by T. Austin-Sparks
In our meditation we shall come to the book of Joshua, and see there illustrated and set forth in typical form - the elements which are in the letter to the Ephesians.
Joshua and Spirituality
While there are two minor sections in the book of Joshua, such as the preparation at the beginning and the farewell at the end, we may say that the book of Joshua is in two main sections. They are (1) the conquest of the land, and (2) the inheritance in the land. Both these sections are governed by one feature. They are governed and characterised by what we may call the Levitical feature; that is, the Levites are seen to have a place of very great pre-eminence and importance in both sections.
In the first section they are not mentioned so often as in the second section, but their place is undoubtedly one of great importance and significance. Whereas in the earlier parts of the Old Testament distinction is more often than not clearly drawn between the priests and the Levites, in the book of Joshua the two seem merged; there seems to be a linking in together. And in the early chapters where the Levites are mentioned, it is put in this way, "The priests the Levites", as though they were one. That gives the Levites a very important place. The priests, of course, in the earlier books are before the Levites. Priestly service in its full development, as represented by the sons of Aaron, is the supreme thing spiritually and elevates to a very high position. The Levites in that order came afterwards. In the book of Joshua that difference is not marked at all; the Levites and the priests seem to be one and are spoken of as one: "The priests the Levites". We shall be seeing what the main significance of that is; it really lies at the root of our whole meditation. If the Levites are not mentioned as frequently in the first part of the book as in the second, it is not the number of references that gives them their importance, it is the position which they hold.
The Levites carried the Ark through the Jordan and into the land and are given that tremendously important position of being in charge of that which represents the whole Testimony of the Lord. In relation to that Ark, to that Testimony, all other things are ordered. Everything that follows in life, in service, in conquest, is bound up with that Ark which is entrusted to the shoulders of the Levites. There could be very little more important place and function than that; to recognise the responsibility for the Testimony of the Lord in relation to which every other thing is found.
This first reference is in chapter 3 verses 3-4: "And they commanded the people, saying, When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then you shall remove from your place, and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it, that you may know the way by which you must go; for you have not passed this way heretofore".
Let us get the immediate import of that before passing on to the greater meaning in the rest of the book.
The Levites bearing the Ark of the Testimony are in an advance position, a very distinct position. It is as though they were clearly outlined and placed so that they are not mixed up, confused, involved, but there they are, with the Testimony, in a very distinct and definite way so that all can see and that space of two thousand cubits is to be maintained. The object of it is: "...that you may know the way". This is distinctiveness, clearness as to the testimony, so that there is no close approximation of man as man to it. That is, there is no personal association with the testimony in a natural sense. You are at once discerning the spiritual and heavenly feature which is introduced immediately there is this movement forward into the final fulness of inheritance. The progress is marked from the outset by this distinctiveness, the nature of which is that man naturally is not in touch with this thing (not merely in the evil flesh, but natural man naturally). This is something which in its true nature is other than man, and has got to be kept in that clearly defined place; for immediately that space is lessened there will be confusion as to the way.
The best way of understanding that is to bring it to experience, and it is not difficult to see that when the pure, true testimony of the Lord finds even Christian men and women in too close a proximity to it, too closely associated with it, its distinctiveness is lost and before long there is a measure of confusion and the missing of the way. It does not mean here that unregenerate man takes hold of it, or that there is anything violently carnal or fleshly; but man has a way of just allowing his natural interests, his natural ambitions, his natural enthusiasms for the things of God to come and impinge upon those spiritual things. He lets his mind and his reason come to bear upon the things of God; not necessarily an evil mind, but just his natural mind taking hold of the things of God. His will (not necessarily, again, an evil will) begins to prevail; he wants the work of God to go this way, he wants the interests of the Lord to take this course, he wants the things of the Lord to develop in such and such a manner.
And so man - saved man, consecrated man, man given to God yet still having his own reason, and his own will, and his own ideas, and his own feelings about things - brings those things to bear upon the Lord's Testimony. And whenever that happens, that Testimony loses its clear definition and before long there is a measure of confusion and missing the way, and we find that things have taken a wrong course. They have been influenced out of the way by that flesh, that natural life. That has happened again and again all the way through the story of the things of the Lord. So the Lord says quite definitely at the outset of the heavenly life: Stand back there. That is, "Do not bring your things to bear upon My things; My things are spiritual and heavenly, and the natural man has no touch with these things, and if you bring yourself in any kind of way - even with the very best motives - to bear upon this, before long there will be a going out of the straight and a loss of distinctiveness and there will be confusion".
