Two weeks ago we spent our time on chapter 7 and we read how the leaders of each of the 12 tribes of Israel brought gifts and offerings to the Tabernacle. Do you remember? First, they brought oxen and carts for the Levites to use when transporting the Tabernacle and all its furnishings from place to place. Then, over the space of 12 days, each leader brought the same offerings to the Lord in order to dedicate the altar. And these offerings were — in a sense — the grateful response of the people to God’s kindness to them. God had promised to dwell among them in the Tabernacle; and he promised to bless them by keeping them safe and by being gracious to them and by giving them peace. And so, in grateful response, the people brought their gifts and offerings to the Lord, as we still do today in order to give thanks to the Lord for his kindness to us.
Today, in chapter 8, we read about two things: we read about how the lampstand was set up in the Tabernacle; and we read about the public ceremony to set apart the Levities for their work.
It’s not entirely clear why the instructions about the lampstand appear here in the text. The only connection with what preceded these instructions is the Tent of Meeting. So, chapter 7 ended by telling us that Moses used to enter the Tent of Meeting and the Lord spoke to him. And chapter 8 begins by telling us about the lampstand which was in the Tent of Meeting. Other than that, it’s hard to explain why these instructions about the lampstand appear here in the text.
You might recall from Exodus 25 that the lampstand in the Tent of Meeting was made of pure gold; here we’re told it was hammered gold. It was designed to look like an almond tree, with six branches extending from the main trunk, each decorated with cups which would hold the oil and which were designed to look like flowers; and so here in verse 4 the text refers to its blossoms. And seven lights burned on the lampstand at all times: one light on each of the six branches and the seventh light on the main trunk.
According to verse 1 of Numbers 8, Aaron was to set up the lights so that they lit up the area in the front of the lampstand. Some commentators think that this lampstand represents the lights in the sky; and so it was a reminder that God is the one who created all things. But it also points to Christ who is the Light of the world. Other commentators suggest that, since the lampstand was in the shape of a tree, it symbolises the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden which also appears in the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation 22 and holds out to us the promise of enjoying eternal life in the presence of the Lord.
And, of course, according to verse 4 the lampstand was made according to the pattern or the plans the Lord had shown to Moses. We read something similar in Exodus 26:30 where it makes clear that the earthly Tabernacle which Moses set up was only a copy of the real thing. The real thing is heaven where the Lord sits enthroned. And so, the Tabernacle on earth and the lampstand and everything else in it was a copy of the heavenly reality, made according to the pattern or the plans which God showed to Moses.
So, Moses and Aaron served in an earthly copy of the real thing; but Christ our Great High Priest has entered, not a man-made copy of the real thing, but he’s entered heaven itself where he stands before his Father and intercedes for us. And all who believe in him know that he will bring us — in body and in soul — into the presence of the Lord where we can take from the Tree of Life and live for ever and for ever with him.
Let’s move on to verses 5 to 26 where the Lord gave instructions to Moses about the ceremony to set apart the Levites for their work. Remember? The Levites were to serve the Lord by helping the priests. They were to transport the Tabernacle and all its furnishings from place to place. They were also to put up the Tabernacle whenever they stopped and they were to take it down when it was time to move on. They were also to guard the Tabernacle and prevent any unauthorised person from entering it.
But before they could serve the Lord in this way, they need to be purified; and we read about this three-step process in verses 6 and 7. So, first of all, they had to be sprinkled with water. Second, they had to shave off all of their hair. Third, they had to wash their clothes. By means of this three-step process they were made ritually or ceremonially clean; and it signifies how sinners needs to be cleansed from the stain of their sins.
Then in verses 9 to 13 we read how the Levites were to come to the front of the Tent of Meeting and all the Israelites were to assemble together and lay their hands of the Levites. Presumably only the leaders of the people or some other representatives were to lay hands on them, because there would have been too many for them all to do it. Laying their hands on the Levites was a way for the people to identify themselves with the Levites. Just as laying hands on a sacrificial animal was the way to signify that this animal now represents the worshipper, so laying hands on the Levites was the way to signify that these Levites now represented the Israelites and were taking their place. In other words, the service the Levites would offer to the Lord was offered on behalf of the Israelites.
