Schoolwork

By what do theologians mean when they refer to the doctrine of union with Christ? Simply put, union with Christ refers to the language of “in Christ,”[1] which is common throughout the New Testament. Kevin DeYoung rightly notes that this sort of language is found 216 times in the New Testament.[2] In regards to the relationship between salvation and Union with Christ, John Murray says this, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation…Indeed the whole process of salvation has its origin in one phase of union with Christ and salvation has in view the realization of other phases of Union with Christ.”[3] Murray here has in mind the language of the Apostle in his letter to the Ephesians[4], where Paul says that God the father has blessed us “in Christ, with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). [5]

The Reformers too understood that our salvation – all spiritual blessings – are only found within our union with Christ. John Calvin says it this way, “…that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. Accordingly…we are said to be engrafted into him and clothed with him.”[6] Citing Romans 6:5, Calvin rightly understands the direct connection between the salvation of the human race and the blessings which Christ received from the Father. Indeed, we have been “united with him in a death like his” and “united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). Therefore, we must understand that the totality of spiritual blessings which we receive are our salvation, and can only be found in our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Herman Bavinck rightly sums up this concept, “All the benefits of grace therefore lie prepared and ready for the church in the person of Christ…Atonement, forgiveness, justification, the mystical union, sanctification, glorification, and so on – they do not come into being after and as a result of faith but are objectively, actively present in Christ.”[7]

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[1] Richard Gaffin notes that the primary language for union with Christ is found in the “in Christ/the Lord” language, with other variations such as “with,” “for us” and “for our sins.” By Faith and Not By Sight, 41

[2] Kevin DeYoung, A Hole in our Holiness, 95

[3] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 161

[4] In another of his writings, Murray notes that it would be “exegetically impossible” to separate the scope of spiritual blessings from those blessing mentioned in the immediate succeeding context – adoption (vs. 5), redemption and forgiveness of sins (vs. 7), the knowledge of the mystery of God’s will (vs. 9) the inheritance (vs. 11), and the seal of the Holy Spirit (vss. 13, 14). Murray, Collected Writings Vol. 2, 126

[5] In his book By Faith and Not By Sight, Richard Gaffin cites Murray as particularly helpful in understanding Union with Christ. Gaffin summarizes Murray by saying “To sum up: present union with Christ – sharing with him in all he has accomplished and now is, by virtue of his death and resurrection – is, as much as anything, at the center of Paul’s soteriology. Page 45

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1, 349

[7] Herman Bavinck, Sin and Salvation in Christ, 523. In agreement with Bavinck, Kevin DeYoung says this, “Union with Christ is not a single specific blessing we receive in our salvation. Rather, it is the best phrase to describe all the blessings of salvation, whether in eternity past (election), in history (redemption), in the present (effectual calling, justification, and sanctification), or in the future (glorification).” A Hole in Our Holiness, 94.

The chart below is a word study I’m currently working on for the word σωτηρία, which is Greek for ‘salvation’ or ‘deliverance.’ This chart contains all 45 uses of σωτηρία and all its variants in the Greek New Testament. I’m working on this study because it has been my observation that, specifically within Protestant Evangelicalism, the emphasis of using the word ‘salvation’ has been the aspect of our justification, that is, “getting saved.” My hypothesis is that, although “getting saved” is certainly one aspect of salvation, it is only one small aspect and in fact may not even be the primary thrust of the word in the New Testament.

I’ve divided the usage of salvation up into four categories: justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification. These are common “categories” or “steps” theologians often refer to in what is called the ordo salutis – the order of salvation. I’ve added a fifth category called receiving Christ, which I’m using to refer to all four aspects listed above.

The below analysis is a work in progress. I’m positive I’m wrong about some of these. However, the emerging numbers show something striking; it does seem that “getting saved” is not the primary focus of salvation in the New Testament. In fact, because “receiving Christ” seems to be the most common usage of the word σωτηρία, perhaps that is really the overarching usage of the Biblical authors, despite which particular aspect they are referring to in an immediate context? And, if that is the case, maybe this idea of receiving Christ and union with him should be our focus too?

