They were dedicated to the Lord in the place of Israel’s firstborn sons (Nu. 8:13-17). As Creator, God owns all men (Eze. 18:4). He owns the believer in a double sense--by right of Creator and by right of Redeemer (1 Co. 6:19-20).
The Levites are descendants of Jacob’s son Levi (Ge. 29:34).
Moses and Aaron were Levites (Ex. 6:18-20). Aaron was the first high priest (Ex. 28:1), and this office passed to the eldest son at death (Nu. 20:25-28). The sons of Aaron served with the high priest.
All of the Levites were priests, but a distinction is made in Scripture between the priests the sons of Aaron (Le. 1:5) and the priests the sons of Levi (De. 17:18; 21:5). The “priests the sons of Levi” usually refers to the sons of Gerson, Kohath, and Merari. Normally “the Levites” refers to all of the Levites other than the sons of Aaron, and “the priests” refers to Aaron’s sons. See, for example, 1 Ch. 15:11; 23:2; 2 Ch. 13:9-10; 29:16, 34; 30:16. Rarely, “the priests the Levites” refers to all of the Levites, including the sons of Aaron (De. 18:1; 27:9).
The high priest lit the lampstand (Nu. 8:2-3), burned incense on the golden altar (Ex. 30:7-8; Le. 24:3-4), and entered the holy of holies on the day of atonement (Le. 16). Under the high priest’s direction, the sons of Aaron assisted in burning the incense, lighting the lamps, and maintaining the shewbread). See 2 Ch. 13:10-11; 26:18. Aaron’s sons made the sacrifices (Le. 1:11; 2:2; 3:2) and blew the silver trumpets (Nu. 10:8).
The high priest and his sons oversaw the work of the other Levites (Nu. 8:13-15).
Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Ex. 6:16). These became the heads of the three divisions of the Levites who were under the oversight of Aaron and his sons (Nu. 4:22-23, 29-30, 34-35). Though Aaron was a son of Kohath (Ex. 6:18, 20), he was set apart distinctly for the office of high priest.
When Israel traveled in the wilderness, the Gershonites carried the tent hangings and curtains (Nu. 4:24-26), the Kohathites carried the vessels of the tabernacle such as the candlestick and table of shewbread (Nu. 3:29-31; 4:15), and the Merarites carried the boards, bars, pillars, and sockets (Nu. 4:31-32).
The Levites did everything associated with the operation and maintenance of the tabernacle (1 Ch. 23:28-32): setting it up, taking it down, carrying it, offering the sacrifices, cleaning the altar, providing wood for the altar, filling and cleaning the laver, maintaining the candlestick, baking the bread and the offerings (1 Ch. 9:32; 23:29), mixing the incense and oils (Ex. 30:23-25, 34-38; 1 Ch. 9:30). They had charge of all of the vessels (1 Ch. 9:29).
The Levites were porters at the gates (1 Ch. 9:17-24; 12:28; 26:1-8; 2 Ch. 26:1-19). This was an important, multi-function task. It required “able men for strength for the service” (1 Ch. 26:8). They had to reside nearby so they could be present to open the gates (1 Ch. 9:27). They had to be faithful to stay at their gates (2 Ch. 35:15). They were guides to help the people know where go and guards to keep the wrong people out (2 Ch. 23:19). This included a military aspect (“men of valour ... able men for strength,” 1 Ch. 26:6, 8). The Levite porters guarded Joash when he was anointed king (2 Ch. 23:4-7). “Their office ... appears to have been of considerable dignity, and conferred only on men of the first rank. They were appointed to attend the temple, to guard all the avenues to it, to open and shut all the outer gates, and attend at them, not only for state but for service. They were also required to direct and instruct those who were going to worship in the courts of the sanctuary in the conduct they were to observe, to encourage those who were timid, to send back the strangers and unclean, and to guard against thieves and others who were enemies to the house of God” (Treasury of Scripture Knowledge).
