Strength for the Journey: "The Call to Serve" (Part One) – Numbers 3

Despite the fact that some Christians are uneasy with discussing military service as an option for our young people, we are humbled and thankful for each young man or woman that chooses to serve in our armed forces. We support them through this sacrifice, and pray for them without ceasing. We also are particularly sensitive about the needs and work of the fine men in the “Chaplain’s Corps” of the US military. We believe their work to be more than important – we believe it to be essential….

One of the things anyone in the military will tell you is that they learn very early in their time the STRUCTURE of the service.

They know from the smallest of emblems the rank and accomplishments of others around them. They know when to stand for another person, simply because of their rank. They understand respect, and they learn the parameters of each job assigned to them. They are not taught to initiate, but to follow. Theirs is not normally a call to creativity – but to obedience. The military, perhaps better than anyone in modern society, is able to organize a rabble into a squad of accomplishers. Given a clear objective and a chain of command, they are able to carry out mission after mission. One thing is painfully clear about their work: without clear definitions and parameters, the whole system breaks down quickly. Painstaking work on organization in the boot camp saves lives on the field of battle. Under fire, it is too late to learn who is in charge, and how to accomplish team objectives – there simply isn’t time.

What is true about the physical fighting force of our military today was also true about the people of God in the wilderness long ago. They were given a short time at Sinai to organize into ranks before the journey from the Mountain of the Law to Mount Nebo – where Moses looked over the Promised Land before his death. The journey was perilous, and God’s organization and ranking was meticulous. The record of that organization is found in the text for today’s lesson from Numbers 3 and 4.

Before we look into the organization of the ancients, we again should pause and remember that the record of this organization was part of God’s training manual to believers throughout the ages. He intended that organization and preparation be hallmarks of His work in the world during every generation. In ours, it is no different. We are in a strange time in the life of the modern church. Even after churches have been planted in virtually every community of our United States, we find the populace virtually Biblically illiterate. We find believers living indistinguishable values to lost men and women around them. It is as if the army has lost its ability to recognize uniforms, let alone understand sleeve markers for rank. We need to re-examine what God wants from His followers.

Key Principle: Working together well requires defined expectations and structure. For God to be well served, believers must understand the standards for participation, the parameters of the work, and the leadership structure.

To help us understand the whole passage and the people involved, maybe it would be most helpful to recall an old story from the Bible, set at the time of the Patriarchs…

Our story began with a young woman named Leah who had a broken heart. She grew up in a home with a beautiful younger sister, and Leah was not as valued because, frankly, she wasn’t as beautiful as her younger sister Rachel. One day she met the most handsome man, and she longed to have him as her husband. Unfortunately, as was the story of her whole life, the man didn’t love her back – but fell deeply in love with her more beautiful, younger sister. Leah’s father made a deal with the young man to allow him to work for seven years in order to earn Rachel – his beautiful daughter’s hand – in marriage. At the end of the seven years, Leah’s dad switched the younger girl for our broken-hearted bigger sister. She slipped into the bridal chamber, and in darkness she drank in one night of romantic love with her new husband, believing in here heart, or at least HOPING, that if he would give her a chance, she would win him over. The morning sun revealed her face, and her new husband was angry over the switch. He felt abused by her father, and he took some of it out on her. Her charged out of the tent as she lay crying – her one night of acceptance and love sunk into a bitter pool of tears. Another deal was struck for her younger sister’s hand, and her new husband continued to work for his true love – all the while his first wife just wanted him to love her deeply – as she loved him. Would NO ONE understand her need for love? God opened her womb and she had a child and named him “Look a SON!” (Reuben) hoping to get her husband to see her as valuable and important to him. She bore him another child and called him “God has heard!” (Simeon) believing that her petitions to the Lord would bring her husband around as she gave him a future. A third child was born and she called him “Attached” (Levi) hoping that her husband would grow attached to her through this third son. It didn’t happen. She cried. She sought God some more, and then she learned her lesson – God gave her yet a fourth son, and she called him “Praise!” (Yehudah) because she was finally learning to get her self-worth and approval from God and not husband.

Those children grew up. We want to follow the sons of “Attached” or Levi. They went with Jacob into Egypt when Joseph saved their lives during a famine. The sons of Levi grew into a large brood, as did the sons of all of Jacob’s family. When Moses was used of God to lead the people from Pharaoh’s harsh hand, the sons of Levi left with the flock of Israel and journeyed to Sinai. This is where our text is set – at the Holy Mountain of God – as the children of Israel ready for the journey to the Promised Land.

