In Numbers 1:52 the Levites are instructed to guard the tabernacle from outsiders, from non-Levites. God designed the tabernacle system both as a symbol of God’s nearness and as a symbol of the distance still required between God and man. In Numbers the distance of God is emphasized. As foreigners, were separated from the people of God in this era, so non-Levites were separated from tabernacle service. God did permit people to approach him, and the tabernacle symbolized his presence, but strict limitations were placed on the approach at the pain of death. A sinful people in the presence of God were always in danger of being consumed (Ex. 33:5).
This warning in chapter 1 about who may approach the tabernacle prepares the reader for Korah’s rebellion. The non-Levitical tribes should have led Israel in battle against the Canaanites, but when they failed to obey God in this manner and then pressed in upon the Levitical duties, God consumed them as he had warned Moses he would do.
This warning also highlights the benefits of the new covenant. Not only is the barrier between foreigner and Israelite broken down (Eph. 2:14), but the restrictions on non-Levites are removed. In fact, God’s people are now “a holy temple in the Lord” and “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). Even the bodies of individual believers have become the temple of God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). The typical Israelite could not draw near to the symbolized presence of God in the midst of the people, but the Christian cannot escape the indwelling presence of God.
This marvelous access into the presence of God is possible because of the propitiatory death of Jesus. His death tore the barrier between God and man (Matt. 27:51). The wrath of God that threatened to break out, and did break out, against the Israelites, was satisfied by the sinless Christ. Christians can now enter boldly into the presence of God (Heb. 4:14-5:10).
This does not mean that all warnings cease or that personal holiness is of no issue since imputed righteousness has been procured. No, the very fact that the believer was purchased by the blood of Christ to be the temple of the Spirit means that his body needs to be holy (1 Cor. 6:18-20). Those who destroy God’s temple (the church) will be destroyed by God, and those who build it with shoddy material are saved only with great loss (1 Cor. 3:10-17).
Christians today should rejoice in the blessing of intimate access to God, while at the same time allowing the Old Testament restrictions remind them of high privilege they enjoy and the sacred responsibility that it bestows.