The Church of the Firstborn

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 5 - Responsibility for the House of God

Reading: Numbers 3 and 4.

In these two chapters in the book of Numbers, we have brought before us the responsibility of the Levites for the house of God, and that responsibility is divided into three (Gershon, Kohath and Merari).

This speaks to us of the responsibility which rests upon the church of the firstborn, the church which is His body, as to its vocation and its trust. If we were able to see clearly, and to apprehend definitely that which these things mean, we should have a very full and comprehensive and valuable understanding and knowledge of why the Lord has called the church into being, and the purpose of its existence; not only on the earth, but in this universe.

It is quite impossible for us now to deal with the details of these chapters. It is only possible at this time to speak in a comprehensive and general way, indicating the main points set forth in this threefold division of responsibility.

In chapter 4 you have a change in the order. In chapter 3 Gershon comes first, Kohath second, and Merari third; in chapter 4 Kohath comes first. Then in chapter 10 there is another division in which Gershon and Merari are set together as in charge of the tabernacle, while Kohath stands in relation to the sanctuary. You must always remember the difference between the tabernacle and the tent; they are not the same.

Those differences of arrangement between chapters 3 and 4, and between chapters 3 and 4 and chapter 10 are not just points of technique. They contain their own spiritual meaning and significance, and that may come out in what we have to say in a general way.

When we look at this division of responsibility, and note how definite and distinct it is that all that went to make up the tabernacle can be divided in this way, we are bound to enquire as to what these three things stand for, and to look at the things themselves which make up the separate responsibilities. For it is not difficult to make the division, although perhaps had we been making it we might have put some of the things in another category from that in which we find them placed by the Lord. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see that they do fall very easily into these three sections, and that they therefore represent three aspects of the whole revelation of God for which the church is made responsible. And in the church, while these things are a whole and are not ultimately divided one from another, they are things which are given to certain in the church to carry in a particular way. By that we mean that the Lord gives to some a particular revelation, responsibility and ministry, which represents the upholding of certain things, and when you turn to the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians you find this fact of the individual's particular responsibility very clearly set forth. While all are holding to one end, and are related to one object, it is given to some to maintain this aspect of the testimony, and to others to maintain that aspect. Or, shall we put that in another way and say that some are characterized by a particular trust in relation to the whole testimony, and others to another particular trust. Now the danger is to separate these things and make watertight compartments of them instead of recognising how related and interdependent they are. We may say another word about that later on, but we are just indicating in a general way what is here and not going into details, but in so doing we are able to come nearer to the different sections.

Before we go any further let us ask what it is we have in view. The answer is twofold. Firstly, the responsibility resting upon the people of God as forming His church for His full testimony. Then, that they should know that thing to which the Lord has called them in relation to that testimony to be their special responsibility. And if there is a third thing, it is that which links both: to recognise that all aspects are related and to guard against the danger of detachment, exclusiveness, and isolation in any ministry.

So, without going into all the detail, which is quite impossible, let us take what seems to be the governing thing in each of these three sections. We shall take the order of chapter 4, because that is clearly the right order in progress. The testimony is there seen to be moving in transit. That is, going on through the wilderness, and in the progress of the testimony you must have things in the right order and take first things first. In chapter 4, as you notice, Kohath comes first.

Perhaps it would be helpful here again to review the charge of each of these. In chapter 3 Gershon is made responsible for all the curtains and the hangings. Kohath is made responsible for the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels and the screen (or veil). Merari is made responsible for the boards, the bars, the pillars, the sockets and the instruments.

The Testimony to Divine Persons

Then, taking the order of chapter 4, beginning with Kohath, we notice from what we have read, that the responsibility here is for those things which relate directly and immediately to God. These are the things within: the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altar, the vessels and the veil. There you come in the most immediate way into touch with God Himself, with the Godhead; for if you look closer you will see that you are dealing here with divine persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

God, between the cherubim above the mercy seat, in the awfulness of His holiness, and yet as Father, because there is grace, there is mercy, there is a throne of grace. It is not only God the All-terrible, but God the All-merciful. He is Father because the Son is there, and the very term "Father" has no meaning if there is no child.

