Covenants and Dispensations

Growing up, I was fascinated with science, especially with the way the human body worked. Part of my fascination came from an illustrated book we owned, titled “The Human Body.” It was filled with hundreds of detailed pictures and diagrams of the various parts of the body and its systems.

One of the most interesting features of the book was a section in the middle with a number of clear pages, each depicting a different aspect of the body. It began with an overview of a man, and as every page was turned, a different layer was removed from his body. With the first page went the skin, revealing the muscles, ligaments, and blood vessels, followed by the nerves, organs, and so forth on subsequent pages, until all that remained was the skeletal structure.

Although that science book was a great aid to understanding the various systems in the human body, the reality is that none of those systems can operate independently from each other. They are all interwoven parts of the whole. It’s great to study the muscles, but one must bear in mind that they are only viable because of the nerves that excite them, the blood vessels that feed them, and the bones that they are attached to.

Like the human body, in learning to enjoy the Bible we must take care that we don’t become so focused on the particular parts that we lose sight of the whole. It’s not a book of independent sayings. Taking a systematic approach to the topics in the Bible can greatly aid our learning, but we must always bear in mind that the parts function only in the context of the bigger picture.

 

Understanding Covenants

In addition to a topical or historical approach, it’s also very helpful for us to understand that covenants are an important part of the Bible. A covenant is a legally binding agreement, and those found in the Bible are a big key to understanding God’s actions throughout history. By understanding the various covenants in the Bible we can see how, since the time of Adam, God has progressively revealed aspects of His plans and purposes.

A covenant in the Bible is much more than a promise; it’s a sacred agreement between God and man, each one a milestone marker in the road of history indicating what God is doing to save mankind. Below is a brief summary of the major covenants that God made:

  • The Covenant in Eden

In the Garden of Eden, there was a promise of stewardship and dominion between God and Adam. In return for Adam’s proper care of the earth and the animals, God gave him rulership over them. Adam was to be fruitful and multiply, and he was also to “work [the Garden] and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15 NIV) Man was obligated to obey God, specifically to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and if he disobeyed then the penalty would be death.

Genesis 1:28 (NIV)

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Genesis 2:15-17 (NIV)

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Hosea 6:7 (NIV)

As at Adam, they have broken the covenant; they were unfaithful to me there.

 

  • The Covenant with Adam

Adam violated his promise to God, which God had told him beforehand was punishable by death. However, instead of Adam dying immediately, God’s grace and mercy allowed for an animal to be substituted temporarily for him. God further promised that He would one day send a redeemer who would rescue mankind from sin and death. This was the very first revealing by God to man that His plan involved a redeemer who would suffer but who would also crush the head of God’s enemy, the Devil.

Genesis 3:15 (NIV)

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

 

  • The Covenant with Noah

In response to mankind’s great evil and wickedness, God executed judgment and flooded the earth, killing everyone except for Noah and his immediate family. In response to Noah’s obedience and his honoring of God, God promised that He would never again destroy life on earth with a flood. The rainbow was established as a sign of God’s promise.

Genesis 9:11-13 (NIV)

I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood… 12And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

 

  • The Covenant with Abraham

Following the Flood of Noah, people began to multiply once again and replenish the earth. About 400 years later, God called Abraham (originally known as Abram), directing him to leave the land of his fathers and travel west to an area now known as Israel—the Promised Land. In response to Abraham’s trust in God, God promised him that he would have numerous offspring and would be the father of many nations. (Genesis 17:4) God also promised that through Abraham’s offspring all the nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:3), a clear reference to the Messiah coming from Abraham’s descendants.

Genesis 22:17-18 (NIV)    

I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

This covenant further revealed God’s plan of redemption, and He reiterated it to Abraham’s descendants, specifically Isaac, Jacob, and the Nation of Israel.

 

  • The Covenant through Moses

The twelve sons of Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) and all of their families traveled to Egypt during a famine. Their offspring stayed there and were eventually enslaved by the Egyptians. Faithful to His promise, many years later God worked through Moses to bring them out of Egypt and to the land He had promised to Abraham.

God established a covenant with the Nation of Israel that He would provide for and protect them as long as they faithfully obeyed and served Him. This is oftentimes referred to as the Mosaic covenant, because God delivered it to Moses as the mediator between Himself and Israel. It included stipulations concerning their religious practices, moral behavior, governance, and culture, such as diet, clothing, cleansing, etc.

Most people are familiar with aspects of this covenant, such as the Ten Commandments; the covenant became commonly known as the Law. There were a few purposes for the Law, such as to separate the Nation of Israel as a distinct people from the rest of the world through whom God was going to bring the Messiah. It also demonstrated what having a holy relationship with God required, and most importantly, it pointed to the need for a redeemer.

 

  • The Covenant with David

David was the second king of Israel, and although he committed a number of serious sins, he humbly repented of his misdeeds and sought to serve God with great passion. God even said that David “was a man after God’s own heart,” and in response to David’s faithfulness, He promised that there would never be an end to his kingdom—an indication to David that the Messiah, the King of Kings, would be a descendant of his.

2 Samuel 7:8; 16 (NIV)

Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel…16Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

 

  • The New Covenant

After hundreds and hundreds of years of the people of Israel repeatedly failing to fulfill their side of the Mosaic covenant, God indicated that He would abolish the Covenant of the Law and institute a New Covenant, the Covenant of Grace. God revealed through the Prophet Jeremiah that a time would come when everyone would know the Lord; His law would be in their minds and written upon their hearts, and all of their sins would be forgiven.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NIV)

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the LORD. 33“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

This was the new covenant that Jesus established through his sacrificial death, but the fullness of it won’t be realized until he comes in the future and establishes his Millennial Kingdom on earth.

