“So the Lord said to Aaron, ‘You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood. And with you bring your brothers also, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may join you and minister to you while you and your sons with you are before the tent of the testimony. They shall keep guard over you and over the whole tent, but shall not come near to the vessels of the sanctuary or to the altar lest they, and you, die. They shall join you and keep guard over the tent of meeting for all the service of the tent, and no outsider shall come near you. And you shall keep guard over the sanctuary and over the altar, that there may never again be wrath on the people of Israel. “
Responsibilities of Leadership
Aaron and his sons were given the job of carrying the iniquity of the sanctuary and the priesthood. Let’s look more closely at this phrase. What does it mean to bear the sins of the sanctuary and the priesthood? Why should Aaron and his sons and the people of his tribe (the Levites) bear the iniquity of the sanctuary? And why should they also carry the sins of their own priesthood?
Ordinary Israelites were not allowed to come near the sanctuary or the Holy Place. Simply approaching these holy places would incur sin and guilt. Ordinary Israelites were allowed to move around in the outer courtyard, but they could not enter the sanctuary. Ordinary Levites, who were not priests, could serve in the sanctuary. For example, the Kohathites could carry the items of the sanctuary; the Gershonites could carry the things in the tabernacle; but neither were allowed to touch the items of the sanctuary. Nor could they serve as priests in the sanctuary (Numbers 4). Aaron, his sons and the Levites needed to bear the iniquity of the sanctuary because they were in charge of ensuring that ordinary Israelites did not touch holy things.
Following the incident with Korah and his followers, God set out strict rules for Aaron and his sons to follow. Though God didn’t directly punish Aaron for what happened with Korah, he had a serious warning for the priests and Levites. Perhaps Aaron and his sons had not been vigilant in guarding the gate to the house of God. Korah received severe discipline because he was envious of the privileges of the priesthood. If these things happened again, Aaron and his sons would need to bear the iniquity of their priesthood.
Perhaps Aaron and his son had been apathetic in enforcing sanctuary rules. Aaron’s lax control may have led his sons Nadab and Abihu to offer unauthorized fire, causing them to be burned to death by the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-2). Had they entered the Holy of Holies? Probably not. The golden altar of incense, from which they took fire to add to their own censer, was in the sanctuary just outside the Holy of Holies. A veil separated the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies. They were very close to the Holy of Holies and may have had the intention of entering the Holy of Holies. They took their own censer, added incense, and offered strange fire. God’s severe discipline to these two men was a warning to Aaron. In this passage, the Lord warned Aaron again that if ordinary Israelites entered the sanctuary without permission, Aaron, his sons, and all the Levites will be held responsible. They needed to bear the iniquity. If a Levite became a priest without authorization, not only did this Levite sin, but Aaron and his sons also sinned.
Using a modern example, if you are the leader of a business or organization and others are disobedient to you, of course they need to be held accountable. But on the other hand, you may also have some problems that you need to deal with regarding your leadership skills. After the Lord disciplined the people who rebelled against Aaron, he also dealt specifically with Aaron and his sons in this passage.
Drawing Near to God
When the Lord Jesus was crucified, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place was torn in two, from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-51). Hebrews 10:19-20 says, “Brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” (ESV) These verses tell us that since Jesus Christ took away our sins on the cross, we can now enter into the Holy of Holies with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). In the Old Testament, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year. But in the New Testament, through the blood of Jesus, we can enter into the Holy of Holies with confidence. In the Old Testament, only specially chosen people could become priests. But in the New Testament, we all are the Lord’s royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9-10).
In the New Testament, God wants us first to break free from our flesh and sin, going from the outer courtyard to the Holy Place. To enter the Holy Place is to experience the transformation and renewal of the soul. In the Holy Place, we serve and draw near to God to find grace and mercy.
The strict regulations of the Old Testament law code seem to be inconsistent with the experience of the New Testament. However, when we think in the spirit, we can find some important principles that apply to our spiritual experience today.
We can compare the outer courtyard to a fleshly Christian. Although he is saved and a Christian, he still has a lot of sins and filth in the world. His life and spiritual situation are far from God. Hebrews 10:19-22 mentions Christians who are still in the outer court, not taking advantage of the opportunity to enter the Holy of Holies: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way opened for us through the curtain of His body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (BSB)
Although the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sins, we still need to repent and confess those sins so we can enter into a closer relationship with God. In this way, we will have a powerful, close relationship with God and experience answered prayer. It’s not that God never hears the prayer of immature believers; in fact, he often does. But sometimes, years after becoming a believer, we discover that our prayers are being hindered because of sin in our lives. It’s not that God doesn’t hear your prayers, or that he doesn’t want to answer. Instead, he wants you to confess your sins and repent, to take away these sins of the flesh so that you can get closer to Him. In other words, although you can come before God through the blood of Jesus Christ, your sin and uncleanness cannot be brought near to Him. Because of your sin and uncleanness, you can only stay in the outer courtyard.
