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Washing Away Spiritual Dirt

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Community Bible Church, October 21, 2007, Numbers 19

“Washing Away Spiritual Dirt”

One of the most daunting and disconcerting statements in all of Scripture might well be this one from God Himself, “You shall be holy for I am holy.” Running a close second or perhaps even tied with that one is Jesus statement in Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

If those two verses haven’t put you under the table yet let me give you a couple others. How about 2 Corinthians 7:1, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” Then there’s 1 John 3:6 & 9, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him…No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”

            These verses create a huge predicament for true believers who sincerely desire to live in obedience to God’s Word. These verses set before us God’s own absolute standard which we are told to aim for. The problem is that Scripture, along with our own daily experience, tells us that we are not holy and not perfect. On the contrary we are defiled and incurably sinful even as believers.

            Since it is true that we are all deeply sinful people at the core level of our existence, then we need a comprehensive and regular cleansing from the contamination and defilement of our sin. We need a regular provision for our spiritual dirt to be removed and our lives cleansed. This is not something we can do for ourselves. It is something only God can do through Jesus Christ.

            Dealing with the spiritual dirt of sin and the regular need for cleansing is what Numbers 19 is all about. The comprehensive ritual described in this chapter shows us both our need of cleansing and God’s answer for it. More than that, this ritual is a graphic picture of God’s gracious provision in Christ for our complete cleansing from the dreadful contamination of sin.

            Numbers 19:1-10 describe God’s gracious remedy for cleansing the spiritual dirt of sin. Verses 11-22 provide some specific application of God’s remedy. With this chapter as background you will be able to see how this OT ritual pictures God’s gracious remedy for sin in Jesus Christ.

I. God’s Gracious Remedy for Cleansing (Numbers 19:1-10)

God’s people Israel faced the same predicament you face today. They were given the same instruction to “…be holy for [God] is holy…” This mandate applied to Moses, to Aaron and his sons, and to all the people of Israel. God was deadly serious about this, as illustrated in the death of two of Aaron’s sons, the priests Nadab and Abihu (READ Leviticus 10:1-3)

The context of Numbers 19 shows how important and serious it is to deal with the issue of the spiritual dirt which is sin. Beginning with chapter 11 we have listened to the irreverent complaints of the people against Moses, Aaron and, in reality, against God Himself. As a result death has reigned in the camp of Israel. At Kibroth-hattaavah the people complained about manna, they wanted meat. So God sent the quail and with them a severe plague. Numbers 11:34 says, “…they buried the people who had been greedy.” Death reigned in the camp throughout the 38 years of wandering in the wilderness because the Exodus generation would not believe God’s promise. God said in Numbers 14:35, “In this wilderness [this evil generation] shall be destroyed, and there they will die.” It is estimated that 1.2 million people died in the desert just as God had said. The most recent example of death in the camp of Israel is the story of Korah and company who rebelled against God’s leaders. According to Numbers 16:49, “…those who died by the plague were 14,700 besides those who died on account of Korah.” During their wandering in the wilderness the Israelites were continually coming into contact with the dead. Anyone, priest or ordinary Israelite, who touched or came near a dead body, became ceremonially unclean.

One commentator said that Numbers 19 “…forms a fitting conclusion to the section on the causes and consequences of rebellion in chapters 11-19. Death is the final consequence, but heirs of the promise may have fellowship with God by following the divinely given procedure here included.”[1] The divinely given procedure for cleansing for the ordinary Israelite who came into contact with a dead body is described in Numbers 19:1-10 (READ).

The sacrifice of the red heifer was a peculiar ceremony. It was designed to purify the ceremonial uncleanness of a person because of contact with a corpse. The heifer must be reddish-brown in color and without any imperfections. It was probably young since it must never have been used for carrying heavy loads. This unblemished heifer was then presented to Eleazar the priest. He took the heifer outside the camp and slaughtered it. As the blood dripped from the neck of the animal Eleazar dipped his fingers into the blood and sprinkled it seven times in the direction of the entrance of the Tabernacle. Then the entire carcass of the red heifer was completely consumed by fire along with cedar, hyssop, and scarlet added by the priest. The ashes were then carefully collected in a clean receptacle and stored in a clean place for future use.

