to know that there are those who are saying that this is the greatest moment since Pentecost. There are almost 35-40 million pentecostals in this world and the movement still grows. What is wrong with it? The theology of pentecostalism is experience, and I only need draw upon your acquaintance with it or of those who have made a deeper study of it. They all bear testimony to the fact that it is a 'feeling'. It is not a theology that is based upon the Word. I speak carefully. Some of us have had very precious contacts with pentecostals, and when you think of a man like Tertullian in the second century, the apologist, who was carried away by the movement, we do well to speak carefully.
The great danger with pentecostalism that it engages us with ourselves and not with Christ. How easy is it in making experience the important thing and thus we get a two-platform kind of Christian - those who have it and those who haven't. And we do well, dearly beloved brethren, to go on quietly with what we have always been taught. The Spirit makes everything of Christ and this is the line on which real progress is made. I haven't any doubt in publicly saying that pentecostalism will lead to the cramping of souls and the stunting of growth. I'm not attributing it all to the devil. There is a good deal of pent up emotions in it all, but it is below the divine standard.
Now the third truth of the present dispensation is the formation of the church. Matthew 16:18 "on this rock I will build my assembly". Notice it was future at that time. Pentecost, Acts 2, is the birthday of the church. God has always had a congregation in mind. In Exodus 12, where we get first mention of redemption, we get first mention of the congregation of the children of Israel in the Old Testament. Then we get the tabernacle, then the temple. In the wonderful teaching of these types, God deigned to vouchsafe His presence: the cloud filled both the tabernacle and the temple. But all the pictures that we get in Old Testament are types and all that comes to light in the company position in Israel is a pale picture of what has come into reality in the present church period. The truth of the house of God, of course, starts way back in Genesis 28, but when you get into the New Testament and the Spirit comes down, He fills not only the believer but also the place where they dwelt (see Acts 2:2,3). The House of God takes on a new character in this dispensation and it becomes the habitation of God through the Spirit. What a wonderful consideration!
Ah, but there is a still more wonderful thing. In the New Testament, you are introduced to the truth of the body of Christ. Acts 9:4 "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me" - the Lord Jesus in glory and His members upon earth; in Romans, members one of another; First Corinthians, a vessel for the manifestations of the Spirit. In Colossians, the members are here for the exhibition of the glories of the Head. In Ephesians we get the full truth of the Man and the woman, the assembly. Wonderful truth - there is in this world a company who are "bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh". We live in a most wonderful day in this world's long history. Does it really come home to our hearts? Does it? We have been in touch with brethren, some of us, many years, men who have opened out to us these truths. How our hearts have been charmed, delighted! And those truths are with us today - the wonderful truth of the Church: its formation, its function, its testimony, its destiny. This is one of the distinctive truths of the present dispensation.
But again the enemy comes along. This is good, says he, what can I do to spoil it? The ecumenical movement is one such suggestion. I suppose most of us today know there is a tremendous activity amongst the orthodox, and the Anglicans, and almost every sect in protestantism in order to unite the churches. They read the scriptures and they find in John 17 "that they may be one". They look at the Christians and they find there is a unity amongst Christians - the unity of the spirit - and there is a unity amongst Christians in the light of the Lord's near return. So the ecumenicals speak of the sin of division. It makes us feel pretty small doesn't it? The divisions amongst true saints of God. Have you ever asked yourself, why is there such a burning desire to help forward this movement? Have you ever thought of it? You know you find all sorts of people caught up in a great desire to get the churches together. Why? There are two reasons for this. One is found amongst real Christians. We have to understand that many dear Christians imagine that the kingdom of Christ is going to be brought in through the preaching of the gospel. They imagine that through the proclamation of God's word, that gospel will spread. I remember when first this came home to me; in a very learned company as I thought, I heard somebody speaking about the leaven spreading as a picture of the gospel spreading and I sat in my seat and cringed. (Leaven, if you study it carefully, is always spoken of in an evil sense, not a good sense.)
