I once witnessed a conversation in which the premise put forth was that the older generation did not understand the times. Culture changes! Ages go by. Therefore, the beliefs of the older generation were no longer considered correct. In part, there is truth to this. Traditions, skills, and knowledge which have been passed down over time aren’t always acceptable. Speaking in the language of an era passing away, “Use a #2 pencil to adjust the tape in the cassette” may not only be a confusing phrase, but outdated and irrelevant.
Yet, what are we to do with the biblical statement “…ask for the old paths…”? The context and source of any discussion are critical in determining their usefulness. When speaking of the old paths, the context is people needing to get back to what God commands. The source of the statement is God. This is a message that fits all cultures and times. Today, many people want to do what God says, but they are holding to practices which God no longer authorizes. So looking back over man’s time upon earth, what statements of God should one follow? Is there a thread of consistency or interrelatedness throughout the time of man upon the earth and the dispensations he has lived through that helps determine this?
The New Testament definition for the word dispensation is “the management or oversight of a household or property”. In other words, a dispensation is defined by the authority or laws under which it operates and is not confined to time or culture. It appears in the expanse of man’s life upon earth there have been four major dispensations given by God: Creation, Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian. Each has very specific characteristics.
The dispensation of Creation is remembered through two people: Adam and Eve. They were to be fruitful and multiply, tend the Garden of Eden, and not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was their dispensation (the authority they lived under).
The Patriarchal dispensation represented a time when God spoke directly to the fathers (patriarchs). It has been frequently taught that God spoke to them with different laws, each under their own dispensation as it were. To support this it is oft stated that Abraham was the only one told to sacrifice his son or Noah was the only one told to build an ark. However, it appears that despite individual directives by God, there was a universal law given. Consider the man Noah. What is it that Peter calls him? He calls Noah a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5). How could Noah preach righteousness if what was right to him was not also defined as right to others as well? The source of what defined righteousness to all men was God. Thus, Noah could preach righteousness to others. Later, but under the same dispensation, Lot is seen vexed with the filthy conversation of others (2 Pet. 2:7). Why? He was aware of a common dispensation all lived under, but some were rejecting.
The Mosaic dispensation is defined by a particular people and a particular law. By the authority of God, the nation of Israel was given the “Law of Moses” to live under. It was specifically for them and those who would voluntarily choose to live under it. When God directed that from the Israelites two silver trumpets be made and that only the Levites play them, no other people lived under that law. None other were under that authority.
The Christian dispensation, the fullness of time, the right time, began with the crucifixion of the Savior of the World, Jesus the Christ. He died as an Israelite man, fulfilling the law which God had imparted to Israel by Moses. The dispensation being fulfilled, a new dispensation began. All mankind became accountable to the household administration of Christ. Since that time, no other dispensation has been given by God.
In examining the dispensations of God, it is interesting to note that the first two dispensational laws never appear to have been written down. Beginning with the Mosaic dispensation, God commands His Law be written down (Ex. 34:27). These laws were to be at the forefront of every Israelite’s mind (Deut. 6:6-9). As Christ came onto the scene in the first century, John the Immerser heralded the kingdom of God as being at hand. Jesus and his disciples would share the gospel of the kingdom (Mark 1:1). Then, following the death of Jesus, his disciples continued on with that gospel in full knowledge. The apostles and disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit wrote down exactly what God desired us to know and follow (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The perfect Word of God, as we find it in the Bible today, enabled men to be fully mature in Christ (1 Cor. 13:9-13; Eph. 4:8-15).
There are commonalities throughout the dispensations. A few come quickly to mind. God put people on the earth to multiply and fill it (Gen. 1:28; 9:1; Lev. 26:9, Deut. 8:1; Matt. 28:19, John 3:5). God expects man to be obedient or face consequences (Gen. 3:3; 4:7-12; Ex. 15:26; Rom. 2:8; 2 Thess. 1:7-9). God requires blood sacrifice for the sins of man (Gen. 3:21; Job 1:5; Num. 15:25, Gal. 1:3-4). A list of like characteristics could get relatively lengthy if we continue on. However, there is the more pressing issue of the interrelatedness of the dispensations which explains what law is applicable today.
The thread interlocking all the dispensations and causing them to work together was once a mystery. Today, that mystery has been revealed. In the beginning the light of this mystery was dim, but with the arrival of the Christian dispensation it burns bright. Interestingly enough, the Creation and Patriarchal dispensations were once described by many a preacher as “starlight.” The light from stars is dim and limited. Similarly, so was information regarding the mystery. When the Mosaic dispensation unfolded more light was shed in regard to the mystery. This timeframe was referred to by ministers as “moonlight.” Finally, the Christian Dispensation brought “Sunlight” or “Sonlight” upon the mystery of God. What was once unperceivable was revealed and made known to the world. The mystery that glued all the dispensations together was the truth of the gospel of Christ. The good news was eternal life. Salvation!
