Joshua 21:1-2, “Then came near the heads of the fathers of the Levites unto Eleazar the priest, and unto Joshua the son of Nun, and unto the heads of the fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel; And they spake unto them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan saying, The LORD commanded by the hand of Moses to give us cities to dwell in, with the suburbs thereof for our cattle.”
This morning, the subject that is before us is – I freely confess – quite personal to me and my whole life thus far upon this earth. Some subjects hit us more personally than others, and some become more personal due to the circumstances of life. For example, I have become a lot more than just intellectually interested in what the Bible says about parenting since I have become a parent. What before I desired to know since the Bible spoke of it, now I desire to know the truth not just for the truth’s sake but also my young family’s sake. However, when the Bible speaks of things that pertain to the ministry primarily, it deeply affects me as not only a minister now but the son of one growing up. Therefore, I confess that this writing will perhaps be more personal to ministers, but hopefully the content will at least be interesting from an intellectual standpoint for those that are not.
Looking at the Old Testament, there are things that point in shadow to things in the New, and while there has been a lot of wild speculation in regards to these “types and shadows” over the years, that does not diminish the fact that there are viable and truly precious shadows in the Old to be found pointing to the New. Most types and shadows are Christ-related, but occasionally there are shadows relating to other things such as the old tabernacle being a picture of the church in the gospel age as per Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. Likewise, Old Testament priesthood can “sometimes” map into the New Testament ministry. They are not a complete match (such as the priesthood going from father to son, while the ministry is not guaranteed to follow that pattern), but they do follow similar patterns at times, and our verse shows a pattern that the ministry will at times live through.
During this stretch of Israel’s history, they have dispossessed the inhabitants of Canaan’s Land, and are dividing up the inheritance among the tribes. As this chapter opens, we see how the Levites (the tribe possessing the priesthood) would inherit the land. While most tribes had sections and parcels divided to the entire tribe to be further divided among families, the Levites were the exception. Their inheritance was said to be the priesthood and the Lord, but they still needed someplace to live. Therefore, the tribe of Levi would dwell in cities throughout all the tribes. As the rest of the chapter unfolds, we see that their cities are throughout the land, and even to those 2.5 tribes that made their dwelling on the other side of Jordan.
We see this pattern in similar fashion in the early days of the New Testament Church in the pages of Acts and through the epistles. Christ as the ultimate example during His ministry did not wholly dwell in one city like so many others did. He traveled around ministering to those He encountered. Paul, Peter, Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, and others did likewise a few years later. The point of the minister’s work was not necessarily to have a “family plot” like so many others do. Unlike many of the disciples that made their dwelling in one city or one region, the minister must be willing to pick up, pack up, and dwell in different places if the Lord’s providence thus directs. Now, this is not to say that a minister may not have his ministry in one place for the duration (history tells us that James never left the Jerusalem Church as her first pastor), and some of the Levites in our passage undoubtedly dwelt in one city for the duration of their priesthood. However, the pattern is set that the ministry is scattered throughout all of spiritual Israel like the Levites dwelt in cities all over the land of natural Israel.
For a little personal backstory, my parents both grew up in West Texas, and I was born there shortly after my father was ordained. When I was very young, my father was called to serve a church in California, and though we had no natural family there, he willingly submitted to the will of the Lord by packing up everything to move his young family there. He laboured there for 11 years until his burden was gone. Nine months after stepping down as the pastor in California, he was called to serve a church in Mississippi, where we likewise had no natural family or previous connection. He again willingly followed the leadership of the Holy Spirit and packed up his now somewhat older family (my siblings were born in CA) to move to Mississippi. He laboured in Mississippi until his passing almost 13 years ago. With no familial connections or previous association of any kind, he was willing to move all that he had 1,450 miles one way from Texas to California, and then move over 2,200 miles the other way from California to Mississippi for the same purpose.
A mere 4 years subsequent to his passing, I was ordained into the ministry, and I served a church in North Mississippi where I had never attended prior to going to college. There I laboured for 5.5 years until my burden was clean gone, and just a handful of months after my resignation was called to serve a church in middle Georgia. Much like my father’s experience, I had no prior connection and certainly no family in that part of the country. With a budding family of my own including two small children, I picked up, packed up, and moved where I had been called, and continue there to this present hour. While my journeys have not been nearly as extensive as my youth as my father’s son, I can share kinship now from his perspective. Many men I know in the ministry have recounted similar stories of such proportion going as they feel led among the spiritual Israel that we dwell among.
