The Red Heifer. (Num. 19.)
The book of Numbers gives us the history of the wilderness, the testing of the people by the trials and difficulties to which they are exposed, their failure as so tested, and the triumphant grace of Him whose love and whose resources for His people cannot fail, and whose word is pledged to bring them through. The ordinance of the red heifer gives us the effects of atonement, not in forgiveness, but in the purification of the people from uncleanness, and this in a special form, which had its peculiar significance in relation to the wilderness.
For the wilderness is, of course, the world as the place of our pilgrimage, — a place where every thing about us echoes the divine voice, "Arise ye, and depart; for this is not your rest: because it is polluted." The seal of its condition in this respect is death, in which the life universally forfeited is removed and man given up wholly to the corruption, which has already been inwardly his state.
Death marks the world as a wilderness before God, and for him therefore who has the mind of God; it is a scene of death out of which we have escaped as dead with Christ, and partakers of eternal life in Him beyond it, and separation from which is an absolute necessity to real holiness. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep one's self unspotted from the world." (James 1:27.)
The remedy for defilement is here typically put before us. It is not in a new sacrifice, nor in the shedding of that blood without which is no remission. It is in the application of that which speaks of a sacrifice once for all completed, of wrath exhausted and gone, the ashes alone remaining to testify of the complete consumption of the victim. In this way the red heifer, in opposition to the many sacrifices constantly being offered, represents alone among legal ordinances the abiding efficacy of that which has been offered "once for all."
The victim is here a female, — a type of which I have already spoken. It is passivity, subjection, will-lessness, which we may see in the Lord in Gethsemane, whose "cup" was in fact drunk afterward upon the cross; a red heifer, as the ram-skins of the tabernacle were dyed red, to show how far this will-less obedience in Him went. "Without spot or blemish:" — with neither defect nor deformity; and "upon which never came yoke," — not simply sin's, but any, for a yoke is an instrument to enforce subjection, which in Him could not be. At the same time when He was saying, "Not My will, but Thine, be done," He might have had twelve legions of angels and gone to the Father, but would not: His was the perfection of a will-less will.
And how suited all this to express the perfection of the obedience unto death, by which our disobedience was met and removed, and which is to be fruitful in us as well as for us, in separating us from the lawlessness and lusts which characterize us as fallen creatures!
The heifer is brought forth without the camp and slain, like any sin-offering, even the blood being burned, except what is used in the sevenfold sprinkling before the tent of meeting, where the people went to meet with God. And into the midst of the burning of the heifer were cast cedar-wood and hyssop — types of all nature, from the highest to the lowest (1 Kings 4:33), and scarlet — of the glory of the world: "if any man be in Christ, it is new creation," and by the cross is severed his connection with the old.
A man that was clean then gathered up the ashes of the heifer, and they were laid up in a clean place outside the camp, to be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel, for a water of separation, a purification for sin.
A person defiled with the dead remained unclean for seven days; on the third day and on the seventh he was to be sprinkled with it, — running water being put to it in a vessel, — and on the seventh day at even he should be clean. The sprinkling on the third day was all-important: "if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean."
The reference to death as the stamp upon the old creation makes all this clear. The third day is the resurrection day, deliverance from death; the eighth, — first day of the new week, — speaks of new creation. One cleansed by the evening of the seventh day was brought in fact to the eighth: only by deliverance from the old creation could he be really clean; but into this resurrection, the resurrection of Christ, is the necessary introduction: therefore the insisting upon the third day.
Only in the power of resurrection could death become a means of purification for the soul. We cannot be in any true sense dead to the world except in the power of a life which is ours beyond it. But thus resurrection is not the revival of the old, but that which links us with the new creation. This is the united teaching of this third and seventh-day sprinklings. The power of the Holy Ghost (the running, or "living," water) applies to the soul the death of the cross,.that death in which for us the old world ended under judgment, to set us free from all the seductive power of things through which we pass, — free for the enjoyment of what is ours outside it. The world is but the place of the empty cross, and He who once filled it is now entered for us into the Father's house, our Forerunner. This is purification of heart for him who realizes it; power for true self-judgment, and deliverance from the corruption that is in the world through lust.
This is "water-washing by the word." The sacrifice is not again offered, nor the blood afresh sprinkled for him who is thus to be cleansed. Neither acceptance nor relationship are here in question, although just as "without holiness, no man shall see the Lord," so "he that purifieth not himself shall be cut off from Israel."
The lesson as far as atonement is concerned seems just this dependence of purification on it. The water as well as the blood comes out of the side of a dead Christ, with whom we too are dead. How shall we that are dead live any longer in that to which we are dead?
We have now completed the types of atonement; before our glance at the Old Testament doctrine is complete, we have still to consider the prophets and the psalms.