I prefer to think of dispensationalism as the recognition that God has dispensed His governing authority differently during different stages of history.
From Adam to Noah
From Noah to the Mosaic law.
New Testament Church
The Earthly Kingdom Promised to Israel
The New Heavens and New Earth
Capital punishment was not authorized until Genesis 9:6 (This may be the reason Cain was not immediately put to death.) The eating of meat was not authorized until then. (Genesis1:29-30, 9:3). So most “dispensationalists” consider the time after Noah a new dispensation.
There were requirements newly dispensed in the Law of Moses. An example is the introduction of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering, and the requirement that all male Israelites come “before the Lord” three times a year. (Exodus 23: 14-17, 34:223-24). So “dispensationalists” refer to the dispensation of the Law of Moses.
After the resurrection of Christ the three feasts are not required (Colossians 2:16). Their significance was associated with agriculture in the Promised Land. After the death and resurrection of Christ the Mosaic laws regarding sacrifices were obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). So “dispensationalists” refer to a new dispensation.
There are other beliefs not required by my simple explanation that are associated with the label “dispensationalism.” These include the expectation that the Old Testament promises to Israel will be fulfilled literally. There will be a physical, utopian kingdom. These promises are not satisfied figuratively within the church. This kingdom is not the same as the eternal new heaven and new earth.
Should New Testament Believers Obey Old Testament Rules?
The following verses indicate a New Testament believer’s freedom from the Mosaic Law.
John 4:21 “… the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.” Was worship a focus of the feasts? If so, perhaps John 4:21 replaces Deuteronomy 16:16, which stipulates that “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses ….” (He chose Jerusalem).
John 5:16-18 Some Jews persecuted Jesus because He healed a man on a Sabbath. I would have expected Jesus to deny that a healing amounted to work; instead He grants the accusation and says “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.” Thus we can know that working on a Sabbath is not contrary to the character of God.
Acts 15:5 The apostles and Jerusalem elders were consulted regarding a dispute. In regard to converted Gentiles, some Pharisees said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and command them to keep the law of Moses.” After much dispute had occurred, Peter asked, “… why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” The Jerusalem leaders wrote to the Gentile brethren: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality ….” Neither circumcision nor most of the Mosaic law were deemed “necessary.”
Romans 6:14 ” … you are not under law ….”
Romans 7:4-6 A believer’s devotion to the law is replaced by devotion to the Holy Spirit. “… you also have become dead to the law ….” “Also” refers to a widow now freed from obligation to her dead husband. The New Testament believer has “become dead to the law” and thus may be “married to another.” “But now we have been delivered from the law … so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit ….”
OT believers were not “dead to the law” (vs 4); they had not “been delivered from the law (vs 6).
The Mosaic law, in Leviticus 12:3, decreed …”the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
I Corinthians 7: 18-19 changes the decree: “Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing ….”
II Corinthians 3: 6 [ God ] “made us … ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” A believer’s devotion to the law is replaced by devotion to the Holy Spirit.
Galatians 3:19 The law “was added …till the Seed should come ….” The seed has come.
Galatians 3:24-25 “… the law was our tutor … we are no longer under a tutor.”
Galatians 5:3 “I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.” Paul has been urging people not to accept circumcision as a spiritual obligation. Doing so has an inappropriate consequence – being “a debtor to keep the whole law.”
Galatians 5:18 “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” A believer’s devotion to the law is replaced by devotion to the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 2:15 “… having abolished … the law of commandments ….”
I Timothy 1:9 “the law is not made for a righteous person … for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers ….”
Hebrews 7:12 “For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law.”
Hebrews 8:13 “Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
Hebrews 10:9 “He takes away the first that He may establish the second.”
Pondering an objection: Matthew 5:17-19 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. …till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” In light of the verses on pages 1 and 2 above I assume that “all is fulfilled.”
Never were people declared righteous before God by satisfying the requirements of a law. People have always been justified by grace through faith. However, from the time of Moses until the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the people of Israel were obligated to live by the specific instructions given in the law of Moses. Under the “dispensation” of the church, the people of God are no longer obliged to obey that law.