Understanding the various covenants provides us with significant information about what God is doing as He executes His plan of redemption.

 

Understanding Administrations in the Bible

In the United States, we elect a President who serves as the head of the executive branch of government. In the 200-plus years since the founding of our nation, we have had over forty Presidents, and when we view their performances we can see that there are clear differences in the way each has governed. We call these terms their “administrations,” meaning their “way of governing.” Similarly, there are differing “Administrations” (also known as “dispensations”) in the Bible—different ways that God has governed and dealt with man over time.

When we view the Bible through a dispensational lens, we can see that there are clear and distinct periods throughout history where God has governed differently. Going back to the analogy of the book on the human body, dispensationalism is another type of clear acetate laid over the history of mankind.

Below are 8 ways some dispensationalists observe the spiritual history of man and the movements of God:

 

  • Age of Innocence (or “Original Paradise”)

This was the time in the Garden of Eden when man lacked knowledge of good and evil. This dispensation ended when man sinned and was expelled from the Garden, and mankind, the animals, and the earth fell under a curse.

 

  • Age of Conscience

After being forced out of the Garden, man was still required to live rightly before God, which meant that he had to resist his desire to sin. God allowed people to offer a substitutionary sacrifice—a temporary covering for their sin. People were still answerable to God for their actions and it was up to them to govern according to their conscience.

Unfortunately, all of mankind became extremely wicked over time, so in His righteous judgment God sent a flood and wiped out all mankind except for Noah and his family. God promised to never flood the earth in judgment again, and this dispensation closed after the Flood.

 

  • The Age of Civil Government

Following the Flood of Noah, God established a covenant that he would no longer execute His justice and judgment upon humanity through a flood. He also instructed Noah to multiply and replenish the earth. It was during this time that man was responsible for governing his own affairs and that he had the authority and responsibility to enact the death penalty (Genesis 6:9). Man continued to rebel against God by building the tower of Babel, and God responded by confusing languages, which caused the people to disperse throughout the world. God then called Abraham, made a covenant with him, and ultimately raised up Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob as the Nation of Israel.

 

  • The Age of The Law

God heard the cry of the Israelites in Egypt and worked through Moses as His agent to bring them out of captivity. After the Exodus, God entered into a new covenant with the Nation of Israel: the Covenant of the Law. The Law served the following purposes:

 

  1. It established Israel as a nation.
  2. It provided a governmental structure (a combination of the sacred and the secular).
  3. It created religious distance between Israel and the pagan nations.
  4. It provided restraint for the evils of society.
  5. It offered instruction in fruitful living and how best to live life.
  6. It clearly defined sin and unholy behavior.
  7. It served as a tutor and instructor until Christ.
  8. It stood as a means of salvation (through faith).

Sadly, Israel repeatedly disobeyed God and underwent several cycles of punishment during the leadership of various judges and kings; they were eventually dispersed or enslaved after the period of kings.

Then the Messiah (Jesus) came; he was faithful to fulfill the whole Law, and established the New Covenant foretold by Jeremiah. The New Covenant was instituted with the death of Christ, and about 40 years later the final vestiges of the Mosaic Law were removed with the destruction of the Temple.

 

  • The Age of Grace

After Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant, the gift of holy spirit was given on the Day of Pentecost, and it’s still given to this day to all who accept Christ as their Lord and believe God has raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10). This is only a token of the fullness of the spirit that will be given when all of the New Covenant promises are realized as Jesus rules his Millennial Kingdom on earth.

The Administration of Grace is the age in which we now live, and one of the differences from past administrations that we enjoy is that those who become children of God by spiritual birth receive the gift of holy spirit and are no longer either Jews or Gentiles. Collectively, we are all referred to as members of the Body of Christ. He is our head and he is directing us as members of his Body. Many believe this age will come to an end when Jesus gathers the members of his Body in an event commonly known as “the Rapture,” a time when, in an instant, those who died having believed in Christ, and the living believers, will be given new bodies and taken up with Jesus to be with him forever.

  • The Age of Wrath

Following the Age of Grace, there will be a period of time, commonly believed to last for 7 years, in which the Devil will attempt to rule the entire world under one leader, a man devoted to him. This man will be called the “Son of Perdition” (KJV) or the Antichrist. This will be a time of great persecution and suffering, and, at some point during it, God will pour out His judgment, also known as His Wrath, upon mankind. This age will come to an end when Jesus returns with the armies of heaven, fights the Battle of Armageddon, conquers the earth, and binds Satan and casts him into prison for 1,000 years.

 

  • The Millennial Kingdom

During this age, Jesus will physically rule the earth for 1,000 years, and it will be completely healed and be a “paradise.” There are many Old Testament prophecies which indicate this will be a wonderful time of peace and safety, without sickness or war, and God will fulfill many of the promises He made to Abraham and his descendants concerning the Promised Land.

This Age will close with a final battle between the forces of good and evil. Satan and his followers will then be judged and destroyed in the Lake of Fire.

 

  • The Eternal Kingdom

In the Eternal Kingdom, the faithful will live forever with God and the Lord Jesus in the New Jerusalem, a heavenly city prepared by God for all who are faithful and love Him. Very few details are actually revealed about this final age.

By understanding the Covenants and various administrational changes in the Bible, we can gain a much greater understanding of how to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Although there are many ways we can view the story that is told in the Bible, what remains is that there is only one theme throughout: the theme of God’s rightful rulership.

1 Corinthians 15:24-28 (NIV)

Then the end will come, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

Once Jesus has brought everything back into the proper order—the order that God set in place “in the beginning”—then he will deliver it back to God, at which time God will once again say, “It is all very good.”

 

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2 comments

  1. I love how concise this booklet is! This is a great piece of work. Thank you! Who wrote this?

  2. The Law is both a covenant and an administration?

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