Wilderness Lessons: Red Heifer

 •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 7
The ordinance of the red heifer was not peculiar to the priests nor the Levites; it was for the congregation; and the instruction for saints now is, not as a company of priests, nor as knit together by one Spirit, but as pilgrims journeying through the wilderness. The sprinkled blood as on the Passover night secures us from judgment; the great day of atonement sets forth the full answer of the cross—a perfect redemption—to meet the need of guilty sinners, and to establish new relationships between God and the redeemed. In a word both these ordinances contemplate the sinner; the red heifer is rather a provision for the believers, that they may be cleansed from all defilement by the way, no less necessary for the saint than the shed blood is for the sinner. The truth taught by the red heifer is distinct from that conveyed by the day of atonement, but not so readily apprehended. The blood was sprinkled completely before the tabernacle, to remind us of our access to God by the one perfect sacrifice, and that all needed blessing by the way is founded upon the death or precious blood of Christ. Thus our cleansing is in virtue of it, just as much as forgiveness of sins when we first believed; for whether for saint or for sinner, it is ever “His blood cleanseth from all sin.” But the blood of the red heifer is not applied to the defiled saint. It is Christ once offered to God, the perfect sacrifice which is never repeated, nor the blood sprinkled again before the tabernacle. Then all is burnt and the ashes remain, ever abiding in its purifying efficacy for every defilement. As often as defilement occurs, there are the ashes; not another red heifer, to sprinkle blood again before the tabernacle, or again to be burnt under the judgment of God. Christ bore it all once, and it is done forever. The cleansing of the believer is not with blood, but by ashes mingled with running water. It is the ashes that typify the ground of blessing, the water is only the medium. So the apostle in Heb. 9:1313For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: (Hebrews 9:13) speaks of the ashes as sprinkled, not of the water. It is the power of Christ's death bearing our judgment, wholly consumed—ashes—and applied by the Holy Spirit using the word—water—to cleanse us from our defilement.
The red heifer following the living rod shows the divine order of these types. The rod laid up in the ark before God was the witness of the intercession of Christ dead and risen, our Advocate; so the red heifer is the result of His Advocacy, the provision of grace for pilgrims defiled on their journey. It was fitting that Christ should be seen as High Priest above before that which is surely the effect of His intercession was typified by the red heifer. If we may so say, this type is the complement of the living rod; both are founded upon the atoning blood, and neither meets the first need of the soul; for without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. When that need is met, other needs are felt: we need One to appear in heaven for us, Who has conquered sin and death, ever living to make intercession for us; and we have this in the beautiful fruit-bearing rod. Then we need that His intercession above should be made good in our souls while here below; and so following upon His Advocacy, this need is also supplied in the red heifer. It is the Spirit of God working in us when we have strayed, as the fruit of His advocacy above. And\ so, as in all cases where the Spirit works, there is a moral process in the soul, by which it is effectually restored, first, by self-judgment, hating the sin and judging oneself. This is the purification on the third day. The word has been applied—ashes mingled with running water; humiliation and confession before God. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Without this there cannot be purification on the seventh day. But, on that day, for the purified Israelite there was re-admission to the congregation. Not only was the defilement morally purged away, but the brand of exclusion was removed, and he could join again in the worship of Jehovah. The Psalmist shows the same order in a soul's restoration; he first confesses his sin, then he prays that his sin may be blotted out, and, after that, the joys of salvation may be restored (Psa. 51), whatever the dispensation. God's ways of grace and of discipline are the same; the third day, and the seventh, illustrate the unchanging moral dealing of God with souls, the same really in the church of God as with Israel of old. And it cannot be too often or too plainly asserted that the advocacy of Christ, the application of the word by the Holy Ghost, and the restoration of the soul are all consequent upon the blood of Christ, which has been shed, and sprinkled seven times and not again, before the tabernacle of God.
Christ washing the feet of His disciples (John 13) answers somewhat to the sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer in Num. 19. Only the cleansing in Numbers is connected with the Spirit's work in the soul; in John 13 it is the Lord as Advocate and we in our measure following His example. “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet.” We do well also to mark the defiling nature of sin; for even a clean person, who had to do with the restoration of an unclean, was himself unclean till the even. It bespeaks the care and fear with which we should seek the restoration of another, lest the flesh should make us fail in hatred of the evil, or in grace to the unclean. None but the Lord could touch a leper and be Himself without a taint.
