The Ashes of the Red Heifer

Numbers 19  •  5 min. read  •  grade level: 10
(Read Num. 19)
Occurring in the Book of Numbers at the end of the wilderness experience of the children of Israel, it has a special significance. We shall see it is a provision for the removal of defilement from people already in association with a Holy God. It will teach believers a lesson to be vigilant as to our practical ways as Christians, and as to the associations we keep.
The children of Israel were to bring to Eleazar, the priest, a red heifer without spot or blemish and upon which never came yoke. Eleazar had to bring the heifer outside the camp, and one should slay her before his face. Then the priest with his finger had to sprinkle the blood, directly before the Tabernacle of the Congregation seven times, showing all in the Congregation are in view. The heifer was then burned in the sight of Eleazar-her skin, flesh, blood and dung-all had to be burned. Then Eleazar took cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop, and cast them into the burning. A clean man then gathered the ashes of the red heifer into a clean place without the camp for the use of the whole congregation for "a water of separation; it is a purification for sin " (Num. 19:99And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin. (Numbers 19:9)).
The meaning of all this is plain. There can be no holiness apart from the redemptive work of Christ, when at Calvary God showed His abhorrence of sin in that His full judgment upon sin was seen when He forsook the Sin-bearer, His only begotten Son, visiting Him with all the wrath sin deserved. The burning of the heifer in all its parts, whether it be its skin, the beauty of the animal, or the dung, the grossness of sin-all of man, his best as his worst-symbolizes the unsparing judgment of God in the person of the Substitute. Our Lord was without spot and blemish. " He knew no sin." " He did no sin." " In Him was no sin." So Scripture testifies. Upon Him never came yoke. He was completely free from sin and its penalty, else He could not have laid down His life for us.
The priest casting the cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet into the burning shows that all human pride and glory must go, the hyssop setting forth the meanness of man, all must go from top to bottom.
When a man was unclean by touching a dead body, his uncleanness was upon him for seven days. On the third day " he shall purify himself " by taking running water with the ashes of the heifer in a vessel, and be sprinkled therewith, and again on the seventh day. On the seventh day the unclean person having purified himself, washed his clothes, and bathed himself in water, at even he was pronounced clean.
The meaning of this is that when a believer is unclean through permitting sin and failure in his life, for purification there must be a sense of God's holiness as symbolized in the slaying and burning of the Red Heifer. Does the Red Heifer emphasize this? The ashes speak of the judgment on sin having being carried out. The remembrance of that, and the application of the Word in the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit of God, typified by the " running water " being mixed with the ashes (the recollection of what our Lord went through on the cross), have their own subduing, cleansing influence on the heart of the believer.
Not only so, but washing the clothes and washing the person set forth the defiled person's activity in putting out of his life defiling ways, or even thoughts, and the necessity of being personally clean in moral condition before God.
This sets forth not the cleansing of the sinner by blood, but of the saint by the water of the Word, engaging the heart with the solemn sense of sin as seen typically in the burning of the Sacrifice, and in the ashes, so that the heart of the believer really judges himself in the presence of God.
Mark what is said about the third day and the seventh day. There must be time for an erring saint to recover communion with God. For instance if a preacher were caught in some evil sin, and he got restored, it would not be suitable for him to dash into prominence as a servant, but take time for full restoration.
This might be instanced in the case of the Apostle Peter. After his fall, denying His Lord with oaths and curses, our Lord looked upon him with that look of mingled grief and forgiving love, which made him go out and weep bitterly. But something further was needed. Our Lord saw Peter specially by himself after He rose from the dead. But still later the Lord probed him to the very bottom, till Peter uncovered his heart in the presence of the Lord, and exclaimed, " Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee " (John 21:1717He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (John 21:17)). Our Lord then gave him his commission, " Feed My sheep," and he was the spokesman on the great Day of Pentecost.
We do well to meditate upon this incident of the ashes of the Red Heifer, teaching us what a defiling thing sin is, and how necessary to be preserved in a state of fitness in God's holy presence. It shows, too, that a saint may not always contract defilement by his own act, but getting into touch with defilement, it may be even unwittingly, he is defiled, and needs the "water of purification." One may have to judge some sin in the assembly, and the mind be defiled listening to the sordid story, and a purification be needed. It says the ashes mixed with running water is " a water of separation." How necessary separation from evil is, and to be preserved in happy enjoyment of heart in communion with God.