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  • Rick LoPresti

Dirty ashes

The law of Moses had three components – ceremonial, civil, and moral. The ceremonial laws had mostly to do with the rituals surrounding the tabernacle and the temple such as the offering of animal sacrifices. Those ceremonies were to point Israel toward the coming of the Messiah through their symbolic meaning (Gal 3:24, Heb 8-10). For example, we no longer offer animal sacrifices because their blood could not remit sin. Jesus came as the Lamb of God and His blood makes the atonement for us that the animals only symbolized and could not fully provide (Jn 1:29 & 36, 1Cor 5:7, Rev 5:6). Now that we have the fulfillment of the symbol, we no longer need the symbol. It is just empty religion to keep performing outdated, unnecessary, or unbiblical practices. We need to understand the different covenants God has made with man, and what applies to us today and what does not. We do not keep the civil laws of Moses either. This mostly involved specific punishments for sins. For example, the punishment for adultery was death (Lev 20:10). Adultery is still wrong, but we no longer kill people for it (Jn 8:1-11). Besides, the punishment for unrepented sin is eternal hell (Mt 10:28, Lk 13:3-5, Rom 3:23, Rom 6:23). The moral laws of Moses still apply today because they are based on the holy nature of God which does not change (Mal 3:6). That is why adultery is still wrong although not punished the exact same way. If God hated something in the Old Testament, He still hates it. He now offers us repentance and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ (Heb 9:13-15, 1Pet 1:18-19).

There was one ceremonial law established through Moses that is almost never mentioned, but it is very interesting. It is the law of the ashes of the red heifer described in Numbers 19. The priest was to take a red cow outside the camp and burn it wholly. The ashes were to be collected and used in a ceremony to cleanse someone who was defiled by making contact with a dead body. If someone refused to take part in the cleansing, their ceremonial uncleanness would remain upon them forever and they would be cut off from being part of the congregation of Israel. This teaches us who now live under the new covenant that the way God provided for our cleansing from sin must be adhered to. The way we receive remission of sins is through faith, repentance, and water baptism by immersion in the name of Jesus Christ (Mk 16:16, Jn 3:3-8, Acts 2:38, Acts 8:12-17, Acts 10:43-48, Acts 19:1-7, Acts 22:16, Rom 6:4, Col 2:12). Jesus was killed outside the city to provide our cleansing like the heifer which was taken out of the camp (Heb 13:11-13).

Another aspect of the ashes of the red heifer is that everyone who participated in the preparing and collecting of the ashes was made unclean by the process of being involved in helping others get their cleansing. The priest, the one who burned the animal, and the one who collected the ashes were all required to wash in water and be unclean until the sun went down that day. These three men were not guilty of the uncleanness of others, but they could not avoid getting dirty in the process. Christians are not only to be saved themselves. They are commissioned to help others find their cleansing from sin (Mk 16:15-18). Christians do not partake of the sins of others in this endeavor. That defeats the whole purpose. There are limits on how far they can go in reaching out to others. While Jesus was willing to reach out to sinners, He did not become a partaker in their deeds (Mt 11:19, Heb 7:26). There is a difference between separation from sin and isolation from people. He came into this world of sin to save us (Jn 1:1-18), but He did not sin Himself (2Cor 5:21, 1Per 2:21, 1Jn 3:5). The Lord went into places such as synagogues, town centers, and people’s homes; but He did not go into inappropriate places. “Abstain from all appearance of evil (1Thes 5:22).” If someone sincerely wants the gospel, they can surely meet in some appropriate, conducive place to hear it. Christians do not have to compromise themselves in appearance or deed to reach people. Some places and circumstances are just off limits. Prostitutes can be saved, but we do not go into a brothel to evangelize. They can be preached to in another location. Jesus forgave the woman taken in adultery (Jn 8:1-11), but He did it in a public place. As God, He knew what she had done. He could have walked in on her Himself instead of the hypocrites, but He did not. Yet when the woman who was “a sinner” came into the house of the Pharisee where Jesus had been invited, she washed His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Lk 7:36-50). In those days, roads were not paved with asphalt and people wore sandals. People’s feet would get dirty. It was customary to wash one’s feet upon entering a home. The host would offer his guest this opportunity. That is what we read about at the last supper (Jn 13). The Pharisee who was Jesus’s host did not offer this normal courtesy. This sinner woman did it herself with her tears of repentance and her hair. Instead of apologizing for his discourtesy, the Pharisee questioned whether or not Jesus was a prophet because He allowed this woman to touch Him. People assume this woman’s sin was sexual and that she was a prostitute, although that is not specified. People also assume it was Mary Magdelene out of whom Jesus cast seven demons (Mk 16:9). People assume Mary Magdelene was also a prostitute, but the Bible neither says this woman was Mary nor that she was a prostitute. Yet the point here is that in the mind of the Pharisee Jesus was allowing inappropriate behavior. Yet Jesus did not go to an inappropriate place or do any inappropriate acts. She came to an appropriate place and showed Him her sincere repentance. All she touched was His feet. There was no sexual connotation at all. Her actions made it clear, at least to Jesus, why she had come. We should avoid placing ourselves in compromising situations even if our intent is good. People watch us and we must avoid fostering misunderstanding in how we go about engaging others. Paul gave three chapters to discussing the principle of “all things are lawful but all things are not expedient (1Cor 6:2, 1Cor 10:23)”. They are 1Corinthians 8-10. There are some places and activities we should just not be around, even if it is only to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. There are plenty of ways to make evangelistic connections with people without going “off limits”.

That being said, there is the other aspect that the ashes of the red heifer show us. The three men involved in the preparing of the means of the cleansing of others could not avoid needing cleansing themselves. They did not touch the dead body themselves, but in doing their job they had to get close enough to get the ashes on themselves. Christians need the wisdom to know how close is close enough to reach out without actually “touching the dead body” themselves. Reaching people lost in sin does involve some “getting our hands dirty”. The church is a hospital, not a sanitarium (Mt 9:9-13). There are practical Biblical principles in the passages cited above which can guide us so we neither put ourselves in a compromising situation in appearance or deed nor miss opportunities to reach souls. May God give us wisdom and balance in these matters.

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