Strength for the Journey: “Bathing in Ashes” – Numbers 19:1-6

models3When I was a kid, I liked to build models. I especially liked building ships, planes and World War II reconstructions. I could spend hours putting a battle scene together, only to rip into it like the scars left after actual warfare. I lived in my imagination, and recounted battles of long ago. Some were real battles that I read about – others were a product of a pre-teen lost in a vision of the his own little plastic world. It wasn’t until a few years later I got firecrackers, and then things really got interesting… but that is for another time. I confess that I learned a great deal by observing models – and it seems that is something I was made to be able to do.

Whether on the shop floor or in an art class, God made many of us to pick up patterns and reproduce by models. Like many men, I confess that I often didn’t follow the directions – rather I looked at the picture on the box. I wanted my copy to look like the one on the box – because that is what I bought. In the store, all I had was the picture on a box, and that was the pattern in my mind. The value of seeing a complete version in a picture was that I could recognize when I made my copy successfully.

God also loves models. He paints pictures of spiritual truths, and shares them with us – so that we can celebrate His unfolding plan with Him. He gave models to Israel long ago that help us know about the way He accomplishes things in men – like redeeming a lost man or restoring a fallen brother. These patterns are often more clear later in Scripture – because God’s story is progressive. He sometimes introduced something into the Scripture, and only many years later cleared up why that element was necessary. The text we are studying in our lesson today is one of His most elaborate models — that of the “Parah Adumah” – or the “Red Heifer”. This picture showed how God modeled restoration for the defiled – and redeemed the filthy. The model vibrantly pictured the coming plans of Redeemer – and left us with a picture on the box to look at when Messiah came to redeem and restore.

Key Principle: God planned very carefully the details of our redemption – and offered pictures long before to make the process clear.

The fact is that salvation and reconciliation to God had a pattern long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. God didn’t leave man guessing – He offered the general model of the sacrificial system to help us understand substitution and atonement. He also offer a model in the form of one specific sacrifice- the Parah Adumah. The pattern of that sacrifice was so clearly a pattern of future redemption, that details of it became important to the story of the Good News (Gospel) account. Let’s look at the text and draw out the sketch to be filled in with the Gospel details.

Pretend that Numbers 19 is a “paint by numbers” pattern. God drew out the black and white lines, and then later added the colors in another time, on the hillside called Calvary…

Underlying the pattern is this: God demonstrated in the pattern that redemption and reconciliation to God were essential – because of an internal nature of continual mutiny and rebellion.

God established clearly that people cannot and will not follow rules – and will not act in a way that honors His moral authority over their lives. We are born with a desire to do things our own way. Isaiah knew it, and wrote the words of the Lord in Isaiah 53:6 “All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.” Listen to those words carefully and you will hear the pattern… All men and women do what they CHOOSE, but God took the pain of that mutiny and the effect of that rebellion – and placed it on HIS OWN SHOULDERS. Those who know God because of the choice to give our lives to Jesus understand this clearly. Isaiah prophesied of something that has changed our lives.

The very first part of the Bible is the Law – but one of the major features of reading the Torah (the Law) is that it clearly established the lines of acceptance and violation – and like the fingerprints left on the wet paint with the sign “DO NOT TOUCH” – the Law made clear man was badly broken inside. The Law offered standards – in part – to visually help us all understand that we don’t do what God said – even when it is clear – because we DON’T WANT TO. That was Paul’s point in Romans 5:12 “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.

Don’t get lost in the verbiage. Paul said that one man mutinied in the Garden, and passed that fallen and broken state to all his children. One outcome of that rebellion was immediate separation from God – a broken relationship that separated us from spending an eternity with our Creator. Physical death of the body is a mere symbol of a spiritual reality – things are broken since the Fall. Yet, without the Law, it would NOT have been clear how broken man truly is. The fact is that we are optimists about ourselves and our own intentions. The Law showed that we simply WON’T do right. We just CAN’T on our own. That wet paint sign is too tempting. That speed limit sign is for other people. We know better… or at least we live like we do.

Our story in Numbers is a great sampling of human failure!

Walk back into the story of the Israelites in the desert we have been following. Constant rebellion made Moses’ life ridiculously difficult. Think back over the last few chapters:

• First, the spies were sent into the land, and their negative report left Israel in tears (Numbers 13). God promised them the land – and FEAR kept them from obedience. Disappointment set in.

