The Water of Cleansing

Numbers 19:11-13 “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days. He must purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third and seventh, he will not be clean. Whoever touches the dead body of anyone and fails to purify himself defiles the Lord’s tabernacle. That person must be cut off from Israel.”

I once read a report that suggests applying maggots to a wound may be an effective way to clean it out. Apparently the maggots will devour only the dead tissue and will leave the healthy tissue alone. Anyone want to volunteer for the procedure?

I am not painting this picture to give you a creepy feeling. But maybe it can help us to appreciate how repulsive our sin and death make us look to God. In our sin and death, we are like the stinking, rotting, worm-eaten corpse. A holy God can’t stand to be anywhere near these things. That doesn’t mean he looks for ways to avoid all contact with us whatsoever. It leads him to find a way to make us clean.

God gave instructions to Moses for ceremonial purification after contact with death. Why did the Lord make such a big deal about people coming into contact with a dead body? His concern was not for any health-related reasons. The message he was sending his people was spiritual.

Death is the horrible and ultimate result of sin. None of us is fit for friendship or fellowship with a perfect and holy God, any more than the maggot-eaten, decaying body makes an appealing companion for one of us.

To impress this deeply on the hearts and minds of his Old Testament people, the Lord declared that contact with a dead body would bring a special kind of uncleanness. His message was clear: God finds sin and those it kills disgusting. His people need to be cleansed from the stench of death.

We are all in the process of dying. The worn out knee or hip that needs to be replaced, eyes that need a stronger prescription with every trip to the optometrist, hair that is losing its color, or losing its grip on our heads altogether—these all say so. And death is the wages of sin. If we are going to be acceptable to God, we need someone to cleanse us.

That requires more than the little washing ceremony Moses describes. But in the water of cleansing we can see Jesus cleansing us by applying his death to us.

The water used for Moses’s ceremony was no ordinary water. To prepare it, a completely red heifer, a young cow that had never given birth, without any spots or any blemishes, was sacrificed. Only seven to nine of these animals have been identified and sacrificed since the time of Moses.

I won’t bother with all the details of the sacrifice and what they mean here. But there were obvious allusions to Jesus’ person and work. He was a unique and rare person in his time and in every age. Like the red heifer, he did not die because of anything that he had done. He gave his life because of the sin, impurity, and the death of others. This is God’s everlasting source of purification for us.

Unlike the red heifer, this is not a merely ceremonial, symbolic, or prophetic sacrifice. It really and permanently removes our sin in God’s site. It removes the ability of death to separate us from God any longer. Jesus makes us clean by applying his death to us.

Generations of people lived and died between the sacrifice of a red heifer. Therefore, God had a special way of connecting the sacrifice to people even centuries later. The ashes were saved, and they were added to the water used for purification. When the people were sprinkled with this water, he was applying the results of the sacrifice to each person personally.

Sound familiar? Isn’t that what happens at our baptisms? Though Jesus lived and died centuries before us, he died for our sins, too. God assures us of this, he applies the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice to us today, in the waters of our baptism. “Be baptized and wash your sins away,” Paul was told. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” the Apostle Peter promised. This Old Testament water used for purification provides a picture and prophesy of Baptism, where Jesus makes us clean by applying his death to us.

            A bath can make us feel better. Even more, it’s good for our physical health. In our baptisms Jesus refreshes our guilty consciences and brings us the cure for death itself.  

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