WAS JESUS CHRIST A DISPENSATIONALIST DURING HIS EARTHLY MINISTRY?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Dispensational Bible study has its critics—and that is no secret. Allegedly, we who “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) are “Bible choppers,” “church splitters,” “troublemakers,” among other names. Additionally, we are told, “I do not follow some man such as the Apostle Paul, I follow Jesus!” Immediately after stating thus, our opponents flee to Matthew through John, the Lord Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry (which they assume is Christianity for today), and proceed to denounce us as “heretics” for “taking away” from Jesus’ words. They have made some serious accusations against us, so do we have Biblically-based answers for them? In this, our special-edition 900th Bible Q&A article, we examine this matter in light of God’s Word. “For what saith the Scriptures?”
WHAT IS A “DISPENSATION?”
Before we look at Jesus’ earthly ministry, we should provide some basic background on dispensationalism. While much could be written, and much has been penned already (see our studies linked at the end of this article), suffice it here to say a “dispensation” in the Bible is “a specific set of information God gives to man for his faith and obedience during a particular time period or age.” It is the noun form of the verb “dispense” (to distribute, supply, deliver). The English word “dispensation” appears four times in the Authorized Version King James Bible (1 Corinthians 9:17; Ephesians 1:10; Ephesians 3:2; Colossians 1:25). Modern English versions eliminate most or all of these four references, replacing the word with “stewardship,” “commission,” “responsibility,” “job,” “administration,” “charge,” or some other weak interpretation.
Nevertheless, here are the verses as found in the King James Bible:
- 1 Corinthians 9:17: “For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.”
- Ephesians 1:10: “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:….”
- Ephesians 3:2: “If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:….”
- Colossians 1:25: “Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;….”
Now that there are 100 modern English versions that eliminate “dispensation” partially or entirely, the average Bible reader has been robbed of an important Bible term that English-speaking Christians had used for centuries. Whereas it could be argued 150 years ago “dispensational Bible study” has support from the Scriptures—for the very word “dispensation” appeared in the English Bible text!—those familiar only with modern English versions have a much harder time seeing dispensationalism as a Bible-based belief system because “dispensation” is no longer in their Bible!
As we see in the above verses, the Dispensation of the Grace of God was given to the Apostle Paul. The Lord Jesus Christ, post-resurrection and from Heaven’s glory, revealed to Paul some information He wanted Paul to pass on to us Gentiles (non-Jews). We dispensationalists believe all 66 Books of the Bible, Genesis to Revelation, are God’s inspired Word and words (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). Yet, here is something often overlooked: the Scriptures are a progressive revelation. Whatever God told man at the first may not what He tells man later on. That is, God reveals some information to people at one point on the Bible timeline while simultaneously withholding other information. What He wants humans to believe and do in one dispensation may differ from what He desires they believe and do in another dispensation. The easiest way to prove this is to consider dietary food laws in the Scriptures:
- Genesis 1:29-30: “ And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.  And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.” The LORD here says people are to eat plants only—no meat!
- Genesis 9:2-4: “ And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.  Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.  But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” Here, God grants people permission to eat whatever animals they can catch!
- Leviticus 11:46-47: “ This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth:  To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.” According to this, people can eat only certain animals!
- 1 Timothy 4:3-5: “ Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.  For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:  For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” Finally, the Scriptures say we are free to eat any animals we want!
At this point, someone would cry out, “Oh, look at all those Bible contradictions! Should we eat meat? No, Genesis chapter 1 says not to! Can we eat all meats? Yes, Genesis chapter 9 and 1 Timothy chapter 4 tell us we can! No, we cannot! Leviticus chapter 11 forbids the eating of some meats!” We could see how a reader would get confused here. The Bible speaks affirmatively and negatively about carnivorism or flesh-eating: in fact, it is entirely forbidden (Genesis chapter 1), as well as permitted to some degree (Leviticus chapter 11), and completely approved (Genesis chapter 9 and 1 Timothy chapter 4)! How do we proceed in resolving these conflicts? Bible verses disagree with each other, so would it be possible for us to appeal to these very words to settle their incongruities? Why, yes it would—and is!
