It is remarkable that death, merely as death, should be marked off for special reprobation as a cause of defilement, and a special purification provided. To touch a corpse was to be unclean seven days (Num. 19:11). And if a man died in a tent, everything in the tent and every person entering the tent was contaminated for a like period. Every man touching even the bone of a man, or a grave, was to be unclean for seven days: and if he neglected to perform the required purification, he continued unclean indefinitely, and rendered himself liable to be cut off from his people, in having “defiled the sanctuary of the Lord” (verses 13, 20).
The cleansing consisted of being sprinkled by a clean person with a specially-prepared “water of separation” on the third day, after which, on the seventh day, the unclean person was to wash his clothes and bathe himself in water. If he omitted the sprinkling on the third day, the washing on the seventh day would be of no avail. For a tent and all the articles in it defiled by the occurrence of death, the law was that a clean person was to take hyssop and dip it in the water of separation, and sprinkle it upon the tent and all its contents.
And what was the water of separation? It was composed of the ashes of a slain heifer, concerning which significant particulars are supplied. The Israelites were to bring to the high priest “a red heifer without spot, wherein was no blemish, and upon which never came yoke” (verse 2). The high priest was to lead the animal out of the camp, and an assistant was to slay it before his face. The priest was then to take of the blood with his finger and sprinkle it towards the tabernacle of the congregation seven times. The assistant was then to burn the body of the heifer—the priest casting cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet into the midst of the burning fire. Afterwards, a clean person—not the priest or his assistant—was to gather up the ashes of the heifer and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, to be kept for use as “a purification for sin”,
When required, some of the ashes were to be mixed in a vessel containing water taken from running water (verse 17).
The whole process was for cleansing, and yet it defiled those who took part in it. The priest was to be “unclean until the even” (verse 7), and was to “wash his clothes and bathe his flesh in water”, His assistant was affected in the same way (verse 8). And so was the “clean” man who should gather up the ashes and store them up in a clean place as a purification for sin (verse 10).
There is a significance in all these details that ought to be fatal to the loose ideas entertained in some Gentile quarters as to the death of Christ, to the effect that it was not necessary and not required, except as the mere act of martyrdom or crowning act of a life of obedience. For we must never forget that all these ceremonies of the law were allegorical of the work of Christ. But before considering the details, let us ponder the general fact that the ashes of a slain heifer are provided as an indispensable purification from the taint acquired by contact with death in any shape or form, or in however indirect or distant manner’ the neglect of which ensured that “cutting off from the people ” which the law so stringently provided in so many cases. Why should death merely as death be apparently treated with such abhorrence, and be made the subject of such stringent measures of purification?
This touches a subject high, deep, and wide. It calls attention to the origin of death in relation to man, and to the nature of life in relation to God. Both these subjects are liable to be skimmed over in this merely naturalistic age. Men find death a universal law of the animal world, so far as they have experience of that world upon earth and they are apt to regard it as the inseparable corollary of life—the necessary and other half of the phenomenon of vitality. They see animals, great and small, born, grow, decay, and die’ and they see man do the same. Therefore they write it down as a “law of nature”, for which they do not require to seek a special origin, and to which, therefore, it is impossible they can attach the odious character suggested by these provisions of the Mosaic law regarding it. But it is evident there is a fallacy in this way of looking at the subject.
Though all life is by constitution transient in its form upon earth at present, it does not follow that human mortality is exactly in the same channel. It might seem to follow if we had nothing but the constitution of nature to consider: if we had no attested revelation, we might be shut up to such a dispiriting thought, though even then, we could not but be impressed with the thought that man, the lord of creation, occupies a peculiar if inexplicable position among all the forms of life upon the earth. But in the presence of an attested revelation, we are bound to adjust revealed truth to natural fact. Moses and Christ cover the whole ground. We cannot in their presence shut our eyes to the revelation that so far as man is concerned, death is the result of sin, and not the necessary quality of the nature with which he was endowed in the first instance. This truth enables us to understand the peculiar detestation of death expressed by the ordinances we are considering. The presence of death—the touch of death—means the presence of sin, and sin is the awful thing that fools make a mock at: the crime of insubordination against the wish, will, or law of the Eternal Author and Possessor of Creation.
If the ceremonial repudiation of death in the law of Moses have this pungent meaning, it naturally brings the question of life into view, and opens celestial realms. What is life? There is no more insoluble problem than this among students of nature. It is a something inscrutable. It was thought for a moment it had been found when protoplasm was discovered: but the idea was soon abandoned, for it was found that protoplasm was but a material used by the invisible energy of life in the building up of its forms, and that the development of life was impossible in sterilized materials. Life is only noted now as a fact of the incomprehensible order. Here revelation steps in—not that it makes the incomprehensible plain, for that is impossible: but that it reveals to us its proximate origin. Revelation not only tells us that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all”, but that “with him is the fountain of life” (Psa. 36:9), that He is the living God who giveth life unto all (Acts 17:25): that His Spirit creates life (Psa. 104:30): that in Him we are embraced as a unity which fills heaven and earth (Jer. 23:24): and from whose presence it is impossible we can go (Psa. 139:7; Heb. 4:13). He dwells in light and is light and power, but by His Spirit, of which His person is the corporeal nucleus, He fills immensity —“Our Father, which art in heaven”—and yet Who is everywhere present in the effluence of His Spirit, perceiving and influencing and controlling. He says, “I lift up my hand to heaven, and say, I live for ever” (Deut. 32:40), and yet “Can any hide himself from me that I shall not see him? Do not I fill heaven and earth?” (Jer. 23:24).
