Reading: Numbers 3:5-13,40,41,45-50; 8:13-19.
It is quite clear from these passages that the sons of Levi are a representative company, and that representation is an outstanding characteristic of their existence. Because of that great discerning act in which they recognised and established the absolute superiority of the spiritual to the natural, because against their own souls they acted in the interests of God's highest thoughts, they were accounted worthy to be the representatives for all time to come of His full thought for His people. The Lord thus shows how He sets store by the apprehension and appreciation of His thoughts, how jealous He is for that which takes serious account, to its own hurt, of His own desire and mind concerning His people. It may be a very costly thing to do so, but it is an immensely precious thing to Him. All this that the Lord says: 'Take the Levites, separate the Levites, the Levites shall be Mine, I am the Lord, they are Mine.' All this acknowledgment of them, this proprietorship of them, this honouring of them, this bringing of them into that association with Himself, is the Lord's way of indicating how much He appreciates those who, at cost to themselves, make a stand for His highest thoughts for His people.
So they were entrusted with the great vocation of a representation of the thoughts of God concerning His own people, and this also is borne out by their being given to take the place of the firstborn sons in Israel. Up to that time, priesthood had been vested in the firstborn in Israel. The firstborn in each house was the priest. The Lord had sanctified the firstborn unto Himself in a priestly way, the day when He smote the firstborn in the land of Egypt. But now Israel as a whole have broken away and opened the door to that which is unacceptable and inimical to God, and have fallen into a religiously carnal realm. The priesthood, therefore, is regarded as defiled so far as the firstborn in Israel are concerned, and the Lord puts into their place the tribe of Levi, so that the Levites become in effect the church of the firstborn ones, the tribe of the firstborn. If you note the number of the firstborn and then the number of the Levites, you will see there is a close correspondence, showing how the Levites did actually take the place of the firstborn.
Representation by a Company - A Common Divine Method
So then, the great spiritual truth bound up with the idea of the Levites is that of representation for God. And that is a line along which the Lord has reacted very many times in history. Here we have this reaction of God towards His fullest thought, in raising up and separating the Levites. And again and again through history, when the main company of the people of God has been carnal, has deflected, declined from the highest spiritual level, the Lord has reacted in the midst of His people to secure an Israel within Israel, a representative company, in whom - though they be very much smaller in number - there is the concentration of the mind of God. That people stands spiritually in the midst, at the heart, of all those who bear the Lord's Name, to be unto the Lord something for His pleasure and satisfaction and glory, and unto the rest of His people a testimony, a ministry, a representation.
If that really came to us with the full force of a Divine truth, it would explain very much. We should see where the Lord's most immediate, direct interests and activities are focused - not to have a great mass of people in a general and nominal way acknowledging Him, professing Him and calling themselves by His Name, going only so far in belief in Him and their association with His things, but rather to have a people, though few, in whom there is a peculiar expression of the fulness of His mind. It is there, in them, that is focused His immediate concern. Such a people are only secured at great cost through much suffering, but they are very precious to the Lord.
A Representative Company Marked by the Fear of the Lord
That is a great thought in Malachi. In Malachi Levi has a very special place, but the association is always of those that fear His Name. Fearing the Lord - that is a Levitical thought. That is exactly what the sons of Levi did at the mount on that terrible day recorded in Exodus 32. They feared the Lord in the sense which the Word of God uses that word 'fear'. Not, they were afraid of the Lord, but they were so utterly abandoned to the Lord's interests as to sacrifice all their own interests, brothers, neighbours, friends, for the interests of the Lord. That is what it means to fear the Lord - to take account of His concerns so deeply and so highly as to give no place for ourselves, if our interests and concerns in any measure come into collision with His.
That, too, is exactly what the Lord Jesus did right through His earthly life. It is significant that the first age limit of the Levites given in the book of Numbers is that they were to be thirty years of age. The age was reduced to twenty-five, and later, in the days of David, to twenty. But here at the beginning it was thirty; and it says about the Lord Jesus, as He stepped out of Jordan, that He was about thirty years of age (Luke 3:23). He entered upon His ministry as the true Levite, and as He did so, the language of His heart was "Lo, I am come... to do Thy will, O God'' (Heb. 10:7); and forever He was setting aside every personal interest and concern for the interests of His Father. That is the fear of the Lord.
And so in Malachi 3:16 we have the verse which begins, "Then they that feared the Lord" - (this could really be paraphrased by saying, 'Then the Levitical company in the midst of the Israel of declension, who feared the Lord') "spake one with another; and the Lord hearkened and heard and a book of remembrance was written before Him... and they shall be Mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in the day that I do make even a peculiar treasure". Fearing the Lord, thinking upon His Name, constitutes us Levites when that is to our own hurt naturally; but that is something very precious to the Lord. "They are Mine; I am the Lord."
I repeat, that explains what the Lord is after and what He is doing. Ever and always, in the midst of the great company, He has His eye upon the inner Israel, the sons of Levi, that they shall answer to the deepest desire of His heart. And that again, as we have said so often, explains the fires to purify the sons of Levi. He "sits as a refiner and purifier of silver".