Current results are as follows:

Receiving Christ: 15
Justification 6
Adoption 2
Sanctification 11
Glorification 8
N/A 3

Reference

Text

Immediate Context?

Luke 1:69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, Justification
Luke 1:71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; Justification
Luke 1:77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, Justification
Luke 19:9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. Receiving Christ/Sanctification
John 4:22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. Receiving Christ
Acts 4:12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Receiving Christ
Acts 7:25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. N/A
Acts 13:26 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. Receiving Christ
Acts 13:47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “ ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” Receiving Christ
Acts 16:17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Justification
Acts 27:34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” N/A
Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Receiving Christ
Rom 10:1 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. Justification
Rom 10:10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. Justification
Rom 11:11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Receiving Christ
Rom 13:11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. Glorification
2 Cor 1:6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Sanctification
2 Cor 6:2 For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. Receiving Christ
2 Cor 7:10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. Sanctification
Eph 1:13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, Justification
Phil 1:19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, Sanctification/Glorification
Phil 1:28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. Sanctification
Phil 2:12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, Sanctification
1 Thess 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. Glorification
1 Thess 5:9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, Glorification
2 Thess 2:13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. Sanctification
2 Tim 2:10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. Receiving Christ/Adoption
2 Tim 3:15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Justification
Heb 1:14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? Adoption
Heb 2:3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, Receiving Christ
Heb 2:10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. Receiving Christ
Heb 5:9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, Glorification
Heb 6:9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. Sanctification
Heb 9:28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Glorification
Heb 11:7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. N/A
1 Pet 1:5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Glorification
1 Pet 1:9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Sanctification/Glorification
1 Pet 1:10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, Receiving Christ
1 Pet 2:2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— Sanctification
2 Pet 3:15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, Sanctification
Jude 3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. Adoption
Rev 7:10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Receiving Christ
Rev 12:10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. Receiving Christ
Rev 19:1 After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, Receiving Christ

*See below to explain the picture

It is a universal problem that exists in all academic fields: the more one knows, the more one is likely to boast in their knowledge. This is very dangerous territory for the Christian, however. While on the one hand there is room for being thankful for our achievements, we must realize that pride is antithetical to the gospel and therefore there is absolutely no room for it. There should be a difference between how a Christian doctor sees her training in comparison to the non-Christian. All of our knowledge and wisdom should be seen as a gift from God and used for service towards others.

Unfortunately, seminary students in training are not exempt from this area of pride in their knowledge. If anything – because pastors and ministry leaders are held in high esteem by their communities – seminary students might be in even more danger than other professions when it comes to being tempted by pride. As the Apostle Paul tells us, knowledge puffs up but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1).

This problem of pride amongst future church leaders is an epidemic that is largely going unnoticed. I myself have suffered and continue to suffer with it, but I am thankful that by God’s grace he has revealed the areas of my heart that have wrongfully been prideful in my seminary pursuits. To that end, I want to list five signs that you might be a prideful seminarian and the corresponding real gospel truths that go along with them.

1) Because you are in seminary, you think the church owes you a ministry position.

Whoever desires a position in ministry desires a noble task (1 Tim. 3:1). However, it is entirely possible to desire a ministry position with the wrong motives. A good sign that you are filled with pride in your seminary pursuits is that you believe simply because you are taking or have taken seminary classes you deserve a position in ministry. This might be subtle in that you work behind the scenes to elevate yourselves above others. Perhaps you subconsciously criticize the way your current leaders do things and think you could do it better. It could also be obvious in the way you talk to your community or your leaders. You might even outright confront your leaders and make demands to be in a leadership position.