The Son is there. There is the ark, and that which has to do with the Son is seen everywhere as God's way of manifesting Himself; or, shall we put that more correctly, and say, the manifestation of what God is as in the Son.

The Holy Spirit is there in the oil, and in the light, and in that intangible thing that nevertheless is the mighty influence of the whole.

You are dealing with divine persons, and you begin with this wonder of the Trinity.

That can be illustrated from our own beings as made in the likeness of God. It seems that this is the deepest explanation or interpretation of the statement that man was made in the image and likeness of God. Each one of us has three parts. Firstly, there is the person. That is just a fact. The second thing is that the person has a nature. Now you may know of the existence of a person by sight or by repute, and you may know that that person exists, and that may be all. That person has a nature, and you have got to come into touch with that person in order to discover the nature of that person. When you come into the presence of that person, with that nature of his, there is something which comes out from that person which we call personality. It is an intangible thing. But you know the person and the nature of that person by the personality that comes out from him and affects you.

Even so we have the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is the great Person; the Son is the nature of that Person; the Holy Spirit is the personality, the impact of the Person and the nature. Here in the innermost you are dealing with the Person, the nature, and the impact of the Godhead, the divine Persons.

Kohath is called into responsibility in that connection, and that explains why in chapter 3 verse 32 we have this extra statement: "And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be chief over the chief of the Levites, and have the oversight of them that keep the charge of the sanctuary." That is something introduced strangely in the middle of the whole record, as though it were giving some special character, bringing in the princeliness, the higher dignity in relation to Kohath. The explanation of those words coming at that point is just this: that here you touch the deepest, highest, the most sacred, solemn things; you are in the innermost.

You can easily see that it would take a long time, even in this connection, if we were to start to talk about the persons of the Godhead; Christ the Son, the character of God, who is able to say, "He that has seen Me has seen the Father"; and again, "I have made known unto them Thy name." The very nature of God is entered into in the person of Jesus Christ. There is the great Person. All we know about the great Person, God, is that He exists. We know nothing about the nature until He finds a way of bringing that nature to us in the terms of our own humanity, because we can only understand nature along the line of our own humanity. We can only have intercourse and communion with a nature that has something which corresponds to our own make-up, and so God has come out in Christ to show us what He is like. Were we to begin to deal with the great Person it would engage us in a theological course. Were we to stop to talk about Christ, the expression of God, or again to allow ourselves to be engaged now at length with the person of the Holy Spirit and the emanation of the nature, the power of the nature and the impact of God in Christ, you see how long it would take us. But our point is that this is what is here.

That is the highest, the most solemn responsibly of the church of the firstborn. It has to do with God, with divine Persons; the testimony of God, who He is; what He is; how He manifests Himself; the power of that manifestation, and what it is for, namely that we might be made God-like. These are the innermost things. And so it becomes necessary for us to have that of which we have spoken much, and for which Paul prayed for, "a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the full knowledge of Him", because that full knowledge of Him is a deposit in the church, which is His body, as a trust and a responsibility. It is the church's business, the business of all members, to keep the knowledge of God in truth, in purity, in fulness, alive in this universe; to keep the manifestation of God and the expression or the power of God alive.

Here, then, is Kohath, and the responsibility of Kohath is to keep divine Persons in view, and to bring the great realities of the divine Persons home to the people of God. How much there is in the New Testament along that line, all expressive of this fact of One "with whom we have to do". You can see that the whole New Testament story of the church, taken along one line, is to that: the ministry of the sons of Kohath.

Take the very earliest expression of those things in the church. You have Peter's great statement on the day of Pentecost. In a word, it is God; and then it is Jesus Christ as the expression of God, the manifestation of God, the speech of God, the revelation of God; then the Holy Spirit. Now that is the maintenance of the truth before men.

