A New Covenant; A New Dispensation; Gen. 12:1
Everything from the end of Genesis chapter 11 to the end of the book we are told about has something to do with the Abrahamic covenant, with either the land or with the promised seed that God is developing. That becomes the structure for understanding and interpreting Genesis. There is a dispensational shift at this point. Acts 1:6-7 occurs just before the Lord's ascension. "When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" The very question that the disciples are asking recognizes that they don't have a kingdom at this point. Jesus' answer to them is clearly a recognition of the fact that the kingdom hasn't been given at all. They are not in any kind of kingdom stage. Jesus tells them ten days before the church age begins that it was not for them to know the times [CHRONOS/xronoj]] and the epochs [KAIROS/kairoj]. The basic idea of CHRONOS is a succession of events, one thing following another in the course of time. It is a word that is used in Galatians 4:4 in terms of the fullness of time. Often the word refers to events in fulfillment of prophetic prediction. KAIROS indicates a broader expanse of time, time periods that have certain definable characteristics. We would compare it to our word "age." A third word that is used, though not in this passage, is AIONOS/a)iwnoj]. But just twenty years later when Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he says, "Now as for the time and the epochs, brethren, you have no need for anything to be written to you." The implication is they already know. What has happened between Jesus' ascension in 33 AD and Paul's epistle to the Thessalonians in about 50-53 AD is that the church age began and with it the giving of special revelation called mystery doctrine of the church age. With that package of information revealed to the apostle they are told things about prophecy and the coming kingdom. So it is not that we are not to know anything about times and seasons but that Jesus was telling the apostles right before Pentecost that they didn't need to know it then. But they have been informed of it now; there was more revelation. AIONOS or age is sometimes used in a double sense, and that means from age to age or eternity. An age is similar to KAIROS indicating an age in human history, and an age whether it is similar to KAIROS or AIONOS may include several dispensations. The word dispensation actually doesn't have a time frame, it emphasizes the responsibility given by God. The other words have the temporal element to them. So when we are looking at dispensations we are talking about the fact that God delegates certain responsibilities in different periods of time. He administers things differently. A dispensation is a distinct and identifiable administration in the development of God's plan and purposes for human history—Ephesians 3:2; Colossians 1:25, 26. God manages the entirety of human history as a household, moving humanity through sequential stages of His administration, determined by the level of revelation He has provided up to that time in history. As we go through time more and more revelation is given, and as we see the difference between the church age and the Old Testament more divine enablement is given—we in the church age are indwelt and filled by the Holy Spirit; we have a completed canon of Scripture, so there are no revelatory gifts functioning today. Each administrative period is characterized by revelation which specifies responsibility, a test in relation to those responsibilities or an evaluation. There is almost always a failure to pass the test because part of what God is demonstrating is that man is incapable of doing anything apart from his complete sustenance, and then God's gracious provision of a solution when that failure occurs. So these elements are what we look for to try to identify when a dispensation changes. In a dispensation here is a time when one dispensation ends and another begins, but there may be a transition period. For example, there was a short transition period between the crucifixion of Christ, which was the end of the law, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost some fifty days later. The understanding of dispensationalism emphasizes the divine administration of history. We have to recognize that in history God is the ultimate cause. You can't interpret history today or yesterday without a divine viewpoint framework.
One thing we understand from this is that new revelation will designate a shift from one dispensation to another. That is what we have in Genesis 12—new revelation. God is going to single out one individual and give him a whole new set of promises and responsibilities. That means that something is happening. God does that with other people in history but it is not a dispensational shift because he is still working within the framework of what He has already done with Abraham. When we move from one dispensation to another some things will remain the same and other things will change. Another thing we learn is that each dispensation has its own responsibilities and its own tests. Finally we learn that the dispensations move us in a certain direction. Each dispensation is designed to demonstrate different points in relationship to the angelic conflict.
In the dispensation of Israel there is going to be the age of the patriarchs and the age of the law. The foundation for this shift is an understanding of the covenants. We have the initial covenants—Edenic, Adamic and Noahic—and then the first of the Jewish covenants. These are unconditional, eternal covenants and are not dependent upon the Jews' obedience. The first of these, the foundational covenant, is the Abrahamic covenant, and there are three elements to it: land, seed, and blessing. The land covenant is further expanded in Deuteronomy 30, the seed aspect in the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7, and the blessing aspect in the New covenant in Jeremiah 31. The Abrahamic covenant becomes the foundational covenant for understanding not only the Old Testament but the New Testament as well.
Genesis 12:1, "Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee." The verb amar which is the Hebrew word for say here is a qal perfect, and a perfect tense verb in the Hebrew. It can have a sort of pluperfect sense: "the Lord had said to Abram." Here we see that the motivation to move to the land of Canaan was from God. God is going to separate Abram from that pagan, rebellious culture. Believers are to live a life separate and distinct from the cosmic system around them. There was a physical separation in the Old Testament because God was establishing a new nation on a new piece of real estate.
Genesis 12:2, "And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing." Here is the seed idea. Here is a childless man whose wife is barren and God is going to regenerate in the physical sense as a sign of spiritual regeneration as He builds this new nation.