The priests and Levites were singers and musicians (1 Ch. 9:33; 15:16-24; 2 Ch. 5:12-13; 29:27-28; 35:15; Ne. 12:27-28, 40-42). It appears that the priests played the trumpets, while the Levites played other instruments (2 Ch. 5:12; 7:6; 29:26; Ezr. 3:10).
The priests and Levites evaluated property in their capacity in performing the law of leprosy (Le. 27:12, 14; De. 24:8).
The priests and Levites were the keepers of Scripture (De. 17:18; 31:9, 24-26).
The priests and Levites were teachers of the law (Le. 10:8-11; De. 31:9-13; 33:10; 2 Ch. 17:7-9; 35:3; Ezr. 8:6, 10; Ne. 8:1-8; Eze. 44:23; Mal. 2:7). The Levite was to be a man of God’s Book, loving it, studying it, memorizing it, meditating on it, preserving it, guarding it, teaching it. Ezra was a prominent example of this (Ezr. 7:6, 10; Ne. 8:5-8).
The priests and Levites were officers and judges (De. 17:8-13; 19:17; 21:5; 1 Ch. 23:4; 26:29-30; Eze. 44:24). The men in this capacity were “men of valor” (1 Ch. 26:30, 31, 32). Samuel was a prominent example of a Levite judge (1 Sa. 7:15-17). He was strong and courageous in his leadership of Israel and in reproving their sins, including the sins of King Saul (1 Sa. 15:13-29). Samuel killed Agag by his own hands (1 Sa. 15:32-33). Levites guarded Joash when he was anointed king (2 Ch. 23:7).
The Levites were the treasurers of the offerings and the holy property (1 Ch. 9:26; 26:20-26).
The priests and Levites were the keepers of the weights and measures (Le. 19:35-36; Nu. 3:50; 1 Ch. 23:29). “The standards of all weights and measures were in the sanctuary; and therefore the Levites had the inspection of weights and measures of every kind, that no fraud might in this way be committed. Honesty is inseparably connected with piety; and hence the Levites, being sufficiently numerous, were employed to superintend the former, as well as the latter” (Treasury of Scripture Knowledge). As judges and keepers of the measures, the Levites were to watch over Israel’s business to make sure it was just and honest. “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in meteyard, in weight, or in measure. Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have: I am the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Le. 19:35-36).
The work was divided among the Levites, and their work was assigned by God (1 Ch. 23:1-6).
There were chiefs (1 Ch. 15:11-12, 16, 22; 23:6, 9, 11; 24:4-5). The positions were chosen by lot (1 Ch. 24:5-30). There was an overseer of all of the work (Ne. 11:22).
The Levite began his ministry of service in the tabernacle at age 25 (Nu. 8:24). But he didn’t begin the heavy work of transporting the tabernacle until age 30 (Nu. 4:3-5). At age 50 he ceased the heavy work but continued to serve in other capacities (Nu. 8:25-26). This was a wise plan, as all of God’s plans are! We are reminded that church leaders should not be novices (1 Ti. 3:6). We are also reminded that when a man gets older he loses some of his abilities, and it is wise for older men to work with younger men in the ministry, both the older and the younger contributing their relative strengths. Multiple men working together in leading churches is what we see in Scripture (e.g., Acts 13:1-2). I have seen many cases in which an elderly preacher has harmed a church by keeping full control of the leadership even after he ceased to have the strength, health, and vision to be effective. “They were to have a writ of ease at fifty years old; then they were to return from the warfare, as the phrase is (Nu. 8:25), not cashiered with disgrace, but preferred rather to the rest which their age required, to be loaded with the honours of their office, as hitherto they had been with the burdens of it. They shall minister with their brethren in the tabernacle, to direct the junior Levites, and set them in; and they shall keep the charge, as guards upon the avenues of the tabernacle, to see that no stranger intruded, nor any person in his uncleanness, but they shall not be put upon any service which may be a fatigue to them” (Matthew Henry).