A Representative Company Essentially Spiritual, Not Sectarian
Now, this matter of representation has associated with it one or two things here in the Word. First of all, we must at this time clearly apprehend that the representation is essentially spiritual. I do beg of you to try to grasp this that I am going to say now. Think it over very much and be very practical in your attitude towards it.
This representation, this inner company, is essentially spiritual: that is, it is not sectarian. The sectarian element creeping in is bound to destroy the very nature of the sons of Levi.
This has happened not once, nor twice, but many times in history. In a day of general declension and in the midst of the general mass of professing Christians, the Lord has acted to secure a company which would approximate more fully to His thought and answer to His heart's desire. And having laid His hand upon them He has secured them, and for a time they have lived and witnessed in pristine beauty and strength. Then sectarian elements have crept in, and they have been resolved into something sectarian, a people in themselves on the earth, and their days of living testimony have been numbered. Death from that time has commenced, with disruption. Oh, there is much history packed into what I have just said, and terrible history. Let no one think in all that is being said about this need for such a people in the earth that there is the remotest thought of there being another sect apart from all the saints, a little better, or a great deal better, than the rest. I want to affirm that very positively. It is farthest from my mind that there should be set up on this earth another distinct company in the sectarian sense. No, not at all; it is spiritual.
A Representative Company Caring for All the Lord's People
I know it is there that many of our greatest practical problems will arise, but I do not believe that they are beyond solution if only we can learn the true spiritual nature of representation. Be very, very careful and on your guard against the intrusion of the sectarian spirit and mentality which divides between the Lord's people here on the earth and puts them into categories, isolates them, and makes them into separate bodies, with very little fellowship. Oh, be on your guard against that, for this people for God is to be in the midst of His people on behalf of all His people, to satisfy God as He needs to be satisfied and as far as possible to reveal to the rest what God's thoughts are. But they are a spiritual people.
Very often, for a time the Lord may so order that the life of such a people has to be lived in very close association with all the rest. The whole tendency and very often the craving of nature is to get away, apart, to hive off, for all who are of one mind to be together and leave others outside. Oh, the peril of that! Beware of everything that we may call sectarian in mentality and spirit, for you may take it that real spiritual service is going to be ruined and brought to a standstill immediately the sectarian element gets in. I ask you to think about that. Let no one think that we have in our thought a new body of people here on this earth as apart from all the other people of God - a new sect. No, it is a people of a new vision, of a new spirit, of a new apprehension of the Lord, but always as standing in spirit for all the rest. It is something pre-eminently for the Lord's satisfaction.
We come on that again when we recognise that the sons of Levi did stand, in a very vital way, related to all the rest of Israel, for all the corporate side of things was entrusted to them as a charge. The tabernacle was a great spiritual representation of the corporate nature of Christ, His people as one Body, one church. The Levites were entrusted with the charge of the tabernacle, the boards and the bars and the curtains and everything, to bring them right through the journey to the end, to the place of finality and rest. And let us recognise that, rather than allow place to sectarianism, separation and detachment from the Lord's people (however imperfect they may be) it is to be exactly the other way round - there must be the taking of responsibility for all the Lord's people, to help them on through fellowship towards His end.
I believe that this great Levitical thought is gathered up in these words, "Giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit" (Eph. 4:3). They surely suggest the charge of the boards and the bars and so on. That company of the Levites had a great responsibility, for if one of the boards were missing when next the tabernacle was to be set up, there would have been very serious trouble. These words from Ephesians also involve a solemn responsibility. They are a Levitical charge; that is, a charge given to those who are really devoted to the Lord's interests. I cannot see how people really can be devoted in heart to the Lord's interests and at the same time cut themselves off from other children of God and exclude other children of God from their fellowship. I do not see how those two things can go together. To me they represent a contradiction.
We emphasize, then, that this matter is spiritual and does not involve a caste or an earthly system. It is not concerned with something here on this earth as apart from the whole of the Lord's people.
A Representative Company Cannot Escape Peculiar Spiritual Conflict
Then this representation is a warfare service. Note Numbers 4:23: "From thirty years old and upward, until fifty years old shalt thou number them; all that enter in to wait upon the service (margin - war the warfare), to do the work in the tent of meeting."
And again in Numbers 8:23-25: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, This is that which belongeth unto the Levites: from twenty and five years old and upward they shall go in to wait upon the service in the work (margin - to war the warfare in the work) of the tent of meeting; and from the age of fifty years they shall cease waiting upon the work (margin - return from the warfare of the work)".
There is evidently something special here. In Numbers 1 we find all men taken from twenty years and upwards to go forth to war. But the kind of warfare referred to in these passages is evidently something different. This warfare of the work is not just the general warfare of Christians. Of course, immediately you become the Lord's you are in the army, in a warfare. In quite a general way, a Christian is in warfare; you are no Christian unless you are, and if there is no warfare in your Christian life you had better be looking to your Christian life. If you are having too easy a time, you had better ask questions about things; if you are having a very bad time, you can take comfort in a general way.
