January 31, 2007
“Priests, Duties, Firstborn”
Dr. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers, chapter 3. There should be a sheet somewhere near by you that has the text of that whole chapter. And there should also be an outline — at least, an outline that recounts what we have done so far, and also provides a diagram of the organization or the arrangement of the tribes and the priests which we read about last week, as well as a numbering of those tribes. That’s something a little bit different, a little bit more detailed than we had on the chart last week.
We’ve been in our study of the book of Numbers for three weeks already. We did an introduction and overview to the whole book. We looked at chapter 1, we looked at chapter 2, and so far we’ve emphasized what a marvelous and applicable Old Testament book this is. This is a book for God’s people in the wilderness. The themes of the great hymn, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, come right out of this book. It’s a book that very much speaks to us.
And though the focus of the history that is recorded in chapters 1 and 2 is descriptive of numbering, and arranging of the tribes of Israel is relatively mundane material from one perspective, we have said throughout that this book first and foremost is about God. Even in those instructions for numbering and the recounting of the numbering, even in those instructions for arranging and the recounting of the arranging of the tribes of Israel, we are learning about God: God who speaks and saves. Have you noticed how often already in Numbers 1 and 2 that the phrase and the Lord said and the Lord said to Moses, or and the Lord commanded Moses to… —over and over, the focus is on God speaking, commanding, revealing Himself to His people.
But He not only speaks, He also saves. In the very first chapter of Numbers we are reminded that it’s God who has saved His children out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, where they receive this command.
So He’s the God who speaks and saves, but He’s also the God who is reliable and who rules. We commented last week on the fact that 70 people in Jacob’s family went down into Egypt, and now in Numbers 1 we’re told of 603,000 fighting men that are assembled around Mount Sinai. God had once said to Abram, ‘Believe Me, Abram, because here’s My promise: I will make your descendents more numerous than the sand in the desert, more numerous than the stars in the sky.’ And here, God, before the very eyes of Moses, is fulfilling that promise.
Now, by the way, the glory of it is with 600,000-plus fighting men and who knows?–what? two million or more people there, when you count the men who are not of fighting age, and the women and the children?–that promise isn’t anywhere near being done. And today around the world a multitude call on the name of the God of Abraham as the living God, through Jesus Christ. And on the shores of glory a multitude that no man can number will sing the praises of the Triune God in fulfillment of the promise that He made to Abraham: “I will bless you and multiply you exceedingly, and you will be the father of nations.” And we’re beginning to see that God’s reliable. When He says it, He does good on His word.
But He also rules. He is the sovereign God. He’s the one in charge here. He’s giving the instructions to His people, and they are to obey Him. And so God speaks and saves, He’s reliable and He rules, but He’s also present and pure. We see this, as well.
He dwells right in the middle of His people. The tabernacle is situated right smack-dab in the middle of the camp of Israel. When the children of Israel are on the move in tents, where is God? On the move, in a tent. He’s right there in the middle of His people. He’s present with them. He’s near to them. He’s present with His people. But He’s also pure. He’s holy. And so there’s a thousand yards between the tabernacle and the encampments of the people of Israel.
Now you can immediately see the practicality of that. When you’re moving two million people through the desert, there’s got to be a way…a place for sewage and garbage and all of the other things that go along with camping in the wilderness. With that many people, there’s got to be a lot of space. But remember, the Levites and priests are ringed around the tabernacle. And we’re told, by the way, why in the chapter here tonight. In chapter three, we’re told if a layman were to wander into the tabernacle what was going to happen to him. The penalty was death.
So God is to be treated holy. He’s pure. Yes, He’s right there in the middle of His people, but there is to be a reverence, an awe, a respect for His holy place. And so we’re learning things about God, even in all these minute details which at first look mundane and unimportant, and perhaps pedantic. No, we’re learning about God.
Well, tonight as we begin to look at this great passage there are several things ought to catch our attention. First of all, you may not realize it, but there are more references to Levites in the book of Numbers than in any other book in the Old Testament. Yes, that’s right. There are more references to Levites in Numbers than in Leviticus. It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? More about Levites in Numbers than in Leviticus. In fact, there’s more about Levites in Numbers than in any book in the Bible.
The second thing that is so interesting is, isn’t it interesting that all the priestly and levitical ministry responsibilities are assigned to just one tribe? Now, you could spend some time thinking about the significance of that, but let me just point out one thing that was significant about this.
