First Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2007
“Priests and Duties (2)”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Please turn with me in your Bibles to Numbers 4, as we continue to work our way through this great book of the Old Testament..
We’ve been in Numbers for about four weeks. We spent the first week giving an introduction to the book and arguing why this book is so applicable, and frankly so exciting to study, for us today. The Apostle Paul in First Corinthians tells us that this book was written for us as Christians, so it’s not just a book full of dry, dusty old history about a people that no longer exist living in a place that we’ve never been. It’s a book for us today, for the living of these days. And we commented on the fact that Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah–that hymn that we so love to sing–is based on the Book of Numbers. It’s retelling the Book of Numbers for Christians.
And we also commented on the fact that the Book of Numbers is about living life with God in the wilderness. And you know, there’s something extremely comforting about that idea of living life with God in the wilderness when you’ve been around for a while in this life, because with all the joys and all the blessings–and we’ve thanked God for some of them tonight–with all the joys and all the blessings that we experience in this life, there are some parts of this life that are very, very tiring. They are very, very wearying. They are very, very tough and discouraging, and we need to know that when we’re in those wildernesses we’re with God in those wildernesses. And this book is about that, and it will help us walk through those wildernesses that the Lord has called us to.
Now as we looked at Numbers 1 together, we commented on the fact that the very census that is recorded there is designed to show us that God is faithful, that God is caring for His people, that God has chosen His people, and that we are at war.
One of the ways that it shows the faithfulness of God is we remember that 70 people went down into Egypt, and when this census is done in Numbers 1, over 603,000 fighting men are numbered amongst the people of God. God is being faithful to the promise that He made to Abraham in Genesis 12, Genesis 15, and Genesis 17, that He was going to make his descendents to be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky. He’s saying to Moses and the children of Israel ‘Look how I have been faithful to My promise.’ Nobody would have ever have guessed it–that taking 70 people down into Egypt, who would eventually be enslaved and dwell there for 430 years, would be part of God’s plan to fulfill His promise and to be faithful, but it was.
And that reminds you, by the way, that when there are detours in your life that don’t look like they make any sense at all, don’t think that God is going to fail to be faithful to the promises that He has made to you. He had just taken His people on a 430-year detour, and they came out exponentially greater than they were when they went into the land of Egypt.
Now in the second chapter of Numbers, we commented on the arrangement of the tribes. Even the way they were supposed to march in the wilderness is ordered there. And again we said this emphasized the fact that the people of God were assembled for war in this world. And God’s tent, His tabernacle, being right in the midst of them reminds us that He is the center of our life and mission and purpose, and that as we are in tents in the wilderness, our great God who did indeed fling the galaxies and bring these stars and worlds into being, He dwells in a tent next to us, with us as we wander in the wilderness.
And we learned all these things and more in our study of Numbers 2.
And then, last week as we considered Numbers 3 and looked at the census of the Levites, we were reminded of a number of things. First of all, we were reminded that God owns the Levites. Those Levites were His. He tells us in verse 12 of Numbers 3, “The Levites shall be Mine.” And then we reminded ourselves that Peter tells us in the New Testament that we are a kingdom of priests to the Lord, and we’re reminded that the Lord owns us. We belong to Him. And so God’s lordship, His ownership of His people is emphasized in Numbers 3.
Then we said that Numbers 3 reminds us of the principle of substitution. Not only does God tell us that He owns the Levites, but in Numbers 3:12, He says, “I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn.”
So just as God had spared all the firstborn of Israel when the death angel came and destroyed the firstborn of Egypt, in a special way those firstborn of Israel belong to Him, and every firstborn child could have very easily been demanded of God: ‘You bring that firstborn child to the tabernacle, and that firstborn child is going to serve Me in the tabernacle in token of the grace that I’ve shown you, to spare the firstborn of Israel.’
