In Numbers 16:1-40 we learn that only those whom God has appointed can serve as his priest. The only way that we can serve as faithful priests of God is if we come through Jesus Christ the only High Priest. Fundamentally a priest was a go-between between God and the people. To understand this we need to understand that there was (and is) a distinction between a priest and the High Priest. Even the priests could not go directly to God. Instead, the priests were required to go through the High Priest who was the only one who could enter into the Most Holy Place where God dwelt. What’s more, even he could only enter in to the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement. This system had just been set up by God through Moses, but there was a growing number of people who did not think it was very fair lead by some men named Korah, Dathan and Abiram.

Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the LORD will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all his company; put fire in them and put incense on them before the LORD tomorrow, and the man whom the LORD chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!”

Korah’s rebellion was based on the premise that he was just as deserving of the priesthood as anyone else in the assembly. Before we start diving into where Korah went wrong, let’s try and understand things from his perspective. In a way, his desire was not entirely a bad thing. He desired to burn incense before the Lord and wanted that incense to be a pleasing aroma to God. So in some capacity, he wanted to please God. Furthermore, the priesthood had just recently been established, so from his perspective it seemed like Aaron and Moses were arbitrarily propping themselves up. After all, the whole congregation was supposed to be set apart and holy to the LORD, not just Moses and Aaron. His desire, even if it was mixed up with a desire for power and a failure to trust God’s promises, actually had some truth to it. The problem was not that Korah wanted a relationship with God. The problem was that he wanted a relationship with God his way.


But, the call of the gospel is that you come through Jesus, or don’t come at all. Korah rightly understood what it says Deuteronomy 7:6 “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. But he failed to understand what Moses would say to us in just the next two verses where he says “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery.”  God’s anointing on an individual, whether to salvation in general or to a specific ministry or gifting, is solely a gift of a God’s grace. Korah did not understand this and thought that he (and the entire assembly) were righteous enough on their own. Moses addresses this attitude by saying to Korah “The one whom he” that is God “chooses he will bring near to him.” Korah failed to understand his need for a mediator and that he needed an external holiness applied to him in order to come to God. Only Jesus Christ is holy, so only those who have his righteousness can serve as his priests.

Like Korah, we demonstrate that we are not holy enough to serve God on our own by our obstinate attitude of dissatisfaction in the grace of God. In addition to failing to recognize his inability to come to God in his own strength, he and his followers had a general spirit of discontentment. Korah was a Levite. More than that, he was a Kohathite and a cousin of Moses. Numbers 3:31 tells us that as a Kohathite and a Levite Korah had the very special task from God to help guard the “ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister and the screen.” How often is it that we are given a task to
do, and we respond by saying “that’s not good enough, I want to do this instead.” Christians often talk about finding our “calling.” Our callings are not these enigmatic things. Simply look around you and see how you can serve in your immediate context. What responsibilities, giftings, and opportunities, has he given you today. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring” (Prov 27:1). Rather, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Eph 4:1) We need his calling, otherwise we will never possess the contentment necessary to serve as one of his priests.

Another way that we demonstrate that we are not holy enough to serve God by our own merit is by our constant impatience and distrust in the promises of God. Korah’s followers, Dathan and Abiram, would have surely remembered what God said to Moses in Exodus 3:8 during the burning bush incident. The Lord said “I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” This is a wonderful promise. But, Korah and his followers thought to themselves, “where is this ‘promised land’ Moses? What gives?” Recall what happened and why they had to wander the wilderness for forty years. God brought them to the land and instructed them to take it, but they fled out of cowardice. They saw these large strong men and they felt like grasshoppers in comparison. Dathan and Abiram’s failure to recognize how the congregation had just sinned two chapters ago at Kadesh-Barnea, caused them to fail to trust in God’s promises.


In order to establish who was an authority over the congregation and the priest, God instructed the rebels and Moses to take censers and light them and wait until the next night. A censer was a basin mounted on a pole where you would light incense. After they finished waiting, on the next night God would reveal who he had chosen to serve in the priesthood.

So every man took his censer and put fire in them and laid incense on them and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. Then Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the LORD appeared to all the congregation.

And the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Say to the congregation, Get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”

John Calvin is helpful in this passage by pointing out that If they had any sense of the fear of God at all, they would drop their censors in terror. Rather, they acted senselessly against God as if to extinguish the light of the sun with a little smoke. He writes:

John Calvin

Commentary on Harmony of the Law Volume IV

“It is manifest how greatly they were blinded by pride, since, although admonished both by the confidence of Moses and also by the previous examples, they still obstinately go forward. Surely if any spark of the fear of God had remained in them, their censers would straightway have fallen from their hands; but Korah seems to have sought, as it were, deliberately how he might cast aside all fear, and totally bereave himself of his senses. For in the next verse, Moses narrates how ostentatiously he hardened himself in his rebellion, before he should offer the incense; for he gathered the people together to his party, in order that the magnificence of his array might overwhelm the grace of God, which opposed him. Herein also his senselessness is clearly seen, when he seeks to fortify himself against God by the favour of the mob, as if he had desired to extinguish the light of the sun by interposing a little smoke.”

