One of the more challenging aspects regarding God’s law is helping others understand the divisions between the laws found in our Bibles. While everything we have collected of God’s message is in a single bound volume, it’s not all one law. In order to understand which passages we should view as binding to ourselves as Christians, we need to understand those different sets of laws, who they apply to, and the time frame surrounding that system.
The Basic Dispensations
Where I am right now in my studies, it seems most logical to divide the Bible up into three distinct eras that contain their own laws and expectations. In theology-speak, we call those time periods dispensations. They are as follows:
- The Patriarchal Dispensation. This is contained roughly between Genesis 1 and Exodus 12. There’s room for debate about when this period actually started, but this range is a simple ballpark. During this period, there was no recorded law. God spoke directly to holy men that then made His will known to their families and tribes. This period ended with the delivery of the Mosaic law and the binding of the covenant at Sinai.
- The Mosaic Dispensation. This begins in Exodus 12, and it ends with the crucifixion. There is almost certainly a grace period after the crucifixion as the church does not come into existence until Acts 2. This time period is perhaps the most well-known set of laws as it contains the Ten Commandments. This is also the part of the Bible that contains the numerous feasts and sacrifices as well as things like stoning.
- The Christian Dispensation. This is where we are right now. This era really gets under way in Acts 2, but Jesus’ teachings prior to Acts 2 certainly inform the expectations of this new covenant. Unlike the Mosaic Dispensation, we don’t have a strictly codified law, but Jesus and His apostles set out a definite code of conduct those bearing the name Christian should follow. If they do not follow that code, Jesus makes it clear that they are not really Christians.
Within the first two, you can divide things up a bit more. During the Mosaic Dispensation for example, some laws adjusted depending on whether God’s people were yet to inherit the Promised Land, were already living in the Promised Land, or were in exile.
Keeping Things in Context
Romans 7: 1 – 6:
Or do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
Using marriage as an illustration, Paul is making the point that you cannot be both under the law of Moses and the law of Christ at the same time. The latter fulfilled and replaced the former. This is one of the main points of the entire book of Hebrews. We Christians live under a new and better covenant than God delivered through Moses. With the institution of the new covenant came a new law.
Hebrews 7:11 – 14:
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
A new covenant brings a new priesthood, and a new priesthood brings a new law. Nothing written in the law of Moses binds us today for we are under a whole new system. Our authority and our code of conduct comes from Jesus Christ and the word revealed by inspiration to His chosen apostles.
Dispensations and Doctrine
One of the things that can be confusing is that there are similarities between the dispensations. The promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the age of the patriarchs carry through the Mosaic Dispensation (in which they are partially fulfilled) and find themselves completely fulfilled in the Christian Dispensation. Furthermore, there are certainly similarities between the expectations and laws in each of these time periods.
However, because some laws and themes carry over from one to the next, it does not mean all do — especially where we see apparent contradictions between the covenants. In those cases, the words of Christ and His apostles carry greater authority than the words given through Moses. Take the food restrictions of Leviticus as an example.
Leviticus 11:1 – 8:
And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Nevertheless, among those that chew the cud or part the hoof, you shall not eat these: The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the rock badger, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.
Now contrast this to Acts 10:9 – 15 when God assures Peter that he should take the gospel to the Gentiles:
The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
Here, the subject is really the fact that the gospel is to be delivered to Jew and non-Jew alike, but it also signals the end of the dietary restrictions God placed on His people during the Mosaic Dispensation. This principle is also reiterated in Paul’s letter to the Romans. This is not a contradiction in God’s law; it is merely a new law replacing the old.
Here’s one more example — this time regarding adultery — from Deuteronomy 22:22 – 23:
If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.
If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
In the New Testament, Jesus also clearly condemns adultery in Matthew 5:27 – 30:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Here the difference is more nuanced. Moses instructed a direct physical consequence for those caught in the act of adultery. Jesus requires no such action, instead turning our minds to the eternal spiritual consequences of such actions. In fact, nowhere in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament is there any indication that the church should harm or kill anyone for punishment of sin. Therefore, while we Christians should hold ourselves to Christ’s standard regarding morality, we are out of line if we preach as necessary physical Mosaic punishments on those who fall short of the standard. Whenever we find discrepancies between the laws of Christ and those set forth in previous covenants, Christ’s law is always what we defer to.
- Most sources of apparent Biblical contradictions come from misunderstanding the divisions between dispensations.
- Each new dispensation brought new things for God’s people. This includes new laws.
- Where apparent contradictions exist, we defer to what we find in the teachings of Christ and His apostles.
When approaching passages that contain contradictory instructions, this should hopefully keep things clear in our heads.
For experienced Christians, keeping these in mind helps us to rightly divide the truth. Throughout the letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, the writers of the New Testament make the distinction between the new and old laws clear. Paul and others had to deal with topics of circumcision, of feasts and observances, and of food restrictions. They even condemned those who would try to bind the tenets of the Mosaic Law upon Christians as lasting requirements to be pleasing to God.
We who preach and teach God’s word should be careful about doing the same. It sows confusion among those who are not as Bible literate, and it undermines the better covenant Christ died for. It is right to stand for Christ and hold fast to His teachings. But let’s be careful about keeping the law of Moses where it belongs: in the past. Through it, we can learn many qualities of God, and it reveals a shadow of the better things to come. The law and the prophets point to Christ. Now that Christ has been revealed to us, and He has provided us the perfect and spiritual covenant leading to salvation, let’s keep our faith in that and that alone.