It is a very good law of straightforward progress toward the fulness of Christ. We know it in experience, but let us ever bear it in mind in practice.
So the Levites here represent the distinctiveness of the Testimony as being a heavenly, a spiritual thing, with which there was to be no association of man naturally, even though consecrated man. The next reference to the Levites in the first section is in chapter 8 verse 33, but it is just the same thought in another connection and we will not stay with it.
The second section of the book brings a great many references to the Levites. You will find two in chapter 14, verses 3 and 4; then in chapter 18 verse 7; then there are nine references in chapter 21, verses 1, 3, 4, 8, 20, 27, 34, 40 and 41. These references to the Levites in the latter chapters of the book are divided into two things. Really they are one, but they have two aspects.
On the one hand they refer to the fact that the Levites had no inheritance; that is, that the Levites were not to be given, as the other tribes, a portion of the land. The territory of the country was not to be divided so that the Levites inherited in the same way as the others. You will have the land of Zebulun, the land of Judah, the land of Simeon, the land of Benjamin; but you will never have the land of Levi. The Lord made it very clear, by many declarations, that the Levites were not to inherit in the same way as the others.
Then, on the other hand, these references have to do with the Levitical cities; that there were to be cities and the suburbs thereof appointed for the Levites. These cities were scattered throughout all the tribes, and were forty-eight in number.
These two things are full of very important and very precious instruction. We must go back to remind ourselves of the real meaning of the Levites. Who and what are the Levites? In that order, which is but an order in type, the thought of God was never that the Levites should be a distinct class. We know from the book of Exodus and the book of Numbers that the Levites took the place of the firstborn in all the families of Israel. All the families of Israel originally were represented by their firstborn, gathered up in the firstborn (let us note the completeness of that, the closeness of the relationship, constituting something corporate - not a congregation but a body) and the firstborn was given to God, meaning that the whole family was God's family as included in and represented by the firstborn.
All Israel became God's firstborn son as represented in the firstborn of every family. That is how the Lord spoke of Israel in sending His demand to Pharaoh: "Thus said Jehovah... Let My son go". "Israel is My son; My firstborn"; "I will slay your son, your firstborn". Those sons were to appear before God, and as they appeared before God, God saw in them every other member of the family, so that all Israel was there in the firstborn in the eye of God. When the firstborn became so numerous, the families so many, the Lord instituted a course which led to the appointing of the sons of Levi to substitute the firstborn in all Israel. So that the sons of Levi became, in effect before the Lord, the firstborn of all Israel. Therefore in the sons of Levi and the tribe of Levi, all that is meant by the sonship of Israel is expressed and represented. Sonship is embodied in the tribe of Levi.
In the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12, verse 23, we are told that we have come to the church of the firstborn ones, whose names are registered, or enrolled, in heaven. So that the Levites clearly represent the whole church as a heavenly thing. Sonship is a heavenly thing. You have only to read further to have that brought home. The Lord Jesus as the Son is always connected with heaven; He came from heaven, and is in heaven even while He is here. There is an unbroken position in, and fellowship with heaven in Sonship. Wherever that Son may be, heaven is there, and that is heaven. So that the Levites make all Israel a heavenly people, a spiritual people; that is the central truth about the Levites.
When you bring that through into relationship with these two things which we have noted about the Levites, then you are beginning to understand why they have no inheritance and why there are these cities.
Why is there no inheritance? Simply because they are not separated from Israel to have a territory apart. They are Israel. To put the tribe of Levi in its own territory would make it something separate from Israel, and would violate the very principle that they are in existence to maintain. Levites are not a class. In our time ministers who have certain voices, and certain collars, are not the Levites. All the saints are the Levites; the Levites are not a class apart. The Lord forbids, with constant emphasis, anything that would make the Levites something by themselves, and says: "What they are, all My people are: spiritual and heavenly."
