The Lord’s Day Evening
“Levites’ Duties and Priestly Portion”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. Please be seated. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers, chapter 18. For those of you who haven’t been with us on Wednesday nights working through this great book, we have called this series “With God in the Wilderness,” and we’ve chosen that title because the name of this book in the Hebrew Bible is “In the Wilderness” — a considerably more tantalizing name than Numbers! And we also said that that picture of the people of God being with Him in the wilderness is not unlike the picture of our Christian pilgrimage with God in this world, for we are not yet home.
We’re not home with the Lord yet. We’re in the wilderness. We’re pilgrims with God, but not yet home with God. And this book has a lot to say about that great theme, a theme that really is picked up on in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, where that wilderness theme is worked out for Christians.
We’ve also said consistently as we’ve worked through this book that the Apostle Paul explicitly tells us that the events of this book happened, and they were written down, for our benefit as Christians, so that this is not just musty, dusty old history. It is truth which happened and was written down for our edification. We were to learn both a negative and a positive lesson. We were to learn not to grumble and to rebel, and to murmur like the children of God did in the book of Numbers in the wilderness, and we are to learn to trust God like they so often did not.
Now the story of Numbers 11-16 forms the backdrop of the passage we’re going to be studying tonight. As you look at the passage, I’ve labeled it “Levites’ Duties and the Priestly Portion,’ and that kind of regulation doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but if you understand the backdrop of what’s happening here, it will help you appreciate the passage more. From Numbers 11 to Numbers 16, Israel has been grumbling, complaining, murmuring and rebelling against God. In fact, it’s that section of Numbers that I think the Apostle Paul has especially in his mind when he writes what he writes in I Corinthians 10.
Numbers 16-17 provide the immediate backdrop for tonight’s passage. The priestly regulations here are directly connected with the story recorded in Numbers 16-17, so you may want to cheat and take a peek at Numbers 16-17 before we start reading Numbers 18 tonight.
It’s a very sad tale. In Numbers 17, a group of Levites appear before Moses and Aaron, and they say, ‘Who are you to decide that only Aaron’s sons get to be the priests? We want to be priests. And furthermore, you’re lousy leaders!’ And all of the people of God not only grumble against Moses and Aaron, but many of these leaders of the sons of Korah demand to be made priests. And if you’ll remember, those of you who are here working your way through this passage, what happens is God says, ‘Oh, okay, you can be priests. Fine. Show up tomorrow with incense holders, with censers, and we’ll see which of you can be priests.’ And so all the heads of the families of the rebelling Levites show up, and God strikes them dead…consumes them with fire. And only their censers are left. And then God says ‘You take up those censers and you melt them down, and you cover the altar with the melted down censers to remind Israel every time that they come to the altar that only I appoint My priests. Nobody appoints themselves as priests. No one chooses who will serve Me as a priest, as a mediator, as a minister for the Lord.’
And of course the rebellion of the whole of the people of God against Moses and Aaron was disastrous. Fourteen thousand seven hundred people died of the plague because of the rebellion against Moses and Aaron.
Well, last Wednesday night when we were looking at Numbers 17, we saw God give encouragement to Moses and Aaron. They had just experienced wholesale rejection of their ministries, wholesale rebellion by the people of God. And so God comes in Numbers 17 and He encourages them in their ministry, and He does this by displaying a miraculous sign. And the sign was this: God said, ‘Go take a staff, one for each of the tribes of Israel, and label them with the names of the heads of those tribes; and name the one for Levi’s tribe…write Aaron on it. And put them into the tent of meeting and leave them there overnight, and then you go back and bring them out. The one which has displayed itself to be different than the others will show you which tribe I have chosen to be My priests.’
Well, they go in the next morning…they come out, and one of the rods has blossomed, and there are ripe almonds as well as beautiful almond blossoms on that rod. And guess whose rod it was? Aaron’s. And so God again miraculously confirmed that He has appointed Aaron. Now He commanded that long ago, but now again to the rebellious people of God He has displayed ‘This is the tribe that I have chosen to serve Me as priests.’ And so it’s miraculously confirmed. And so again God encourages His discouraged servants by displaying that miraculous sign, a testimony to their God-given leadership and ministry.
