Numbers 4 records how the Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites transported the things in the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary, and the outer court, respectively. The key verses that we will be discussing today are verses 17-20.
4:17 (NIV) The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
4:18 (NIV) “See that the Kohathite tribal clans are not destroyed from among the Levites.
4:19 (NIV) So that they may live and not die when they come near the most holy things, do this for them: Aaron and his sons are to go into the sanctuary and assign to each man his work and what he is to carry.
4:20 (NIV) But the Kohathites must not go in to look at the holy things, even for a moment, or they will die.”
According to the records of Chronicles, Levi had three sons – the eldest was Gershon, Kohath was the second, and Merari was the third. But Kohath, the second son, was Aaron and Moses’ grandfather. The Kohathites were assigned to carry the things in the Holy of Holies and the sanctuary, while the eldest son Gershon and Merari, the third son, were assigned to carry some things in the outer courtyard. Does this have any spiritual significance? Why did Jehovah choose the second son to carry the most important and holy objects? Jehovah specifically instructed Moses and Aaron not to let the Kohathite tribal clans be destroyed from among the Levites, yet later the Kohathites (led by Korah) were not satisfied with their assigned service in the sanctuary, and were jealous of Aaron’s work in the Holy of Holies and subsequently judged by Jehovah and went down alive into hades (Numbers 16:33). What’s the relation between these?
In the Bible, the Word of God transcends time and space. The Holy Spirit can also speak to us through His Word in a timely manner (Rhema).
As we seek to understand this chapter, God will enlighten us and apply it to our lives today.
In Leviticus 10:1-2, when Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, offered strange fire before the Lord, they were burned to death by Jehovah because He didn’t command them to do so. This shows the solemnity of entering the Holy of Holies. It is recorded in the Old Testament that only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year. One can see from here that when the Kohathites were transporting the things in the Holy of Holies and the sanctuary, they could only carry them. They couldn’t touch the holy things, or they would die.
Here are a few interesting facts. Kohath, Gershon, and Merari could only carry the sacred elements and not touch them. Instead, Eleazar and Ithamar, along with their father Aaron, the priest, prepared them for them, and they are directly responsible to Eleazar and Ithamar. We know that only Aaron the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. Many of the things carried by Kohath were from the Holy of Holies and sanctuary. This was done under the direction of Eleazar, the son of Aaron. Meanwhile, most of the sacred elements carried by Gershon and Merari were the ones in the outer courtyard. This was done under the direction of Ithamar, Aaron’s son.
As we mentioned earlier, the Kohathites rebelled, and the Lord judged them. In addition to the earth swallowing Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, the Lord struck the people with a plague. Moses asked Aaron to take the censer and pray in the midst of the assembly, and the plague stopped. But there were still 14,700 people who died (Numbers 16).
When Saul violated the oath to kill the Gibeonites, a famine came to Israel (2 Samuel 21). When David sinned by counting the Israelites, a plague struck, and 70,000 people died (2 Samuel 24). The plague stopped after David’s sacrifice. God’s judgment often included plagues. Some believe the current outbreak of the coronavirus was sent by the enemy to instill fear and panic, as well as to stop evangelism in the world. We understand that God can stop or prevent these things from happening. Why does He withhold his hand on this and allow it to happen? God is a good God. He is never the source of temptation. It’s our own evil desires and thoughts that lead us into sin, which eventually leads to death (James 1:13-15).
Jehovah is omnipotent and omniscient. Perhaps when He began to choose the Kohathites to serve in the sanctuary, He foresaw their rebellion. Therefore, He specifically reminded Aaron and Moses too, “see that the Kohathite tribal clans are not destroyed from among the Levites” (NIV, Numbers 4:18). Jehovah may have been reminding Aaron and Moses to intercede for the Kohathites for fear that they would be judged because of their future rebellion and that God would have no choice but to eliminate the family of Kohathites. I guess maybe Aaron’s initial prayer may not have been enough, because, in the end, Korah’s descendants still rebelled. Later, Aaron took the censer to intercede in the middle of the assembly. Not only did the plague end, but some descendants of Kohath and Korah also survived, because we know some of the Psalms were written by Korah’s descendants (Psalms 42-49, 84-85, 87-88).
As mentioned earlier, when we sow to the flesh or sin, we will reap destruction. One of the ways God intervenes for us today is to raise intercessors like Aaron to pray for us Just as Aaron prayed for the Kohathites and Abraham prayed for Lot, it’s the same with the church today. If God’s people pray, unbelievers will repent of their sin, and God will forgive. Although we live in the era of God’s grace, if the church lacks in prayer, people’s sin will accumulate, and eventually, people will reap what they have sown, and at the last day, the judgment will come. So if we apply this principle today, we can see, on the one hand, God allowed the coronavirus to happen to lead people to repent. On the other hand, He wants to raise the burden of intercession in churches. Many people in the world are beginning to feel the fragility of life, and the rigidity in their hearts is gradually being shaken. We can also see that the burden of stronger intercession is slowly rising in various churches. When these two combine, it will be a “preparation” role for God’s next move.
