The prepared text for today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York is below. I think that the audio puts it even more clearly. The audio is available here at this link. For further study, my commentary on Numbers begins with the post found at this link. The commentary has a picture of the arrangement of the tribes centered around the tabernacle on a chalkboard that matches Duguid’s commentary. It lists the order of the tribes in Numbers 1 on the left and then pictures this arrangement in Numbers 2 on the right. Next Sunday, on Father’s Day, we will look at 1 Cor 16:13, Eph 6:1-4, and Hebrews 12:3-13. I would encourage you to read Numbers 16 as helpful background for that message.
Last Sunday we read the census of the first generation of Israel while they were wandering in the wilderness. We noted that Israel was an edge-bounded group because you were either an insider or an outsider—you were either in the family or you were not in the family. We also saw that the first generation started well because they were all willing to stand up and be counted in the wilderness—there were no tax evaders or draft dodgers among them. We also discovered that the New Testament says these things are relevant to us because Jesus is leading us through a wilderness today. Not only is Jesus leading us through a wilderness today but like Israel back then we today are a family. Then and today you are either a member of the family or you are not. And not only are we a family being led through a wilderness by Jesus but like Israel back then we are being called to stand up and be counted. Then and today we pay our tithes and serve the Lord in whatever warfare we encounter in our wilderness. Well today we are going to hear more about our family in Christ Jesus while they were in the wilderness. Like last Sunday we will see more important ways we are like ancient Israel while they were in the wilderness and we will see even more clearly how our wilderness journey is different. That New Testament text showed that the main way it is different is that ancient Israel wandered in the wilderness under the wrath of God but we are not under His wrath. You will see that even more clearly today and you will even discover just how much better we have it than they would have had it if they were not under His wrath. Our passage begins right after that census I mentioned, but before we just pick up where we left off let me point out a few things that I haven’t already mentioned that were preparing us for what follows. Moses wants us to notice the order of the tribes. In Numbers 1 the first list was the men the Lord chose from each tribe to assist Moses in carrying out the census. The tribes were in this order: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Gad, and Naphtali. The tribe of Levi isn’t listed for reasons that will be clear in today’s passage, but there are still 12 tribes because Joseph’s two sons are counted as full tribes. Nevertheless, the order is curious—first are the children of Leah by birth-order, second are the children of Rachel in the order of blessing, and then third are the children of the maidservants in what looks a random order. The random order of the maidservants’ children is probably to highlight their low status in the family. But then when we come to the order of the tribes in the census in Numbers 1 the only change is the placement of one of these low status tribes—the tribe of Gad—who now is third for the order is Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. Moses changed the order because he was preparing us for the way that the tribes would be arranged in our passage today. Well let’s get into it:
- When we rest in the wilderness, the Lord God must be in the center of the camp.
- One of the most important observations we can make from the Book of Numbers is that the tent of the Lord God was in the center of the camp with the tribes arranged around His tent. In the ancient near east the tent of the king would be at the center of the camp. Moses tells us that the tabernacle—the tent of the Lord God—was in the center of the camp. This picture is meant to show us that the Lord God Himself was to be the king of Israel. But it is no accident that the tent of the king was at the center of the camp. Sociologists say that there are two kinds of groups. I mentioned one of them earlier: the edge-bounded group. A family is an edge-bounded group because you are either a member of the family or you are not. The other kind of group is called a center-focused group. A group of people interested in camping would be a center-focused group – they come together around a shared interest in camping. We saw last Sunday that Israel was an edge-bounded group because they were a family. But the passage today shows us that they were also a center-focused group because they come together around the tent of their king—the Lord God. The passage shows the order that the tribes and the tabernacle set out on their journey through the wilderness. But the passage also says whether they were on the east, south, west, or north and that the tabernacle was in the center when they stop to camp. Every time they stopped to set up camp, the people of Israel set up their tents around the tent of the Lord God and they came together around His tent because the Lord God Himself was their king.
- Thus when we stop to camp in the wilderness today, we come together around the Lord Jesus Christ. We have come together today on this day of rest around the Lord Jesus Christ. He is at the center of our worship because He is our king. He is the fulfillment of the Lord God Himself being the king of His people. The people of Israel would later demand a human king because they had rejected the Lord. But Jesus Christ, the heir of King David, fully human and fully divine, is our Messiah King. Like ancient Israel, we are a edge-bounded group because we are a family. And like ancient Israel, we are a center-focused group because the Lord God Himself is our king. Jesus is Lord. He is our king. So if our lives are a wilderness journey, as the New Testament teaches, when we stop on this journey we must keep the Lord God in the center of the camp. In other words, as that same New Testament book teaches, we are not to neglect meeting together—as is the habit of some (ccf. Heb 10:25). Or to put it in an active and positive way: we are to meet together to worship the Lord and encourage one another. Yes, we belong to a church because we are an edge-bounded group. We have stood up and been counted. But we also come together around the Lord Christ because we are a center-focused group. These ideas actually come together in Christ. He is the boundary of our group for those who belong are in Christ and He is the center-focus of our group for Christ is our King. (And there is another important difference then between the wandering of ancient Israel in the wilderness and our wilderness journey because the Lord Jesus Christ has replaced the tabernacle. This important difference is it is no longer dangerous to live in the presence of God. I said earlier that you will see even more clearly today that we are not under the wrath of God like the first generation of Israel was when they were wandering in the wilderness. And I promised that you will even discover just how much better we have it than they would have had it if they were not under His wrath. We have it so much better because God’s longing to be with His people without His holiness consuming His people when they sin is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John said, “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The word that I’ve rendered as tabernacled when I said that He tabernacled among us is usually translated as dwelt. But dwelt among us is not specific enough. It has been suggested that we translate it as “pitched His tent.” But this was not just any tent that He pitched—it is the tent of the Lord God Himself. Indeed, the word is the verbal form of the noun used in the Greek translations of the Old Testament for the tabernacle. He tabernacled among us. And having come in the flesh, we have seen His glory and lived. But this brings me to a related difference that shows how much better we have it today than ancient Israel would have had even if they weren’t wandering under the wrath of God. This difference is that we are all priests. For…)
- When we stop to camp in the wilderness, it is only the priests who are able to approach the glory of God and live.