At all times and situations what God has sought from people can be summarized as “positive response” – submissive, trusting, and respectful response. The details of such response vary with the situation and time period. For OT Israelites, positive response included attempting to fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic law.
Some aspects of the Mosaic law are now irrelevant or obsolete. Sacrificing lambs is obsolete because Jesus has been sacrificed. Circumcision as a religious requirement is obsolete because it was the sign of a covenant to which we are not a party. However, we are to “pursue righteousness” (I Timothy 6:11). God expects us to “catch on” to His values and priorities partly from a consideration of the Mosaic law. For example, we are no longer required to build a railing for our roof; however, that OT requirement teaches us that it is righteous to provide for safety.
A father makes a law for his young children: You may not enter the street alone. They are given little or no room to vary from the strict requirement of that law. Even if a ball needs to be retrieved from the street, they were not to enter the street alone. As teenagers, they are not under that law. They are permitted to enter the street alone. Indeed, in some situations it would be wrong for them not to enter the street alone. However, the father expects them to continue respecting the underlying principle of that law, namely that there are dangers attached to walking in the street. Now they have greater freedom and greater responsibility regarding the street. Like most illustrations, mine is limited in applicability. For example, it seems that Old Testament saints did have some responsibility to discern the “spirit” of the law. But I believe the thrust of the illustration is correct. New Testament Christians are not under the Mosaic law. The indwelling Holy Spirit gives us a capacity to fulfill the intent of the Old Testament law while living a freer and more responsible life to the glory of God.
There are details and principles of righteousness which are standard for men of all time periods.1 They abide. Sometimes the clearest statement of such a standard is found in the Old Testament. We ought to search the Old Testament as part of our hungering and thirsting for righteousness. We can expect the Old Testament to help us “approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law….” (Romans 2:18). At the same time, there are details of requirement in the Old Testament from which we have died (Romans 7:4).
“Sin is lawlessness.” I John 3:4 We are to have a “law abiding” mentality in the sense that we want to do what is best even though we have some latitude.
1Wayne G. Strickland uses the title “torah” for those abiding moral standards that Abraham obeyed (Genesis 26:5). They underlie the Mosaic Law, the teaching of Jesus (including “the law of Christ” (John 13:34, Galatians 6:2), and the law to be written on the hearts of New Covenant participants. (Five Views on Law and Gospel, Stanley N.Gundry, ed., p. 215).
Some have thought that God’s unchanging character requires that His laws never change. But God’s requirements for mankind have changed. Apparently, prior to the Flood men were not permitted to eat meat; after the Flood they were (Gen.1:29, Gen.9:3). Genesis 9:3 does not mention any forbidden meats; the Mosaic Law does. The Mosaic Law made wide provision for divorce (Deut. 24:1), Jesus Christ did not (Matt. 5:31-32). Leviticus 17:3-4 required that every slain ox, lamb, or goat be brought to the tabernacle. Deuteronomy 12: 15, 20-22 revised the rule, due to different circumstances. Matthew 5:33-34 records Jesus upgrading the law (Lev.19:12) regarding oaths.
Rather than saying that every law reflects the character of God, it seems better to say that every law reflects the unfailing wisdom of God in regard to man’s well-being. And the best choice for a man’s well-being does change. It changes with history; it changes according to one’s access to God.
When faced with the cry “That’s not fair!” my dad firmly rejected any intention of treating all his children alike, because we were not all alike. We might be sent to bed at different times and we might begin driving at a different age. I suppose the Israelites of Moses’ day, because of the hardness of their hearts, were better off with a more liberal rule on divorce. And God, in His wisdom, exercised a different tolerance. His character never changed.
A long time ago God created angels. At another time He created people. God did not change His mind about angels, but He wanted a new kind of creature. Beginning with Abraham, God created something new: a special nation, Israel. God gave Israel promises and laws never before given. That does not mean God erred in His prior creations. But He wanted something new. After the resurrection of Jesus Christ God created a new group – a new body of people, the Church. God gave this new body new resources, new freedoms, and new responsibilities. Chief among the new resources is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Some of God’s intentions for the Church are the same as for Israel. Some are different. The Mosaic Law applied to Israel in ways that it does not apply to the Church. Requirements for Israel were appropriate to Israel; now requirements for the Church are appropriate to it. Members of the Church should learn from God’s interaction with Israel. But there are characteristics unique to each.