The gospel truth is that no one is qualified for a ministry position. It is only by the grace and mercy of God that anyone is qualified to lead. If you want to even begin pursuing qualifications for ministry, start with the guidelines laid out in 1 Timothy and Titus. True qualification for ministry begins at the cross and remains at the cross. Your seminary education should lead you into a deeper understanding of the state of your wickedness and your need for Jesus. It should lead you to a deep desire to serve God’s people with all that you’ve been trained and equipped in. Only then may we begin to think ourselves even remotely ready for ministry leadership.

2) You want everyone to know how much you know, so you needlessly quote things that don’t need quoting.

One of the surest signs that you are a prideful seminarian is that you want others to know how much you know. For you it is not so much important that others understand what you know, so much as that they know you know things (how much wood would a woodchuck chuck…). If you are prideful in this area, you go out of your way to quote a bunch of dead dudes in random conversations. If you’re educated in the original languages, you want everyone to know so you unnecessarily use it (*see the cover picture for this article…ironnyyyyyy!). Your theological knowledge is not a way for you to serve others, but to be superior to them.

The gospel reality is that every single word we read and learn in seminary is to be used for the church. Any gift we are given in the areas of teaching or knowledge are to be used for the Body of Christ, not ourselves (1 Corinthians 12). Nobody cares how much theology you know, the only thing that matters is how you serve your brothers and sisters with what you know. The duty of a ministry leader or pastor is to take their seminary knowledge and make it applicable to the heart of the Christian such that it draws them closer to Jesus.

3) You want everyone to know that you’re in seminary.

Another strong piece of evidence that you are a prideful seminarian is that you want everyone else to know you are in seminary. Because you think seminary makes you a somebody, everyone else needs to know that you are taking seminary classes. You might even try to drop this fact through the art of the #humblebrag, which really means you just want to boast and brag over your brothers and sisters.

The gospel truth is that without Jesus we are nothing (Eph 2:1-10). Jesus makes us a somebody, not our seminary classes or the books we are reading. Again, nobody cares that you’re in seminary if you aren’t using it to serve the church.

4) You are overly critical of your peers.

A guaranteed sign of pride in your seminary education is that you believe it makes you entitled to critique and “offer advice” to your peers…all the time. If this is a problem for you, then you never stop to listen for advice because you’re always the one giving it. You speak when you’re not spoken to and offer criticisms when they’re not warranted. You probably critique your leaders behind their backs. Every time you learn something new in the classroom you twist conversations to make it apply to someone else. Your own heart isn’t being changed because you’re too busy trying to change others.

The hard gospel truth is that every piece of knowledge you learn in the classroom needs to impact your own heart before it can impact someone elses. Your time in seminary should be a time of increased listening and heart transformation (Prov. 12:15), not increased criticism of your peers. Don’t be a know-it-all. Instead, confess your sins to your peers and show them how your heart is being changed by your seminary education.

5) You constantly want to best yourself over your seminary brothers and sisters.

While there is always room for healthy competition, the seminary classroom can quickly turn into a place of unhealthy and unhelpful boasting. Because you are prideful, you want to be better than your peers in the classroom. You don’t like it if they get better grades than you, so you come up with excuses. You probably brag about your opportunities to speak outside the classroom. You want everyone to know that you’re smart (or so you think), so you find ways inside and outside the classroom to boast in your knowledge.

The gospel truth is that the seminary classroom should be a place for humility and encouragement of one another. There is no room for boasting in our knowledge or education – is that not contra-gospel? Instead, our seminary classrooms should be marked by a deep sense of humility and grace, constantly seeking to build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11). You should not seek to prove your intelligence, but build up your peers that they might be strong in their own pursuits. If you’re getting ministry opportunities that your peers aren’t getting, then you should be building up your peers in preparation for those experiences. If we can’t be graceful towards one another in the classroom, then how are we going to be graceful to the men and women in the church that we serve?