It vindicates the ministry of Moses, and it vindicates the priesthood of Aaron, but it also has a broader significance for you and me. One of the great points of Numbers 17 is that all true ministry is appointed by God. God appoints His own priests, and Numbers 17 explains why this is necessary: because we can’t approach God on our own terms.
We’re the ones who have violated the covenant with Him. We’re the ones who have rebelled against Him. We are not in a position to dictate the terms on which we will approach God. If God is going to be approached, He’s going to have to dictate the terms, He’s going to have to provide the representative, He’s going to have to provide the priest, He’s going to have to provide the ministry. And so indeed Numbers reminds us that we can’t appoint our own priest, we can’t appoint our own mediator, we can’t dictate the way we’ll come into God’s presence, and we can’t redeem ourselves because the problem is our sin. If we’re going to be redeemed, it’s going to be by God’s provision, on God’s terms, and by God’s appointment. Our salvation, our fellowship with God, is dependent on His initiative and His provision. We engage with God, we fellowship with God, we come into His presence only on the terms that He proposes, and only in the way that He alone makes possible. And so we see God demonstrating this in Numbers 17.
Well, tonight we come to some seemingly redundant — because we’ve already heard these regulations before — we come to some seemingly redundant and apparently unexciting priestly regulations. But I want you to see that these are directly connected to the events of 16 and 17, and therefore actually elaborate a very important message for us from God and display spiritual wisdom from which we are intended to learn and grow.
Now before we read the passage, let me outline it for you. And be on the lookout for this. This should make some of these regulations a little bit easier to follow. I’m going to read the passage in three parts.
The first part of the passage comes in verses 1-7, and in that passage God gives His explanation of His appointment of the priests and Levites. He explains to the children of Israel why He has uniquely appointed them to represent Him before the people of God, rather than all of the people of God just coming whenever they want into His presence.
Secondly, in verses 8-20, you see a description of the requirement to pay tithes for the upkeep for the priests and the Levites.
And then in the third section, from verses 21-32, we see the requirement that the Levites pay a portion, a tenth, of their tithe to the priests.
Let’s pray before we read God’s word.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. Open our eyes, that we might behold wonderful things from Your law. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“So the Lord said to Aaron, ‘You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood. And with you bring you brothers also, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may join you and minister to you while you and your sons with you are before the tent of the testimony. They shall keep guard over you and over the whole tent, but shall not come near to the vessels of the sanctuary or to the altar lest they, and you, die. They shall join you and keep guard over the tent of meeting for all the service of the tent, and no outsider shall come near you. And you shall keep guard over the sanctuary and over the altar, that there may never again be wrath on the people of Israel. And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to the Lord, to do the service of the tent of meeting. And you and your sons with you shall guard your priesthood for all that concerns the altar and that is within the veil; and you shall serve. I give your priesthood as a gift, and any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.’
“Then the Lord spoke to Aaron, ‘Behold, I have given you charge of the contributions made to me, all the consecrated things of the people of Israel. I have given them to you as a portion and to your sons as a perpetual due. This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every offering of theirs, every grain offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs and every guilt offering of theirs, which they render to me, shall be most holy to you and to your sons. In a most holy place shall you eat it. Every male may eat it; it is holy to you. This also is yours: the contribution of their gift, all the wave offerings of the people of Israel. I have given them to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it. All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the first fruits of what they give to the Lord, I give to you. The first ripe fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the Lord, shall be yours. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it. Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours. Everything that opens the womb of all the flesh, whether man or beast, which they offer to the Lord, shall be yours. Nevertheless, the firstborn of man you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs. But the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle their blood on the altar and shall burn their fat as a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. But their flesh shall be yours, as the breast that is waved and as the right thigh are yours. All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the Lord I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you. And the Lord said to Aaron, ‘You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.