One of the most helpful Bible study tips is to recognize the audience of a particular passage of Scripture. We always need to look at contexts—especially who is speaking and to whom are they speaking. Never forget, cults and other denominations have resulted because people have carelessly ripped verses from their surrounding words. If we go back to our four passages about food laws in the Bible, the varying instructions are not all expressed to the same audience. Genesis chapter 1 was directed to Adam and Eve (see verse 27); Genesis chapter 9 was God talking to Noah and his sons (see verse 1); Leviticus chapter 11 was the Law of Moses given to Israel (see verses 1-2); and 1 Timothy chapter 4 was the Apostle Paul writing to Timothy, a member of the Church the Body of Christ (chapter 1, verses 1-2). Whatever the LORD told Adam and Eve, is not what He told Noah, is not what He told Israel, is not what He told Timothy and the Body of Christ. These dispensational boundaries must be respected—or we do not have a prayer in all the world in understanding and enjoying the Bible!
The Scriptures’ aforementioned dietary instructions are best explained as a change or further development in Divine revelation. It is wholly impossible for all these verses to be true at the same time, for they are mutually exclusive. We cannot obey Genesis chapters 1 and 9, and we cannot follow Leviticus chapter 11 and 1 Timothy chapter 4. Exactly what would God tell us? What is His will for us? Of course, it would be Paul’s writings, Romans through Philemon, for Paul is the Lord’s “Apostle” (sent one) to us Gentiles (Romans 11:13) concerning “the Dispensation of the Grace of God” (Ephesians 3:1-2). We are expected to follow 1 Timothy chapter 4—God’s Word to and about us. It would be absolutely improper for us to argue, “But I want to follow Leviticus chapter 11, Israel’s kosher food laws.” (We are not Israel!) It would be utterly wrong for us to contend, “But I want to follow Genesis chapter 1, Adam and Eve’s food laws.” (We are not them, and we are not living before sin’s entrance into the world!)
When Genesis chapter 1 was in effect, there were no other food laws from the LORD. Man was simply expected to follow what God had revealed about the subject. Once the Great Flood came, however, and Noah and his family exited the Ark, the dietary orders in Genesis chapter 1 were replaced with those of chapter 9. The LORD God expected man to follow these new rules from Him—and not appeal to chapter 1 as before! By the time Israel left Egypt and wished for the Law of Moses, the LORD gave them a new set of directions. The food laws of Genesis chapter 9 were no longer true; Leviticus chapter 11 was His Word to them! Lastly, when the Dispensation of Grace began, the LORD God told the Church the Body of Christ they were not under the Mosaic Law of Leviticus; all types of flesh could be eaten without exception. God changes His dealings with man because man changes. As we come up through the Bible timeline or human history, that expands beyond mere dietary restrictions.
From the above example, we can understand how it is important not to “name and claim” a concept simply because it is in the Bible. “God performed healing miracles in Scripture, so I can expect the same! He blessed others with financial riches, so He will do the same for me! If this person in the Bible declared this prayer promise, I can do the same!” These are three of the most popular clichés in Christendom, “feel-good” Christianity, all based on the false assumption God always behaves the same way throughout the Bible—what He did yesterday, He does today, and what He does today, He will do tomorrow. It is said, “His words to man never change through history.” These statements underscore the appalling ignorance that has plagued the professing church for centuries. Denominationalism has replaced dispensationalism.
Not only must we be Scriptural, we must also be dispensational. Again, it is Scriptural for us to obey Leviticus chapter 11—it is Scripture! But, is it dispensational for us? That is to say, it is God’s Word—but is it God’s Word to and about us? NO! It is Scriptural to follow Genesis chapter 1—it is Scripture! But, is it dispensational for us? To wit, it is God’s Word—but is it God’s Word to and about us? NO! If we could now re-phrase our statements to fit modern Christendom. “God ordered them not to eat meat in Genesis chapter 1, and what He told them He tells us!” (Wrong!) “God said not to eat certain meats in Leviticus chapter 11, and what He told them He tells us!” (Wrong!) If we would not be foolish so as to ignore audiences in these verses, why are we incessantly ripping other verses from their contexts and blaming God when He “disappoints” us by failing to do something He never told us?
With all that introductory in mind, let us see if the Lord Jesus Christ Himself handled the Bible the same way we just presented it regarding food laws.
PROOF #1: CHRIST’S RESPONSE TO HIS TEMPTATIONS PROVE HE WAS A DISPENSATIONALIST
The temptations of Christ are documented in Matthew chapter 4, Mark chapter 1, and Luke chapter 4. Matthew and Luke provide the most details. Satan desires to trick Jesus, to cause God’s Son to move away from God’s Word, on three separate occasions. (The Devil is a most crafty individual!) We will focus on one of these three temptations.
