They say “a picture is worth 1,000 words.”In the case of this helpful image from doodlethroughthebible.com, it covers verses 1–39 pretty well, which is approximately 940 words depending on your translation.
Numbers 3 takes a look at the Levites as it relates to the census and the tribal arrangments around the Tabernacle. Levi was one of Jacob’s 12 sons—hence the 12 tribes—and his sons were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. From the picture you can see the tribes descending from Levi’s three sons, their position according to the Tabernacles, and their duties.
In verse 3, we see very explicitly that only Aaron and the sons of Aaron can act as priests. Likewise, they are the only ones allowed to approach the sanctuary (v. 10). The rest of the Levites functioned in a religious capacity, helping maintain the tabernacle and its articles of worship. Note that not all Levites were priests, but since Aaron was from the tribe of Levi, all priests were Levites.
In addition to the actual function of the Levites, as we envision the layout of Israel’s encampment, they serve as a hedge between Israel and the Tabernacle. At the Passover, when Israel was released from the bonds of slavery in Egypt, all of the firstborn sons were killed who’s doorposts and lintels were not marked. In verse 13, God states that as he slew Egypt’s firstborns, He sanctified Israel’s firstborns for Himself. However, instead of demanding a consecrated service, the Levites take their place.
As I read certain sections of the Bible, and especially like here in today’s passage, I am struck by the orderliness. If you think about it, this massive group of people has only recently been set free from slavery. They needed structure and order because they had never known freedom. Here we see the two aspects of freedom: freedom from, and freedom for.
In the same way that Israel was set free from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, Christians are set free from the bondage of sin. We experience freedom from bondage. Freedom from the liberation side of freedom, and is often the only way people think about it. When they think of freedom, the think of independence, they think that “Nobody can tell me what to do. I’m free.” Yet, freedom is only one-half of the freedom coin. The question is, what will you use your freedom for?
Liberation without purpose is meaningless. God set Israel free from the bonds of Egypt for the purpose of establishing a Kingdom of Priests (Exodus 19:5–6). What the Levites were to be in the encampment of Israel (a hedge, intercessor, and servant), the Israelites were to be for the entire rest of the world. In the same way, Believers who have been set free from sin, have been set free for the purpose of being salt and light (Matthew 5:13–16). We too are a Kingdom of Priests (1 Peter 2:9) and as the ApostlePeter goes on to say in verses 16–17, “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.”