The Various Dispensations Of The Gospel, or Covenant Of Grace Toward Fallen Man, Before Christianity.
Adapted From a Sermon By
Mr. Samuel Price
To show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant. Luke 1:72
God willing, the next sermon we will hear, from Isaac Watts, will be of the Excellency And Advantages Of The Christian Dispensation. And in that sermon he refers to this one we will hear today which refreshes our minds with respect to the Various Dispensations Of The Gospel, or Covenant Of Grace Toward Fallen Man, Before Christianity.
It was preached by a contemporary of Isaac Watts, Samuel Price in the year 1733. His guiding text was Luke chapter 1 verse 72.
Though several ages passed, after the entrance of sin into this world, before the Savior appeared; yet God made an early revelation of his gracious purpose to deliver mankind from their guilty wretched state. Some notices of his pardoning mercy were needed to encourage their repentance, and return to his service: With you there is forgiveness, says the Psalmist, that you may be feared, plainly implying by this that if there was no hope of forgiveness with God, there would be nothing of his fear and worship found amongst sinful creatures.
The salvation of apostate perishing men through a mediator, was the mercy promised to the fathers: This is the sum of the gospel, or holy covenant, mentioned in our text; which was always the same in substance; though its blessings, and the method of dispensing them were set in a clearer, and more definite light, as the fulness of time approached, in which the Sun of Righteousness was to rise, and shine on the earth.
A survey of the various dispensations of the gospel, or covenant of grace, towards fallen man, before the coming of Christ, may be of great use, both to raise our esteem, and establish our belief of Christianity; for we will find them all pointing to, and brought to completion in his coming.
We will now, as far as our time permits, look into the account which the Scripture gives of these dispensations in these four periods of time.
1. From Adam to Noah.
2. From Noah to Abraham.
3. From Abraham to Moses.
4. From Moses to the coming of Christ
1. Let us consider what may be found of the gospel, or covenant of grace in the Scriptures, within that period of time which reached from Adam to Noah.
Immediately after the history, which is given us of the sin of our first parents, we read, that God said to the serpent, who tempted them to the commission of it, the offspring of the woman shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. Gen. 3. 15. The occasion upon which these words were spoken, was very important and awful; it is very evident, that God meant to console them by these words, who were seduced through the subtlety of the serpent: But if we understand him as speaking here only to a natural serpent, would it not seem trivial?
What comfort would it give Adam and Eve when they stood before God, under great confusion of soul, and anguish of conscience, because of their guilt, to hear it said, that their posterity should now and then kill a snake, which would cost them painful bruises?
Surely then our first parents may be reasonably supposed to take these expressions, as referring principally to a malicious invisible spirit, by whom the serpent acted in tempting of them. It was fit he should be spoken to, in terms adapted to the condition of the creature, under whose cover he vented his malice: and inasmuch as the most effectual way to destroy a serpent is to crush its head, the destruction of Satan's power, the defeat of his plan is expressed by bruising his head.
These words plainly imply a promise of salvation to them, who were overcome by him; for how could the devil be subdued, and his plans baffled, which is pictured by his head being bruised, unless they were rescued from that miserable condition, to which they were reduced, through his cunning scheme? This was to be accomplished by the offspring of the woman, by whom some eminent person, descending from the woman, was meant. This character is very applicable to our Lord Jesus Christ, who was made of a woman in such a peculiar sense, as no one else of the human race ever was: It was foretold, that he should be the Son of a virgin, Isa. 7. 14. The accomplishment of which prophecy, is related in Matthew 1. 18 where we are told that when …Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. John in his first letter also expressly declared, that for this purpose the Son of God was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil. 1 john 3. 8.
Possibly, it is added, that the serpent should bruise the heel of the woman’s Offspring, to foretell the manner in which his own head was to be bruised. The New Testament informs us, that Christ, through the suffering of is inferior, his human nature, destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil. Hebrews 2:14. And it is certain the evil spirit had a great hand in the sufferings of Christ: when his enemies came to arrest him, he said to them, this is your hour, and the power of darkness. Luke 22. 53. Satan, the prince of darkness, instigated wicked men, his offspring, to take and crucify him: and by thus bruising the heel of our Saviour, his own head was bruised.
It may be reasonably supposed, that sacrifices were instituted by God, soon after he spoke these words to the serpent. We have indeed no express mention of the Divine appointment of them, at this time; but it is written in one of the following verses, that the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. Gen 3. 21. These, very probably, were the skins of beasts offered in sacrifice; for there seems to be no other use for which they should be then slain, seeing man was to live on the plants of the field, ver. 18.
