The Dispensations: Law

Dispensational theology is a view of biblical revelation that recognizes distinctions in the way God administers His purposes for man and through man over the sweeping arc of redemptive history, while embracing His over-arching purposes to glorify His name. One of the clearest proofs of Dispensational Theology is the distinction made in the Scriptures between law and grace. The law, and the administration that existed under it, is contrasted repeatedly with the current age of grace in numerous New Testament passages, especially in books such as Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. The era of law spanned approximately 1500 years, beginning at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 and running through to the “place called Calvary” (as Luke describes it), just outside the walls of Jerusalem.


The Dispensation of Law begins with the most extensive and detailed revelation from God that the world had experienced to that point in its history. The awesome reality of the event is described by the psalmist: “The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God: even Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God” (Psa 68:8).[1] The writer of Hebrews describes a mount that “burned with fire” and tells us that “so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake” (Heb 12:18,21).

Exodus 20 begins with what are commonly called “the Ten Commandments,” but the subsequent chapters outline more than 600 different detailed laws and regulations. Dispensational revelation is, in general, progressive; no dispensation contradicts what came before it, but with the commencement of each successive dispensation divine revelation is progressively expanded.

The inauguration of the Dispensation of Law provided the most detailed and expansive revelation yet provided to man. It revealed, as never before, the righteous character of God, His absolute holiness and His abhorrence of sin. It also revealed, though, God’s deep desire to dwell among His people (“let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them,” Exo 25:8), and a means of approach so that His people could enjoy His presence in their midst (through the system of offerings and the accompanying priesthood). Finally, the revelation of law provided remarkable foreshadowing of what was ultimately to come in Christ, as expounded so eloquently throughout the epistle to the Hebrews.


As with the previous two dispensations (the Dispensation of Human Government and the Dispensation of Promise), the Dispensation of Law begins with a covenant. But there is one significant distinction between what is known as “the Mosaic” covenant and the covenants with Noah and with Abraham that pre-dated it. As noted in previous articles, those covenants were unconditional: God stated what He was going to do, and bound Himself to fulfilling His word by enshrining His promises in a covenant. But with the Mosaic covenant there is the introduction of a definite condition. At the very beginning of His communication to Moses, the Lord instructs him to tell the people, “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people” (Exo 19:5). The last book of the Pentateuch reiterates this condition: “It shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth” (Deu 28:1). The original recipients of the law understood perfectly its claims and their responsibility. When Moses outlined to them the Lord’s direct, conditional promise, “all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Exo 19:8).


Despite the people’s unanimous and, no doubt, well-intentioned promise, their failure was both immediate and spectacular. Moses had not yet even descended the mountain with the divinely inscribed stone tablets, and the people had already deliberately, blatantly and flagrantly rebelled against God and were bowing down to a golden calf. This was just the beginning of a sordid, tragic path of disobedience and unbelief that marked the multitude traversing the wilderness. It rose to a crescendo at Kadesh-Barnea in their refusal to listen to Caleb and Joshua, and then, sadly, continued to mark the majority of the nation in a tragic way through the remainder of Old Testament history, and right through to Christ’s time here on earth. The ultimate act of rebellion under law would culminate in a tragic day on the slopes of Golgotha, when the leaders of the people would deliberately and decisively reject God’s Son, crying to the Roman governor, “Away with Him, crucify Him!”


Man’s failure under law brought swift and devastating consequences. Thirty-eight years of wandering in the wilderness was the direct result of the people’s unbelief and disobedience. Because of their refusal to believe God and to obey His word, none of the adults who left Egypt were permitted to enter the promised land, save Joshua and Caleb. Divine judgment would fall on them again and again even after they eventually entered Canaan.

Over the centuries, they would experience captivity, exile and oppression under the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Romans. Their final rejection of Christ would eventually result in the utter destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of the temple in A.D. 70 under Titus (then a Roman military commander, eventually to become the Roman Emperor). Excellent insight into this dreadfully tragic event and its fulfilment of the curses pronounced in Deuteronomy 28 can be found on pages 180-187 in Mark Sweetnam’s excellent book The Dispensations – God’s Plan for the Ages.


The New Testament makes it clear that the law was never intended to be a permanent administration. Its sacrifices could never take away sin (Heb 10:1-4). It was only ever intended to point forward to Christ: “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24 ESV). The law was not, however, some sort of a failed experiment. It is important to remember that the law in itself was “holy, and just, and good” (Rom 7:12). The weakness was in man (Rom 8:3). We should never forget that while the law spotlighted the sorry failure of fallen man, it was also the administration under which the second man was introduced – and this man would never fail. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:4-5 ESV). The spectacular failure of God’s earthly people under the Dispensation of Law was (and is) tragic – but it is not terminal. God will yet fulfill His unconditional promises to the nation of Israel (as will be seen in subsequent articles).

But in the meantime, He has something new and glorious that He is unfolding. In our next article we will consider our current era, where God’s grace is richly displayed, God’s Spirit is uniquely employed, God’s gospel is spreading out to all the world (not just Israel), and Christ’s Church is being built.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.