This revelation of God supplies a conception of Him that is useful in the present connection. It exhibits Him in relation to life what the sun is with reference to the light of our solar system —with this difference, that He is life essential, inherent and inextinguishable, whereas the sun is but a gigantic mass of materials giving off light by electrical combustion—in fact, a large electric light placed in space by the Creative Power. The Creative Power is ONE—“beside whom there is no God” (Isaiah)—illimitable in the subtle extension of the Spirit, yet a Creative Being located “in Light”, “dwelling” in heaven, yet having a simultaneous presence through boundless immensity. He is life in this aspect of totality. Life in other creatures is derived from him. He “giveth it”, as Paul expresses it.
Being in essence, the life of the universe, and incorporating that life in divers forms for His own pleasure, we may understand how death, as the negation of His own work and the penalty of treason against himself, should come under the peculiar reprobation manifest in the Mosaic ordinance that contact with death made a man defiled with a defilement calling for instant cleansing.
From this ceremonial shadow, we easily go to the substance. The ashes of a slain heifer applied to a man defiled by death, was a curing of death by death. This is precisely what has happened in the antitype: Christ, “through death, destroyed that having the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). How could he do this if he had not in himself the power of death to destroy by dying? He has destroyed death. But in whom? In himself alone as yet. Believers will obtain the benefit by incorporation with him at the resurrection: but, at the present time, the victory is his alone. The fact is plain to everyone. Some who admire Christ are horror-struck at the idea of his having been a partaker of the Adamic condemned nature—a nature defiled by death because of sin. Their horror is due wholly to too great a confinement of view. They fix their attention on the idea of “defilement” without remembering that the defilement was undertaken expressly with a view to removal.
We must have God’s revealed object in view. The power of death was there that it might be destroyed. If it was not there, it could not be destroyed. This is the mischief of what may be truly called the Papal view. By denying that Jesus came in the very dying flesh of Adam, it changes the character of the death of Christ into a martyrdom or a punishing of the innocent for the guilty: instead of being what it is revealed to have been—a declaration of the righteousness of God that He might be just, while the justifier of those who have faith in it for the forgiveness of their sins (Rom. 3:24–26).
The mischief of this lies in its mental effects. Reconciliation with God with a view to worship and everlasting communion, is based on a right discernment of His ways. A wrong idea of God’s objects would unfit a man to be an acceptable worshipper, for God finds pleasure in our worship in proportion as we recognize our mutual relations. This is in fact the difference between one class of mankind and another, as revealed in all that has been written. A man who comes to Him with the idea that he has a right to be heard and to be saved, because his sins have been compounded for substitutionally in the death of Christ, as one man may satisfy the debts of another, is not in the frame of mind that is acceptable to Him. We must recognize that “grace reigns through righteousness” (Rom. 5:21), and that we are forgiven, not because another has been punished for our sins, but because we recognize this righteousness in the operation that put the Lord to death for the declaration of that righteousness and in the condemnation of sin in the flesh (Rom. 3:25; 8:3).
The subject may be difficult to Understand, but this is only because it concerns the ways of God, which are as much higher than man’s, as the heavens are higher than the earth (Isa. 55:8–9). God is ready to pardon, but not to put aside the ways of His righteousness. He aims at His own exaltation as well as our benefit, in the conferring of salvation: and therefore He adopts a method that humbles us in the dust while affording scope for His favour towards us without departure from justice and wisdom. It is a method that while inviting us to take of the water of life freely, puts us under everlasting obligation to Christ, through whom alone we can have access to Him or entrance to everlasting life. They are no empty words that the saints employ when they sing, “Thou wast slain and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood … .
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wisdom and riches and honour and glory and blessing.”
It is because these principles are involved that John laid such stress on the necessity for believing that Jesus Christ had “come in the flesh”, He directed the brethren to refuse association with any man who denied this (2 John, verses 7–10; 1 John 4:3). True it is that the interdict related in the apostolic age to a class who maintained that the life and suffering of Christ were apparent only, not real; but the objection that lies against that doctrine lies equally against the doctrine that it was a life and death in immaculate flesh, for in relation to the nature of man, that would have been as much only a seeming life and death as the other, and as effectually hides the real aims of the life and death of Christ in the flesh. It is God’s objects in the case that constitute the essence of the matter, and these are as much hidden by the death of an immaculate Christ as the seeming death of a seeming Christ; for if he were what the immaculatists maintain, there could be no condemnation of sin in the flesh, and no declaration of the righteousness of God, in his death.