There is an account in the next Chapter, Gen 4. 4. that Abel brought of the firstborn of his flock, and of their fat portions; and the Lord had regard for him, and his offering. It is not to be thought, that this service would have been acceptable to God, if he had not required it, if it had been an instance of will-worship, something invented by Abel. And what could be the design of God in the institution of sacrifices, but to direct the faith of his people to that great Sacrifice, whereby the Offspring of the woman was, in due time, to make atonement for their sins?
Now, it is not reasonable to imagine that the blood of beasts could atone for the guilt, and make satisfaction for the iniquities of men in the sight of a holy God. This Testimony is given of Abel, in Hebrews Chapter 11. 4. that by faith he offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain. Heb 11. 4. By faith in what? It must be by faith in the promise, implied in the words spoken by God to the serpent; for we find nothing else recorded upon which he could ground his faith. It was by faith in this same promise, that Enoch, and the rest of the Patriarchs from Adam to Noah, pleased God.
2. Let us go on to consider, what may be found in the sacred records, that has a special respect to the gospel, or covenant of grace, in that period of time which reached from Noah to Abraham.
When God gave notice to Noah, of the destruction which he was determined to bring upon all flesh, because mankind was become exceedingly corrupt; and had directed him to prepare an ark, he tells him, that he would establish his covenant with him, Gen. 6. 18. The word signifies, I will faithfully keep my covenant. God seems to speak here not of a covenant which was to be made, but of one which was then in existence: And what covenant could this be, but that of the promised seed? Gen. 3. 15. For we have no account of any other, that God had made yet with men. And was not this a very proper season for him to declare, that he would inviolably keep that covenant, when there was an apparent danger of its failure, by the desolation, which he said, was coming upon all flesh in which was the breath of life? ver. 17. Noah relied upon the faithfulness of God, that he would fulfil this covenant; therefore is he said to become the heir of righteousness which is by faith. Heb. 11. 7.
When Noah understood with what decency Shem and Japheth behaved in covering his nakedness, which Ham had endeavoured to expose, he said, Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem. Gen. 9. 26. These words plainly imply some peculiar grace that was to be conferred upon Shem who is the first man in Scripture, that expressly has this honour of having the Lord described as his God. This expression probably denotes his being a God in covenant with him, as it undoubtedly does, when the Lord is afterwards called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob.
Noah foreseeing, by the Spirit of prophecy, that God would enter into a special covenant with the posterity of Shem, taking them to be his peculiar people, and binding himself to be their God, was overjoyed at the consideration of so great a privilege, and breaks out into an ascription of praise to God on this account. Of Japheth, it is said in the 27th verse that he should dwell in the tents of Shem. This prophecy was fulfilled, when the Gentiles, the progeny of Japheth, were taken into the covenant and Church of God, which had been a long time confined to the offspring of Shem.
This is the right place to consider Melchisedeck; for he was under the dispensation of Noah’s time. It is written of him, that he was King of Salem, and priest of the most High God. Gen. 14. 18. This man was a remarkable figure of Christ, of whom it was prophesied, that he should be a priest upon his throne, Zech. 6. 13. which exactly corresponds with what the New Testament speaks of him; where he is described as our great High Priest, whom God has exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour.
The interpretation of the word Melchisedeck is King of Righteousness; and King of Salem signifies King of Peace, as the Apostle observes, Heb. 7. 2. How properly do these characters belong to our Lord Jesus Christ! A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of his Kingdom, Heb. 1. 8. and he dispenses peace to his subjects. When he was about to leave his disciples, as to his bodily presence, he told them, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. John 14. 27. But Melchisedeck is said to resemble the Son of God, Heb. 7. 3. more especially as to his Priesthood: it is in respect of this, that he is spoken of as without Father, without Mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life: he had no predecessor, nor successor in his priestly office; there is no record kept of his pedigree, as there was of the genealogy of the Levitical priests, in the right of which, they were invested with the priesthood; therefore is it asserted, that Christ is made a Priest forever, after the order or appointment of Melchisedeck; because he has an unchangeable, or un-transferable Priesthood. Heb. 7. 24.
3. We move on to that period of time which reached from Abraham to Moses; wherein we may observe the Gospel, or Covenant of Grace more clearly unfolded, than it was in the previous ages.
