After our Bible meeting finished, we were still puzzled over Numbers 7. We didn’t understand some of the questions in this chapter. For example, the twelve tribes of Israel offered the same gifts twelve times. Each time, they were exactly the same. Yet, they are described repeatedly. We know that one written word of the Bible is worth a thousand pieces of gold. The Holy Spirit would surely not record unnecessary words in the Bible. However, from the perspective of efficiency, it seems a bit wasteful to repeat the sacrifices offered by the twelve tribes. This was a question that everyone had during our meeting.
The context of Numbers 7 is the story of Moses and the tabernacle. Moses finishes setting up the tabernacle and anoints and consecrates it and all its furnishings. He also anoints and consecrates the altar and all its utensils (NIV, Numbers 7:1). We noticed something unusual in this verse that we will discuss.
Brother Watchman Nee has a famous hymn. One of the sentences states, “First the blood, and then the anointing oil.” This references the general order of the sacrifice. First, the priest was to present a sin offering or sprinkle blood. In fact, the book of Exodus instructs that the priest first be sprinkled with blood before he is anointed with oil. Exodus 29:21 (NIV) says, “Take some blood from the altar and some of the anointing oil and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments and on his sons and their garments. Then he and his sons and their garments will be consecrated.” Exodus 29:36 (NIV) then says, “Sacrifice a bull each day as a sin offering to make atonement. Purify the altar by making atonement for it and anoint it to consecrate it.” This second verse demonstrates that the sin offering must be offered first before anointing the altar to consecrate it.
However, Numbers 7 does not record the rule of sprinkling blood or offering the sin offering first. We should keep in mind, therefore, that Numbers 6 had mentioned the sin offering as it relates to the law concerning the Nazarites; therefore, it is likely these verses in Numbers were specifically spoken and directed towards the Nazarites after their defilement. It seems the verses in Numbers and Exodus may have no direct relationship.
Of course, the sacrifices of the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel later included the sin offering. Each leader presented a male goat as a sin offering. The total number for the sin offering was twelve. But this happened after Moses anointed the tabernacle, altar and all its utensils. Today, we will not discuss the specific numbers and spiritual meanings of the various sacrifices offered by the leaders of the twelve tribes. We will just talk about the last verse of Numbers 7 which states, “When Moses entered the Tent of Meeting to speak with the LORD, he heard the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the Testimony. And he spoke with Him” (NIV, Numbers 7:89). How did Jehovah and Moses talk before? When Aaron and Miriam rebelled against Moses, Jehovah came to defend Moses. It was recorded that He spoke with Moses face to face (Numbers 12:8). It was also recorded in Exodus 33:11 that Jehovah spoke to Moses face to face like speaking to a friend. However, in Numbers 7 Moses heard Jehovah’s words on the atonement cover, and he spoke with Jehovah in that place. So, when Jehovah was talking with Moses here on the atonement cover, was it a new way? Since the tabernacle had just been set up, perhaps a new way had been established.
Exodus 40 records that when the tabernacle was set up, a cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not even enter the tabernacle. This chapter also talks about Jehovah commanding Moses to anoint the tabernacle and the altar and sanctify them.
Our group was left wondering why anointing the tabernacle and the altar had to be done first, only then allowing the twelve leaders to make offerings. We also wanted to understand why the Lord and Moses were speaking at the atonement cover. What is the relationship between these three?
Whether it is Numbers 7 or Exodus 40, both record details about anointing the tabernacle and that the presence of Jehovah was in the tabernacle. In other words, the twelve Israelite leaders represent the twelve tribes coming to the tabernacle to see God and enter His presence. Although they had not seen Him with a naked eye, they had entered His presence. Therefore, even though the leaders of each tribe offered the same sacrifice, the sacrifices should not be devalued and only considered repeats of the same gift. Why? Because in the eyes of God each leader and tribe they represented are extremely precious.