• Next, growing out of disappointment came the sore of open INSURRECTION that pressed Moses to fall before God to defend the people and keep them from summary judgment – but in God’s patience the people only stepped up rebellion further! They rushed hastily into the land against Moses’ clear command. It was a disaster. The people of God were routed and the enemies of Israel were celebrating and picking up the spoils of war (Numbers 14).

• In the wake of that awful decision to fight without God’s direction and presence, God regrouped the people with Moses and presented some NEW LAWS. These were meant to both encourage the people that they WOULD be entering the land, and warn the people that future rebellion would need to be faced soberly, with the consequences of sin clearly outlined (Numbers 15).

• No sooner had God offered encouragement, then (in Numbers 16) another leadership rebellion pushed the camp into chaos. The text recounted first how Moses dealt with rebels, and then how God dealt with them. This rebellion left no body bags or burials, the earth SWALLOWED the rebels up in one moment.

• By Numbers 17, God used the staff of a man to show His power, direction and approval. God used a stick to show endorsement – bringing empowering new life and productivity to a dead stick.

• In Numbers 18, the issue came up a third time — WHO WOULD LEAD THEM. By that point, the text was clear – people didn’t like God’s choices for them – they wanted to make their own. Are we really any different? I don’t think so!

Five chapters, three open rebellions, and earth swallowing and body bags… you would think anyone reading this account would stop right now and evaluate their walk and their obedience… but most of us pass by these images like a traffic accident on the highway. We know the results of rebellion MAY someday befall us, but we keep driving along, hoping that it won’t happen today… The setting of the sacrifice of Numbers 19 is clear – we need God to step in with answers to our sin-sick nature – or we won’t be able to change. If God doesn’t clean us up, we won’t get clean – period.

Zoom into Numbers 19 and pick out with me some of the elements of this paint by numbers sketch, so we can fill in the colors with later Scripture:

Element One: Sin violation is both an issue of sacred and secular authority –

It simply cannot be relegated to only one. Note the opening in Numbers 19:1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying…

In Numbers 19:1, after wave upon wave of flagrant rebellion, God spoke to both the civil leader (Moses) and the religious leader (Aaron) to directly answer the rebellious violations in the camp.

He didn’t divide religion from state laws – because it isn’t really possible to do so. We need to be clear here…It is a foolish errand to attempt to divorce religion from the state – simply because state laws are formed as a reflection of moral precepts that are deeply rooted in religious life.

Americans today aren’t truly trying to separate church and state- they are trying to replace WHICH “church” the modern state follows. They prefer the moral relativism of today’s experts in atheistic humanist lab coats, not what appears to be archaic Biblical precepts. When people argue for “separation of church and state”, they are not arguing that NO moral precepts under gird civil law, they are arguing that they don’t like the moral precepts upon which our laws have historically been based. They chip away at the foundation, supposing they are gaining more personal freedom by dislodging the Biblical root of our jurisprudence.

With each decade we spend more and more to keep ourselves safe in a society that cannot agree on the simplicity of what is “good” and “right”. We cannot agree on the most basic protections and principles. In our unbounded celebration of growing American diversity, we seem to have lost our essential core value system – and we cannot find common ground with our own founders.

In point of fact, all laws are rooted in moral principle – and the modern attempts are nothing more than merely dislodging the Biblical foundation and replacing it with a new national religion – naturalistic humanism.

I am not arguing that there is no difference between the law of the state and the Bible, I am arguing as did President Washington – that state morality was intended to be rooted in Biblical precept. He said: “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” (George Washington). Those who long to preserve the Biblical foundation to our state heritage are not trying to change the country – we are resisting the replacement of the ethical system upon which our laws are based.

Element Two: Both sin and its remedy is defined by God.

The standard is inscribed by God’s Word – not by popular opinion. Numbers 19:2 “This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded, saying…

Men will never figure out what is RIGHT and GOOD without God. We cannot see the truth in the fallen world, because all creation has been affected by the Fall. In a recent defense of homosexual unions, one so-called “Christian” author claimed in an interview that since “such things happen in nature” it must be against the natural order to forbid such unions. The author has overlooked two important truths:

  • First, Romans 8:20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. In other words, you cannot get a clear picture of what God intended by looking at a fallen world that is waiting to be fixed by God.
  • Second, because of the sin nature, we all want to NATURALLY do things that the law must not sanction. Lust is natural, so restriction is both warranted and helpful. Laws are intended, in many cases, to BLOCK us from doing what we would do if we could.