When the world was almost overrun with idolatry and wickedness, God was graciously pleased to separate Abraham and his family from the other families of the earth, to be a people for himself. He promised them various blessings, particularly the land of Canaan; which they were to consider as a type and pledge of the heavenly inheritance: therefore God describes the covenant by which he engaged to bestow it upon them as an everlasting covenant, and says, that he would give it to them for an everlasting possession. Gen. 17. 7, 8.
This covenant God confirms by an oath to Abraham, Gen. 22. with this addition, that in his Offspring all the nations of the earth should be blessed, ver. 18. By the Offspring of Abraham here, one particular glorious Descendant of his was meant. That Abraham and his household thus understood the expression, may be reasonably supposed: to this, in all likelihood, is to be ascribed that uncommon eagerness, with which the good women of that family desired children; each of them hoping she should have the honour of being the happy parent of the blessed Offspring. Why so grave and judicious an historian, as Moses certainly was, should relate several instances of this kind while he passed by affairs of far greater importance in themselves, cannot be understood, unless they were designed to point out such an hope, which was of great concern to his future readers.
When our saviour came into the world, it is plain that the Jews expected the Messiah should be the Offspring of Abraham: hence it was, that the evangelists and Apostles speak so often of our Lord Jesus, as descending from that patriarch. The account given of his genealogy is thus introduced by Matthew, chap. 1. 1. The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. The penman of the epistle to the Hebrews clearly denotes Christ as the Offspring of Abraham. chap. 2. 16.
According to God's Promise, that in the Offspring of Abraham all the Nations of the Earth should be blessed, we read of persons being redeemed to God, by the Blood of Christ, from every tribe and language and people and nation; for which they sing his praises. Rev. 5. 9. And our Lord commissioned his Apostles to go and teach all nations, Matt. 28. 19. They are directed to begin at Jerusalem and to proceed from there to all nations, preaching among them repentance, and remission of sins in his Name, Luke 24. 47.
God appointed circumcision to be a seal of that covenant which he made with Abraham; and perhaps it was one great design of the institution of that bloody rite, to indicate that the blessings of the covenant were to be communicated through the blood of the promised Offspring; therefore, when the Blood of Christ was shed, circumcision was abolished, and baptism was substituted in its place, to be the initiating sign and seal of the covenant.
The promise which the Lord made to Abraham, that in his Offspring all the nations of the earth should be blessed, was renewed and limited to Isaac, Gen. 26. 4. and so it was to Jacob, chap. 28. 14. Very probably Esau gave up his pretensions to the privilege of this promise, when he sold his birthright for one meal of bread and lentil stew. There seems to be no other plausible reason for which he should be called unholy, upon the account of his sale of it, as he is by the Apostle, Heb. 12. 16.
There was a further limitation made of this promise to Judah, by the prophetic Spirit which directed Jacob when his death was approaching, to tell his sons what would befal them in the last days. Gen. 49. 10. The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. The Nations of the Earth shall be gathered to him, to be blessed in him. Matt. 25. 32. This prediction was fulfilled in our Lord Jesus, who descended from Judah, to use the Apostle's expression, Heb. 7. 14. before that tribe lost all form of government, to which condition it was soon reduced, after the coming of Christ; and to him did the Gentiles become subject, in him did they put their trust.
And this may be the most proper place to mention the extraordinary faith and hope in the Redeemer, expressed by Job, whose book many take to be more ancient than the writings of Moses. Chap. 29. 25, 26, 27. For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. Job 19. 25-27. We go on, in the
4th place, to that period of time which reached from Moses to the Coming of Christ. The Apostle, speaking of the children of Israel, who were under the Mosaic dispensation, says, that good news came to us just as to them. Heb. 4. 2. It was preached to them,
1. By the merciful provisions, which God made for their support, and relief in their travels through the wilderness,
2. By the Law of Moses,
3. By several prophetical declarations.
1. The gospel was preached to the Israelites who were under the Mosaic dispensation, by the merciful provisions, which God made for their support and relief in their travels through the wilderness.
As particularly, he rained down manna upon them, which is called bread from heaven; upon this they lived many years; and it is described by the Apostle as spiritual food, 1 Cor. 10. 3. because it was a type of Christ; who said of himself, that he was the true Bread from Heaven, John 6. 32. meaning by this, that he was the Substance, of which manna was but the shadow; and he declared, that whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood, that is, believes in him, has eternal life. ver. 54.
