OT Levites: Model for Pastoral Ministry

I’ve recently enjoyed doing a study of the Levites of the Old Testament. I think we can learn a lot about what a pastor’s job today should be by considering the duties of the Levites under the Law of Moses.

The tribe of Levi was chosen by God to be the spiritual leaders of Israel. Basically, they were Israel’s pastors. At first, there were about 10,000 Levites and 600,000 Israelites. That makes one Levite for every 60 Israelites. But those numbers fluctuated throughout Israel’s history.

Here’s a list of 20 different characteristics, duties, and functions of the Levites along with corresponding application for pastors today:

1. There was definite hierarchy within the tribe of Levi, but all were spiritual leaders in Israel. The sons of Aaron were priests and of higher rank than other Levites. And within the priests, there was one high priest. Among the Levites who weren’t priests, some had specific leadership roles above others.

For Pastors today: There will naturally be hierarchy among pastors today. Some will rise to positions of eminence and be sought out by other pastors. Even within the same church, there will likely be leaders among the pastors. Like Peter among the apostles, they will excel in gifts more than the rest. Or like Paul, some will excel in zeal and effectiveness more than the rest.

2. There was a variety of roles among the Levites. Some were songleaders. Some were gatekeepers. Some were treasurers. Some oversaw temple construction. Some collected money. Some taught the law. Etc.

Pastors: Though all pastors must meet the qualifications found in Timothy and Titus, which means all must be able to teach, there will be a variety of gifts and roles among pastors. Some will be especially gifted and called to evangelism. Some to preaching. Some to teaching. Some to administration or overseeing. Some to counseling. Some to street preaching. Some to conversational evangelism. Some to congregational preaching. Some to house to house preaching. Some to writing books. Some to reading books. etc. We will all excel in some areas and be less gifted in others.

3. There were age requirements for serving in certain Levitical capacities. 20,25, and 30 (depending on the prescribed duty). And Levites had to retire at age 60 from certain duties.

Pastors: We should be careful in urging young men to quickly assume the role of “pastor”. It’s a weighty job with a stricter judgment. Normally, men should be somewhere between 20 and 30 before they become pastors. Some may still not be ready at age 28 while others may be ready as early as 20. In extreme cases, some may be ready sooner or later than the above range.

Also, older men probably shouldn’t continue the full burden of pastoring a church by themselves. They will likely need younger men to help with some of the more physically or mentally grueling aspects of pastoral ministry.

4. Levites had to go through intense purification rituals before qualifying to serve as Levites in the Temple.

Pastors: All but one of the NT qualifications for pastors have to do with having Godly character. It’s absolutely essential that a man be a holy, righteous example of Godliness before he can become a pastor. He must be pure from sin and set apart unto God. He must be spiritually clean. Do we give enough emphasis to this before ordaining someone or choosing him to be our pastor?

5. The whole congregation had to lay hands on the Levites when ordaining them to serve in the Temple.

Pastors: The entire congregation has a part to play in the ordination process. In the NT we are warned not to lay hands on anyone too quickly and so share in their sins if they turn out to be unfaithful.

6. The Levites were basically Israel’s human tithe to God in place of the firstborn. God required that all the firtborn sons of Israel be given to God. But instead of taking them to serve in the Temple, he took the tribe of Levi. Correspondingly, the Levites had no land inheritance with their brothers. The Lord was their inheritance.

Pastors: There is a sense in which it is a sacrifice to become a pastor. A pastor is not allowed to live like a layman. He can’t involve himself in civilian affairs. He can’t be a businessman or a farmer. He can’t seek riches or political office. He can’t become a doctor or a lawyer. He must devote his time and energies to one thing only: God. He is to labor with the word of God and prayer. He is to lead the church. He can’t seek his inheritance in this world. But in the end, is it really such a sacrifice to leave earthly inheritance behind if we inherit God Himself?

7. The Levites received the tithes and offerings of Israel as their financial support. This freed them from secular job concerns so that they could devote their time to spiritual and temple work. Furthermore, how well Israel provided for their Levites was always a test of their spiritual health and faithfulness.

Pastors: In the same way, how well a church provides financially for its pastors is often a pretty good barometer of spiritual health. And I don’t just mean the “head pastor”. But rather if we looked at how much money was given toward pastoral staff as a percentage based on how many members the church has. So if a small church of 100 members was fully supporting 5 ministers but another church of 500 was only supporting 6, then the small church would be leagues ahead of the larger church.

8. The Levites, though they didn’t receive farmland inheritance, did receive 48 cities dispersed throughout Israel. Each tribe had about 4 Levite cities.

Pastors: Pastors today should live among their people so that they can know them, shepherd them, and teach them. But they should also have fellowships among themselves and live in close community with each other in order to sharpen each other and help each other.

9. The Levites sometimes served as judges in Israel.

Pastors: Pastors should serve as judges in the church and should lead the way in carrying out church discipline and church courts. When there is sin in the church or disputes among brothers, pastors should arbitrate and seek peace and deal out judgments (with the church vote having the final say in accordance with NT teaching).

