The Dispensations of Promise and Law

Topic: Dispensationalism


Levi Durfey 


In the last lesson, we started a look at Dispensationalism, and specifically, the seven dispensations found in the Bible. We covered the first three: Innocence, Conscience, and Civil Government. If you missed the last lesson, you can find the notes on the Internet at the Montana Pastor website.


Dispensationalism is a way of reading and interpreting the Bible. It has two main identifying characteristics:


(1) Dispensationalists consistently read the Bible literally. Yes, there are figures of speech in the Bible. Jesus is not a literal piece of bread when He says that he is the Bread of Life. But as often as we can, we read the Bible literally. And because we do…


(2) Dispensationalists view Israel and the Church as distinct. The Church has not replaced Israel. God has stopped working with Israel for now, but He will, after the Rapture of the Church start working with Israel again.


Why is it called Dispensationalism? A dispensation is a period of time wherein God manages the world in a certain way. Most Dispensationalists see seven dispensations in the Bible:


(1) Innocence

(2) Conscience

(3) Civil Government

(4) Promise

(5) Law

(6) Grace

(7) Millennium


For each of the seven dispensations, we’ll look at seven parts—the name, the key person, the responsibility of man, the test of man, the failure of man, the judgment on man, and then God’s Display Of Grace.




1. The Name


The name for this dispensation comes from places in the New Testament like Hebrews 6:15, 11:9; Galatians 3:15-29, where Abraham is described as receiving the promise from God. 


Another name for this dispensation is Patriarchal Rule, so named because God worked mainly through the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.


2. The Key Person


The key person, as you may guess, is Abraham. He is the first to receive God’s promise of land and innumerable descendants. In this dispensation, the focus turns to Abraham and his family. 


3. The Responsibility Of Man


Abraham and his family were to believe the promises made to them by God. The first time these promises are mentioned are in Genesis 12—


1 Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. (Genesis 12:1–3)


4. The Test Of Man


Again, focusing on Abraham and his family, they were to go to and stay in the land that God had promised to them.


5. The Failure Of Man


How did they do at keeping the test?


(1) Abraham got to the land, but almost right away he left and went to Egypt because of a famine (Genesis 12:10). While there, he tried to pass his wife off as his sister and got into a heap of trouble with the Pharaoh. 


I imagine Abraham said to himself, “Sigh, I should have stayed home in bed.” God probably said, “Yes, stay home in bed in the Promised Land!”


(2) Isaac, in Genesis 26, was thinking about leaving the Promised Land and going to Egypt because there was again, a famine in the land. God stopped him before he got his camel loaded:


2 And the LORD appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of: 3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father; (Genesis 26:2–3)


(3) After stealing the blessing from his brother Esau, Jacob left the Land and went to Haran to live with his uncle Laban. 


He married two sisters and got himself into more trouble than all his family combined. It took him twenty years to get back into the Land.


(4) Jacob’s sons forced his youngest son, Joseph into slavery in Egypt.


So Abraham and his family had a tendency to leave the Promised Land and therefore failed the test to stay in the Land over and over again.


6. The Judgment On Man


What was God’s judgment on Abraham’s family for failing the test to stay in the Land? Ironically, it was to be taken out of the Land and placed in bondage in Egypt for 400 years.


This was a hard lesson for the Israelites to learn. Why, even when they were leaving their Egyptian bondage, they whined and wanted to go back because there were better restaurants in Egypt.


And when the twelve spies checked out the Promised Land, ten of the spies convinced the people that it was too dangerous to go into the Land. Even after the judgment, they were still prone to not want to be in the Land!


7. God’s Display Of Grace


The great display of God’s grace was that, even after 400 years in a foreign land, they were still a distinct and separate people. 


And not only that, only 70 of them entered into Egypt at the beginning. At the end, there were, based on the biblical data, upwards of two million Israelites. Not only did they survive as a distinct people group, they flourished into a nation. All because of God’s grace.


One of the greatest arguments for me for the existence of the God of the Bible is the existence of Israel. How could a tiny nation survive so many attempts to be exterminated? How could Israel still be here on earth if not for the grace of a good God?



1. The Name


The Dispensation of Law is so named because it begins in Exodus 19, and the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. It’s one of the longest dispensations, lasting until Acts 1:26. 


Although the Ten Commandments are the most familiar piece of the Law, there are actually 613 commandments covering everything from government to daily living. Here’s a few to show you the breadth of the Law:


28 If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. 29 But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:28-29)


10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, 11 Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. (Deuteronomy 18:10–11)


5 When a man hath taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken. (Deuteronomy 24:5)


2. The Key Person


The key person is Moses. He was through whom God gave the Law and much of the revelation on which this dispensation is based.



3. The Responsibility Of Man


Man’s responsibility during this dispensation was twofold:


(1) Obey the Law! All 613 commandments.


10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. (James 2:10)


(2) Obey the prophets when they clarified the Law, expounded on the Law, and called people back to the Law.


4. The Test Of Man


The tests during this time were that:


(1) Obey the 613 commandments of the Law.


(2) Accept the Prophet Who would some day arise:


15 The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken…17 And the LORD said unto me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken. 18 I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. (Deuteronomy 18:15, 17–18)


This prophet, of course, would be Jesus Christ, who would come some 1,500 years after these words were spoken by Moses.