Now, having relayed why this lesson bears so much upon me personally, it struck me the other day while reading this section of the Scriptures that much like the tribes of Israel, most church members live, get baptized, and die while never having membership in any other church. This is not universal, but it is a general truism. Much like the tribes stayed within their parcels, most churchgoers stay in the confines of one local body all the days of their church life. Rarely does a minister experience such. Even if the church he grew up in, was baptized into, and lives among is the church that ordains him, he rarely becomes that body’s pastor. In my short pilgrimage, I have been the member of 4 different local bodies. Dad baptized me into the church in California, and I moved my letter to the church in Mississippi when we changed locations. I retained my membership in that church until I was ordained by them, and then moved it to the church I served in North Mississippi. There it stayed, until I moved it along with my family to Georgia.
Freely, I admit that most of our church members do not have this experience. Probably reading it seems like a strange and foreign thought. However, most of the tribes had no concept of living anywhere else than around their family and all they had grown up knowing. Being a Levite and living amongst the others was a different kind of experience than what most tribes had, yet the Lord ordained it that way so that His people would be ministered to wherever they lived. He even provided for priests to live beyond Jordan with Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. Today, God has delivered His ministry to people as His providence directs, which sometimes takes them from environs more natural to them.
Now, even the most patient reader and observer of this writing is probably thinking, “Preacher this is/is not all that fascinating and interesting. Do you have a point?” Ah! So glad you asked! One thing that can plague a minister or congregant equally but oppositely is the feeling that the man is not really “one of them.” Sometimes the man himself can feel out of place (sometimes through no wrongdoing of anyone else just due to the nature of the situation), and sometimes a churchgoer/member can feel like the minister is some sort of interloper. While I was too young to realize the change of scenery and culture from West Texas to California, it was foreign to anything my parents grew up knowing. Mississippi was a culture shock for me and my siblings (though thankfully most of it was a good culture shock). Georgia has been culturally very different from Mississippi though both of them are deemed part of the Bible Belt Deep South.
This feeling can plague either side at times, and I have heard older ministers say it takes 5-10 years for a church and man to really “settle in” together. Consider how some Levites must have felt in those cities removed from most of their natural brethren who likewise dwelt in cities in other regions. Then consider how members of different tribes may have felt at times with these living in their midst. It probably took some getting used to, and with minister and church, there are many things for both to get used to. The point is not about how different or the same the parties are to each other. The point is that the Lord has placed both near each other for their mutual benefit. In our modern, crumbling culture, we sometimes lose sight more quickly of the benefit that we play on and for each other. The minister should be a benefit for the church, and the church should be a benefit for the minister.
The Levites were placed among them to offer their daily and seasonal sacrifices for them. The ministers are placed among the flock to feed and expound the Scriptures unto them. The tribes were to provide natural blessings to the Levites in their midst, and the church is to provide carnal things out of love and thanksgiving for the minister’s spiritual labours. (I Corinthians 9:11) The Levites’ presence was to represent God’s blessing and favor upon the tribe they dwelt among since the Lord was the Levite’s inheritance. (Deuteronomy 10:9) Their presence represented God’s blessing to the people through the function of the priesthood, and God’s ministers today are given as a blessing in like manner for the teaching and instruction of the flock.
Beloved, this writing obviously touches on something that relates to the whole of my experience. Therefore, if it came across too personally, please cast a mantle of charity. Too many times, Satan uses every advantage he can to dismember the flock from the unity that they have with one another. Perhaps the minister is labouring a long way from all that he grew up knowing. Perhaps the congregation sees a lot in their pastor that is quite different than what they have previously known. So long as Scriptural tenets are upheld, we need to focus rather on the fact that the Lord’s providence has put us in one another’s path for mutual benefit and blessing. Praise be unto Him that He has not left His people without ministration or left His ministers with a calling and no charge to fulfill it. In the example of the Master, let us be up and about our Heavenly Father’s business in the greatest cause this world has ever seen or known.