What are the consequences? Ananias and Sapphira are an immediate issue of that very thing on the side of responsibility, where there is not a coming into line with the truth of divine Persons, that is, where there is a failure to recognise that we are dealing with divine Persons in the church. They lied against the Holy Spirit; they violated the truth of the manifestation of God in Christ, and they struck right back at God Himself. The result was they came under judgment. God was there expressed in the terms of sonship, and brought home in the power of the Holy Ghost, and that was death and judgment to any who did not come into line with it. The point is that here it is not doctrine, it is not knowledge, not just the doctrine or the knowledge of the Trinity, that God is three in one, and so on; it is the impact of divine Persons upon men for their salvation and for their judgment - their salvation if they adjust, their judgment if they rebel. So the word is: "It is an awful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." "Judgment must begin at the house of God; and if it first begins at us... where shall the sinner and the ungodly appear?"

That is the innermost thing about the tabernacle, and the charge: "and the stranger shall not come near lest he die". This is not just Old Testament truth. It is carried clearly into the New Testament, and we are dealing with divine Persons, not with teaching, doctrine, truth or with the Bible as a book and not with men who merely speak of these things. We are dealing with living Persons, divine Persons. That is a glorious thing when we are in line with it, but is an awful thing if we are out of line with it.

The sons of Kohath are called to that terrible and yet glorious responsibility of maintaining testimony to divine Persons amongst the Lord's people.

That is what the church ought to be. Oh, how different from that is the church which is so called in our time. But I believe that even now 1 Cor. 11 operates: "For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep" - not discerning the body. The Holy Spirit is still there as the impact of God in Christ. Perhaps we do not recognise the meaning of things, but there is the truth and it is a truth which works. When God gets a people in line with His truth in a living way, these things operate, they are living things, and men have not just to reckon with certain people and certain teachings, they have to reckon with God. So God would have it that His church now as represented in any assembly should be a place in which all the meaning of divine persons should be brought home to men in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That is all we can say about Kohath and their responsibility, but I think it is enough to indicate what this means as to the church and its ministry.

The Testimony to Divine Laws

When we come to the next, to Gershon, with the responsibility entrusted to them for the curtains and the hangings, we are moving outwards from the centre, and we come into touch with those things which represent and embody the principles which govern the church, or, shall we say, which govern corporate life and corporate union with Christ.

You are dealing here with those things which first of all set the bounds. You have a court with a curtain right round, and then you have the tabernacle and the curtains, and these speak of the bounds of what is of God, in the first place. They fix the limits, and they say: Within this compass all is of God, outside of this compass it is not of God; this is where God begins, and where other things end. You step across this threshold and you come immediately into touch with God and what is of God. That means exclusion and inclusion, it means limitations. That is limiting things to God, binding things up with God. But that does not only speak of the bounds and the limitations, it carries with it this further thought: the safeguard for what is of God. If man approaches and enters here apart from the divine provision, it is death to him. It is a safeguard for God and the things of God, to keep Him and His things from the encroachment of what is foreign, what is strange. God will not have strange, foreign elements brought in to be associated with Him. It is the safeguard of His own utter holiness and what is of Himself, and the safeguard of men. It speaks, further, of the ways of God, for you will find that the outer court is a curtain of fine linen, speaking of the defined limit and bound marked by divine righteousness, and within that bound all is divine righteousness.

How can you get in there? There is a gate, and that gate is hung with blue, purple, scarlet and white. We know the symbolism of those colours and how they represent the constitution of the Lord Jesus in His heavenly nature (the blue), in His royalty (the purple), in His suffering (the scarlet), in His human perfection (the white). By what way can man come into fellowship with God? In Christ Jesus; but it is on the ground of what He has done, and that is the only way. It is the nature that is the basis of acceptance, access, and fellowship.

These curtains and these hangings speak of principles which govern the corporate life of the Lord's people. They say: Apart from these things you are outside; on the ground of these things you come in, and you find life in touch with God; apart from them you meet death in touch with God. This is Christ corporate, and it means that what is of Christ is woven into the very texture of the church. It is texture that we have here, it is fabric. It is just by oneness with the Lord Jesus in what He is that men may know acceptance, fellowship and life with God.

The detail would bear that all out. You have only to begin with some of this detail. Take the tabernacle itself, the curtains, for example, ten in number. Ten is the biblical number for responsibility. Then each of them was twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide, joined in two sets of five, with fifty taches of gold and a hundred loops of blue. Every one of those points is a principle which governs the corporate life of the Lord's people. All what we said with reference to what is represented by Gershon is borne out in every detail, that here you are up against principles which have to do with corporate union with Christ.