Why were there Levitical cities with their suburbs? We will explain that in a moment, but first of all we would say that all the inheritance of all the tribes is Christ. The whole land represents Christ. Inheriting the land is only inheriting (or, as Paul would put it, gaining) Christ. What do the Levites say about the whole inheritance, as not being separated from it and given something of their own which divides them as a tribe? They say this - and a very important thing - that even Christ has got to be apprehended spiritually; that even Christ has to be known in a heavenly way. There is a knowing of Christ after the flesh. There can be an historical knowledge of Christ. There can be a coming to rejoice in the inheritance in a fleshly way. And that was Israel's peril all the time in the land, that they should take the land, and take their portion, and have it on the level of their own natural life for their own natural satisfaction and enjoyment, and fail to hold it for God. That is exactly the thing which issued in the tragedy of the Book of Judges. The four hundred years of shame, of tragedy, for the greater part, was because the people regarded the inheritance in a personal, selfish way, and their attitude toward it was this: Well, we have got so much of it, we have possessed this much; there are still enemies, still difficulties, still battles; but we can be satisfied with this; the other is too costly, and too difficult; we have enough to get on with. And so they did not clear the whole territory. It was a personal interest which governed them. The result was that they left those enemies, and God's Name was brought into dishonour. If they had taken the attitude: How much does the Lord require? not just: What will we be contented with? then the book of Judges as it is written, would never have been written. Speaking in New Testament days, they appropriated Christ naturally; they held Christ after their own mind. The Levites were there with the express purpose of saying in the first place: Now the inheritance must be apprehended spiritually and in a heavenly way, and you must not come down on to the things of Christ in the natural.
Do not regard all this as so much technique. We revolt against saying things for the sake of teaching only. Whether you recognise it or not, we are saying the things which lie right at the heart of the Lord's interests. The importance of our recognising these things cannot be estimated, if we have any responsibility at all in the things of the Lord; and we have! We can only come to God's end, reach God's goal, forward God's eternal thought, as ours is a spiritual and heavenly life, and as in a spiritual and heavenly way we apprehend Christ. It is one thing for us to take this book and go through it with Bible readings, in which we are able to trace Christ and give ordered, arranged, organised Bible readings about Christ in the Scriptures; and see Christ in Genesis, and Christ in Exodus, and Christ in Leviticus, and Christ in Numbers; it is quite another thing to get to the back of all that and have a spiritual revelation of Christ. It may be interesting truth, it may even be fascinating, but there are certain questions that remain at the end of all that, which challenge an answer. How much of all that has brought about an increase of Christ in us? How much more of the fulness of Christ as a spiritual reality in our lives is resultant from that?
Bible readings on Christ may be interesting and engrossing; but they may fall short of real spiritual enlargement of Christ in us - that is only possible as the Holy Spirit comes in a quickening way and brings us into a new spiritual position as the result of it all. Meetings, conferences, conventions, all these things may be good and yet they may just be so much more knowledge about and not of the Lord. They may be something that brings us information and what seems like inspiration, but they may just fail to reach that point: "That He would grant you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong to apprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge." That is a spiritual thing.
This is not intended to be a criticism or a judgement, but a discrimination. If our meditation does not result in some spiritual enlargement, it has failed. All that arises out of the fact that the Levites are there, not as a part, but to make all know that the very occupation of the inheritance must be a spiritual thing and not a natural thing, even on the part of the people of God.
Turning now to the forty-eight Levitical cities given to the Levites. What do they speak of? They speak of what we have just said, which can be put in another way. They are not, in the same sense, an inheritance. They are the portion for the Levites; they are given to the Levites scattered throughout the land. They are to give a distinctiveness to the fact that Levites are there, to keep the Levitical element in a clearly defined place. But they speak pre-eminently of spiritual and heavenly influences predominating among all the people. The fact that the Levites have cities throughout all the land is intended to say: "Now, remember that you are a heavenly people; never forget that you are a spiritual people. Never settle down on this earth as though you belonged to it. Never drag down your heavenly possessions for merely personal and fleshly ends. Never make the church a thing which is linked with this world. Always remember that you belong to heaven, and that your essential nature is spiritual, as God's people." Paul would speak about that in this way: "Our citizenship is in heaven, from whence also we look for a Saviour". The Levites were there to keep that in constant remembrance, "Here we have no continuing city... we seek one to come." This is not, after all, our home; our home is heaven and all our interests are heavenly, all our relationships are heavenly, all our life is a spiritual life. That has to be recognised by the individual believer, but its full value relates to the church. The church is not an organisation on this earth, produced by man; the church is a heavenly, spiritual Body.