I once read testimonies of Anna Rountree, a female prophet in the United States. She authored the book, “The Heavens Opened.” In her book, she testifies to seeing countless prayers flying to our heavenly Father. When Father God appeared to her, she asked Him, “Are you busy? Millions of prayers come to you every second.” Our heavenly Father smiled and said, “But each of my children will receive My unique attention.” In another vision, Anna saw a large group of children lined up in front of the Father, each holding a flower that they picked outside. The children gave their flowers to the Father and he received the blessing of the flesh flowers from each one. He embraced them one by one. Anna was told afterward that these children in queue were all aborted babies. They were lining up to give flowers to the Heavenly Father to thank Him for giving them eternal life and for taking care of them. I was touched that each of these children had the chance to do this one at a time. It was not a mere repeat. Each act represents a sincere thanks to the Father God. I felt this picture resembles well the sacrifices of the twelve tribal leaders in Numbers 7.
Many people often feel that there isn’t a lot of God’s presence in their daily life. Perhaps the normal spiritual thing is that we need to pray and apply the blood of Jesus Christ to ourselves in order to come into God’s presence. This process seems to be the same as when the priest entered the tabernacle. First, we will take our sin offering, guilt offering, and other sacrifices to be cleansed. At the same time, we present gift offerings such as a grain offering and a burnt offering. Then we will go to the basin to wash away our defilement. All of these are sacrifices are performed in the outer courtyard. After which, we enter the sanctuary and present the showbread on the table (some people say that the Hebrew meaning of this showbread is “the face of God”). Then we will go to the golden lampstand to receive light. We enter to approach the golden altar of incense to intercede and offer a pleasing aroma to God. Now we can enter the Holy of Holies and meet God. The process of meeting God is like when Moses and Jehovah were talking on the atonement cover. We can also talk to God in the Spirit like this. In the Old Testament, the blood covered and made atonement for sins. In the New Testament, the blood of Jesus Christ covers and cleanses us from our sins, making it so that God does not to look at our sins. Through the blood of Christ, our sins are covered and we are redeemed allowing us to meet with God.
But in Numbers 7, the tabernacle and utensils had to be consecrated. Why did they need to be consecrated? Because the presence of the Lord would fill the tabernacle. He is holy and everything had to be cleansed and made holy. The picture of the sacrifices offered here by the twelve tribes of Israel is a demonstration of how to stay in God’s presence and how to serve Him in His presence. It is not merely a process of how to enter into God’s presence like I mentioned.
Let us first look at the gifts that the leaders of Israel offered together. Numbers 7:3 (NIV) says, “They brought as their gifts before the LORD six covered carts and twelve oxen—an ox from each leader and a cart from every two. These they presented before the tabernacle.” This means that the leaders gave such gifts in partnership. Every two leaders would give a cart, and each leader an ox. Perhaps the cart represents one’s ministry; therefore, in this case, ministry should be performed in partnership with others. But the ox represents a redeeming sacrifice, or our personal spiritual experience. Everyone must have their own unique experience of redemption with the Lord.
Next, Jehovah instructed Moses to accept these gifts and do things on behalf of the Levites. There existed specific instructions for particular groups of people. Kohathites did not receive any gifts because they were responsible for carrying the objects of the sanctuary. The Gershonites and Merarites served in the outer courtyard and were responsible for transporting the objects into the outer courtyard. The Gershonites were given two carts and four oxen while the Merarites were given four carts and eight oxen. There is a spiritual lesson here. That is, the closer our life and service are to the outer courtyard, greater will be the influence of the outside world or the flesh on our lives. But the closer our life and service are to the Holy of Holies, less will be the power of the outside world to affect our lives.
