THE DISPENSATION OF THE FULNESS OF TIMES (Part One)
By John Aldworth
Eph. 1:10: That in the dispensation of the fullness 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.
I’d often read the above verse and wondered exactly when this dispensation would take place. Yet strangely it was a pesky door-knocking Mormon who convinced me of its importance. Pushing his way into my afternoon he insisted that, “The revelation of Joseph Smith and the church he founded are the fulfilment of the dispensation of the fullness of times.”
Knowing that this, like any Mormon doctrine, had to be dead wrong (because they neither believe in nor worship the God of the Bible but the one found in the Book of Mormon) my curiosity was piqued. So I determined to find this dispensation’s true scriptural meaning.
The search took quite a while. Commentaries were of little help. Most dispensationalists were no better. Although the dispensation of the fullness of times is one of only three such major epoch changes clearly described as such in scripture - the others are the dispensation of grace in Eph. 3:2 and the dispensation of the mystery in Col. 1:25-26 – most dispensational charts find no place for it. They just leave it out. Instead they fill their timelines with presumed but not scripturally named “dispensations” such as “innocence”, “conscience”, “human government” and “promise”.
But while they leave the dispensation of the fullness of times out, God has definitely put it in. There it is, written in black and white in Holy Writ. What’s more, the Apostle Paul says that this dispensation and his purpose in it is what God has made “known” to us as “the mystery of his will" (Eph. 1:9). Fullness of times then, is at the heart of God’s longest kept and most profound purposes; one that He has “purposed in Himself … according to his good pleasure”. It is that He:
“…might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth, even in Him”.
This is the “mystery” (secret now revealed) of God’s “will”. But the mystery today (in the Agatha Christie sense) is why most Christians know next to nothing about it. If God, as He has said, has made it known to us, then why is it that we don’t we know about it? Answer: Because most Christians pay little attention to dispensationalism – the study of the times and seasons and changes in God’s dealings with men that is clearly taught in scripture.
Personally I believe that it is only through a dispensational approach to scripture study that confusion about what the Bible really teaches can be avoided. For example, most believers ignore God’s special blessing of dispensational knowledge given to Gentiles, understanding of which was earlier denied to the Jews. Proof of this is that the word “dispensation”, when meaning the opening of a new chapter in God’s dealings with mankind, occurs only in Paul’s prison epistles - Ephesians to Philemon – all of which were written to Gentiles, not to Jews.
Significantly, the word “dispensation” is not used in the Old Testament, the gospels or Acts. Only once is it mentioned in the apostle’s pre-prison letters, Romans Corinthians, Galatians and Thessalonians. And that reference (1 Cor.9:17) refers to God’s personal requirement for Paul that he preach the gospel of God, not to the bringing in of a new epoch..
Clearly God wants Gentiles to know about dispensations. That is why Paul writes to the Ephesians saying:
“If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward” (Eph. 3:2).
It is why the Apostle Paul says in Eph. 3:8 that to him is…
“…this grace given that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ and to make all men see the fellowship of the mystery which from, the beginning of the world hath been hid in God…”
Dispensations have to do with ages, times and the changes God makes in his dealings with man. They are fully made known to believers of all races today. But in Acts 1:7 the resurrected Lord Jesus told his eleven apostles: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has put in his own power.” Contrast that with Acts 17: 26 where the Apostle Paul told unsaved pagan Greeks at Athens something God had not told the Israelites. and that would have scandalised them if He had. It was that God…
“…hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.”
As stated already the Lord’s Jewish apostles were told “it is not for you to know” but in Eph. 1:8-10 Gentiles are told that the Father has:
“…abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known unto us the mystery of his will … that in the dispensation of the fullness 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”.
Clearly God wants Gentiles to know dispensational truth He withheld from Israel. This is confirmed in Acts 17:26 where Paul reveals to pagan Greeks truth the Lord Jesus never disclosed to Israel, that God in dealing with all men “…hath determined the times before appointed…”
The key to dispensational truth for Gentiles (and any Jew who wants in) is found in Paul’s “prison” epistles. Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon were all written to Gentiles. In them we learn of three dispensations of the “grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:6): fullness of times (Eph. 1:10), grace (Eph.3:2) and mystery (Col. 1:25-26). Over and over we are told these truths were “hid from ages and generations but (are) now made manifest to his saints" (Col. 1:26). It is clear then that they were not made known in either the Old Covenant scriptures or those of the New Covenant. They were not preached by Jesus and the Twelve.