Our story is about one Israelite family – that of Levi. They distinguished themselves on the journey when Moses went up onto the mountain, and the people began a terrible and sinful party around a “golden calf” set up to bear an image of their self-styled god. The Levites refused involvement, and were ordered to even kill others of Israel who were involved in debauchery (Ex. 32). The Levites acted so righteously in that exchange that God commended them in His Holy record: (Ex.32:29) and placed a special blessing on them. When we speak of Levi, by Numbers 3 and 4 he was long dead, but he had fathered three sons that became heads of significant households in Egypt: Gershon. Kohath and Merrari.

In the line of Kohath was the father of Moses and Aaron – Amram, son of Kohath, son of Levi. God set aside all the sons of Kohath that came from Aaron’s loins to be the priest of the Tabernacle. Other sons of Kohath were NOT to be priests, were special “Kohathite Levites” that handled the most holy parts of the Tabernacle. The rest of the Levitical family – sons of Gershon and Merrari – were given other important tasks in regards to the worship center of God in the camp of Israel. Our lesson is about the setting aside of each of their duties… but that is not ALL the text is about. It is about something much bigger – the principles of ORGANIZED WORSHIP AND SERVICE of the people of God.

Let’s remember that we are a part of a believing family that extends back generations. God has always had a people that was learning of His love, and attempting to walk with Him. He told us the story of our older brother Israel’s assignments to help us understand our own. Each principle is a timeless truth of an unchanging God – the same God that we serve today. In all the words, don’t get lost and forget the premise of all of this: working together well requires defined expectations and structure. For God to be well served, believers must understand the standards for participation, the parameters of the work, and the leadership structure.

Principles of God’s Worship Structure

1: God set up the system by His Word, and chose the key leaders to lead the team of servants for His people (3:1).

Numbers 3:1 Now these are the records of the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when the LORD spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.

God knows how He wants things done. His Word is specific as to who should serve in what capacity. It is not subject to culture or popular sentiment – it is based solely on God’s Word. The restrictions for the offices, the functions of those offices, and the call to those offices belong to God and are specified in His Holy Word. In ancient Israel, God spoke to Moses about which people were to be placed in which service – and it was based solely on their birth. God placed them in the wombs of their mothers, and the womb of a Levite gave birth to a Levite. They did nothing special to be better – they were CHOSEN.

Today, the work of God is carried out by people who were GIFTED BY God with spiritual enablings from their NEW BIRTH. When they came to Christ, they were given spiritual gifts that marked their service in the Body of Christ. They are not better – they are CHOSEN. Every believer was given gifts, and all of the gifts were designed to build the whole body. The point it this: giftedness was a birth issue, not an issue that made them somehow “holier” than others. When we function in our gifts, we will find that some among us are gifted for the operations of ministry.

Without moving far afield, we also need to recall that God placed the parameters on WHO got the specific call to do ministry tasks. He was not an “equal opportunity” leader. In the past, Levites from the family of Merari got certain tasks, but they were not to do the work of Gershonites. Kohathites were given special and important tasks – but not those of the family of Aaron, who alone bore priestly responsibilities. What if I felt God called me to be a priest, but I was not of the sons of Aaron? I would serve in the station God gave me with all my might, but I would not become another because I FELT I should be. God set the parameters. The same is true in Pastoral ministry today. I keep running into really well intentioned ladies who FEEL that God called them to do the work of Pastor. Biblically speaking, He didn’t. It isn’t unclear. We don’t have time to address all of the case for this in this lesson, but it is nowhere unclear in Scripture. How people feel about their service isn’t the point – God’s parameters are the ones that matter, and they are found in His Word.

2: The servant team cannot and will not be sufficient to accomplish the goals of ministry (3:2-5)

Numbers 3:2 These then are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 3 These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the anointed priests, whom he ordained to serve as priests. 4 But Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD when they offered strange fire before the LORD in the wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron. 5 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying…

Three important truths come from the few verses above. Each help us move in on God’s direction, and understand a problem God was caring for. The group of priests that came from the line of Aaron was FAR TOO SMALL to care for all the work, so they were given a portion of the work to accomplish, and the rest to oversee.