Cities are always, in the Word of God, representative of influence. They are centres of influence. These forty-eight cities, scattered through the land, are intended to be heavenly influences amongst the saints; those places which influence the saints in a heavenly way, giving heavenly and spiritual character to the people of God. What the cities of the Levites were to be to Israel, the assemblies of Christ here on this earth have to be. They have all the time to be centres of heavenly and spiritual influence amongst the Lord's people. It is a testimony that is maintained by the Levitical cities; a heavenly Testimony a spiritual testimony. The number 48 may have some significance. It is twelve times four, and that may speak of universality and predominance. Twelve is the number of government; four is the number of creation. The government of all things is to be spiritual and heavenly.
In the book of Numbers the Levites are referred to a great deal, but always in connection with their service, their ordered service. In the book of Joshua they are referred to quite a lot, but not in relation to their service. The ordered service of the Levites does not come up in the book of Joshua, but what is associated with the Levites in the book of Joshua is their presence; not their specific work, but the fact of their presence, and that carries with it its own meaning: the presence of that which is always testifying to the heavenly and spiritual nature of God's people. We cannot but feel that that goes to the heart of all the trouble in the churches in Asia. The letter to the Ephesians was a circular letter for the seven churches in Asia. The same is true in connection with Colossians. There you have God's thought for the church. Seven is the number of spiritual perfection. The seven churches in Asia are representative of the whole church. Completeness is in the seven churches, and God's thought for the complete church is presented in the letter to the Ephesians. The thought is that it is spiritual and heavenly. When you read the Revelation: "John to the seven churches..." the explanation of all the trouble that is found there is that they lost what the Ephesian letter contains; that is, the heavenly and spiritual position and character. They came down to earth. The Lord's quarrel with them, in one way and another, is on one point: the loss of heavenliness and spirituality. In one place it is indicated by certain things, in another place it is indicated by other things; but whatever the features of it are, the thing in question is the same: You have come from your original position, you have lost My thought.
The church is not an earthly thing; it is a heavenly thing. The church is not a thing made and carried on by man; the church is a heavenly thing carried on by the Holy Ghost. It is the presence of what is heavenly that makes the Lord's people His church. The presence of the Levites in Joshua represented always that the people were heavenly and spiritual people; that is, they gave the character to the family. And so all the time this is a spiritual, a heavenly family.
Speaking of the idea of the city, you know quite well that when you get to 'John' in the Revelation, you only have the full development of what you have in the Gospel by John. It is very interesting to note the outstanding features of all John's writings. They are what is spiritual and what is heavenly. Now in the Gospel you have the Son in heaven, the heavenly Son, coming down; and yet, after having come down, still remaining heavenly in the earth. Then you pass on towards the end, and in chapter 17 you have the church in the nucleus spoken of in exactly the same terms as the Son is spoken of: "I am not of this world"; "They are not of this world." The church in its nucleus is heavenly and spiritual, just as is the Head, Christ.
Now you carry through from the Gospel to the Apocalypse, and you have that brought to fulness and completeness in the city in heaven coming down; it is heavenly; showing what the church is. And then you find that in that figure of the city coming down out of heaven you have these other features - universality and spiritual dominion. The church is going to govern the universe spiritually, by reason of its spiritual nature. And so you find that with the city you have "twelve" very frequently mentioned. It is government, but it is spiritual government.
Let us seek to see the tremendous importance and value of spirituality, of spiritual apprehension, of knowing Christ in a spiritual way (not in a mental way merely, or in any other way: traditional or historical, or credal, or ecclesiastical). That is the only way to God's end - fulness.
That applies to the individual believer, but it also applies to the church, the Body, destined to be the fulness of Him that fills all. But it will never reach that along historical lines and never reach that along merely traditional lines and never along ecclesiastical lines. It will only reach that along spiritual lines. It is the spirituality and heavenliness which is the mark of distinctiveness.
We must be careful that all distinctiveness is spiritual, not because we have a quarrel with people on points (it is easy to come out from other people and set up something separate and talk about distinctiveness; that has been done ad libitum). The question is: How much more of what is really livingly spiritual and heavenly is represented by that, than by that which is left behind? It is not a matter merely of creed, or doctrine, splitting hairs in interpretation, scenting something that may not seem to be authentic. It is the measure of spirituality and heavenliness in a living, effective way, registering something that is the justification for distinctiveness. Distinctiveness is not something that we do; it is something that we are. The Lord save us from anything mechanical in the way of separation, and show that it must be a spiritual testimony. That is the only kind of justified separation.