Christian Friend vol. 15, 1888, p. 99 etc.
(Translated from the French.)
In the books of Leviticus and Numbers we find three aspects of the sin-offering — the great day of atonement (Leviticus 16); the sin and the trespass-offerings (Leviticus 4 5); and, lastly, the sacrifice of the red heifer. (Numbers 19.) Before turning our attention to the last, which is indeed the subject of these pages, let us glance rapidly at the two other kinds of sin-offering.
The great Day of Atonement.
God had redeemed Israel at the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea, sheltering them from judgment, and delivering them from the bondage of Egypt, in order to bring them at last into the land of promise. From the moment they entered the wilderness, the Israelites were the people of God in virtue of redemption; thenceforth God could dwell in their midst. But, in point of fact, Israel was a people in the flesh, defiled by sin, and so the tabernacle of God remained "among them in the midst of their uncleanness." (Leviticus 16:16.) This is what a holy and righteous God could not tolerate; for He would have denied His own character, and proclaimed that sin did not sunder every relationship between man. and Him. Hence God must find a way of receiving Israel before Him, which would maintain His character and not derogate from His glory; a means of purifying the sanctuary, His abode, from the uncleanness contracted from the presence of a defiled people; a means too of assuring to His people the happy certainty that for God the question of sin was settled by removing from the conscience of every Israelite all trace of past guilt before Him. God provided this way for Israel by means of the offerings of the day of atonement.
The first and most important of the four acts which characterized this day was the high priest's entrance into the most holy place with the blood of the bullock for himself, and of the goat of the sin-offering for the people. This blood, placed upon and before the mercy-seat, proclaimed the worth of the offering for the reconciliation of the people to God, and the perfection of its results in permitting Israel to draw nigh to God. The purification of the holy place prefigured the reconciliation of all things (see Col. 1:19-20) — the purification of the whole creation defiled by sin, but which, in virtue of the work of Christ, will one day be put in complete harmony with God's character, so that God can dwell among men. (See Rev. 21:3. Compare John 1: 29.) The high priest's coming out from the holy place made known to the people the fact that the work had been accepted, and the question of sin settled between Israel's representative and God; indeed, the iniquities of the people confessed over the head of the scapegoat were borne away into a land not inhabited, and were never to be found again; so that the consciences of the children of Israel were cleansed and delivered from the weight which had hitherto bowed them down in affliction of soul before God.
But the law made nothing perfect. As to the real efficacy of this great day, we know that the blood of bulls and of goats can never take away sins; propitiation, had it been efficacious, would have been so only for a year. Moreover, all that took place on that day testified that the way into the holiest was not open, that the veil was there, and that sinful man was banished from the holy place where God dwells.
Now all that Israel did not know, and of which they could only catch a glimpse in the future through a veil, is at the present time possessed by Christians in perfection. It is the great truth which the epistle to the Hebrews teaches. The offering of the blood of Christ, which is of eternal efficacy, will never be repeated. Christ, the High Priest, is entered, not into the holy places made with hands, but into heaven itself, and has sat down at the right hand of God. The veil is rent, the way is for ever open, and the worshipper can go into the holy place with boldness, having no more conscience of sins. The end of Hebrews 9.* corresponds with the four acts of this solemn day. There we find, first, that as the high priest went into the holy place with blood, so Christ, after having offered Himself without spot to God, is gone into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us (v. 24); secondly, that once in the end of the world hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (v. 26) — a putting away which corresponds with the purification of the sanctuary;† thirdly, that, as the scapegoat, so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many (v. 28); fourthly, that, like the high priest coming out of the tabernacle, He will appear the second time without sin unto salvation to those that look for Him. (v. 28.)
*The whole of this epistle, with the exception of a few details, treats of the offerings of the great day of atonement — a circumstance calculated to bring to light the immense importance for us of this day considered as a type.
†It is clear that the whole value of the work is likewise included in this verse 26.
The type then of the great day of atonement has been fully fulfilled in Christ. If as yet we do not see sin put away, we know that the work is accomplished which is the foundation of it. If our High Priest be still hidden in the holy place, we have nevertheless the positive certainty, by the Spirit sent down from heaven, that our relationships with God are definitely and unchangeably established; and we do not need, like Israel, to await the coming out of the High Priest to learn this. And yet, better than Israel could, we await Him without sin unto salvation. In short, if our sins are put away from before God, they are so also from our consciences, and they are carried into a land not inhabited, where even the eye of God will never find them again.
(For brevity's sake we omit, in what follows, the trespass-offering.)
