TODAY’S READING: NUMBERS 8-11
The Old Testament is chock full of odd little nuggets of information that seem so random and arbitrary in the natural. But, when viewed through the lens of Jesus, the seemingly random requirements of the Old Testament take on great significance. It’s when we view everything through the lens of Jesus that we truly understand that all the scriptures bear witness to Jesus (John 5:39-40 and Luke 24:27, 44).
A great example is Numbers 8:23-26, which says, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘This applies to the Levites: from twenty five years old and upward they shall come to do the duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of service and serve no more. They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties.'”
Why did a Levite start serving at 25 years old? Why did a Levite stop serving at 50 years old? But, the Levite did not stop ministering. From 50 years old on, a Levite continued ministering to his brothers but only by keeping guard. What does that mean?
Let’s first look at what the Levites did. Then, we will look to Jesus to understand the time time of service. Finally, we will see how that applies to us in the body of Christ.
LEVITES SERVE AND KEEP
In Numbers 8:23-26, God gives the Levites two basic tasks: service and keeping guard. Importantly, both functions were done in the tent of meeting. The tent of meeting was not the entire tabernacle but the tent inside the tabernacle that housed the ark of the covenant. The tent of meeting was the place where the presence of God dwelt in the midst of Israel.
The Hebrew word for service in the text is abodah, which means work, enforced labor, service which is rendered, or service of worship. Abodah comes from the root word bod, which means to serve, to till, to toil, to work, to accomplish, to do.
The Hebrew word for keeping in the text is samar, which means to keep, to watch over, to guard. Samar itself is a root word.
Interestingly, both bod and samar are used in relation to the assignment God gave the man in the garden. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work [bod] it and keep [samar] it.” The tree of life, in a sense God’s presence, dwelt in the midst of the garden. It is important to note that the man was given this assignment after he was Spirit filled. Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the Lord God formed the man of the dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
I wrote in The Tabernacle, the Priests, and the Men of War – Part 2 that the Levites were a picture of the spiritual believer. As such, we can think of them as receiving their assignment from God after they were Spirit filled, just like the man in the garden.
DO DUTY IN THE SERVICE OF THE TENT OF MEETING
From the age of 25 on, the Levites were to come and “do duty in the service of the tent of meeting.”
The words “do duty” in the Hebrew are actually the same word, just one is the verb form and one is the noun form. The verb form, which is translated do, literally means to go to war or fight, to be on duty, to levy for military service. The noun form, which is translated duty, literally means campaign, military service, military men, troops, heavenly bodies, hosts. I believe the idea here is that at age of 25 the Levites were to come to wage war as military men. Now, I wrote in The Tabernacle, the Priests, and the Men of War – Part 2 that priests don’t make war. So, how were the Levites to come to wage war as military men?
The Levites did this “in the service of the tent of meeting.” Remember, the word service basically means work. But, in this particular context, it means service which is rendered or service of worship. This “service” took place in the tent of meeting, the specific place of God’s presence in the midst of Israel.
Specifically, what was the service that the Levites performed? Numbers 3 and 4 tells us that the Levites were responsible for taking down and setting up the tabernacle as Israel was led by the cloud and the pillar of fire through the wilderness. Numbers 7 tells us that the clans of Gershon and Merari were given wagons and oxen to help them move the fabrics and frames of the tabernacle from place to place. However, the clan of Kohath had to carry the furniture of the tabernacle on their shoulders. In other words, the Kohathites bore the burdens of the furniture themselves. Interestingly, according to Numbers 4:3, the service of the Kohathites was limited from the age of 30 years old up to 50 years old. Remember, Jesus started his ministry at 30 years old. Just keep this in mind to meditate on later.
What are we to learn from all of this? At the age of 25 years old, the Levites were called to wage war in the service of the tent of meeting. This is a picture of the spiritual believer called into spiritual warfare in the place where God dwells.
MINISTER TO THEIR BROTHERS IN THE TENT OF MEETING BY KEEPING GUARD
The Levites only waged this spiritual warfare in the place where God dwelt until the age of 50. At that time, the nature of their assignment changed. At the age of 50, the Levite would withdraw, or turn back, from waging spiritual warfare as a military man. The Levite no longer served by carrying burdens.