Consider this analogy. Larry and Gwen created a family. There were rules that applied to the children in that family. Scott (son of Larry and Gwen) and Jan created a new family. Some of the rules and procedures in the Scott/Jan family are the same as in the Larry/Gwen family. Some differ. If Scott and Jan are wise, they will learn from the Larry/Gwen family and adopt some of the same rules and procedures. But it is expected that some rules and procedures in the Scott/Jan family will differ from the Larry/Gwen family. The resources, obstacles, circumstances, and personalities differ. Thus it is reasonable that some rules and procedures will differ.
The Mosaic law is designed to educate all believers (I Corinthians 10:11). But it is a set of requirements, prohibitions, and penalties addressed to the nation of Israel. The introduction to the Ten Commandments addresses Israel. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt ….” Portions of the Mosaic Law reflect abiding morals that exist apart from the Mosaic Law. That abiding law is recognized by the conscience.
While New Testament believers share some aspects of Israel’s heritage, they are not citizens of Israel. For a citizen of Israel circumcision was fundamental. In Christ Jesus, circumcision avails nothing (Galatians 6: 15). (The phrase “Israel of God” in Galatians 6.16 may refer to those national Israelites who are born again).
Can Christians benefit from observing selected Old Testament laws? I’m strongly convinced we can. For example, I conclude that physical circumcision is a healthy practice. The dietary laws warrant a pause. We do well to think twice about whom we will charge interest on a loan.
Will a New Testament lifestyle result in significant, discernable differences between the Christian and the worldling? Yes; I have listed a few. (1) Avoiding uncleanness will separate us from much of the popular media offerings. Romans 1:24, II Corinthians 12:21, Ephesians 5:3. (2) A lifestyle geared to sharing with those in need will distinguish us from peers. Luke 3:ll. (3) A zeal for evangelism will color our reputation. Matthew 28: 19. (4) A commitment to local church “community” practices will be noticed by our neighbors. John 13:35.
Jesus made it clear that a Torah law may be superseded by need in a situation. Examples of this include David and his men eating the tabernacle bread (Matt. 12:3-4), by priests performing their work on the Sabbath (Matt. 12: 5), by rescuing a sheep on the Sabbath (Matt. 12: 12:11), by Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath (Matt. 12: 10,13), and by God the Father working on the Sabbath (John 5:16-17). (I doubt that a law which stems from the character of God could ever be superseded).
It can be consistent with Torah principle to conclude that current circumstances warrant by-passing a Mosaic requirement. This is illustrated by exceeding the speed limit during a rush to the hospital emergency room. Someone might conclude that modern conditions warrant neglecting three annual trips to Jerusalem. One might conclude that current conditions warrant wearing clothes made from mixed fabric.
The supposition that every Mosaic law had good rationale (moral, religious, health, etc.) motivates one to contemplate each law. The fact that I am not “under law,” allows me freedom and a lack of pressure as I contemplate a law.
“For out of Zion (the location of God’s earthly headquarters) shall go forth the law ….” Here, as often in the Old Testament, the “law” is grand and attractive.
How can we reconcile such references to law with New Testament descriptors like “weak,” “oldness,” “not of faith” and “obsolete?” (Romans 8:3, Romans 7:6, Galatians 3:12, Hebrews 8:13).
It is common for a word to have multiple definitions. “I love my wife” uses a different (though over-lapping) definition of love than “I love ice cream.” To say “a realtor sells homes” uses “home” differently than “my wife is a homemaker.” A “cool” T-shirt is different than a “cool” reception. Scripture uses different definitions for a single word. “For God so loved the world” uses “world” differently than “love not the world.” Jesus spoke of an existing kingdom along with a future kingdom. Thus it is not strange for “law” to have more than one referent.
My conclusion is that the Mosaic Law was a temporary derivative (adaptation) of abiding law, issued to one nation, and especially useful for a season.
I conclude that the law grand and attractive, hailed by the psalmists, ordering a new kingdom ( Isaiah 2:3) is referred to in Ephesians 1:5 as the “good pleasure of His will.”
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.