If you struggle with pride in any of these areas, my encouragement to you is not to feel down and out. Jesus died for prideful sinners like us. Read, meditate, and pray Philippians 2:1-11. Pick up a copy of Valley of Vision and pray through “Man A Nothing” and “Humility in Service.” They will wreck your face. Confess your sins to your church, and resolve to serve them with your whole heart.

40 And the LORD said to Moses, “List all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking the number of their names. 41 And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the LORD—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel.” 42 So Moses listed all the firstborn among the people of Israel, as the LORD commanded him. 43 And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names, from a month old and upward as listed were 22,273. 44 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle. The Levites shall be mine: I am the LORD. 46 And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.” 49 So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those redeemed by the Levites. 50 From the firstborn of the people of Israel he took the money, 1,365 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary. 51 And Moses gave the redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the LORD, as the LORD commanded Moses. – Numbers 3:40-51

The Book of Numbers is one that is saturated with deep theology, instruction and application for the Christian today. However, possibly because of its lackluster title, troublesome combinations of law and narrative, and its numerous lists of names and numbers the book itself is one that is often overlooked. If we take the time to study this book we will come away with robust teachings on God’s people, the nature of man, hamartiology (the study of sin), the nature of God and Christology. This should be of no surprise to us – with the Hebrew name for this book being “In the Wilderness,” it should take no time at all for the Christian today to relate in many ways to the Israelites in the wilderness. Like the Israelites, we too are living in an “already, but not yet” scenario. We have been brought out of our slavery to sin through Christ, and are awaiting the fulfillment of a promise on his return. We are a people that has been set aside, redeemed and spoken for in Christ, called out of one reality (the realm of flesh and sin) and placed into another (the realm of Spirit and life).

Indeed, in the Book of Numbers we find a thorough and robust shadow of the person and work of Christ. There may be no clearer picture of this than in the Levitical substitution of Israel’s firstborn in Numbers 3:40-51. Through a detailed study of this particular passage, we will see not only how this passage fits in with the surrounding narrative of Numbers but also how the Levitical Priests are a shadow of the atonement sinners are to find in the work of Christ.

A Brief Background

To get an accurate background on the Numbers narrative, we must first remove ourselves from this particular text and return to the Israelites entrance into the wilderness in the book of Exodus. Having been given the task of leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, Moses knows he cannot accomplish this task without the presence of God guiding and protecting the people of Israel. In Exodus 33:16 Moses asks,

For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” [1]

God graciously granted Moses’ request, and for the duration of the wilderness narrative we find God leading and dwelling among his people. But all is not well, for our God is a holy God who cannot dwell in the presence of sin or disobedience. So while God will guide and protect his people throughout the forty years in the wilderness as their greatest hope, he is also their greatest threat. To provide a buffer for his people and to prevent his wrath from destroying them, God sets up a very specific system for the delineation of tasks for his people.

It is in the first census that we begin to see a specific group of people set aside for a particular task: the Levites (Num. 1:47-54). The Levites are set aside to take care of the tabernacle – the dwelling place of God. This passage is where the purpose of the Levitical Priesthood begins to take shape:

But 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.[2]

A Holy and Just God demands that he be approached in a very particular manner; only those who have been cleansed and purposed for approaching the tabernacle may do so. Were God to dwell amongst his people without any instruction or guard and someone approached the tabernacle without being cleansed, they would instantly be struck dead. In the act of providing the Levitical priesthood as a buffer for the Israelites, we see God’s goodness and grace to his people.

The third chapter of Numbers begins the instruction for the Levites. Broken up by the various sons of Levi, these clans of Levi are given specific instruction as to their placement around the tabernacle and their particular tasks in the assembly and care of the tabernacle. It is in the closing verses of Chapter 3 that we come to the role of the Levites in their provision of atonement of the people of Israel.