The point is this: only GOD can be trusted with the answer to where we are today. We are broke inside, and increasingly, as we stray from Biblical moorings in society, we are broke on the outside as well. The answers are not found in NATURE, nor are they found WITHIN MAN – they are found in God’s Word. He created all things, and He knows both their PURPOSE and their DESTINY.

Element Three: God has provided a way to fix what is broke in man.

God provided a substitute to die in our place outside the camp. Numbers 19:2 “…‘Speak to the sons of Israel that they bring you an unblemished red heifer in which is no defect [and] on which a yoke has never been placed. 3 You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be brought outside the camp and be slaughtered in his presence.

The paint by numbers line sketch is simple here. There must be an unblemished substitute that is killed outside the camp under the authority of the Priest of the people.

The Gospels unfold the gruesome story of Jesus before Annas, then the High Priest Joseph Caiaphas and a court of the Sanhedrin early one Friday morning two thousand years ago. Blindfolded and slapped by Caiaphas’ men – Jesus was eventually remanded into Roman custody before being nailed to the Cross outside the city wall of Jerusalem.

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews fills in the color on the sketch in Hebrews 13:11 “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest [as an offering] for sin, are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. 13 So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. 14 For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking [the city] which is to come.”

The author called the early Jewish followers of Jesus to STOP trying to fit in to the world about them, and take on the reproach of the Savior. Embrace the reality: we don’t fit here anymore. We aren’t called to be popular – we are called to be Christ-like. His most important contribution to mankind was made OUTSIDE the walls of the city – in a place of filth and sorrow. He was our substitute, and His life was take because of our sin. That is an essential element of the Gospel: God sent His Son to fix what we could not repair given any amount of time or effort. On a hill outside the ancient city of Jebus, Abraham took his son Isaac and offered him up to God. On another hill nearby – outside the city called by that time Jerusalem – God offered up HIS SON. The first time the sacrifice was stopped, the second time it was NOT.

Element Four: Total faith in the offering set up by God was ALL it would take to fix the problem.

God didn’t tell them to make the offering and then set out to please Him by building a great Temple or helping a little old lady across the camp’s major camel traffic lane… What God provided was complete. Numbers 19:4 Next Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times.

Eleazar took a small amount of the blood from the animal onto his fingers and sprinkled it toward the very heart of the camp, where the Mishkan – the “Tent of meeting” stood. He didn’t do it once – he was commanded to be careful to do it SEVEN TIMES. You needn’t look hard in the Bible to find out that God likes the number seven. The Bible opens with the story of the complete cycle of the week in Genesis 1:1-2:3 – the story of the seven days. Pass the Torah and its many references to the Shabbat every seventh day and pause to look at Joshua marching around Jericho for seven days, complete with seven blasts on the trumpet on the seventh pass of the seventh day. Pick up Joshua 6 and you will read these words:

Joshua 6:4 “Also seven priests shall carry seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark; then on the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. 5 “It shall be that when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when you hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people will go up every man straight ahead.”

We could go all the way through the Bible, where we would finally end in Revelation with a judgment of seven seals in Revelation 6, followed by seven trumpets in Revelation 8-9 and seven bowls in Revelation 16.

Here is the point: Seven was the perfect number of completion. It was the JUST RIGHT that Goldilocks was searching for in the den of the bears. It was COMPLETE.

Element Five: The solution was in death and a blood sacrifice.

Sometimes in our modern world, that offends our sensitivities. We are, thankfully, a “save the whales” community. We don’t kill animals just for the fun of it. There are sportsmen – but they will tell you that they do not attempt to be cruel to the prey in the hunt. Focus on the end of verse four and the phrase: “…sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times.”

Blood was the perfect cleansing solution. It came from a young cow that had one color hair and never had a yoke placed upon it, nor was she ever calved. The sacrifice was PURE and UNBLEMISHED – spotless of its own accord – and cut open and bled. Again the line sketch is filled in with color much later by the writer to the Hebrews in chapter 9:

Hebrews 9:11 “But when Christ appeared …12… through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? … 19 For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “THIS IS THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT WHICH GOD COMMANDED YOU.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. 22 And according to the Law, [one may] almost [say], all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

The life blood was the highest price one could pay. When you give up your life, you give all – and that is exactly what Jesus did. Nothing less than a full and complete sacrifice would do in God’s system of dealing with rebellion.

