Wednesday Evening

April 25, 2007

Numbers 8:1-26

Lamps, Levites, and Retirement

Dr. Ligon Duncan III

I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 8. We have been working through Numbers for a number of weeks now. The last time we were together in Numbers, we were in the longest chapter in the Bible, Numbers 7; that runs to 89 verses. And we said that it describes a unique event in Israel’s history, a twelve-day event when gifts were brought to the tent of meeting–all of the gifts the same, each brought by a tribal leader, one each day. The same leaders brought the gifts as had been responsible for the census that was taken and recorded back in Numbers 2. And we said, looking at that long passage, that the passage highlights at least five things.

First of all, the importance and the function of giving in worship. The gifts that were given were a picture of giving of the tribes to Godthe tribes giving themselves to God, so that giving in worship was a physical, tangible picture of giving ourselves to the Lord. Of course the Apostle Paul speaks of that in Romans 12:1,2–living sacrifices, we are to be. We are to “present ourselves to the Lord as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable [or spiritual] service of worship.”

Secondly, we said that this passage pointed out the extraordinary privilege of meeting with God. All of these gifts were designed around the tabernacle service. They were designed to provide for the things that were going to be necessary for carrying out the tabernacle services, and of course they were presented in the very context of meeting with God at the tabernacle, and so they served to highlight the privilege that God’s people have in coming to God and drawing near to Him, in meeting with Him, in engaging with Him, in communing with Him, in fellowshipping with Him, in worshiping Him at the tabernacle.

Thirdly, we said that this passage points out the responsibility of hearing the word of God. And especially as we looked at verse 89, we saw that stressed. It’s something we’ll see stressed again tonight, by the way.

Fourth, we said that this passage points out the necessity of cleansing and pardon and forgiveness, and the very sacrifices that were offered indicated the need for cleansing, for pardon, for forgiveness, if Israel was going to commune in fellowship with God.

And then, finally, we also said that verse 89 points out the four-fold blessing that God gave to Israel as King, loving Father, Teacher, and Provider.

Well, that brings us to Numbers 8 tonight, and this is a passage that may well catch you by surprise. It outlines fairly easily. If you look at verses 1-4, in them we have the instructions given by God to Moses, and then from Moses to Aaron, concerning the lamps or the lampstands that were to be used in the tabernacle.

Secondly, if you look at verses 5-22, you have a long description of the requirements for ritual cleansing for the Levites. Here we have a long description of (in verses 5-20) the consecration of the Levites, the manner in which the Levites were consecrated.

And then in verses 20-21, you have a recounting that the children of Israel, the Levites, the priests under the guidance of Aaron, had done exactly what the Lord had told them to do regarding the consecration of the Levites.

So that’s the second part of the chapter. The first part of the chapter deals with the lampstands and how they are to be handled. The second part deals with the consecration of the Levites. The third part deals with the Levitical pension plan…well, actually not. It deals with retirement; a mandatory age of retirement from the heavy lifting in the tabernacle is specified by the Lord here.

And as we look at this passage tonight, I want to draw your attention especially to six things.

The first one you’ll see in verses 1 and 2, and that is simply this: That Moses conveys God’s word to Aaron faithfully. In verses 1 and 2, Moses conveys God’s word to Aaron faithfully.

Then if you look at verse 3, there’s a second thing we’re going to look at tonight. Here I want you to see Aaron obeying God’s word fully.

Thirdly, I want you to look at verses 5-7, and also 12, where the consecration of the Levites is explained, and especially their cleansing is explained in light of the fact that they are sinners who need cleansing. If they’re going to be used for holy purposes, they need to be cleansed.

Fourth, as we look at the totality of what we learn in verses 5-20, I want you to understand that Numbers 8 is what lies behind Matthew 3:12-15 and the parallel passages regarding the baptism of Jesus. It’s this passage that is behind and supplies us an important clue to the understanding of Jesus’ own baptism. If you, like I did for so many years, ever wondered why did Jesus need to be baptized? Well, Numbers 8 explains it–especially in light of what Jesus says to John in Matthew 3.