A lack of obedience in following God’s specific instructions is why God struck down Uzzah when he put his hand on the ark of God to stable it when the oxen stumbled (1 Chronicles 13:7-13). First, Uzzah is a descendant of Merari (1 Chronicles 6:29), and he himself should not have transported the ark. Second, even if the ark had to be transported, it should not have been done so by an ox cart. It must be carried by shoulder, and only the Kohathites could carry it on their shoulders. Finally, the ox cart they used was sent by the Philistines. Therefore, God killing Uzzah was inevitable. God did not suddenly strike someone down without reason. Rather, God had already explained to the Israelites many times in advance how things should be done. This verse illustrates the seriousness of the priestly order that God has set up. There is order in the service of God. Defying this order may cause us to face grave consequences.
While we all serve God, our roles in serving God are different. Jehovah explained to Kohath, Gershon, and Merari that they would assume different responsibilities. We each have different gifts and functions within the body of Christ due to our varied callings from God. For example, Paul said that God’s gifts include the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Each one is a different function. We cannot deny that these functions are different, nor can we deny that there is a correct spiritual order within the church of God. Paul also told us that we should not go beyond our limits (NIV, 2 Corinthians 10:13) when we look at ourselves.
But this does not mean that we have class differences. Through the ages, God’s people have often committed mistakes in two areas of thought. First, the gift of God is often distorted into class differences, such as the situation within the history of Catholicism. The other area is opposition against a clergy system because of the belief that it interrupts the correct spiritual order established by God within the Church. In fact, there is still a lot of controversy among churches and leaders as to whether a clergy system is needed. In particular, the Brethren under John Darby were very opposed to the idea of a clergy system and they experienced many divisions because of this. In the end, they had not reached their goal of becoming “the pure body of Christ.” It can be said of their experience that simply removing the clergy does not completely solve the problems of the Church.
I recently wrote a paper on the history of John Darby for my doctoral dissertation. I specifically quoted one author’s comment regarding this kind of situation. The quote came from the book, “Plymouth Brethren,” and the author is Massimo Introvigne. Introvigne wrote, according to research done by American sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, “The spirit of Protestantism, Stark and Finke claim, is in itself anti–institutional. Its protest is largely about the corruption it regards as inherent in large structures and instructional churches. Often in history, Protestants have proclaimed their desire to move ‘outside of Babylon’ and to return to the ‘purity’ of primitive Christianity. According to Finke and Stark’s model, these ‘good intentions’ normally would not last long. Little by little, the second generation of each new Protestant wave will in turn start a journey toward institutionalization.”
Introvigne positively commented on the Brethren’s efforts to break away from institutional Christianity. He concluded that they had failed reaching their utopian. In my paper, I shared my experience and observations from the Local Church Movement (LCM) and I attest to Introvigne’s observation being true. The LCM was heavily influenced by the Brethren. It also attempted to break away from institutional Christianity. Unfortunately, even after years, it cannot be said that institutional religion did not still infiltrate the LCM until today. Breaking away from institutional Christianity may stem from a genuine motivation to be more holy, but often when a Christian movement reaches the second and third generations, this kind of institutionalization is inevitable.
Therefore, when commenting on this phenomenon, I said that we should neither deny people with the gift of God (such as the apostles, prophets, etc.) nor the gift of the Holy Spirit (such as healing the sick and casting out demons, prophesying, preaching, and speaking in tongues). God’s intentions are not to completely deny the clergy system since the distinct functions of Aaron and the Levites are the clergy system established by God. At the same time, God longs for every member of the body of Christ to mature and function individually because each one carries the gifts of the Holy Spirit and can receive more. We cannot completely deny the clergy system, but we must establish a dynamic and organic cooperative relationship between the clergy system and ordinary people with various gifts. For example, we need to have a basketball star such as Yao Ming to represent China’s national team in basketball matches such as the NBA. We also need to actively encourage all the members on the team to play basketball, so that everyone can stay fit and cultivate their basketball talents. This is a dynamic relationship. Without a player like Yao Ming, we cannot win international competitions. However, not everyone needs to be a Yao Ming; we must use each gifted and talented person for their purpose. Additionally, if there were no promotion of basketball for all, we might not be able to select the next Yao Ming.