5. The Failure Of Man


The failure of man in the Dispensation of Law is well documented throughout the Old Testament. Suffice to say, man failed in every regard.


(1) They did not keep the Law. Jesus is the only man who did keep the Law perfectly. Recently, in our family devotions, we read from Luke:


21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 


22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; 23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. (Luke 2:21–24)


I explained to the kids that Jesus kept the Law in every way—even as a baby! His parents made sure that everything was done according to Law and, accordingly, no one could charge Him with ever breaking the law.


(2) They did not receive the promised Redeemer and Prophet.


11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not. (John 1:11)


They not only did not receive Him—they crucified Him. The one person who ever kept the Law of Moses in it’s entirety was executed!


6. The Judgment On Man


What were the judgments God sent on Israel? Primarily, God judged the Israelites by removing them from the Promised Land.


The Northern Kingdom, Israel, consisting of the ten tribes was taken away by the Assyrians in 722 BC. They never returned.


Judah was also carried away into captivity by the Babylonians in 586 BC. They did return to the Land.


For failing to accept the Redeemer when He came, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.  Afterwards, the Jews were dispersed throughout the world.


In 1948, Israel was established as nation once again. The non-dispensational Christian views Israel being a nation again as a mere coincidence (at least in prophetic terms). But the fact that Israel has been reestablished as a nation has to be significant. God is preparing to work with Israel again.


7. God’s Display Of Grace


(1) God provided judges, prophets, and kings. The ones who were righteous and God-fearing called the people to repentance when they had wandered away from following God and God’s Law.


The Bible tells of people like Samuel, David, Josiah, Isaiah and so on. These leaders were God’s grace being displayed to His people.


(2) God knew that the people would not be able to keep the Law and so He provided a sacrificial system to restore them to good standing with Himself. 


Our gracious God always provides a way for us to come back to Him when we fail. Today, of course, we rely on the sacrifice of His Son.




In the last lesson, we said that, in every dispensation, the way of salvation was by grace, through faith alone. If that is true (and it is), then what was the purpose of the Old Testament sacrifices? 


Did the Old Testament sacrifices do anything? Or were they merely symbolic of a person’s faith?


In the Old Testament, it appears that the sacrifices did have some sort of effect in the forgiveness of a person’s sins—


4 And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. (Leviticus 1:4)


But in the New Testament, it’s made clear that the sacrifices couldn’t buy forgiveness—


4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)


So what were the Old Testament sacrifices for? What did the people living in the Dispensation of Law think they were doing when they made a sacrifice?


1. Sacrifices Showed Love And Obedience


Giving sacrifices was a way of showing love and obedience to God. The Old Testament believer knew that God had commanded sacrifices to be made—and in the Dispensation of Law, it was a very precise and detailed system. 


A person who had faith in God would not just say, “Aw, forget the sacrifices—it’s so complicated—I think God understands…He knows my heart.” 


No, a faithful believer would say, “God has commanded this, and maybe I don’t understand why it’s so detailed, but I’m going to do it, because…God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” 


The Old Testament sacrifices didn’t do anything for a person unless they had faith. Just as today, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ doesn’t do anything for you unless you have faith in Him.


The Old Testament sacrifices were how a believer could show their faith—their love and obedience to God. By the way, Jesus showed his love for and obedience to the Father by the sacrifice of Himself.


2. Sacrifices Gave Temporary Forgiveness


The Old Testament sacrifices did something in regard to forgiving sins. 


They did not remove the guilt of a person permanently and absolutely before God. In this sense, they were inadequate. This is what the book of Hebrews is getting at.


But we can say that the sacrifices of the Old Testament did forgive sins in a temporary manner. This is why they had to make sacrifices over and over again. You could say that they provided a covering for sin.


When an Old Testament believer made a sacrifice, he was not deceived into doing something useless. The sacrifices did have an effect in the forgiveness of his sins, albeit a temporary one.


3. Sacrifices Taught That The Wages Of Sin Is Death


The Old Testament sacrifices taught the lesson that the wages of sin is death in a visual way. As Hebrews says,


22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. (Hebrews 9:22)


I cannot see how the Old Testament believer could not have picked up on that lesson. Not when you had to go out to your flock, pick out your best sheep, and see it slaughtered on an altar.


Our sins require blood to be forgiven—Jesus shed His blood for us!


4. Sacrifices Pointed To A Better Sacrifice To Come


The Old Testament sacrifices were shadows of a better sacrifice to come. I am not certain that many Old Testament believers picked up on this—but maybe some hoped as they sacrificed an animal for the hundredth time, that maybe God would send a better sacrifice.


Jesus Christ came and offered a better sacrifice—Himself. His sacrifice provides permanent forgiveness of sins. No other animal sacrifices need to be  made by the Christian. Hebrews says…


11 And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: 12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; (Hebrews 10:11–12)


Is your faith in the one sacrifice for sins forever? Is your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? If it is, you are welcome partake in the Lord’s Supper.




Note: two works that I relied on heavily in developing this sermon are:


(1) Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Dispensationalism. Rev. and expanded. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995.


(2) Based on Ryrie, by Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum.

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