Fifth, I want us to think for just a few moments about the minimum age of Levitical ordination. There’s a textual problem in Numbers. In Numbers 5, we’re told that the starting age for labor in the tabernacle is…anybody?…25. But back in Numbers 4:22, the number is…30. So why two different numbers? And I’m going to offer–let me just say ahead of time–a speculation about that. I hope it is a biblically grounded speculation, but you are under no obligation to take my speculation here as the only possible explanation. There are in fact probably four or five different ways of explaining this, but I think it’s a very interesting thing.

And then, sixth, I want you to see how God cares for His servants, and you see this especially in verse 25 pertaining to the retirement age of the Levites.

So we’re going to look at those six things together tonight, but let’s begin by praying and hearing God’s word read. Let’s pray.

Father, this is Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things from Your Law. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, the seven lamps will give light in the front of the lampstand.’’ Aaron therefore did so; he mounted its lamps at the front of the lampstand, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Now this was the workmanship of the lampstand, hammered work of gold; from its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern which the Lord had showed Moses, so he made the lampstand.

“Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the Levites from among the sons of Israel and cleanse them. And thus you shall do to them, for their cleansing: sprinkle purifying water on them, and let them use a razor over their whole body, and wash their clothes, and they shall be clean. Then let them take a bull with its grain offering, fine flour mixed with oil; and a second bull you shall take for a sin offering. So you shall present the Levites before the tent of meeting. You shall also assemble the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, and present the Levites before the Lord; and the sons of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites. And Aaron then shall present the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the sons of Israel, that they may qualify to perform the service of the Lord. Now the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls; then offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the Lord, to make atonement for the Levites. And you shall have the Levites stand before Aaron and before his sons so as to present them as a wave offering to the Lord.

“ ‘Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the sons of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine. Then after that the Levites may go in to serve the tent of meeting. But you shall cleanse them and present them as a wave offering; for they are wholly given to Me from among the sons of Israel. I have taken them for Myself instead of the first issue of the womb, the first-born of all the sons of Israel. For every first-born among the sons of Israel is Mine, among the men and among the animals; on the day that I struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for Myself. But I have taken the Levites instead of every first-born among the sons of Israel. And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the sons of Israel, to perform the service of the sons of Israel at the tent of meeting, and to make atonement on behalf of the sons of Israel, that there may be no plague among the sons of Israel by their coming near to the sanctuary.’

“Thus did Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the sons of Israel to the Levites; according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so the sons of Israel did to them. The Levites, too, purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes; and Aaron presented them as a wave offering before the Lord. Aaron also made atonement for them to cleanse them. Then after that the Levites went in to perform their service in the tent of meeting before Aaron and before his sons; just as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did to them.

“Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘This is what applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall enter to perform service in the work of the tent of meeting. But at the age of fifty years they shall retire from service in the work and not work any more. They may, however, assist their brothers in the tent of meeting, to keep an obligation; but they themselves shall do no work. Thus you shall deal with the Levites concerning their obligations.’”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.


I. Moses conveys God’s word to Aaron faithfully.

Six things I want you to see briefly tonight, and the first thing pertains to Moses’ conveying God’s word to Aaron faithfully, in verses 1 and 2. Do you notice how this goes? God speaks to Moses, Moses speaks exactly what God has spoken to him to Aaron, and then Aaron does what God spoke to Moses and told Moses to speak to Aaron. And this is the perfect picture of what a preacher is called to do: to convey God’s word without amendment to his people; not to do what God has called someone else to do; not to change what God has said, but to deliver the word of God to His people so that His people can do what God has told them to do. And so we have here a perfect picture of Moses, the preacher.

It’s interesting that Moses here is told by the Lord to tell something to Aaron that Moses himself is not allowed to do. The thing that Aaron is to do is something that is unique to Aaron’s own responsibility. Aaron alone has the responsibility of fulfilling these tasks. Moses delivers the word of the Lord, but it’s Aaron’s responsibility to fulfill this particular word of the Lord.

