In our first message in this series, we examined the issue of “What Is a Dispensation,” and came to the conclusion that a dispensation is the working out of a management. When we speak of dispensations of God, we are speaking of the ways God manages people, or His method of dealing with them.

In our next lesson, we examined all occurrences of the Greek word for “dispensation,” oikonomia, in the Greek New Testament. We discovered that there are four specific dispensations of God mentioned in the Bible. The first is the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times, which is a dispensation when times are fully ready for it, and is a reference to the coming kingdom of God. There are three more dispensations named, and all of them are descriptions of how God is dealing with all people on the earth today. We saw that the current dispensation is the Dispensation of Grace (see Ephesians 3:2,) the Dispensation of the Secret (see Ephesians 3:9,) and a Godly Dispensation which is in Faith (see I Timothy 1:4.) We discussed that this means that God in all His dealings with mankind works with them only in grace and only in secret, and our response to Him therefore must be only by faith. We know that in past times He has mixed His acts of grace with acts of judgment. In the past, He has worked openly and manifestly. In the past, men were allowed to believe after seeing the evidence. None of these things are true of His works with mankind today, however. Now, if God does not act in Grace, then He does not act at all. Now, God will only act in secret. Now, those who wish to have a relationship with Him can only do so by believing without seeing (John 20:29.)

In our third lesson, we discussed the two great turning points in the Bible. All are aware that the death and resurrection of Christ was a major event that changed everything. Yet few are aware that there was a second great turning point in the New Testament, when the commission of Mark 16 was fulfilled, and God began from then on to work on a different purpose.

But all these things bring us to an important consideration: when did the current dispensations of God begin? When did the Dispensation of Grace begin, when God started working only and exclusively in grace? When did He stop working openly, and start working only in secret? When did He demand that all men’s faith be by believing without seeing?

There are many possible answers to these questions that men have speculated. The standard answer is that all God’s work today started at the beginning of the book of Acts. I showed in my last message that this was not the case, however, as the commission of Mark 16 was started then, and completed sometime before Mark was written, and before Paul wrote the book of Colossians. But if not in Acts 2, then when? Was it in the middle of the book of Acts, at the conversion of Paul in Acts 9, or at the commissioning of Paul in Acts 13, or at Paul’s pronouncement at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:46-47? Or was it at Paul’s pronouncement to the Jewish leaders of Rome in Acts 28:28? This is a most important question, and must be settled in order for us to have a proper understanding of the current dispensation and what the Bible teaches about it.

Now if we accept that this dispensation is indeed the dispensation of grace, the dispensation of the secret, and the dispensation which is in faith, then when this dispensation began can be established by a simple test. In a dispensation of grace, God cannot act at any time at all in judgment. Thus as we travel through the history of the book of Acts, if God ever works in judgment in His dealings with anyone, then it is not a universal dispensation of grace, but only a limited one, which would be no different from His dispensing of grace in times past, when He mixed it with judgment. In a secret dispensation, God can only act in secret, so if ever we see Him acting openly, then we can confirm that His works were not yet secret. So, if we can find anywhere in the Bible God acting with any person in judgment, giving that person exactly what he deserves rather than a gift of grace, and if we can show God acting openly, so that His actions were not secret, then we have established that at that time God was not working exclusively through grace and in secret, so His current work with men had not yet begun.

The earliest proposed beginning for the dispensation of grace is Acts 2. I have already shown that God’s work changed after this point, but we might as well examine it to be sure. Could the dispensation of grace or of the secret have begun at this point? Are there any recorded instances of God acting in judgment rather than grace after Acts 2? Does God act openly and manifestly from this point on? The answer to both these questions is yes! First of all, the very actions of God in Acts 2 were open and manifest. Let us examine this passage together.

1. When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. 4. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

So God gave a sound from heaven as of a rushing, mighty wind in Acts 2:2. He gave a visible sign when divided tongues, as of fire, appeared and came to sit upon each of the one hundred and twenty in Acts 2:3. And in Acts 2:4, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit in a manifest way, and began to speak with tongues, a miraculous evidence. There is nothing secret about this event. There is nothing that lines up with God’s work today. The things set forth as God’s current dispensation in Ephesians 3 just did not apply here. This was not a secret dispensation.

So Acts 2 did not start the secret dispensation of God. Neither did it start the gracious dispensation of God. Look with me at Acts 5:1-5.

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things.

Is there any need for me to go on and record the event of his wife Sapphira’s death for the same cause? I think not! Here is as clear an example as we could ask for of God acting not in grace but in judgment. Was Ananias receiving undeserved favor when God struck him dead? Or was he receiving exactly what he deserved for the crime he had committed? I think the answer is obvious. So if God acts with even one person in judgment rather than grace, then God cannot be acting toward the entire world in a dispensation of grace. Acts 2 cannot be the beginning point of the dispensation of grace.

The next proposed beginning point for the dispensation of grace is Acts 9 with the conversion of Paul. Are there any recorded instances of God acting in judgment rather than in grace after the conversion of Paul in Acts 9? Does God work openly and manifestly after this point? The answer to both these questions is yes! First of all, once again Paul’s conversion was miraculous, open, and manifest. There was nothing secret about God’s actions here. Look with me at Acts 9.

1. Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2. and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3. As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
5. And he said, “Who are You, Lord?”
Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
6. So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?”
Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7. And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. 8. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

As we examine this passage, we cannot help but conclude that there is nothing secret about it. Saul did not by any means here believe without seeing. God did not hide His work from Saul so he could not prove that this was God doing this. In fact, Paul testified to this story many times as proof of why he had done what he did, and why his actions lined up with the will of God. (See Acts 22:6-8 and Acts 26:12-18.) A light from heaven and the voice of the Lord speaking is far from secret. This could not be how God’s secret dispensation began. You don’t start something by doing the exact opposite.

So Acts 9 did not start the secret administration of God. Neither did it start His gracious administration. Look with me at Acts 12:20-23.

Now Herod had been very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; but they came to him with one accord, and having made Blastus their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was supplied with food by the king’s country. So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. And the people kept shouting, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died.

Here again is as clear an example as we could ask for of God acting not in grace but in judgment. Was Herod receiving a loving gift of grace when God struck him dead? Or was he receiving the just punishment for a capital crime he had committed? I think the answer is obvious. So again, if God acts with even one person in judgment rather than grace, then God cannot be acting toward the entire world in a dispensation of grace. Acts 9 cannot be the beginning point of the dispensation of grace.

The next proposed beginning point for the dispensation of grace is Acts 13:2 with the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas. Once again, this very instance is contrary to God working in secret. Consider what we have recorded for us.

1. Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3. Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.

Here, the Holy Spirit speaks openly and directly to these five men who were prophets and teachers. This is not a secret work of God. This was an open and manifest thing, that they all knew came directly from the Holy Spirit. God was not ruling over these men in secret. This was not the beginning of the secret administration of God.

But what of the dispensation of grace? Are there any recorded instances of God acting in judgment rather than in grace after the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas is Acts 13:2? The answer again is yes. Look with me at Acts 13:6-11.

Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus. Who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Then Saul, who also is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? And now, indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time.” And immediately a dark mist fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand.

Here again is as clear an example as we could ask for of God acting not in grace but in judgment. Was Elymas receiving a gift of grace from God when he was struck blind? Or was he receiving a punishment from God for his stubborn opposition to the gospel? I think the answer is obvious. So again, if God acts with even one person in judgment rather than grace, then God cannot be acting toward the entire world in a dispensation of grace. Acts 13:2 cannot be the beginning point of the dispensation of grace.

The next proposed beginning point for the dispensation of grace is Acts 13:46 with the pronouncement of Paul to the synagogue leaders in Pisidian Antioch. Are there any recorded instances of God acting in judgment rather than in grace, or openly rather than secretly, after the pronouncement of Paul to the Jews at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:46? The answer to both these questions is yes. First of all, consider the event in Acts 14:8-10.

8. And in Lystra a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. 9. This man heard Paul speaking. Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10. said with a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet!” And he leaped and walked.

This was no hidden or secret act of God. God worked openly and manifestly here, healing this man through the word of His chosen representative, the apostle Paul. No secret dispensation had begun at Acts 13:46. God was acting as openly here as He ever had.

So Acts 13:46 did not start a secret dispensation of God. What about a gracious dispensation of God? First of all, let us consider Acts 23:2.

And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?” And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”

In this instance, Paul called off the stern judgment he pronounced from God against Ananias, just as Peter called off his harsh judgment against Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8:20 by his condition for repentance in Acts 8:22-23. But Paul still seems to think he has the power to call God’s judgment upon people, just as he did against Elymas!

This does not clearly illustrate the point, however, as God never actually carried out the threatened judgment. So let us look to Paul’s letters written during the latter part of Acts. Look with me at I Corinthians 11:29. Paul is speaking about those who partook of the bread and cup of the Lord improperly.

29. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.  30. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.

Here again is as clear an example as we could ask for of God acting not in grace but in judgment. Were the Corinthians receiving the free grace of God when he struck them with sickness and even death for their crime of dishonoring the bread and cup of the Lord? Or were they receiving a judgment from God for the crime of not reverencing Him, just as God struck the man dead who touched His Ark when the oxen stumbled as David led it back to Jerusalem? I think the answer is obvious. So again, if God acts with all these Corinthians in judgment rather than grace, then God cannot be acting toward the entire world in a dispensation of grace. Acts 13:46 cannot be the beginning point of the dispensation of grace.

What then of Acts 28:28? Are there any recorded instances of God acting toward anyone in judgment rather than grace after Acts 28:28? Are there open and obvious manifestations of God since that time? I would challenge anyone to find one, either recorded in the Scriptures or taking place in our world today. No, God has not acted openly or in judgment since the end of the book of Acts, not even once. Today, His works are solely secret, and solely through grace. As we saw, this was revealed in the book of Ephesians, a book written soon after Paul’s pronouncement of the authorization of the gospel to the nations in Acts 28:28. In fact, this book was written during Paul’s two-year stay in prison mentioned in Acts 28:30-31. This, then, is the only possible beginning point for God’s current dispensation of grace and secret dispensation left. None of the other proposed beginnings meet the criteria. If any wish to make any other proposals, I will gladly answer them. But these are the major ones out there today. And of these, only Acts 28:28 shows no sign of any demonstrable judgment of God after it. This, then, is the only one of the proposed dividing lines that could possibly fit the bill.

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