In this chapter we have quite a different case to that of the great day of atonement. Here the question is, not how God can dwell in the midst of His people, or rather upon what basis He can establish and keep His relationships with them, but upon what terms either people or individuals can draw nigh to God when communion has been broken by some specific sin. What in fact is striking at the outset in this chapter (as also in the case of the red heifer) is, that the point is not to establish relationships with a God who is still just while justifying the believer, but that it is a question of restoration for each sin which has spoiled the enjoyment of these relationships.* This is the reason why the sin-offering follows the peace-offering of Leviticus 3. The latter was the type of the believer's communion with God about the sacrifice of Christ. If this communion had been broken by sin, how could it be restored? Chapter 4 gives us the answer.
*It must however be added, that in reality, under the law, relationship with God was disturbed by every sin, hence the continual renewal of blood-sprinkling. Besides Lev. 4 and 5 present the sin-offering in the aspect of satisfaction offered to God for every act of sin.
Before proceeding further, let us remark how little we really know of fellowship with God. It may be defined in few words - having but one mind and one heart with God. About what? do you say? About everything — sin, the world, ourselves — but, above all, about the work and person of Christ. And when we do know something of this communion, how little do we enjoy it, for it is broken by the smallest sin that we commit, even in thought.
The only sins dealt with in Leviticus 4 are sins of ignorance — sins which would have been ignored by the people or individuals, had there not been someone intelligent enough to make them known to them.* To argue about ignorance and a state of inability to be aware of a trespass was useless, for ignorance was already a fruit of sin.† It was precisely such trespasses which served to show how abominable sin is in the sight of God. For these sins there must be sacrifice, for they had robbed the Israelite of all possibility of approach to God, either before the veil for worship (Lev. 4:6, 17), or at the altar of incense for communion (Lev. 4:7, 18), or even at the altar of burnt-offering (Lev. 4:25, 34), where the worshipper was individually received before God, according to the perfection of the sacrifice. This being the case, the sinner through ignorance brought a victim who must be identified with him. In certain cases the priest ate the victim, appropriating the sin, so to speak, and removing it from the guilty. The blood of the victim, sprinkled at the very place where the one who had sinned must draw nigh to God, resembled provision made beforehand to permit of his resuming his place. The victim burned outside the camp answered to the righteousness of God acting in judgment; and finally, the fat consumed on the altar showed the full satisfaction which the heart of God found in the sacrifice. Upon every fresh sin of ignorance (or trespass) the offering must be repeated and the victim's blood shed, in order to reopen the way to God and to allow the sinner to draw near. But for a Christian there is nothing of the kind. If he have sinned, he does not come to the blood of Christ to be re-washed, he does not need to await a further shedding of blood to enable him to draw nigh; for the work accomplished on the cross, and which laid the foundation of his reconciliation, has at the same time established once and for ever the basis of his communion. He learns that, if he have sinned, Christ is, not will be, the propitiation for his sins; and that if he have been in need of an Advocate with the Father, he may find this Advocate in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the propitiation for his sins. Thus he can approach with boldness. The perfectness of the sprinkling — sevenfold sprinkling - is before God (v. 17) long before the believer is restored. That which this type prefigures is contained in these words: "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and He is the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 2:1, 2.)
*Besides, for Israel under law wilful sin was without resource. The law admitted of none. Whoever committed it should be put away from amidst the people. Remark, amongst others, the case of Achan, a wilful sinner who had to be cut off, whilst Israel, on the same occasion, having sinned through ignorance, could be restored. Under grace there is a perfect resource for all sins — "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin." There is only one wilful sin which is now without resource, it is apostasy from Christianity; that is to say, the abandonment of Christ and His sacrifice. "If we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins." (Heb. 10: 26.)
†Notice amongst others this terrible word — "If a soul touch any unclean thing … and if it be hidden from him; he also shall be unclean, and guilty." (Lev. 5:2.)
In the application to the Christian of the two preceding types, we have noticed, in the first, reconciliation accomplished and relationship with God established once for all. In the second, the means of restoration — the basis of communion being laid once for all in the blood which admits of the sinner's approach to God. But these types by no means include all that is necessary for the restoration of a soul out of communion. There must be, before it is regained, deep exercise of conscience, with which Numbers 19 will occupy us in detail.
The Red Heifer.
