The Lord’s Day Evening
“The Red Heifer”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Please be seated. If you have your Bibles before you, turn to Numbers 19.
Let me invite you to turn to the New Testament to I Corinthians 10, and let me just remind you of a couple of things.
First of all, the song that we have just sung is really the perfect song for studying Numbers 19, because it’s a chapter that is really, when you look at it closely, all about the blood of Jesus. Ruling Elder Mark Baird prayed that we would show our children Jesus as we talk to them. Well, that’s really all we’re going to do tonight. In fact, let me tell you ahead of time that what I want to do as we look at Numbers 19 is show you seven ways that it points directly to Jesus Christ.
To help us get ready for that, let me remind you what Paul says about the book of Numbers in general, in I Corinthians 10:1-13. As the Apostle Paul recounts the story of Israel in the wilderness (recorded in both the book of Exodus and in the book of Numbers), he goes out of his way to say this (verse 6):
“These things happened as example for us, that we should not crave evil things as they also craved.”
And then he speaks (verse 8) of our not acting immorally, as some of them did; (verse 9) not trying the Lord, as some of them did; (verse 10) not grumbling, as some of them did, and they were destroyed by the destroyer. And again in verse 11, he says,
“Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”
Now the events that he records in those verses as negative examples for us…in other words, he holds up an example of what Israel did and he says, ‘Now, Christian, don’t do that,’ and he frames these examples within two statements. One thing he says is that these things happened for us; they happened for our benefit, to teach us a lesson. And then he says that these things were written down in order to teach us very important spiritual lessons, and of course the things that he records here that were done by Israel are recorded in the book of Numbers. In fact, we have been right in the middle of them for many weeks now. From Numbers 11 to Numbers 17, we have found over and over Israel grumbling, murmuring, complaining, and rebelling against Moses, against Aaron, against God. And so these chapters of the book of Numbers are veritable poster children for exactly what Paul is warning us against in I Corinthians 10.
Now turn with me to Numbers 19, because something very interesting happened in Numbers 18. Suddenly, after all of these chapters recording the rebellion of the children of Israel and the aftermath and the consequences of that rebellion, in Numbers 18 we come to regulations about priests and Levites; and then, here in Numbers 19 is this strange passage about ritual impurity caused by coming into contact with dead bodies. What’s up with that?
Well, it’s very simple. There were three basic groups in Israel in the wilderness: priests, Levites, and people. Chapter 18 deals with ritual matters regarding the priests and the Levites. Chapter 19 deals with ritual matters relating to the people. And so it’s perfectly logical that Moses would pause in the midst of these chapters which emphasize God’s judgment on the people of God for their sin (the consequence often being death), and then especially that he comments on the respective duties of the priests and the Levites. Given that Korah has led a rebellion of Levites against Moses and Aaron, and those Levites want to be priests, it makes perfect sense that in chapter 18 he would cover ritual requirements for the priests and the Levites, and then in chapter 19 that he would deal with ritual defilement relating to the people.
But you’re still saying, “Why a whole chapter about what happens if you touch dead bodies?” Good question! Here’s the answer. Did you know that in the nineteenth century here in America and in England, that literally hundreds of Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, and Congregational ministers wrote books on the issue of ‘what happens to infants when they die in infancy?’ Did you know that? Why in the world would hundreds and hundreds of ministers of the gospel write books and pamphlets and preach sermons on what happens when infants die? Because in those days, infant mortality was astronomical. The man who preached the dedication service for our second sanctuary in 1892 was a man named Benjamin Morgan Palmer. He had six children. Only one of them outlived him. Five of his six children died before they reached the age of twelve. Knowing what was going to happen to children when they died was a major pastoral concern for people in the nineteenth century, when the rate of mortality was dramatic and the age of mortality was very, very young.
