Reading: Num. 3:12,13; 8:5-8; Rom. 6:3-7; Col. 2:11,12.
You will see that all these passages again bear upon the position and function of the Levites. We come at once to the thing which is uppermost in them.
The first passage contains the statement that the Levites were taken in the place of the firstborn in all Israel to be the Lord's. We have pointed out before that until that time the firstborn in each family was the priest of the family, and all the firstborn constituted the priesthood in the whole nation. But at Sinai when Aaron in response to the request of the people made the calf, priesthood went over to something contrary to God. Worship was given to the calf, the work of men's hands, so that the whole priesthood was involved in that departure and in that iniquity, and the firstborn could therefore no longer be priests unto God when they had become priests unto an idol. That former priesthood thus came to an end with the Lord.
God Never Develops that which Loses its Original Purity
Then, when at that very time in response to the challenge of Moses the sons of Levi stepped forth and took the sword against their own brothers, neighbours and friends, the Lord substituted the Levites for the firstborn in Israel and appointed them in their place as the firstborn, saying, "I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn... they shall be Mine" (Num. 3:12).
Just at the moment, before we go further, our desire is to indicate again the significance of the firstborn as claimed by the Lord. They represent a new beginning; the idea bound up with the firstborn is always the idea of a new beginning. The Lord began with the nation in Egypt when He sanctified the firstborn. In the firstborn the whole nation is represented as at a new beginning, and so the Lord said, "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months" (Ex. 12:2). At Sinai that new beginning has come to a sorry and grievous end, but the Lord makes another beginning with the Levites. They are as the firstborn; God is starting again. He has swept aside one thing, and has begun again in a new way. He is claiming His rights as from a new beginning. He never patches up an old thing, never takes up something that has been spoiled and marred and adjusts it and goes on with it. He finishes and makes a new beginning. That is clear right through the Word. It is the right of God to have things pure from the beginning and to have no mixture, no carry-over of an old creation. The Levites, then, stand to satisfy God in the matter of His rights and His requirement to have things from the beginning according to His mind: pure and clean.
That lends a very great significance to something else. In Numbers 3 and 4 you have the Levites taken and the whole Levitical system introduced, the ordering of the sons of Levi according to the three families, Gershon, Kohath and Merari, for the work of the tent of testimony. All the arrangements are made, the Divine order is projected, their various ministries are stated and then they are left. Numbers 5, 6 and 7 intervene before chapter 8, when the Levites start upon that ministry; and what takes place in that interval? Wrong things in the camp are dealt with. There are cleansings and adjustments; for instance, the law of the leper. What is leprosy in type throughout the Bible? It is man as God sees him: sinful - not only sinning, but sinful - not only acting in a sinning way, but himself sin. Leprosy is a thing which eats right into the very fibre and tissue of the being and you cannot get in between the man and his leprosy; in the Bible, at any rate. And there are other things in these chapters which have to be dealt with and put away. All these things have to be cleared up as relating to man by nature, and he has to be brought into an altogether new place, and that is represented in Numbers 6 by the Nazarite, who speaks of an utter position with God. Then, when all that is done, you take up things from chapter 4, dedicate the altar in chapter 7, and proceed with the business of the Levites. But their functioning is all under arrest until something has been dealt with and put out of the way. That is the point we want to note.
This is so clearly a factor bound up with the Levites - they represent something for God, satisfying to Him, which in turn speaks of some other thing altogether put away. There has been brought an end to one whole system and order of things and God makes a new beginning. He had spoken about Levi long before, when Moses, at the end of his forty years in the wilderness alone with God, cried, 'I cannot speak!', and was hesitating and holding back from his commission to go to Pharaoh, the Lord had said, "Aaron thy brother the Levite... cometh to meet thee" (Ex. 4:14). Not "a Levite", Moses and Aaron being sons of Levi, but - "Aaron the Levite". It was an intimation of a Divine thought without any expansion or exposition. The Levites had been intimated and been in view, and here in Numbers 3 and 4 you have their great ministry outlined; but it lies under arrest until something has happened. There is something in the way, and that something is man by nature and he has to be put out.