And so we’re seeing a beautiful picture of the preacher declaring God’s word to His people. That’s what the minister of the gospel is called to do: to declare God’s word, God’s message, to His people. All around us we see preachers that view their task otherwise. Sometimes they view their task as to offer some sort of political commentary on the times.

I well remember reading a story by Harry Blamire, the brilliant British scholar who was a student of C.S. Lewis, and who taught at Kent and at Oxford, telling the story of going to a funeral of a young child who had died. And the funeral homily, the message by the clergyman there, was a railing attack on the local city water authority for failing to provide clean water, which had eventuated in this child’s taking in some sort of bacteria and dying. And so the funeral message was an assault upon the city water authority. And Harry Blamire simply commented that “We went there looking for comfort from God’s word, and we got a diatribe against the city authorities, which comforted no one’s soul with the eternal saving truth of the gospel.” And so often we see that in our culture today — ministers who look for “something else” to say to the people of God. Moses is a beautiful example of what a preacher is supposed to do: to preach God’s message, God’s word; to deliver it without amendment; and to apply it faithfully to the people of God. There’s the first thing we see: Moses the preacher faithfully conveying God’s word to Aaron.


II. The sinner listens and obeys.

But there’s another thing I want you to see here. Aaron the sinner listens and obeys. Remember, Aaron has not always been obedient in his task. Aaron, once upon a time (at the cajoling, at the beckoning, at the begging, at the prompting, at the call of the Israelites) made a golden calf. But in this case, Aaron obeys God’s word fully.

It’s a beautiful picture of grace, isn’t it, that Aaron is even here to do this? Aaron certainly deserved to fall under God’s judgment for the role that he played in the idolatry of the golden calf incident, but here he is hearing God’s word from his brother Moses, and obeying fully that word, we’re told in verse 3. He hears the instructions regarding the lampstand, and Moses simply says this:

“Aaron therefore did so. He mounted its lamps at the front of the lampstand, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

He did exactly what God had called him to do. He obeyed God’s word fully. And so we not only see Moses the preacher declaring God’s word faithfully in verses 1 and 2, we see Aaron the sinner listening and obeying God’s word fully in verse 3.

III. The reason the Levites were required to be cleansed.

But then, thirdly, throughout the order of service that is given for the consecration of the Levites, we see the reason why the Levites were required to be cleansed. It is because they were sinners. Listen to the language again of verses 6 and 7:

“ ‘Take the Levites from among the sons of Israel and cleanse them.’”

Isn’t it interesting that the focal point of this consecration ceremony is — what? Cleansing. The point of the symbolism is – what? Cleansing. Cleansing from what? Cleansing from sin. Sacrifices are offered in this consecration ceremony. What kind of sacrifices? Sin offerings. Guilt offerings. Burnt offerings for atonement. What’s happening? The Levites are being consecrated into the service of the Lord, but they’re sinners, and so sacrifices have to be made for them to make them fit and acceptable for the service that they are being called to. And so we’re told, for instance in verse 8, “ ‘Let them take a bull with its grain offering…’” and a second bull for a sin offering, and present the Levites before the tent of meeting, and do this in front of the whole congregation of Israel. So all of Israel was to see these sin offerings being offered for the Levites. The Levites are cleansed and purified in this ritual because they were sinners being called into a holy service.

It’s also interesting, isn’t it, that the Levites through the ritual are clearly indicated to be substitutes for whom? For the first-born of Israel, and by extension, for Israel as a whole. What is to happen? The whole congregation comes and does what? Lays their hands on the Levites, and then the Levites are presented to the Lord. And the sacrifices are offered on their behalf, and then they’re allowed to go into service. And what’s the picture? The picture is that the Levites are stand-ins for the whole congregation of Israel, and they are especially stand-ins for whom? For the first-born of Israel, because God had by rights laid claim to all the first-born sons and animals of Israel, but in their place He had accepted instead–the Levites. And so in the ritual, Israel lays their hands on the Levites, thus indicating that the Levites are their representatives, their substitutes.

