When God brought his people out of Egypt he kept a covenant that he had made with Abraham (Gen. 15:12-16). God had promised that an heir would come from Abraham’s body and that his descendants would one day inherit the land of promise, after spending 400 years in Egypt. On the evening before Israel left Egypt, God sent an angel to kill all of the firstborn children and livestock in Egypt, but spared those belonging to Israel. The blood of the Passover lamb protected Israel’s firstborn who then came to belong in perpetuity to the Lord.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the firstborn of every womb among the sons of Israel, among people and animals alike; it belongs to Me.” (Ex 13:1-2). God went on to explain that it was the firstborn males that he had in mind. (Ex 13:12) “…you shall devote to the Lord every firstborn of a womb, and every firstborn offspring of an animal that you own; the males belong to the Lord”.
The firstborn males were significant in ancient society for several reasons and enjoyed the rights of primogeniture. The firstborn son ordinarily received a double portion of their father’s estate along with the trailing responsibility of providing for his father’s household and its dependants. The firstborn also enjoyed leadership status and came to represent the family in legal and military matters1. While it is not stated in so many words, the vesting of positions and responsibility in the male leader is similar to and perhaps rooted in Adam’s place as the federal head of the human race from whom all others have descended.
The practice of primogeniture was in place prior to the law of Moses. It was a source of contention between Esau and Jacob who were twins. Esau was born first but exercised the option of selling his rights as firstborn to Jacob for a single meal. In a slightly different way, the rights of primogeniture came to rest upon Judah – since his three older brothers disqualified themselves from leadership – Reuben committed incest while Simeon and Levi slaughtered an entire male population. Therefore this right was not automatically assigned by the father to the firstborn male in a family. Jacob also prophesied that the throne in Israel would be occupied by a descendant of Judah (Gen 49: 8-12)
So it was that when God spared the first born males at the Passover (both men and beasts) He added a new layer of significance to this practice. From that day onward, all male firstborn belonged to God. Firstborn males of both flocks and herds that were suitable for sacrifice were offered. But in place of sacrifice, firstborn male children were to be redeemed and returned to their families to serve as leaders2.
Thus the Passover which signals God’s redemption also acted to sanctify the firstborn as a special possession of the Lord.
Not long after the ‘exodus’, God brought Israel to mount Sinai to ratify . God thenhis covenant with them. While Moses was on the mountain receiving detailed instruction from God, the people rebelled by reverting to the idol worship of the Egyptians. In the aftermath, it was the Levites who responded when Moses called for faithful men to stand up for the Lord (Ex 32:26). As a tribe, they showed exceptional zeal for the purity of Israel. The result was that God elevated them to a place of service at the tabernacle – near to his presence. In the wildnerness they did not have to commute to work as the families of the Levites camped closest to the Tabernacle on three sides, while the families of Moses and Aaron occupied the side where the entrance was.
In Numbers chapter three God initiated a new relationship between the firstborn whom He had redeemed at Passover and the Levites whom he had chosen at Sinai (Vs 11-13)
“Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Now, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the firstborn of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine. For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I fatally struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from the human firstborn to animals. They shall be Mine; I am the Lord.”
The special service at the tabernacle that God had in mind for the firstborn would from that time onward be rendered by the Levites. The Levites became substitute firstborn, which in a very real sense put all firstborn in their debt. We might also think of them as a vicarious assembly of the firstborn dedicated to spiritual service.
Moses describes the initiation of this practice in Numbers 3:14-50. All of the Levite males one month old and older were counted and a list made of their names. The same was done for the firstborn males. There were 22,000 Levites and 22,273 firstborn. One by one and name by name, each firstborn was replaced by a Levite. The substitution was individual and personal. The 273 firstborn whose number exceeded that of the Levites were redeemed at a price of 5 shekels each…with the price passed on to the family of Aaron.
Thus the Levites became substitute firstborn and served in the presence of God. In turn, each firstborn, each family’s head had a personal representative ministering in the presence of the Lord and in their place. Each firstborn was in that sense, present before the Lord even while bodily absent.
Before the Levites could serve, they had to cleansed and dedicated to the Lord. Moses describes this in Numbers 8: 9-19 this way:
“So you shall present the Levites in front of the tent of meeting. You shall also assemble the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, and present the Levites before the Lord; and the sons of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites. Aaron then shall present the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the sons of Israel, so that they may qualify to perform the service of the Lord. Now the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls; then you are to offer the one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering to the Lord, to make atonement for the Levites. And you shall have the Levites stand before Aaron and his sons so as to present them as a wave offering to the Lord”.