• Privileged: The men were marked by name (3:2).

God gave a special privilege to Aaron’s sons in service, and they showed themselves to be neither deserving, nor intrinsically better than the rest of the people. Serving God in intercession and leadership, shepherding and disciple building is a PRIVILEGE of weak and frail vessels. Pastoral ministry is not given to men that “glow in the dark”. It is given to men that God called – for no particular reason in themselves. Left to their own devices, they would not “deserve” any authority, and they would not exercise prudence and discipline. God granted the privilege, and they should hold ministry in their hands as something God enlisted them into, and God entrusted them for. It is a gift, not a problem. If a shepherd cannot honestly say that they sense their ministry as a gift of God – they need to recuse themselves.

• Tested: The men were held by God to a higher standard than their peers (3:3-4a).

In the case of Nadab and Abihu, it appears they became drunk on day, and failed to precisely follow God’s method of putting fire on the altar. Focus on their personal pleasure made them sloppy about caring for God’s work – and that is always a danger. One of the greatest applications of this truth in my lifetime has been the professionalism of ministry. Men in the work have begun to look at the service as an occupation more than a calling, and it shows up in a focus on what they can GET over what they are willing to SACRIFICE and how they are willing to SERVE. The standard is HIGHER for God’s under-shepherds. Their focus is supposed to be different.

• Limited: The men were too few in number to meet the needs of the community (3:4b-5)

The work was too great for the family of Aaron, and the work is still too great for the under-shepherds today. Pastors cannot reach a community, be at the bedside of the sick, pray without ceasing for the flock, disciple the young and care for the old. There are the same hour limits to Aaron’s sons as to the rest of Israel’s sons. The work was simply too much to effectively accomplish. The most important work was accomplishing the tasks God’s Word outlined for each specific office. No one office was to do the work of all. This is the reason that later in church ministry, God made intentional training and discipleship so important. The work of the under-shepherd today is to “train the believers to do the work of the ministry”, NOT to be the professional that does it for them. Good shepherds are working to fill the place with the next generation replacements, because the work will always be both too big, and last beyond the borders of our lives.

3: God appointed others to be brought into the practical maintaining of the ministry (3:6-9)

Numbers 3:6 “Bring the tribe of Levi near and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. 7 “They shall perform the duties for him and for the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, to do the service of the tabernacle. 8 “They shall also keep all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, along with the duties of the sons of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle. 9 “You shall thus give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the sons of Israel.

Because the work was too large for the priests, God laid out the plan as to how the work could be effectively accomplished. Again three important truths can be gleaned from the verses we just read:

• Appointed: God birthed servants into this privileged position (3:6).

God appoints, God’s leaders acknowledge. The Levites were placed into their position by God, but enlisted into operation by the acknowledgement of the leaders. The same is true today. Each believer is gifted to do part of the work of ministry – and each leader should be busy trying to identify God’s gifting of them so that we can properly train and equip them for that work. Failure to identify your gifting will keep you from participating in the work the way GOD MADE YOU. Failure of leaders to enlist gifted men and women into their work, and motivate them to stay at the task faithfully will burn out ministry staff. The God-given task for anyone in ministry is to search for, enlist, train and motivate those who God has gifted. If we lack those with the appropriate gifts, we should be seeking God in prayer asking for people with the right gifts.

• Practical: They serve in ways helpful to both the ministry staff and the congregation (3:7), sometimes in areas like furnishings and meeting places (3:8).

Notice the work these servants performed was for the benefit of the whole congregation, but the work was done for GOD. They served God by serving the people’s needs in worship. The work they did included much preparation – all this is and was HOLY WORK. It could not be haphazard, and it could not be a second thought. Their priestly attention to detail would make the whole congregation function better. They were to take their part of the work seriously, and do it with all their might.

• Blessing: They are given from among the people and a gift from God to make all things work – it is an esteemed mission (3:9).

I have had the privilege of training many men for shepherding ministry, and have participated, along with the whole congregation, in shaping them. What a blessing they are to us! It is an incredible privilege – to see the hand of God on a family and watch a man diligently prepare for service of the King. I am humbled over and over to be a part of it. It is exciting, and it is fulfilling work. We are blessed when God sends one of these trained from our midst to another place to work in His vineyard there.

4: The intercession work of the minister is distinct and must not be engaged lightly (3:10).