Nor were they revealed in the Acts period when the "gospel of God” was preached “…to the Jew first but also to the Greek”. At this time Paul admitted that that he and fellow believers then saw "through a glass darkly” and knew only “in part”. He looked forward to the time when that “which is perfect” would come.
And come it did, in the apostle's own lifetime. For, as you would expect, the "perfect” is revealed only in the dispensation of the fullness of times. It is in fact the mystery, the “glory… among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). This is the truth that it is only the fullness of Christ in us, and our being found fully in Him, that will place us with Him in glory for eternity.
So what is the true significance of the dispensation of the fullness of times? Questions that naturally occur to the Bible student are: When does this dispensation occur? What is it’s character? And what change does it bring for believers?
As to when, that must be now, that is, a present time experience, since Eph. 1:9 says that God has already made it known unto us and the present tense “are” is used of the things in heaven and on earth that are to be gathered. Furthermore in Col. 1:20, which refers to this process, the present tense is also used:
“And, having made peace through the blood of his cross (past action), by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself (present action), I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven”.
As to the character of this dispensation, please note that fullness is the very hallmark of this dispensation. In fact the word fullness flows like a mighty river through Paul’s prison epistles. Indeed, it is the very name assigned to the church of this dispensation, “… the church which is his body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). No wonder then that the goal of this dispensation is for us to so know the love of Christ that we are each “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).
As to change, the process by which we come in to this fullness in our experience as believers is outlined step by step in Ephesians chapter four. First we should come into “the unity of the faith” (vs. 3), believing the seven doctrines of this dispensation set out in Eph. 4:4-6. Then we should be taught by Christ through his appointed ministers (vss. 11-12), “the truth as it is in Jesus” (vs.21):
“...Till we all come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”.
It is for this cause (as Paul would say) that “…it pleased the Father that in Him (Christ) should all fullness dwell” (Col. 1:19). Thus we learn in Col. 2:9 that “…in Him (Christ) dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily”. Note that it is bodily, meaning that as much the Godhead fully dwells in Christ Himself, the Godhead also fully dwells in us, members of “…the church which is his body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all”.
Importantly fullness, in the dispensation of the fullness of times, does not mean fullness of quantity but fullness of quality as the above scriptures clearly show. God’s purpose is to have a body of saved men and women so matured by the dispensational doctrines of grace, fullness of times and the mystery that individually each one has been filled with all the fullness of God and that ultimately they are collectively filled with the fullness of Christ, He who “filleth all in all”.
God’s purpose then in this dispensation is to gather to Himself in Christ a chosen people He presents as perfected in grace and righteousness. The question therefore that each believer must answer is: Am I among them?
THE DISPENSATION OF THE FULNESS OF TIMES (Part Two)
By John Aldworth
Few expositors explain it, but the dispensation of the fullness of times fulfils one of God’s deepest and most important purposes in his predetermined programme of revealing Himself to and redeeming mankind. That purpose is to see “…all things gathered together in one in Christ, both which are in heaven and are on earth, even in Him”.
This dispensation is part of the Mystery revealed to the Apostle Paul and is seen as already taking place in Ephesians 1:9. As to the exact time when it will end scripture is silent, save that the very name “fullness of times” implies that this dispensation will run until God’s purposes are completed in his times.
As explained in part one of this article, “fullness” here means completion, a coming to fruition, not necessarily a set quota to be fulfilled. Thus, for example, when Rom. 11:25 says that “blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in”, it is not teaching that Israel’s redemption is on hold until a certain and set number of Gentiles have been saved.
Rather salvation of the chosen nation and restoration of the whole realm of physical creation awaits the manifestation of the sons of God upon earth (Rom. 8:19). And those sons need to be mature, to be perfect to play their part in the earthly "restitution of all things" (Acts 3:21). By contrast in Col. 3:4 saints are called to be restorers of things in heaven, by reigning there with and in Christ. These future heaven-dwellers are told through the revelation of the mystery that they are predestined to “appear in glory”. That manifestation in turn requires that a company of God’s saints be saved by his quickening (Eph. 2:1) and reach perfection and full maturity as the “one new man” of Eph. 2:15. This is the company whose “life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3-4), who, when He appears, will also “appear with Him in glory”.