I personally think that the efforts of the Brethren and the Local Church Movement to remove pastors and other traditional clergy systems in an attempt to achieve priesthood in the body of Christ, was successful to a certain extent. It brought a lot of positive influence and helped many brothers and sisters to develop their gifts. For example, in the Local Church Movement, everyone is taught to prophesy (forthtell). This teaching encourages many to develop a gift of teaching. This is nearly impossible to develop in the case of many traditional churches where pastors are the main preachers. This is because lay people are not given the opportunity to speak to the congregation in a teaching format. I personally think that the two paragraphs of Numbers 7 are talking about these two different situations. In the first paragraph, God did establish the distinct functions of Aaron, the sons of Aaron, the descendants of the Levites (Kohath, Gershon, and Merari), and their limitations. In the eyes of God, there are indeed separate roles and different ministerial functions. This is the clergy system set up by God.
The second paragraph, which appears to show the content of the sacrifices of the twelve leaders as the same, is not merely repetitive. Rather, God is pleased with everyone’s service to Him. Everyone has their own gifts from God and no one can replace what each offers to God. God also created every snowflake differently; they are not simply replications of each other. Everyone can also bring unique joy to God. This is likened to receiving gifts by your two sons. Although the gifts given to you by your sons seem to be the same, the meaning they represent is different. Each gift represents each one’s love for you. If I were one of the sons, I would not allow myself to think that my gift was worthless in the eyes of my father just because my brother had brought the same gift as me. Both gifts are equally precious.
Recalling Darby, he was actually not completely opposed to the clergy system. He hoped that the church would receive the gifts bestowed from God to the body of Christ as Paul did—to serve as members of the church’s clergy system. One reason Darby opposed the Anglican Church is because they required that a person be ordained by the state in order to preach. Darby pointed out that if Paul came to the Anglican Church of England at that time, Paul would likely not be able to preach because he was not ordained.
So, the correct way for order is to respect the clergy system established by God. On the other hand, we must also boldly accept all the gifts of the Holy Spirit and not just the three gifts that the traditional evangelicals are familiar with and that Darby promoted (preaching, pastoring and evangelism). We must receive all God’s gifted persons including prophets and apostles. We also need to be open to all the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (prophesying, speaking in tongues, healing the sick and casting out demons). This will create a lively body of Christ. There are gifted people everywhere who are bestowed by God to the Church to train other brothers and sisters. Because of the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, all brothers and sisters should serve using their various gifts. Only in this way can the Church of God fulfill its collective calling as one body with many members working for the glory of God. I personally think that when we establish a dynamic relationship between these two, it will make the church more pleasing to God. God will also entrust us with more, such as releasing more prophetic words.
Let me give a final example. Samuel mentioned that when Eli was priest, the word of the Lord was scarce. It’s only when God raised Samuel as a prophet and priest that the situation gradually changed. Not only did Jehovah’s words by the mouth of Samuel come to pass and not fall to the ground, but Samuel went on to establish a school for the prophets to teach them how to serve God with their gift. This example is a good illustration. Not only did Samuel’s life serve as a gift to God, but he perfected the gifts of others in people such as in David and other ordinary people whose names are not recorded. God has bestowed both the gifted people and the gift of the Holy Spirit to His church. Their organic cooperation can change the current church. This is the inspiration I received from the pictures of the two stories regarding the spiritual order of the priest and the repeated gifts offered by all twelve tribe leaders.
Concluding, God has gifted all in the body of Christ and he expects that each one will operate in their function within the body. Also, God’s desires continual communication with believers just as he was always talking to Moses. As demonstrated in Numbers 7, God spoke to Moses in a new way and this represented a new beginning. After Moses, priests began to do the same thing and now New Testament believers also do likewise. We enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Christ which cleanses us from all sin, but it is by God’s Spirit that we commune with the Godhead. Moses set the new example for those wishing to enter God’s presence and meet with Him.
 Massimo Introvigne, The Plymouth Brethren (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2018), 159, Kindle.