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The prepared sermon text for this morning’s message at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church is below.  The text with a strike-through, as usual, is there for organizational purposes but isn’t spoken at the time.  The sermon audio for this message with the theme of substitute teachers is available from a link here.  (Afterward, the congregation even praised the Lord by clapping.)  Next Sunday the plan is to cover Numbers 9:1-14.  If you have already read or listened to the previous sermons on Numbers, consider reading more about the book starting with this commentary here.

Have you ever considered how all of the teachers in elementary, middle and high schools are substitute teachers? It is a title that we usually reserve for a teacher who is filling in for another teacher on a temporary basis. The regular teacher might be attending something to further their education or be in a meeting or be planning lessons for later in the school year or they may need a day off like everyone needs from time to time for different reasons so the school calls on someone else to come in to take their place teaching that class. For the regular teacher, the person who comes in to take their place teaching that class is their substitute. Their substitute does the work that they would have been doing so that they can spend that time doing something else. The person taking the regular teacher’s place knows that they are a substitute for the regular teacher. In the same way, it is the responsibility of parents to teach their children. Now parents have lots of responsibilities. They may work for a company, they may buy groceries and prepare food for their families, they may take their own mom or dad to the doctor, they may drive their kids to school and various special activities, they may do lots of different things. All of those examples I mentioned reflect some of the responsibilities that parents have like our responsibility to provide food, clothing, medical treatment, and shelter, for ourselves and our families. We may fill those responsibilities in a variety of ways. We could take our kids to a restaurant instead of making dinner one night, for example, or we could be self-employed instead of working in another business, for example. Nevertheless, we all know that just because it is our responsibility to provide it doesn’t mean we always have to personally do it. Sometimes we employ a substitute to do it. That may be because we feel that someone else might do a better job—if my son breaks his arm, I’ll take him to a doctor who will look at the x-ray, set the bone (if necessary), put some kind of a cast on his arm, or whatever their education and experience has taught them needs to be done, I’m not going to try to mold him a cast or whatever at home. Then again, if he scrapes his knee, I’m not going to take him to the doctor, I’ll make sure it gets clean and bandaged but I know that I can do it just as well as anyone else. But then again, you might be able to teach your kids math, science, social studies, English and foreign languages, music, art, and all the rest. But you may send your kids to school because you have other things that you need to do during that time. Substitutes help us to fulfill our many responsibilities. In ancient Israel, the Levites were substitutes that made it possible for the people of Israel to fulfill certain responsibilities. Let’s read about it:

Numbers 8:5-26 

  1. Specifically the Levites were specialist substitutes for the firstborn of Israel so that the people of Israel could have the Holy One of Israel dwelling in their midst without consuming them.

    1. You may remember how they were specialist substitutes for the firstborn of Israel because the firstborn of Israel belong to God. The firstborn belonged to God in a special sense because the angel had passed over their homes on that first Passover and taken the lives of the firstborn of the Egyptians instead. By all rights they should have died too, but they were spared and so they belonged to God for His service. Thus earlier in Numbers we saw that the Levites redeemed the firstborn of Israel. They weren’t volunteers. They didn’t ask to become Levites. God chose them. God called them. He chose them and called them to take the place of the firstborn. It was the service of a substitute. They served God so that the people of Israel could live with a Holy God in their midst. They made it possible for Israel to fulfill their responsibilities of the covenant with God.

    2. In our passage, the people of Israel laid hands on the Levites because the Levites were a living sacrifice in their place. The firstborn represents the rest of the family. What happens to the firstborn happens to the rest. Thus the firstborn of Israel were spared and Israel went through the sea on dry land. But the firstborn of Egypt had died and the army of Egypt drowned in the same sea. Thus the Levites represent the whole nation of Israel before God. That’s what the laying on of hands was about. The people of Israel were identifying themselves with the Levites. The Levites were their living sacrifice in their place. Think of it this way: the Levites laid their hands on the heads of the bulls that would be used as a sin offering and a guilt offering for the atonement of the Levites. When they laid hands on the animal they were identifying themselves with that animal and saying it takes their place. Likewise, when the people of Israel laid hands on the Levites, they were identifying themselves with the Levites and saying that the Levites were their substitute taking their place as a living sacrifice to the Lord. Numbers 8:13 makes the point this way – the Levites were a wave offering (or dedication offering) before the Lord. It set them apart as belonging to Him. It set them apart to serve Him. They were living sacrifices who in a way we could say made atonement for the people of Israel just as the burnt offering of the bull made atonement for the Levites. Speaking of the burnt offering, it was a ransom payment for the Levites – the bulls died in their place because of their sins. They also brought a sin offering. Sin offerings weren’t so personal. The sin offering didn’t atone for the person who sinned. The sin offering dealt with the effects of a person’s sins. Sins pollute the whole community including the tabernacle. The sin offering was the answer. It was how they dealt with the defilement those sins brought on the community. But first, the Levites had to go through a purification ritual where they were sprinkled with water like a baptism and they were shaved and the rest. The ritual was necessary because of our general defilement living as we do with bodies of death. In any case, the order is important – they were cleansed with water first and then there was the death of the sacrificial animals just as Jesus was baptized at the beginning of His ministry and then His death was the answer to atone for sin and to deal with the defilement those sins bring on the community of faith.