God “hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (Eph. 1:4). God “saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Tim. 1:9). The salvation planned by God was necessary “in hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.” So before the world began, God had a plan of salvation through Christ for the promise of eternal life. In the creation, Adam and Eve did not know this plan. It was a mystery. They were happy in the Garden of Eden with no concerns. Then it all changed with the taking of the fruit against the Word of God (Gen. 3). Death came into the world. Sin separated man from God (Is. 59:1-2). How could men be holy before God if they were filthy from sin? This would be the opening dilemma starting the Patriarchal dispensation. Perhaps the only clue came in Genesis 3:15 where it was said that man would crush the head of Satan, whereas Satan would crush only the heel of man.
The Patriarchal dispensation makes it clear that sacrifice and offerings were part of man’s worship based on the sin that had entered the world. Cain and Abel, Noah, Job, Abraham, and Jacob are all recorded as offering to the Lord. The related tie between the Creation and Patriarchal dispensations is the desire to get from the latter state back to the former. Yet, man being no longer in the presence of God, with the Fathers guiding the families, chose not to follow the righteousness of God but to perish in the waters of the flood and then afterward begin sin anew. Yes, Noah preached for them to do right! But mankind did not listen. How would God bring them back to the holiness of God and be faithful to His promise? A great mystery indeed! Again there are clues seen from the flood itself: salvation and the washing away of sinfulness through water. Additionally, three promises given to Abraham, one specifically stating through his Seed all nations would be blessed.
The Mosaic dispensation removed the focus from the worship of the patriarchs and presented a chosen nation to the world as a vessel for something greater and an example to the world. Israel was born out of Egypt. God gave them a Law from Sinai delivered by the hand of Moses. A priesthood was chosen from the nation and a sacred place of worship (the tabernacle) was built by the directive of God. God promised the nation of Israel that when they would obey Him, they would be blessed and that when they disobeyed they would be punished. This was a great teacher to all the world and still is today (Josh. 2:9-11), but the purpose of the Law was to be a pedagogue. A pedagogue is an individual who would take the children from home to school. He delivered them from point A to point B. The Law of Moses served to hold the people under sin and take them to the coming of the messiah (Gal. 2:22-25). Jeremiah 31:31 declared a new dispensation was coming. A new law would be needed because the many sacrifices since sin came into the world could not remove the filth of sin from mankind (Heb. 10:4). The nation of Israel had been given clues from Moses and the prophets about the coming Messiah. Clues about how He would arrive, where He would live, and what He would do, were given in abundance to the nation of Israel. The mystery was still hidden, but more and more was known. The end of this dispensation would see Messiah coming, heralded by John the Immerser. Christ declared the kingdom of God to be at hand. He instructed the people in righteousness with miracles as confirmation of the truth. Jesus went to the cross nailing the old dispensation to the cross (Col. 2:14). The Law of Moses had accomplished its task in bringing mankind to the cross. Now the mystery would be revealed. The link from creation to salvation, from sin to holiness, would come into full view.
After the crucifixion, the Holy Spirit of promise was poured out on Pentecost. The Spirit provided all truth to the Apostles (John 16:13). The mystery of salvation revealed, Peter then declared the Deity of Jesus and convicted 3000 souls of their sins against God. Horrified at their condition, the crowd asked what they should do. “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). Once again, washing with water was taking away the sins of the world, one spiritual birth after another as God added to His Kingdom, the Church (Acts 2:47, 1 Pet. 3:21, 1 Tim. 3:15). The Christian dispensation had begun! The Christ by His once for all time blood sacrifice (Heb. 10:10), born of the Mosaic dispensation, was linking the Christian dispensation to the great washing flood of the Patriarchal dispensation for the purpose of returning to the state once present in the Creation dispensation.
It is Jesus who provides us the full assurance of returning to stand holy before God (Heb. 10:20-22) and authority and relevance under which we all live (Col. 3:17). His free salvation links all the dispensations together. Following any other dispensation, tradition or creed is done only by those who do not understand the times.
Travis has been a minister in the Lord’s church for over 15 years. He attends and teaches at the Eastside Church of Christ in Mt. Vernon, OH. He is the creator of churchofchristarticles.com.