Numbers 18-19 continue laying out God’s specifics for his tabernacle with things like priestly duties, purification procedures, and one topic covered in detail in Chapter 19 is the sacrifice of the red heifer. This sacrifice is unique from others, and worth taking the time to look at a bit. The sacrifice of the red heifer was different than other animal sacrifices laid out in the law of Moses.
For one, this was a female animal instead of male. Also, this one was to be slaughtered outside the camp, burned in all of its flesh and blood (and dung!) with a few specific additions to the fire including cedar, hyssop, and scarlet wool. (Interestingly, I realized that I now have some hyssop popping up that I planted last year, and I added cedar shavings to the garden this past week. But, no scarlet wool and no red heifers around here!). It seems this sacrifice was extremely specific and unique, and definitely similar to some things we see in Jesus’s sacrifice for us. If you want to read more about the symbolism and foreshadowing from the red heifer to Jesus, it is certainly out there. And, without looking too hard, we can definitely see connections including Jesus being killed in all of his flesh/blood outside of the temple, being perfectly flawless, being offered hyssop on the cross, being a sacrifice for our sins the way the red heifer was for the Israelites, etc., etc.
Evidencing that Old Testament stories are still relevant for us today, according to the Temple Institute, five blemish-free red heifers from Texas arrived in Israel in September 2022. Some view this acquisition as a step forward to the functioning of the new temple and related to Bible prophecy. No matter what, it is interesting to see how this reading from Numbers is still related to current events, and humbling to think what Jesus was willing to sacrifice for all of us.
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” (I John 2:1-2, NASB)
How was Jesus’ sacrifice different from the red heifer sacrifice – and different from all the other Old Testament sacrifices? What do all these sacrifices have in common?
What can we learn about God through our Bible reading today?
In Acts 15 we see a fundamental theological question that the early church had to answer, and how they went about handling the situation. Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection represented a radical change in how mankind interacted with God. We no longer need to sacrifice for our sins because Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, and has fulfilled the law and the prophets. The problem is that the Law of Moses was the very foundation of basically all of Jewish culture and when Jesus ascended it was not completely clear to the apostles as to what to do with the Law of Moses. Because Christianity started in Jerusalem and then spread out from there to the rest of the world the early Christian leaders all came from a Jewish background and some of them tried to force their culture and the Law of Moses onto the new Gentile believers. To them this would seem natural because in their mind this is how you interact with God and what he expects from you, and has been for over a thousand years. They had not caught up completely with all of the changes that Jesus brought. The way I picture this is like a person who messed up their leg and needs to walk on crutches for a while, and then after the doctor performs a surgery that completely fixes their leg they decide to continue to use the crutches after that, and then also try to convince their friends that they should start to use crutches too even though that isn’t necessary at all and will only inhibit your friends. This is basically the conclusion that the early church leaders come to and they tell the gentiles that they do not need to follow the Law of Moses because it would hinder the gentiles from coming to God. They also tell the gentile believers that they need to make sure that they are not participating in the aspects of their old gentile beliefs that might cause issues for them. Just as the early church leaders saw that the Law of Moses would be a stumbling block to other people, they saw that aspects of the idol worship in many gentile areas would be a stumbling block as well.
I think it is very important that we recognize that there are many aspects of our modern secular American culture that are going to be stumbling blocks for our spiritual walk, and that we need to leave many of those things behind if we are going to devote our lives to Christ. This is not easy and was a very divisive issue in the early church, and has the potential to be divisive in our churches today. Some things as seemingly small as the use of drums and guitar in a church service can be very contentious in some churches. This passage also shows us how Paul dealt with the issue so as to not cause division. He was one of the first people preaching to the gentiles and had not had a lot of contact with the early church leaders in Jerusalem. Instead of trying to handle this issue by himself and decree what he knew the Holy Spirit was telling him he went to Jerusalem and discussed with the church leaders and showed them that God was working in the gentiles and that was proof that they did not need to follow the Law. Once they agreed this helped to legitimize Paul’s message and began the process of unifying the Church on this issue.