Conquering the Land
“The Levitical Cities”
This morning we come to chapter twenty-one in our series in the book of Joshua. What we have discovered in our study is that the first half of the book of Joshua (ch.1-12) focuses on the new generation of Israel entering the Promise Land and their conquest of Canaan while the second half of the book (ch.13-24) focuses on the tribes of Israel receiving their inheritance of the land. By the time you get to chapter nineteen each of the tribes of Israel had received a portion of land as their inheritance except one, the Levites. You see the tribe of the Levi was the priestly tribe who were responsible for the tabernacle, its furnishings, all the ceremonies, and the offering of sacrifices to the Lord. The Levitical priests were mediators between God and the people, they served as judges to provide godly wisdom, and as teachers of Law so that the people would grow in the understanding of God’s Word.
So, when we come to the final chapters of the book of Joshua, we see each tribe living within their allotted portion of land as their inheritance. We see the Tabernacle set up in its permanent location in Shiloh. We see the six Cities of Refuge established as a sanctuary for those seeking God’s justice and mercy. And now, it was time from the Levites to approach Eleazar the priest and Joshua for the establishment of the Levitical Cities.
Hear now the Word of God from Joshua chapter twenty-one verses one through three.
Then the heads of households of the Levites approached Eleazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun, and the heads of households of the tribes of the sons of Israel. They spoke to them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, saying, “The Lordcommanded through Moses to give us cities to live in, with their pasture lands for our cattle.” So, the sons of Israel gave the Levites from their inheritance these cities with their pasture lands, according to the command of the Lord.
Instead of one portion of the land the Levites were given forty-eight cities scattered throughout the Promise Land. The reason for this divine design was to assure that the people would have direct access to the ministry of the Word through the Levites. Remember that up to this point all the tribes had received a large territory of land as a permanent inheritance as well as the Tabernacle had been set up in its permanent location in Shiloh. So, it would have been easy for the Levites to come to the conclusion that the best place for them would be to cluster themselves around Shiloh so that they would near theTabernacle. But God had ordained decades before that the Levites were not to cluster together as a clan but rather be scattered throughout the country. The book of Numbers tells us that the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, “Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites from the inheritance of their possession cities to live in; and you shall give to the Levites pasture lands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to live in; and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle and for their herds and for all their beasts. (Num.35.1-3)
Each tribe designated approximately four cities within their territory as Levitical Cities. The larger tribes giving more, and the smaller tribes given less. (Num.35.8) The Levites did not own the forty-eight Levitical Cities they simply resided in private homes within those cities living side-by-side with the members of the tribe who did own the land. The Levites were supported by the people giving a tithe, ten percent of their income to support their ministry and the customary payment was given with livestock. So, the Levites were also given pastureland outside of the cities for their livestock.
Instead of clustering around the Tabernacle in Shiloh the Levites would travel back and forth from the Levitical Cities as they continued to serve in the Tabernacle. They would
continue to serve in all of the great annual feasts, festivals, and high holy days. But God had ordained that they would live among the tribes of Israel in the Levitical Cities as a model of worship for the people and to assure that the Word of God would be taught to all the people throughout the nation.
The Levites were seen as God’s gift to the people providingbiblical instruction, guidance, and pastoral care. You see it would take days for many of the Israelites to walk to the Tabernacle in Shiloh and one could hardly spend most of every week traveling back and forth to celebrate the weekly Sabbath. So, the Levitical Cities provided the opportunity for the weekly Sabbath to be celebrated in a local setting with the singing of hymns, prayers, and instruction in the Word of God lead by the Levites and Levitical priests. But the Levites did not just minister on the Sabbath, but they were preachers, teachers, theologians, counselors, and composers of psalms and hymns of praise for the new society of Israel. They were responsible help the people to understand the history of God’s work among His people and how they were to live as God’s people today. The forty-eight cities listed in verses four through forty-two of Joshua twenty-one became centers of teaching about God’scovenant relationship with His people and what a covenant lifestyle was all about. The Levitical Cities were places of discipleship where people like Rahab and her family, new converts who needed a deeper understanding of God’s Word, could come to learn and grow in their faith. The Levites would also train and advise the elders of the city in biblical principles of truth and how to govern as godly leaders.
Levitical Cities – A Prototype of Local Church Pastors
It seems safe to conclude that Joshua twenty-one is the beginning of the office of the local pastor that continues even to this day. The ministry of the Levites was not the exact equivalent to Christian pastors today, but the ministry of the Levites and the Christian pastor may not be as different from one another as one may think. As I mentioned the Levites were seen as God’s gift to the people just like Christ gave the gift of pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of service and the building up of the body of Christ. (Eph.4.11-12) The fact is that the ministry of the Levites and today’s local pastors are crucial for the spiritual health and welfare of the people of God. We see that the Levites in the book of Joshua and today’s pastors are called by God to be on guard for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers, and to shepherd the church of God. (Acts. 20.28) Both are called by God to teach publicly and from house to house. (Acts 20.20) They were to be diligent to present themselves approved by God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth. (2Tim.3.15)
This is one of those sermons, preachers do not like to preach because some might conclude that I am proclaiming my own importance or seeking to be honored. But let me clearly say that neither of those are my motive. I am called to preach and teach God’s Word and today we have come to a text that describes the foundation of the pastoral office and emphasizes the importance of the ministry of the local pastor to the people of God. One could accuse me of selfish motives if the text had nothing to do with the topic but hopefully you can see that the role of the Levites in the Levitical Cities has a lot of parallels with the role of the local pastor in the church today. Brothers and sisters, local pastors keep watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account to God. Let them shepherd your soul with joy and not with grief. (Heb.13.17) Let the elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. (ITim.5.17)
Levitical Cities – A Prototype of Local Church
I also want you to see that the Levitical Cities were prototypes of the local church. The Levitical Cities were places of worship, nurture, witness, and safety. Can you see the parallels between these Levitical Cities and what we are supposed to be as a local church that God has placed in this community? Brothers and sisters, we should not take the local church for granted. We should not treat the local church like a local restaurant that we visit once every so often. We are called to gather together as a church weekly to worship, to offer prayers and petitions to God, to be nourished from God’s Word, to enjoy the sacraments, and to fellowship with one another. God’s Word calls us not to neglect these things but rather to participate in these things all the more as we see the day drawing near. (Heb.10.25)
I realize that we are living in difficult times, but I do want to remind us all that something unique happens when we are gathered together as a local church. This is the reason God established the Levitical Cities that gave birth to the establishment of the local church.