At age 50, the Levite was to minister to his brothers, that is the other Levites who were still young enough to wage spiritual warfare by bearing burdens in the place where God dwelt. The Hebrew word for minister means to minister, to serve, to be an attendant to, to wait on, to be in service of God. At age 50, the older Levite was to become an attendant to the younger Levite. The older Levite was to wait on the younger Levite in the service of God.
Exactly how was the Levite over 50 years old to do this? “By keeping guard.” We saw above that the word keep is the Hebrew word samar, which means to keep, to watch over, to guard. The Hebrew word for guard derives from the word samar. However, it carries with it the idea of obligation, what is to be held in trust, what is to be preserved, and responsibility.
Notice that the Levite over 50 years old didn’t change his place of service though. He still served in the tent of meeting, the specific place where God’s presence dwelt.
Therefore, the Levite over 50 years of age was relieved of the burdens of waging spiritual warfare. However, he now had the assignment of assisting and attending to the younger Levites who were still tasked with waging spiritual warfare by bearing burdens.
WHERE’S JESUS IN THIS?
John 1:14, 16-18 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the father, full of grace and truth…For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Jesus is the Word. He became flesh, a man, and dwelt among us. The Greek word for dwelt literally means tabernacled. In other words, Jesus was the dwelling place of God’s presence in the midst of the people.
Jesus had glory that was the same glory as the Father. The glory of Jesus was full of grace and truth. Notice that grace is before truth. From the fullness of Jesus, we have all received grace upon grace, or grace in place of grace as some translations say. While all have received grace upon grace, not all have received the fullness of the truth of Jesus though. The law came through Moses, but grace then truth came through Jesus.
The glory of Jesus full of grace and truth are important concepts that connect back to our passage in Numbers 8. Specifically, it is John’s statement that we have all received grace upon grace from the fullness of Jesus that is the first key to connecting John 1:14, 16-18 to Numbers 8:23-26.
SERVICE BEGINS WITH GRACE UPON GRACE
Throughout the Bible, the number five represents God’s grace.
Perhaps the first place we see this is Genesis 43:34, which says, “Portions were taken to them from Joseph’s table, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs.” Joseph extended grace to his brother Benjamin by giving a portion of food five times larger to Benjamin than his other brothers.
In Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah prophesies of a child being born, a son being given – Jesus. Depending on your translation, Jesus is given five names here – Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These five names depict Jesus as full of grace.
In Leviticus 1-6, we read of five offerings – burnt, grain, peace, sin, and guilt – that symbolize Jesus’ work of grace on the cross.
We find the number five all throughout the tabernacle. The tabernacle was patterned after the heavenly reality of Jesus.
In Exodus 26:36-37, the screen at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the specific place where God dwelt, was attached to five pillars set in five bases. Grace upon grace to enter into the place of God’s presence.
In Exodus 26:1-6, the innermost covering of the tent of meeting was made of 10 linen curtains. But, five curtains were coupled together in one set and five curtains were coupled together in a second set. As the innermost covering, Jesus was full of grace. And the two sets of curtains picture that fullness of grace being received by all of us as grace upon grace.
In Exodus 27:1, the altar was five cubits long and five cubits broad. The altar was the first piece of furniture you came to in the tabernacle. You couldn’t go anywhere else in the tabernacle without first going to the altar. The altar, the place of the offering, is symbolic of the cross. The altar was five by five. The cross, where we all begin our relationship with Jesus, is the place where we all receive grace upon grace.
Grace upon grace. We all have received this. Five times five. At 25 years old, the Levite began his service to the Lord. At this age, the Levite began his spiritual warfare in the tent of meeting, the place where God dwelt.
KEEPING GUARD BEGINS WITH TRUTH
In the Bible, 50 is seen as the number of release, deliverance, freedom, and the Holy Spirit.
In Esther 5:14 and 7:9, Mordecai, Esther, and all the Jews were delivered from the plans of Haman to exterminate them when Haman is hanged on a gallows 50 cubits high.
Israel could release various things they had vowed to the Lord. Leviticus 27:3 says that a man 20 to 60 years old could be released for 50 shekels of silver.
I mentioned above that Exodus 26:1-6 tells us that the innermost covering of the tent of meeting was made of two sets of five linen curtains. But, each set of curtains had 50 loops. The two sets of 50 loops were held together by 50 clasps of gold. Gold is a symbol of divinity. Clasps bore the burden of holding the two sets of five curtains together. It is the divine nature of Christ that bears the burden of grace upon grace.
