The Ordinance of the Red Heifer
J. L. Kirkham, Ellesmere Port
The ordinance of the red heifer has certain important lessons to teach the believer in the closing moments of the day of grace, since it was a provision made by Jehovah for His people as they drew near to the end of their wilderness journey. On their journey, in spite of all God's provision in meeting their every need, they were dissatisfied with the food that God provided, and they complained about their leaders, Num. 11-12. The passage 1 Corinthians 10. 1-11 is a reminder to us in our day not to presume upon God's grace. Furthermore, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves", 1 John 1. 8.
God provided a means of cleansing for His ancient people in the ashes of the red heifer. "All these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come", 1 Cor. 10. 11, so we, too, need to avail ourselves of God's provision for cleansing. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness", 1 John 1. 9. It was impossible for the children of Israel to pass through the wilderness and not become defiled, since most of those who came out of Egypt perished in the way, Num. 14. 29. Contact with a dead body, or the bone of a dead person, or a grave rendered the individual unclean, Num. 19. 16; thus there was need for cleansing from defilement. Since the believer today lives in a world under the sentence of death, and is daily in contact with those who are dead spiritually, he hears and sees things which defile him. If he is to have fellowship with God, there is the need of cleansing from this defilement, for God is holy. "As he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy", 1 Pet. 1. 15-16. As Isaiah 52. 11 reads, "be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord".
The Lord's words to Peter in John 13.8 would indicate how necessary it is for the believer to be aware of the need of cleansing from defilement, "if I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me". One of the greatest dangers for the Christian today is to be unaware of his true condition; like Samson, who went out "and he wist not that the Lord was departed from him", Jud. 16. 20; or like the saints at Laodicea to whom the Lord had to say, "and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked", Rev. 3. 17.
The type of Christ which comes before us in the red heifer emphasizes His holy, sinless character, "without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke", Num. 19. 2. No human influence ever controlled Him in His movements or determined for Him His decisions. It mattered not whether it was a friend, as Peter, "be it far from thee, Lord", Matt. 16. 22, or his enemies, "let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him", 27. 42.
The fact that the offering was an heifer, i.e. a female, would suggest the thought of Christ taking the place of subjection; see Phil. 2. 7 and Heb. 10. 7. The red heifer was brought to Eleazar, who was to witness its death, "one shall slay her before his face", Num. 19. 3, and "one shall burn the heifer in his sight", v. 5. Eleazar represents those among God's people who have spiritual discernment, who can appreciate the importance of what they see. The Lord's words to His disciples were, "but blessed are your eyes, for they see", Matt. 13. 16.
Eleazar took the blood and with his finger sprinkled it seven times "before the tabernacle of the congregation", Num. 19. 4. It was here that the people stood on the day of atonement, when the high priest took the blood within the holy of holies to sprinkle it before and on the mercy seat to satisfy God's demands in relation to their sins. But now the blood was sprinkled "before the tabernacle". The people were to stand on redemption ground, cleansed from defilement and able to worship; see 1 John 1. 7.
Eleazar then witnessed the burning of the heifer without the camp, v. 5. It had to be burnt in its entirety, her skin, her flesh, her blood, with her dung. It was an offering which typified God's dealings with Christ, who took our place and "suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God", 1 Pet. 3. 18. The priest then took cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop, casting them into the midst of the burning to be consumed, v. 6, for they speak to us of men after the flesh. The cedar wood represents human pride, see Isa. 2. 11-15; the hyssop represents hypocrisy and pretence, see Matt. 7. 15-20; the scarlet represents the glory of the natural man (Adam derives his name from the red earth). Man's pride as seen in the false religions of the world finds its consummation in the woman clothed in purple and scarlet, sitting on the scarlet-coloured beast, Rev. 17. 3-5. Saul of Tarsus had much of which he could boast in the flesh, but his spiritual confession was, "I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ", Phil. 3. 4-8.
When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.
The priest had to wash his clothes and bathe his flesh in water, v. 7. He was to be unclean until the evening, as also was the man that burnt the heifer. Contemplation of the cross would be a constant reminder to the spiritual man of what he is by nature; as 1 Corinthians 10. 12 says, "let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall".
The ashes of the heifer were to be laid up in a clean place, v. 9, thus making provision for those who realized their need of cleaning from defilement. It was a water of separation, a purification for sin; see Heb. 9. 13. It is, of course, a personal matter to be exercised about defilement, "he shall purify himself", v. 12. Failure to appreciate the need for cleansing had very serious consequences, not only for the individual concerned, v. 13, "that soul shall be cut off from Israel", but also for others to whom he brought a defiling influence. This applies equally to the saints today, and to the assembly. "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump", 1 Cor. 5. 6. How sensitive we should be when we gather with the saints. And when we gather to remember the Lord, "let a man examine himself, and so let him eat", 11. 28. Remember, the assembly is spiritually what its individual members are! What contribution do I make to the spiritual state of the assembly to which I belong? What is my effect on it?
In verses 14-16 the sources of defilement are enumerated. Death in the tent would suggest conditions in the home. Nothing so reveals the believer's state as what takes place in his home; there he influences each member of the family by what they see and hear of him. "Every open vessel, which hath no covering", v. 5, was liable to be contaminated, and suggests that which is open to the influence of things unclean and defiling. The vessel that had no covering would suggest a state in which the Lordship of Christ is not acknowledged. The touching of one slain in the field would further suggest defiling influences that emanate from the world, which can be so attractive to the flesh. We remember Paul's words to the saints at Corinth, "beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God", 2 Cor. 7. 1.
Verse 17 reminded the person who was unclean that provision was made for him, but his condition called for exercise on his part if he were to avail himself of the means of cleansing, i.e. the ashes of the burnt heifer and running, living water in a vessel. To contemplate the suffering of Christ because of our sin will be a humbling experience and will cause us to see what a heinous thing sin is in the sight of God. The application of water on the unclean person points us to our Lord's present ministry. Having loved the Church and given himself for it, He is now engaged in its washing by the water of the word, Eph. 5. 25-26. As also His prayer to the Father in John 17 reminds us, "sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth". Whenever we come under the influence of the Word of God, we experience its cleansing effect.
A clean person was to take hyssop and sprinkle the water of purification upon the tent, the vessels and the persons, v. 18. From this we understand that we cannot be of any help to our brethren unless we ourselves are in a spiritual condition. As the Lord Jesus said, "Cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye", Luke 6. 42. Such tender ministry requires a lowly mind, and a degree of self-judgment, as Paul points out to the saints in Galatia, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted", Gal. 6. 1.
As we humbly consider these things, may the Lord grant us a deeper sense of the need for personal exercise as to our own lives before Him, as well as a greater awareness of the influence that we have on our fellow-believers.