We must not make the same mistake that they did. It is of men such as these that the Lord says “Vengeance is Mine, and recompense; Their foot shall slip in due time; For the day of their calamity is at hand” (Deut 32:35; NKJV). These men underestimated how seriously God takes his holiness and incurred his wrath. Listen to the reign of the Lord’s anointed in Psalm 2 “Why do the nations rage \ and the peoples plot in vain? \The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, \against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, \“Let us burst their bonds apart \ and cast away their cords from us.””  Those who have been chosen by God to serve as his priests must humble themselves before the Lord. 


By the way, “those who are called to serve as priests” is not restricted to people who are called to special ministry work like the pastorate or the mission field. While there the desire to go into ministry is a noble one, it’s not what makes you a priest. What makes an individual a “go-between” between the world and God is not their occupation, but whether or not they are in Christ. Meaning, if you are a Christian, you are priest.


So, priests, how are you doing at your job? Are you praying for unbelievers? Being a royal priesthood comes with responsibilities. It is your job to be a go-between for God and the unbelievers in your life. When was the last time you went out and evangelized? How often are you praying for your lost friends and coworkers?

Moses and Aaron modeled what faithful intercession looks like in this passage. The congregation, evidently, shared some guilt by association. But, Moses and Aaron came before the Lord and interceded for them. They fell on their faces and appealed to God’s own character by saying “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” Abraham prayed a similar thing for Lot when he prayed “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”


God would have been completely justified to sweep away Lot and his daughters with the city. Likewise, he would have been completely justified to swallow up the entirety of the congregation into his judgment. But he didn’t do that. Spend hours on your knees reminding God of his character imploring him to show mercy on you and on your neighbors. Cast yourself on Christ who is Yahweh, Yahweh, “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”  Are you being the priest?


The only way you can answer yes to that question is if you have been set apart by God on the basis of what Christ did on the cross. Jesus, the Great High priest, “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25).  Even though Jesus was not descended from Aaron, he is of a greater priesthood, just as Melchizedek was a priest yet was not a descended from Aaron. It was at his baptism that Christ was anointed by the Father who said “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). This was to fulfill what was said in the second Psalm “The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; \ today I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7). Christ is the Lord’s anointed. He is the only one who is able to save us to the uttermost. Any attempt to go around Him is treason.


God hears Moses’ prayer and graciously shows mercy to the congregation and does not judge them with the same judgment that he is about to show the rebels.

So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones. And Moses said, “Hereby you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD.”

And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men offering the incense.

Moses understood that unless he had been uniquely appointed by God, he had no right to claim the things that he was claiming. But, if he really was sent by God to do all these works, then Korah and his followers and would rightly be judged for blasphemy. God wanted to make it clear to the entire congregation that Moses had been uniquely sent by him. The followers of Korah display their pride by standing outside their tents even after everyone else had fled from them. This is really an incredible prophetic prediction that Moses makes here. He doesn’t just predict that they would be judged in general, but that they would be judged through the earth opening up and swallowing them alive into Sheol. God used this miracle to vindicate Moses as being uniquely appointed by Him for the task of interceding between God and the people.

The rebels became a very clear warning for the rest of the congregation that you were not to go around the high priest. The warning was to be so clear that God told Moses to tell Aaron’s son Eleazar to take the censors, and to shape them into a covering for the altar. It was to be a continual reminder that only a descendant of Aaron was to stand before the altar on that day. Every morning and every evening the high priest was instructed to go into the Holy Place (which was just outside the Most Holy Place) and burn incense on it. And the idea was that the tabernacle, and by extension the people, would always “smell good” to God. But, every time Aaron did this he would see those plates covering the altar and he would be reminded of his people’s need and his own need for an intercessor and how if anyone ever tried to come to God on their own terms, strict judgment would await them.

God is extremely particular with who is allowed to come before him and how he is to be worshiped. So it raises the question, on what basis are you trying to appeal to God. Are you trying to come to God on your own terms? Are you standing at the tent of meeting trying to show God how you are holy without Him? Maybe you have a whole bunch of people on your side that you have fooled. Korah had an entire mob that was willing to go along with him. Maybe you have fooled yourself. “Be sure your sin will find you out”  At the end of the day, God saw his heart. The only way to God is through the High Priest, and no outsider will ever be able
to offer a pleasing aroma on his altar because without faith it is impossible to please God. Jesus understood this principle in John when he tells his disciples “No one can come to the Father except through me”  and earlier when he was preaching to the crowd in John “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”
Do not perish in the way. Are we trying to, as Calvin put it “extinguish the light of the sun” with a little smoke? Brothers and sisters, we must drop our censers.


“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” There is one calling, one election, and one basis upon which you can stand before God. We, as New Testament Christians, are a royal priesthood and a people for his own possession, and therefore have the unique responsibility of making “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings,” for all people. But, we only do these things because he first loved us. Only Christ can intercede for us, because only Christ has been appointed by the Father to serve as our great High Priest. Since only those who have been appointed by God can serve in his priesthood, we need intercession, and we need to be interceding. Christ, the Only True High Priest can give us the relationship with God we need in order to show who God is like to others.