"And ye shall know that I have sent this commandment unto you, that My covenant may be with Levi, saith the Lord of hosts. My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him that he might fear; and he feared Me and stood in awe of My name ... For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 2:4,5,7).
"Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall prepare the way before Me; and the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom ye desire, behold, He cometh, saith Jehovah of hosts. But who can abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap: and He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer unto the Lord offerings in righteousness" (Mal. 3:1-3).
In our previous meditation, we said in passing that conformity to the image of God's Son means many things. Christ is very comprehensive, many-sided, and there are numerous ways in which the people of God are to be conformed to His image in order that His manifold features may be reproduced in them according to the purpose of God. In this present meditation, we are going to get nearer to that general presentation and break it up a little. We have said that from the beginning God has been at work with His own people on the basis of Christ His Son as His pattern. So the very first recovery movement after sin had entered - in the case of Abel - sees God bringing in the features of His Son in a simple, elementary, but basic way. From Abel onwards, in the case of His people God has been found always engaged to bring His Son into evidence and into the very nature of things. That is the only way in which we can profitably read the Word of God throughout - noting how, in His dealings with His own, whether individually or collectively, God is working on the pattern of His Son. Christ is in evidence with God, and God is seeking to bring Christ into evidence with His people.
The Sons of Levi - An Expression of That Which is Spiritual
A fragment in the portions which we have just read from the closing book of the Old Testament has gathered into it a great history in relation to this matter of conformity to the image of God's Son. The fragment is, "the sons of Levi"; and here the fuller statement is that He will purify the sons of Levi. That is no small statement.
Here, with the closing of the Old Testament, the vision of the actual coming of the Lord Jesus is brought into view in a very positive way. He is seen to be, as it were, on the threshold. The dispensation of figures and types is about to pass and all that to which that dispensation has pointed is now coming in. It will not be long before He is here of whom it has all spoken. And then that which is involved in His coming is gathered up into a few words.
You might have said many things that Christ's coming would mean and effect, taking them from the Old Testament, but here the Spirit of God brings it all down to practically one thing. He says that His coming, being in the nature of the presence of a refiner's fire, will bear down upon the sons of Levi for their purifying. That is impressive. Practically the final word of the Old Testament comes to light upon the sons of Levi as though they represented a consummation of the Old Testament, that which was being taken up specifically in the Coming One. And I do not think for a moment that I am straining the interpretation or putting something into these words that should not be put into them. 'The sons of Levi' is a key phrase by which that which has ever been at the heart of God is opened up. If we understand the significance of the sons of Levi, we understand the heart of the work of the Lord Jesus.
"Purify the sons of Levi". Now link with those words these others (Mal. 2:4,5): "that My covenant may be with Levi... My covenant was with him of life and peace". We are familiar with that little phrase "life and peace". It comes out of Romans 8, which we were considering in our previous meditation, "The mind of the Spirit is life and peace". "My covenant of life and peace was with Levi". Romans 8 marks the clear distinction between the natural man and the spiritual man, and it is with the spiritual man that life and peace is found. The sons of Levi therefore stand for what is spiritual among the Lord's people. We can understand then, the necessity for the sons of Levi to be purified. Let us open this a little more widely before we come to its particular applications.
A People Elect in Grace, Not Through Works
If you trace the history of the Levites, you will see that they stand related to God's deepest, highest and most perfect thoughts. They became the embodiment and representation of what was most in the heart of the Lord - and all of grace. As we go on, we shall find ourselves presently speaking of a people standing in relation to God in a particular relationship of value and preciousness. Let us at once be warned against thinking that that is anything other than a work of grace. Levi will very quickly put us right on that matter.
Do you remember that one of the most terrible stories of the Old Testament is linked with Levi? Levi and his brother wreaked their vengeance upon the Shechemites because of what they did to their sister (Gen. 34). It is a horrible story of cunning, malicious massacre, and that of a whole city for what was done by perhaps one or two in it. And Jacob, though at the time in his weakness could say only very feeble things against it, in the day of his death was found a giant in the matter and pronounced the judgment of God upon Levi and Simeon. They went out into the world under judgment - and yet, the Levites! Not because of what they were originally in themselves, not because naturally they were better than any others. No, God does not hide the terrible story of what they were naturally, but allows it to come out. And then, over against judgment - grace, and the choice of Levi and the peculiar relationship of the sons of Levi to God and His purpose. I have said that by way of warning.
God will have His sons of Levi, He will have that people within the compass of His people standing in a relationship to Himself of peculiar preciousness and value, but they will not be so because they in themselves are better than any others. There may be reasons why they are there, but those reasons will be spiritual and not natural, and it is there that you see the divide between the original Levi and the sons of Levi as taken up by God in this particular relationship.