Genesis 12:3, "And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." So we see the three elements here of the Abraham covenant: a land promise, an emphasis on the seed or the descendants, and a promise of blessing.
Genesis 13:14-17 gives another indication, "And the LORD said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee." The separation from Lot had to do with God fine-tuning Abram so that there was no interference with the seed. In these verses we again have the emphasis on the seed, the descendants, and on the land.
Genesis 15:1-21 extends the borders of the land, from the northern borders on the Euphrates all the way down to the south-western border of Egypt. In the meantime Abram is to stay in the land as basically a stranger, and eventually his descendants will go into slavery in Egypt. Genesis 17:1-21 reiterates the covenant and gives the sign of the covenant which is circumcision. In Genesis 22:15-18 there is a reaffirmation of the covenant after Abraham's test as to whether he would be willing to sacrifice Isaac. So these are the basic scriptures.
Every covenant is actually a contract. God is the party of the first part because He is the one initiating the covenant or contract with Abraham, and Abraham is party of the second part as the representative of what will be the Jewish nation. The thing that we have to understand about a contract is that the provisions are written and spelled out in order to keep everybody honest in fulfilling the obligations of the contract. Abraham has no conditions placed upon him. God is giving this to him. This is called a royal grant treaty in Old Testament studies because it follows the pattern of a king who is willing to give or bestow a gift upon an obedient subject.
There are thirteen provisions given in the Abrahamic covenant. We extrapolate that from all of these different passages.
1) God promises to develop a great nation from Abraham. Although there will be many nations the primary focus is on one nation, and that is Israel.
2) God promises an actual piece of real estate. He gives the boundaries. Genesis 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:7-21; 17:8.
3) Abraham was to be blessed. This went into effect immediately. We see that by chapter fifteen Abraham is probably one of the wealthiest men in the world.
4) God promises that Abraham's name will be great. He will be famous.
5) Those who bless him will be blessed. Those who are positive towards his descendants will be blessed.
6) Those who curse him [treat him lightly] will be harshly punished.
7) In Abraham all nations will be blessed. That is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the seed, according to Galatians 3. So it is through Abraham that everyone is blessed.
8) He is told that Sarah will have a son. Genesis 15:1-4; 17:15-21.
9) God promises that his descendants will spend 400 years in bondage in Egypt. Genesis 15:13-15.
10) Other nations will come from Abraham, not just the Jews. Many Arab nations can trace themselves back to Ishmael or Abraham's second wide Keturah, Genesis 17:3-6.
11) God changes his name from Abram (Exalted Father) to Abraham (father of multitudes).
12) Sarai's name is changed to Sarah, from My Princes to The Princes. Genesis 17:5.
13) The token or sign of the covenant is circumcision.
Everything changes. God changes history because of a very private act to Abram. This is a private communication to Abram, it is not trumpeted throughout the ancient near east.
How do we categorize these provisions? First of all, God promises certain things to Abraham. That he would be the father of a great nation; that he himself would possess the land; and that is an important point because Abraham never possessed the land. So Jesus is going to come along and use that as an argument for resurrection. Other nations will come from him. Kings will arise from him. He is promised personal blessings during his life time. He is promised that his name would be great. There are also other promises to the seed, to Israel. There is the promise that the nation will be great, that in its destiny there will be an innumerable number, that they will possess this land forever, and they are promised ultimate victory over their enemies. To the Gentiles there are promises, that they will receive blessing if they bless the descendants of Abraham and cursing if they curse them, and they are promised spiritual blessings or salvation through the seed of Abraham.
The three basic themes of the covenant are land, seed, and blessing.
Abraham had eight sons—Ishmael, Isaac, and six other sons, from three different women, Hagar, Sarah, and Keturah. But God only confirmed the covenant with one of those sons: Isaac. It is through Abraham and Isaac that the line goes. Genesis 26:2-4, God confirms the covenant with Isaac. "And the LORD appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of: sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father; and I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." This is a reconfirmation of the land, seed, and blessing promises of he Abrahamic covenant.
Isaac in turn had two sons, Esau and Jacob, but the covenant is only confirmed to Jacob. Genesis 28:13, "And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of." It is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that is important. It is the descendants through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that makes one a Jew.
This sets the stage for the age of the patriarchs, which covers the period in the Bible from Genesis 12:1 through Exodus 18:27. The central person in this dispensation is Abraham, so the major focal point is understanding Abraham. We call this the dispensation of the patriarchs because this was the group through whom God worked. The responsibility during this dispensation was to obey the Abrahamic covenant, i.e. to keep the seed isolated from the surrounding pagan environment. He failed to do it, so God had to take him out of the land and take him to Egypt because the Egyptians were so racist they hated the Semites, and they were not going to intermarry or having anything to do with the Semites at all. They isolated them in the little room of Goshen and it was there that God protected them and they grew from seventy individuals who went down to Egypt with Jacob to a nation of about 2 to 3-million in just a short period of 400 years. The test to see if they would remain separate and be a blessing: they failed through intermarriage with the Canaanites and threatened the seed, and so God judged them by sending them in slavery down to Egypt. But in grace God preserved the nation and He delivered them from slavery to bring them back to the land in order work out His plans and purposes.