10. The Levites were responsible for keeping Israel clean and pure in reference to all sorts of leprousy and other uncleannesses.

Pastors: In a spiritual sense, pastors must keep the church clean and free from sin which spreads like gangrene or leaven. This means when we see a leprous mark of sin in a church member, we must act in order to cleanse him and save his soul (if possible) or remove them from the church lest the sickness spread to other members. Like the priests, pastors are responsible for examining a sin (leprous mark) and determining how serious it is. Perhaps we need to quarentine it and give it some time. Perhaps it isn’t leprousy, just a less serious skin problem like eczema. Or perhaps it is a deadly disease that must be cleansed or removed from the camp.

11. The Levites pronounced blessings upon Israel for obedience and curses for disobedience (Deut. 27).

Pastors: In preaching and counseling, pastors must promise life and blessings to those who obey as well as warn of punishment to those who disobey.

12. Only the Levites were allowed to touch certain holy things such as the ark of the covenant or temple furnishings. And God warned that laymen who touched them would die.

Pastors: There are certain things that only ordained ministers should be allowed to do. Laymen shouldn’t be allowed to lead a church or decide who can be baptized or receive the Lord’s supper. There are many decisions that only pastors should be allowed to make. I wonder if deacons and sometimes regular church members often touch holy things that they ought to leave to the pastors.

13. Some of the Levites (Sons of Asaph and sons of Korah) were singers or instrumentalists. Some were song leaders. It is said that they prophesied through their music.

Pastors: Perhaps the role of songleader should be reserved for full-time ordained ministers. It is an important role that the Levites were called upon to fulfill. It’s more than just leading music. It’s a spiritual task that requires a deep understanding of God and Scripture. Depending on the size of the church, perhaps even instrumentalists should be pastors. Perhaps churches should pay their song leaders to compose music for worship – esp. put music to the psalms.

14. Some Levites were scribes.

Pastors: Some pastors should work especially hard at reading and writing books. And all pastors should be well versed in the Scriptures and able to teach them effectively. Generally speaking, pastors must be highly literate men.

15. Some Levites were gatekeepers.

Pastors: It’s the pastors’ job to keep vigilant watch over the church gates and decide who can become a member of the church (enter through the gate) and who must be excommunicated from the church (exit the gate). This is a solemn duty which requires great watchfulness.

16. Certain Levites were in charge of temple treasury and finance. And they sometimes collected money for the temple.

Pastors: Perhaps pastors should be entrusted with charge of church finances. Or at the very least, this is a very important task and we should be careful who we give it to.

17. The Levites were responsible to study and teach the law to the people. Sometimes they even traveled from city to city doing so (2 Chron. 17:7-9; 30:22; 35:3; Neh. 8:7-8)

Pastors: Teachers and missionaries in the church should always be ordained ministers.

18. Sometimes the Levites fought violently to keep the temple and Davidic kingdom pure (2 Chron. 23; 29).

Pastors: Like Jesus cleansing the temple and contending with the pharisees, pastors must fight zealously to keep the church free from heresy, sin, and false teachers.

19. In Ezra’s day, the Levites oversaw the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 3:9)

Pastors: When the church is in a torn-down, weak state spiritually, the pastors are responsible to lead the way in biblical reform and revival.

20. Many Levites gathered to Ezra, himself a Levite, in order to study under him and learn from him (Neh. 8:13)

Pastors: Some pastors will highly excel and be especially qualified to teach and train future generations of ministers.

Well, if you’ve made it this far and read the whole list, then please give me feedback. Perhaps you have further thoughts or disagree with something I’ve said. I’d be interested to hear and consider your ideas.

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9 Responses to OT Levites: Model for Pastoral Ministry

  1. Clint Adams says:

    This was very insightful and also helpful.

  2. Stefan Gerville-Reache says:

    I very much appreciated this post. Point number six was especially insightful for me. I also enjoyed the gaining an understanding of the differences in pastors based on their extra giftings such as reading, writing, music, finances, etc. The concept of “pure from sin” from point four is difficult for me to agree with in light of these passages of scripture: Prov 20:9, Psalm 143:2, Eccl 7:20, 1 Tim 1:15, 1John 1:8. Pastors are no different from any other believer in that they do sin, and must name a cite their sins when they occur (1 Jn 1:9). In the qualifications of a pastor in 1 Tim 3 and Tit 1 a man must be above reproach which means certain sins would disqualify him, but he must also hold fast the word of God and sound doctrine (Tit 1:9) which tells us that there is no one sinless or without sin except for our Lord Jesus Christ. This is symbolized by the fact that the levites had to be cleansed over and over and over again, each time they met with the Lord (prayer) or offered their service (ministry) (Ex 30:17-21.)…. Almighty Father, help us not to deceive ourselves, but remind us to come to You to have our robes washed from our unrighteousness, so that we appreciate more the righteousness which You gave us in Your Son our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

  3. amspencer1984 says:

    Very interesting post, indeed! I see a lot of value in reflecting on these points. A few thoughts/comments/questions:

    1. I would be interested to know how you developed this list. What was the process of your study like?

    2. There is the obvious assumption that the OT Levites are to be a pattern for pastors today. Just what is the nature of the relationship between those two position?

