Here at the close of the book of Numbers the Israelites are gathering at the east bank of the Jordan River, getting ready to storm into Canaan, conquer the inhabitants, and take over the land that God had promised to Abraham many centuries earlier. The men were gearing up for battle, conquest, and settlement. One of the many purposes for the books of Moses was to instruct the people as to the geographical distribution of the tribes. In other words, it was a real estate guide, divvying up the land to each of the tribes of Israel.
Each one got a piece of the pie. Each one, that is, except for the Levites. Remember, in Exodus the Levites were set aside as the priestly tribe. They were not allowed to own land. They were dedicated to the Lord and were set apart to facilitate the Israelites’ worship of God. In this chapter we see that the Levites were sprinkled throughout the tribes of Israel, much like one would sprinkle salt all around one’s dish of food. Hmmm….salt.
There are some observations and applications we can make from this chapter:
The priests of God were sprinkled like salt throughout the nation. Peter tells us that we, as followers of Jesus, are a royal priesthood. The church is like the tribe of Levi in the world. We are to 1) not consider the land our possession, we are just strangers and sojourners in it, 2) infiltrate the culture and be present “in it, but not of it” (John 17:15-19) in order to be “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16) in the world. God distributed the Levites throughout the nation because He knew that without the presence of the priests in their midst, the nation would be tempted to follow the idol-worshipping nations around them. The hope of the world is the church scattered throughout it. It is the presence of God-focused, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled Christians in the midst of pagan worldviews that will slow the rate of decay and be a conduit of hope to the lost and dying world.
One of the purposes of the Levitical cities was to protect people from their own sinfulness. They were to be a haven of refuge. Notice an important piece of the instructions regarding the city of refuge…if a person was guilty of intentional murder, then they deserved to be punished. However, if a person did something stupid and it ended up in a terrible result, like death, then the offender needed a place of refuge. The avenger of blood was hot on his heels and he needed a place to hide out, be safe, regroup, repent, and wait for the day of deliverance. When the high priest died then the killer could be released from the bondage of guilt and allowed to return to a normal life.
Let’s draw an analogy from this for the church. If Christians are like the Levites, being the royal priesthood, and are sprinkled throughout the world like salt, then one aspect of the function of the church is that it should be a city of refuge for the spiritual refugee. We live in a world where people are being spun around so fast by the whirlwind of sinfulness in our dominant culture that people are hurting each other and themselves needlessly, “innocently” all the time. That is not to say that people are innocent and not responsible for their actions. It is to say that the majority of sinners are such because of the dominant influence of evil in the world. These lost souls need a place where they will be welcomed in and sheltered from their great accuser, the avenger of blood, their enemy, the accuser, and allowed to heal. When the high priest dies, then their sin will be forgiven and they can be set free.
Guess what…the high priest died. When Jesus died He set the captive free.
As the church, let us consider how each meeting place could consider itself a city of refuge for the people in its surrounding neighborhood. As we gather each week to worship God, we are like the Levites, shining the light of God’s truth. People in the immediate vicinity should be able to detect that something is going on. Through our prayers and our intentional relational outreach, they should be able to smell the joy and hope that comes from that church. If our churches would view themselves as little outposts of the Kingdom of God in our neighborhoods, then we can serve as cities of refuge for the sinner to enter and be healed.