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by Ken Overby
When Abraham heard these seminal words, “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: 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 12:2-3, the ultimate impact of these promises most likely escaped him, at least in how far reaching these promises would be.
Dr. Charles C. Ryrie described the significance of this new era; “Until this dispensation, all mankind had been directly related to God’s governing principles. Now God marked out one family and one nation and in them made a representative test of all.”1 The scriptural origin of the “Dispensation of Promise” is found in Genesis 12:2-3; 13:14-17 and in 15:2-6. Hebrews gives us the title “Promise.” Abraham “obtained the promise,” Hebrews 6:15. The timeline of the Dispensation of Promise is recorded from Genesis 12 through Exodus 18.
The nation of Israel was not present at the start of the Dispensation of Promise, but the seed of her existence is planted in the promise to Abraham when God said, “I will make of thee a great nation.” By the end of this dispensation Israel would be a nation standing before God at Mt. Sinai ready to receive the Law, and the initiation of the next dispensation.
The Dispensation of Promise was based on the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant. Its purpose was to secure a lineage through which the Redeemer would come to bless all the families of the Earth with the gift of righteousness by faith.
When God promised Abraham his offspring would number as the stars of heaven, his response became the touch-stone of faith for every man. “He believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness,” Genesis 15:6. Paul succinctly describes Abraham’s acceptance of God’s promise, “And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness,” Romans 4:20-22.
The development of Abraham’s offspring would spark a contention that lives with us to this day. Initially, Genesis 15:2-4, Abraham appealed to God for Eliezer of Damascus as the heir, which God rejected and said it would be from the loins of him (Abraham) that God’s promise(s) would be fulfilled. Initially believing this promise and obtaining righteousness through God’s grace and his faith, it wouldn’t be long before Abraham’s faith wavered.
In the very next chapter, Genesis 16, we learn that Sarah is barren and implores Abraham to raise up a child through her hand-maid, Hagar. Abraham’s disobedience resulted in the birth of Ishmael. Ishmael was not the son of the promised lineage, but his birth reverberates to this very day through his Arab offspring who despise the people of promise, the Jews of Israel and the Jews throughout the world. The promise would come through Isaac, Genesis 17, 18, 21.
The promise of a nation and a people would be continued through Jacob, Genesis 28, not Esau. In the twelve sons of Jacob the nation of Israel would be born. Israel, in the Dispensation of Promise, would be brought onto the world scene so God could work out His basic promises to Israel and the world.
The pinnacle of fulfillment of the promise is Jesus. Paul reminds us that before circumcision, “faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness,” Romans 4:9-10. The entrance of the next dispensation, Law, never annulled the efficacy of this promise. Our eternal security, as well as salvation for Israel past, is based on receiving an unconditional promise in faith.
The Dispensation of Law is titled from the words divinely etched on Sinai stone. The “Torah,” Hebrew for Law, according to the Rabbis, included 613 commandments containing the moral, civil, and ceremonial requirements of Hebrew life and worship. Their content is catalogued in Exodus 20 – Deuteronomy 34. The origin and purpose of the Law, was revealed to Moses; “ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people…And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation,” see Exodus 19:3-8. After three days at the foot of Sinai, they saw God’s glory and heard the thunderous sound of His voice, Exodus 19:17-19.
With the fresh scars of Egyptian stripes on their backs, these words resonated deeply. “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” Exodus 20:2-3. Toward the end of his life Moses let the next generation in on the emotional impact that this event had on their parents. At Sinai they had pleaded, “Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, then we shall die…speak thou unto us all that the LORD our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it, and do it,” Deuteronomy 5:24-27. Picking back up at Exodus, “Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not,” Exodus 20:19-21.
The meek aged Moses couldn’t go to his grave without divulging God’s most tender thoughts, expressed at their parent’s acceptance of His covenant. “O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever!,” Deuteronomy 5:28-29. God desired a relationship in which Israel would fear Him and keep His commandments so that He could shower them with national and individual blessings. The key to that relationship individually was a repentant “heart in them” and complete trust in Him as their source of atonement and righteousness.
The purpose of the Law was to keep Israel distinct from the pagan nations surrounding her. In the Law was set forth the standard of moral character to be displayed in them that would best reflect God’s absolute Holiness. The key to fellowship and blessing was their obedience to the divinely revealed Law. The Law was never intended as a means of salvation but a governing system for the nation of Israel. Obedience was followed by blessing and disobedience was followed by cursing for the nation. His awesome display of power at Sinai was as inexorably fixed in their minds like God’s words on the stones, but would their hearts invite His divine inscription?
Their failure to lovingly obey Him and love one another would continually remind them of their need to abandon the establishment of their own righteousness and receive His righteousness. The Levitical system and the Tabernacle allowed access for law breakers by the required blood sacrifices and offerings. The animal sacrifices set the pattern of a blood stained way to approach a Holy God. It would both temporarily atone for their sins and be a continual reminder that they were yet unclean at heart, Hebrews 10:3-4. “The Mosaic Law never functioned as a way of salvation, but it did function as a rule of life,”2 Galatians 2:16. This Dispensation of Law was in effect by national covenant. Every Israelite citizen was potentially under penalty of death whether or not they individually had personal faith in the God of the Abrahamic promise.
The Mosaic (Law) Dispensation stayed in effect from Exodus 19 to the last breath of Jesus on Calvary. “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross,” Colossians 2:14. Today God wants Jewish people to accept their Messiah (not obey the Law) who fulfilled the Law.
The universal “Blesser” foreseen in the promise to Abraham had to bear the curse of the law while under the law Himself and atone for the sin of His own brethren who broke that Mosaic code. “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,” Galatians 4:4. “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ,” John 1:17. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ,” Galatians 3:13-14.
Those under the Mosaic Law could enjoy salvation and forgiveness of sin, not obtaining it through the keeping of the Law, but through the receiving of the Promise, of whom they were the people God used to bring the Promise, Jesus, into the world.
1 Dispensationalism, Charles C. Ryrie, Moody Bible Institute, 2007, p. 61
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