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  • « Responding to Common Objections to Calvinism | Main | Read through the Bible in 50 Weeks »

    Images of the Savior (39 -- The Red Heifer)

    And Yahweh spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, “This is the statute of the law which Yahweh has commanded, saying, 'Speak unto the children of Israel, that they should bring to you a red heifer, perfect, in which there is no blemish, upon which a yoke has never come; and you shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, and one shall bring her outside the camp, and shall slaughter her before him; and Eleazar the priest shall take some of her blood with his finger, and he shall sprinkle some of her blood before the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times. And the heifer shall be burned before him: her skin and her flesh and her blood, with her dung, shall be burned. And the priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet thread, and cast them into the midst of the burning heifer.'” – Numbers 19:1-6

    In the ninth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, the author proclaims that Christ has made an eternal redemption for his people, by offering himself up, once-for-all, as a perfect sacrifice for their sins; and he goes on to prove his assertion by reflecting that, “if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, being sprinkled on them who were defiled, sanctifies unto the purification of the flesh, how much more does the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself up blameless to God, purify our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13-14). In this way, he makes clear the typological function of the red heifer, which Israel was commanded of old to sacrifice and burn, and to make of its ashes a water of purification, not as though there were anything especially salubrious in the ashes themselves, but that they were a foreshadow of the sufferings of Christ, which really did cleanse the conscience, and purify those who had been dead in trespasses and sins. As we look to the account in Numbers, in which this ceremonial action is commanded, we must immediately be struck with how many details and instances were perfectly adapted to show forth, in a figure, the perfect redemptive work of Christ, both in its execution and its purifying results, as we shall now observe.

    But first, we must remember what has happened before the ordination of this ceremonial command, and why Moses has occasion to speak of it at this particular point in time: for immediately before this, Korah had been consumed in his rebellion against Moses, and many families had been swallowed up in the insurrection, and God had, moreover, sent a plague of wrath against those who remained, so that they were all in danger of being consumed. But then, in his mercy, God accepted the incense of Aaron, who was stirred up to intercede for the people, and restrained the fury of his wrath, and so preserved the rest of the host alive; and then, he spent a chapter enumerating the priestly task of Aaron and his sons, and the work of the tribe of Levi, as if to say, “Although Korah has offended me by wrongly usurping the place of priest, yet I shall retain a true priest, to intercede for my people, and I shall hear him, and provide him with an acceptable sacrifice, until their sins have been purified”. And this priest, of course, was ultimately only Jesus Christ, whom Aaron represented symbolically in his ministry at the time.

    Now, after this enumeration of the duties of the true priest, God then enjoins the ceremony of the red heifer upon him, and shows him how to make a water of purification, specifically for those who had been touched and defiled by death. In this way, he represents graphically before the people that, even though they are filthy and impure in their rebellion, and even though the wages of this impurity is death, as he had demonstrated when he swallowed up Korah, yet he would provide a remedy for those subject to death, and that he would do so by purifying them, and making them clean in his sight. In this way, he stirs them up to look ahead to Christ, who would conquer death, that final enemy and fruit of sin, through his offering up of himself, which should be sufficient to purify them indeed, and fit them to live in the Father's presence. Now, let us observe what there is about this red heifer that teaches us these lessons.

    First, we may see in the color of the heifer, which was to be pure red (and according to the rabbis, could not have even one white or black hair anywhere upon her body), several lessons that have to do with Jesus. First, it intimates the truth of his incarnation, when he really took on human flesh, which is symbolized by the red of the heifer, which is as the ruddy color of flesh and blood. And then, the fact that this was to be a heifer, and not a male, points in the same direction, for it speaks of the fact that Jesus would be born of a woman, and reminded the children of Israel of the sin that had come upon them, when the first woman had been deceived; but then succored them with the reminder that the woman would have a seed who would overcome sin (Genesis 3:15), and that she would thereby be saved through childbearing, which was made difficult through the curse (1 Timothy 2:15). So then, the ruddy color of the heifer, as well as her sex, pointed to the fulfillment of the promise of Genesis 3:15, where God promised to work through sin's curse of pain in childbearing, to bring redemption in his Messiah. But then, the redness of the heifer likewise spoke of his sin-bearing nature, as he took upon himself all our sins, which were red as scarlet (cf. Isaiah 1:18); and it also hinted at the cruel and bloody death which he would die, being made red with the blood that flowed down for our eternal redemption from his thorn-crowned brow, his hands and feet that were nailed to the cross, his side that was pierced with the Roman spear, and his back that was laid open with their vicious stripes.

    Second, we see Christ's perfect holiness and worthiness to be loved by the Father, having obeyed him wholeheartedly throughout his entire life, and thus having shown himself a worthy sacrifice to take away our sins, through the requirement that the heifer be perfect, without blemish or spot. So the apostle Peter tells us that the blood of Christ was as that of a lamb “without spot or blemish” (1 Peter 1:19).