The church of the firstborn exists to look after those principles. One aspect of the responsibility of the Lord's people is to preserve and maintain the principles which govern corporate life. It operates in exactly the same ways as that which we have said about Kohath. If these principles are observed then all the blessings of fellowship with, and in the Lord, all the blessings of corporate life may be enjoyed, and all that the Lord has for His people may be had. But violate the principle and the Holy Ghost takes charge, and the church is called to act to preserve those principles.

So you find in the New Testament church the need for action. Paul called upon the Corinthians to take action in relation to certain there who were so grievously violating the truth of the body of Christ. They had to take responsibility for that. The church is here in a very responsible place and position before God, to maintain the power, firstly, of relationship with the Lord, and then of relationship in the Lord. That is, to keep those principles in view, as something for the Holy Spirit to work upon; to maintain them in a pure testimony. Then the Holy Ghost will work in both ways in relation thereto - fulness of blessing for the obedient, but chastening for the rebellious.

The Care of the Saints Themselves

We pass to the third section, Merari, whose responsibility was for the boards, the bars, the pillars, the sockets and the instruments. We ask what this represents. It seems to me that it is related in a more immediate way to the saints themselves. The boards in themselves speak of believers. When, of course, they stand together, bound by the bars, that is the collective life, but they are not carried through the wilderness bound together like that; they are carried through as individuals. That is not a contradiction in truth, but it is simply another point of view. Merari has to take charge of the boards, but of every board, and there would be some serious question arising if, when the Lord's Testimony reached a certain point and was to be set up there, a board was missing.

If you transfer all this to the Lord Jesus and see how, prior to the church, He personally embodies all the truth, you get a very simple and helpful way of understanding the truth of the church. Take a verse like this in John 17: "Those whom You gave Me I have kept, and not one of them is lost, save the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled." Merari has not lost a board on the road!

Here is a charge, a responsibility for looking after the Lord's people in themselves. It is so easy to get the great sweep of doctrine, truth, wonderful generalities, and forget that the application is brought down to the individual. There is to be care for each individual member, so that what each one represents for the Lord is not lost if by any means it can be preserved. All should be done to preserve every part in its place intact.

There is a wonderful revelation of that in the letters of Paul. Truly he was the church in spirit, and what care he had for the individuals as well as for the whole church. Look at those lists of names that he appends to his letters. Read the end of the letter to the Romans, and note all the personal names. That is caring for the boards, it is true Levitical ministry. We fail in this very much. The Lord correct us by His word.

Not only is it care for the believers in themselves, but notice it is care for those ministries which are represented by the vessels, the instruments. We take it that this is what is implied by all those tools used for the constituting of the tabernacle, the setting up of it, the pins, and such like tools that would be required. They are very necessary. Even a hammer is necessary sometimes in the house of God. Ministries, though they may be minor ministries, are indispensable for the whole to be carried, and they have to be looked after.

I am glad the bars are mentioned as well as the boards. The bars are the things that unite the whole, and if those things are kept always under your eye you will not move in cliques, and you will not have personal preferences, and ones and twos moving off on their own because they get on together. We have to remember that in the body of Christ there is nothing clannish, nothing that is merely of human preference, but all the members are held together in oneness. That is a responsibility. How much damage has been done by preferences, by human affinities having a place among the Lord's people! There must be a personal care, there must be a watching over the bars, all maintained together. It is what the apostle means when he says, "Give diligence to keep the unity of the spirit". We shall never keep the unity of the Spirit by taking sides with one against another. We may think that is care for the one. Oh, but what about the other? The bars will be a corrective, will keep the balance, and will give due regard to every member.

Then there are the pillars. Here we have each one's responsibility, for something hangs upon them, and we have to help one another in our responsibility before God, for each one is called to carry a responsibility, to carry a weight from God. It is bearing one another's burdens. Here are the pillars which carry the weight of testimony in their measure. This is a type of those things that are spoken of in Ephesians and Colossians and that are indicated by such words as "that which every joint supplies", and each part working in due measure. There must be mutuality in this responsibility, each one carrying his own weight before the Lord, and yet all one. So Merari has to care for all these things which are so important in the house of God. There is rich fulness in these two chapters.

