Dispensationalism is a theological system describing how God interacts with people in different periods of history. Theologians divide history into seven dispensations, or ages. The dispensation of promise is fourth after the dispensations of innocence (God interacting face to face with humans), conscience (humans to follow to their God-provided conscience), and human government (God's expectations enforced by human institutions).
Each dispensation can be thought of in terms of a six-part structure. The elements of the dispensation of promise are:
Managers: The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob Time Period: The call of Abraham until Israel's arrival at Mt. Sinai, about 430 years Human Responsibility: To dwell in Canaan (Genesis 12:1–7) Failure: Dwelt in Egypt (Genesis 12:10; 46:6) Judgment: Egyptian bondage (Exodus 1:8–14) Grace: Moses is sent to deliver them (Exodus 3:6–10)
In the dispensation of promise, God promised Abraham he would be the father of a great nation, that his descendants would be blessed, and that the earth would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:1–3). These promises were part of a covenant between God and Abraham. Abraham would live in the "land of promise" (Hebrews 6:13–15; 11:8–12).
However, Abraham failed when he slept with Sarah's handmaiden, Hagar, to father Ishmael (Genesis 16). God had promised him a son by Sarah, but Abraham and Sarah attempted to garner an heir by human methods. Abraham also moved to Egypt (Genesis 12:10) and lied to people there about Sarah (Genesis 12:10–20; 20:1–18). Even still, the promises God made to Abraham were valid, as were His promises to Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 12:1–3; 15:4–21; 17:1–8; 22:15–19). God did not rescind His promise due to Abraham's disobedience as His covenant with Abraham was unconditional.
When Abraham's descendants, the nation of Israel, chose to disbelieve God's promise to protect, bless, and guide them, God gave them over to bondage and separation from Himself (Exodus 19:10–13, 18, 21; 12:19). After 430 years in Egypt (a time of judgment), God had mercy and provided Moses to lead them out from under certain death—in the Passover, then again from the Egyptian army (Exodus 12; 14).
At Mount Sinai God reminded the people, "You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel" (Exodus 19:4–6).
When the people were on the brink of entering into the Promised Land, at Mount Sinai, God moved onto the fifth dispensation, that of the Law.
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