In Scripture a dispensation is a set of operating conditions God has in force, often with a particular group of people. These conditions may last a set period of time; however, time is not really essential to the meaning.
"Dispensation" is translated from the Greek word oikonomia and comes across into English in the form of our word "economy". It may be seen then, that even though it may have a beginning and an end, a dispensation is related more to the ideas of "administration" and "management" than time.
Luke 16 reinforces this notion:
"There was a rich man whose manager (oikonomos) was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in...`Give an account of your management (oikonomia)' " Luke 16:1,2.
In this passage, oikonomia = "dispensation";
oikonomos = "one who dispenses".
The following are just some of the varying conditions (or dispensations) to be found in Scripture:
Innocence: Paradise, in which dwelt Adam & Eve
Law: most of the O.T.; Israel dominant
Acts ch.9-28: Israel decreasing, the Gentile increasing in dominance
After Acts 28: Jew & Gentile equal
If we compare different dispensations with each other we notice some similarities and some differences. In all dispensations we find that: God loves man, mankind falls short of God's standards, God offers mankind a way of meeting His standards, etc.
In contrast though, we find sometimes that: Jews and non-Jews may be treated differently in one dispensation and equally in another; believers in one dispensation may be required to offer up sacrifices whilst other dispensations do not require sacrificial offerings; the performing of miracles and speaking in tongues may play an integral part in one dispensation and yet be unimportant in another; and so on.
So, how does recognising dispensations affect our understanding of the Bible?.....
We can either endeavour to be faithful to the conditions of our current dispensation, or ignore the differences and try to live according to conditions which no longer exist. In the early church, many Gentile believers were falsely being directed to live under laws of Moses which were not applicable to those who had placed their faith in Christ.
At least one modern day equivalent is found in believers attempting to live by the conditions found in the book of Acts, and the epistles written during that time. We must remember though, that one of the conditions in force then was the working of fantastic miracles, including the raising from the dead (Acts 20:9-12) and being struck dead for lying (Acts 5:1-10). Can we honestly say that such events are common place among the church today? We don't think so.
Taking the conditions of one dispensation and applying them to another has been an unfortunate practice of believers for centuries. It is often suggested of the Bible that "every promise in the Book is mine". While it is certainly true that God keeps every promise He makes, we should remember that not every promise is made to us under the present dispensation. It is for this reason we say that …
all Scripture is FOR us,
but not all Scripture is ABOUT us.