The Gospel According To The Red Heifer
By Shawn Tomlin
Cows… more specifically, red heifers. That seems to be a somewhat strange topic for this article, but we shall soon see how such a passage, Numbers 19:1-22, is about the gospel.
The Hebrews used many different kinds of animals in their sacrificial system. Goats, rams, lambs, bulls, turtle doves, etc. Only for this one purpose was an unblemished red heifer used. Just as many of the other sacrifices, the red heifer was used as purification for sin, but more specifically, it was unique in that it dealt with death. According to the Law, coming in contact with a corpse, or even being in close proximity to one, would render a person unclean for seven days. The red heifer,which is a young female cow, with dark red hide, that has not borne a calf, was sacrificed outside the camp, some of its blood was sprinkled toward the front of the tabernacle, and it was burned completely with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet material. The ashes were collected and some would be mixed with water as the need arose. On the third and seventh days of a person’s uncleanness the ash water would be applied to their body and they would be made clean. If it was not not applied, that person would be cut off from Israel and they would remain unclean. So what does this have to do with the gospel?
Let us first realize that Jesus said in John 5:39 that the Scriptures “testify about Me.” This means that the whole of scripture points to Christ. In this case, I am not saying that Jesus was a cow. Simply be mindful of what that sacrificed red heifer was for, “purification of sin” and to be even more precise, from death. On our own all we will ever deserve is death, for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But God, in His grace and mercy, provided a way to purify His chosen people from the severe filth of sin and death. The entire sacrificial system, and this includes the red heifer, was established as a way to atone for sin. It all points to Christ.
On our own all we will ever deserve is death, for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But God, in His grace and mercy, provided a way to purify His chosen people from the severe filth of sin and death.
Hebrews 9:13-14 says, “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, 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?” This passage has something very unique to say. It is important to note a few things here. Starting in verse 13, regarding the blood and ashes of these sacrificed animals, these weren’t magical animals. They were just goats, bulls, lambs, red heifers, etc. Their blood being shed did nothing in and of itself to atone for sin. It was only through faith in God’s promises that this blood had any effect. Another point in verse 13 is what these animal sacrifices truly were, a symbol, a type and shadow, of the true, eternal sacrifice that would destroy sin and death. In verse 14 we see the blood of that eternal sacrifice is that of Jesus Christ. Unlike the type (animal sacrifice) which needed to be done over and over again, the fulfillment (Christ’s death) was eternal “through the efficacious power of the Spirit. And he (the author of Hebrews) calls the Spirit eternal for this reason, that we may know that the reconciliation, of which He (Christ) is the worker and effector, is eternal” (John Calvin on his commentary on Hebrews).
This passage of the sacrifice of the red heifer is bursting with gospel hope. Only God can make alive what was dead. Only God can remove the sting of death. The red heifer was the type, but Christ is its fulfillment. Jesus said in Revelation 1:18 “I have the keys of death and Hades.” Christ, in His death, gave us life and secured us in the Resurrection to eternal life. Now do you remember the location and the state the red heifer had to be in? It had to be sacrificed outside the camp and it had to be unblemished. Even these minor details point to Christ in His eternal sacrifice for us. What it means when an animal had to be unblemished is that it had to be without defect. As perfect a specimen as could be found. John Calvin, in his commentary on Hebrews said, “that Christ alone was the lawful victim and capable of appeasing God; for there was always in others something that might be justly deemed wanting; and hence he said before that the covenant of the Law was not... blameless.” In other words, Christ was the only true unblemished sacrifice that could fully and eternally atone for sin. As for the location, the heifer had to be sacrificed outside the camp and Christ in the fulfillment of the Law, was sacrificed outside Jerusalem at Golgotha.
How did God deal with death? He dealt with death through death. The death of a red heifer, which was used to purify sin and death, and more fully, the death of Christ brought about the death of death. So let us remember our perfect, unblemished sacrifice that atones for our sin and secures eternal life for all who believe. Christ is the end and fulfillment of the Law.
“The LORD bless you, and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance on you,
And give you peace.”