“Take a census…..from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel,…the Levites however were not numbered, but you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle.” Numbers 1:2a; 47a, 50a
The English title (Numbers) is derived from the Septuagint (LXX), or Greek translation of the Old Testament. However, the more widely accepted title to this book among the Hebrew people is taken from the phrase in verse one, “in the wilderness.” That term is the exact designation which Stephen gave in Acts 7 for this group when he referred to them as the “church in the wilderness.” The church of Jesus Christ on earth can, I think, properly be understood as a corpus of wandering and warring worshippers.
The Lord here gives Moses clear and detailed instruction regarding those who were to go to war and those who were to lead in matters of tabernacle worship and administration. Later on, scripture will inform us that Canaan itself, the land of promise, was really just a foreshadowing picture of the eternal land of Sabbath rest, the New Jerusalem, if you will, that all in Christ will one day enjoy (See Hebrews 3 and 4 with Revelation 21). This land of inheritance does not come without a cost. Jesus elucidated this truth when he declared that the “kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent are pressing into it by force”. The kingdom of Heaven is as it were pressing ahead, moving inexorably and unavoidably toward that great culmination day when all things will be put into subjection under Christ. The relentless are the ones who are presently, right now pressing (or warring) into that kingdom.
Numbers chapter one draws a distinction, as a seed form picture, of what all of this looks like. There is a distinction drawn between those who lead into war and those who lead into worship. Why is this? If we are warriors AND worshippers at the same time, then why would there be a difference in the Old Testament people of God between the warriors and worshippers? This is also developed further along the continuum of redemptive history when king David was forbidden to build the temple because he had been a bloody man of war. There is a very sober warning given to anyone who would intrude on the Levitical duty: the wrath of God would be on them (V 53).
Although it is true that every believer is both soldier and subject, victor and vassal, over comer and under authority, conqueror and the conquered, warrior and worshipper, there is yet a difference between warring and worshipping. Six days are given to us to wage war on the kingdom of darkness. One day has been specially set aside to devote to both the public and private worship of God.
War speaks to us of hate, pain, misery, slaughter, strife, struggle, evil, oppression and death. Worship speaks to us of love, restoration, healing, unity, joy, forgiveness, freedom and peace. WAR IS A RESULT OF THE FALL: WORSHIP IS THE PRODUCT OF REDEMPTION! As we wander as strangers and pilgrims, seeking to tear down the satanic fortresses which hold people captive to wrong ideologies ( See Joshua 6 and 2 Cor. 10 where Paul draws on the Jericho narrative to illustrate spiritual warfare), which stand in opposition to us, we worship in anticipation of the eternal rest from all of our wandering and warring!
God’s church, to use a Geerhardus Vos designation, is caught “between two worlds.” We have been delivered from Egypt’s captivity and slavery: therefore we worship. We have not arrived in Canaan, however. We are still in the desert so to speak. Therefore we wander. As we do so, the Apostle Peter “urges [us] as strangers and pilgrims to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” ( I Peter 2:11). This wandering, warring and worshipping and waiting dynamic of the church is captured beautifully in Samuel Stone’s great hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” (Stanza 5):
“Mid toil and tribulation and tumult of her war
She waits the consummation of peace forevermore
Till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest
And the great Church victorious shall be the church at rest.”