But God says ‘No, that’s not what I’m going to do. What I’m going to do is I’m going to take a tribe. A whole tribe is going to be Mine in place of, in substitute for, the firstborn of Israel.’ And they even count up the numbers of Levi and the numbers of the firstborn, and they find out that there are 273 more firstborn children in Israel than there are Levites, and what does He do? ‘You have to pay a ransom for those 273 children so that it equals out, and that ransom is paid to Aaron and the tribe of Levi.’ But what a beautiful picture of the principle of substitution. The Levites substitute for the firstborn; the Levites serve instead of the firstborn. It’s a foreshadowing, isn’t it, of the great principle of the Lord Jesus Christ who substitutes in the place of all His people, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
And then, of course, Numbers 3 reminds us of the principle of redemption, and in the very paying of the price of ransom (recorded in Numbers 3:46-47,51) we see the principle of the price of redemption. A price is paid back to Aaron in this case to redeem the 273 firstborn sons of Israel who are under the amount of the number of Levites. And five shekels are paid. And then we observe that it is the Lord God Himself, our loving heavenly Father, who pays the price of our redemption. He pays the price of our ransom in the giving of His own Son.
So all these things we learned in our study of Numbers 3, and that brings us to Numbers 4, where we have another census of the Levites.
Now why in the world would there be two censuses of the Levites? Well, I think because we need to learn two very important lessons, and I’ve pointed you to those lessons in your outline. If you look on the back of the sheet, you’ll notice that I want you to be looking out for something in verse 3 and something in verse 49. Now actually these principles are repeated a number of times in the chapters, but those are clear enough examples. So keep your eyes peeled. I want you to be looking out for the significance of the numbering of the Levites thirty to fifty years of age.
When the Levites are first numbered, all of them are counted, from the age of one month to the very oldest of them. Now in Numbers 4, only the Levites between 30 and 50 are put into service. Now I want you to think for a minute about what the significance of that could possibly be.
And then, secondly, as we read through this description of what the various groups of Levites, what the various clans within the larger tribe of Levi are assigned to do, I want you to be thinking about what is the significance of the specific assigned duties and responsibilities given to the various clans of the Levites. And that’s what we’re going to focus on tonight.
Now let’s pray before we read God’s word.
Lord, this is Your word. Open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in it, and by Your Spirit apply it to our hearts. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is God’s word:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,
‘Take a census of the descendants of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their families, by their fathers’ households, from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old, all who enter the service to do the work in the tent of meeting. This is the work of the descendants of Kohath in the tent of meeting, concerning the most holy things. When the camp sets out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and they shall take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it; and they shall lay a covering of porpoise skin on it, and shall spread over it a cloth of pure blue, and shall insert its poles. Over the table of the bread of the Presence they shall also spread a cloth of blue and put on it the dishes and the spoons and the sacrificial bowls and the jars for the libation, and the continual bread shall be on it. And they shall spread over them a cloth of scarlet material, and cover the same with a covering of porpoise skin, and they shall insert its poles. Then they shall take a blue cloth and cover the lamp stand for the light, along with its lamps and its snuffers, and its trays and all its oil vessels, by which they serve it; and they shall put it and all its utensils in a covering of porpoise skin, and shall put it on the carrying bars. And over the golden altar they shall spread a blue cloth and cover it with a covering of porpoise skin, and shall insert its poles; and they shall take all the utensils of service, with which they serve in the sanctuary, and put them in a blue cloth and cover them with a covering of porpoise skin, and put them on the carrying bars. Then they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it. They shall also put on it all its utensils by which they serve in connection with it: the firepans, the forks and shovels and the basins, all the utensils of the altar; and they shall spread a cover of porpoise skin over it and insert its poles. And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they may not touch the holy objects and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry.”
[Let me just stop right there and bring two things to your attention. One, notice everything that has to do with the Holy of Holies is covered in blue. So no matter where you are in the tribes of Israel, if you see something covered with blue when you’re traveling, don’t get near it! It’s part of the Holy of Holies. Don’t you get near it. That’s only for the priests to handle, and it’s only for the Levites to carry. So it’s covered with blue; it’s marked; everybody knows what that is.
Secondly, notice that these sons of Kohath are given an extraordinarily important job. They’re to carry the most holy objects in Israel. Keep that in mind. Now we go on.]
“ ‘And the responsibility of Eleazar [verse 16] the son of Aaron the priest is the oil for the light and the fragrant incense and the continual grain offering and the anointing oil–the responsibility of all the tabernacle and of all that is in it, with the sanctuary and its furnishings.’
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘Do not let the tribe of the families of the Kohathites be cut off from among the Levites. But do this to them that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy objects: Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his work and to his load; but they shall not go in to see the holy objects even for a moment, lest they die.’”
[Now we move to the duty of the Gershonite clan.]