  2. Jesus, our firstborn brother, was our substitute who took our place and did what we couldn’t do so that our responsibilities in the covenant God has with us were all fulfilled and we would become Levites for the world.

    1. He did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. He is the only one who could be baptized for the forgiveness of sins who Himself was without sin. John the Baptist was confused why Jesus would even want to be baptized by him with a baptism of repentance, but Jesus was identifying Himself with us. He said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). Indeed, Jesus was baptized for us—in our place. I remember a professor in seminary who liked to say that He imagined that Jesus didn’t change the words of the Psalms in the Old Testament book of Psalms when He sang them. The professor would quote various lines from the psalms confessing sins and ask something like, “Do you think Jesus changed the words because He was without sin? Did He say, ‘but not me’? I don’t think so. He sang them in our place for even our confession of sin is imperfect.” Jesus prayed confessions of sin in our place—for us. He kept/guarded the holy tabernacle of God—His body—from all sin and stayed without spot or blemish. We call this the active obedience of Christ. He indeed fulfilled all righteousness—fulfilling our responsibilities in the covenant in our place. As a substitute teacher, teaching in their place, He told the religious leaders of Israel to tear down that tabernacle-temple of His body and He would raise it up again in three days. Indeed, Jesus took the covenant curses we deserved in our place so that we could have the blessings of the covenant. Again identifying with us and our sin, He died on the cross—He died in our place for our sins—and He rose on the third day. He is the only one who could die for the forgiveness of sins for He Himself was without sin. He is the only one who could raise Himself from the dead with a final resurrection body because He was innocent of sin. Moreover, He is the only one who could do all of these things because He was the firstborn—indeed the only begotten—Son of God. We were defiled by sin and death, transgressors of God’s covenant with us, and unfaithful to Him, and thus unable to live in the presence of our Holy God and unable to change our hearts and circumstances but by faith in Jesus His righteousness is counted as ours. (Jesus has fulfilled the ministry of the priesthood and the Levites, therefore we can speak of the priesthood and the Levite ministry of all believers.)

    2. In Christ, we are Levites for others while we are on this journey through our wilderness until we reach the Promised Land. United to Jesus, we are set apart for special service to God. We have been called by God to a holy calling of sharing the testimony about our Lord and sharing in suffering for the gospel (2 Tim 1:8-9). We have been chosen by God—a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9)—a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1). If that sounds familiar, it is because I’ve been alluding to things the New Testament says about His church of believers. After saying, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat,” the New Testament book of Hebrews speaks of the way that those sacrificial animals whose blood was brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin were burned outside the camp. He continues, “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His own blood. Therefore,” the author of Hebrews says, “let us go to Him outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name.” Then the author of Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:10-16). We are living sacrifices who make sacrifices to God—sacrifices of praise and sacrifices of doing good deeds for others and the sharing of our things and ourselves. This is our ministry of being substitute teachers. God wants to be among people without consuming them. He wants to bless people rather than to curse them. He wants a personal relationship with the people He has made. Therefore, he has called us to the ministry of New Testament priests and Levites. When we pray for God to bless our government and our neighbors we are being priests keeping the Holy and pure and good wrath of God at bay and instead pouring out His blessing on the people around us. And when we offer up a sacrifice of praise to God by acknowledging Him in a world cursing God and wandering in a desert of denial we are being Levites guarding the people around us from utter destruction. When we go outside the camp and find the outcasts of society and suffer with Christ and endure the reproach of others for following Him and we share the good news that saves in our good deeds and our sacrificial sharing and our words of grace, we introduce people to a personal relationship with our loving God who wants to be with them without consuming them. Unlike the Old Testament Levites, in Christ we can touch the unclean and still be holy and we can minister among the walking dead and still be holy for Jesus has overcome sin and death and we sit with Him in heaven. Indeed, Jesus is the firstborn from the dead in order that we would be His sisters and brothers (Col 1:18, Rev 1:5, cf. Col 1:15, Rom 8:29). So we share the gospel and the moment someone believes in Jesus Christ, they join us sitting with Him in the Holy of Holies in heaven (cf. Ephesians 1:3-2:6, etc.) and they are able to experience a peace that surpasses all human comprehension (cf. Philippians 4:7). Therefore, let us be who we are in Christ. Let’s be Levites for the world. Let’s be those substitute teachers. And may God get the glory. Amen.

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