Well, the children of Israel are in the wilderness. We’ve just heard of 14,700 people dying in one day because of the judgment of God on Israel, just a couple of chapters back. My friends, as the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness, death was everywhere. It was everywhere. Death was a standing issue, and so it is a picture of God’s loving, caring concern for His people that He talks with them about how they ought to respond to death. This is especially important in light of the fact that the cultures around them had all manner of wrong responses to death. The cultures around Israel were often involved in the cult of the dead, in the worship of the dead; they would offer food sacrifices to the dead. They would come to the graves of the dead with food and put it there; they would attempt to commune with the dead through occult practices, and God wanted nothing of that in Israel. And so He spends an entire chapter informing the children of Israel of how they need to respond to death. This makes sense because of the context of death in the wilderness. Death was everywhere.
It makes sense also because of the theological significance of death to these people. The people of Israel served a living and incorruptible God. How were they then to deal with the fact that so many of them died in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land? They served a living God, after all. What does it say to them that so many of them died in the wilderness before coming into the land that the living God had promised them? And then, how do they deal with the decomposing bodies of their relatives, when they served an incorruptible God? And so God spends so much time in the book of the Law talking to them about their view of death, and the consequences of their contact with it.
Of course it makes perfect sense from the standpoint of the hygienic ramifications of death in the camp. It is impossible for us to conceive of the physical health dangers presented to the people of God by death all around them in the camp. No wonder there were strict regulations about isolating those who had come into contact with dead bodies. And then, of course, as I have already mentioned, there were the pagan rituals associated with death that God had to warn against. So in light of that it makes perfect sense that God would spend a whole chapter on how you’re to respond to ritual defilement when you have come into contact with a dead body. He’s teaching His people so many things all at once, but above all, He’s pointing us to Christ.
Now I want to say, the symbolism of the ritual of the heifer is one that is rich, and we are not going to touch on all the aspects of it. But every aspect that I do touch on it, I am going to back up from New Testament Scripture, so keep your Bibles handy tonight. I want you to know there’s going to be no fancy allegorizing of this passage! This is going to be a strict interpretation along New Testament lines of the meaning of Numbers 19.
So before we read God’s word, let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the richness of Your word. Thank You that You can show us Christ, that You can teach us Jesus, that You can present us the gospel even from an Old Testament passage that speaks about ritual defilement because of contact with dead bodies. It’s yet another way in which You remind us what Jesus reminded those disciples on the road to Emmaus: that is, that all of the Scriptures speak to us of Christ. Grant, then, O God, that as we hear Your word read, explained, applied and proclaimed, that we would see Jesus and trust Him and desire Him, and delight in Him, and love Him, and honor and adore and worship Him. For we ask this in His name. Amen.
Before we read the passage, let me just say I want you to look for two parts in the passage. First of all, verses 1-10, which specifically refer to this strange ritual of the red heifer. You need to know before you even hear this read that this is totally unique in terms of the sacrificial practices of Israel. This is a cow that is being offered, not a bull. Not a goat, not a ram, not a lamb. But a cow. And it’s not being offered at the altar, it’s being offered outside the camp. And all sorts of strange requirements are made in this particular ceremony that are not made for other sacrificial parts of Israel’s law. Notice that in verses 1-10.
Then, in verses 11-22, you see then further requirements regarding ritual defilement when you come into contact with death.
Let us hear the word of the living God:
“Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘This is the statue of the law that the Lord has commanded. Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. And the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. And the priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet yarn and throw them into the fire burning the heifer. Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp, but the priest shall be unclean until evening.
“The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, and shall be unclean until evening. And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, and they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering. And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. And this shall be a perpetual statute to the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them.
“Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. He shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean. But if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean. Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from Israel because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, and he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him.
“This is the law when someone dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent shall be unclean seven days. And every open vessel that has no cover fastened on it is unclean. Whoever in the open field touches one who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave shall be unclean seven days. For the unclean they shall take some ashes of the burnt sin offering and fresh water shall be added in a vessel. Then a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there, and on whoever touched the bone or the slain or the dead or the grave. And the clean person shall sprinkle it on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; thus, on the seventh day he shall cleanse him, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and at evening he shall be clean.
