In this chapter we see that the Levites according to the thoughts of God are set apart for the service. They are a type of the church, or rather of the members of the church, in their service to God, just as the priests are a picture of the New Testament believers who approach to the throne of God for worship or in intercession for the benefit of others.
There are three principles that are important to us in the service to the Lord:
1. We are redeemed from Egypt, a picture of the world (Exo 12:1-40; Gal 1:4).
2. As a result, we belong to God (1Cor 6:20).
3. We were given to Christ for the service of the heavenly tabernacle (cf. Num 3:6).
The Levites are the only tribe chosen to carry the holy things of the tabernacle and serve therein. For the church this means that every member, every believer, is responsible for making his contribution to being a church. Of all that God has given us in the church, He has given us the responsibility to carry it all through the wilderness and to bring it to its end intact.
Every child of God is a Levite, but the question is who actually does this service. Every Levite has its own task. God has given us all a gift of grace, but are we using it? That is different from the priests. All the sons of Aaron are priests; there is no distinction therein. So we meet on the first day of the week. All brothers and sisters perform priestly service. In approaching to God all discernment disappears, for who and what are we in His presence? As Levites there is a difference. This distinction is made by God Himself (1Cor 12:5). Each has its own task, which is different from the task of the other.
1 - 4 The Generations of Aaron and Moses
1 Now these are [the records of] the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when the LORD spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. 2 These then are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 3 These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. 4 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.
Moses and Aaron are mentioned together as the spiritual fathers of the generation of Levi, both priests and Levites. In Moses the aspect of the authority of the Word of God comes to the fore. In Aaron we see more sympathy for our weaknesses. Together they are a picture of the Lord Jesus in Whom both aspects are perfectly united (Heb 3:1; 4:12-16).
Nadab and Abihu have not taken into account the authority of the word God has spoken and have entered the sanctuary in the opinion of being able to approach God in their own way (Lev 10:1-3). That is their own invented priestly service. Such a priesthood dies out, it does not hold out to God because God does not hold it, there is nothing of Him in it. They have no sons or descendants to follow them. Their death, so soon after the establishment of the priesthood, must be a terrifying example and call for holiness in the priestly ministry.
Mentioning their names and their end makes it clear that the priesthood is not linked to the importance of the family, but to the sovereign choice of God. It also shows that getting a privilege does not automatically mean loyalty, but that man is able to corrupt his privilege.
The remaining sons serve as priests during Aaron’s life. It is good if young people serve under the watchful eye of the elderly. It must also have been a joy for Aaron to see worthy successors in these two boys (cf. 3Jn 1:4).
5 - 10 The Levites Are a Gift to the Priests
5 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 6 “Bring the tribe of Levi near and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. 7 They shall perform the duties for him and for the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle. 8 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. 9 You shall thus give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the sons of Israel. 10 So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons that they may keep their priesthood, but the layman who comes near shall be put to death.”
The Levites are given as a tribe to Aaron and his sons. They are subject to Aaron and act on the priest’s instructions. The Levite helps with priestly service. Every Levite’s service in the church aims to make the members of the church better and better priests through this service. A better priest is more to the honor of God.
They are also given to the whole congregation of Israel. Every believer is as a Levite, as a servant, accountable only to the Lord (Rom 14:4). The performance of his task is a matter only between the Lord and Him. It is not the brothers and sisters who determine his service. If the matter is healthy, they will agree to it. Only in the case of discipline, when sin becomes manifest in the servant, the church must deal with it.
The gifts are given to the church and find their fulfillment in the midst of the church. That is why the servant has to do with the church. He does not act above or separate from the church. The church is entitled to this gift. He is a servant, so he is not in a higher place, but in the lowest place. He is subject to the Lord and works amidst the church.
Verse 6 and verse 9 find their counterpart for us in the words of the Lord Jesus to His Father: “They were Yours and You gave them to Me” (Jn 17:6), and to the Jews: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (Jn 6:37).