But I want to remind us all that we are called by God to gather together and as God’s gathered people Jesus promises to be in our midst. (Mt.18.20)
Yes, it is true something special and unique happens when we gather as God’s people. When we gather together, we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord. (Eph.5.19) When we gather together, we teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. (Col.3.16) When we gather together, we offer up entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings for all. (ITim.2.1) When we gather together, we consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. (Heb.10.24) When we gather together, we discover how to serve one another. (Gal.5.13) When we gather together, we encourage one another. (Heb.10.25) And we are called to do these things all the more as we see the day drawing near. (Heb.10.25) Notice “all the more” not “all the less.”
I want you to see that Joshua twenty-one was a very important turning point in the history of God’s people. No longer were God’s people to live like nomads wandering aimlessly through this world. They were to settle down and claim their inheritance. And when they finally settled down the Lord graciously established Levitical Cities and appointed local pastors among them so that the people would be equipped and built up in God’s Word. No longer were they to be children tossed here and there by every wind of doctrine but rather through the ministry of the Levites in the Levitical Cities they were to grow up into spiritual maturity. (Eph.4.11-16) By divine design God ordained that people would have direct access to the Word of God. And by God’s design we enjoy that same access through the ministry of the local church and its pastors today. Yes, it’s true the Church has at times been more visible while at other times less visible. And it is true that the Church at times has been purer while at other times less pure. Nevertheless, God has been faithful in that there always has been and there will always be a Church on earth to worship God according to His will. (WCF 25.4, 5) As Jesus promised saying, “I will build His church!” (Mt.16.18)
The Fulfillment of Divine Promises
So, now every tribe was living within their allotted portion of land as their inheritance. The Tabernacle was residing in its permanent location in Shiloh. The six Cities of Refuge had been established as a sanctuary for those seeking God’s justice and mercy. And now the Levitical Cities have been designated and the Levites have moved into those cities to nourish God’s people with God’s Word. Chapter twenty-one concludes saying, “So the
Lord gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the Lord gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hand.Not one of the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass.” (21.43-45)
In these concluding verses we see the fulfillment of divine promises. Verse forty-three reads, So the Lord gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. (21.43) It is important to remember that the Lord swore to give this land to Israel eight hundred years before these words were written. Eight hundred years of trust. In these days of microwave miracles and drive-thru deliverance it is difficult for us to truly understand what it takes to have eight-hundred-years of trust.
This type of trust means you trust God when everything about your circumstances tells you that there is no reason to trust like the children of Israel had to endured for four hundred years in Egypt. This type of trust means you trust God when you are experiencing a time of wilderness wandering as the children of Israel did for forty years in the desert. This type of trust means you trust God as you stand on the banks of the raging river with no way to cross over as the children of Israel did as they waited for the Lord to roll back the waters of the Jordan so they could cross over on a dry riverbed. This type of trust means you trust God as you encounter enemy’s strongholds as the children of Israel did in conquering the fortifications of Canaan during the seven years of conquest. Brothers and sisters may God work in our hearts that we might have this type of eight-hundred-year trust in His promises.
And the Lord gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hand. (21.44) This verse signifies that the conquest stage and the inheritance stage had ended, and the people were entering into a new phase as God’s people. Brothers and sisters there are times in our Christian journey when we need to move beyond the conflicts of the past and press on to enjoy a new day. There are times in our Christian walk when we need to forget what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead. (Phil.3.13)
Not one of the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass. (21.45) Brothers and sisters as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us. (2Cor.1.20) You and I can be certain that God’s promises are “yes” and “amen” in Christ. No matter our circumstance God promises that nothing can separate us from His love in Christ. (Rom.8.39) No matter what enemy seeks to harm us God’s promises that we will be overcoming conquerors through Him who loved us. (Rom.8.37) Brothers and sisters
faithful is He who calls you, and faithful He will be to bring it to pass. (IThes.5.24)
As I conclude this morning, I want to leave you with the thought that the reason why the Levites were not given a portion of the land was because their inheritance was serving the Lord. As Joshua described to the seven stagnant tribes in chapter eighteen, “For the Levites
have no portion among you, because the priesthood of the Lord is their inheritance.’ (18.7) The priesthood of the Lord is their inheritance. Oh, that we would value serving the Lord as our greatest possession. Oh, that ministering to God’s people would be our greatest pleasure. Oh, that sharing God’s Word with others would be our greatest delight. Well, all of those desires can be fulfilled right here at Christ Covenant Church. Here in this local church, you can serve the Lord, minister to God’s people, and share the Word of God. Brothers and sisters in Christ we have become a royal priesthood so let us proclaim together the excellencies of Him who has called us into His marvelous light. (IPt.2.9) “Rise up, O saints of God, have done with lesser things. Give heart and soul and mind and strength to serve the Kings of kings.”