The Priesthood then and now

Text Numbers 8:5-26 Time 06/05/12 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
The next thing in Numbers, following the setting up of the lamps in the Tabernacle, is the setting apart of the Levites ready for their service there. The Levites have already been mentioned extensively in Chapter 4 where their numbers are given. The passage can be divided into the first part which is directly concerned with their purification (5-14) and the second part (15-26) is about the commitment they were to make.
If we are to benefit from a passage like this today we need first to say something about priesthood. We need to say four things.
1. There are false priests. A priest is really a go-between, someone whose job is to represent you to God or to a certain god. Many religions have priests today. Such men are claiming that in some way or other they can get you to God. Such claims are false.
This is not to deny that priests are needed today but simply to say that if you ever meet someone who claims to be a priest or is able to get you to God, do not trust him.
2. Priests before the Law. The first true priests were heads of households like Noah and Job who led their families in worship and made sacrifices on their behalf or Melchizedek who may have had greater responsibility again. Moses own father-in-law was a priest in Midian, probably a true priest.
3. Priests under the Old Testament law. Then with the coming of the law under Moses a change came about. At first it was God's intention that every firstborn son in each family should be a priest but then that was changed and so Aaron became the High Priest, his immediate family priests and the whole tribe of Levi assistants to the priests. Even today if a Jewish man is called Cohen (priest) or Levy, he will be expected to carry out special duties at the synagogue.
4. Priests under the New Testament. When we come to the New Testament a remarkable thing happens. First, there is a change of priesthood from Aaron's descendants to the Lord Jesus Christ, the one true High priest. Further, every individual Christian man or woman now becomes his own priest in Christ. This doctrine is always in danger of being lost and was more or less lost for many years until in the early part of the sixteenth century it was rediscovered by Martin Luther. In 1520 in his To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation he wrote
That the pope or bishop anoints, makes tonsures, ordains, consecrates, or dresses differently from the laity, may make a hypocrite or an idolatrous oil-painted icon, but it in no way makes a Christian or spiritual human being. In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St Peter in 1 Peter 2 [:9] says, "You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom," and Revelation [5:10], "Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings."”
This does not mean that Protestants do not recognise that certain men are gifted and should be set aside to preach but it does mean that these people are preachers who preach not priests who engage in sacrifices and other ceremonies to bring people to God.
So with that in mind we say from this passage
1. Consider how they were set aside to Levitical priesthood then and how it happens now
So in verses 6-14 Moses is told to Take the Levites from among all the Israelites and to do several things to them in preparation for their future service, all so that (14) In this way ... the Levites would be set apart from the other Israelites, and says God the Levites will be mine.
There are two main parts.
1. There was a need for ceremonial purification and real purification for priests today.
There were three parts to this making them ceremonially clean. To purify them, Moses had to
1. Sprinkle them with water. He was first to Sprinkle the water of cleansing on them. It is not clear where this water comes from but its symbolism is clear. This is a ritual washing.
2. Have them shave their bodies. Then have them shave their whole bodies. Herodotus says that Egyptian priests had to do the same thing. The idea appears to be of ceremonially going back to being a baby.
3. Have them wash their clothes. And wash their clothes. And so they will purify themselves. That was the other part, another ceremonial washing.
In Titus 3:4, 5 Paul says to believers When the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. When a person becomes a Christian he is washed and he is renewed. He is born of water and of the Spirit. His heart is sprinkled clean and it it is renewed. That is the way into today's priesthood. Unless you are born again and sanctified by the Lord you cannot be his priest. Being a priest to God involves being born again.
2. There was a need for sacrifices then and a need for sacrificial service now.
1. A burnt offering and a sin offering. 8 Have them take a young bull with its grain offering of the finest flour mixed with olive oil; then you are to take a second young bull for a sin offering. Verse 12 spells out how the Levites are to lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, using one for a sin offering to the LORD and the other for a burnt offering, to make atonement for the Levites.
2. Laying on of hands. 9 Bring the Levites to the front of the tent of meeting and assemble the whole Israelite community (probably just the leaders). 10 You are to bring the Levites before the LORD, and the Israelites are to lay their hands on them. The point here is presumably that these Levites were to represent the whole community and so the identity is ceremonially established.
3. A wave offering. 11 Aaron is to present the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the Israelites, so that they may be ready to do the work of the LORD. This time the Levites themselves are to be a sort of sacrifice, symbolising their dedication to service. 13, 14 Have the Levites stand in front of Aaron and his sons and then present them as a wave offering to the LORD.
The parallel here is the way we are urged in Romans 12:1, 2 that in view of God's mercy, we must offer (y)our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God - this is (y)our true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, says Paul but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will. Just as the Levites became the actual sacrifice so we too must being given up to serving God as his priests. Our service is acceptable because of the atonement Christ has won on the cross.
2. Consider the work of the Levitical priesthood then and the work of priesthood now
In verses 15-26 more is said about the Levites dedication to God and their service. We can take note of 5 things and again compare and contrast.
1. They are to work in the Tabernacle, we in God's presence.
In verse 15 it says After you have purified the Levites and presented them as a wave offering, they are to come to do their work at the tent of meeting. That was their sphere of work there in the presence of God. We too are called as priests to work in God's presence, always aware of him.
2. They are wholly given to God and we must be too
16-18 They are the Israelites who are to be given wholly to me. (Given, given – given twice, it is literally). I have taken them as my own in place of the firstborn, the first male offspring from every Israelite woman. Every firstborn male in Israel, whether human or animal, is mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set them apart for myself. And I have taken the Levites in place of all the firstborn sons in Israel. They were God's by providence and redemption and so too every Christian who he has both chosen and redeemed. 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.
3. They are given to Israel and we are to serve God's people too
19 From among all the Israelites, I have given the Levites as gifts to Aaron and his sons to do the work at the tent of meeting on behalf of the Israelites and to make atonement for them so that no plague will strike the Israelites when they go near the sanctuary. In a similar way our priesthood is to be pursued to the end that we serve others and bring blessing to them – as we pray for others and teach them, etc.
4. They worked under Aaron's supervision, we under our High Priest Christ
22 After that, the Levites came to do their work at the tent of meeting under the supervision of Aaron and his sons. They did with the Levites just as the LORD commanded Moses. The parallel is clear here. We are priests but only under our great High Priest Christ.
5. They were to work only for a certain part of their lives, we for all of ours
23-26 The LORD said to Moses, This applies to the Levites: Men 25 years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of 50, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites. When the Levites were numbered in Numbers 4 (see verse 3) they were numbered from 30-50. perhaps the first five years were more like training years. By the time of 1 Chronicles 23:27 the age of 20 seems to have marked the lower limit – presumably because the task had changed and more were needed.
In the New Testament no starting or retirement age is given. Those two facts suggest that anyone can come to Christ how ever young and that there is no real retirement in the service of Christ. So come whatever age you are and stay serving to the end.