Then the Levites lay their hands on — what? They lay their hands on the sacrifice. Thus indicating what? That the Levites’ sins have been placed on the sacrifice. Then the sacrifice is offered, thus indicating what? That the sacrifices have been accepted instead of the judgment that was due to the Levites.

Now remember that scene, because it’s going to help you understand the next point. Because my next point is this: Not only were the Levites cleansed and purified in this consecration ritual…this is, by the way, one of the many levitical baptisms. The book of Leviticus is filled with baptisms, and the book of Numbers records some of those baptisms as well, and this baptism is the baptism that was applied…the application of water that was applied at the time of the consecration of the Levite. And it was done precisely because they were sinners in need of grace, in need of sacrifice, called to a holy service as representatives of Israel.


IV. Jesus’ baptism and levitical baptism.

But what I want you to see fourthly here is that Jesus’ baptism has behind it this levitical baptism. Turn with me to Matthew 3 and look especially at verses 13-15.

Matthew 3:13-15:

Matthew tells us that

“Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?’ But Jesus answering said to him, ‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

So we see here Jesus’ public ministry beginning with baptism.

What’s that about? Just as the beginning of levitical priests’ ministry began with consecration, with ceremonial purification, with cleansing, with baptism, so Jesus’ ministry begins with a baptism. But of course the irony here is that He who knew no sin submitted to John’s baptism. And what did John call his baptism explicitly? It was a baptism of repentance. It was a baptism of repentance; and so what does John say when Jesus comes to him for baptism? He says, ‘Lord, I have need to be baptized by You! Why are You coming to me for me to baptize You? You need to be baptizing me!’ We see something here of John’s humility. Don’t you just love this man? This bold prophet of the Lord who would stand up to the face of kings, when he sees the Messiah coming to him and asking for baptism, his humble heart shows through, and he says, ‘Lord, I’m not worthy to baptize You. You don’t need the baptism of repentance. I need to be baptized by You.’ God has further honors for those whose spirits continue low when their reputations rise, and here is John at the very height of his ministry. Multitudes are following him, and he’s acknowledging that he is not worthy to baptize Jesus; in fact, that he is in need of Jesus’ baptism of him.

But then Jesus explains. He says, “John, permit it at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, Jesus is saying, ‘John, you’re right. You do need to be baptized by Me. But we need to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’[ And that’s a technical phrase indicating the fulfillment of God’s commands pertaining to those who are called into His service, and it has behind it Numbers 8.] And there are at least six things that are set forth in Jesus’ baptism that have in the background this passage, Numbers 8.

First of all, Jesus’ baptism by John links John’s ministry to the ministry of the coming Messiah. It affirms John’s ministry as from the Lord, and it links John’s ministry to Jesus’ building upon it. ‘This fulfills all righteousness’ because John is playing the role of Elijah, who was preparing the way for the messenger of the covenant, the Messiah, the One anointed of the Lord. And so Jesus is saying ‘This fulfills all righteousness, John. It links your ministry to Mine.’

Secondly, it was a way of definitively revealing to John the person and work of Christ. You remember John is wrestling with doubts, even though he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.” When John is thrown in prison, he sends word to Jesus: “Are You the One we’re looking for, or is there another?” Jesus knew that John was going struggle, such a momentous message did he have to deliver. And again, the fact that Jesus submits to the baptism links his revelation to John’s baptism and actually is a way of addressing John’s doubt.

Thirdly, it symbolizes Jesus’ identification with His people and with their plight. It’s a way of confirming the rightness of John’s message. John’s message and John’s baptism of repentance stresses what? The one great need we have is forgiveness of sins. You can have everything else and not that, and it doesn’t matter. The one great need that we have is forgiveness of sins. But Jesus, the sinless One, by submitting to that baptism, is taking the place of His people.

And this is the fourth thing that we see: It shows publicly that Jesus is the Messiah who comes to take away the sins of the world. It identifies Him as the sin bearer by receiving the baptism of repentance even though He was sinless. ‘Yes, John, you’re right; I don’t need the baptism of repentance. But I’m going to take it anyway, because My people do, and I am going to accomplish what is necessary for their forgiveness in their place, though I have no sin in Me.’