“If the man who is unclean does not cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, since he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord. Because the water for impurity has not been thrown on him, he is unclean. It shall be a statute forever for them. The one who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and the one who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening, and whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean. And anyone who touches it shall be unclean until evening.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
You see the picture of the permeating and the contaminating nature of death and judgment in Israel. Any contact with the dead leads to this ritual impurity. Any vessel that has been touched or in the presence of someone who has died, or has been touched by someone who has been in the presence of someone who has died, becomes unclean. There is a contaminating effect of death that requires cleansing, and thus an elaborate ritual is established for the cleansing of those who have so been contaminated, defiled, and made unclean. And in that elaborate ritual we see a beautiful pointing, a beautiful anticipation, of the work of Jesus Christ. I’d like you to see seven things in particular that we learn from this passage tonight.
I. The first thing is this. Notice that as the heifer was to be without spot or blemish, so also Christ was without spot or blemish.
Look at Numbers 19:2. In the command we’re told that an unblemished red heifer in which there is no defect is to be taken. That theme is picked up and applied directly by New Testament writers to Jesus Christ repeatedly. Let me just give you one example. Turn in your New Testament to Peter’s first letter, I Peter, chapter one. Peter is reminding us that we have not been saved with perishable things. We’ve not been redeemed, we’ve not been bought by God with perishable things, but we have been bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ, and in
I Peter 1:19, he says this:
“…Precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.”
And so even as this red heifer is required (like all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament) to be without blemish, an absolutely spotless physical specimen, so also Christ is without spot or blemish. That is, He is without defect or sin. In this way Christ himself in His person fulfills the symbolism of this red heifer.
II. Secondly, and very interestingly, if you’ll look at Numbers 19:9, in this ceremony of the red heifer something very interesting happens: a death in the past continues to effect cleansing later.
That is unlike the other sacrifices. The other sacrifices in the Old Testament are immediate. The sacrifice is offered and the cleansing is applied at the time that the sacrifice is offered. But here after the sacrifice of the red heifer — and in some cases, perhaps long after the sacrifice of the red heifer – when the ashes of that heifer are poured into the waters of purification and applied to people and things long after the sacrifice has been made, it still has cleansing power. The heifer is sacrificed, but the ashes go on as long as they last serving the function of ritually cleansing someone who has become defiled. So a death in the past effects a cleansing later.
Now the author of Hebrews picks up on this and points to Jesus Christ at least four times. Turn with me to Hebrews, and we’re going to look at Hebrews 7, 9, and 10. In Hebrews 7:27, for instance, we read that Jesus
“…does not need daily, like those high priests, who offer up sacrifices first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered Himself.”
His sacrifice has such efficacy that it is only offered once; and not only does it cleanse all sins later, it cleanses all sins before for those who trust in Him. And so its efficacy is not tied to the time in which it was offered, but it cleanses even later and earlier sins. We have been born two millennia after the death, the sacrificial death, of Jesus Christ; and yet we can still say, “What can wash my sins away? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Why? Because Hebrews 7:27 is true. His sacrifice was once for all. Once for all sins of His people, once for all time. Never to be repeated. The author of Hebrews picks up on this again in Hebrews 9:12, when he says
“…not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood He entered the Holy Place once for all, so that His one-time sacrifice availed for sins for all time, for all His people.”
And then if you’ll look down to verse 26, again emphasizing that He doesn’t have to do His sacrifice over and over again like the high priest. Verse 26:
“Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”
And then again, if you look at Hebrews 10:10:
“By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
So one sacrifice puts away all sins later and before for His people, for those who trust in Him. And so in this way this strange ritual of the red heifer, so different from the other Old Testament sacrifices, sets forth Christ. A death in the past effects cleansing later, and so, we see in this Christ.