Worshiping God in the sanctuary can be compared to a Christian who has dealt with sin and filth and is actively serving God. Although you are enthusiastic, God will not always let things go your way. For example, you want to be the leader of a certain group in the church, but another brother or sister also wants the same position. In the end, the pastor or elder chooses another person instead of you and you feel really upset. This is the modern equivalent of being a priest. Yes, the New Testament says that we are all priests. But when you really want to serve in a position of ministry, there are many requirements you must meet. Many times, you want to serve in a certain way, but God does not bless your ministry. Maybe this means that although you want to be a priest, God allows other people to get in your way, like Aaron and his sons in the Old Testament. It is not that God wants to hinder you from serving Him. Instead, He wants you to become holier before serving Him.
Serving God in the Holy of Holies can be compared to a Christian who removes the sins of the flesh and the rebellion in the soul, experiences how the cross deals with the flesh, and has an intimate fellowship with God. Although the veil was removed by Jesus on the cross, we often still need to go through a spiritual breakthrough, especially the breaking of the flesh, before we can enter the veil and have an extremely intimate fellowship with God through the Spirit.
Aaron represents the spirit and the Holy of Holies; the Levites represent the soul and the sanctuary; the Israelites represent the world and the outer courtyard.
Aaron’s two sons were killed because they entered the Holy of Holies without being redeemed and made holy. God called Aaron and the Levites to be responsible for keeping guard. They must not allow ordinary Israelites go near the tent of meeting. Aaron and his sons acted as the guards of the Levites, who were not allowed to come into the Holy of Holies. After we are saved, we still have sins of the flesh in our souls. All of these need to be dealt with and redeemed before we can come nearer to God.
Verses 4-6 state that the Levites are God’s gift to Aaron and his son, to perform the service of the tent of meeting. Metaphorically, our spirit or inner man are like priests to Jesus, the High Priest, who lives in our heart. Our spirit or spiritual inner man should follow Jesus and help Jesus to serve God. Meanwhile our soul should help our spirit to serve God. The soul was given to our spiritual new man as a gift by God.
But very often, our soul does not serve the spirit. It does not focus on spiritual things of life and peace. Instead, it focuses on the flesh, which is death (Romans 8:6). In other words, our soul sometimes helps the flesh to sin. Our soul needs to make the right choice, and our spirit needs to guide and direct our soul in its choices.
Pure Gifts to God
Numbers 18:8 tells us that all the contributions offered by the Israelites were given to Aaron. Even though the Israelites offered their gifts in the outer courtyard, their offerings were still acceptable to God. After we receive salvation, sin still lives in our lives. But we also have a part of us that is consecrated. We may commit sins during the week, but we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. On Sunday, we serve in the children’s ministry. Our offering pleases God because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, even though we still sin from time to time. These offerings are still consecrated, and God will remember them.
The holy offerings of the Israelites were given to Aaron for his daily food. In the same way, when you actively give your offering and serve on Sunday, you are helping the pastor to minister. Your service will become the pastor’s (or fellow member’s) spiritual and practical food. The Lord Jesus also said that His food is to do the will of those who sent Him (John 4:34). Although your spiritual life is still in the outer courtyard, your service will become the spiritual food the pastor needs, and it will also become an aroma that will please God.
Redemption and Surrender
Numbers 18: 15-17 says, “Everything that opens the womb of all flesh, whether man or beast, which they offer to the Lord, shall be yours. Nevertheless, the firstborn of man you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs. But the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle their blood on the altar and shall burn their fat as a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” ESV
Why must the firstborn of man be redeemed? Why should the firstborn of an unclean animal be redeemed as well?
It is easy to understand that the firstborn of man should be redeemed. After all, human beings cannot be offered up as burnt offerings like animals can. But why do unclean animals need to be redeemed?
Any animal that God does not desire as a sacrifice will need to be redeemed. In the story of Noah’s Ark, he brought clean and unclean animals onto the Ark. But when he offered sacrifices to God after coming out of the ark, he only offered clean animals and birds on the altar as burnt offerings. God does not desire unclean animals as sacrifice.
When God smelled the pleasing aroma from Noah’s offering, he accepted his sacrifice. Why does God allow unclean animals to enter the ark? This is God’s grace. Why doesn’t God accept unclean animals and birds as sacrifices? This is God’s righteousness.