A Heart Consent to the Work of the Cross
That leads us to the point at which the Levites came into that position and relationship. Probably you recall the story of Exodus 32. Moses had been in the mount with God and, by reason of the long delay in his return, the people broke loose in revolt. The golden calf was made and they turned to worship the work of their own hands, instead of exercising faith in the invisible but living God. They broke down under the strain and turned to nature's way of worship, surrendering to the natural man who always wants to see something, to have something tangible, who finds it not only difficult but, under given circumstances of extended trial, impossible to believe when he does not see.
Moses at length came down and, ere he reached the foot of the mount, heard the tumult in the camp. In hot anger he destroyed the golden calf and then standing in the gate of the camp, apart from this scene of nature run wild, cried, "Whoso is on the Lord's side, let him come unto me" - or 'come over to me' - and all the sons of Levi went over. Moses said, "Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro, and slay every man his brother, his companion and his neighbour": and they did so, and did it thoroughly. Concerning this, Moses said later, as recorded in Deuteronomy 8, "At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant." At that time - and it is in relation to that time that the covenant was given to Levi, the covenant of life and peace. On that day, the tribe of Levi, the sons of Levi, were chosen by God to stand in that relationship to Him which meant the highest possible service to God.
Why was it? Basically because the sons of Levi on that day discerned between the spiritual and the natural and cleft them asunder with a stroke of the sword, putting the spiritual high above the natural at great cost "every man slew his brother, his companion, his neighbour". They took the sword against that which was most closely related to them by the ties of nature. We may say, in the New Testament sense, against their own souls.
It is not without deep spiritual significance, the significance of the Holy Spirit being in all things in the Word of God, that Hebrews 4:12 is connected with the life of the people in the wilderness and their falling and dying there, and the verse begins with this conjunction, "for the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit". Why did that first generation of Israel fall and perish in the wilderness? All can be gathered up in this as a principle: they did not divide between soul and spirit, the natural and the spiritual. The Levites did that. At the beginning of the wilderness journey, they took the sword and made the divide between the natural and the spiritual. Henceforth Levi was ever to stand in relation to God as representing that division - soul and spirit, the natural and the spiritual.
In Malachi you find this distinction lost, the divide gone, confusion, corruption, mixture among the Lord's people; and among the last words in the Old Testament are these: "He will purify the sons of Levi". When the Lord Jesus comes, the effect of His presence will be to put the natural in its place and the spiritual in its place, and to keep them there. In Him who was the perfect Levite, the perfect servant of God, those two things were always seen apart. "Not my will, but Thine". Not nature, but God; not the flesh, but the Spirit. Conformity to the image of God's Son means becoming Levites in the full spiritual sense and representing God's thought in this matter of the great difference between the natural and the spiritual.
Have I made it clear? I am more than ever anxious not just to be adding teaching, piling on Bible content and information. I feel that the Lord has business to do with us on this matter of conformity to the image of His Son, and if we take up the Levites in this way, it is only that the Word of God may interpret for us the things of the Spirit, leading us to the great divide - what Christ is on the one hand, and what we are on the other, and to see the necessity for these two to be kept wholly apart. In spirit we have to be over on the side of what Christ is, and to put back our own natural life all the time, bringing the sword in to keep that division clear. That will be a life business, and will take us on to the end.
An Israel in the Midst of Israel
What is the first thing, then, that comes in with the Levites? It is separation, even in the midst of God's people. All the Israelites had come under the blood of the lamb, all had come out of Egypt, all had passed through the Red Sea, all were the Lord's people. But the Levites alone came on that day at Sinai to set forth God's full thought concerning His own people, and they mark a divide even among the people of God. What they say most definitely and clearly is that there are people of God who are fleshly and carnal and living in the realm of nature and who, in so doing, are opening a door to God's enemy to bring in idolatry, to create a false position among His people, a contradiction and a denial, and to make room for things for which God has neither place nor tolerance. On the other hand, they declare that there is an Israel within an Israel, a people who are not only bearing the Name of the Lord as a title but who are conformed to His thoughts. That is the first thing which comes in with the Levites. The purifying of the sons of Levi means that - the securing of a people, maybe in the midst of the Lord's people, who express His highest thought, His ideal for His people.
