God's Different Dealings with Mankind by Charles Ozanne of the Open Bible Trust
The need to take note in Scripture of God's different dealings with men at different times and places and in particular the change recorded in Acts 28:17-31 with the resulting ministry of the Apostle Paul the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:1-9).
Who and How?
All those whose desire is to understand the Bible should take note of the fact that God's dealings with mankind have not followed a uniform pattern. Both His human agents (His stewards) and His mode of operation have changed from time to time. In all God's ways His ultimate aim has been the same - the restoration and salvation of mankind. But to achieve this end He has employed a number of strategies. These strategies we call dispensations (properly stewardships). If we are "to rightly divide the word of God" (KJV), or "correctly handle the word of truth" (NIV), with respect to dispensations, we need to ask the questions "Who?" and "How?". That is, "Who are His stewards at any particular time?" and "How is He acting?" or "What is His mode of operation?" For our purposes it is convenient to give pride of place to the human agents He has been pleased to use since the fall of Adam.
1. From Adam to Abraham.
During this long period of more than 2,000 years God was dealing with mankind as a whole. His stewards were those who trusted in Him, a tenuous line of families and individuals through whom His primitive revelation was passed down and proclaimed to those who would listen. Among these were Enoch, who was a prophet of impending judgment (Jude 14,15), and Noah who was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). This period was divided at the Flood, but the two halves were not significantly different. God's mode of operation after the Flood was much the same as before.
2. A new dispensation began with the call of Abraham.
From this point onwards God's stewards in the world were Abraham and his descendants, the nation of Israel. They were called to be God's messengers and to be a witness to all other nations, declaring here on earth God's glory. They remained God's stewards throughout the Old Testament and into the New.
To begin with His mode of operation was chiefly one of promise (to which faith or belief was all that was required), but after the Exodus His strategy changed to one of Law. The Law of Moses laid down in detail how every Jew should behave. Rewards were held out to all who obeyed and summary punishment to those who disobeyed. Later on He spoke to them through the prophets, at many times and in various ways (Hebrews 1:1). The prophets exposed the apostasy of the nation and spelt out the consequences of their disobedience. But they also expanded on God's wonderful promises, depicting the glorious age to come when they would all know the Lord from the least of them to the greatest (Jeremiah 31:34), and when the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).
With the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ, God spoke to them by His Son (Hebrews 1:2). It was however the same people as before, the descendants of Abraham, the nation of Israel. There was therefore no change of dispensation so far as God's stewards were concerned. The regime of Law also remained unchanged, but added to this was an urgent call to repent and the invitation to receive the Lord Jesus as their Messiah (the Christ). As we know, they declined the invitation and crucified their Messiah.
Many would say that they were given up at this juncture and that something entirely new began at Pentecost. But the book of Acts tells a different story. Beginning at Jerusalem, and in ever widening circles, the same gospel message was preached to the same stubborn people. During this period they were given a second chance to repent and to receive the Lord Jesus as their Messiah. This was in answer to His prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
However, soon after Pentecost, the Jerusalem mob confirmed their rejection by stoning the martyr Stephen. Even after the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius the message was still preached to the Jew first, for it was necessary that the Word of God should be spoken to them first (Acts 13:46). It was intended that the conversion of the Gentiles would have a boomerang effect on the Jews - that out of jealousy they would wish to be converted themselves (Romans 10:19; 11:13-14). But the majority of the Jews, and especially their leaders, though jealous and angry, still refused to believe.
The climax is reached in the last chapter of Acts when Paul addressed the Jewish leaders in Rome. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets (Acts 28:23). Some were convinced, but most, it seems, would not believe. This provoked Paul's final word to the Jewish nation, which he did in the chilling words from Isaiah 6, which Jesus Himself had quoted after being rejected by the Jewish leaders of His day (Matthew 13:14-15). "Go to this people and say, 'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.' For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them" (Acts 28:26-27).
3. The present dispensation
This ended, for the time being, the dispensation which had begun with the call of Abraham. The Jews ceased to be God's stewards and became instead Lo Ammi, Hebrew for "Not My (God's) People", in fulfilment of Hosea 1:9. Soon after something entirely new was revealed to the imprisoned Apostle Paul. It is called a mystery or revealed secret and is found especially in Ephesians and Colossians. This includes the following new features:
1) God has chosen a people to be blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).
2) These were chosen before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight (1:4).
3) This people has not only died with Christ (as in Romans), but has been raised and seated with Him in the heavenly realms (2:6).
4) The people addressed are specifically Gentiles who were once far away (without hope and without God in the world), but have now been brought near through the blood of Christ (2:11-13).
5) With believing Jews they now enjoy peace, that is harmony and union, the divisive and offensive Law having been abolished (2:14-15).
6) They are now created one new man in Christ (2:15) - that is, a new humanity in which the categories of Jew and Gentile no longer exist.
7) The result is that the Gentile Christians are heirs together (with Christian Israelites), members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus (3:6).
4. The future God's stewards are now the body of Christ, the Church of this interim period. Ultimately however the Jews will be restored, and a new, millennial dispensation of 1,000 years will commence with Israel, once again, as God's stewards in the world.