This may be a very challenging time, but God’s intentions are ultimately good. God so loves the world and doesn’t want to leave his people to destruction; thus, He allows destruction to come as a wakeup call. The Bible says that God’s judgment begins with God’s household (NIV, 1 Peter 4:17). Is God trying to wake up His church by allowing this virus? Did this destructive virus come to China first because God has ordained a great revival in China, and this great revival will spread all over the world? God told me through countless dreams that this great revival is coming. I told the Holy Spirit that I heard that one out of ten Chinese had been saved since the revival in 1980. He challenged me to imagine two out of ten or more, which would be over 100 million Chinese people saved in the upcoming revival.
No doubt, looking at this story in this context has timely significance. We hope that after we finish our Bible study, readers will not only have the burden of interceding for unbelievers but also praying for God’s mercy so that people can repent and end this pandemic as soon as possible. Moreover, we must break our natural limitations. We should look at this problem spiritually, and see that God’s beautiful blessings and great revival are about to come to China and the world like a tsunami. Before this happens, cleansing is needed. Christians should not live in fear. Instead, we should live in the promises of Psalm 91. This difficult trial period will help unbelievers to repent and be saved while helping believers to go deeper with God. Our prayer is for God to intervene as we diligently intercede for unbelievers to repent and be saved, the pandemic to end and for revival to come.
If Aaron’s intercession could stop the plague, then it could also have prevented Korah’s rebellion in advance. Of course, we know that the nature of human rebellion is very difficult to remove, but at least Jehovah’s warned Aaron and Moses to intercede.
At our Bible study, I suggested that if Christians all over the world, or at least all Chinese Christians, got up at 5 a.m. every day to pray for China, maybe this coronavirus epidemic would not have come to China. Although we know that some Christians pray faithfully, most Christians probably don’t pray enough. This pandemic can’t be blamed only on unbelievers; the church is at fault for its lack of intercession and reflection before God.
First, let’s look at why God chose Kohath to do the most important and holy work rather than his other brothers. We aren’t sure why God did this, but the Bible has a regular pattern of choosing the second child. For example, Abel was the second son, and God accepted his sacrifice but despised Cain’s, who was the firstborn. He also chose Jacob, the second son over Esau, the firstborn. God chose Joseph’s second son Ephraim over Manasseh, the firstborn. There are many other examples of this. Spiritually speaking, it could mean that the first child represents the first man Adam, and the second child represents the las Adam, which is Christ (NIV, 1 Corinthians 15:45). Aaron and Moses were also descendants of Amram, while Korah and Samuel were descendants of another son of Kohath. Samuel is also the descendent of Korah (1 Chronicles 6:38). Amram’s wife was Levi’s daughter, so whether it was the genealogy from the father’s side or the mother’s side, Aaron and Moses were descendants of the Levites.
Apart from Moses, who could speak with God face to face, the person closest to God was Aaron, the High Priest. Moses represents Christ because Moses said that God would raise a prophet like him and that the Israelites would listen to him (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). Aaron also represents Christ being the High Priest of God, who still intercedes for us in heaven. The objects in the Holy of Holies and sanctuary carried by the Kohathites represent Christ, too, as well as the objects in the outer court carried by the Gershonites and Merarites. The entire tabernacle represents Christ. Aaron and his sons, Kohath, Gershon, and Merari, represent the three stages of service. Their degree of holiness and intimacy is different, so their jurisdiction of coming near the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies is different.
Although the Kohathites could carry the objects in the sanctuary, as well as the objects in the Holy of Holies, Jehovah ordered them not to look at the sanctuary, or they would die. Moreover, Jehovah specifically instructed Aaron and Moses not to destroy the Kohathites from among the Levites. So why did Korah’s rebellion still happen, and the Kohathites were almost destroyed amongst the Levites?
Let me use Confucius’s words as a metaphor to explain. Confucius said, “Proximity incurs impertinence while distance incurs complaints.” He is describing a type of person – If you are too close to him, he will not respect you. But if you are too far away from him, he will blame you or hate you.
I’ll be mainly discussing the first aspect here. Let me give a few examples to illustrate. For instance, in ancient China, there are many stories of eunuchs killing the emperor and usurping power. There are even stories about eunuchs taking advantage of the emperor. One of these stories is “calling a stag a horse.” When Qin Shihuang, the first emperor who unified China, died, Eunuch Zhao Gao helped Qin Shihuang’s second son Hu Hai to become emperor and killed the eldest son who should have succeeded to the throne. But the second emperor, Hu Hai, was very weak, so Eunuch Zhao Gao wanted to usurp power. He wanted to test whether the ministers were obedient to him. Thus, one day he brought a stag to Hu Hai and said it was a horse. He asked the ministers just to say that it was a horse. Many people did not dare to offend Zhao Gao and said that it was a horse. Those who said it was a stag were driven away by Zhao Gao. Hu Hai was later forced to commit suicide. But Zhao Gao did not become emperor in the end. Instead, he was killed by Qin San Shi, the third emperor. I imagine that stories like this are part of Western history as well as Chinese history.When serving the king, there were people like Zhao Gao who didn’t respect the king. So, when serving God, would the Levites in the Old Testament make the same mistake and not fear God? The answer is yes.