All Christians are in the warfare, but there is a peculiar warfare of the work with the Levites. I am not going to stay to say very much about that. It is simply this, that when the Lord seeks to have a people really standing for His fullest thought, in that peculiar relationship to Himself for His highest interests in His people, representing His mind about them in the fullest and deepest way, then such a people will be in a peculiar warfare. Perhaps very few of us need to be told that; we know it. But if any of you are not fully aware of that, let me tell you, for with that, if you react in this way to what is now being said - that you ask the Lord to make you a Levite, one of that company which stands in relation to Him in peculiar value and vocation to represent His fullest thought for His people - if you react like that, be it understood that you are committing yourself to a warfare which is no ordinary warfare, even among Christians. You will not escape. You will very soon find yourself in a realm of spiritual stress, opposition and conflict which seems to spring out of nowhere, and you will find it mostly right there in the most spiritual realm of the things of God.
Yes, this warfare of the work is a peculiar one. Here were these Levites set apart. What for? To care for the tabernacle, to take it up, to bear it through the wilderness, to plant it again from time to time, and to fulfill various offices associated with the worship and offerings of the people; and this is called warring the warfare of the work. On the outside, it does not look very much like warfare, a different kind of thing from going out to battle against the hostile forces in the world. Ah no, this is something which is in the spiritual realm, an inward thing, higher up. This is Ephesians 6 warfare. It is essentially and purely a spiritual thing and only those who have come this way really know what that is. Is that reassuring? Is that enlightening? Some of you, from the day that you took a step in relation to that which you came to see was God's fuller thought for His people, found yourselves precipitated into a warfare which has raged almost beyond your bearing, threatening to destroy you. You have had many questions about it and Satan has played on that ground very much and argued that this is a sign that you have really departed from the realm of the Lord's interests and blessing into a false realm. No, not necessarily. The margin here will come to your rescue: "the warfare of the work".
A Representative Company Must Maintain Full Spiritual Vigour
Perhaps you are asking questions in the back of your mind: what about this retiring age of fifty? Is there no hope? No, there is no hope, no way out! Well, what does it mean? Well, you see, in the old dispensation the Lord made no provision for getting old spiritually. If a man did get old, then he had to go out. Moses never got old, Joshua never got old. They kept right on to the end, and died in full strength. It means that full strength is the order of Levitical service, and if you get old, out you go. If you get old spiritually, there is no more place for you. We need not get old. The Lord save us from getting old spiritually, and keep us in full vigour. That is why they started at thirty - man's full strength; and if and when they fell from full strength, they retired. To keep in Levitical office, spiritually speaking, means that we must be in full spiritual strength.
And so it is the work of the warfare and the warfare of the work. The Lord open our hearts and understanding to see that in this realm of things most precious to the Lord, there is the most intense spiritual conflict.
A Representative Company will know the Fellowship of Christ's Sufferings
Then the last word for the present. This representation entails the fellowship of Christ's sufferings in a very full way. The sons of Levi are always and very closely associated with the sacrifice and the altar. You notice in Numbers 7, in the dedication of the altar, how great a place the altar had. The princes of the fathers' houses came with their great covered wagons, full of gifts, and brought them to Moses, and Moses did not know what to do with them. The Lord had said nothing about this. But the Lord said, "Take it off them... and give them unto the Levites." It was the day of the dedication of the altar, and princeliness recognised how great the altar was; it was wagon-loads in appreciation of the altar, and all was handed to the Levites. The greatness of the altar is a factor with the Levites, and they are always associated with it.
If we turn to the New Testament for the interpretation of that, we shall find so much. We take the Lord's servant, Paul.
"I... fill up... that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ... for His body's sake, which is the church" (Col. 1:24).
"To you it hath been granted in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer in His behalf" (Phil. 1:29).
"That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings" (Phil. 3:10).
Paul was not literally or historically a Levite, but spiritually a great Levite, "Whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of His Son" (Rom. 1:9). "In my spirit I serve" - a great Levite; but what Paul knew of the sufferings of Christ, the fellowship of His sufferings! How closely was his life bound up with the altar and the sacrifices! "If I be poured out", he says (Phil. 2:17). "I am already being offered" (2 Tim. 4:6). Yes, Paul knew much about sufferings, and the way of the Levites is a suffering way. I only mention it; the interpretation ought to help, the indication of the thing comes to our relief.
If we have taken a stand like this, to be something more than nominal Christians, more than general in our relationship to the Lord, to be utter in our abandonment to His thoughts and interests, then we have been thrown into this conflict and we have been brought very deeply into the fellowship of His sufferings; but these things go together, they run right through the Word of God.
We stay to add only this word - the Levites were not to have an inheritance in the land. The Lord said, "I am their inheritance". Those who are standing in this position for the Lord will have to forego many of the privileges and opportunities of general Christians. Others may, they may not. These have to know the Lord and be satisfied with Him, and He alone is to be their portion. The Lord says for all such as are true sons of Levi, "I am their portion, I am their inheritance". And that is more than all things.