So you come to Numbers 8. "Take the Levites... and cleanse them. And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of expiation upon them" (Num. 8:6,7).
Water in the Word of God always stands for the death of Christ in some form, in some way - Romans 6. And then: "Cause a razor to pass over all their flesh" (Num. 8:7). Very highly symbolical language, but perfectly obvious in its meaning, the razor removing everything that is a product of man by nature.
And then the offering of the two bullocks. We do not stay with the details, as we have one thought in mind just now. It is that God makes a completely new beginning with the Levites, because something old, in all its forms, has been brought to an end and put away.
And so we have the water of expiation, the death of Christ; the razor, the knife of the Cross; the bullock of the sin-offering leading us over to Romans 6 and Colossians 2 and other portions that speak of the putting away of the whole body of the flesh in the death of Christ. Our union by faith with Him in His death puts out of the way all that which arrests our Levitical ministry, our service unto God, our coming to function according to the Divine will. And a new beginning is made.
Baptism a Testimony to the Putting Away of the Old Creation
That is very simple, the most elementary way of presenting the great truth, but it brings us right up to the testimony of baptism. There we stand around the type of the grave of the Lord Jesus. By baptism in water we are together simply declaring and standing into the meaning of God's word that He has called us to be priests unto Himself, to stand in a Levitical relationship, to be the sons of Levi in a spiritual sense, to bear His testimony here. But none of that is possible until there has been a cutting off and a putting away of that whole old creation order of which we are a part. We declare in baptism that that is what the death of Christ means for us as we stand into it and then the way is open.
The thing that is very much weighing on my mind in this connection, about which so very much more might be said, is this, that God finds Himself under the necessity of getting rid of so much before He gets on with His work. He is always up against that. Again and again in various connections in the Scriptures, you find that there is something to be got rid of before there is a clear way.
The Removal of the Old Creation makes Room for Christ
You think of Nehemiah, for instance, coming back from captivity, contemplating the rebuilding of the broken-down walls of Jerusalem. You remember that that wall represents the clear testimony as to what is of God and what is not of God. It is the line of demarcation. Inside that wall is the habitation of God, Jerusalem, that is all of God and all for God; that which is outside the wall is not, in the same sense, of God. Now, Nehemiah came back to re-establish that testimony, but before he could do anything in the way of rebuilding, there was a good deal of clearing up to be done. We are told twice over that there was very much rubbish. It is just like that always; there is a lot of rubbish, the rubbish of this old broken-down creation, which is in the way all the time. Nehemiah doubtless had to spend a good deal of time getting rid of the rubbish before he could do constructive work.
I think it was something like that with the apostle Paul when he was thinking about his old life and the things he had thought were important, valuable and precious things. He enumerated some of them - his ancestry, birth, upbringing, status, and he said, "These things which were gain to me I count them but refuse" (Phil. 3:7,8). It is the rubbish of the old creation. In the eyes of the world, of the natural man, they are very important and valuable. Reputation and position and all those things count for something with the natural man. But Paul says, "Rubbish - I count them as veritable rubbish in comparison with the riches of Christ".
Now, in the testimony of baptism we are, so to speak, getting rid of the rubbish, or we are declaring the fact that the rubbish of the old creation is removed in the death of Christ, and God has a clear way with Levites to start again and to get His testimony in purity, without mixture. We are all there, I trust, in heart. We see that baptism is no mere form, no mere rite, but a testimony to one of the major realities with which God is confronting this whole body of the sinful flesh, the whole order of man by nature which takes His rights from Him and must therefore be removed in death under judgment, in order that He shall have His rights and get a new way. It is thus no little thing to which we testify in baptism, but a great one.
"If we have become united with Him by the likeness of His death, we shall be also by the likeness of His resurrection" (Rom. 6:5), "that we might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4).
Newness of life is a "firstborn" idea.