A People Purified by Fire
Beloved, if what we were saying in our previous meditation is true, this lies very near to the heart of what is happening now. Who among the Lord's true children would not say that this is a day of refining fire? We are finding that language much on our lips - the fiery trial, refining fire. The people of God are in the fires today, many of them, and it looks very much as though this is going to spread and intensify. Wherever the Lord has a people, they are going to know the fires of trial. Well, what is to be our attitude towards that? Is it to be one of fear, and of earnest, perhaps panic-stricken appeal to the Lord to save His people out of the fires? Have we not been praying long enough that the Lord would do a new thing with His own people? We did not expect this manner of answer, perhaps, but it has come, and it has come to the whole world. Well, we cannot ask the Lord to quench these fires or to take us out, for to this very end the fires have been permitted or caused - to purify the sons of Levi. Daniel, looking on to this same end time, said, "Many shall purify themselves and make themselves white" (Dan. 12:10). And John too saw a people purified. "These are they which come out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:14). It is in line with 'the sons of Levi'. The Lord is doing this purifying work now. He has ever done this with His people in all hours of suffering, and oh, on what a scale is He doing it today!
And what is the nature of this purifying? By many ways He is getting in between the life of nature and the life of the Spirit in His people. Let us look into our own hearts and experience, and see if that is not so. What is the nature of the battle inwardly? It is the battle between ourselves and the Spirit of God, between our hearts, our wills, our thoughts and His. If it were not that, there would be no battle. But it is that. You and I know very well that all the trouble is here, that we are so different from our Lord, so other than He. If only we could be like Christ, if only what He was and is were absolutely enthroned, triumphant over our whole being, the battle would be at an end. We do not now stay to consider the different levels on which our rebel nature manifests itself - whether on the lowest plain of evident idolatry as at the foot of the mount, or in more subtle and refined forms. For the moment we merely note the fact that there are these two conflicting elements in us, and the refining fires that burn are to separate between them and to get us in spirit wholly on to the side of Christ. Is it necessary to say that this is something very much more than singing:
"By Thy call of mercy, by Thy grace Divine,
We are on the Lord's side, Saviour, we are Thine."
We all say that. But we may immediately go home and have a very bad time, and discover that we are not so much on the Lord's side as we thought. We have to have a big battle on some particular point to get on to the Lord's side at all. It is not always easy to take sides with Him against ourselves.
So this inward separation is the thing that matters; the outward separations will inevitably follow. We need not be over-concerned about them. I am afraid there has been far too much on that line - outward separations which have really amounted to asceticism, a 'come-out-ism', a kind of 'separation-ism' which is not really spiritual, and can become very sectarian, closed and hard and legal - thou shalt and thou shalt not - and very cruel. We are not concerned with that for the moment. Whatever is required in that outer realm will follow quite naturally and spontaneously when God has got His requirement in us inwardly. It is an inward separation that He is effecting by the refining fires.
A People wholly Governed by the Spirit of Christ
The sons of Levi speak then, in the very first place, of that inward separation which is so costly and painful, a matter of taking the sword against our own soul. But that greatest Levite of all spoke the word of the Levitical covenant when He said, "Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matt. 11:29). "My covenant of life and peace". Where are life and peace? Where is rest? It is on Levitical ground which is the ground where the whole inner life has been brought under the complete government of Christ.
Oh, it may be thought by the natural man (and it will be) that to be meek and lowly in heart is going to be costly and mean much trouble. Well, whatever it may cost in that way, it is going to mean life and peace. Have you ever, by the grace of God, given way, yielded to the Lord over a situation with someone else? You will know what I am talking about when I speak of life and peace. While you have been standing your ground for your vindication and rights, for the apology, the confession, the humbling of the other party, there has been a battle and you have got nowhere with the Lord. At last you have come to the place where you have said, "Lord, vindication or no vindication, that is not the point; it is Thy will, Thy glory, Thine interests that matter. If all my interests suffer, if my name is defamed, if my rights are taken away, if I am humbled, what does it matter? Give me the grace of a meek and lowly heart...". Get through there, and you have found life and peace; you have found rest unto your soul whatever it has cost you in the other realm.
Others may say, He had to give way; he had to let go. Oh, never mind, if only Christ may be seen; and "the Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:16). What is the witness of the Spirit? That we are children of God, not just related, but possessing the very nature which is well-pleasing to the Lord. There is nothing more gratifying to the heart than for the Spirit to speak Divine approval; and remember that Divine approval is never of us but always of Christ in us.
A covenant of life and peace on the ground of inward separation; the sword piercing to dividing asunder of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, laying bare the thoughts and intents of the heart. Are we not challenged by this and confronted with something to be done? Oh, let us recognise this is the nature of conformity to the image of God's Son, this is the purpose of the refining fires, this is in view in the purifying of the sons of Levi - a spiritual people in whom are made manifest the thoughts of God as summed up in the Person of His Son. In view of the greatness of the end, shall we not respond from our hearts to the challenge He brings to us?