The Levites received the tithes of Israel (Nu. 18:21, 24, 26; Ne. 10:37; 12:44; 1 Co. 9:13). Israel was instructed not to forget the Levites (De. 12:19; 14:27; 26:11).
The Levites were given 48 cities in Israel (Nu. 35:2-8; Jos. 21). Among these were the six cities of refuge (Nu. 35:6).
Misc. lessons about the Levites as pictures of New Testament believer priests (“holy priesthood ... royal priesthood,” 1 Pe. 2:5, 9): (1) In a nutshell, that the believer is a priest means that his entire life is devoted to the worship of God (“to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God,” 1 Pe. 2:5, “to show forth his praises,” 1 Pe. 2:9). Compare 1 Co. 10:31; Col. 3:17. (2) While in Israel, some were priests, in the church, all are priests, and while in Israel, only men were priests, in the church, women, too, are priests. (3) The Levites were accounted dead, as the believer has died with Christ and risen to new life to serve God (compare Nu. 3:12-13 with Ro. 6:3-13). (4) The Levites were given to the high priest as his servants, as the believer is given by God to be the servant of Christ (compare Nu. 3:6 with Eph. 6:6; Php. 1:1; Col. 4:12; Jas. 1:1). (5) The Levite’s ministry was appointed by God (compare Nu. 3:21-37 with Ro. 12:3-8; 1 Co. 12; 1 Pe. 4:10-11). (6) The leaders were appointed by God (compare Nu. 3:24, 30, 35 with Ac. 20:28; Ep. 4:11). (7) The Levites were under authority. They were not free spirits. They submitted to God’s order and to the authority figures God had put over them; they were assigned their places (1 Ch. 15:17, 19; 25:2, 3, 6). Compare 1 Co. 14:40; 1 Th. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:17. (8) The Levites were instructed (1 Ch. 15:22). Compare 1 Ch. 25:7. The church is a Bible college for priests. Each member is to be well trained (Mt. 28:20; Col. 1:28; 2 Ti. 2:2). (9) The Levites excelled and were skillful (“to excel” 1 Co. 15:21; “skilful,” 1 Ch. 15:22; “cunning,” 1 Ch. 25:7). Likewise, the New Testament believer priest is to aim for perfection, and the job of the pastors and teachers is to perfect the saints (Eph. 4:11-13; Col. 1:28). See also 2 Ti. 3:16-17; Heb. 6:1; 13:20-21; 1 Pe. 5:10. (10) As the Levites were keepers of the Scriptures (De. 31:9; 17:8-13), the New Testament believers are guardians of the New Testament faith (Jude 1:3). (11) The Levitical priests had manifold work for God. As we have seen, they were sacrificers, bakers, apothecaries, singers, musicians, treasurers, bookkeepers, teachers, judges, rulers. Likewise, the work of the believer-priest is a large work. It encompasses all of the ministry described in the New Testament epistles. The believer priest is an ambassador for Christ (2 Co. 5:20), a minister of spiritual gifts (Ro. 12:3-8; Eph. 4:16), a soldier (Eph. 6:10-19), a teacher of the Word (Heb. 5:12-14), a builder of the church (1 Co. 3:9-15), a singer of psalms (Col. 3:16). The fathers are the spiritual heads of the home (Eph. 6:4). The mothers are the keepers of the home (Tit. 2:5).