    Third, the requirement that the heifer ought never to have had a yoke come upon her neck speaks of the willingness of Christ to offer himself up in our behalf. Although, in a sense, the Father bound his Son upon the altar, and was pleased to crush him (Isaiah 53:10), because he had become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), yet just as Isaac, Christ went willingly to the altar, so that the author of the letter to the Hebrews could say elsewhere that in fact he offered himself up, as a willing self-sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14).

    Fourth, the priest Eleazar was to lead her out of the camp, and watch someone put her to death, although he did not kill her himself, strictly speaking; which hints out how the priests and leaders of the people would clamor for Christ's death, and lead him out of the city, but they would not technically kill him themselves, but merely watch the Roman soldiers do it. And this, too, is why it was necessary for Christ to suffer out of the gates of Jerusalem, as we learn as well from Hebrews 13:11-12.

    Fifth, the sprinkling of the blood before the tabernacle speaks of how Christ's death perfectly appeased the Father's wrath, and overcame every obstacle to his dwelling among his people in peace and favor with them; and that he had to sprinkle the blood seven times speaks of the finality of that sacrifice, so that there would never again want an acceptable sacrifice for our coming again before the throne of grace, to find mercy in our time of need (cf. Hebrews 4:16). That this blood was to be sprinkled with the finger of the priest may hint at how the blood of Christ is applied through the agency of the Spirit, whom Christ referred to as “the finger of God” in Luke 11:20; but if this seems to be stretching the image too much, we shall nevertheless find the same basic point demonstrated more clearly a little later.

    Sixth, that the heifer was to be burned wholly typifies how God's wrath would wholly consume Christ, and put to death, for a season, the eternal one who is very Life. Thus Christ fully absorbed and satisfied the immense and illimitable fires of God's holy wrath against sin.

    Seventh, we may see some typological significance in the following circumstance, that cedar wood, hyssop, and a scarlet thread were all to be burned with the heifer. Among other possible things, this assortment of elements speaks first of the cross upon which Christ would be put to death for the purification of his people, of which the power should never have end, and the results of which should be pleasing and sweet-smelling to God: for cedar is a type of wood, as the tree upon which Christ hanged, and it is especially renowned for its beauty, its durable and incorruptible nature, and its pleasant fragrance. The hyssop spoke of cleansing, and signified the purifying effects of Christ's death; thus the blood of the passover lamb was applied to the door frame with hyssop (Exodus 12:22), and thus David later besought of God that he would purge him with hyssop, that is, cleanse him through the purifying death of the Messiah (Psalm 51:7). And finally, the scarlet thread spoke either of the cleansing blood of Christ; or perhaps a little likelier, of the sin which bound him to the cross: for the rabbis used to say that the scarlet thread was used to bind the hyssop to the cedar wood, and so holds forth in a figure how our iniquity bound Christ to the cross, as it were, where he accomplished our purification. Now, before we move on, we must also note that these three things were likewise to be used in the ceremony of purification for one who had been a leper (Leviticus 14:4); which shows that they are a fitting reminder of how we need to be purified from the ugly, defiling, and death-bearing stain of our sins.

    Eighth, the priest who offered up the sacrifice of the red heifer, the man who collected its ashes, and everyone else who was involved, became unclean thereby; and yet, it was from this heifer that the water would be made which should make them clean again. In this way, we are reminded that the Jews, the Romans, and all of us for whose sins Christ suffered, were unclean and wicked in our sending Christ to the cross; and yet that very wickedness God was using to accomplish our redemption and purification, as we see in Acts 2:22-24; 4:27-28. And so as well, when we were wickedly putting Christ to death and incurring guilt, he was only crying out, “Father forgive them,” and absolving that very guilt we were incurring (Luke 23:34).

    Ninth, the ashes, when once gathered up, were to be mixed with living, that is, with running water, and then sprinkled upon all those who were defiled by death, together with all that was theirs; and so they should become purified. Now this symbolizes two things: first, the agency of the living Spirit, who takes the effects of Christ's death and applies them to us as he will, just as the water bore the ashes of the heifer to the people, when it was sprinkled; and so it is that Christ speaks of the Spirit whom he would pour out upon the people as rivers of water (John 7:37-39); but also, it signifies the cleansing power of his death, even as water is very effective to cleanse and purify; and so John bore solemn witness to the water which flowed from Jesus' side, to cleanse us from impurity, together with the blood that cancelled our debt (John 19:34-35).

    So we see how fitting a type this red heifer was, of the purifying and effective sacrifice of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit purged our consciences forevermore. Let us then rejoice in God's provision, and flee to Christ for salvation, and trust in his bountiful forgiveness! But if we refuse this spotless sacrifice, and turn aside instead to willful sin, we may be sure that no sacrifice for our iniquity remains, but only eternal and fiery judgment (cf. Hebrews 10:26-29). If he who was not purged by the water of separation, made with the ashes of the heifer, was to be cut off from God's presence (Numbers 19:20); then how much more shall we be cut off forever from the presence of God, if we have not sprinkled our souls with the blood of the Lamb, and washed ourselves in the water which flowed from his riven side?

    Posted by Nathan on January 2, 2009 11:05 AM


    Enjoyed reading your thoughts of this neglected subject.

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts of this neglected subject.

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts of this neglected subject.

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