Numbers 3:10 “So you shall appoint Aaron and his sons that they may keep their priesthood, but the layman who comes near shall be put to death.”

God called Moses to single out and recognize His Holy choice for the shepherding group – the priests that would minister for Him. Three important truths ooze from verse ten:

• Recognized: The community will know who they are (3:10a).

The priestly function was important to God, so He had them marked for their work. It wasn’t that the work of the priest was intrinsically more valuable to God than the work of others – that wasn’t the point. All obedient work for the Master is important. The point was that it would HELP the congregation if they knew who was prepared and appointed to this work… Today I bear a title called “Reverend”. It is a funny titular leftover from a bygone era – a mark of ordination to ministry. It seems strange in our casual modern day, but it is important. It is important to ME because it reminds me that people will be watching. It is important to YOU because it marks those who we are expecting something from. What should we expect?

The priest was to be exacting in his work for God in ministry, ever diligent to understand God’s Words and commands better, and careful to find clear applications to his own walk, and the lives of those in the congregation. That is the job – knowing God’s Word, applying God’s truths, training God’s people. We take a title to help recognize that established and acknowledged calling.

• Responsible: They must do their work consistently (3:10b).

The word “shamar” is translated “keep” in the verse, but that is only one part of the word’s essential meaning. The term is also to “guard” to “defend” and to “keep watch over”. It is a word with strong preservation themes. The work of the priestly office was not only to keep up the Tabernacle’s sacrificial system – it was to guard against abuses of God’s Word.

Part of the work of the shepherding office is to guard the Word and the congregational understanding of it. This relates to why it is essential that there is both training and recognition of that training. If a man began to speak out the “word of God” in a way that was untrue, or to introduce immoral applications of it in the congregation, we expect the priests would have been involved. They would speak out.

Increasingly, this is misunderstood in the modern society that we live in. Now, if a political personality stabs badly at a moral issue, the clergy are warned to stand silent because that is now “political”. Let me be perfectly clear:

o If the government licenses same sex marriages, they will stand in violation of the Word of God – and I will not stand silent.
o If the politicians claim that they are able to segment human life into stages, and take the life of anyone who is not self-sustaining, I will not stand silent.
o The definition of LIFE is a moral and Biblical issue – because God created us. The parameters of “fair pricing” are a Biblical issue – or many Minor Prophets should be removed from the book because of their overt statements about that very practice.

Let me be clear: We live in a day when we are left to two choices: government takeover of vital areas of life with all its sloppiness and immoral underpinnings, or free market raping by a party that thinks no regulation is good regulation. This isn’t a Pastor reaching into politics, though the words impact political ideology. Christians have got to be unafraid to challenge both sides of the modern American political spectrum. It is particularly important for me to remind you, dear ones, during this political season – neither side has it right, because neither is deriving the foundational principles from God’s Word.

Republicans are red state people. Democrats are blue state people. Jesus the King’s color is PURPLE.

His definitions of morality are the ones His true church represents – not the other two. Each offer some very good ideas and some very bad ones. Each need to be challenged by God’s church, familiar with God’s Word – and not let off the hook.

We can get so afraid of one side taking control we forget the other isn’t God’s side either. His thoughts are in His Word – and they need to be again in His pulpits. We should not be silent, or cast aside and told we cannot speak because that is political. Nonsense! God’s Word speaks about fair pricing, and about the origins of life – and we need to be prepared to graciously but pointedly challenge from the Word anyone who says otherwise.

We need to speak to principles, while praying fervently for our leaders. We are blessed to have them, and we are blessed to able to choose them. Our President is a man, and he needs our prayers. Our Vice President is a man, and he needs us to intercede on his behalf before God. Our congressman and congresswomen are just people. They don’t see everything and how it will work out. They need our help NOW, and when they time comes our CHOICE later. Our critique must be factual and substantive, not personal and abusive – that isn’t a godly way to behave… but neither is silence from our pulpits.

• Respected: Their work shall not be handled casually (3:10b).

It is hard to read words about layman being “put to death”. It is hard to understand why God so abruptly made clear that He wanted those who were not in the position to recognize that truth. He made clear that ministry wasn’t a casual thing. Service to God isn’t a “spare time” pursuit of the marginally interested. God is looking for people who take what He is doing in their community very seriously, and work diligently to train the next generation to stand for God.