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take a census of the sons of Gershon also, by their fathers’ households, by their families; from thirty years and upward to fifty years old, you shall number them; all who enter to perform the service to do the work in the tent of meeting. This is the service of the families of the Gershonites, in serving and in carrying: they shall carry the curtains of the tabernacle and the tent of meeting with its covering and the covering of porpoise skin that is on top of it, and the screen for the doorway of the tent of meeting, and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the doorway of the gate of the court which is around the tabernacle and the altar, and their cords and all the equipment for their service; and all that is to be done, they shall perform. All the service of the sons of the Gershonites, in all their loads and in all their work, shall be performed at the command of Aaron and his sons; and you shall assign to them as a duty all their loads. This is the service of the families of the sons of the Gershonites in the tent of meeting, and their duties shall be under the direction of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest.’”
[Now we come to the Merari tribe.]
“ ‘As for the sons of Merari, you shall number them by their families, by their fathers’ households; from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, you shall number them, everyone who enters the service to do the work of the tent of meeting. Now this is the duty of their loads, for all their service in the tent of meeting: the boards of the tabernacle and its bars and its pillars and its sockets, and the pillars around the court and their sockets and their pegs and their cords, with all their equipment and with all their service; and you shall assign each man by name the items he is to carry. This is the service of the families of the sons of Merari, according to all their service in the tent of meeting, under the direction of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest.’
“So Moses and Aaron and the leaders of the congregation numbered the sons of the Kohathites by their families, and by their fathers’ households, from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, everyone who entered the service for work in the tent of meeting. And their numbered men by their families were 2,750. These are the numbered men of the Kohathite families, everyone who was serving in the tent of meeting, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of the Lord through Moses.
“And the numbered men of the sons of Gershon by their families, and by their fathers’ households, from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, everyone who entered the service for work in the tent of meeting. And their numbered men by their families, by their fathers’ households, were 2,630. These are the numbered men of the families of the sons of Gershon, everyone who was serving in the tent of meeting, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of the Lord.
“And the numbered men of the families of the sons of Merari by their families, by their fathers’ households, from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, everyone who entered the service for work in the tent of meeting. And their numbered men by their families were 3,200. These are the numbered men of the families of the sons of Merari, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of the Lord through Moses.
“All the numbered men of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron and the leaders of Israel numbered, by their families and by their fathers’ households, from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, everyone who could enter to do the work of service and the work of carrying in the tent of meeting. And their numbered men were 8,580. According to the commandment of the Lord through Moses, they were numbered, everyone by his serving or carrying; thus these were his numbered men, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.
Now I want to draw your attention to two things in this passage. There is so much that we could say here, but I want to especially draw your attention to two things.
I. God expects us to give Him our best.
First of all, the significance of the numbering of the Levites of thirty to fifty years of age. Beginning in verse 3 and repeating numerous times through the chapter, we’re told to number the men who were appointed for the service of the carrying of the tabernacle from thirty years upward to the age of fifty years old. What is the significance of this?
And the significance is very simple. These Levites who were going to be serving the carrying of the holy objects and of the tabernacle were to devote the very best years of their lives to the Lord’s work. Now, that doesn’t mean that since I’m 46 that in four years I get to kind of check out and coast for the rest of the time! Remember, in this stage, in this day and age with the mortality rates and the average life expectancies, fifty would have been a much older number than it is now. The point is that the very best years, the prime of their productive years, was to be devoted to the work of the Lord, and there’s a tremendous principle in that. The principle is simply that God wants us to give Him our best and not what is simply left over.
Have you ever thought how often that is emphasized in the hymns that we sing? You don’t have a hymnal with you tonight, but I brought mine with me just to remind you of how often we sing about this when we sing. For instance, when we sing Mary James’ great hymn All for Jesus, we sing:
“All for Jesus, all for Jesus; all my being’s ransomed powers;
All my thoughts and words and doings, all my days and all my hours.
Let my hands perform His bidding, let my feet run in His ways;
Let my eyes see Jesus only; let my lips speak forth His praise.”
Or, last week we sang here together:
“All to Jesus I surrender, all to Him I freely give.
May I ever love and trust Him, in His presence daily live.
I surrender all; I surrender all;
All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.”
Or, in the great hymn Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak, we sing, especially in verse four:
“O use me, Lord, use even me, just as You will, and when, and where;
Until Your blessed face I see, Your rest, Your joy, Your glory share.”