This sacrifice was unique from all other sacrifices in several ways. Unlike any other sacrifice, the precise color was specified. The animal chosen was not a bull, as in most other sacrifices, but a heifer. The red heifer was not slaughtered in the Tabernacle court or burned on the brazen altar. Instead it was killed and burned outside the camp. This is the only offering where the blood of a sacrificial victim is burned on the altar. Aaron, the high priest did not officiate over the ritual. All those who participated in this ritual temporarily became unclean as a result. Though it was a sin offering, its purpose was not to remove sin itself but to remove the contamination of sin which death represented. Finally, the ashes were carefully preserved for future use. This ritual was to be a “perpetual statute” among the children of Israel.

The ritual of the red heifer was God’s gracious remedy for cleansing those who came in contact with a dead body. The rest of this chapter illustrates how this remedy was applied.

II. God’s Gracious Remedy Specifically Applied (Numbers 19:11-22)

Verses 11-13 contain general guidelines for the application of the “water to remove impurity” (READ). The application of this ritual provided a ready-made, instant sin offering. The ashes from the red heifer were kept outside the camp in a ritually clean place. Then a portion of these ashes would be mixed as needed with water to provide for means for the cleansing from contact with dead bodies. The period of uncleanness was to be seven days. It was a requirement that the water to remove impurity be sprinkled on the unclean person on the third and the seventh days.

 Any unclean person who refused to follow the requirements of purification or who simply ignored them would be guilty of defiling the tabernacle. This was a very serious matter. There is an issue of responsibility here. The person who was contaminated had to initiate the action. But there is also a sense of consequences. The individual's state of uncleanness if left untreated would contaminate the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God. One person's sinful state could endanger God's continuing presence with His people. A holy God demands a holy people.

There’s also a second danger for the unclean person. If they refuse the provision for cleansing they would be “cutoff from Israel.” To be “cutoff” in biblical language generally refers to death at the hands of God.

            Verses 14-16 expand the possibility of becoming unclean and restates the remedy (READ). Obviously there would be many occasions in which a person would become unintentionally unclean. Just being in the proximity of one who died would render you unclean. Considering how easy it was to be in those situations for the Israelites during their wilderness trek, the cleansing water to remove impurity becomes a great gift of grace. Furthermore, family members were freed to minister to the bodies of their deceased loved ones, knowing that their ritual impurity could be removed through participation in this ritual.

            The specific manner in which the water to remove impurity was prepared and used is detailed in verses 17-19 (READ). This is not magic. The water is still water and the ashes are still ashes. The mixture that results remains ordinary in its components. However, it is designated as holy by God Himself and in its application it is divinely powerful to cleanse. In the same way there is no magic in the bread and juice we use for communion nor is there any magic in the waters of baptism. God uses ordinary things to illustrate the message of the Gospel of Christ.

            A summary statement in verses 20-22 repeats the serious nature of uncleanness to the people of Israel (READ). Death brings with it a heightened degree of uncleanness. Why? Because sin is associated with death in Scripture beginning with Genesis 2:17 (READ: Romans 6:23). But God graciously provided a simple means of cleansing through the sprinkling of the water to remove impurity mixed with ashes. Those who failed to submit to God’s prescribed process outlined in Numbers 19 remained in their defiled, contaminated, unclean state.

With this chapter as background let’s see how this OT ritual pictures God’s gracious remedy for sin in Jesus Christ.

III. God’s Gracious Remedy for Cleansing in Christ

This chapter pictures the permeating and contaminating nature of sin and death in Israel. Any contact with the dead leads to ceremonial uncleanness. This contaminating effect of death requires cleansing through the ritual of the red heifer. In this elaborate ritual you can see a beautiful anticipation of the work of Jesus Christ.

