Lessons from Levitical Service
One of the most striking illustrations of Christian service today is no doubt the service of the Levites, especially during Israel 's journey across the desert. So many interesting details are provided that the space here available only allows us to provide a brief list of some of the features of Levitical service, and to hint at some of the implications for Christian service today.
A bad start
The first action of Levi, one of Jacob's twelve sons, that is recorded in the Scriptures is an act of cruelty, motivated by excessive wrath and carried out in a deceitful way (read the account in Genesis 34): ‘Simeon and Levi … took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males' (Gen. 34:25). Jacob had to say: ‘Ye have troubled me' (Gen. 34:30). This is why, later, the blessing of the tribe of Levi was turned into a curse: ‘Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will … scatter them …' (Gen. 49:7).
Christians have also had a bad start. David's words apply to them just as well: ‘I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me' (Ps. 51:5). They are sinful descendents of fallen Adam (Rom. 5) – what material to be used in service for God! Given our origin, who can grasp that the Lord should be willing, or even desiring, to use any of us? But, as we will see below, the Levites were people who had been redeemed, and this is what makes all the difference!
Not numbered with the rest of the people
According to Numbers 1, the Levites were not numbered with the rest of the people. God had set them apart – for reasons we will note further down.
A central place
The Levites had to camp in the middle of the people's camp, right next to the tabernacle (Num 2:17). Does this not indicate that the Levites were to have a special and constant sense of the presence of God? And their service for God was a priority that took precedence over other considerations; if their service was related to the tabernacle, then they would live in its proximity.
Presented to Aaron – and given to him
God had commanded Moses: ‘Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him' (Num. 3:6). This interesting little detail reveals much of the character of Levitical service – as well as Christian service. The Levites had to be presented to Aaron, a type of Christ. They would serve him. Christian service is done for Christ. The simplicity of this point should not obscure its importance: the more a Christian is conscious that his or her service is done for Christ, the more this service will be done in the right attitude, in a way that is acceptable to Christ.
A little further down (verse 9) it says: ‘And thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons: they are wholly given unto him …' So it is with the Christian servant: wholly given to Christ.
The charge of the tabernacle and of the congregation
So the Levites were commanded to ‘keep the charge of Aaron' – this was the primary consideration – and to keep ‘the charge of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of the congregation, to do the service of the tabernacle' (Num. 3:7). Christian service is for Christ, but it is carried out for the benefit of God's people and for the sake of the testimony for God.
‘… instead of all the firstborn …'
Verse 12 of Numbers 3 unveils the secret surrounding the special place of the Levites: they had been chosen by God ‘instead of all the firstborn'. In Egypt , God had spared the first born of the Israelites on the basis of the blood of the Paschal lamb. This was the price by which the firstborn had been redeemed. Consequently they belonged to God. Now, this is the place God gave the Levites: He chose them instead of all the first-born. A Levite would therefore regard himself as redeemed by God and hence as God's possession.
‘Ye are bought with a price', Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:20). And having presented the full gospel to the Romans (Romans 1-11), he exhorts them to present their bodies as a living sacrifice to Christ. This would constitute ‘reasonable' (or ‘intelligent') Christian service ( Rom. 12:1, 2). A consciousness of God's redeeming grace will lead to devotion in service.
Numbered from a month old
When it comes to numbering the people, the normal threshold was 20 years (Num. 1:3). With the Levites, an exception was made. Everyone was counted, almost from birth (from a month old – Num. 3:15). Does this detail not indicate that God takes notice of everyone He intends to use in His service, even from the earliest age? Paul tells us that God had ‘separated him', and not only from the time of his conversion but ‘from his mother's womb' (compare Jer. 1:5).
Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Num. 3:17). Their respective families and descendants formed three different groups, each with different tasks. The Gershonites looked after the tabernacle, the tent and the coverings (v.25). To the Kohathites the sanctuary instruments were confided (v.32), and the Merarites had the care of the boards, the bars, the pillars and sockets of the tabernacle (v. 37).
Hence not every Levite had the same sphere of activity – and none of them could choose his own service. If you were born a Merarite you would not be allowed to take care of the vessels of the sanctuary which were entrusted to the Kohathites. So it is with Christian service: God gives different types of service to different believers.
All of the above happened under the priestly supervision of Eleazar, son of Aaron (verse 32) – just as Christian service is directed by Christ.
What makes it interesting?
As such, some tasks may have been more interesting or have appeared more important than others. Looking after boards or sockets, for instance, may not have seemed such a desirable service. But what mattered was that these were not just any boards, or sockets, but they were the boards and sockets of the tabernacle. This work was linked to the testimony of God.
Much of Christian service is profoundly interesting in itself, e.g. studying and teaching God's Word. Other tasks may seem less appealing, for instance preparations for hospitality, administrative duties, accounting, and, and, and ... What gives importance and dignity to these tasks is that they are related to the testimony of God.
The missing Levites
Then the day came when the Levites were counted (remember, they were replacing the firstborn). As it turned out, there were 22,000 Levites, but there were 22,273 firstborn (Num. 3:39-42). In other words, the Levites were short of 273 people. A coincidence? A negligible difference? Hardly. God notes the difference and commands a ransom be paid for the 273 missing Levites (v. 46, 47).
Over the course of history, the lack of Levites became more pronounced. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Levites were scarce. We find just 74 in Ezra 2, and when, in chapter 8, Ezra sends 11 men to search for Levites, they find only 38. Today, Levites are still being looked for: those who are willing to bear the burden connected with God's testimony. We wonder whether there is a ‘missing Levite' among the readers of this magazine …
A window of opportunity
Depending on the precise task in hand, Levites started their active service at the age of 25 or 30 years of age, and they retired into an advisory role when they were 50 (Numbers 3 and 4). In Christian service, a certain amount of maturity is required, no doubt different levels of it for different tasks; and a point in time comes when active service is over. This may not be at age 50, but it could be any time. When the Lord comes, our ‘window of opportunity' to serve Him ‘in the desert' will have gone!
There are many more details related to Levitical service that bear interesting lessons for every believer today exercised about, or interested in, service for the Lord. Every Levite was given his individual task, his ‘burden' that he would be able to bear (Num. 4:49). Levitical service required purification, consecration and self-judgement (Num. 8). Levites had no inheritance in the land – their inheritance was ‘the Lord' (Deut. 18:2), and others supported them through tithes. They had taken a position for the Lord (Ex. 32: 26ff) and – no doubt because of this – received a special blessing (Mal. 2).
All of these points shed much further light on Christian service today – its challenges and burdens as well as its nobility, reward and raison d'être .