“ ‘To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear the iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said to them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.’
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Moreover, you shall speak and say to the Levites, ‘When you take from the people of Israel the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe. And your contribution shall be counted to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress. So you shall also present a contribution to the Lord from all your tithes which you receive from the people of Israel. And from it you shall give the Lord’s contribution to Aaron the priest. Out of all the gifts to you, you shall present every contribution due to the Lord; from each its best part is to be dedicated.’’ Therefore you shall say to them, ‘When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be counted to the Levites as produce of the threshing floor, and as produce of the winepress. And you may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward in return for your service in the tent of meeting. And you shall bear no sin by reason of it, when you have contributed the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, lest you die.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.
There is much that we could say about this passage. A whole sermon perhaps could be preached on the covenant of salt. A whole sermon could be preached, for instance, on the statement about the priests that the Lord Himself is their portion. And I want to concentrate especially on the first section of this passage tonight. There are roughly two parts to this chapter, and the first part shows us one of the two things that is happening in this passage. God has graciously showed His people here that He has already heard their fears, and He has already appointed an answer to address their concerns.
If you allow you eyes to look back to verses 12-13 of chapter 17, you’ll remember that the people of God, after seeing the Levites who presumed to be priests struck down, after hearing that only the house of Aaron would be allowed to serve before the Lord in the tent, they had said,
Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die. Are we all to perish?”
And in answer to that, the Lord says, ‘Now if you’ll remember the way I set things up in the first place before you rebelled, address that fear of yours. Address that concern. You yourselves are not to approach the tent, but the priests and the Levites will bear that dangerous service in your place.’
So two things are happening in chapter 18. One, God is graciously showing His people that He has already thought about their fears expressed in verses 12-13 of chapter 17. He had thought about them long before they ever expressed those fears, and He had appointed a system that addressed that. But, secondly, God is re-establishing that He alone appoints His priests, His mediators, and His ministers. No one appoints himself to that position, and the position itself comes not only with privileges, but with certain liabilities.
So let’s look at this passage tonight in two parts.
I. God’s gift of the priests and the Levites.
The first part, in verses 1-7: God’s gift of the priests and the Levites is reasserted here. The main point of dispute in the rebellion of Korah, if you’ll remember, was the distinction between the Levites and the priests. There were certain Levites who wanted to be priests. There were certain people amongst the children of Israel who had not been appointed by God to be priests, and yet they had demanded that they be allowed to serve as priests.
Well, God had already commanded that there be a distinction between the tribe of Levi and the rest of Israel, and then there would be a distinction within the tribe of Levi, so that the sons of Aaron were to serve as priests and others were to serve as Levites. So God had already commanded that distinction. When the Levites rebelled against that distinction, God judged them. And then, in chapter 17, He gave a miraculous sign to reinforce what He had already said about His priests, and now He gives the regulation and the rationale again in chapter 18 in order to reinforce His command and sign.
Just stop and note something there. Notice what God does. He gives a word, He gives a sign, and then He gives another word. He tells them a command, He gives them a sign to reinforce that command — in this case, a miraculous sign, the budding rod of Aaron — and then He gives yet another word just in case that anybody missed the point that He was making in the command that He so clearly gave, in the miraculous sign that He displayed. He gives yet another word that explains the sign and the command, and to give a rationale for it.
It’s actually a very gracious thing for the Lord to do. Here he is, responding to a rebellious people, and He’s sitting them down and saying, ‘Let Me explain to you why I have done what I have done.’ It’s a very generous gesture against those who have rebelled against His good and wise and holy rule. It shows you something of the patience of God, it shows you something of the kindness of God. But I mention that pattern because how often do you see that in the Bible? God explains something in His word; He gives a sign in order to bolster our confidence in the word that He’s already spoken, in order to bolster our faith in the promises that He has spoken; and then He comes back behind that sign and He gives a word of explanation. This God is a good teacher. He tells us, and tells us, and tells us again. He tells us one way, He tells us another way, He comes back and He explains the second way that He told us so that we understand the very first thing that He told us. He’s a good teacher. He repeats Himself. And so this pattern that we see in Numbers 18 is not a pattern that you don’t see elsewhere. In fact, it’s repeated many places in Scripture.