Numbers 19:2 requires the red heifer to be “…unblemished…in which is no defect…” 1 Peter 1:19 says that we were redeemed “…with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” The red heifer, like all the OT sacrifices, must be an absolutely spotless physical specimen. Christ is without defect, without sin and in this way He fulfills the symbolism of the red heifer.

Numbers 19:3 requires Eleazar to slaughter the red heifer “outside the camp.” All other sacrifices were slain at the altar. Hebrews 13:12-13 reminds you that Jesus was crucified outside the city walls (READ).

Numbers 19:7, 8, and 10 reveal that in the process of decontaminating the unclean all those who participate become unclean. The priest, the one who gathers the ashes, the one who buries the heifer, all involved in this ritual become unclean themselves. Those who participate absorb the impurity of those how have been unclean. Two passages in the NT reveal that Christ absorbed your uncleanness on the cross (READ 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24).

Numbers 19:9 reveals something unique about this ritual. Other sacrifices in the OT were offered and the cleansing was applied at the time the sacrifice was offered. But, here, after the red heifer is completely consumed by the fire, the ashes are preserved for use at a future time. Long after the sacrifice is made it still has cleansing power. In other words, a death in the past continues to effect cleansing in the future.

The one sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the past puts away all sins for those who trust in Him. Hebrews refers to this concept at least four times (READ Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). The sacrifice of Christ has such power that it is only offered once. That one offering not only cleanses all later sins, it cleanses all sins before for those who trust in Christ. You were born more than two thousand years after Christ died and you can still say, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Numbers 19:9 & 18 reveal that only a clean person can administer the water to remove impurity to the unclean. Hebrews 4:15 and 7:26 declare that our Savior, Jesus Christ, is completely and eternally clean (READ). Add to this testimony of Christ 1 John 3:5 (READ). Jesus Christ is the only One who is truly clean from the dirt of sin.

There is another way in which the red heifer ritual points you to Christ and it’s very different from all the others I have shown you. The sacrifices of the OT could render you ceremonially, outwardly, clean but they could not cleanse you internally. Hebrews 9:13-14 clarifies that none of the OT sacrifices including the red heifer ritual can do what the blood of Christ did when He died on the cross (READ). The red heifer’s ashes mixed with fresh, living water could make you ceremonially clean but it couldn’t cleanse your conscience. However, the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.

             Picture yourself standing before God in the heavenly courtroom. You only have two options as to how you can plead. Innocent isn’t one of your options. You have disobeyed God and gone your own way countless times. You are unclean, contaminated with sin and death. You are guilty and all your attempts to work your way out of that state are worthless. However, there is a remedy, an alternative open to you. You don’t have to plead guilty, you can plead Jesus. You can place your trust in Jesus’ purification offering for all those who are unclean. You can say to the Judge, “I’m guilty, I committed all those sins. I deserve the death penalty. But your only Son, Jesus Christ, has already paid the price. He died in my place on the cross. He took my spiritual dirt of sin and now I am clean before you.” 

Some people go through life scrubbing and scrubbing, trying to get rid of that foul spot with their own cleansing fluid. There’s that sin that clings to us like a neoprene wetsuit defying our best efforts to get rid of it. There’s that great sin in our past for which we are fearful God might not forgive us.

However, the cleansing Christ provides makes us clean when we first trust Him as Savior. After salvation He continues to encourage us to come to Him daily for fresh forgiveness and cleansing by His blood. Don’t ever get tired of bringing your sin before God. You have His word that He will always wash it away. In this fallen world you will always need to come to Christ to be washed from the contamination of sin (1 John 1:9).  This is the only way to remain in a right relationship with Christ.

Praise God today for the cleansing blood of Christ that purifies you from all unrighteousness. Praise God for the good news that in Christ your ongoing indwelling sins are presently covered. Praise God for a day is coming when even the presence of sin will be completely removed. Praise God that a day is coming when you will have a spiritual cleanliness that will last for eternity.


Bottom Line: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)


[1] Timothy Ashley, Numbers (Grand Rapids, MI., Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 362

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