According to verse 11, Aaron was to present the Levites as a wave offering from the Israelites to the Lord. A wave offering was offered to the Lord whenever the priests were being consecrated to the Lord. On that occasion, the priest took the offering and waved it up and down before the Lord. However, on this occasion, the Levites themselves are the offering which was presented before the Lord.
And then, the Levites had to lay their hands on two sacrificial bulls. One bull was offered as a sin offering; and the other was offered as a burnt offering. Burnt offerings were brought as a ransom to deliver the Levites from their sins; sin offerings were for washing away the stain of their sin. The bulls were therefore offered to make atonement for the Levites.
In verses 15 to 19 the Lord makes clear again that the Levites were to serve the Lord on behalf of the Israelites, and especially on behalf of their firstborn sons. So, according to verse 17, every firstborn son belongs to the Lord, because on the night of the Passover — when the Lord rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt — the Lord passed over the homes of the Israelites and spared their firstborn sons from death. Since the Lord spared them, they owed their lives to him; and they therefore belonged to him in a special way.
However, instead of requiring the firstborn males to serve him, the Lord decreed that the Levites were to take their place; you might recall that we read about this in chapter 3. So, the Levites were to serve in place of the firstborn sons; and according to verse 19 the Lord was giving the Levites as gifts to Aaron and his sons to help them in the work of the Tabernacle.
According to verse 20, the Levites were to make atonement for the Israelites. Well, the purpose of a regular atonement sacrifice was to pay a ransom to the Lord to deliver someone from the penalty they deserve for their sins. So, to make atonement means to pay a ransom. And the Levites were — in a sense — the ransom which was paid to the Lord in order to free their fellow Israelites. But what were they freeing their fellow Israelites from? Well, not so much from the penalty they deserve for their sins, but from any obligation to serve in the sanctuary. The Levites were serving in their place.
But, what — you may ask — would be so wrong with serving in the sanctuary? Well, look at the end of verse 20: if the ordinary Israelites tried to go near the sanctuary — to take it down, for instance; or to transport it from place to place — they would surely die. The wrath of the Lord would break out against them and destroy them, because he is holy and they are not. However, because the Levites were chosen by God and set apart for this work, the Israelites were delivered from that kind of danger.
And then we read in verses 20 to 22 that Moses and the others did all that the Lord told them to do. And then in verses 23 to 26 the Lord laid down instructions about the length of service for the Levites. Because it was demanding work — lifting, carrying, putting up and putting down the Tabernacle — only those in the prime of their life were called to serve in this way; although even after retirement, they were able to assist the younger Levites.
The Levites represented their fellow Israelites. And therefore they point us to Christ, because he came into the world as one of us; and for us he obeyed the Lord in all things; and for us he suffered and died on the cross; and for us he was raised to new life; and for us he appears before his Father in heaven where he intercedes for us at God’s right hand. He did all of these things for us; and he was able to do all these things for us, because he represents us, just as the Levites represented their fellow Israelites.
And do you remember how the Israelites had to lay their hands on the Levites as a way of saying that these Levites now represent us? Well, we don’t lay our hands on the Lord Jesus, but we’re to trust in him, because whoever trusts in him is saying:
I’m relying on him. I’m relying on his death for forgiveness. I’m relying on him for peace with God. I’m relying on him to represent me before the Father in heaven. He now represents me.
But think now of the differences between the Levites and the Lord Jesus, because the Lord Jesus is far greater than the Levites. For instance, they had to be cleansed before they could begin their work and they had to offer atoning sacrifices before they could serve the Lord; but Christ did not need to be cleansed, and he did not need to offer sacrifices for himself, because he alone is without sin and never ever did anything wrong.
Only the Levites and priests could handle the holy things in the Tabernacle; but all who trust in Jesus Christ will one day come into the presence of the Lord, where we will not perish, but will live for ever, because of him.
The Levites grew old and needed to retire; but Christ the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever; and he’s able to represent us before the Father for ever, because he lives for ever.
But then finally today, just as the Levites were cleansed and then presented before the Lord as an offering, so we — who have been cleansed by the shed blood of Christ — are to present ourselves before the Lord as an offering. We’re to live our lives, not for ourselves, but for the Lord and his glory, making it our aim to obey him in all things and to do his will in our daily lives.