Numbers 3 is all about the priests that served in Israel. Aaron (Moses’ brother) and his family were Israel’s priests, the sons of Levi (one of the original twelve sons of Jacob). So, when you read “Levites” in the Bible, you can substitute the word “priests.” The two main tasks of the Levites included: (1) guarding the tabernacle from intruders and (2) ministering at the tabernacle (i.e., transporting it from place to place). How this is to be done is explained in Numbers 4. In the last plague in Egypt, every firstborn male Egyptian and every firstborn of their cattle died, but the Israelite boys and cattle were spared. So after this, all Israelite firstborn boys and cattle were dedicated to God. That meant the cattle were sacrificed and the boys should have served God in the sanctuary (Ex. 11:4–13:15). But after the golden calf incident, the Levites took the place of the firstborn boys (Ex. 32:25–29). It’s the tribe of Levi that’s chosen by God. Not by Moses, not by Aaron, not by vote, not by suggestion; but by God.
Numbers 3:4 reminds us of what happened to two of Aaron’s sons that we have already read about in Leviticus 10. We aren’t exactly sure what these two sons of Aaron did wrong. All the text says is that they “offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. (Leviticus 10:1) It is clear that this was disobedience. They acted as priests in a way that the Lord had not commanded them to act. Some people believe that their behavior had something to do with alcohol, since “wine and strong drink” is forbidden for priests to consume on the job in this same passage. (Leviticus 10:9) Leviticus 16:1-2 implies that they entered the most holy place without authorization. Whatever their specific transgression, these two sons of Aaron were too casual in their worship of the living God or their leadership of His people – and they died on the spot, consumed by the Lord for their disobedience. (Leviticus 10:2) God didn’t choose the tribe of Levi because they were morally superior to everybody else. They were unfortunately just as susceptible as everybody else to sin. He chose out of His grace. It wasn’t based on some sort of moral superiority.
In Numbers 3, the Levites serve as a visible reminder of the gospel – of redemption, substitution, and lordship, and I want to take those in reverse order.
Look at verse 12. Who do the Levites belong to? They belong to the Lord. What does the Lord say, end of verse 12? “The Levites shall be Mine.” How many times is that phrase repeated in this passage? “The Levites are Mine.” This is a picture of the biblical teaching of the lordship of God, or the ownership of God, of His people. They uniquely belong to Him. Later, Peter would write to Christians:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
He is saying that if you are a Christian, you belong to Christ. Paul put it this way:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
Christianity is an open, knowing embrace of the fact that God owns me, and I surrender myself and my will to Him.
Every time an Israelite father of a firstborn went up to the tabernacle, he was reminded of the principle of substitution. There was someone there serving in the tabernacle in his firstborn son’s place. And that principle and provision of a substitute is just driven home over and over again in the Bible. It was driven home in the sacrificial ceremony, where you took an animal and you laid hands on an animal, and you took your hands off that animal, and then that animal was slaughtered—not because that animal had sinned, because that animal couldn’t—but because you had sinned, and your wife had sinned, and your sons had sinned, and your household had sinned. But that animal died as a substitute for you. Not your firstborn, but the Levites. This principle of substitution was so important to God, that when they came up 273 people short, God required ransom money to be paid! There’s this principle of ransom, redemption, buying back. ‘I’ve accepted this substitute in your place, but you didn’t quite even out; and, therefore, you’re going to have to pay a price for this substitution to work.’ And the Lord is teaching us something about redemption there. But when Christ offered ultimate redemption to us, there was no cost to us. The entire cost (and there was a huge cost) was paid by Jesus. This is the gospel right here in Numbers 3: God’s lordship, God’s substitution, God’s redemption through Jesus Christ.
All of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, tells this story. That we are all sinners, disobedient to God by our very nature and deserving of death. But that God, in his great mercy and love, bought us back. The only one without sin, Jesus, became sin for us, so that by His substitutionary sacrifice, we who are completely sinful could be looked upon by God as holy and sinless.