Let me be clear: Someone will pay for your sin. It will be YOU in eternal judgment, or it will be JESUS covering you with His blood because you CHOSE to trust in Him and Him alone for your salvation. There are no other options.

• You cannot work your way in: For Ephesians 2 expressly says: 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, [it is] the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

• You will not “will power” your way to doing right deeds to balance the scales in your favor. Romans 5 states our position without Jesus very clearly: 6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. We, apart from the work Jesus did at the Cross for us – are completely HOPELESS and HELPLESS.

We must never fail to be absolutely clear about this ONE THING: Jesus is THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life. He said it clearly in John 14:6 “No one comes to the Father by but me!

Element Six: Tossed into the sacrificial fire were reminders of the sickness of man and the prescription for the cure.

Number 19 continues with a strange mentioning of some items that were tossed into the fire as the sacrificial red heifer was reduced to ashes in a fire. Numbers 19:5 “Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its hide and its flesh and its blood, with its refuse, shall be burned. 6 The priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet [material] and cast it into the midst of the burning heifer.”

The animal was thoroughly inspected. The Mishnah reminds that even two hairs of another color would disqualify the animal for sacrifice. The heifer was fully inspected, and being found blameless – it was put to death. Luke reminds us of that scene in the sacrifice of Jesus, where He was found guiltless – but nevertheless killed… Luke 23:4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” 5 But they kept on insisting, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting from Galilee even as far as this place.

The animal was slaughtered, and the carcass was burnt, but the bones were not broken, reduced by the fire itself. John 19:36 made the point that at the death of Jesus “For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, “NOT A BONE OF HIM SHALL BE BROKEN.”

While the heifer was burnt, the priest would tossed in cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet into the sacrificial fire. These three elements are not only found HERE, but also in Leviticus 14:4 as part of the cleansing and restoration of a LEPER.

  • The cedar was an important wood in ancient times – possessing resistance to disease and rot. It is impossible to know what kind of wood the sacrifice of Jesus took place upon – but it is no stretch to understand that a piece of WOOD was prominent in the story or redemption at the CROSS>
  • The hyssop was used to offer Jesus a drink on the cross (Matthew 27:48), but was a poetic expression in the Bible for cleansing – as in Psalm 51:7, when David said “purge me with hyssop” — admitting he was a bad as a leper. It was used to put the blood of the lamb on the door post at the Exodus.
  • The scarlet was the color of the mocking “king’s robe” put on Jesus at His torture by the soldiers (Matthew 27:28). A cloth of the wealthy, Luke reminds us that Pilate and Herod Antipas became friends over the JOKE of King Jesus passed between them that day.

The object is not to become obsessed with symbolism, but it is also to be able to understand the connection between the model and its fulfillment. God knew what He was doing from the beginning of Creation – and we can trust the plan is unfolding as He planned.

Babbie Mason wrote these words, “God is too wise to be mistaken. God is too good to be unkind. When you don’t understand and can’t see His plan, when you can’t trace His hand, TRUST HIS HEART.” This is one aspect of properly understanding the wonder of God’s Word.

God planned very carefully the details of our redemption – and offered pictures long before to make the process clear.

Let me close this lesson with a word of warning. God unfolds His plan over ions of time – but you and I don’t have eternity to make up our minds to follow Him. We live, staring in the face of a ticking clock. The days of our lives are numbered, but unknown to us.

There is a fable which tells of three apprentice devils who were coming to this earth to finish their apprenticeship. They were talking to Satan, the chief of the devils, about their plans to tempt and to ruin men. The first said, “I will tell them that there is no God.” Satan said, “That will not delude many, for they know that there is a God.” The second said, “I will tell men that there is no hell.” Satan answered, “You will deceive no one that way; men know even now that there is a hell for sin.” The third said, “I will tell men that there is no hurry.” “Go,” said Satan, “and you will ruin men by the thousands.” (William Barclay: The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2 [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], p. 317. From a sermon by Matthew Kratz, The parable of the Faithful & Wise Servant, 7/17/2010)

The most dangerous delusion is that delay is acceptable because there is plenty of time.