PART TWO: Understanding the Jewish Dispensation and its Principles
In order to gain a solid understanding of Scripture, one needs only to consider the existence of three dispensations – the Jewish, the Christian, and the future millennium. The Jewish dispensation is the first one in a simple progressing order. It began with a sovereign work of God delivering the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It ended many years later with the Romans destroying Jerusalem and the temple, after the Jews became guilty of crucifying God’s Son. Because this first dispensation has ended, it is past history and the easier one to study and understand. This part of the book discusses all things Jewish, as they are associated with this first dispensation.
Chapter Three – The Jewish Dispensation
The Jewish dispensation has already ended with the setting aside of Israel by God. He did this when they rejected and killed His Son (Matt. 21:33–44). The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in 70 AD was the physical declaration of this end. God had effectively stopped the practice of Judaism. The word of God testified that Israel’s first covenant had grown old and became obsolete, that it was time for it to vanish away (Heb. 8:13). Hundreds of years before this, by the Spirit of God, the prophet Isaiah predicted this would happen (Isa. 5:1–7). Having rejected their Messiah, Israel had rejected the promises of God. They had rejected the Messianic kingdom. God takes this away from the Jews, saying,
“Call his name Lo-Ammi, for you are not my people, and I will not be your God.” (Hos. 1:9, Matt. 21:43)
The world was complicit with the Jews in crucifying Jesus. It was, in fact, a Roman cross Jesus was nailed to. The world does share in the guilt of crucifying its true King (John 1:10). However, the prophecies and promises from God, forming the hope of Messiah’s coming, were always specifically given to the Jews (John 1:11, Rom. 9:4–5). It was to Israel alone God had committed His oracles (Rom. 3:1–2). And certainly, God’s ways in dealing with the world during the Jewish dispensation all centered on Israel and through them.
If we recognize the existence of a Jewish dispensation – a period of time in which the nation of Israel was responsible for the testimony of God in the world – then by viewing biblical evidence as well as historical events, we can say with confidence that God has, in fact, ended this dispensation. Because of hind-sight, it becomes the easiest dispensation to study and view in its entirety; it is from the Jewish dispensation we are likely to gain the most general information about dispensational principles. Although we are presently in the Christian dispensation, it is the Jewish dispensation which sets the pattern for dispensational thinking and teachings.
The history of this dispensation starts with the beginning of the book of Exodus and the birth of Israel as a nation, and continues through the remaining Old Testament books to Malachi. This history includes many prominent events: The giving of the law and priesthood at Mt. Sinai, the wilderness experience, entrance of the nation into the land, prophets and kings, tabernacle and temple, etc. At the beginning of the New Testament we find that the four gospels and the book of Acts are mixtures of Jewish and Christian teachings. These five books contain most of the transitional passages. They are the books which deal directly with the period of transition between the first two dispensations. This totals forty-three books of the Bible that are involved to some extent in telling the history of this dispensation, as well as describing its principles and character.
It becomes critical that we recognize the importance of the positioning of Matthew’s gospel at the beginning of the New Testament. It is characteristically dispensational. It contains many passages showing the transition from Judaism to Christianity. It also uses unique phrases found nowhere else in Scripture. It directly references the new Christian dispensation. John’s gospel is somewhat different from the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in that Israel is set aside in his first chapter (John 1:11). In all John’s writings, the Jews are portrayed by the Spirit of God as rejected morally. Historical events in the book of Acts also serve as significant markers of the transition between the Jewish and Christian dispensations (Acts 7:59–60, 10:44–45, 28:26–28). The destruction of Jerusalem was the definitive end of Jewish things.
The Jewish dispensation spans a long period of time. It starts with the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt by God’s mighty demonstrations of power (Deut. 11:2–7). This was the sovereign grace that began the dispensation. God’s own testimony was that He bore Israel on eagle’s wings and brought them to Himself (Ex. 19:4). When they saw the thunderings and lightnings of God’s presence come down on Mt. Sinai, the Jews, as a nation, promised to do all that the Lord had spoken (Ex. 19:8). This declaration set the stage for the giving of the law to Israel as a covenant God would make with them. The law would be what they were responsible for “doing”, and if they obeyed, they would become a special treasure to God above any other people or nation (Ex. 19:5). God’s intention was to bring Israel into the land by driving out their enemies before them, to physically bless them above measure, and to exalt them as special to Him above all other nations on the earth (Deut. 7:1–26, 8:1–20).
However, the covenant of law was conditional. God had said to the people, if you obey My commandments, if you obey My voice and keep My covenant, if you keep My statutes and judgments which I command you today, to observe them (Ex. 19:5, Deut. 7:11, 8:1). The blessings of the covenant were conditional, depending on the obedience of the nation to God’s law and commandments. This was Israel’s responsibility as a nation. This was the responsibility associated with the dispensation. The corporate body having this responsibility was Israel. If in general they obeyed, as a nation God would exalt them above all others. This is what Israel signed up for when they promised,
“All that the Lord has said we will do and be obedient.” (Ex. 24:7)
Let’s take a moment and discuss certain terms relating to Israel’s religion. We frequently use the phrase, “the Law of Moses.” We could substitute for this by saying “the law of God.” I believe these two are the same. Also, the law was the covenant Jehovah made with Israel. The practice of the law was the keeping of the covenant. The term “Judaism” refers to the religion of the Jews and is found used by the Spirit of God through Paul (Gal. 1:13–14). It is the practice of the law by the Jews and their efforts to be blessed by keeping it as a covenant. However, I do not doubt that through time many Rabbis and teachers added their own words and practices to the law, and Judaism became a watered-down mixture of God’s and man’s statutes. Still, in the early history of Israel, the practice of Judaism was the practice of the law, and was more what God had originally given at Mt. Sinai and during the time of the wilderness experience.