The Essential Oneness of All Ministry

We will finish with but one further note of emphasis upon something said earlier. We said that these three things represent responsibilities which lie upon the Lord's people, and one responsibility may be the special characteristic of some, and another responsibility that of another, for "all have not the same office", says Paul. It may be that the Lord by His Spirit has gifted and endowed some with the special ministry of Merari, to care for the saints, to look after the unity in the fellowship of the saints, to support the saints in their responsibility, to cherish the ministry of the saints. Others may be characterized by a special charge in relation to those principles of the assembly; others may be brought into that ministry which has more immediately to do with God Himself, and keeping the great reality, the divine Persons, in view. The peril is that we should begin to make our ministry something that is watertight.

For a mental grasp of the difference just picture in your mind alternative ways of applying this truth. Draw in your mind's eye three squares, separate, standing each alone, and you will have what represents a very great deal of the nature of work for the Lord in our day from time to time. "Oh, this is my work, this is my department, this is my line; I am called to be this, I am called to do that! You have your work, you have your particular line, I have mine! You go on with yours, and I will get on with mine, and don't let us get overlapping!" That is where the breakdown comes. "I am an evangelist, not a teacher! You get on with your teaching, and I will get on with my evangelism; don't let us interfere with one another!" That is putting responsibility into watertight compartments. The result is always loss.

Will you tell me what Paul was? You have various things to choose from - pastor, teacher, evangelist, apostle, prophet. Any one of these are true, but you have to name them all to arrive at the truth. Why? Because Paul was the vessel especially elected for the revelation of the church, and therefore as that vessel he must be constituted according to all that the church stands for, every aspect. He is an apostle, a prophet, a pastor and teacher, and an evangelist. The church is that. It is not a question of what you and I may be, it is what the church is. There is no such thing as ministry apart from the church. Ministry is the church functioning, and the church functions in different directions, through its members. But it is the New Testament church. The church functions through some evangelically, through others pastorally and instructively. Men do not function as in themselves, but the church operates. Paul was an inclusive expression of what the church is. If you divide these things up you divide the body of Christ; you divide Christ, and you have failure and weakness.

Now draw another mental picture of this. Draw a circle and divide into three; you have three sections of one circle. That is Kohath, Gershon, Merari in one circle, all one within that circle. They have their own aspect of ministry, but it is one ministry. The end, the object, is one, and everything must, in the church which is His body, be related and interdependent, and so it makes increase of itself with the increase of God.

What the Lord has said to us in this meditation carries with it a very solemn charge and involves us in very great responsibility, but surely it would open to us very great privilege and honour. This Old Testament presentation of the Levites is a marvellous, though veiled, illustration of the church, which is His body. I do not believe that Kohath, or Gershon, or Merari knew anything about this at all. They simply did as they were told, and did not know. The Lord said to Moses that it was to be done, and Moses in his turn told them and they did it. That is what Paul means when he says that this mystery has been hid from ages and generations. They did the thing which they did not understand, in blind obedience. But you and I have been led into the meaning of the things which they did. Our eyes are open, the mystery is out, and we are called into the stewardship of the mystery.

It is a blessed calling, but it is a responsible one, it is a solemn one. Oh, that today you and I might find adjustment to this. The test is as to whether it is the Lord Himself to whom we are devoted, or whether it is to some personal thing. That is the heart of things here; it is all the Lord. Would that our obedience was as implicit as the obedience of these sons of Aaron, these Levites, even if it has to be blind obedience until we have understanding, because the Lord has called for it. But it need not be blind obedience; and surely after this word we have light for obedience. We see why and what it relates to.

"Ye ARE come... unto the general assembly and church of the firstborn, whose names are enrolled in heaven."

In keeping with T. Austin-Sparks' wishes that what was freely received should be freely given and not sold for profit, and that his messages be reproduced word for word, we ask if you choose to share these messages with others, to please respect his wishes and offer them freely - free of any changes, free of any charge (except necessary distribution costs) and with this statement included.