Again, when the people were in great distress, because they lacked water to drink, God directed Moses to go to the Rock in Horeb, and to strike it with his rod; which he did, and water came out of it, by which they were preserved from that death, which they feared their thirst would bring upon them. The Apostle tells us, that this Rock was Christ, 1 Cor. 10, 4. It was a type of him, that is the meaning of the expression; it represented the rich supplies of the blessing of the Spirit, which the people of God receive from Christ, for their preservation and comfort in their passage through the desert of this world, by the means of his being struck down, and made a curse for them. Gal. 3. 13, 14.
Again, when the Israelites were bitten by fiery serpents, and many of them died, God orders Moses to make a bronze serpent, and to set it on a pole; and he promised, it should come to pass, that every one that was bitten, when he looked upon it, should live. Num. 21. 8. Moses obeyed the command; and God fulfilled his promise. Ver. 9. If a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked at the serpent of brass, he lived. That this had a reference to Christ, may be learnt from his own words, John 3. 14, 15. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. The Old Serpent has infused his mortal poison into our natures; but Jesus Christ was lifted upon the Cross, and he is held forth in the preaching of the Gospel, that all the ends of the earth may look unto him, and be saved, Isaiah 45. 22.
2. The Law of Moses had a shadow of good things to come.
This indeed had the outward form of a covenant of works; Keep my statutes and judgments; which if a person does them, he shall live by them, was its language. Lev. 18. 5. It pronounced a curse upon him that did not confirm the words of this law by doing them. Deut. 27. 26. So that by the deeds of the Law no flesh living could be justified, for the Jews, as well as the Gentiles, had sinned, and come short of the glory of God. The Law was added because of transgressions, Gal, 3. 19. to convince men of their guilt, and of their need of a Saviour, who was displayed to them in many of its appointments: therefore is Christ said to be the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. Rom. 10. 4.
The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John 1. 17. Truth is not to be taken here, as it is opposed to error, for in that sense, truth came by Moses; but as it stands in opposition to that which is a type, an image of the real thing. So that this is the meaning of the words, what was pictured by the figurative representations contained in the Law of Moses came by Jesus Christ. These were many, here are just a few of them.
i) The High Priest, which the law appointed, was a type of Christ. How precious and splendid were the garments with which he was to be arrayed when he appeared before the Lord! One part of his ornaments was a rich breastplate, on which were the names of the Children of Israel, which he was to bear upon his heart when he went into the Holy Place for a memorial before the Lord continually, Exod. 28. 29. In this the glorious excellencies of the Lord Jesus Christ were shadowed, who is entered into Heaven, to appear in the presence of God for us, Heb, 9. 24. Aaron and his successors did, in a special manner, represent Christ in what they were commanded to do on the great Day of Atonement; they were then to take the blood of the sin-offering, and to bring it within the veil, where they were to sprinkle it before the mercy-seat, Lev. 16. This is a picture of Christ's entrance into the Holy Place, not made with hands, by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption for us, Heb. 9. 11, 12.
As there were several things in the service of the legal High Priests, which referred to Christ; so there were defects in them, that might teach those for whom they served, to look for a better Priest: they were required to make atonement for their own iniquities; and could it be reasonably expected, that those, who were sinners themselves, should be capable of reconciling others to God? We needed a High Priest who is holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, Heb. 7. 26. They were mortal creatures, and were not allowed to continue by reason of death, Heb. 7. 23. which was an evidence of the imperfection and temporariness of their office: therefore Christ's ability to save them to the utmost, who come to God through him, is concluded from his ever living to make intercession for them. ver 25.
ii) Again, The Levitical sacrifices were typical of that sacrifice, which Christ has made of himself. If they are not looked upon in this light, it will be hard to reconcile the appointment of them with the wisdom of God: that they could not take away sin, appears not only from the nature of things, but from the frequent repetition of them; this shows, that they could not make perfect those who drew near, Heb. 10. 1. Doubtless, then, it must be the design of their infinitely wise Institutor, by them to lead the thoughts of those who were required to use them, to a sacrifice of sufficient virtue to atone for their offences, by which they might be justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the Law of Moses. Acts 13. 39.
iii) The Paschal Lamb was a type of Christ; it was to be without blemish; being sacrificed for the children of Israel, they were to eat the flesh, and to put the blood of it on the lintel, and upper door-posts of the houses in which the Passover was celebrated; which was the means of their security from the destruction which befell the Egyptians, Exod. 12. This was a shadow of that offering which Christ made of himself, as a Lamb without blemish whose blood, being applied to us by faith, will save us from the destructive vengeance of the Almighty: therefore he is called our Passover, which is sacrificed for us. 1 Cor. 5. 7.
iv) Again, the lambs, which were to be offered by fire to the Lord, on the morning and evening of each day continually Numb. 28. 3. were types of Christ, whose blood we daily need to cleanse us from our iniquities. To these John the Baptist was referring, when pointing to Christ, he said, Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John 1. 29.
