In our last article we saw the first three dispensations. These are usually referred to as innocence, conscience, and human government. In each of these dispensations God gave man a stewardship and placed a test before him. In each of these dispensations man failed and was judged. So, one stewardship is removed and another takes its place. The next dispensation is that of promise, or, as it is sometimes called, the dispensation of the patriarchs.
Abraham was the pre-eminent man in the dispensation of promise. As in the other dispensations, a test was laid before mankind. In this case, Abraham was told, ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee’, Gen. 12. 1. Abraham was given the promise of the land. But Abraham failed this test of believing the promise almost right away, when he went down into Egypt. There are other promises made to Abraham, such as the promise of a son, in which he also failed. The descendents of Abraham, including Isaac, Jacob and Joseph all failed in regards to believing the promise that they would be given the land, and when they went down into Egypt because of the famine, repeating the first failure of Abraham, God judged the entire nation in the Egyptian captivity.
God spoke directly with Abraham. and gave him promises. God was building a great nation through Abraham. Yet, this dispensation is also characterized by failure, and so his stewardship is removed. But, once again, a challenge might be raised against God’s justice; God was forming a nation, but it was a nation that had not been given laws. God spoke directly to Abraham, but how did the rest of mankind know the will of God? If man had a written code he would find obedience easier. Maybe, if God provided a set of written laws, man would know exactly what he was to do and not to do. So the next dispensation was inaugurated, the dispensation of law.
In the dispensation of law, the preeminent man was Moses, for we are told, ‘The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’, John 1. 17. Moses was born in the judgement of captivity, raised in the home of Pharaoh, and once again chose to live with the Israelites in their judgement. In the words of Hebrews chapter 11 verse 25, Moses was ‘choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season’. And yet, God had something better in mind. Rather than having Moses partake in the judgement from the previous dispensation, God instituted a new dispensation of law.
Genesis and Exodus, up to the end of chapter 18, are essentially an historical record. Then, beginning with Exodus chapter 19, and extending through Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, we have a description of the Law of Moses. This Law of Moses is also referred to as the Levitical Law because it was administered by priests from the tribe of Levi. The Law covers a great deal of material. There are instructions on: the priesthood, including details on who may serve as a priest, the duties of a priest; the robes of the High Priest and the consecration of the priests; the building of the tabernacle, including all its furniture; and festivals, and sacrifices, and giving. There are restrictions on diet and instructions about the administration of justice. There are instructions about: the Sabbath Day; how people became unclean in God’s sight including numerous examples; and what constitutes basic morality. There are instructions governing social interaction, including how to treat the poor and how to treat slaves. Finally, the Law also contained the best known code of conduct, the Ten Commandments. The Law covered just about every aspect of daily life for the Israelites – from what they ate and who they married, to how they planted and how they worshipped – in 613 commandments in the Law.
So the new stewardship began, and with it a test was placed before the Israelites – obey the Law. If the Israelites wanted to know what God expected of them it was written down. But what was the response of the people? Moses was up on Mount Sinai for forty days, and even before he started coming down the mountain, the people were in rebellion. We read of this in Exodus chapter 32 verse 1, ‘And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him’.
So now, dispensationally speaking, a test was being placed before the Israelites. They were given 613 commandments in the Law and the test was that they should obey the Law. But they failed right away, and indeed the course of their history is one of failing to obey the Law. For their sins, they were punished by having to wander in the wilderness for forty years. After Moses and Joshua disappear from the scene, there are a series of oppressors and a series of judges raised up to deliver them. Under their kings, there are failures to obey God, and a series of judgements that God sends from the nations around them. Judgement is the message of Habakkuk. He describes the situation, ‘Therefore the law is ignored and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore justice comes out perverted’, 1. 4 NASB. Essentially, Habakkuk is asking the Lord, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ and the Lord replies, ‘I am doing something Habakkuk. I’m raising up the Babylonians to destroy Israel’. And so the northern tribes went into the Babylonian captivity and the southern tribes went into the Assyrian captivity. Their captivity did solve the problem of idolatry. Having been brought face-toface with a thoroughly idolatrous culture, when the Israelites returned from captivity they never again fell into idolatry. But they still couldn’t keep the Law and so this dispensation needed to be brought to an end.
The end of this dispensation is predicted by the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate’, Matt. 23. 37-38. Dispensational scholars can debate when exactly this dispensation ended, but there can be no doubt that it had ended by the time of the destruction of the temple. In the year 70 AD, the Jewish temple was destroyed. It was completely burned. Even the stones were torn apart so that the soldiers could pry out the gold that had melted and run between the stones. This was in fulfilment of the prophecy of the Lord. Speaking of the temple, He said, ‘Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down’, Mark 13. 2. All that was left of the original construction was the retaining wall that was built when the temple mount was levelled off. None of the original temple remains, save the retaining wall that Jews still flock to in order to offer their prayers – the Wailing Wall.
As in the previous dispensations, fallen humanity will complain against the justice of God. Maybe the reality of having hundreds of laws to obey was just too much? Maybe what mankind needed was something simpler? Maybe, instead of rules, he needed a relationship? And so when Christ came, the one condition for obedience was faith in Christ, and that would inaugurate a new dispensation, the dispensation of grace.
But before examining the dispensation of grace, it is important to review the role and importance of the Old Testament Law. The Law was good, in that it was given by God. But the Law was limited because it could not save. The Law was a means of condemnation, not justification. Israelites living under the Law before the incarnation were saved by faith when they brought their animal sacrifices. The Law served many purposes. It was a schoolmaster to bring people to Christ, Gal. 3. 24. It provided elementary teaching about Christ, Heb. 6. 1-2. It taught the Israelites that God is holy, Lev. 10. 3, and the corollary lesson that man is sinful, Lev. 10. 10; Isa. 6. 5. It provided a specific transgression, Gal. 3. 19, and demonstrated the requirement of blood for forgiveness, Exod. 12. 13; 30. 10. Finally, it told God’s people for all time that there is one God, Deut. 6. 4. The Law was useful. The Law was important. But the Law could not save. In every dispensation, salvation is by grace through faith.
To be continued