The subject of the book of Numbers is the journey of the children of Israel across the desert, typifying the Christian's journey through this world. On the road he is exposed to all sorts of defilements which effectually interrupt communion with God. Their character is worthy of remark, and should speak seriously to our consciences. They are no longer sins committed by mistake, or through ignorance, as in Leviticus 4, and made known to us by others;* but they are sins committed inadvertently, or from lack of vigilance. Simple Christian watchfulness is the way to avoid losing communion during our daily life. Besides this characteristic, there was another which was common to these sins. In every case defilement was contracted by contact with death, or the result of death. It was impossible when unclean to allege ignorance as an excuse, for no one could deny what death was. It was the most palpable and absolute proof of sin: "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." "The wages of sin is death." Sin was then made evident by its consequences, so that the man who touched death had no excuse to proffer.
*When the high priest had sinned (Leviticus 4) it is not said, "If his sin … come to his knowledge," as in verses 14, 23, 28. In proportion to our nearness to God, so does the Holy Spirit, acting by the Word upon our conscience, make us aware of the least sin, without any need of human intervention to point it out to us.
Defilement on account of death might be contracted in two places — in the tent or in the fields. In the second case, the individual only was unclean; in the first, the defilement extended to all that was in the tent, and particularly to every uncovered vessel. Of what frequent occurrence is this kind of defilement among Christians! In the fields, in public, amidst the world, there is usually more watchfulness, because of the liability to observation from hostile people, who seek to find fault in order to have an opportunity of speaking against the gospel. In the tent, in the more or less restricted family circle, it is easy to be inattentive, and less on the watch. Things are tolerated which would not be before every one, and there is less restraint because it is private life. Certain worldlinesses are accepted which would be avoided in public; such and such an evil is excused on the ground that there is no one to criticise. Death is in the tent. What is the result? If there be an uncovered vessel it is defiled. Uncleanness contracted within the tent spreads to our immediate surroundings. How is it that the children of Christians become so often worldly in their ways, and give up the truth which has been taught them in their father's house? Doubtless there may be many causes for it; and I admit that, in most cases, great worldliness on the parents' part is not the reason; but have they not often to acknowledge with humiliation, that they have tolerated in the family circle some worldly defilement which has influenced the uncovered vessels, thus exposed through our negligence to such an influence?
The second kind of uncleanness from death was that contracted in the open fields. There, if lacking in vigilance, death might be encountered under four different aspects; a bone, a man who had died a violent death, a case of ordinary death, or a grave.
A bone is only distantly allied to a dead body. Corruption is no longer at work there. Sun and rain, the effect of time, the fowls of the air, and the beasts of the field, have long ago removed every vestige of adhering matter; while its remoteness from its origin only renders it the more common; at any moment bones may be trodden under foot in the fields, and men have come to consider them useful, and even indispensable. What then is this common sin symbolized by a bone — this sin accepted by all, so frequent as to be unheeded, and which the world is surprised to see dealt with by some as a scandal and a shame? Dear Christian reader, — you will meet with it everywhere, when, like the Israelite in the fields, you are obliged to be with the world. At every step you will be met by — the seller who deceives the buyer as to the quality of his goods; the banker who prefers his own interests; the physician who deceives his patients; the man of the world who compliments to the face, and disparages behind the back — all this, and much besides may be likened to the oft-recurring — bone. Are we Christians getting tainted by such principles? Are we, in any measure, ceasing to regard them as defiling? Let us be careful, for the destroy all communion with God.
The second and the third cases were those of violent or natural deaths; violence and corruption, the two great classes of sins which God had before Him when He said that He would destroy the world by a flood. The world has not changed. The declarations, "They have corrupted themselves;" "Destruction and misery are in their ways;" "Violence covereth them as a garment," are still true; but the question for us Christians is, Are these things absent from our walk when we have to do with the world? If we are wronged or slandered; if we have personal grievances against others, what do we manifest? Is it a peaceful or a violent spirit? On the other hand, there is a moral corruption surrounding us, like the air we breathe, which is to be found in what we hear, or read, or see, in the people who pass by us; it shows itself in broad daylight, insinuates itself amongst the shades of night. Do our desires go after these things, and do we allow ourselves to be touched by this surrounding corruption? Ah!! let us be watchful to keep our eyes and our ears, our hands and our feet, our thoughts and our hearts, from such defilement; let us hate "even the garment spotted by the flesh."