Because of God assigning just one tribe to have the responsibility of ministry and support of ministry of the tabernacle, it kept the ministry from being bought and sold by the people of God. If you’ve ever read anything about the history of Roman Catholicism, one of the things that you find is that priestly duties and priestly salaries were bought and sold, bartered and traded, throughout the Middle Ages. People wanted to buy those privileges, buy those powers, buy those responsibilities, buy those salaries, and that they did! But that was utterly cut off in Israel. No, the ability to serve the Lord, the responsibility to serve the Lord in Israel, was restricted to one tribe and one tribe only. It didn’t matter how wonderful a person you were: if you were born in Issachar, you could not be a priest. Didn’t matter how wonderful a person you were: if you were born in Judah, you were not called to be a priest. Didn’t matter how great a person you were: if you were born in Dan, you couldn’t be a priest. No. There was going to be no scrapping for the privilege of priestly service. One tribe was going to do it. And so we see here how God has provided for this position not to be bought. No other tribe but the tribe of Levi could serve.
And in that sense, that leads us to a third observation, and that’s simply that the Levites themselves are the very picture of God’s election of us to salvation and service. It’s the tribe of Levi that’s chosen by God. Not by Moses, not by Aaron, not by vote, not by straw, not by ballot, not by suggestion; but by God. Levi is chosen by God as the tribe that is going to serve as priests. But they’re chosen to serve, so in Israel they’ve been saved by God’s choice as He chooses them as His people and brings them out of Egypt, but He calls them to service.
You know, very often when you’re talking with people that wrestle with the biblical doctrine of election, or of God’s choosing of His people to salvation, you’ll hear people say ‘No, no, no! God doesn’t choose us to salvation; He chooses us to service. We choose God for salvation, and then He chooses us for service.’ You’ll hear this argument made very often.
Well, the biblical response to that is ‘No, no, no! God chooses us to salvation and service. Or you could even say God saves us for service. Those two things aren’t alternatives, they’re a package deal. God calls us to serve. He chooses us to serve.’ And the Levites are the living, breathing, walking, talking picture of that.
And also in connection with that, we see a fourth thing. We’re reminded that the election of the Levites is a work of grace. We’re going to be told in the very first verses of chapter 3 about two sons, including the firstborn of Aaron, who were not going to serve the people of God as priests. The reason they were not going to serve the people of God as priests is because they were dead. And the reason they were dead is because they had offered unauthorized fire on the altar of God, and He had struck them down. And it’s interesting that before Aaron’s other two sons are listed as serving, we will once again here in Numbers be reminded of what we learned in Leviticus: that is that Nadab and Abihu were struck down because they were disobedient. And does that not remind us that God didn’t choose Levi because they were morally superior to everybody else? They were unfortunately just as susceptible as everybody else to sin. No, He chose out of His grace. It wasn’t based on some sort of moral superiority.
And in connection with that story we’re also reminded that the Lord’s servants are not exempt from the perils that stalk everyone else. So, friends, pray for those in ministry. Pray for those in ministry. We are susceptible to the same temptations that are common to you, and yet God calls us to fidelity and to holiness. That means we need your prayers that we might be found faithful.
Well, keep your eye on that, and then let me ask you to look for three more things as we read through this long passage of 51 verses.
Look in this passage for what we learn about redemption. Look in this passage for what we learn about substitution, and look in this passage for what we learn about God’s lordship, or ownership. Now let’s hear God’s word. Let’s pray before we do.
Lord, this is Your word. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Law. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Now these are the records of the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab, the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, who he ordained to serve as priests. But Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord when they offered strange fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring the tribe of Levi near and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. And they shall perform the duties for him and for the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle. They shall also keep all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, along with the duties of the sons of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. You shall thus give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the sons of Israel. So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons that they may keep their priesthood, but eh layman who comes near shall be put to death.’”
[Now look very closely in what we’re going to see in verses 11, 12, and 13. We’re coming back and focusing on this in a few moments.]
“Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Now behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine. For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn of Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the Lord.’
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, ‘Number the sons of Levi by their fathers’ households, by their families; every male from a month old and upward you shall number.’”
[Now just remember – in chapter 2, what had the instruction been? Number all the other tribes, but don’t number Levi. You might have been scratching your head there. Why? You’re about to find out why. They’re going to be numbered separately, and in fact we’re going to learn in the next chapter they’re going to be numbered twice, in two different ways.]
“So Moses numbered them according to the word of the Lord, just as he had been commanded. These are the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon and Kohath and Merari. And these are the names of the sons of Gershon by their families: Libni and Shimei; and the sons of Kohath by their families: Amram and Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel; and the sons of Merari by their families: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to their fathers’ households.