Can such perfection be achieved in this life, you ask? Well, the Apostle Paul was convinced it could. Having “fought a good fight, finished my course and kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7-8), he was convinced that from henceforth there was laid up for him “a crown of righteousness”, which the Lord would give him “in that day”.
In his last few letters Paul preached Christ from a prison cell. He did so to “…present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Col. 1:28). So how does a man or woman of God become perfect? Answer: By studying and belieiving God's latest word to mankind, found in the Apostle Paul's prison ministry letters in the Bible.
Indeed scripture is given by the inspiration of God just so that the man of God may be “perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16). And, dare I suggest, those good works are not so much running soup kitchens, feeding the poor or trying to save the world, but primarily “studying to shew oneself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
So just how will God the Father gather all things together in one in Christ as He has purposed to do in the dispensation of the fullness of times? Answer: by perfecting them in holiness through “…the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:26). Not by works, not by the law, nor by any striving on our part. No, we are perfected by simply laying hold of all that scripture says about the spiritual blessings which God has blessed us with “in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3) and by believing that, as God’s word says, we are already “complete in Christ” (Col. 2:10).
We also need to know that we have been “…made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12). All of this is already accomplished for us because “…it pleased the Father that in Him (Christ) should all fullness dwell” (Col. 1:19).
It should be said again, that in the timing of God’s plan for the ages, the dispensation of the fulness of times is of huge importance. It is also remarkable that it is only in Ephesians and Colossians, the prison epistles written to Gentiles, that the word dispensation, as referring to epoch change, is found at all. You see, it is not used elsewhere in the Bible. Does this imply that God now wants all men, not just Jews, to understand his timings? I believe it does.
You see, while it is true that “times and seasons” are the subject of prophecy, the dispensations of the grace of God, fullness of times, and the mystery are only disclosed in the present un-prophesied “Gentile” period of God’s dealings with man. That period began only after the Apostle Paul’s announcement, at God’s behest, in Acts 28:28 that “…the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles and they will hear it”.
Salvation is now ministered by Gentiles not by Israel, and it is administered through the dispensations of grace (Eph. 3:2), fullness of times (Eph. 1:10) and mystery (Eph. 3:3 and Col. 1:26), not the Pentecostal administration of the “gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1) which was set aside in Acts 28:28 when salvation was “sent unto the Gentiles”.
Not only that, but the next great event to come on God’s agenda, the Day of Christ, is brought to light in Paul’s prison epistles (see Phil. 1:6, 1:10, 2:16, Col. 3:4 and Titus 2:13). Importantly, the arrival of the Day of Christ sees a resumption of the prophetic programme. Thus it is part of the “times and seasons”, the phrase by which the Bible marks out God’s purposes in prophecy, as opposed to those previously hidden riches of grace found in the mystery. However, at the point of our “appearing” with Christ Jesus in glory it seems the two progammes intersect. It is at this time, which could well occurr within our lifetimes, since we are told to be 'looking" for it, that the ultimate goal of the dispensation of the fullness times begins to be achieved, namely the gathering together into Christ in one all things that are in heaven and all things that are in earth.
How astonishing then that such “times and seasons”, so to speak, should be revealed to Gentiles when the Lord Himself had to tell his earthly Jewish apostles in Acts 1:7:
“It is not for you to know the times and season, which the Father has put in his own power”.
Of course, it is usually believed that the dispensation of fullness of times is something far off in the distant future. And until recently I and fellow believers thought the same. But, if we look closely at Eph. 1:9-10, it is clear that this dispensing of God’s goodness began when God chose to reveal it to and through the Apostle Paul in his lifetime. Verse 9 clearly states that God has already:
“….made known unto us the mystery of his will … 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”.
“Having made known” is past tense. What’s more use of the present tense “are” twice in verse 10 clearly marks this dispensation as being already partially in effect in the here and now.
As said earlier, the hallmark of this dispensation is fullness, fullness not of numbers, that is, but of maturity. God’s purpose is to achieve the full expression of his wonderful Son, the Lord Jesus Christ in a recreated mankind. This is his “new creation”; it is his “one new man”; it is the church of the prison epistles, “…which is his body the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). It is the church of the dispensation of the fullness of times.
This is why in Eph. 4:13 we learn that the destiny of those quickened and called to know the truth of the mystery is that we should all…
“…come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of the body of Christ.”