In the same way, Numbers 18:17 says that the firstborn of a cow, sheep, or goat do not need to be redeemed. They are holy and must be offered as a sacrifice to the Lord. The fat of this sacrifice is to be burned as a burnt offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. The meat belongs to Aaron. But unclean animals must be redeemed with silver. Silver is a representation of redemption.
In the New Testament, Christ provides our salvation and redemption. Although Christians are saved, our souls are not entirely sanctified. A part of our heart may be filled with Christ and the Holy Spirit, but many parts of our heart are still not filled with Christ. Therefore, what we do outside of Christ in our soul or in our flesh will not be accepted by God. Only those parts that have been redeemed by Jesus Christ can be accepted by God.
My personal spiritual experience can serve as an illustration. When God was dealing with an area of my flesh (disobedience) through the environment and other people, I was prevented from having intimate fellowship with him. In a part of my soul, I refused to obey God and submit to the circumstances he had allowed in my life. This part of me needed to be redeemed through the work of the cross, so that I could have a more intimate fellowship with God and have a breakthrough in my spiritual life.
Watchman Nee said, “The soul or the outer man must be broken for the spirit man to be released.” There are some unclean things in my soul that don’t please God. God wants to break me by redeeming this part. In other words, we must experience the work of the cross in every part of our soul. I must clean or redeem this part of me with the life of Christ before I can offer it to God.
When God convicts us of sin, we often blame others and our circumstances instead of looking at what God’s hand is trying to reveal to us. When we humble ourselves before God and see clearly what God is dealing with, he will provide cleansing for us. The part that has been redeemed by God can now be offered to Him. After struggling hard, I finally surrendered this part of the soul to God. I accepted the circumstances he had allowed in my life. Later, I became obedient to God’s will in this area.
Unclean animals cannot be offered to God, nor can they be given to priests. In other words, the sinful things that are of the flesh can neither please God nor supply our spirit with good things. After I surrendered to God in this area, I saw God’s hand of blessing. I had a spiritual breakthrough through His redemption. Because of this, I can enter into a more intimate fellowship with Him. I found that not only is God pleased with my prayers and offerings, but I also have become more spiritually mature than I was in the past. My spiritual man was encouraged through my offering of obedience.
In our world today, God is disciplining us on a global scale. Our circumstances may be permitted by God to deal with our corporate sins and the uncleanness in our souls so that we can grow spiritually. As I mentioned earlier, we often blame others when we experience God’s discipline. The same goes for countries. If you read the Old Testament, you will find that God often uses one nation to deal with another. He used several nations to deal with Israel. When these nations went too far in dealing with Israel, God disciplined them.
God is currently using some countries to deal with other countries. It is easy for us to blame other countries instead of reflecting on God’s will to discipline us through these countries. The purpose of discipline is not punishment, but sanctification. God wants us to be sanctified unto Him.
Our society’s circumstances remind me of the book of Judges. Whenever they were oppressed by the enemy, they would pray to God. God then raised up a judge who would lead the Israelites to conquer the enemy. When the leader would sin, the Israelites would fall into sin and again be oppressed by the enemy. Every time they repented, God would raise up a judge to save them.
The world today is full of sin, and the church is full of unholiness. Perhaps the only thing God can do is hand us over to the enemy’s oppression so that we will repent. If we want to break the cycle, every Christian needs to repent. The unholy parts inside us need to be dealt with and consecrated to God. Change in the church will provide a powerful testimony to the world around us, drawing them to salvation.
Christians are the light of the world. The book of Proverbs tells us that the human spirit is the lamp of the Lord (Proverbs 20:27). Churches shine God’s truth brightly to the world, just like Aaron lit the lamp in the sanctuary. If the world sins, doesn’t the church bear a responsibility for this, like Aaron had a responsibility for the sin of the sanctuary and the priesthood? The darkness of the world is not caused by government or politics. It is mainly caused by the failure of the church to shine the authority and light of God to the world. If the church in a city is strong, naturally the politics and society of that city will improve. But if the church in a city is dark, the city will live in darkness.
Numbers 17 records the way God disciplined Korah for his rebellion and the plague that cleansed Israel. This reminds us of dealing with rebellion in the soul and sin in the flesh. Numbers 18 explains how Israelites can become holy. For this reason, Aaron and his sons must remain holy (Numbers 18:32). The Israelites should give the tithe to Aaron and the Levites, and the Levites should offer them to the Lord (Numbers 17:26-28). The tithe is a holy offering to God. As believers, we are in a process of constant sanctification. Numbers 19 continues to explain the process of purification and cleansing. We will explore this more fully next time.