Paul’s language, which describes his ministry, gives us the origin of the phrase “dispensation”:
The word “dispensation” is one possible translation of a Greek word, “oikonomia” which means “household law.” In the English KJV, that word is translated “administration” (Eph 1:10), dispensation (Col 1:25-27; Eph 3:1-5), stewardship (lk 16:2) and godly edification (1 Tim 1:4). Some translations use the word “economy”. This is a rich word, and when you take all the verses together in which it is found, a picture emerges of a Rich household. In the household there are many sons and a Father. The riches of this household are the inheritance of the heirs. Everything that the children need is furnished by the riches and depends on the riches. The establishment, maintenance and health of the household is based on the enjoyment of the these riches, by the heirs. In order for these riches to be distributed, there is an ”economy” which DISPENSES (derivative of dispensation) the riches of the house, and there is a stewardship in this economy, which needs many stewards. Paul called said that the ministry in the Church is a “stewardship of the mysteries” (1 Cor 4:1).
Having received direct revelation from the ascended Christ (Gal 1:16), Paul said his gospel was according to the “revelation of the mystery (rom 16:25). Whenever Paul talked about the spirit of wisdom and revelation and the mysteries that are revealed to the Church He related them to the inheritance (eph 1:17, 1:18, 1 Cor 2:7-9) and to Christ (Col 1:26-27). Hence Paul was a steward of the “unsearchable riches of Christ” to dispense these riches to the heirs (eph 3:8) and to bring them into the “fellowship of the mystery” (Eph 3:9), and to comfort their hearts unto “all of the riches of the full assurance of understanding unto an acknowledgment of the mystery of Christ” Col 2:3).
This the New Testament ministry. It is a stewardship of the riches in God’s household that have become the inheritance of Christ, and have become a “testament” for the heirs (Heb 9:16-17) to be distributed freely and enjoyed. He has has appointed stewards in the household who distribute the riches to train them to look to Christ and the riches of his being, supplied by the Spirit, to be their wisdom, righteousness, sanctification (1 Cor 1:30), clothing (rom 13:14), hope (col 1;27), and spiritual nourishment (John 6:53-57,1 Cor 3:2;1 Pet 2:2) so that they are fully equipped and every man is growing in “all things” into Christ ( col 1:27; Eph 4:17) so that he becomes their life and their everything, and literally live by Christ (Phil 1:21; Gal 2:17-22)
They are to live by the freely supplied life of the One is their inheritance and is the reality and content of the economy of God in His household, dispensing Himself in the Spirit to be everything to us. It is only by being furnished with the riches in the household, and “keeping this feast” that we can serve, please God, and have the strength and supply to do so (1 Cor 5:8; Lk 15:17; Lk 15;23; Lk 15:30-32).
God’s economy is the supply of the riches of Christ to be enjoyed by the heirs, and it is the supply that is the basis of their service. In the story of the prodigal son, the older brother thought he was serving God by his commandment keeping and labour, but the only ones that wee actually serving effectively were ni the house, the stewards, who prepared the fatted calf and fed the lost son.
A steward of the mystery is not a law giver, telling you what to do, but a servant pointing you to your food, to your inheritance, and to your supply. This is the root principle of God’s household order, his “dispensation”, what it means to serve and what it means to live before God. It all centers around a feast, which presents the riches of Christ as everything to the heirs for their enjoyment and satisfaction.
So this is the real origin of “dispensationalism” from Paul’s perspective. It is fully of grace, and it is fully heavenly, and it belongs to the citizens of the city of the living God, the participants in the “festal gathering” who have become members of his Household (Eph 2:19). Furthermore, 1 Timothy 1:4 points us to the word “edification”, meaning to “build up.” According to Paul in Ephesians 4, the Ministers who are the stewards are equipping the saints unto the work of the ministry unto the “building up fo the body of Christ”(Eph 4:21).
The Body of Christ is the fulness of Christ (Eph 1:23) and the masterpiece of God (Eph 2:6-10), through which He will put His multifarious wisdom on display before the angels when He is finished perfecting it and building it up (Eph 3:10). So we see that service to God and the fulfillment of God’s purpose is dependent upon the riches of Christ, the economy, the dispensing and the stewardship (the ministry) which supplies Christ Himself as nourishment unto the building up of the body in love.
Again, this is the root definition of “dispensationalism” from Paul’s perspective. This truth has never been properly understood, and Paul’s ministry had been rejected in favor of the religion of the judaizers (2 tim 1:17; Acts 21:28) a system of system of error was erected that inaugurated the “dark ages” built on law teaching (1 Tim 1:7). Paul’s ministry was lost to the majority of people who called themselves Christians.
With the invention of the Gutenberg press and the ability to distribute books and teach people to read, the bible also was made available in Europe, and the reformers like Luther led the charge to break free from the bondage of Rome by restoring the truth especially of Romans 3 and Galatians and recovering the doctrine of justification by faith. But they were still under the impression that even though we were justified by faith, we were to live continually under ethe law as a rule of life, knowing we could not keep it, but doomed to try and fail, and live a life of continual “repentance” which was just less systematic form the penance practiced by the Catholics.
Then came Calvinism which rejected the idolatry and corruption of Rome but fully agreed with Rome’s views concerning grace, and they brought Protestantism back under Augustinianism, which is Galatian error. Galatian error is a redefinition of justification so that it only gives you a future in “heaven” as a free gift, but then demands that heirs work in the field for blessings that are already secured for them by the blood of Christ, thus moving them away from him who called them (Gal 1:6), cuts them off from the enjoyment of Christ and causes them to lose their “sense of blessing” (Gal 4:15), and deprives them of the blessing of the Gospel, the Spirit (3:14) by pointing them to their works rather than to the riches of Christ (Gal 3:1-5) and points them to the old man and to the law, which was crucified, rather than to Christ as their life (Gal 2:19-22). Thinking they are pleasing God by their “work” they are actually sowing to the flesh, and they will reap corruption from the flesh, not only the “naughty sins” but the religious ones: (Gal 6:8; Gal 5:19-26). The law is the strength of sin (1 Cor 15:56;Rom 7:5).
It was into that context of re-enslaved Protestantism that God raised up the Dispensationalists to further recover Paul’s ministry, not only for justification to “go to heaven” but for the entirety of the Christian life, presenting Christ and our identification with Christ, our union with Him, positional truth, and the heavenly character of our walk. This was based on an acknowledgement that we were no longer under law but under grace, and that the church was an “unanticipated mystery” not revealed formerly to the prophets, and there was a new body of truth that was to be their rule of life. The brethren did not speak this way about the feasting the enjoyment, the economy of God, and the riches and there was a heaviness to their tone, because they were striving to come out from the confusion and mixture in Protestantism. Today we stand on their shoulders taking much of what they laid out for granted, and therefore are in a position to speak to these things in an even more clear and full way. But we owe them a debt for being able to speak the way we do today.