". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Heifers, Hyssop, and Holiness: How Jesus Christ Purifies Sinners from Dead Works

February 4, 2024

Do you ever marvel that God would save a sinner like you? His character is so righteous, and ours is so twisted. His plans are so good, and ours are so self-serving. His holiness is so pure, and our lives are so messy. God’s unalloyed perfection is so far removed from us that we struggle even to glimpse even part of its glory — and when we do, we tend to respond like Isaiah, calling down on ourselves, “Woe is me!” (Isaiah 6:5). Not only has God graciously revealed to us his sovereign plan of redemption in Jesus Christ, he has also unveiled the mystery of his sovereign counsels through his Word, so that we might silence our doubts “in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22).

A key passage to illustrate this point is found in Hebrews 9:13-14:

“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

Old Covenant Context

To understand the context, first we must set the Old Covenant scene. God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt with mighty works and judgment (Exodus 1-14). At Mt. Sinai, he made a covenant with Israel, whereby he would condescend to dwell with them in a tent, and they would follow his law (Exodus 19-24). Israel then grossly violated God’s law before they even erected the tent, but God graciously reconciled with them (Exodus 32-34).

These narratives underscored a central tension under the Old Covenant: God was just (he required atonement for sin) and holy (he could not dwell with sinners), while the people were sinful. How could they dwell together?

The Old Covenant attempted to resolve this tension through regular animal sacrifice, atone for the sins of men by the blood of animals. The law was full of requirements for sacrificing bulls, goats, and other animals as burnt offerings (Leviticus 1), peace offerings (Leviticus 3), sin offerings (Leviticus 4:1-5:13), and ordination offerings (Leviticus 8:22-29). More offerings were prescribed for special occasions, such as the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).

The Old Covenant also set up multiple levels of protection around God’s dwelling place, distinguishing “between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10), and thus protecting unqualified people from drawing so near they would die.

Cleanness was not the same thing as holiness, but it sometimes had a moral dimension. Sexual immorality (Leviticus 18), occult practices (Leviticus 19), and idolatry (Leviticus 20) could make a person unclean. But so could childbirth (Leviticus 12), menstruation (Leviticus 15), or touching someone or something else unclean (Leviticus 15, 19). At least some items on the list could and would happen to anybody, implying that all the children of Israel needed to be cleansed before they could approach God in worship.

To become clean, an unclean person had to ceremonially wash with water for purification (Numbers 19). That water was mixed with “ashes of a heifer” (Hebrews 9:13), cedarwood, hyssop, and scarlet yarn — all red things — and counted as “a sin offering” (Numbers 19:9). This water of purification was also used to cleanse the Levites who guarded God’s house (Numbers 8), although the rules for priests were different (Leviticus 8).

That’s an overview of the Old Covenant usage of “the blood of boats and bulls” and “the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer.” The first category comprises various offerings to atone for sin, while the second involves ceremonial washing for cleanness.

These ceremonial practices were maintained up until the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 and even show up in the gospels (see Luke 2:22, John 2:6). The original audience for the book of Hebrews would have been familiar with these practices and even tempted to return to them — the reason why the book of Hebrews was written. But, for us who are far removed in time, place, and ancestry, we need this overview to understand the argument that the author of Hebrews was making.

New Covenant Application

The form of argument in Hebrews 9:13-14 is a “lesser to greater” argument. The author says, “If X is true, how much more Y is true.” This is not an uncommon form of argument in the Bible; it also appears in Matthew 7:11, Luke 12:24, and 1 Corinthians 6:3, to name a few.

In the first part of this argument, the author of Hebrews acknowledges that the animal sacrifices and purification rituals prescribed by the Mosaic covenant “sanctify for the purification of the flesh.”

Not that these rites have any power in themselves. The author of Hebrews is about to argue (Hebrews 10:1-10) that the sacrifices can neither “take away sins” nor “make perfect those who draw near,” both because the worshiper is still conscious of sins and must continue to regularly offer sacrifices and because it isn’t sacrifice that God desires. Instead, what God desires is obedience and faith; when Israelites under the old covenant offered sacrifices in faith, God counted it to them as righteousness, just as he did for Abraham.

The author of Hebrews then proceeds to show the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is better, for several reasons. First, a man is more valuable than livestock (Matthew 12:12), so Jesus’s blood is more precious. (As the God-Man, Jesus is also distinguished from other men by being “without blemish,” and therefore an acceptable sacrifice.) Second, this sacrifice is made by a better priest (Jesus “offered himself”) because he intercedes eternally (Hebrews 7). Third, this sacrifice achieves a better result; instead of purifying our flesh for a time, it has power to permanently “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

First, let’s clarify what this means. By “dead works,” the author means evil works, from which Christians must repent (Hebrews 6:1); these are the works which characterized us when we were dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-3). In other words, we have been set free from the power of sin to serve God (Romans 6:5-14). As a result, not only is our flesh “clean,” but so is our conscience (1 Timothy 1:5, 19), if we repent of our sin and walk in obedience to Christ. God has given us his Holy Spirit, who affirms with us that we are now God’s children (Romans 8:15). He is “greater than our heart” and overcomes our remaining doubt, giving us “confidence before God” and making our prayers effective (1 John 3:19-22).

This better result belongs to the new covenant foretold in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (quoted Hebrews 8:8-12):

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).

We know God, and he knows us. We are his people, and he is our God. His law is written on our hearts. We have his Spirit within us to guide us, teach us, and encourage us. We are freed from sin, freed to serve God, freed even from a guilty conscience. All of this is because Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12), something better than bulls’ blood and heifers’ ashes, his own precious blood. “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6).

This is not to say that true Christians don’t experience guilt or doubt. Many Christians experience them sometimes, and some Christians experience them often. But, while these feelings are cause for self-examination, they aren’t cause for despair. All Christians should “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5), to seek out and root out sin from their lives. But when Christians experience guilt or doubt without a corresponding reason, then — just like Job’s suffering — it is an attack of the evil one.

My prayer is that this meditation will encourage and strengthen you in moments of doubt, when the enemy assails your faith and tries to steal or sour your confidence in Christ’s finished work. I pray that it will help you to sing, in the words of Charles Wesley:

“Arise, my soul, arise;

Shake off thy guilty fears;

The bleeding Sacrifice,

In my behalf appears:

Before the throne my Surety stands,

Before the throne my Surety stands,

My name is written on his hands.”

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.