    3. Building on the previous question, how strictly should the observations from OT Levitical practice be appiled to NT pastoral leadership today? What I mean is this: Might it be true many times that the principle illustrated in OT Levticial practice is very true and important and yet still should not be made a strict rule/law to be followed to a “T”? Perhaps a principle that should have a large influence on our thought is a better approach than a strict rule that simply must not be violated? Is this fair to say? That would not diminish at all the importance of emphasizing these great principles, but would change our way of thinking at times to allow for a slightly more flexible form of practice in some cases. Is that a good idea?

    There are a lot of other particulars in your post worth considering, but I will just start with these points, which probably suffice.

  4. dkspencer3 says:

    Thanks for your comments, gentemen. I’m pleasantly surprised that three people already read my lengthy post and responded.

    Stefan, I wasn’t meaning to imply that Pastors never sin. But rather that it is especially important that they live pure lives according to God’s word. Pure doesn’t need to imply “totally sinless”. I agree that all must come to Christ initially as nothing more than rebellious, guilty sinners. I also agree that there is no one on earth who never sins.

    Aaron, I agree with your third point that these are general principles that don’t always need to be applied strictly but should be present in our thought patterns and decision making. Some of the points, esp. the ones emphasized more in the NT, should be more rigid than others.

    Maybe I’ll think more about what you said in points 1 and 2 and respond later.

    Thanks, guys.

  5. dkspencer3 says:

    Aaron,

    To answer you first two questions.

    1. As I was reading through Lev. and Numbers, I felt like I didn’t know that much about the Levites and I wanted to understand more – esp. the difference between Priests (sons of Aaron) and Levites. I had some specific questions as well about their functions. I still have some unanswered questions, by the way. But then I just typed the word Levites into a Bible search engine and read every passage that mentioned them. It was quite an extensive list of verses, but I’m sure I missed some b/c I didn’t search “Levi” or “priest” and include those verses.

    2. Nature of the relationship between Levites and Pastors? Well, I can give a quick answer and then maybe you can critique it. In my above post I assume that Levites were basically the same thing as pastors are today. I stand by that assumption. I think the the Levites were quite clearly those designated by God to be the spiritual leaders of Israel, God’s covenant people. Today, pastors are those chosen by God to be the spiritual leaders of God’s covenant people, the church. I suppose the differences between Pastors and Levites would correspond to the differences between Israel and the church. But overall, since I see more continuity between the covenants than discontinuity, I think the one transfers easily to the other. I think all of the OT applies today and the Law esp. consists of shadows that find their spiritual reality in the New Covenant age and beyond.

    Let me know if you have more spec. questions or if I didn’t answer the question rightly.

  6. amspencer1984 says:

    Daniel, I certainly do think that there is a valid and clear connection/parallel between OT Levitical ministry and NT pastoral ministry. How, though, might you respond to someone who would emphasize a couple of good Protestant principles, namely: 1.) Pastors are not priests; the Roman Catholic Church believes that ministers are priests. We Protestants do not. and 2.) We do believe in the priesthood of all believers.

    I don’t know if these ideas affect much of what you are saying or not, but there might be some interply between your connection of priesthood to pastorship and the fact that there is a difference between priesthood and pastorship. Maybe not. I am not saying much either way on my own right now. It is just that this idea has been in my ears various times and came to mind when I saw your post.

  7. dkspencer3 says:

    Aaron,

    I agree that Pastors are not priests in the sense that pastors have to offer sacrifices in order that their church members can be saved or accepted by God. Jesus is our high priest and mediator and our sacrifice which makes us acceptable to God.

    I also agree that believers are spiritual priests b/c 1 Peter says so. I think God accepts our offerings of repentance and praise, offered through faith in Christ, our ultimate high priest.

    There are important differences between OT priests and NT pastors. But the purpose of my post was only to look at the similarities. I don’t think I said anything that wasn’t also supported by NT teaching. Or perhaps some things I said aren’t in the NT but there wouldn’t be anything in the NT to contradict those things. Or perhaps I’ve erred on some points. Please show me if you think I have. 🙂

  8. amspencer1984 says:

    Daniel,

    I don’t at all mean to say that I think you have erred or misapplied things here. Sorry if I wasn’t clear enough before. Rather, I am just connecting your thoughts with what I consider to be a bit of confusion in the circles of Protestant theology. I believe that there is a difference in the nature of the priesthood from OT and the Pastoral office today. However, I don’t think that there is no piont of continuity and similarity. I think there is plenty of that as well. Sometimes, though, I think that Protestant theology forgets that by overemphasizing the “priesthood of believers” and over-reacting to the wrong concept of priesthood as practiced in the Roman Catholic Church. I am in agreement with your post. I think it is good, though, to see how this idea would help us see more clearly what is really true about the priesthood of believers and the way in which pastors are not priests according to the conception in Roman Catholicism.

    I think that your post is really, really good and provokes good thought. I hope for more from you in the future if you find time and have interest.

  9. D. J. Daniels says:

    This is very great and precisely meaningful to this day Pastoral assignments in the churches.

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