The fourth case was a grave. A grave might be unwittingly walked over. (Luke 11:44.) The Lord makes use of the figure of a sepulchre to portray the hypocrisy of a heart which presents a pleasant appearance, whilst within it is full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27-28.) The grave is a heart that voluntarily hides its internal corruption beneath a fair exterior. Such were the Pharisees whom the Lord blamed. And what multitudes of God's children come in contact with such graves in their daily life, accepting the principles of the world's religion, and contenting themselves with a religion of forms to which the state of the heart in nowise corresponds! Alas! a Christian may be defiled by a grave. He may also be, in this sense, a hypocrite himself. The apostle Paul had avoided such uncleanness. He did not seek the approval of men, but of God. He said, "We are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences." (2 Cor. 5:11.)
Touching a grave is defiling, and destroys communion; and an evil thought is enough, a single lust hidden in the heart and ignored by every other being. Often we are dry and barren, the Word is uninteresting to us, and joy and power are lacking. Why? We may not know the cause; but the fact is, communion is lost. Let us ask God the reason. He will reply, that we have touched a grave. We may only have to judge a single lust which the heart has involuntarily cherished without having even carried it into action; it suffices to render us defiled persons.
Let us now consider what was to be done when an Israelite was unclean from contact with death.
The means of purification was a red heifer without spot, and upon which had never come yoke. This was a type of Christ, a Man without sin, who had not even been subjected in His nature to the consequences of sin. This heifer was to be slain before Eleazar the priest, and her blood sprinkled seven times directly before the tabernacle of the congregation — the place where the people stood before God to worship. It was not as on the great day of atonement, when the blood was carried into the holy place within the veil, and placed upon the mercy-seat, under the eye of God. Here the blood met the eye of the man who was drawing nigh to God after having sinned. It was an act analogous to that of the sin-offering, although in the latter case the sprinkling of blood took place elsewhere. For restoration it was necessary, above everything, that the eye of faith should encounter the blood offered for the propitiation, and which had arrived before the sinner at the place where he could meet God.* Without this first act restoration could not be possible. When we have failed, if we do not know that Jesus Christ, the righteous One, is the propitiation for our sins before God, we shall remain at a distance, instead of drawing nigh to Him. Our ignorance makes us think that we have lost through sin what never can be lost, even our relationship with God, and we make these relationships depend upon our conduct, whilst in point of fact our communion depends on it. The fruit of this ignorance is not restoration, but despair. Real purity of walk will always be founded on the full assurance which the blood of Christ in the presence of God gives to our souls, and which we behold as having perfectly satisfied God about sin.
*There is no place of meeting for man with God where the blood is not to be found. Be it at the altar of burnt-offering (Lev. 4:25, 34), before the tabernacle of the congregation (Num. 19:4), at the golden altar (Lev. 4:7, 18), before the veil (Lev. 4:6, 17), or before or upon the mercy-seat. (Lev. 16:14-15.)
The body of the heifer that had been slain was burned outside the camp. It was the same with the victim offered for the sin of the high priest or the people (Lev. 4), and the offering on the great day of atonement; for it is said, "No sin offering, whereof any of the blood is brought into the tabernacle of the congregation to reconcile withal in the holy place, shall be eaten: it shall be burnt in the fire." (Lev. 6:30.) The body burnt outside the camp denoted the holiness of God, who must banish sin from His presence, even when borne by Christ. What then was the severity of His judgment, since this judgment consumed the holy victim who bore the sin! The victim, it is said, was a thing most holy. But the ashes of the burnt heifer loudly proclaimed at the same time that sin was not imputed to the sinner, and that this great question had been definitely settled between Christ and God.
Three things were cast into the fire to be consumed with the victim (v. 6) — cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet. Cedar wood in Scripture represents the greatness of man, hyssop his littleness, and they are the two extremes that comprise the natural man, the two extremes likewise of his wisdom and knowledge (1 Kings 4:33), all of which is only fit for the fire. Man, in whatever way looked at, finds his end and his judgment in the cross of Christ. Scarlet is a picture of the glory of the world, of that which is of renown here, of the world in the aspect which most attracts the attention of man. Moreover, God has judged the world at the cross.*
*The same elements are to be found in the cleansing of the leper. (Lev. 14:6.) There all the glory of the world, all that man is, all that die knows, must be dipped into the blood, must bear the stamp of death.
Thus the Israelite who was defiled encountered at the outset, before the work of his purification began, three great facts, without which his restoration would have been impossible; three facts accomplished outside of himself in his favour, and which were entitled to encourage him during the solemn moments through which he would have to pass. So it is that God shows to the believer, who has contracted defilement in his progress through this world, that propitiation and non-imputation of sin are the answer to his state; and more, that he has been crucified with Christ, and the world crucified to him.