While God is thus bringing out the resources of grace, laying up stores of truth for the people that come after, Israel are also developing more evil. They are more daring and, perverse. Going back into Egypt in their hearts was constant. Now (Num. 20) they add the wish that they had died with their brethren before Jehovah. Had they forgotten that the death of their brethren was special judgment, and so awful that they had fled at the cry of them that were swallowed up? Because water is lacking, the congregation gather again against Moses and Aaron and chide them and say in effect they would rather have died under the fearful judgment of God than suffer thirst. Had they cried to God, He would have given them water as before. How true it is that neither judgment nor blessing changes man's nature! But grace appears and water is once more brought from the solid rock. It is not the same truth as at the rock Horeb, but a like absence of reproof for their murmuring. In Ex. 17:55And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. (Exodus 17:5) the rock is smitten with the rod of authority, that of Moses. When judgment fell upon the Egyptians, when the Red Sea was divided for Israel, and closed again for the host of Pharaoh, when the rock (that Rock was Christ) was smitten, the rod of government was the fitting one. While it was the symbol of judgment upon Egypt, it brought blessing (water) to Israel. Then it could be used in dispensing grace, for Israel had not then put themselves under law, so that the rod of government imparted blessing, their sinful murmurings notwithstanding. Here in Numbers it is a very different thing. Moses is told to take “the rod,” that particular rod bearing fruit; for the rod of authority and power will not, ought not, to give water to a murmuring people under law. In such a condition, where man can only be a transgressor, government can but condemn and put to death. But He who can have mercy upon whom He will, commands the fruit-bearing rod of Aaron to be taken, the emblem of the abiding efficacy of priesthood, of Christ as alive from the dead. This was the rod suited for the occasion. The people were not without law, but they were the objects of grace then, that we might learn the value of Christ's priesthood. Nothing more was needed than to “speak” to the rock. Christ was smitten once, He cannot be smitten again. By that one smiting He is still the source of living water for thirsty souls in the wilderness. Then it was typically to be taught. Now we know it by the power of the Holy Ghost.
But Moses and Aaron at this moment stand apart from the congregation; not in faithfulness as on previous occasions. They do not apprehend the sovereign grace of God. It is now their testing time; and they both fail, for neither had learned the import of “the” rod. In anger Moses took his own rod, but what right had he to be angry when God would show only mercy? Both he and Aaron must die in the wilderness. “Because ye believed me not to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.” How did they fail to sanctify God? Not doing as commanded. The truth of priesthood as taught by the rod was set aside as if of no avail for the people, and with no more significance than confirming Aaron in his office, or in fact merely of use as a “token” against the rebels. But God is most jealous of all and everything that interferes with His grace. God remembered mercy, Moses thought of their sin. God looked at the rod as a pledge of grace, Moses saw only the “token.” Not seeing the mercy side of the rod, what wonder that he took his own rod, symbol of the righteous government of God and said “Hear now, ye rebels “a word that Jehovah did not put into His mouth?
No doubt, it was a fresh lesson of mercy and forbearance, and deeper than Moses had yet seen, for his rod must give place to the intercessory power of the priest. He was told to “speak” to the rock; but he “smote” the rock and in his anger smote twice. Moreover, so jealous was he for authority that he for the moment forgot his own place as servant. “Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” Where was the honor due to God in his saying “WE?” None so meek as Moses; but here he failed and did not sanctify God in the people's eyes. His own place and authority filled his mind: there was no room at that moment for the thought of grace; yet had he not learned enough of the people and their sin, that nothing but grace could bring them through the wilderness? His indignation might be righteous but his words were hasty, and the gravamen of his sin was interfering with God's grace. God would be sanctified according to His grace, not then by judgment. Therefore Moses could not enter the land. He mourned over this exclusion to his last days. “I must die in this land.” Did he fully judge his own failure as the righteous reason why he should not pass the Jordan? “The Lord was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me: and the Lord said unto me, Let it suffice thee, speak no more unto me of this matter” (Deut. 3:26; 4:2226But the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me: and the Lord said unto me, Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto me of this matter. (Deuteronomy 3:26)
22But I must die in this land, I must not go over Jordan: but ye shall go over, and possess that good land. (Deuteronomy 4:22)
). But God lays it upon him and Aaron, “Because ye trespassed against me.” The people no doubt were the occasion, but the trespass was their own; Moses and Aaron, in a certain sense, we would say it with submission, disobeyed too (Num. 20:2424Aaron shall be gathered unto his people: for he shall not enter into the land which I have given unto the children of Israel, because ye rebelled against my word at the water of Meribah. (Numbers 20:24); Deut. 32:5151Because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 32:51)).
If the servants fail to sanctify God, He will sanctify Himself. Their failure cannot change the character of grace, which indeed shines all the more through their failure. Though he smote the rock twice, and contrary to the word of Jehovah, yet the water flows. Such is grace rising above every hindrance, supplying every need. When was it otherwise? In our own lives how many times we have proved and rejoiced in similar goodness of God! We daily learn, and, as we learn, wonder and adore. Our daily lessons are grace; the manner of God's teaching is grace. Yea, grace expresses in a word the full process of the Holy Spirit by which we as believers are brought into communion with His thoughts and ways, and thus become intelligent worshippers of our God.
This is what the whole church of God is not but should be. Israel are not yet brought to apprehend the mercy of God, but their day is coming. But intelligent worship is now the privilege of the church. What will it be when grace is crowned with glory?