When God led the descendants of Jacob (who was renamed "Israel", see Gen. 35:10) out of Egypt, he promised to take them to a land that was flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:7-10). This land would be their home and their inheritance from God, a land for their own possession where they would have peace from their enemies on all sides, where they would prosper, and a land in which the people of God could actually dwell in the presence of their God (Ex. 29:45-46). While still in Egypt, the families of the twelve sons of Israel grew in number to the point of making their own distinct tribes, and after the exodus (Ex. 12:33-42) and wandering in the desert (Ex. 13:1- Joshua 2:24), each tribe eventually received their portion of the land as God had promised them (Josh. 13-19). Below is an approximate rendering of how the tribes may have been distributed throughout the land of Canaan in ancient Palestine.
Question: Which of the twelve tribes was not included in the distribution of land? Or in other words, which of the twelve tribes had no land inheritance?
|Distribution of the 12 Tribes through Canaan|
Did you guess Joseph? If you did, you're right in noticing that his name is not present, but he is represented by his sons Ephraim and Manasseh (cf. Genesis 48).
Answer: Levi! The Levites are missing from the above map. They had no inheritance of land, but were given cities to live in among the land of the other tribes (Num. 35, Josh. 21). "Why is this? And what in the world does this have to do with Jesus being a priest, sacrifice, and inheritance? And what in the world does this have to do with me?!" Great questions! As I meditated on the way Christ perfectly fulfills these three aspects of the priesthood, I had no choice but to worship God for his wisdom and his powerful ability. My mind = blown.
The Levitical Priesthood, as far as I can see, had three main components: the priests themselves, the sacrifices and offerings they mediated as priests, and the inheritance they received from God.
The Levites were appointed by God to be the only ones allowed to set up, tear down, and work in the tent of meeting (Num. 3:1-4:49). God anointed the priests for the work, and then consecrated them through a ritual cleansing that involved their own offerings and sacrifices, resulting in their being atoned for, granting them the holiness required to step into the tent where God's presence dwelt (Num. 8:5-19). Inside, they did work which included: offering the sacrifices and offerings brought by the individual people, families, tribes, and the nation at their appropriate times (Lev. 1-7), caring for and trumpeting the silver trumpets (Num. 10:1-10), cleansing lepers (Lev. 14:1-32) and unclean houses (Lev. 14:33-54), testing for adultery (Num. 5:11-31), and the most important among other duties was actually caring for "all that concerns the altar" and that which was "within the veil" (Num. 18:7). In fact, this was so serious that "any outsider who comes near [the altar and the items within the veil] shall be put to death", but since somebody had to step near in order to offer sacrifices and make atonement for the people (Heb. 9:22), and not just anybody could, the Levitical priesthood was given by God as those somebodies. By their privileged access atonement was made by offering...
Because of sin and it's role in humanity, both in separating us from God and in it's law-breaking nature (thereby making us estranged enemies), God mercifully instituted a sacrificial system in which sin could be atoned for on both the individual (Lev. 4:3, 22, 27) and corporate/national (Lev. 4:13) level. Without going into a huge amount of detail, suffice it to say that the sacrifices and offerings that God instructed the people to offer (and the priests to mediate) were very poignant pictures of God's requirement of perfection: each ingredient and animal, each carefully calculated cut, each drop of blood sprinkled, each limb washed, each organ removed and precisely placed on the altar, each heap of ashes reverently removed to the outside of the camp. The worshipers would lay their hands on the head of the bull or lamb, identifying with the animal and thereby transferring their guilt to it so that when it died its gory death, it was as if the worshiper was actually dying. These all satisfied certain demands required by God's own perfection and holiness, and by painstakingly partaking in this gracious provision for sin, the sons of Jacob from every tribe (via the mediating work of the priests) were allowed to maintain their citizenship within their tribes and nation. By maintaining citizenship, they would also receive...
Promised by God to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-9), to Isaac (Gen. 26:1-5), and to Jacob (Gen. 28:4, 13; 35:11-12), the inheritance that they were promised from God would be a national identity, being a blessing to the whole world, and a land in which they could live as God's people (cf. Scripture references above next to the names of each patriarch). As God's people, they would have the distinct privilege of making the one true God known to the rest of the world, and as a bonus (as if you could top living with the presence of the creator of the universe) they would have their own land to do this from! [Not a bad deal, not a bad deal at all.]
Some of the upsides to having their own land would be: freedom to live by the righteous requirements of God's law without hindrance from foreign rule, land and possessions to pass down to their descendants, and because they owned land, this meant they could farm and pastor their flocks, maintaining their means of sustenance. But, as you remember from the graphic up above, the Levites were left out of the "land" portion of the inheritence, which begs the question: what the heck?!
If the Levites were one of the twelve tribes, included in the promise of an inheritance, but they didn't receive what was obviously part of Israel's inheritance, then what did they receive? Numbers 18 gives us the answer...
"8 Then the Lord spoke to Aaron, “Behold, I have given you charge of the contributions made to me, all the consecrated things of the people of Israel. I have given them to you as a portion and to your sons as a perpetual due. 9 This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every offering of theirs, every grain offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs and every guilt offering of theirs, which they render to me, shall be most holy to you and to your sons. 10 In a most holy place shall you eat it. Every male may eat it; it is holy to you. 11 This also is yours: the contribution of their gift, all the wave offerings of the people of Israel. I have given them to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it. 12 All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the firstfruits of what they give to the Lord, I give to you. 13 The first ripe fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the Lord, shall be yours. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it...20 And the Lord said to Aaron, 'You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.'"