There are other important dispensational understandings related to Judaism. Obviously, God gave Israel the law, making a conditional covenant with the nation. Because it was the worship of the one true God, it made Judaism the one true religion in the world at that time. All the religions of the Gentiles were false and essentially the worship of demons and idols (1 Cor. 10:20, Rev. 9:20). As Judaism’s author and source, God Himself sanctioned it. In a quick summary, the law is the covenant, and the practice of the law is the religion we call Judaism. These are basically the same ideas. Israel’s dispensational responsibility, at least at the outset, was to practice the law and thereby keep the covenant. Their blessings as a nation were dependent on this. One final thought along this line – Judaism is the only religion that can be properly linked to the Jewish dispensation. Therefore, we will find that the principles of the Jewish dispensation will be the same as the principles of Judaism.
Here is another question we should have when considering the Jewish dispensation – What may we say about the actual state of the people? I will assume we would all agree that the nation of Israel was the corporate body given responsibility for the testimony of God during the Jewish dispensation. Just as the religion of Judaism is associated with the Jewish dispensation, so is Israel as the corporate body. But what was their actual spiritual state? In order to properly answer this, I state a biblical fact and certainty – from Adam on, all men, without exception, were fallen sinners. By nature, that is by birth, sin passed to every man, bringing with it mortality and death. All mankind is identified with Adam as condemned. By this first man, judgment came to all men resulting in condemnation (Rom. 5:12–19).
Were the Jews excluded from this fallen and condemned state because they were God’s chosen people? We admit that by natural birth they were the physical descendants of Abraham. But would this mean they were no longer the children of Adam? Or this may be a better question – during the confines of the Jewish dispensation, did God ever do anything for Israel that fundamentally or internally changed the moral state the people inherited from Adam?
Scripture speaks of God saying He redeemed the nation of Israel (Ex. 6:6, 15:13, Deut. 7:8, 9:26). But what does He mean by using this word, “redeemed”? When we look at the events referred to by its use in these passages, Israel’s redemption was a change of geographical location by which they were no longer slaves under the servitude and bondage of the Egyptians. Outwardly, they were free from their previous position and escorted to a new place that God had prepared for them (the Promised Land). Israel’s redemption was all external and physical. Their sins were covered over by the blood of a sacrificed lamb so that God could pass over them without judgment (a ritual which later would be necessary for the people to repeat every year). Their deliverance amounted to getting up the next morning, packing their belongings, and walking out of Egypt through the Red Sea. God had miraculously provided a safe passage for Israel through it, while later destroying Pharaoh’s army in it.
Israel’s redemption never included a moral or spiritual change of heart for the people. It never changed their Adam state. Instead it was all outward and external changes in their physical circumstances. Their redemption was in the flesh. It was good enough for certain things to change. The Jews would now be called special by God. They would be labeled God’s chosen people (Deut. 7:6–9, 26:18). This was good enough for God to come down from heaven and live in the midst of Israel. For the very first time in the history of creation, God’s manifested presence would remain on the earth, the direct result of Israel’s redemption. Yet, for all that, the individual Jew remained the same morally – a fallen sinner. They were still the sons of Adam; they were still born of Adam; they were still man “in Adam” or “in the flesh.”
This is an important comprehension which always needs clarity in our thinking, particularly as it relates to the Jewish dispensation. Israel was made special by the sovereign choice of God, simply because they were the physical descendants of Abraham. But these advantages, and the privileges which accompanied them, never meant the Jews were no longer the descendants of Adam. They were still “in Adam” and “in the flesh” just as much as the Gentiles (Rom. 8:8, 7:5). They were still every bit part of the world, only now, when in the land, topographically separated by God from the Gentiles. During the Jewish dispensation Israel was always representative of fallen mankind. Only now they were the nation given the greatest advantages God could give to fallen man.
If we circle back to the beginning of the Jewish dispensation, we all should be familiar with the story of Israel’s failure at Mt. Sinai. Before the tablets of stone made it down the mountain, Israel had made the golden calf and worshiped it as their god (Ex. 32:1–8). The dispensation had barely started and Israel had broken the first commandment of the law. Failure of the corporate responsibility associated with the dispensation was already present. The seeds of apostasy and rebellion were already sown. Moses throws down the tablets of stone at the foot of the mountain to shatter them. Israel had already broken the law and the covenant.
Even though Israel had failed in their responsibility, God continued the dispensation on by His mercy and long-suffering. Israel could not live under a covenant of pure law. God would have been obligated to destroy the nation (Ex. 32:9–10). Israel’s failure forced God to retreat into His own sovereignty. There He would show mercy and compassion to whomever He pleased (Ex. 33:19). This ensured the survival of the nation going forward, even though they had failed in the corporate responsibility associated with the dispensation. Their failure at Mt. Sinai guaranteed the demise and eventual end of the Jewish dispensation.
God’s patience and long-suffering with Israel eventually came to an end. Their apostasy and rebellion grew full, and God was forced to judge their evil state. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Many Jews fell by the edge of the sword, while the remainder were scattered into the Gentile nations (Luke 21:20–24). The destruction brought an end to the animal sacrifices and any semblance of the real practice of Judaism. This was the definitive, physical end that God brought to the Jewish dispensation.