Matthew chapter 4: “ Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,  And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.  Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
Luke chapter 4: “ And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence:  For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:  And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.  And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
We never want to fail to appreciate Satan’s cleverness. It may surprise us, but he was more than willing to quote the Scriptures to achieve his goal. Satan did not tell Jesus, “Throw away the Bible!” The Devil himself actually appealed to God’s Word, the Hebrew Bible. Read Psalm 91:11-12: “ For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.  They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.” Never could Jesus deny this is what the Bible said. (Satan, in fact, misquoted it—adding words, subtracting words, and deliberately ignoring verse 13 that foretold his destruction!) The Devil argued most wisely, “Jesus, show Your Deity by jumping from the roof of the Temple. Remember, the (!) Bible (!) says (!) God will send His angels to protect You!” While he would fool (and has fooled) millions upon millions of Christians today with this sloppy approach to the Scriptures (They would jump, “naming and claiming” Psalm 91 for God to save them!), Satan’s lie was far from convincing to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Psalm 91 was and is Scripture. While Jesus would be Scriptural to wait for guardian angels to keep Him safe, He would not be dispensational. This passage was not for Him to follow. In fact, rather than His First Coming, it applied to His Second Coming, when angels will save Israel’s believing remnant from suffering the judgments of Daniel’s 70th Week (see Psalm 91:1-16, in light of Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:8, Mark 16:17-18, Luke 21:11, Revelation 6:8, Revelation 12:6-17, Revelation 16:1-11, et cetera). That is to say, Jesus reasoned, “I cannot follow Psalm 91. My Father did not tell Me that. Those promises are for another dispensation, another time, another audience.” Consequently, the Lord Jesus did not jump from the Temple pinnacle!
PROOF #2: CHRIST’S FIRST RECORDED SERMON PROVES HE WAS A DISPENSATIONALIST
In Luke chapter 4, the Lord Jesus visits Nazareth to deliver His first sermon as recorded in the Bible: “ And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.  And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,  To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.  And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.  And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.”
Christ’s message was based on Isaiah chapter 61, written some 700 years prior: “ The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;  To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;  To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.”
A careful comparison of Jesus’ words in Luke with Isaiah’s original statements yields an eye-opening realization. Luke 4:18-20 again: “ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,  To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.  And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down.” Jesus stopped reading Isaiah in mid-sentence, quitting after He said, “to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” However, Isaiah himself continued in verse 2: “To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.” Why did Jesus not read about the “vengeance?” Why did He not read about the “comfort?” Why did He not read until the end of the sentence? His audience was captivated (see Luke 4:20).
The key is to notice Luke 4:21: “And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” What was being fulfilled was Bible prophecy—His preaching to them in Nazareth, conducting His earthly ministry, in perfect accordance with, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD….” However, the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy—the “vengeance” (Daniel’s 70th Week) and the “comfort” (Millennial Kingdom)—would be fulfilled at His Second Coming. For now, His First Coming had to run its course with Isaiah’s previous statements. Divine wrath against sinners would not come prior to Calvary. Again, Jesus knew where He was on the Bible timeline—what His Father was doing and saying at that moment, and what His Father was not doing and saying at that moment. Our last proof further accentuates this fact.
PROOF #3: CHRIST’S WORDS TO JAMES AND JOHN PROVE HE WAS A DISPENSATIONALIST
A third example of Jesus being a dispensationalist during His earthly ministry is provided for us in chapter 9 of Luke: “ And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,  And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.  And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.  And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?  But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.  For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.”
It is an understatement when we say the Jews and the Samaritans hated each other. A Samaritan woman even reminded Jesus, “for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9). Why the hostility? The Samaritans resulted from the intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles during the Assyrian Captivity, some 700 years before Christ (see 2 Kings 17:24). Samaritans and Jews were not only of different nationalities, they had separate religious systems. The Lord’s exchange with the Samaritan woman characterizes this: “ [She said] Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.  Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.  Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.”
Whereas the Jews worshipped at Jerusalem (Mount Zion), the Samaritans preferred Mount Gerizim. Since Jesus was a Jew, and He is headed to worship at Jerusalem, the Samaritans dislike Him and refuse to lodge Him on His journey down south. Refer back to Luke chapter 9: “ And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,  And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.  And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.” Clearly, Jesus’ rejection bothers the Apostles James and John, as Luke further relates the matter.