And then again, in the famous hymn that we sing, Awake, My Soul! Stretch Every Nerve, which was written by the great hymn writer Philip Doddridge, we sing:
“Awake, my soul! Stretch every nerve, and press with vigor on;
A heavenly race demands your zeal, and an immortal crown.”
And so all of these hymns and more–like “Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee…”; or the final stanza of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: “…Love so amazing, so divine” — does what? — “…demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Have you noticed how often in hymnody we sing to God this recognition that He deserves our best? Is that really our prayer and our intention when we sing those words to Him?
I want to exhort you to make this a byword for First Presbyterian Church: that all of us together are going to deliberately give our best to God in two ways. That doesn’t mean that everybody quits their job and goes to the mission field. That doesn’t mean that everybody neglects their family and works for stuff at church. But it does mean two things.
It means, first of all, in our vocations that we deliberately do everything we do as unto the Lord, with our very best for Him. And it means also that we do not give the leftovers to the Lord in pursuing His work in the corporate work of the church.
But this great passage before us in Numbers 3, if it reminds us that the Levites were to give their best years, their prime years of productivity to the Lord, does it not remind us that God wants us to give Him our best, and not what is left over?
II. God assigns each person a specific role in life.
But there’s a second thing I want you to see here as well. You see it in verse 49, but you also see it in the refrains throughout the passage as specific responsibilities are given to the different clans of Levites. What is the significance of the specific assigned duties and responsibilities here?
You know, at first glance you could say ‘You know, the Kohathites, they’re the really important ones, because they’re carrying the stuff from the Holy of Holies. These poor smoes from Merari’s family, they’re carrying outer court tent pegs.’ But the Kohathites–permanently, now!–remember, if you’re a son of Merari you will never carry a single instrument in all of your life throughout the generations of your family…you will never carry a single instrument of the tabernacle–the Kohathites will do that in perpetuity. And so you can look at first glance and say ‘Well, the Kohathites were more important than Merari. They had a more important job.’
But then you could even pull back from this and realize that the Kohathites had to do everything that — who told them? Eleazar the son of Aaron. They were under the priests, and in a sense they were holy janitors!
What’s the principle? Well, each clan of Levites has their own assigned duties and responsibilities in the work of the Lord, and this shows us that every member of the people of God has a different part to play, and it’s God who assigns our roles. And our purpose is not to be first, most respected, greatest, the one with the most influence; our job is to be faithful to what the Lord has called us to do.
That is a huge lesson for the Christian church. Isn’t that what Paul is having to talk about in Romans and in First Corinthians when he talks about “many members, one body”? You know, where the thumb wants to be the eye. Or the foot wants to be the hand. Or everybody wants to be in charge. You know, we talk about it all the time: “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians!” Everybody wants to be in charge. Everybody wants to give directions. And isn’t this passage reminding us that every member of the people of God has a role to play? But what we’re called to is faithfulness in our work; not being a star; not being noticed; not being lauded; not being first; not being most important; but doing our little thing. I love Anna Waring’s hymn Father, I Know My Life. You know this hymn pretty well, but I want to draw your attention to a couple of phrases from this hymn. Anna Waring has us sing this:
“I would not have the restless will that hurries to and fro,
Seeking some great thing to do, or some secret thing to know.
I would be treated as a child, and guided where I go.”
And then she goes on to say this:
“I ask Thee for the daily strength, to none that asks, denied;
A mind to blend with outward life, while keeping at Christ’s side;
Content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified.”
Lord, if it’s my job to carry tent pegs with Merari, help me do a good job of that. Help me just put my head down and stay at it.
Jim Philip, who is the pastor of Holyrood Abbey Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, when I was in Edinburgh…and by the way, Doug Kelly had spoken to me before I went to Edinburgh. It was while Doug was still teaching at RTS/Jackson. He was teaching the Young Seekers Sunday School Class. A friend of mine told me that I needed to call Doug Kelly up before I went to Scotland, and as you know, Doug Kelly knows how to hand out paternal instructions…and he said,
“Now, Ligon, when you get to Edinburgh, you’re going to go to Holyrood Abbey Church, and you’re going to sit under the ministry of Jim Philip.”
“Yes, sir, Dr. Kelly.”