Particular Atonement for the People of Israel

The Book of Exodus is key to understanding the book of Numbers. It would be a mistake for any reader to remove any book of the Pentateuch from the surrounding narratives. Such is the case with Numbers 3:40-51. To properly understand what is being said in these verses, we must remember the tragic and final plague that took place before the Exodus: the death of the firstborn of the people of Egypt (Exodus 12:29-32). It is in this passage we not only see the death of the firstborn of Egypt, but also the redemption of the people of Israel. The firstborn of Israel were a symbol and representative of the entirety of Israel. When God passed over the firstborn of Israel, he consecrated them as his own (Exodus 13:1).

Such is the foundation for our understanding of Numbers 3:40-51. Immediately as our passage begins, the LORD makes his plans known to Moses in regards to the Levites,

 “List all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking the number of their names. 41 And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the Lord—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel.”[3]

The Levites are to replace the firstborn sons of Israel. As the firstborn previously bore the weight of the people, the Levites will now take their place. “The Levites shall be mine: I am the LORD” (Number 3:45b). Stopping at this point in the passage, a question should come to mind in regards to what has been read so far: how is this substitution to take place, is it corporate or individual? It is good news to us that God’s Word is clear in this area, and thus he has something to teach us through the Levitical substitution. Previously the Levites had been numbered at a total of 22,000 males. In contrast, the firstborn Israelites are numbered at 22,273 (Numbers 3:43). What God reveals to us next is striking. At this moment in time, God does not simply look at these two numbers and determine they are “close enough,” but rather it is his decree that all of the firstborn of Israel must be individually spoken for:

And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.”[4]

Each individual firstborn of Israel was spoken for in the Levitical substitution. Close is not enough in God’s service. This substitution is crucial for us to understand in terms of the role of the Levites and the nature of God’s salvific plans for his people. As God’s chosen substitute they are substituted on an individual basis. Indeed, even the ones who could not be spoken for by an individual had to be spoken for in payment.

God’s Particular Atonement is Necessary for the People of Israel

The people of God are an idolatrous people. As the Bible speaks of God’s people as his bride, it is no wonder then that it speaks of our sin as adultery and whoring. Our default nature is not to approach God the way he says to approach him, but we want to approach God on our own terms. As Pastor, Professor and Scholar Iain Duguid says,

The problem with living sacrifices is that they have a habit of crawling off the altar.[5]

The people of God need mediation, someone to stand in our place and make our presence right before God. This is especially evident in the people of Israel, where time and time again throughout their wilderness journey either Moses or the Levitical priesthood needed to make atonement for the people. A clear example of this is in Numbers 25, when the people of Israel are not only metaphorically but literally whoring themselves with the daughters of Moab. During this time, the Israelites began to bow down and worship Baal, the god of the Moabites. Such an act can only result in the kindling of the great and just anger of the LORD. Such sin is taken seriously in the eyes of the LORD (Num. 5:11-31) and the only result for the people of Israel is death. In order to stop the fury of the LORD against Israel, it took the priestly act of Phinehas the son of Eleazar to put a stop to the sin and thus the fury of the LORD against his people (Num. 25:7-9). Scholar Gordon Wenham articulates this so clearly:

The priest, in his life and acts, must personify, even incarnate, the character of God. This is precisely what Phinehas did: he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. In other words, because Phinehas executed the sinner, expressing so clearly and visibly God’s own anger through his deed, that anger was turned away. He made atonement for the people.[6]

In the plan of God’s redemption, there are two aspects that must take place for redemption and salvation to take place. The first is that a sacrifice must be made – something has to die. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22b). The second is that someone has to pay the price of obedience that Israel owes to God. While previously the firstborn sons of Israel bore the responsibility of living obediently and devoted to God, the Levites now take their place. The firstborn sons could never have fulfilled this role because they were never intended to. In God’s sovereignty he chose the Levitical priesthood before the foundations of the world that they might bear the responsibility for the people. In this salvific act for the atonement of Israel, God not only reveals his plans to us but also adds another pointer to the Messianic hope that is ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Conclusions

The Book of Numbers is filled with profound insights and relevant teaching for the life of the Christian today. While often overlooked, it contains rich insights into the character of God and his work with his people. There is perhaps no passage in this book filled with richer implication to the Numbers narrative and the people of God today than the narrative in Number 3:40-51. I make this claim on a number of grounds.