This is happening amongst very many Christians, and no doubt we can all see how division amongst the saints is a great hindrance in the proclamation of the gospel. So if there is such a campaign, let us drop all the barriers and let's go in for it. That is one side of it. But there is another side of it, rather more sinister. Many church members, unconverted, see the church as a great world power. Involvement in social, economic and political matters they see as the right portion for the church. And if they can only band all the churches together, what a power that will be in the political world. Let's come on, let's join up, and be they real Christians or unconverted, there is a great move today to get the churches together. What is wrong with it? I'll tell you what is wrong with it - simple, clear and plain: they look at churches but they don't look at Christians. The necessity of new birth is neglected in the ecumenical movement. You don't find any reference to the true position of the church. No. Sheep among wolves - that is our real position. "A chaste virgin" unto Christ in a corrupting world. Persecution is our place. "In the world ye shall have tribulation but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33 ).
There is no mention in the ecumenical movement of the true position of the church in testimony in this world. And what is our right position? To stand completely apart from it. "Come out of her, my people" (Revelation 18:4). We know that when the church is caught home to glory, then Laodicea will become Babylon and God will pour out his judgment upon it and "her smoke goes up to the ages of ages" (Revelation 19:3).
I give you another point as I close this section. I feel that it is entirely relevant to our own position today. Have you ever heard it cried out, "let all things be done by charity". We ought to be tolerant, so we are told. 1st Corinthians 16 verse 14 says, "let all things be done with charity". Correct; but in 1st Corinthians 16 verse 13 it says, "watch you. Stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong". We don't hear that side quite so frequently. Tolerance, love - yes - but faithfulness, standing by the scriptural manifestation of Christ, cost what it might, this is the divine order. It will bring suffering, but it is the pathway that He trod and God will support us in it.
Now the fourth point, a rather precious one, is the characteristic feature of the present dispensation in that we call upon God as Father. In the heathen world, gods many, lords many; in the Old Testament, the patriarchs called upon El Shaddai, God Almighty; Israel knew Him as Jehovah; but "to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things and we for Him and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things and we by Him" (1 Corinthians 8:6, JND).
We have the revelation of God as Father. Wonderful! "No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared him" (John 1:18 , JND). All the secrets of the Father's bosom have been made known. "In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2). We know the terminus, the home of love, and in the mean time, the Lord's words to Mary Magdalene in resurrection are, "Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend to my Father and your Father; and to my God and your God" (John 20:17). He takes us by the hand into the enjoyment of the revelation of the Father and not only so, connected with this there is life . That life has been manifested, the life which was with the Father. It was made known to the apostles. This opens up to us eternal life as the present enjoyed portion of the soul, and what sweetness that is.
In Old Testament types, we read of a land flowing with milk and honey. In the New Testament, it is described as "life more abundant". It is what the brethren used to call 'the region of satisfied desire' - wonderful! Would to God that we enter into it a little more and bring home the atmosphere of it to one another. It is the enjoyment of heaven before we get there.
Again the enemy comes along. What does he say this time? Oh, he says, how slow you are. Is there not only God our Father - the universal fatherhood of God; but also - the universal brotherhood of man. Correct, of course, creatorially, but I'm afraid the people, even clergy, who speak of this just don't see the distinction. "No man knoweth. the Father save the Son and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him" (Matthew 11:27 ). The Lord Jesus to His religious opponents said once, "Ye neither know me nor my Father" (John 8:19 ). "Ye are of your father, the devil" (John 8:44 ). This is one attack, only one, that is made upon this critical subject, but it is widely held and taught.
There is also another even more subtle attack which comes from some, and many dear Christians amongst them, who make a thrust at the very vitals of Christianity, denying that the relationship existing between Father and Son is from eternity. Is it possible to have the love of the relationship without the relationship? What said the Lord Jesus? "Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24 ). Had the bosom of the Father no inhabitant before time began? "The only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him" (John 1:18 ). "Though He were Son," He was that, "yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered" (Hebrews 5:8).