The “layman” here is someone who does not belong to Aaron’s family (cf. verse 38). In Numbers 1 it concerns someone who is not a Levite (Num 1:51). Nadab and Abihu were qualified, but still killed because they approached in their own way.
11 - 13 The Levite Instead of the Firstborn
11 Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “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. 13 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 in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the LORD.”
The Levites replaced the firstborn. The firstborn belongs in a special way to the LORD. He reminds Moses that He has sanctified them for Himself on the basis of the blood of the Lamb (Exo 12:1-28; 13:1-13). In the firstborn the whole people of God are represented. The right to the firstborn is the right to the whole people.
The church is called the “church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb 12:23). Thus they are the property of God. This gives God the right to determine that they will serve the church. Members of the church are God’s special property and God has the right to give each member of the church a task. God asserts His right from the very moment of birth. Every believer is predestined to a certain task from his being born again onwards (cf. Gal 1:15; Acts 9:15; 1Tim 1:18).
The Levite only starts to perform his service when he is thirty years old. The whole period up to 30 years is preparation for this task. This can be applied to a service in the church. Before a person performs a public service in the church, he will also get to know God’s thoughts about his service better by reading and studying God’s Word. That does not mean that nothing is done at that time of preparation. A believer can testify of the Lord as soon as he is converted (Acts 9:20). He can also thank the Lord in the church for his redemption.
God asserts His right over those He redeems, and only by being of Him can redemption become a reality. Through the exchange between firstborn and Levites we see the two fundamental pillars on which the service rests:
1. The new birth and purification through the blood of Christ.
2. The connection to and sanctification for the Lord.
The choice of God of this tribe shows us His grace. Their ancestor Levi is characterized by violence and cruelty (Gen 49:5; 34:25-31). But God glorifies Himself by making dedicated believers out of self-willed and cruel people.
14 - 20 Command to Count the Levites
14 Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, 15 “Number the sons of Levi by their fathers’ households, by their families; every male from a month old and upward you shall number.” 16 So Moses numbered them according to the word of the LORD, just as he had been commanded. 17 These then are the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon and Kohath and Merari. 18 These are the names of the sons of Gershon by their families: Libni and Shimei; 19 and the sons of Kohath by their families: Amram and Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel; 20 and the sons of Merari by their families: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to their fathers’ households.
The Levites must also be counted. Like the firstborn (verse 40), the Levites are also counted from one month old. Each Levite individually is important to God and the service to be rendered. His task cannot be performed by anyone else. This is also the case in the church. It is of great practical importance that every child of God knows his task which the Lord has given him to do. It is also important that he stays with this and does not interfere in what the Lord gives another person to do. The Lord is sovereign in this.
The Levites all take a different place toward the tabernacle. The three sons each have a different task. This we can apply to the church to which the Lord Jesus gave “some [as] evangelists, and some [as] pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11). These gifts or tasks can be seen in the sons of Levi. There are believers who can speak about the Lord Jesus in a special way in what He is for God; others can present Him in what He is for the sinner in a special way. In this way, everyone has received his own gift to serve with.
A brother from Hong Kong told something that reminds us of this and illustrates it. He has known three leaders of home churches in China who have been of great significance for many home churches in China. All three have been nicknamed after the tabernacle. A brother was called “altar” because he burned for the gospel. The second brother was called ‘laver’ because in his preaching he emphasized holiness and cleansing. The third brother was called ‘sanctuary’ because he knew the Scriptures so well.
21 - 26 The Gershonites and Their Task
21 Of Gershon [was] the family of the Libnites and the family of the Shimeites; these [were] the families of the Gershonites. 22 Their numbered men, in the numbering of every male from a month old and upward, [even] their numbered men [were] 7,500. 23 The families of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle westward, 24 and the leader of the fathers’ households of the Gershonites [was] Eliasaph the son of Lael. 25 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, 26 and the hangings 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.
