Definite Atonement in Numbers 3?

Numbers: God's Presence in the Wilderness (Preaching the Word) The doctrine of definite atonement is not just found in two or three verses in the New Testament.  It’s found throughout Scripture.  One example of an Old Testament text that talks about definite atonement is Numbers 3.  That wasn’t a typo!  In Numbers 3:40-51 God tells the Israelites that his will is for the Levites to be substitutes for the firstborn of the other Israelites.  It’s not a general substitution, but a very specific and particular one.  Iain Duguid has a helpful commentary on this:

Having chosen the Levites, they too needed to be numbered and arranged, just like all the rest of the tribes. They weren’t counted along with the rest of the Israelites as a preparation for war, but they still needed to be counted. They totaled 22,000 men and boys, nearly the same number as the total number of the firstborn of Israel, which was 22,273. Close is not enough in God’s service, however. Every single one of those firstborn sons who had been spared had to be personally and particularly redeemed. The Levites did not just generally substitute for all of the firstborn as a crowd. They particularly substituted for them one by one. Each firstborn who was to be redeemed needed to have a corresponding Levite to take his place. Those firstborn who were left over at the end needed to have their redemption paid for one by one at the rate of five shekels per head.

After discussing how Christ, the true firstborn (e.g. Col. 1:15, Rev. 1:5, Rom. 8:29, Heb. 1:6, etc) is the true and final substitute for sinners, Duguid again comments:

“[Christ has not] simply substituted for humanity as a mass, making it possible for some undefined number of human beings potentially to be saved. Like the Levites, who substituted for the firstborn of Israel on a one for one basis, redeeming each particularly, so that those who remained over had to be purchased one by one, so also Christ’s perfect life and death atoned particularly for all of his elect. He did not simply write a blank check that was sufficient for humanity. On the cross he wrote a check that specifically provided the payment for each and every one of his elect people, not just making their salvation potentially possible but actually purchasing them. He therefore now owns each one of us, just as God purchased the Levites, obliging us to live lives that are wholly devoted to him. We have been bought with a price, which in our case was not five shekels of silver or even ten talents of gold, but the precious blood of Christ, our spotless Passover lamb (1 Peter 1:18, 19).”

This is a great observation; we should think of Numbers 3 along with other texts that teach definite atonement!

The above quotes are found in Iain M. Duguid Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 55–56.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI


One comment on “Definite Atonement in Numbers 3?

  1. Much appreciate seeing articles like this on definite atonement…I fear sometimes it is a doctrine where many have muddied the waters. Thanks for the quote from Duguid’s book. God bless.


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