3. The gospel was preached to those who were under the Law of Moses, by several prophetic Declarations.
When the Law was given by Moses, the children of Israel might be apt to think, that they were to expect no further revelation of the Divine will and mind; and to prevent their resting in what they had received, God tells Moses, Deut. 18 15. that he would raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like him. A prophet could not be like to Moses, unless he brought in a new Dispensation; which none of the succeeding prophets did, until Christ appeared; who must be therefore intended by that Prophet, whom God was to raise up to the children of Israel from among their brethren like Moses.
When Judah's scepter flourished in David’s time, who expressed a well-regulated zeal for the worship of God, which the Law of Moses prescribed, the Israelites might be ready to think, that God had fulfilled all his promises to them. Now, to keep up their expectation of blessings yet to come, the Spirit of God speaks by David, of a far greater King than he was, and of a much more excellent Priest, than any in the line of Aaron: Psa. 110. 1,4. The LORD says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool. The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
Isaiah speaks in such a particular manner of one that was to bear the sins of many, by whose knowledge they were to be justified, that he referred to by some as the Evangelical Prophet.
The Family of David was brought to a very low condition in the days of Jeremiah; the Church seemed then to be in great danger of being swallowed up by her powerful enemies; therefore God, to support the hopes of his people, assures them by that Prophet, chap, 23. 5, 6. that he would raise to David a righteous Branch, and that a King should reign and prosper, and execute judgment and justice in the earth: in his days Judah should be saved, and Israel dwell safely; and this is the Name whereby he should be called, The Lord Our Righteousness.
After Jerusalem and the Temple had lain a long while in ruins, and all things relating to them appeared to be in a desperate condition, God was pleased to reveal to Daniel the time, and the gracious design of the Messiah's coming, chap. 9. 24. Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness.
And we will now close with a few reflections upon what we have heard.
1. The imperfect account which has been given of the several dispensations of the Gospel, or Covenant of Grace, before the appearance of Christ, plainly shows their harmony and connection with one another. May we not from this infer their Divine origin, that they were appointed by the infinitely wise God, to whom all his works are know from the beginning to the end? We have likewise seen, that what was typical or prophetical in them, has been exactly accomplished in Christianity; which surely ought to establish our belief that it came from God.
2. Does the Old Testament contain so much of the Gospel, as has been represented? then certainly it ought to be the subject of our study. Indeed the New Testament casts a great light upon the Old, and this serves to illustrate and confirm the writings of the evangelists and apostles; therefore it should not be neglected by the professors of Christianity. Eph. 2. 20. We are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.
3. It is plainly the great design of the ancient dispensations of the Covenant of Grace, to raise Men's thoughts to Christ: He is the Mercy promised to the Fathers, the principal Article of God's Holy Covenant. Is it not proper then for us, who are favoured with the Christian dispensation, to be looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, in all our transactions with God?
4. Lastly, has God performed the mercy promised to the Fathers, by sending his Son into the world, though it was some thousands of years after the promise was first made? Let this strengthen our faith in the promise of Christ’s second coming. God has declared, that his Son shall come again to be glorified in his saints, and admired in all them that believe; and he has highly magnified his Word; shown an inviolable respect to it: for when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman as he had spoken many ages before, to be the Redeemer of his people. Therefore, prepare your minds for action, and hope to the end, for the grace that is to be brought to you, if you are true believers, and real saints, at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1. 13.
According to the outward appearances of things, there seemed to be very often but little probability that the promises relating to the first coming of Christ would ever be accomplished; yet they were all in due time punctually fulfilled. God made good his holy Covenant in spite of all oppositions. Are not his power and faithfulness still the same? Let us not then doubt of the fulfillment of what we read in the word of God concerning the future appearance of Christ, though we can see nothing in the aspect of things that has a tendency to it.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness; 2 Peter 3. 9. Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay, Hebrews 10. 37. beyond the proper appointed time. Let us wait for him; Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Hebrews 9. 28.