I don't know what scriptures have come home to you, but I hope you are very clear on this point. If you haven't got the Son from eternity, you haven't got the full revelation of the Father either, as revealed in the scripture of truth.
And now, the last point, the fifth characteristic of the present dispensation. This is the wonderful truth that we stand for, that the Lord Jesus can come 'at any moment'. We have a hope laid up in heaven (Colossians 1:5), "an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you" (1 Peter 1:4). Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20 ) and we are looking for Him to come - blessed hope - the "blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13 ).
He can come at any moment. Isn't it the very language of our hearts, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (Revelation 22:20 )? He says, "I come quickly". Gladly, we say, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus". However could this truth be doubted? Sadly, it is very easy to see why it is doubted. Those who won't accept dispensational teaching fail to accept the fundamental difference between the church and the Jew : the church is a heavenly company; the Jew is an earthly company. They also refuse the literal fulfilment of prophetic scriptures in the Old Testament . Those who see the distinctive position of the assembly know that He is coming for the assembly - "the bridegroom and the bride" - and without fear; love on His side, expectation on ours . We are waiting to go any moment.
But it is quite revealing if you have conversation in any depth with other Christians. You find what a mix-up there is: pre-millennialists, amillennialists, post-millennialists, tribulationalists, non-tribulationists - what a mix-up! But the scriptures are so clear and plain if we accept scripture - He is coming soon.
Now as I close, I feel that the presentation of these five points presents something of a challenge to us. What is our reaction going to be? There are at least three possibilities. One of them is like Laodicea - "rich and increased with goods and in need of nothing". Perhaps we say how favoured we are. We are well-off, even amongst brethren, but only because we have a God-given ability to believe what the scripture says. We are a minority group of course but, thank the Lord, we do have an outline of the truth. It is a wonderful thing to sleep at night with a mind at perfect peace with God. But there are other possibilities, for example, Laodicea, and how nauseous that is. What a terrible expression! And there is another reaction, even worse - "two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other, a publican. And the Pharisee prayed thus with himself, 'I thank thee that I am not as other men (Luke 18:11 ), rapacious, covetous, even as this publican'".
Do you think there might be a danger with us sometimes of thinking that we are any better than anybody else? Do you think so? Well, what strong words the Lord has to say to those who trust in themselves that they were righteous and despised others. May the Lord graciously preserve us from such a state. I am reminded of the words of the dear brother, Mr F B Hole, now with the Lord. He used to sometimes say, 'ceasing to give we cease to have , such is the law of love'. If we've got anything, and we've got a lot, we have also a responsibility to share it with others. That is why I venture to close with that verse in Philippians chapter 1, verse 21. The subject here is Christian experience. These are the words of the apostle Paul. He found himself in a situation not unlike our own. There was one group - "many walk," he said, "of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is the belly . who mind earthly things" (Philippians 3:18,19). They were obviously unconverted people with a name to live like Sardis (Revelation 3:1) but are dead. Then another group in Philippians: "All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's" (Philippians 2:21 ) - that is another possibility. Then in the midst of these, the apostle Paul stands out in Christian dignity and says, "for me to live is Christ". In the Old Testament there are a lot of Old Testament worthies, for example, Enoch and Noah; they walked with God. Then there was Abraham, the father of the faithful, and Moses, the greatest man in the Old Testament, and David, a man after God's own heart. But not one of them could say, "for me to live is Christ". Many prophets and wise men have desired to see the things that you and I have seen but didn't see them (Matthew 13:16; 1 Peter 1:10-12).
Positionally, John baptist, none greater than he, but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:11 ). And it is our possibility to say, "for me to live is Christ". We believe we can take up the very same language as the apostle Paul and in our very small measure, learn the blessedness of such a pathway. May the Lord graciously give every one of us, for God's glory and our never ending blessing, to say with Paul, "for me to live is Christ".