And I was there on the first Sunday morning I was there, sitting right under the ministry. And I was there when Doug came over on his sabbatical, too! And I got to sit under that fantastic ministry of Jim Philip. And here’s what he says about this passage and about following this principle that’s set forth here in Numbers 4, but plays out in the New Testament as well. He says:
“The apportionment of the various tasks to these three families foreshadows a principle that comes into its own in the teaching of the New Testament doctrine of the church as the body of Christ. It is undoubtedly true that a superficial reading of this section might seem to indicate that the service of the Kohathites was more important than that of the Gershonites, and that that service of the Gershonites was in turn more important than that of the Merari’s. Although this is in one sense true, in another and still important sense, no such distinction can be made. For in fact, their work was one, and each family simply makes its contribution with equal force and importance. The one could not exist without the other. This is clearly seen in the New Testament parallel in Paul’s teaching in First Corinthians 12, in the wonderful analogy of the body, the contrast between the various members of the body reveals differentiating of function, but not inferiority. Paul stresses that when certain members seem to be more feeble than others, they are in fact more necessary, just as those thought to be less honorable are all the more necessary. The contrast is seen not so much as between two members of the body which are both visible as, say, the head and the heart, the one seen and the other unseen. In a building which is more important, the tower, the frontage, or the foundation? There are vital lessons here. For one thing, we are reminded that there is spiritual work to be done that is unseen, as foundations are unseen; and spiritual people will not object to not being in the limelight.”
And he goes on to say:
“In the New Testament, as we see the various gifts and responsibilities set forth in The Acts of the Apostles, no one can argue that Peter and Paul in the Book of Acts receive the limelight of attention, but those associated with them in a caring and pastoral ministry, whether it was Barnabas or Aquila or Priscilla or Dorcas or Phoebe, it can hardly be said that they had the same prominence as Peter and Paul, but they did not covet aimlessly and uselessly Peter and Paul’s gifts. Rather, they were content to fulfill their own gifts.”
And that’s a tremendous lesson for us today.
Bill Anderson is still to me today one of the greatest examples of this. Bill Anderson was what is called “the college officer” of the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh. For us, it’s a glorified name for “janitor.” And students at the Free Church College regularly passed Bill Anderson without as much as an acknowledgement that he was there. But he knew more church history, cultural history, art history, and Scottish history, than all of them put together. In fact, one day he went to a meeting of the Thomas Chalmers Housing Association, and an English Lady–and I mean literally an English Lady…a lady married to a Lord–was there to meet with the various dignitaries of the Thomas Chalmers Housing Association. As she went up the lift at the Free Church College, she was asking the Professor of Church History about the architectural history of the Free Church College offices building, which was almost 400 years old. Professor McMillan didn’t know anything about the architectural history of that building, but Mr. Anderson did. And so she would ask a question of Professor McMillan, and he would say, “I don’t know. What’s the story, Bill?” And Bill would give her the answer. And this went on for about a half hour. She would ask the question of Professor McMillan, he’d say “I don’t know, what’s the answer Bill?” and Bill would give the answer. Finally at the end of the tour she said to Professor McMillan, “Well, now, Professor McMillan, what subject does he teach at the Free Church College?” And Professor McMillan said, “I don’t know, but he ought to be teaching history!” And yet Bill Anderson was content to serve as a janitor, taking tea to the professors, serving with all his might, because he knew the responsibilities and the gifts that the Lord had given to him. He was ready to serve in his own way in the kingdom without desiring the limelight of others.
My friends, that’s a very important lesson for us at First Presbyterian Church. We’re called to put our head down and do what God has given to us, faithfully. That’s all He’s called us to do. Not everyone to do some great thing. Without the janitors of this church, we couldn’t worship on Sunday mornings. Without the secretaries of this church, the ministers of this church couldn’t function to the fullest of our abilities. They may not be in the limelight, but their job is vital to the well-being of the whole body.
It’s the same with us in the congregation. God has called you to a task. He’s gifted you with an ability. Serve with all your might to the best of your ability, and together we will magnify the name of the Lord as one.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Thank You for reminding us of our New Testament responsibilities, even through Your assignment of responsibilities in the numbering of these Levites, the divine janitors of the Old Testament. We ask now, O God, that You would dismiss us with Your blessing and grow us in grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let’s stand and sing The Doxology.