What does this mean? It's pretty straightforward: when the people brought their bulls, lambs, fruits, grains, and wines to offer to God, God was then giving a portion of each of these to the Levites. In certain sacrifices, a portion of the meats and grains were not burnt on the altar, but were instead set aside, and it was these set aside pieces that the Levites could eat. So, even though they had no land they were inheriting (and therefore nowhere to farm or harvest), they were being provided for directly by God. It looked like this:
- God provided a harvest, the increase of the crops, and healthy cattle to the people,
- the people brought their crops and animals to sacrifice to God,
- God would then take of those sacrifices and give it to sustain the Levites.
And now, there's Jesus
- As priest: Just like the Levitical priesthood, Jesus was appointed to have access into the temple, but unlike the Levites, he was sinless, and therefore had no need for atonement. For this reason, he had no fear of stepping into the presence of God to perform his priestly duties where anyone else would have died for daring to step so close.
- As sacrifice: Whereas the Levitical priesthood had to enter into the tent/temple over and over and over again to atone for sin, Jesus stepped in once. The writer of the book of Hebrews poses it like this, "...would [the sacrifices] not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" ( Heb. 10:2-4). In other words, a bull cannot truly die in place of a man; man has sinned, therefore a man must die for man's sins. But what man can die for his sins or any other man's sins, since the blood of all sinful men is sin-tainted? Sin-tainted blood does not please God. For this reason, had we been left to ourselves, we would have been doomed; but Jesus came down to earth in the form of man (cf. Phil. 2:5-7) to offer his perfect, sinless blood (cf. Phil. 2:8). His blood accomplished in one sacrifice what all the blood of all the bulls ever sacrificed could not do: washed away sin. And not just one man's sins, but the sins of the whole world (cf. John 1:29). And his blood not only washes away the sin of those who place their hand on his head, but Jesus' blood has now set us apart for holy work, even as the blood of the spotless lamb consecrated the priests to do holy work.
- As inheritance: As discussed above, the Levitical priesthood was sustained by the gracious provision of God from the sacrifices that were brought by the worshipers. As life itself, God gave the priesthood life through the set-aside portions of the offerings and sacrifices. Jesus, as the true sacrifice, has now become the portion that we as the priesthood receive from God; God has given us life through Jesus. The Levitical priesthood received physical life through what was rightfully God's as well as access to his presence, but we receive eternal life through what is rightfully God's: Jesus. And in Jesus, we have the fullness of God himself.
|Levitical Priesthood||- Appointed by God to mediate for the people
- Required atonement to be a priest b/c of priests' own sins
- Sprinkling of the sacrifical lamb's blood on the priests atoned for them and set them apart for service
|- Bulls, rams, goats, lambs, doves, fruits, grains, and wine
- Offered twice daily (once in the morning, once in the evening), once at the beginning of each week, and once at the beginning of each month (on top of the required sin and trespass offerings and any other freewill offerings)
- required for the people to temporarily stand rightly before God, but did not make them righteous (Heb. 10:4)
|- Life AND God, by way of sharing in God's portion of the sacrifices and offerings: eating the meat, fruit, and bread/grain offered
- they inherited God in a true, yet symbolic, way
|Church||- Jesus appointed by God to mediate for people
- No atonement needed for Jesus to become priest, no sin
- Sprinkling of Jesus' blood on us now atones for us and sets us apart for service
- Offered once for all time as a fulfillment of the Levitical sacrifical system (Heb. 9:26)
- required for people to permanently stand rightly before God, and does make us righteous (Heb. 10:10, 14, 22)
|- Eternal life IN God , by way of sharing in God's portion of the sacrifice: Jesus (Matt. 26:26; John 1:12-13, 3:16-17)
- we inherit God in a true, full way
What the Levitical Priesthood embodied in shadow, Jesus embodied in substance. Jesus is the perfect priest, appointed by God to enter into the temple of God when nobody else could, in order to stand before God on behalf of the people, mediating the blood of the sacrifice, sprinkling it onto the offerers and cleansing them for all time; he is the perfect sacrifice, the spotless lamb whose blood satisfied God's wrath and justice for all time, whose scent rises up to God for a sweet smelling aroma, bringing peace between God and man, and sanctifying for himself a priesthood to do his work; and he is the perfect inheritence for he is God in the flesh, and when we (by faith) unite with Jesus, entering into the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), and receive him who is God's portion of the sacrifice, we truly receive life- we receive God himself.
I've spent so much time writing all of this, organizing my thoughts and words, and I feel that my words are nowhere near adequate enough to represent how weighty this is. And I am also aware that I may have gaps in my understanding of the priesthood, the roles of the priests V.S. the high priest, and the worshipers. I welcome correction and enlightenment.
No amount of bold, underlined, or italicized words can accurately portray how awesome Jesus is. I hope that the depth of what has just been discussed will inspire praises to form on your lips, and that it will give you an even deeper appreciation for what Jesus has done for us on the cross. By sprinkling his blood on us, he not only cleanses us from our sin, but he also sets us apart for holy work: we are a part of Jesus' priesthood! As priests, we now get to proclaim to the world, "if you will only place your hand on Jesus' head in faith, your sin will be transferred to him and his righteousness to you, and you will be forgiven and cleansed of your sin, made perfect in the eyes of God"!