The first is that we as readers today see the severity of our sin in the Levitical substitution of the firstborn of Israel. Would sin not have to have serious implications if there not only needed to be a special group of people set aside with the specific task of atonement, but also that the weight of Israel’s disobedience had to be carried on the backs of individual Levites? Sin does not moderately mar us in the sight of God such that we can still approach him on our own terms; sin radically corrupts us and defiles every part of our being. The consequence of sin carries significant consequences, and we see that in the need of setting aside the Levitical priesthood for necessary particular atonement for the firstborn of Israel.

Secondly, we see the glory of God displayed in his salvific methods of providing redemption for his people. God does not know us corporately or on a general sense, but he knows us by name. He knows his people individually, before the foundations of the world he knew us and predestined us to be adopted as sons and daughters (Eph 1:4-5). Unlike other pagan religions that say man must work to be able to only know God in a general sense, YHWH knows his people in a very specific and intimate sense.

Third, the particular substitution for the firstborn of Israel is a clear and vivid pointer to the person and work of Jesus Christ our Savior and King. As the book of Hebrews tells us, Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, and yet as a greater priest than Melchizedek he is the guarantor of a better covenant (Hebrews 7:22). Having Melchizedek already known as a greater priest than the priesthood of Aaron (Hebrews 7:4-10) – and Jesus is a greater priest than Melchizedek – how much greater then is the priesthood of Jesus in comparison to that of the Levites? Indeed, if the Levites substituted for the firstborn of Israel on a one to one basis, how much greater is our High Priest who substitutes for his people on a one to many basis (Hebrews 7:27)?

Fourth, in the setting aside of the Levites for particular substitution we see the necessity of God’s people to be obedient. The Levitical priesthood was set aside for a life of obedience, and they were to be exemplary in their holiness and obedience (Leviticus 21). Such is the reality for the Christian today; we are chosen and set aside as a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). Just as the Levites needed to be exemplary in their holiness as priests, so too should the Christian be devoted to a life of holiness and obedience in all walks of life. To the one who is given much, much is to be expected.

Finally, in the particular substitution of the Levitical priesthood we see the assurance of our salvation. Just as the Levites were able to provide assurance to all of Israel that they were interceding and making sacrifices on behalf of the people, we too can find our assurance in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Duguid provides a great exposition of this when he says:

Nor has Christ simply substituted for humanity as a mass, making it possible for some undefined number of human beings potentially to be saved. Like the Levites, who substituted for the firstborn of Israel on a one for one basis, redeeming each particularly, so that those who remained over had to be purchased one by one, so also Christ’s perfect life and death atoned particularly for all of his elect. He did not simply write a blank check that was sufficient for humanity. On the cross he wrote a check that specifically provided the payment for each and every one of his elect people, not just making their salvation potentially possible but actually purchasing them. He therefore now owns each one of us, just as God purchased the Levites, obliging us to live lives that are wholly devoted to him.[7]

God’s salvation is particular, it is purposeful, and it is payment for the sinner. God had a redemptive plan for his people long before the world was formed, and we see that clearly in Numbers 3:40-51. God knew that in order to dwell amongst his people, sacrifice had to be made and a buffer had to be in place. Time and time again throughout Israel’s story in the Old Testament we see the necessary intercession of the priesthood on behalf of the people. Praise be to Christ that this was not a permanent reality, but was merely a shadow of the reality to come in him.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ex 33:15–16.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Nu 1:53.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Nu 3:40–41.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Nu 3:46–48.

[5] Iain M. Duguid, R. Kent Hughes, and general editor, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 104.

[6] Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: an Introduction and Commentary (Nottingham, England.: IVP Academic, 2008), 211.

[7] Iain M. Duguid, R. Kent Hughes, and general editor, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 55-56.