We measure all our work by one standard: “Will it help construct disciples that will make other disciples?” We could have comedy nights and barn dances – and that would make the church at the center of your social life. Is that the call of God to us? I would argue that it is NOT. We can have the occasional fun time, but that isn’t even CLOSE to our primary purpose. The work is serious and important, and requires those who will seriously train to do it.

5: God marked His servants as His special ones among men (3:11-13).

Numbers 3:11 Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Now, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine. 13 “For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the LORD.”

Let’s thank God for some great men and women that He is using and has used in our lives. Look at what the Word reminds:

• Chosen: God specially marked them as His own in a unique property (3:11-13a).

In my life, men like Dr. Ken Masteller who first explained the Gospel to me, or Dr. Jack Jacobs, who first taught me sound methods of Bible study will forever be important in my heart. National Pastors like Chuck Swindoll and his infectious laughter, or John MacArthur and his careful studies will always be tied into my own teaching. Dr. John Caywood, who taught me in a classroom proper study methods helped me more than he could ever know. Pastor Herb Mitchell was used of God in my life to show me practical aspects of ministry. I made my first, and some of my most classic ministry blunders under his ministry tutelage. My life has been blessed with literally dozens of men who have helped, some over the airwaves and others in the classroom of church service. It doesn’t matter – they all helped shape me in some way, and I want to celebrate them. I want to be on the list of other men as they go forward. It is a unique blessing to pass what has been passed to you!

• Separated: God pulled them from the many and made them unique in His eyes (3:13b).

You can hear it ever so clearly: “They are MINE!” We must be careful about how we criticize God’s choice servants. I have been ever so blessed to have many supportive and loving leaders around my life – that is the truth! At the same time, I am quite amazed at how some people speak of men in other ministry places. Remember: they are but men and they make mistakes – but it is a holy calling. I can only hope for those who go out from this place in training that they will be granted such affirming and lovingly supportive people as I have been surrounded with!

At the same time, the words “They are MINE” are sobering to me as I serve my King. I am His unique possession – and I cannot fail to prepare or sluff off in my duties, no matter the temptation to do so. It is essential that we make choices that honor Him, and remember He is watching in the study and preparation, as well as the delivery!

Today’s ministry seems like it is moving faster than ever before, but it may not be heading in the right direction. We need to consider this story:

Years ago in Dublin, Ireland a lecturer named Thomas Henry Huxley lurched out in a horse drawn taxi. It was toward the end of the nineteenth century and Huxley has offered series of blistering verbal attacks on Christianity in public lectures and writings, especially aimed at the “alleged resurrection” of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a devoted disciple of Charles Darwin, and felt his calling to destroy the church in Europe. He was a famous biologist, teacher, author, defender of evolutionary theory. He was bold, convincing and a self-avowed humanist. He had become a traveling lecturer. Having finished another series of public assaults against several truths Christians held sacred, Huxley was in a hurry the following morning to catch his train to the next city. He took one of Dublin’s famous horse-drawn taxis and settled back with his eyes closed to rest himself for a few minutes. He assumed the driver had been told the destination by the hotel doorman, so all he said as he got in was, “Hurry . . . I’m almost late. Drive fast!” The horses lurched forward and galloped across Dublin at a vigorous pace. Before long Huxley glanced out the window and frowned as he realized they were going west, away from the sun, not toward it. Leaning forward, the scholar shouted, “Do you know where you are going?” Without looking back, the driver yelled a classic line, not meant to be humorous, “No, your honor! But I’m driving very fast!” (revised from sermon central).

…I mention him because it seems it is time for our country to take a look out the window. Deficits are doubling, moral thinking is sinking. We are actually debating the morality of beastiality in the news. Our education system is one of the most expensive on earth, but our abilities are sinking. Our past strengths are giving way. We are moving fast in technology – but are we headed in the right direction?

Now look at the church as it is poised to answer the assault of our day… are we heading in the right direction? There is a Japanese saying, “A vision without action is just a daydream, but an action without vision is plain disaster.” ( Perhaps it is time to look out the window and evaluate the direction we are taking in the ministry of Jesus as well. Is our expectation of our church framed on Biblical concepts or popular modern notions?

We must remember, working together well requires defined expectations and structure. For God to be well served, believers must understand the standards for participation, the parameters of the work, and the leadership structure.