For purposes of completeness, I’d be remiss if I did not present the seven dispensations identified by classic dispensationalism:
- Innocence—Pre-fallen Man
- Conscience—From the fall to the flood
- Government—From the flood until the Abrahamic Covenant
- Promise—From Abraham until Moses
- Law—From the institution of Mosaic Law until Calvary
- Grace—From the cross until the Millennial Kingdom
- Millennial Kingdom—1000 year reign of Christ
The distinctive aspects of dispensationalism are not to be found in the dispensations, but in the dichotomy between Israel and the Church. Mathison1 summarizes (classic) dispensational ecclesiology into six propositions: 2
- God has distinct programs for Israel and the Church
- The Church does not fulfill promises made to Israel
- The church age is a mystery; no Old Testament prophets foresaw it.
- The present church age is an intercalation (parenthesis) where God has temporarily suspended his promise to Israel (because they did not accept Christ’s offer of a kingdom during his ministry)
- The church age began at Pentecost and will end at the rapture.
- The Church, as the body of Christ, consists only of those believers saved between Pentecost and the rapture. Therefore, it does not include Old Testament believers.
Regarding the church, dispensationalism views it as being unspoken of by the Old Testament prophets. One of the more interesting passages of scripture to look at, in order to get a dispensational perspective, is the 70 week prophesy of Daniel 9.
The seventy weeks (each week being taken as a week of years, or seven years—a point accepted by many Christians) consist of 69 weeks (483 years, although each year is 360 days— a Jewish lunar year) plus an all-important final week. The 483 years gets us from the time Artaxerxes sends Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2) to rebuild Jerusalem (the accepted starting point of the prophesy) up to Christ's ministry. There is not enough precision in the dates to make any exact statements, i.e., does it land us at Christ's birth or the start of His ministry?— but it certainly brings us to the apostolic period.
At the beginning of the prophesy, (Daniel 9:24), we are told of six things that will happen in the 70 weeks. The last is to anoint the Most Holy.
Very roughly, the interpretation of Daniel 9 is divided between those who view it as referring in its entirety to things that happen up to and shortly after Christ’s ministry, and those who view it as including events from both the first and second advents, with an unspecified gap in between. Dispensationalists are of the latter school, although not all “second advent” interpreters are dispensationalists.
The dispensational view is that after the 69 weeks, but before the 70th week, the Messiah will be cutoff and the temple destroyed (Daniel 9:26). The latter occurred in 70 AD when Titus invaded Jerusalem. Placing Christ’s crucifixion at no earlier than 29 A.D., then at least 41 years must pass between Christ’s death and the start of the 70th week.
The 70th week, according to dispensationalists, is the last seven years of history. The gap between the 69th and 70th weeks, as it turns out, is not 41 years, but thousands.
The long gap between the destruction of the temple and the onset of the 70th week is the present, parenthetical church age. It occurs as something of a surprise, and came about, so say dispensationalists, because of the Jew’s rejection of Christ.
God provides redemptive history for the gentiles (and some Jews) that accepted Christ. This is the present church age. During this time, He puts His dealings with the Jews in abeyance.
According to dispensationalists, the final week, as is well know to readers of the Left Behind series, is immediately preceded by the rapture (which gets the parenthetical church out the picture).
With the church out of the way, the events of the 70th week, now at least 2000 years following the end of the 69th week, and also known as the Tribulation, can unfold. This includes the arrival onto the scene of the antichrist. He makes a covenant with Israel for this final week (seven years) which he breaks midway through (Daniel 9:27). Upon breaking the covenant, he puts a halt to temple sacrifice. The end of the 70th week coincides with the Second Coming and the onset of the (delayed) Millennial Kingdom.
The distinction between the church and Israel is clear in this view. First, the church is viewed as an intercalation between the 69th and 70th weeks. When the rapture results in the removal of the church, animal sacrifices are resumed (which would be an abomination to Christians) in the temple. This is clearly an indication that, after the interruption due to the church age, God once again is turning his focus back to the Jews.
Dispensationalists do not base their view of the distinction between Israel and the church entirely on the interpretation of Daniel 9. However, looking at that passage demonstrates both one aspect of the difference (the resumption of sacrifice 3, which is obviously not in God’s plan for the church) and how it is linked to premillennial eschatology, in particular pre-tribulational rapture premillennialism, also known, fittingly, as dispensational premillennialism.
It is also easy to see why dispensationalists are among the staunchest (but by no means the only) Christian supporters of modern Israel, and how dispensationalism got an incalculable boost in credibility with the founding of the modern Israeli state. No doubt dispensationalism will gain additional converts should Israel ever actually begin construction of a new temple.
1Dispensationalism (Rightly Dividing the People of God?), Keith A. Mathison, P&R Publishing, 1995.
2 Mathison actually listed seven points, I collapsed his final two into one (point 6).
3 Actually, I don't think dispensationalism demands that the resumption of scarifices cannot occur before the rapture, but only that they definitely will occur in a rebuilt temple following the removal of the church, and will be halted midway through the final week (seven years).