It was the responsibility of the tribe of Levi to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings and they camped around the tabernacle so that God’s wrath would not be on the congregation of Israel. The Levites were the king’s guard, if you will. The rest of the nation of Israel was numbered in the census because they had military duty. The Levites weren’t on military duty—they were on guard duty. Thus God told Moses to appoint the Levites over the tabernacle (cf. Numbers 1:50) and over all its furnishings and over all that belongs to it and they are to carry the tabernacle and its furnishings and take care of it and camp around the tabernacle. They took down the tabernacle whenever Israel set out and they pitched God’s tent whenever Israel stopped to camp. The Lord said, “And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death” (Numbers 1:51c) and “The Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony” (Numbers 1:53). Even among the Levites there were differences. The text doesn’t mention it here but some of the Levites were priests, some of the Levites carried the most holy things, some of the Levites carried holy things, and some of the Levites carried the least holy things. Incidentally, the front of the tent would have been where you found the priests and the front of the tent faced the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun with Judah in the center. Jesus is from the tribe of Judah.
But today we are all priests who can approach the glory of God and live. The Lord is still that Holy God. His holiness has not changed. What has changed is we have all been set apart as priests to serve the Lord. What has changed is that we have been cleansed and saved by the blood of the Lamb—to use the phrase you say week after week. Or in the words of the apostle John that I often quote, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We don’t have to confess our sins to a priest—even though we do confess our sins to one another—because we are all priests who can approach the glory of God and live. All of this is because Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. This Jesus is, in the words of that same New Testament book I quoted earlier, our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Hebrews 4:14). As the author of Hebrews goes on to explain, the priest under the old covenant had to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he did for those of his people (Hebrews 5:3). You could not volunteer to be a priest, you had to be called by God like Aaron was to be a priest. Even Christ did not exalt Himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by God the Father a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek. The New Testament book of Hebrews says all of these things, the reference to the order of Melchizedek is quoting from the Psalms for the Christ is not a Levite—He did not inherit the priesthood of Aaron—He is greater than Aaron. For Aaron was a descendant of Abraham and Abraham’s priest was Melchizedek (cf. Heb 7:9-10). Or as the apostle Peter puts it, “As you come to Him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet 2:4-5). Thus when we stop to camp in the wilderness, we don’t need anyone to protect us from the holiness of God. His glory can shine among us without consuming us. (And there is one more important difference that this makes that we are all priests – it means that we are all equals.)
When we rest in the wilderness, the Lord God must be in the center of the camp and only the priests can approach the glory of God and live.
- The tribes of Israel were not all equals but got places that had something to do with their importance with relation to the tabernacle in the center. The tribe of Judah had the best placement in the camp of Israel. The tribe of Reuben had been passed over because of his sin—the story of which is in Genesis. The tribes of Levi and Simeon had been passed over because because of their violence—which is another story in Genesis. And so it was that Judah, the fourth son of Leah, came to be the tribe of the king. The two children of Joseph were promoted to full tribal status. Ephraim got the best billing of Joseph’s children. Jacob, also known as Israel, when he blessed Joseph’s children gave Ephraim the blessing of the firstborn instead of his elder brother Manasseh. The third category, the children of the maidservants, were always considered least among the tribes. In any case, there were twelve tribes not including the Levites who we can look at more closely later in the book. So if you can picture it with me…on the east of the tabernacle were the blessed children of Leah (Judah in the middle with Issachar on one side and Zebulun on the other), to the south were the cursed sons of Leah with the firstborn Reuben in the center and his brother Simeon on one side and one of the maidservant’s sons Gad on the other, on the west of the tabernacle were the blessed children of Rachel (Joseph’s son Ephraim being in the middle with his brother Manasseh on the one side and Joseph’s full-brother Benjamin on the other), and on the north were the other three children of the maidservants.
- But in Christ we are all equal—even Jews and Gentiles are equal. There is no door to the tabernacle – Christ is the door and Christ is the tabernacle. So it wouldn’t matter whether one was on the east, south, west, or north. People come from north and south and east and west and sit at the Lord’s table. We still come in companies of tribes, you might say, for you are members of a particular church and we come from every tribe on earth, but one is not more important than another. One of the indications of the importance of Judah was its size in the census, but the size of a church today does not make the people in it more or less important. We are all priests with access to the glory of God. Thus while the order of the tribes and the size of the tribes are important in Numbers because they point us to Jesus Christ, our journey in the wilderness with Jesus has a much different feel. You might say that we are more center-focused than ever on our wilderness journey. Thanks be to God.