“Of Gershon was the family of the Libnites and the family of the Shimeites; there were the families of the Gershonites. Their numbered men, in the numbering of every male from a month old and upward, even their numbered men were 7,500. The families of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle westward, and the leader of the fathers’ households of the Gershonites was Eliasaph the son of Lael. Now the duties of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting involved the tabernacle and the tent, its covering, and the screen for the doorway of the tent of meeting, and the hanging of the court, and the screen for the doorway of the court, which is around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords, according to all the service concerning them.
“And of Kohath was the family of the Amramites and the family of the Izharites and the family of the Hebronites and the family of the Uzzielites; these were the families of the Kohathites. In the number of every male from a month old and upward, there were 8,600, performing the duties of the sanctuary. The families of the sons of Kohath were to camp on the southward side of the tabernacle, and the leader of the fathers’ households of the Kohathite families was Ilizaphan the son of Uzziel. Now their duties involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and the utensils of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all the service concerning them; and Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest was the chief of the leaders of Levi, and had oversight of those who perform the duties of the sanctuary.
“Of Marari was the family of the Mahlites and the family of the Mushites; these were the families of Merari. Their numbered men in the numbering of every male from a month old and upward, were 6,200. And the leader of the fathers’ households of the families of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail. They were to camp on the northward side of the tabernacle. Now the appointed duties of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, its bars, its pillars, its sockets, all its equipment, and the service concerning them, and the pillars around the court with their sockets and their pegs and their cords.
“Now those who were to camp before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, are Moses and Aaron and his sons, performing the duties of the sanctuary for the obligation of the sons of Israel; but the layman coming near was to be put to death. All the numbered men of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the command of the Lord by their families, every male from a month old and upward, were 22,000.”
[Now remember that number!]
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Number every firstborn male of the sons of Israel from a month old and upward, and make a list of their names. And you shall take the Levites for Me, I am the Lord, instead of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the sons of Israel.’ So Moses numbered all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, just as the Lord had commanded him; and all the firstborn males by the number of names from a month old and upward, for their numbered men were 22,273.”
[OK. So there were more firstborn sons of the other tribes — numbered twelve, counting both of Joseph’s sons in this count; 273 more firstborn sons in comparison to the number of the Levites. So what happens?]
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel and the cattle of the Levites. And the Levites shall be Mine; I am the Lord. And for the ransom of the 273 of the firstborn of the sons of Israel who are in excess beyond the Levites, you shall take five shekels apiece, per head; you shall take them in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), and give the money, the ransom of those who are in excess among them, to Aaron and to his sons.’ So Moses took the ransom money from those who were in excess beyond those ransomed by the Levites; from the firstborn of the sons of Israel he took the money in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary, 1,365. Then Moses gave the ransom money to Aaron and to his sons, at the command of the Lord, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Three things I want you to see in this passage, and look especially at verses 11, 12, and 13, and verses 46 and 47. Three things I want you to see…the Levites serve in this passage as a visible reminder of redemption, substitution, and lordship, and I want to take those in reverse order.
I. God’s lordship or ownership of His people.
First, let’s look at the idea of God’s lordship, or ownership, of His people. What is stressed in the second half of verse 12? Who do the Levites belong to? They belong to the Lord. What does the Lord say, end of verse 12? “The Levites shall be Mine.” How many times is that phrase repeated in this passage? “The Levites are Mine.” Yes, He talks about them being given to Aaron….the Levites. Think of it this way. The Levites are the assistant ministers of Israel. Yes, they’re given to Aaron; yes, they’re given to support the priests in all their work. But ultimately, who do they belong to? The whole kit and caboodle of them belong to God. The idea is the Lord owns the Levites. This is a picture of the biblical teaching of the lordship of God, or the ownership of God, of His people. The lordship of God over His people, the ownership of God of His people. The Lord owns the Levites. They uniquely belong to Him.
But of course ultimately that is just a picture of the whole of Israel, because Israel itself belongs to God. And of course in the New Testament (I Peter 2:9) what does it say about you? Peter there says to you, “You are a kingdom of priests.” He says ‘Christian, you’re like an Israel with all Levites!’ You all uniquely belong to Him, and you’re called to serve Him. And of course, Jesus Himself in His own life more perfectly than anyone else who ever lived reflects what this means. You remember how often, especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus turns to His disciples and says things like this: “It is My meat to do the will of Him who sent Me.” In other words, what Jesus is saying is ‘It is like sitting down to a feast for Me to be able to do the will of God, to serve My Lord, to do His bidding. I love it! It’s like a scrumptious meal to be able to do the work of the Lord.’