But you understand what’s going on here. Already there had been a rebellion on the part of some. They thought that the priests had a pretty cushy job. And even after the description of what they had to bring to them in the tithes–they had to bring them the best of the fruit, the best of the wine, the best of their grain offering–and they thought, ‘You know, priests have a pretty cushy job. I’d like to be a priest.’
And so what does God tell them in Numbers 18? He tells them, ‘Now understand: if there is a violation by the people of God in the service of the sanctuary, the priests die. If there is a violation of the order of the sanctuary, the Levites die. If the Levites and the priests violate My rules in approaching Me in the sanctuary, they will die.’ In other words, what’s God saying? He’s saying there is another side that you may not be appreciating that is a part of the responsibility of the priests who come before Me. In fact, what He’s saying here is that the priests and the Levites are spiritual lightening rods. If there is a principle in the Old Testament [and there is]…if there is a principle in the Old Testament that says judgment begins with the house of God…you’ll see this repeated several times in the prophets…when God is about to bring judgment against the nations, He generally first begins with judgment against His own people. If that is a principle [and it is], then there is also another principle: that judgment against God’s own people begins with judgment against God’s own ministers. No wonder James will later say in the New Testament, “Let not many of you become teachers, for you will incur stricter judgment.” That is a principle that James was not the first to announce. You see it all the way back here in Numbers 18.
James Phillips, a pastor whose ministry I had the privilege of sitting under in Edinburgh, Scotland, commenting on this passage says this:
“The association of ideas between these verses in chapter 18 and what precedes them should be noted. The rebels had just challenged Aaron in the priesthood. They had clearly, for their own reasons and motives, coveted his place and his privilege and his position, and here God paints a clearer picture of the priesthood for them, to show them that it is not something to covet. He unfolds the responsibilities of the priesthood as a warning, so to speak, against their carnal coveting of the office. The truth is it is possible to covet place in the work and service of God and to do so as a means of self-expression, for the gratification of personal ambition, or as an indication of a lust for power, or even merely for the prestige that it seems to bestow. It is oddly impressive to realize that what so often attracts from the outside is the kudos, and the glory and the dignity of that position which it seems to offer. But the other side, the being struck down, the dying for approaching God carelessly, that other side seldom seems to be seen with the solemn responsibility matching every privilege.”
And that’s exactly what is on display here. The priests and the Levites are serving as spiritual lightning rods for the people of God. If judgment begins at the house of God, it especially begins with those that God has appointed for ministry. And so in this passage God is reminding all of the people of that, lest they be tempted, when they bring those rich tithes, to grumble about what a cushy job the priests and the Levites have.
But again the big point here is that ministers are God’s gift to His people. They cannot be appointed by themselves. They are not self-appointed. They are not ultimately appointed by the people, though they are recognized and acknowledged by the people; they are gifts from God to His people.
Notice how Moses emphasizes this in two passages. Look at verse 5 and look at verse 7, as he describes the Levites and the priests. First he says to Aaron (about the Levites) this: “They are a gift to you given to the Lord to do the service of the tent of meeting.” And so first Moses says (speaking God’s word to Aaron), ‘Aaron, those Levites are My gift to you to help you in the service to the Lord.’ And then if you look at verse 7, God again through Moses says to Aaron,
“I give your priesthood as a gift, and any outsider who comes near shall
be put to death.”
So in both these cases, God gives the Levites and then the priests as a gift for the service of the tabernacle for the benefit of the people, but He is the one who appoints them.
Now the Apostle Paul picked this truth up in Ephesians 4:7-13. Flip there in your Bible, because what he says is that when Jesus ascended on high and led captivity captive, He did what? “He gave gifts to men.”
