Remembering the Value of the Individual

The Southern Baptist Convention begins meeting today (June 13). During the next two days, messengers representing 46,793 churches with 15.3 million members[1] will make important decisions, hear reports about our work, worship together, and fellowship. These two days remind us of the greatness of the task before us and the responsibility that we share to impact the world with the message of the Gospel. In the midst of the complexities of our work, may we also be careful not to forget the value God places on individuals.

The Lord reminded His people, Israel, of this truth in Numbers 3, which tells the story of the redemption of the firstborn. Theologically, this passage teaches three important truths about faith: ownership, redemption, and value. The Bible teaches that while God owns everything, He has specifically designated that the first things are to be dedicated to Him. That includes both resources (animals, income, etc.) and people.

Numbers 3 addresses the redemption of the firstborn of the Israelites. The census determined that the number of the firstborn males was 22,273. Rather than have every family commit their firstborn to the Lord, God stipulated that He would take the tribe of Levi in their place. The math worked out exactly—almost. According to the census, the population of the tribe of Levi was 22,000. Thus, while the Levites were taken in the place of the firstborn of Israel,[2] that left a difference of 273. For these 273, the Lord commanded that five shekels be taken for each individual (1,365 shekels total) and given to Aaron and his sons as a “ransom.”

The number 273 is very specific and stands out from the other seemingly rounded numbers in the chapter. I am not a numerologist, but I am curious about that number. Not surprisingly, there have been quite a few interesting speculations about that number. For example,

  1. Some have found significance in the fact that 273 is the conversion of Celsius to kelvin (273.15), making -273 the lowest limit of the thermodynamic temperature scale, or absolute zero.
  2. One of my favorite explanations for the significance of the number 273 is that it represents the sum total of the 153 fish in John 21:11 and the 120 in the upper room in Acts 1:15.
  3. 273 is the number of people on the boat with Paul in Acts 27:37 (if you subtract Paul, Luke and Aristarchus).
  4. Finally, one might find significance in the 273rd word of Hebrew Bible (yes, I counted!), which is found in Genesis 1:22. That particular word is actually the (untranslated) sign of the direct object of the sentence. Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure of the theological implications of that.

But perhaps the significance is not necessarily in the number, but in the people the number represents. The 22,000 Levites were taken in the place of all but 273 of the firstborn. But what of those 273? They were the extras; the leftovers. Certainly, there’s something more here than simply precision of numbers. God could have just said, “We’ll call it even”; or, “That’s good enough.” But instead, God demanded redemption even for the 273.

I believe there are several lessons that Southern Baptists can learn from the 273. The lessons center on the same three fundamental truths of the passage: ownership, redemption, and value.

  • First, the 273 remind us that God owns all. Indeed, everything we have and all that we are belongs to Him. My prayer for Southern Baptists is that we never forget that our ministry is all about Him, not us. It’s His work; and those whom we are called to serve are His people.
  • Second, the 273 remind us that redemption costs. Every time someone from Israel saw the Levites, they were to remember that they were taken “in our place.” The price for our redemption must be paid; and the inclusion of the 273 emphasizes that the full price had been paid. Today, as believers in Christ, we understand that we are not redeemed with silver or gold, but with the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19). His sacrifice covered our sin. Southern Baptists must remember that our message is about the One who was sacrificed in our place, and the victory we proclaim is that the full price has been paid.
  • Third, the 273 remind us that all are important to God. It is His desire for all to be redeemed and that whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13). This must be our focus. We cannot sit idly by as those for whom Christ died are lost, overlooked, or aborted away. They must be counted because they matter to Him.

So, my prayer for this year’s meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is that our decisions, business and worship would reflect the God who came in our place; the God who ransoms and redeems; the God who sees the big picture and yet values the individual. May this always drive our methods and our message.