The work of the believer priest is summarized in 1 Peter. This epistle could be outlined by the theme of the priesthood. The New Testament priest worships God by patience in trials (1 Pe. 1:6-7). See also 1 Pe. 2:19-21; 3:14, 17; 4:12-14. By holding fast to God’s promises in trials without wavering the believer glorifies God and does the work of a priest. The New Testament priest worships God by holiness and separation from evil (1 Pe. 1:14-16). See also 1 Pe. 2:1, 11; 3:10-11. Before the Levitical priests could minister in the tabernacle, they had to wash in the laver (Ex. 30:18-21). Likewise, the New Testament priest must walk in holiness and exhort his brethren to holiness. Through their sin, Eli’s sons disgraced the priesthood and brought reproach upon God’s name (1 Sa. 2:12-17, 22). The New Testament priest worships God by preaching the gospel (1 Pe. 1:25; 3:15). God is glorified in the gospel, whereby His love and grace and wisdom are made known, and by preaching the gospel the believer priests “shew forth the praises of him who have called you out of darkness.” The New Testament priest worships God by an honest reputation (1 Pe. 2:12). Unbelievers are watching. The believer represents the true and living God as His priest. The believer must not lie, must keep his promises, pay his debts, not steal, etc. This is priestly work. The New Testament priest worships God by submitting to God-ordained authority (1 Pe. 2:13-16). God is the author of authority (Ro. 13:1). The believer must be a law-abiding person; he must have an attitude of respect toward authority. He does this by having his eyes on God (1 Pe. 2:13; Eph. 5:22). This involves children submitting to parents, wives to husbands, church members to church leaders. This is priestly work. The only exception is if the lower authority requires the believer to do something contrary to the higher authority (Ac. 5:29). The New Testament priest worships God by honoring all men (1 Pe. 2:17). This is to treat all men as creatures made in God’s image, as creatures having an eternal soul, of value to God. It is to recognize that both men and women are made in the image of God. To honor all men is to treat men equally, knowing that there are no superior races and no caste system with God. All men alike are sons of Adam. To honor all men is to know that all men, without exception, are loved by God and are invited to salvation (Joh. 3:16), so it entails preaching the gospel to as many men as possible. To honor all men is to treat them sincerely without respect to covetousness, not trying merely to get something from them and to use them for one’s own purposes. To honor all men means not to speak evil of them, which means not to speak maliciously, wrongly, with evil intent, with ill will (Tit. 3:2; Jas. 4:11). Christ is the example in honoring all men. He treated the lowliest servant the same as He treated the highest governor. He saved both men and women, Jews, Tyrians, and Samaritans. To treat all men in a Christ-like manner is the opposite of the way of the world, which is the way of inequality and maliciousness. The way of the world is the way of “living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (Tit. 3:3) The New Testament priest worships God by loving the brotherhood (1 Pe. 2:17). God is love and His kingdom is a kingdom of love. The two highest laws are to love God and to love my neighbor (Mt. 22:37-40). To love the brotherhood is the “one another” ministry that is emphasized in the New Testament. (See the commentary on 1 Pe. 1:22.) The New Testament priest worships God by being a good worker (1 Pe. 2:18-20). This is emphasized in Scripture by repetition (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25; Tit. 2:9-10). I do priest work by being dependable, honest, by not stealing things, by not stealing time by being late or leaving early or using the phone or internet for personal use or by just sitting around (wasting just one half hour a day adds up to 180 hours a year stolen from one’s employer) or by working more slowly than I am capable of working or by buying something other than what I am authorized to buy. Christians should have the reputation of being the best workers. Pharaoh searched for men of activity (Ge. 47:6), and businesses are doing the same today. In the 1970s, Tennessee Temple Bible College students in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had the reputation of being good, honest workers and they were much in demand. The New Testament priest worships God in his home-life (1 Pe. 3:1-7). Being a godly husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter is priest work! The New Testament priest worships God by a separated pilgrim lifestyle (1 Pe. 4:1-4). The contemporary philosophy of running with the world to reach the world is the opposite of a priestly lifestyle. The New Testament priest worships God by intercessory prayer (1 Pe. 4:7). We go before God and represent man to God. The New Testament priest worships God by ministering his spiritual gifts (1 Pe. 4:10). The New Testament priest worships God by being a teacher (1 Pe. 4:11). Teaching God’s Word was a major part of the Levite’s work (Eze. 44:23; Mal. 2:7; 2 Ch. 17:7-9). Likewise, every believer priest has the ministry of teaching (Heb. 5:12-14), and some are called and gifted specifically for this task.
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