Now let me just stop right there. You understand that if the Apostle Paul is reading that and there are some Hebrew Christians there who know their Bibles, what are they going to do? They’re going to gasp, because what has Paul just said about Jesus? If Jesus is giving the gift of ministry to the church, who is He? He’s God. Because only God gives ministers to the church. It’s a glorious testimony to the deity of Christ that the Apostle Paul says that when Jesus ascends on high leading captivity captive, that He gives gifts to men in the ministry.
II. God alone appoints church leaders.
But notice again, secondly, the Apostle Paul picks up on this idea of the ministry as a gift, and emphasizes that the ministry of prophets and apostles and pastor-teachers is what? It is a gift that comes from God to the church, for God’s glory and for the people’s good. And so the ministry is not the minister’s prerogative where he gets to be a rod on the backs of the people. He is God’s gift to the people to be a blessing to them. But the ministry is also something that no one has the prerogative simply to take unto himself. It is something which only God appoints a person to.
That is, by the way, why in the Presbyterian Church in America there are a whole series of examinations that are required for those who feel the call into the gospel ministry, because if the church does not recognize the call and the gifting of God in the person, then that person cannot serve in the church. Just this afternoon two young men, part of our congregation, came before a group of our elders to be examined to see whether there were signs that they had a call from God and the gifting of God to serve in pastoral ministry. Why could those men not just stand up and say, “I am called of God and gifted of God for pastoral ministry”? Because no one appoints himself as a minister of the gospel. Only God appoints a minister of the gospel. And how is that recognized? Those who are ministers and elders in God’s church, through prayer and spiritual discernment, see the marks and signs of God’s call and God’s gifting on that person, and then certify that. Why is that important? Because in the ministry you are a spiritual lightning rod, and you are in Satan’s crosshairs. And you are so often tempted to doubt whether you are called or equipped to do what you are called to do, and you can remember that the elders of the people of God have said, ‘Yes, I’ve seen God’s call on you. I’ve seen God’s gift in you. You are to devote yourself to the ministry of God’s word.’ And so the Apostle Paul picks up on this very passage, this seemingly obscure passage in Numbers 18, and sees a direct application of this truth for the people of God.
Now the second half of the chapter addresses the issue of the people of God showing their appreciation for this gift of God, and indicating their understanding of its spiritual importance by tithing for the support of the priests and the Levites. And this is the story of the whole rest of the chapter, from verse 8 all the way to verse 32.
After reflecting on this chapter, I should have called this sermon “The Gift of Ministry and Gifts for Ministry.” If God in this passage emphasizes that He alone gives the gift of ministers to His church, He also in this passage emphasizes that one of the ways we show that we understand that He has given us a gift for ministry is we give back to the support of that ministry. And of course in the Presbyterian tradition, every time a man is called into the gospel ministry, we read some special words, and among those special words are words that go something like this:
“That because we recognize God’s call of you to this ministry, we will contribute such-and-such an amount so that you can be free from worldly cares and avocations, in order to serve the people of God.”
And it’s flowing right out of the principles we see here in Numbers 18. In other words, God says ‘My people, if you really see the value of the ministry, you’ll see the value of supporting it, and you’ll show your understanding of the value of the ministry by supporting it materially. It’s a principle that we continue to carry out today, but it’s a principle rooted in God’s dealings in the Old Testament.
Yes, in this passage God has shown that ministers are God’s gift to His people, and that we are to acknowledge that, display that, express that, in giving gifts for the support of ministry.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Thank You for the richness of even these obscure passages in the Old Testament. Thank You that there were faithful saints of old like the Apostle Paul who expounded truths out of passages like this that we are so apt to skip over, to overlook, to fail to see the significance of. This is yet another proof that all Scripture is given by inspiration. Thank You, heavenly Father, for the gift of ministry. Every single one of us in this room, whether minister or ministered unto, has been the beneficiary of faithful gospel ministers somewhere, now or in the past. And so we thank You for those gifts that You have given to the church, and we pray that we would respond appropriately in showing tangible appreciation for that gift which You have given. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.