“ And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?  But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.  For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.” Jewish James and John disliked the Samaritans as much as the Samaritans loathed them. When these two brothers, sons of Zebedee, heard of the Samaritans rebuffing their Lord, James and John felt the urge to retaliate most violently. “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?” They are familiar with the Prophet Elijah’s actions in 2 Kings chapter 1 (see verses 5-16), calling down fire from Heaven to consume unbelievers. James and John are Scriptural, for they argue, “even as Elias did” (that is, “If Elijah was allowed to do it, can we do it too?”). Yet, are they dispensational?
“ But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.  For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.” Although Elijah was permitted to call down fire from Heaven and destroy apostates, the Lord Jesus knew this was fully inappropriate for His earthly ministry. Under no circumstances would unbelievers be judged now (remember, a timeline). What was true of Elijah would not be fitting for James and John. Remember, as we stated in Proof #2, “vengeance” is reserved for the Lord’s Second Coming, not His First Coming. Again, “For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Compare that to Matthew 18:11: “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” Also, see Luke 19:10: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” As Jesus’ earthly ministry was to save sinners, not judge them, so the disrespectful Samaritans of Luke chapter 9 were spared. James and John were forbidden to destroy them. Like with chapter 4, the Lord Jesus knew the events of His First Coming and how to differentiate them from what would happen at His Second Coming. The First Coming was not to pour out His wrath; He would die for sin at His First Coming. Divine vengeance would be for His Second Coming; here is when He would judge sin (remember, a timeline).
Unfortunately, this third point is greatly watered down or entirely lost in modern English versions (they rely on questionable manuscript evidence to introduce significant alterations to the Gospel Record of Luke here):
- Nearly every modern English version eliminates “as Elijah did” from Luke 9:54, thus obscuring the 2 Kings chapter 1 cross-reference from their readers (ASV, Amplified, CEV, Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims, ESV, TEV/GNT, GW, HCSB, Living Bible, Message, NASB1995, NASB, NET, NIV, NLT, NRSV, Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation, RSV). The Voice brackets it as doubtful.
- With the exception of KJV, NKJV, and Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims that contain it; and the Amplified and NASB1995 that bracket it as an unlikely portion of Luke’s original manuscript; all modern versions omit “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of” (ASV, CEV, ESV, TEV/GNT, GW, HCSB, Living Bible, Message, NASB, NET, NIV, NLT, NRSV, Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation, RSV, Voice).
- Regarding the sentence, “For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” the KJV and NKJV contain it; the Amplified, NASB1995, and Voice bracket it as doubtful. This statement is entirely absent from ASV, CEV, Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims, ESV, TEV/GNT, GW, HCSB, Living Bible, Message, NASB, NET, NIV, NLT, NRSV, Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation, and RSV.
Again, while much more could be said, this is sufficient to answer the question at hand.
Indeed, the Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry was a dispensationalist. He knew what parts of Scripture were valid for that time, and which portions were not. Instead of mindlessly quoting Scripture like so many Christians today—“If God’s Word says it, I can do it!”—the Lord Jesus Christ handled the Holy Bible ever so carefully. Verses that applied to His Second Coming could not be forced into His First Coming. To think otherwise would be doubt not faith. Psalm 91 was Scripture, but not for Him to fulfill during His earthly ministry. Isaiah chapter 61 was Scripture, but not all of it was to be accomplished during His First Coming; the vengeance (for the lost) and comfort (for the saved) would be at His return! Second Kings chapter 1 was entirely appropriate behavior for the Prophet Elijah, but not for the Apostles James and John. It is not enough to be Scriptural; we must also be dispensational. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself understood that, and practiced it. For all those who like to point out they “follow Jesus in His earthly ministry,” we believe they would do well to follow Him when He used the Scriptures rightly divided, quoting verses in their dispensational contexts. They would therefore learn what Father God is doing today (Paul’s epistles, Romans through Philemon), and what He is not doing today (the rest of Scripture).
» “But what if they read the Bible at my church…?!”
» Do not Hebrews 13:8 and Malachi 3:6 disprove dispensational Bible study?
» How many dispensations are there?
» Do we make “too much of Paul?”
» Are we Pauline dispensationalists anti-Jewish?
» Can you explain Paul’s ministry during Acts?
» Did not God send messengers to Gentiles prior to Paul’s apostleship?
» Was the Apostle Paul a false prophet?
» Must one be a “King James Bible Pauline dispensationalist” to have eternal life?
» Should we hate the denominational people who misled us?
» Are denominationalists deliberately lying?
» Does Mark 16:9-20 belong in the Bible?