For example, when Jehovah commanded Moses to bring water out of the rock by speaking to it, Moses struck the rock twice instead. Because of this, the Lord punished Moses, saying that he did not honor Him before the Israelites, so he could not enter the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12). Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu also didn’t respect God because they offered strange fire before the Lord, which He did not command, and God struck them dead (Leviticus 10). Aaron and Miriam were jealous of Moses and said, “Hasn’t Jehovah also spoken through us?” God got angry and punished Miriam with leprosy (Numbers 12). The Kohathites rebelled against God here in a similar manner.
Take a look at these verses in Numbers 16:
16:8 (NIV) Moses also said to Korah, “Now listen, you Levites!
16:9 (NIV) Isn’t it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the Lord’s tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them?
16:10 (NIV) He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too.
As a descendant of Kohath, Korah and his fellow Levites were separated by God from the others to service the tabernacle of Jehovah. Over time as they saw the priests packing the holy things, they felt that they, too, were qualified to do the same work as the priests. Familiarity breeds contempt. This is what the quote of Confucius that I cited earlier is trying to say. Aaron and Miriam, and Nadab and Abihu all made the same mistake – Aaron and Miriam were jealous of Moses while Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire to God. Do we make the same mistake today? We do.
This is one of the problems facing the church in the United States today. The United States is a Christian country. Many people grew up in places where Christian culture was dominant. It is very easy for them to make the mistake of equating “familiarity” with “intimacy.”
These people may possess a lot of knowledge about Christianity and think they understand who Jesus is mentally but haven’t openly accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. Salvation is not based on the knowledge that you’ve grown up with; it’s based on a personal relationship with Jesus. I’ve met many people who have grown up in Christian families in the United States that have not accepted Christ as their Savior.Another example is someone who has been a leader in a Christian organization or denomination for a long time and has naturally assumed the position as a spiritual leader. He may be taking this for granted. Just because you’ve been there a long time does not necessarily mean that God has chosen you for the position. It’s not about position and time as much as it is about intimacy with the Lord. When you are close to Him, he calls and entrusts you to complete His mission.
There is an order of service in God’s household. It’s not that we can’t improve or make progress. Instead, our progress doesn’t come from our ambitions or serving out the measure God gave us, or self-approbation, but from the degree of our sanctification and intimacy with God. In addition to serving God in the Holy of Holies, Moses and Aaron’s duty was to intercede for people like the Kohathites, to make them more holy, and to pray that they would not go beyond the measure God had given them because they were not holy enough. They also would not be judged because of this, which would lead to the danger of their tribe being destroyed.
For a country like China, most people still don’t know God. Their situation is like what Paul described in Romans 1. God created everything for people to enjoy. God’s nature and power are visible to all of His creation, but many people are blinded by darkness. They do not acknowledge the existence of God. This is a form of contempt.
The service of the priests and Levites was to intercede for the Kohathites so they would be free from sin. This is also the duty of the church today.
The Bible records that God cannot be mocked (NIV, Galatians 6:7).
As servants of God, we should stay focused and intercede for the people that God entrusted to us and not concentrate on what others are doing. This could lead to jealousy and strife. Instead, we should keep our eyes on God and take care of those He entrusted to us. Christianity can become so familiar to us that we equate it with intimacy with God. That is not often the case, and we must be careful to cultivate our relationship with God so we won’t be prone to mistakes.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:22-23 (NIV), “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ We need to recognize that Jesus is God and knows everything about us. The tragedy of the verses above is that the people were familiar with Jesus thinking they knew Him, but He made it clear that He didn’t know them. The bottom line is that you can’t pretend to know God and get by with it because you use the right terminology. That’s like mocking Him.The spirit of mocking God comes from Satan. He was “familiar” with God but sinned because he wanted to be equal with God. This spirit is pervasive in countries where Christianity is a minority, as well as in the United States and their churches.
David counting the Israelites is a form of mockery. David tried to count his personal merits without glorifying God, so he was judged by God, and the plague came to Israel. The plague killed 70,000 people. Later, when the angel was about to destroy Jerusalem, Jehovah was sorry and relented from the destruction telling the angel that it was enough and to restrain his hand. When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said, “I was the one who sinned. Why punish the Israelites? Punish me and my father’s house.” Then the prophet Gad let David build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah, the Jebusite, and the plague ended. Although David sinned, his heart softened towards God, and he quickly repented. The altar and sacrifice was only a symbol. The true sacrifice penned by David in Psalm 51 is a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart. This is what He desires; other sacrifices aren’t pleasing to Him.
The best and fastest way to end the outbreak of the coronavirus is to repent. We should posture ourselves like David and be quick to repent rather than like Saul, who tried to find excuses for himself. We don’t want to have a hardened heart like Pharaoh, either. The church must first repent and then intercede for the world to repent. This is one lesson we can learn from the story of Kohath.If we want to grow spiritually and have more authority in the Lord, we need to follow Samuel’s lead and offer ourselves as willing servants to God, and in His time, He will raise us up. We don’t want to be presumptuous as Korah was, assuming we know more than God when in fact, He hasn’t brought us to the place where he can trust us.