Clearly the one new man of Eph. 2:15 must be one who is grown up. That is to say, the church “which is his body” (Eph. 1:22-23) must be the mature, perfect fully filled body of Christ God has predestined it to be. Accordingly, just as the Corinthian “babes in Christ” in the Church of God of the Acts period were challenged to leave their “Pentecostal” childhood behind and mature into earthly kingdom perfection, so we who are called to be members of “the church which is his body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23) are also urged to grow up into “a perfect man", not to rule and reign on earth (the hope of Israel and those Gentiles joined to it in the Acts period) but to reign with Christ in his "heavenly kingdom" (2 Tim. 4:18).
The challenge set before us in the dispensation of the fullness of times is that together we should achieve “…the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. Accordingly, each one of us, and all of us collectively, should seek to be filled “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph: 3:19), else we will remain children.
We ought to “…put off the old man which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts”. We should be renewed in the spirit of our mind and choose to “…put on the new man, which after God is created in true righteousness and holiness.” We should also …study to shew ourselves “…approved unto God, workmen that need not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) and believing it. In doing so we will find ourselves in the company of those who in Eph. 4:15 by:
“Speaking the truth in love, may grow up into Him in all things, which is the Head, even Christ.”
As grace-saved believers, of course, we delight in grasping the “spiritual goodies” spelt out in Ephesians chapters one to three - such as being quickened together with Christ, seated together with Him in heavenly places and blessed with all spiritual blessings - , but we shouldn’t stop there. We should also take on board the Apostle Paul’s lifestyle commandments to us in chapters four, five and six. They are an essential part of our maturing. And let’s not lose sight of the important dispensational changes that have taken place to enable us to mature.
For example, the words “in Christ” punctuate this and other prison epistles. This is because it is only “in Christ” that we can be perfected. It is only in Him that we can by faith take our seat in heavenly places and receive all the spiritual blessings the Father has given us there. Equally it is only “in Christ Jesus” that we can be raised up “together” with Him.
As pupils in the “present truth” schoolroom of the mystery we should learn the Ephesians 4 key of “oneness” that is essential to keeping the unity of the Spirit. There is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism (not two), one hope of our calling (that is, to be revealed in glory with and in Christ), one God and Father who is in all and through all. Another lesson is living by the all sufficient grace Christ has given as a special gift to each one of us. By doing so we daily draw closer to Christ Himself.
Yet this is a steep and narrow path. Pausing to look around, we see only a tiny handful of fellow believers attempting the same heavenly ascent of the mountain. Most so-called Christians have opted for the big and busy road crossing the plain below. Spare us scriptural mountain climbing, they say, little knowing what a stormy passage awaits them on the plain. You see, there is a reason Eph. 4:14 warns of:
“…children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive”.
Many have no desire to scale new heights in Bible understanding. For them the prospect of higher truth has no appeal. “Don’t ask us to rightly divide the word; make it simple, bring it down to our level,” they cry whenever an attempt to proclaim present truth is made. Refusing to “grow up”, such people flock to today’s “mega churches". Here they are fed instant baby food in the form of “uplifting messages” that promise heaven on earth, often without mentioning a single doctrinal scripture. Sadly both they and their preachers are deceived, taken in by the “cunning craftiness” of the big church syndrome. After all, why study the Bible when you can join the many thousands and be inspired without ever opening “the Book”? And why grow up when you can be fed milk for evermore?
The truth is that growing up pleases God. And it’s necessary. God won’t be running a nursery in the heavenly places which are our eternal home. What’s more understanding “present truth” is the only way to distinguish truth from error. By contrast those who cling to baby stage truth when God wants them to move on end up being taken captive by those “who lie in wait to deceive” (Eph. 4:14).
For example, once miracles were all the rage on the big time church scene; then it was the laughing revival. Promise Keepers and the purpose driven church followed. Today it seems to be blessings all the way with no call for suffering or “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). And don’t say a word about the persecution the Apostle Paul said would be the lot of every one who “will live godly in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:12).
In the face of all that, let’s be thankful that right now in the dispensation of the fullness of times God is bringing a tiny but true handful of believers to the place where they will be filled with all his fullness. They of course are those willing to heed his directions through the Apostle Paul. I pray that you and I and all who read this message may be in that company.
Copyright 2012 John Aldworth