Numbers 8:19 – And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.”
Worship is central to the lives of all people. Everybody worships. Everybody, physically or symbolically, bows down to declare a thing worthy. Informally, that act of worship might be obedience to the word of God. It might be a person elevating his job above his family. It might be a mom honoring the Lord in caring for her family. It might be a person chanting a political slogan. Not all worship is good. But all people worship.
God created us to worship him. When we honor him rightly, we do the very thing for which we exist. But we must not allow ourselves to miss the fact that God is the Creator, he is the Lord, and he has every right to determine what is right in worship. God has given us standards as to what formal worship he will accept.
I pondered this in a read through the book of Numbers. In chapter 8, God gives the instructions for how the Levites were to be set apart for service. We read of how they were to be ceremonially cleansed (a set of requirements that was interestingly similar to the cleansing process for a person recovering from leprosy in Leviticus 14). The Levites were presented as a wave offering, symbolically given over to the Lord. And eventually, once the cleansing ceremonies as required by God were complete, the Levites were able to serve in the tabernacle.
If you look at the verse above, the Levites were given to the priestly line. Why? They were to do the service in the tabernacle and later the temple. That means they were to simply do the work required to make the ministry happen. Of course, a major part of that ministry is that the Levites were to make atonement for the sins of others. They sacrificed animals in accord with the covenant law of God.
What caught my attention in this read through is the reason why atonement needed to be made. At the end of the verse, we read, “that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.” Catch the implication. If the people of Israel, in their natural state of sinful uncleanness, were to approach the place of the presence of God, a plague would break out among the people. Translate that. If we, in our sinfulness, enter the presence of God without atonement made for us, we die.
Of course, this has gospel implications. Jesus made the atoning sacrifice for all that God will welcome into his presence. And without Jesus’ sacrifice, we will die eternally.
But what grabbed my attention this time is the connection to worship. Worship is an act where a person, physically or symbolically, bows before the Lord to give him homage, where a person participates in commanded acts of obedience. Thus, the work at the tabernacle is worship. And this passage, requiring particular acts of atonement for people to approach the Lord, reminds us that God has standards for what worship he will accept. Formal worship of the lord is not a thing that we are allowed to simply make up as we go along. We are to approach the Lord in his way, according to his word, under the atoning grace of Jesus Christ.