Understanding The Three Dispensations

Paul said to Timothy, “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Many preachers and teachers do not know how to rightly divide the Bible. They may just as soon turn to the book of Psalms to learn about conversion as to the book of Acts.

An understanding of the three dispensations of Bible history is important to a good Bible student. The word dispensation is used in this article as “a divinely appointed order or age.”

The Bible covers three dispensations of time, the Patriarchal, the Mosaical, and the Christian. It is imperative that we realize the fact that God has dealt with man in three different distinct systems of religion and that we live in the time of the third system. This fact is absolutely essential to understanding the Bible. In referring to these systems of religion, we generally use the word dispensation or age.


(1) The Patriarchal age or dispensation gets its name from the father of the family or tribe. Patriarch means father. Under this system, the patriarch was prophet, priest, and ruler. He directed the affairs of his family both religiously and politically. God spoke to the head of the family, and he, in turn, spoke to the members of the family. The title of Patriarch is applied to Abraham in Hebrews 7:4, “Now consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils.” Stephen spoke of this period in Acts 7:8 when he said, “…so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs.”

(2) This has been called a family system of religion, as each family received instruction from God. They had no written system of religion. What was a command unto one patriarch may not have been a law unto the other patriarchs. For instance, God commanded Noah to build an ark, but the other patriarchs received no such command. Abraham was commanded to make preparations to slay his son Isaac in order to test his faith, but the command was not applicable to the heads of other families.

(3) This system of religion lasted from Adam to the giving of the law of Moses at Mt. Sinai. Some believe that this system of religion continued for the Gentiles until the cross.


(1) This dispensation grew out of the promise made to Abraham in Gen. 12:2-3. The Law of Moses was an outgrowth of this promise and was given four hundred and thirty years afer the promise was made (Gal. 3:16-17). That this promise might be kept, God gave them a government, the law of Moses, which guided them religiously and politically.

(2) Unlike the Patriarchal dispensation, during the Mosaic dispensation, the Jews had their own written law. Abraham*s descendants, in their exodus from Egypt, were led to the foot of Mt. Sinai, and God gave to them the ten commandments written upon two tables of stone (Ex. 19,20). He also gave them other laws for their good which Moses wrote by inspiration.

(3) One purpose of the Mosaic dispensation was to keep Abraham*s descendants a separate and distinct race until Christ, the promised seed, should come. The law of Moses served as a middle wall of partition (Eph. 2:14), for it separated the Jews from other nations.

(4) One evident weakness of the Law of Moses was that there was no complete forgiveness of sins provided by it. All of the many sacrifices offered by the Levitical priesthood upon the altar of God in the tabernacle and later in the temple resulted only in paying the interest on the debt of sin without completely removing the debt (Heb. 10:3-4).

(5) God intended for the Mosaic dispensation to be temporary. Galatians 3:19 says, “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.” Since the seed refers to Christ (Gal. 3:16), the law was to be abolished at the coming of Christ. Thus, this age was to last until the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise in Christ.


This period extends from Pentecost of Acts 2 to the Lord’s final coming. This period is the time in which we must hear Christ as He speaks to us through His New Testament. This is the time in which everything we do in religious matters must be authorized by the New Testament (Col. 3:17). During this time, Christians serve as “an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5).

Under the Christian dispensation, we must obey Christ. Back during the Mosaic age, Moses had prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15, “The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken.” In Acts 3:22,23, Peter teaches that this prophecy has been fulfilled in Christ and “that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.”

This was also affirmed at the transfiguration. Christ was transfigured, and Moses and Elijah also appeared. Peter wanted to build three tabernacles, one for each. But the plan was destroyed by these words of God: “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; hear ye him” (Mt. 17:5). There was a time when man was to listen to Moses and Elijah, but now he must listen to God’s Son. “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds” (Heb. 1:1-2). We are living in the Christian age and must do the will of Christ. Let us pray that we might always do His will.

— Mike McDaniel