III. Thirdly, isn’t it interesting — and you see this in verses 9 and 18 in Numbers 19 — that the only person who can administer the ashes, who can sprinkle the blood, who can deliver the cleansing potency and effect of this sacrifice, the only person who can administer it is a clean person?
Notice again how Moses puts this in Numbers 19:9 —
“A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes.”
Then again, look at verse 18 —
“A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water and sprinkle it on the tent, and on the furnishings, and on the persons who were there.”
So only the undefiled can administer the sacrifice of the red heifer so that it has cleansing efficacy for those who have been ritually undefiled.
The New Testament picks up on this and talks about it with regard to Christ constantly. Turn again to the book of Hebrews — chapter 4, verse 15. In Hebrews 4:15, we read:
“We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness. He was tempted in all things as we are…”
And then what does it say?
“…yet without sin.”
He was clean.
This is emphasized again in Hebrews 7:26:
“It was fitting that we should have a high priest…” [and then listen to how He’s described] “…holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”
He was clean.
Then turn forward to the little letter of I John, because John says this in I John 3:5:
“You know that He appeared in order to take away sins;…” [and then what does he say?] “…and in Him there is no sin.”
And so this ritual being applied by one who is clean is picked up on by the New Testament and applied to the Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who is truly undefiled.
IV. Fourth, in Numbers 19 — and I want you to look for both this point and the next to verses 7, 8, and 10, in Numbers 19 — in Numbers 19, we find out that the process of decontaminating those who have been defiled by coming into contact with death renders everyone involved in the process of decontamination contaminated.
The priests, the one who gathers the ashes, the one who buries the heifer — everyone involved in this ritual designed to cleanse those who have come into contact with death becomes unclean themselves.
Look at Numbers 19:7, 8 —
“The priest shall then wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward come into the camp, but the priest shall be unclean until evening.”
In other words, the priest who has administered this, even the clothes that he was wearing become ritually unclean by coming into contact with the red heifer.
Then again, verse 8:
“The one who burns it shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, and shall be unclean until evening.”
Then again in verse 10:
“The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening.”
Everyone who comes into contact with this ritual sacrifice of the red heifer designed to cleanse those who have been defiled, becomes defiled themselves, until they go through a process of cleansing. The decontamination, in other words, involves almost the absorption of the impurity of those who have been defiled.
Does that remind you of something in the New Testament? Where the Apostle Paul says in
II Corinthians 5:21, “He who knew no sin became sin, that you might become the righteousness of God in Him.” And Peter would say (in I Peter 2:24) that He bore your sin in His body on the tree. He who was without sin was rendered vulnerable to sin, because He offered himself freely as a substitute for you, bearing your sin, that you might become clean.
V. And then connected with this, we see something else, fifthly.
Well, let me say it before I get to that fifth point. Let me just say this. One really interesting thing that we’ve already learned as we’ve studied Numbers (and we found this out as we were looking at Numbers 4 and 5) is that Luke knows that Jesus is really, really different from the people who become contaminated by sin. We saw this in Numbers 4 and 5 this way. Anyone who came into contact with a person with a bodily discharge of blood was immediately rendered impure. Anybody who came into contact with a leper was rendered impure. Anybody who came into contact with a dead body (as in this passage) became impure. Well, in Luke, if you look in the early chapters of Luke, Luke will successively show you Jesus being touched by a woman with a bodily discharge of blood. And do you know what happens? He doesn’t become unclean! She becomes clean! And then He touches a leper, and He doesn’t become unclean; the leper becomes clean! And then He stretches His body over a dead little girl, and He doesn’t become unclean; she lives! There’s this power in the Creator God in the person of Christ — everything He touches becomes clean, and He does not become unclean. Though He absorbs our sin, though He bears our sin, though He bears our punishment and our guilt, He is unblemished.
VI. And then there’s this fifth thing: the decontamination process is costly.
Look again at Numbers 19:7, 8, 10.