Fifthly, it shows the Father’s anointing of Jesus for this work of ministry. Even as the Levites were set apart for service through this ceremony of consecration, so the Father sets Jesus apart and shows His seal of approval on His ministry through the consecration of baptism.

And then, finally, it shows Jesus’ willingness to receive His ministry; that He is willing for the hands of all the people to be laid on Him that He might bear their sins and provide their forgiveness as the sacrifice, because Jesus does not lay His hand on another. He is the priest and the sacrifice simultaneously, and so He bears the sign of His people — baptism by water for the forgiveness of sins — though He does not sin Himself, and is not sinful and needs no repentance, and needs no forgiveness, because in His person and in His work, in His ministry and in His sacrifice, He is going to provide the basis of their forgiveness of sins. And all this is in the background of this levitical ceremonial cleansing, or baptism, or purification here in Numbers 8. Jesus’ baptism has behind it this levitical baptism.

V. Age limits for the priesthood.

Well, there’s another thing I want you to see, and you see it if you turn over to Numbers 8:24.

“This is what applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall enter to perform service in the work of the tent of meeting.”

Now if you check the parallel passages in Numbers 4 and in I Chronicles 23, what you’ll find is that in both of those passages, the age is thirty. So why the difference? Well, first of all remember that this passage is out of chronological order. There’s a logical order that’s being followed here, and there are many excellent speculations on the part of the commentators, but this is the one that caught my attention.

Could it be that the age of ordination was raised from twenty-five to thirty after the event of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offering strange fire on the altar? In both Chronicles, later in Israel’s history, and earlier chronologically in the story of Numbers, the age given is thirty. Now of course some of the rabbis speculated that 25-30 was an apprentice period, and their official service began at thirty. But could it be that the very event of Nadab and Abihu eventuated a change in the starting date of ordination for the Levites? I don’t know. I don’t know. But it’s an interesting thought.

VI. God’s care for His servants by mandating their retirement.

The sixth and final thing I want you to see is in verse 25. Here we’re told that “…at the age of fifty years they shall retire from service in the work and not work any more.” No. I mean you can imagine…one, life expectancy in the wilderness wouldn’t be like it is for us; secondly, the work that the Levites did was back-breaking labor. And so from age forty to fifty these men did heavy manual lifting, and what is explicitly said in Numbers 8:24-26 is this: There were two types of labor that the Levites did, the manual labor of lifting, and then guard duty. Levites above the retirement age of fifty were allowed on a voluntary basis to go back and assist their brother Levites in the guard duty, but they were not allowed to get back and do the heavy lifting; and I think it is a beautiful picture of how God cares for His servants. God never uses and abuses His servants. He knows their limitations, He knows their needs. He does not ask them to give what is unreasonable. He looks out for them. He protects them. And so I believe that what we have in Numbers 8:25 is a beautiful picture of God’s providential care for those who have reached an age where the duress and the demands of the labor of the Levites in the tabernacle service, well, it’s time for those labors to be over. There’s another labor waiting. Yes, they can continue to help their younger brethren guard the tabernacle; yes, they can serve the Lord in other ways. But now their days of heavy lifting are over. So it’s a reminder to us, isn’t it, that in the Lord’s service we never have the right simply to use someone up. We must always think of their best interests, even as the heavenly Father cares for His servants.

Well, there you see it. Moses’ faithful word to Aaron; Aaron’s obedience to God’s word fully; the Levites baptized (or consecrated, or purified, or cleansed) because they were sinners; Jesus’ baptism finding its root here in Numbers 8:5-20; God’s perhaps raising the age of ordination, or providing for a five-year apprenticeship before the Levites went into service; and then, God caring for His servants.

There’s actually so much more in this passage. It is an exceedingly rich passage, but we’re reminded again of the abiding relevance of the word of God, even in the book of Numbers.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Thank You for the truth of it, for the way it is pertinent to us this day. We ask, O Lord, that we would learn, that we would obey, that we would embrace and delight in every word of Your truth, Old Testament and New, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[Congregation sings The Doxology]