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God’s Word for You

Numbers 8:12-22 Holiness and obedience

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, July 20, 2021

12 The Levites are to place their hands on the heads of the young bulls. You then will offer the one young bull as a sin offering and the other young bull as a whole burnt offering to the LORD to make atonement for the Levites. 13 You will have the Levites stand in front of Aaron and his sons, and you will offer them as a wave offering to the LORD. 14 In this way you are to set apart the Levites from the other Israelites, and the Levites will be mine.

This rite of consecration seems usual to us, except for one detail: The Levites themselves, not the offerings, were offered as a wave offering to the Lord. Normally a wave offering involved the priest taking an offering and moving it, at the very least, from side to side (horizontally). Would the priests have orchestrated the Levites to move from side to side in a kind of dance? Moving as they were required to move was in a sense their entire ministry, carrying the holy objects of the tabernacle wherever the nation was to go. There are alternative views (i.e. Milgrom’s “The Alleged Wave Offering in Israel and in the Ancient Near East,” where the opinion is that the Wave Offering was simply a ritual dedication in the sanctuary and not a literal waving at all), but it is always best to take Scripture at face value, to take an historical passage like this one as a description of history, and not offer a conjecture like that.

15 After you have purified them and offered them as a wave offering, the Levites will go to work at the Tent of Meeting, 16 because only they are given to me as servants from among the Israelites. In place of every firstborn from the womb, the firstborn of every Israelite, I have taken the Levites for myself. 17 For all the firstborn among the Israelites are mine, both human and animal. On the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I set the firstborn of the Israelites apart for myself. 18 But I have taken the Levites in place of every firstborn among the Israelites. 19 From among the Israelites I have given only the Levites to Aaron and his sons to do the work of the people of Israel at the Tent of Meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel so that there will not be any plague among the Israelites when the Israelites approach the sanctuary.

The Lord explains that the choice of the Levites really goes back to the day of the final plague in Egypt. At that time, the Lord put to death all of the firstborn sons of Egypt, “from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill” (Exodus 11:5), “to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well” (Exodus 12:29). At that time, he claimed all of the firstborn sons of Israel as well (but for himself, not for death), but the tribe of Levi were claimed as the substitute for the firstborn of the tribes. They were to be separate, and to be his special servants, so that no plague would strike the nation. They were to be holy to the Lord.

The separateness of God from sinful man is part of the definition of God’s holiness. His holiness is two things. First, it is his supreme majesty. God transcends all of creation. As Pieper says about Isaiah 6:3 (“Holy, holy, holy”), “the basic meaning of qadosh (“holy”) [in this passage] is separate, removed, exalted” (Christian Dogmatics Vol. I p. 456). Second, “holy” also means that God is absolutely separate from sin, and this includes his opposition to man’s sin. This could be described as God’s absolute ethical purity. God says, “Be holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16). Man in his terror over sin says with Isaiah, “I am doomed! I am ruined, because I am a man with unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6:5). The law of God makes us aware of just how separate we are from God and how unable we are to approach him because of our personal sins. There is no argument that can be made. The prophet proclaimed: “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (Habakkuk 2:20). Only in the gospel of Christ is there rescue. His blood did what the blood of all the sacrifices only prefigured: He atoned for and covered over the guilt of our sins. It is not as if the blood itself has or had a magic formula, that the saltiness of human blood or the other ingredients of blood have anything to do with rightness or wrongness. God explained: “The life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar” (Leviticus 17:11). Therefore it is death that is the consequence of sin that must be paid, and the blood comes with death. The blood sprinkled, shed, or poured out, is the evidence of the death that took place. The animals’ deaths pointed to Christ. Only Christ’s death was truly substitutionary, for Abraham himself said: “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided” (Genesis 22:14). He did not say, “they will be provided,” meaning all of the blood offerings, but “it,” meaning the one death substituting for all mankind; one sacrifice for all. Obadiah said: “On Mount Zion will be deliverance, and it will be holy” (Obadiah 1:17).

So the separation of the Levites was another reminder that service for God is not ordinary service, casual service, common, non-essential, or profane. It is to be holy. Like a master artist painting a portrait, this cast a shadow of true darkness behind the bright glory of Christ, so that his radiance is all the brighter and his true personal holiness is all that much more evident to us as spectacular, unique, and perfect. He is our one and only substitute so that through faith in him alone, we have eternal life (John 3:16).

20 Moses, Aaron, and the entire community of the people of Israel did for the Levites just as they had been told. The Israelites did for them everything that the LORD commanded Moses in regard to the Levites. 21 The Levites purified themselves and washed their clothing. Aaron offered them as a wave offering before the LORD and made atonement for them to purify them. 22 After that, the Levites went to do their work at the Tent of Meeting in the presence of Aaron and his sons. Just as the LORD had commanded Moses about the Levites, that is exactly what they did for them.

The divine command was carried out exactly as God commanded. This text raises a certain question when we consider the whole Word of God, the Scriptures, as law and gospel to be discerned regarding our sins and our Savior. Above all, we must not be misled into thinking that the mere outward keeping of one of God’s commands will somehow merit anything special for us. This is an error that some Christians have made over the years, believing that their good works can somehow erase future sufferings for themselves or for their loved ones. This is a teaching that is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but comes from a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of Colossians 1:24-25 and perhaps an attempt to bring the Buddhist idea of religious merit for others into a Christian context. When this error is exposed, we see that the mind of sinful man is, throughout our lifetime, permanently stained with sin. We see that even in our attempts to do good, or at least to avoid doing bad, we still suffer from sin. “Only then,” our Apology of the Augsburg Confession states, “do we see how far we are from keeping the law. Then we recognize how our flesh in its smugness and indifference does not fear God or truly believe in his providential care… But when we are consoled by faith through hearing the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, we receive the Holy Spirit, so that we can think rightly about God, fear him, and believe in him. From this it is clear that without Christ and without the Holy Spirit we cannot keep the law” (Apology, Article IV:135).

This passage, then, is an historical account of what was done, and therefore is a preaching of the law to test our hearts. When I do what God commands, is it to merit something? If so, I have failed to do anything at all. Is it to give him glory or to thank him for what Jesus has done? If so, it is an act of worship, and a sacrifice that pleases God however beautiful, simple, halting, creative or crude. His mercy endures forever (1 Chronicles 16:41).

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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