The priest is defiled for a season. The man who distributes the ashes is defiled for a season. Everyone who comes into contact in this ritual ceremonial cleansing from contamination is defiled for a time.
Now you understand the significance of this. While you are unclean, you’re not allowed to what? You are not allowed to come to worship at the tabernacle of the Lord, because God is holy and undefiled, and you are unclean. What is it a picture of? It’s a picture of separation from God — the picture of how sin separates us from God. And so there is a cost to be borne. As these various people serve to make clean those who have been made unclean, they themselves become unclean; and so in the very process of making the unclean clean, they become unclean, and for a time they cannot go into the presence of God.
It’s a very costly process, but it bears no proportionate comparison to the cost that is borne by Jesus Christ, who, in the bearing of our sins, Mark and Matthew tell us, was forsaken of God and cut off from His presence, and cried out, “My God! My God! Why have You abandoned Me?” Why does He have to do that? Because that is what sin deserves. It deserves a cutting off from God, and He bears that. He loses His Father’s face. His Father pours out that punishment on Him. In other words, His heavenly Father treats His own Son as unclean, so that you might be treated as clean. It is a cost that we will never ever fathom, even in eternity.
Go back and read the old hymn, There is a Green Hill Far Away, sometime. And you listen to the writer of that hymn ponder the cost that Jesus bore on our behalf.
VI. Sixthly, the red heifer is slain outside the camp; not at the altar, but outside the camp.
And the author of Hebrews, in Hebrews 13…by the way, that’s in verse 3 of chapter 19, just in case you thought I was trying to slip one past you! The author of Hebrews in Hebrews 13:12, 13, goes out of his way to remind you that Jesus himself, though He was sacrificed somewhere near the temple mound, He was sacrificed outside the city wall. Luke tells us at “the place of the skull.” And then the author of Hebrews says since He bore your reproach outside the camp, let us go with Him. And so the red heifer slain outside the camp points to the sacrifice of Christ outside the city wall.
VII. And here’s the seventh and final way in which the red heifer points to Christ, and it’s very, very different from these other six ways.
In these other six ways we see parallels that are greater, but in the seventh point in which the symbolism of the red heifer points us to Christ, we see the red heifer provision anticipating something infinitely greater. Because the author of Hebrews tells us that there was one thing that the red heifer and all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament could not touch. The sacrifices of the Old Testament could render you ceremonially pure, but what could they not do? They could not cleanse your conscience.
Now turn with me to Hebrews 9. I want to read Hebrews 9:13, 14, and then I want to read Hebrews 9:22-10:10.
Let me just make an advertisement. My friend, Justin Taylor, runs a blog, a weblog, called Between Two Worlds. And on his weblog this week, he posted a video from the Sovereign Grace Ministries Worship God 2006 Conference, in which Ryan Farmington (I think is the young man’s name) recites from memory and in vivid dramatic but respectful style, the whole of Hebrews 9 and 10. If you don’t go watch that video, you’re missing something, because you will feel how the book of Hebrews must have sounded to its original hearers when it was preached to them. But you know, Hebrews 9 and 10 contain the passage in which the author of Hebrews speaks about Numbers 19 and the red heifer. And here’s what he says:
“For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls, and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to serve the living God?”
“Indeed, under the Law, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
“Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ had entered not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf; nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own; for then He would have had to have suffered repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And just as it is appointed for a man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him. For since the Law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin every year, for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, He said,
‘Sacrifices and offerings You have not desired, but a body You prepared for Me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings You have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book.’’
When He said ‘neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings, and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the Law), then He added ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will.’ He abolishes the first in order to establish the second, and by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all.”
That heifer could make you ritually clean. But that heifer couldn’t clean your conscience, “nor all the blood of bulls and goats” sacrificed for 1500 years. But Jesus’ blood cleanses from all sin. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for this Your word, and we ask that You would hold Christ and His perfect sacrifice before our eyes, and that we would ever sing with joy in our hearts, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you please stand for the benediction.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away.