Well, my friends, we’re reminded that the corollary of God’s lordship is our embrace–in fact, we could say our surrender–to that lordship. What did we sing tonight? I Surrender All. “All to Jesus, I surrender…I surrender all.” In other words it’s an open, knowing embrace of the fact that God owns me, and I surrender me to Him. And we see that in spades with the Levites, and they surrender everything to Him. They’re to do His bidding. That’s you, Christian! You’re saved to serve…to joyful service, to glorious service. It’s a fulfilling service, but you belong to God.
II. Substitution — Your firstborn belong to Me.
Secondly, this great passage teaches us about the biblical doctrine of substitution. Have you noticed in this passage how it explains the principle of substitution? Every time the father of a firstborn went up to the tabernacle to offer sacrifice, do you know that one of the things that he would have to be reminded of would be this? You know, when he sees the Levites there, and he sees the priests and they’re serving the Lord in their various duties, then he has to think ‘You know, if that Levite weren’t there, if that priest weren’t there, I wouldn’t have my firstborn son. Because when God saved us out of Egypt, He saved us on a night when all the firstborn of Egypt died, and my son didn’t. And when He did that, He said ‘Now all your firstborn belong to Me,’ so that the one who was going to be the prime inheritor of my name, of my legacy, of my estate, of my heritage, belonged to God. And on the day that he was born and on the day that he was weaned, you know, he could have been like Samuel taken up to the tabernacle. Twenty-two thousand, two hundred and seventy three of them.
But what had God ordained? ‘No. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to take the Levites in the place of your firstborn.’ So that every time an Israelite father of a firstborn went up to the tabernacle, he was reminded of the principle of substitution. There was someone there serving in the tabernacle in his firstborn son’s place. And that principle and provision of a substitute is just driven home over and over again in the Law of God. It was driven home in the sacrificial ceremony, where you took an animal and you laid hands on an animal, and you took your hands off that animal, and then that animal was slaughtered–not because that animal had sinned, because that animal couldn’t–but because you had sinned, and your wife had sinned, and your sons had sinned, and your household had sinned. But that animal died as a substitute for you. And here again we’re seeing the principle of substitution: not your firstborn, but the Levites. They are your substitutes.
Now why in the world would God have been teaching that principle of substitution to the Israelites, except that one day one Man would stand in as substitute for the whole of His people, and even the wicked high priest Caiaphas would be used to prophecy it. One man, he said in John 11, one man must die for this nation. And John has to pause and say ‘Caiaphas…that reprobate! He didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but he said more than he knew. In fact, he was a prophet. He said more than he knew…he was a prophet, because this man Jesus Christ did not only die for the nation, He died for all of the peoples that God would eventually bring to Himself through Jesus Christ. He was the substitute.’ You see, the principle of substitution is being taught to the people of God even through the Levitical priestly order. Them, in the place of your firstborn.
In fact, it’s so strong that when they come up 273 people measly short, God requires what? Ransom money to be paid!
III. The provision of redemption.
Thirdly and finally, we see the principle of redemption, the provision of redemption in this passage. The principle and the price of redemption. Look at verse 13 again:
“For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the Lord.”
And then again in verse 46:
“For the ransom of the 273 of the firstborn of the sons of Israel who are in excess beyond the Levites, you shall take five shekels apiece….”
There’s this principle of ransom, redemption, buying back. ‘I’ve accepted this substitute in your place, but you didn’t quite even out; and, therefore, you’re going to have to pay a price for this substitution to work.’ And the Lord is teaching us something about redemption there.
But it’s so interesting, isn’t it…when our redemption comes, we pay nothing for it. We sing Jesus Paid It All; that’s why all to Him I owe. But you know, even before and behind that is the Father who loved, and the Father who sent, and the Father who gave, and the Father who did not spare, giving His Son as the ransom price for your redemption. Worth far more…far more than all of us put together. Precious. Priceless. Costly. Prodigal…all of these things describe the ransom price paid by God in His Son for our redemption from sin. And you see, all of this is being set up for us in the pictures that are being drawn for us in the book of Numbers.
It’s the gospel preached ahead of time: God’s lordship; God’s substitution; God’s redemption through Jesus Christ. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, grant that we would exalt Christ; that we would praise and be thankful to You for Your provision of a substitute, and of our redemption through His blood; and that because Jesus has paid it all, we would fully embrace that all to Him we owe; and that we would truly and gladly and really sing, “I surrender all.” This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let’s sing The Doxology.
Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.