The Gershonites have to take care of all the coverings and curtains. Coverings and curtains speak of our practical revelation in the world, what people see of us. Is the Lord Jesus visible in our lives?
The Gershonites must camp on the west side, the side of the tribulation. Our whole life as Gershonites may be a testimony of Who the Lord Jesus is. Who the Lord Jesus is for us is best seen when we find ourselves in difficulties. Being a witness is performing a service as an evangelist.
27 - 32 The Kohathites and Their Task
27 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. 28 In the numbering of every male from a month old and upward, [there were] 8,600, performing the duties of the sanctuary. 29 The families of the sons of Kohath were to camp on the southward side of the tabernacle, 30 and the leader of the fathers’ households of the Kohathite families was Elizaphan the son of Uzziel. 31 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; 32 and Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest [was] the chief of the leaders of Levi, [and had] the oversight of those who perform the duties of the sanctuary.
The Kohathites receive the care for all the objects that are in the sanctuary, both in the holy and in the holy of holies. They are familiar with the presence of God. They know, so to speak, the position of God’s people before God. In all the objects they care for, the glory of God is seen in Christ.
They have to camp on the south side, the right side. That is the side of dignity, of a known position. It is the task of the teacher to make all members of God’s people aware of this.
33 - 37 The Merarites and Their Task
33 Of Merari [was] the family of the Mahlites and the family of the Mushites; these [were] the families of Merari. 34 Their numbered men in the numbering of every male from a month old and upward, [were] 6,200. 35 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. 36 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, 37 and the pillars around the court with their sockets and their pegs and their cords.
The Merarites are given the care for the boards and pillars, for everything needed to hold up and sustain the tabernacle. They must camp on the north side, the cold side, the side from where the attacks of the evil one come to destroy God’s work.
We see their service in the work of the shepherds, who are committed to keeping the church standing so that it does not succumb under the pressure of the enemy. Shepherds make sure that the believers remain united, like the boards of the tabernacle.
38 Camp of Moses and Aaron and his sons
38 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.
Moses and Aaron were to camp on the east side, at the entrance of the tabernacle, the side of the sunrise. These most privileged persons and families are closest to God’s dwelling place and access to Him. That distinction of proximity does not exist in the church.
Every believer is equally close to God. But there is a difference in the enjoyment that the individual members of the church have of the position they all occupy without distinction because of the work of the Lord Jesus. He who is closest to Christ is the one who serves Him best. Without this closeness it is not possible to serve Him.
39 - 51 Difference in Number
39 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. 40 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. 41 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.” 42 So Moses numbered all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, just as the LORD had commanded him; 43 and all the firstborn males by the number of names from a month old and upward, for their numbered men were 22,273. 44 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “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. 46 For the ransom of the 273 of the firstborn of the sons of Israel who are in excess beyond the Levites, 47 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), 48 and give the money, the ransom of those who are in excess among them, to Aaron and to his sons.” 49 So Moses took the ransom money from those who were in excess, beyond those ransomed by the Levites; 50 from the firstborn of the sons of Israel he took the money in terms of the shekel of the sanctuary, 1,365. 51 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.
For the third time, Moses is given the command to count. The purpose of this count is to see if every firstborn has a Levite as a counterpart. The question is whether anyone who is in position of a firstborn is in practice a Levite. Does every believer perform his task as Levite?
The count of both groups shows that there are unfortunately less Levites than firstborn. Applied to the church this means that in the practice of the church not every believer as a firstborn has a Levite as a counterpart. Yet God asserts His right to it. He wants such a person to serve as a Levite. Ransom is required to become a Levite as a firstborn. God determines the amount of the ransom. The ransom is ten times as much as the ransom to be paid by one who is numbered of the people (Exo 30:13).
The awareness that I was bought for a price by the blood of the Lord Jesus will lead me to accomplish my task as a Levite. It is my responsibility, of which the number five speaks.
The mention of cattle in verse 41 indicates that God asserts His authority and His rights not only upon ourselves, but upon everything we possess.