As before mentioned, it is the interference with our mental adjustment to the divine harmony that is the great evil of wrong views on this matter.
It might be compared to the case of a man approaching us for association on the assumption formed by wrong reports he had heard, that we were open to a bribe, and that he could buy himself into our friendship. No man of character would accept approach on such an assumption, however friendly the man might be. How much less is the God of all grace willing to receive into friendship and life everlasting those who do not understand the principle of His whole procedure toward man—the exaltation of God and the subjection of man.
The details of the preparation of the ashes of the red heifer for the purification of death-tainted Israelites, are full of light on the question. The colour (red) tells us of sin-effects of some sort: and these were suffered by the Lord in being born of a condemned woman, and inheriting her weak and dying nature: its physical perfection (“without spot or blemish”) foreshadowed the spotless character of the Lord—without which, the deliverance to be wrought could not have been granted: “Upon which never came yoke”, tells us of the Lord’s total dedication to what, even at twelve years of age, he termed “My Father’s business”, The beast was to be given to the high priest for offering, but another was to slay it (Num. 19:3). Who was the antitypical high priest, we know: “Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, offered up himself” (Heb. 9:11, 14). But the killing was done by the Romans as the instruments of the Jews. The high priest was to “sprinkle the blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times”, which was fulfilled in the case of the “greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building”, into which he entered by or with his own blood: “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:11, 24); and as for “seven times”: perfection: “’one sacrifice for sins for ever” (Heb. 10:12). The body of the beast, with addition of cedar wood, the “sweet smelling savour” of righteousness: hyssop, cleansing power for others: and scarlet, the sins of his people laid upon him: was burnt in change into spirit nature. The ashes (that which is left) were to be gathered for purification, and stored in a clean place outside the camp. Christ raised, transformed, and taken away, was preserved in the testimony of these things, which was stored outside the Mosaic economy in the Church of the living God, for purification from death of all who believe.
A man that was clean was to gather up the ashes: the testimony concerning Christ was promulgated by Peter and his fellow apostles, to whom Jesus said, “Ye are clean through the word that I have spoken unto you”, That is, justified men: it was not godless men who were used in the preaching of the gospel. Yet, notwithstanding the qualifying cleanness, the man gathering the ashes was to be “unclean until the even”—which is the state of all the servants of Christ, until the end of this defiled and Gentile day. They will wash and be clean on the change to the incorruptible. Because the whole operation was intended to purify from the taint of death (as any one may see in reading the whole of Num. 19), on the principle of taking away death by death—therefore uncleanness attached to everything accessory to the process until the process was complete. The high priest himself partook of the uncleanness (see verse 7), as well as the man who should gather up the ashes (verse 10).
Now these things were shadows, of which we see the perfect object projecting them when we see Christ as a partaker of condemned human nature for its emancipation and purification on the principles and with the objects already fully indicated. Away from this, all is confusion.
The Mosaic imputation of uncleanness to any one touching a grave or a dead man, may enable us to understand why Jesus, having lain in the grave nearly three days, forbad Mary to touch him, because of his non-cleansing as yet (John 20:17). Though the Lord’s death had freed him from the law, Mary was still in subjection to it, and therefore it became him who “magnified the law and made it honourable”, to recognize its ordinances in the actions of those on whom it still had claims.
The object of the various ordinances for cleansing in the cases of defilement is thus stated in Lev. 15:31: “Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle that is among them”. This is calculated to convey, and was doubtless intended to convey (as one of the schoolmaster lessons of the law of Moses), an extreme sense of the holiness of God, and of His condescension in stooping to have any dealings with unclean man, and His kindness in providing conditions under which He would consent to accept human approaches. It is a solemn and imperative truth forced home upon us in many ways in the course of the divine revelation—from the fixing of the engraved plate “HOLINESS to the Lord” on Aaron’s forehead, to the Apocalyptic declaration that there shall not enter into the holy city anything that defileth. How constant the declaration in the law, “I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 20:26): how impressive the covering of the faces and feet of the seraphim in the presence of His glory. How emphatic the teaching of the appointments before us, that there would be death to those who defile the divine holiness.
How much needed is this lesson in a day like ours, when men are drifting further and further away from all reverence in divine directions. How much needed even among many who have been called to holiness, but of whom few seem adequately to realize the holiness of the calling to which they have been called. Paul gives the matter a pointed and practical application in 1 Cor. 3:17: “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy, for the temple of God is holy”. He had said “Ye are the temple of God”, and again: “which temple ye are”, It is this that gives point to the statement. And again: “Know ye riot that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit… therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). And again: “Ye are the temple of the living God, as God hath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them” (2 Cor. 6:16).
The lesson of the Mosaic shadow is plain in this bearing. Unholiness of body or spirit will evoke death: but the antitypical sacrifice brought in the hands in daily prayer, will ensure forgiveness if holiness is followed: “without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).