“So you shall single out the Levites from among the sons of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine. Then after that the Levites may go in to serve the tent of meeting. But you shall cleanse them and present them as a wave offering; for they are exclusively given to Me from among the sons of Israel. I have taken them for Myself instead of the firstborn of every womb, the firstborn of all the sons of Israel. For every firstborn among the sons of Israel is Mine, among the people and among the animals; on the day that I fatally struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified them for Myself. But I have taken the Levites instead of every firstborn among the sons of Israel.
And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the sons of Israel, to perform the service of the sons of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement on behalf of the sons of Israel, so that there will be no affliction among the sons of Israel due to their approaching the sanctuary.”
There are several salient points in this passage.
- The first is that the people of Israel are those who are bringing and presenting the Levites to the Lord as their wave offering. The Levites are Israel’s offering to the Lord.
- Israel laid their hands upon the Levites, personally identifying with those being offered and presenting them on their own behalf and as a replacement for themselves. Every family in Israel had a stake in this substitution.
- The wave offering was dedicatory. That which was offered was neither killed nor consumed. As an offering, the Levites yielded their value through a lifetime of service.
- God not only accepted this substitution, He insisted upon it.
- So it was, that representing all of Israel as substitute firstborn and belonging exclusively to the Lord that God in turn gifted them to the priesthood to assist in the functions and service of the Tabernacle.
- The Levites first had to be cleansed and qualified for service through sacrifices that were made on their behalf.
- As it was with the priests, the “Lord was their portion”. They were supported by Israel for their labour, receiving 90% of the tithe set aside for God’s work by the people of Israel.
In this way and at that time, the Levites in every sense, became living sacrifices. As a ‘type’, their place and function in Israel anticipates our own and our service to the Lord.
As the apostle Paul put it in Romans 12:1-2 –
“Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect”
Referring to this passage, we often hear the assertion that for Christians “all of life is worship”. But that is not what the Apostle Paul said. He calls Christians to give themselves entirely to the Lord as ‘living sacrifices’. Having been cleansed by the blood of Jesus and raised to walk in newness of life, ours it to be a life of service3. We are to give ourselves bodily to the Lord with minds transformed by the word of God and indwelt from above by the Spirit of God. Some of the service to which we are called is worship, but each moment of our lives belongs to the Lord.
Consider the language that Paul used in Romans 12:1-2. Our service to the lord as living sacrifices is our service to the Lord. The word for service is not ‘proskuneo’ but ‘latreian’. Latreo denotes service rendered – usually in exchange for pay or a reward. In Old Testament contexts this often referred to service rendered by the priests and levites. Translators have added the word ‘worship‘ to modify or indicate what kind of service, Paul is talking about. This is their opinion, and not what the apostle said. The text indicates that our service or latreia is logikos, meaning logical or reasonable. It our life long response to God’s grace and goodness. Romans 12 however does not say that our service is equal to or limited to worship.
It is therefore simply not true as some assert, that “all of life is worship”.
As it was with the Levites, our lives are to be given in their entirety to the Lord’s service. Within such a life, there are periods of worship when we ‘draw near’ to our Lord and assemble in His name and His presence. Our worship when assembled is most often described by the Greek term proskuneo which denotes both prostration and obeisance – literally ‘to kiss toward’. But this word is not used in Romans 12:1-2.
We are to be “living sacrifices” – rendering our service to the Lord over a lifetime of faithfulness, which most certainly includes worship in his presence… and yet is so much more.
1 While not the same, primogeniture was related to the principle of corporate solidarity – wherein the identity or actions single member of a group might have repurcussions for the entire assembly. This pertained both to positive or to negative consequences, to blessings as well as curses. For example, as descendants of Adam, we all face physical death. Yet as members of the family headed by Jesus, we look forward to the resurrection.
2 See Numbers 3:46-48. This option was not always taken. Hannah dedicated Samuel ‘to the lord’. No redemption price was paid. He became a lifetime servant of God in did so as a Nazarite.
3 Paul’s use of the word latreia signifies that the kind of service that he has in mind is priestly and sacrificial. As the lives of the priests and Levites were given to the Lord, so ours also are to be used up in God’s service.