Another detail may be added. All those who had touched the body of the heifer which was burned were unclean until the even. This is indeed well calculated to impress upon the soul of the believer a horror of sin, for even the preciousness of the perfect victim could only enhance the character of the sin which demanded the sacrifice. Remark, on the other hand (Lev. 6:24-30), that all who touched or eat the flesh of the sin-offering were sanctified by it. It was "most holy." If God turned away His face from Christ made sin, the Saviour was none the less "most holy," and was at the very moment when He offered Himself the Object of perfect satisfaction to the Father's heart. Once atonement accomplished, the Father could manifest His good pleasure in Him by raising Him from the dead, and seating Him at His right hand.
Let us now examine in what way the restoration of an unclean person was accomplished.
A man that was clean gathered up the ashes of the heifer, and laid them by carefully in a clean place. When an Israelite was defiled by contact with death, part of these ashes was taken, and running water poured upon them in a vessel, after which a clean person sprinkled, with hyssop dipped in the water, the tent, and the vessels, and the unclean person. Scripture teaches us the signification of this type. Living water (John 7:38-39) is the Holy Ghost, in this case applying to the soul by means of the Word, not the blood to cleanse afresh, but the remembrance of the sufferings borne by Christ under the judgment of God, by which God has judged man and condemned the world. His love in giving Christ to this effect, has accomplished the work to deliver and to bring us to Himself, so that we may walk in holiness before Him.
This typical act shows us then, in a vivid manner, all the conscience-work necessary in order that a child of God, if he have sinned, may regain fellowship with his Father. What! have I lost, by my negligence, that fellowship, which, together with salvation, is our most precious possession. It is the highest privilege which a believer can enjoy, and with a view to which I have received eternal life (1 John 1); fellowship, that is being called to share in the thoughts and joys of the heart of God concerning everything! Had I been watchful I should have been maintained in this fellowship; I should, even instinctively, have had a horror of all that God abhors. Had I been in communion, I should have valued Christ and His sacrifice as God does; I should have shrunk from the sin which was the cause of the sufferings of Christ; I should have had love enough for Him to keep me from touching what caused Him to suffer.
This is what the ashes mixed with running water typified to the conscience of a defiled Israelite. This purifying sprinkling necessarily brings humiliation with it, at the same time presenting to the soul the infinite value of that which was accomplished on the cross for it. At length the restored soul learns not to have any more confidence in the flesh. Our short-comings, judged in the presence of God, open our eyes to see that neither God nor we can expect anything from ourselves, since at the cross God condemned sin in the flesh; that the point for us is, not to make resolutions to sin no more, for man's resolutions can accomplish nothing, but to accept the fact of the total ruin of man, in order to be able to walk in the holy liberty and power of the new man.
A long time must not be allowed to elapse between the failure and the restoration. God appointed three days, at the end of which the water of purification was applied for the first time. He who thinks he has done everything when he has confessed his sin at the very moment of his defilement, is generally more or less superficial; while he who puts off humbling himself, commonly allows his conscience to become deadened by the delay. Satan persuades him that the fault is not so serious, that many others have acted as badly; and thus the soul gets sleepy, and forgets the gravity of the sin. In many cases this forgetfulness leaves the coast clear for Satan to return to the attack. Hence it is that so many Christians end by being put away from the assembly. "But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord: the water of separation hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean." (v. 20.)
The unclean person was sprinkled twice, on the third and on the seventh day. Communion is easily lost, but not so easily regained. Humiliation is not communion, but only the road to it. A lapse of three days, forming part of a period of seven days, was necessary for restoration. If we have enjoyed the blessing of intimacy with the Lord, we would gladly be restored directly we have sinned. We should like instantly to recover, both the power lost through our neglect, and those blessed communications with the Father which are the fruit of unclouded confidence. It is not, cannot be so. This practical cleansing is not accomplished at once; it is a longer process. Humiliation must precede joy.
Think seriously of it, dear reader. If we really value the power and the joy of fellowship with the Father and the Son, do not let us allow anything to rob us of it. On the one hand, nothing can be compared to it; on the other, everything which we encounter in the world destroys it. The world is like a scarlet rag, which, in spite of the brilliancy of its exterior, is only fit for the fire; at bottom it is but a place of bones, corruption, and graves; and if we, with hearts so easily deceived, set forth to walk carelessly on this unclean soil, we shall very quickly be defiled ourselves, and suffer the sad loss of communion. Let us then be on the watch against all these things. May we value communion with God sufficiently to hate, with our whole renewed man, whatever would interrupt it. H. R.