Leviticus 25:8-22 tells us of the year of jubilee. The jubilee occurred in the 50th year on the day of atonement. In that year, liberty was proclaimed throughout all the land. Everyone returned to their property as the land that was inherited went back to the original owner. Debts were cancelled.
On the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus was resurrected, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the 120 disciples gathered together in the upper room.
50 is ten times five. Ten symbolizes the law, which came through Moses. Five symbolizes grace, which came through Jesus. Grace freed us from the law to walk in truth, freedom, the liberty of the Spirit.
Jesus said in John 8:31, 36, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…So if the son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Note that during this exchange with the Jews about freedom, in John 8:57, the Jews say to Jesus, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have seen you Abraham?” Coincidence? Keep this mind to mediate on as we go.
2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
At 50 years of age, the Levite was set free from his burden of waging spiritual warfare in the tent of meeting so that he could keep guard and attend to his younger brother that was still waging spiritual warfare in the place God dwelt.
But, note 2 Corinthians 3:18, which says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” The glory of Jesus is full of grace and truth. Of this fullness, we have all received grace upon grace. But, some have received grace from the law and gone onto truth, the truth which sets free, being filled with the Holy Spirit.
THE BELIEVER AT 25 AND 50 YEARS OLD
Every single one of us that has come to Jesus has received grace upon grace from his fullness. Like the Levite, the spiritual believer begins to wage war at the age of 25.
But, this isn’t just any kind of war. It’s a war of service, bearing burdens. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The cross is borne on the shoulders, exactly the place that the Levite carried his burdens in service to the Lord.
Like the Levite, our spiritual warfare conducted by bearing the burden of our own cross is done in the place that God dwells, the tent of meeting. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” In Luke 17:20-21, when Jesus was asked by a Pharisee when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” The kingdom of God, the place that God dwells, the place of your spiritual warfare in the tent of meeting, is within you. The spiritual believer having received grace upon grace, the Levite at 25 years old, wages war against sin in his heart and mind.
Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, “For do we not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
And, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”
Again, the spiritual believer who has received grace upon grace, which all of us have, is the Levite at 25 years of age. The spiritual believer is waging a spiritual war in the heart and mind, the place that God dwells. The spiritual believer is bearing the burden of the cross, having the same mind as Jesus, humbling himself from every argument and lofty opinion against the knowledge of God, taking every thought, his own thoughts, captive, so that he can become a servant, a slave to Christ.
While all that have to come the cross of Christ, the altar of the tabernacle, have received grace upon grace, are the Levite at 25 years of age, some turn 50 years old. Some Levites receive grace from the law and receive truth. Some are completely set free from the penalty and burden of the law and sin. These spiritual believers, the Levites that have turned 50, have been filled with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:18, 22-23, 25 says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law…If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
This spiritual believer is the Levite at age 50. He no longer bears the burden of waging spiritual warfare because he has learned the cost of obedience. Instead, this spiritual believer ministers to, attends to, keeps guard over his younger brother that is still waging spiritual warfare to learn obedience to Christ. This ministry, attending to and keeping guard still takes place in the tent of meeting, the place where God dwells.
Who is this spiritual believer that has become like the Levite at 50 years old? The elder of the church.
Titus 1:5-9 says, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you – if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must no be arrogant or quick tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
The one who desires to be an elder, to be a Levite of 50 years of age, to keep watch over, to guard, to minister to, to attend to younger believers, must have already learned obedience. This one has reached the place where he is no longer bearing the burdens of waging spiritual warfare but ministering to his brothers in the body of Christ.
1 Timothy 3 provides very similar directions to Timothy in picking elders for the church. But, here Paul provides two additional comments. Verse 6 says, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” And, verse 10 says of deacons, “Let them also be tested first, then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.” It takes testing, time waging spiritual warfare in bearing burdens, time to go from a Levite age 25 to age 50, before one is ready to be an elder, to minister and attend to his brothers in the body of Christ.
Only then is a spiritual believer ready to be a Levite of age 50, ready to serve and attend to his fellow brother. The elder has learned that he doesn’t lord his place over his younger brother. Peter says in 1 Peter 5:1-4 says, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Hebrews 13:17 says that elders “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”
So, there we have some obscure passage of the Old Testament, with seemingly random ages of service for Levites. But, when we put Jesus in the midst of it, the connection between the obscure passage of the Old Testament and our life in the body of Christ becomes clear.