I've mentioned ashes before. A friend of mine pointed out several years ago, ashes are evidence of a completed sacrifice. So the ashes in the Tabernacle are on the east side of the altar, proof of a completed (and accepted) sacrifice before the one who approaches gets to the altar.
In connection with that, Numbers 19 details the offering of the Red Heifer. A red heifer was to be sacrificed (vv. 3 & 4) and completely burned (v. 5), then the ashes were to be taken outside the camp (v. 9). A man or woman who was defiled with a dead body was to apply the ashes of the red heifer with water (v. 9, 13) to remove the defilement (vv. 11--13).
The law of the Red Heifer was an interesting law, as it was a sacrifice made before the sin was committed. Watchman Nee talks about that in his excellent Not I, but Christ.
A whole load of books has been written on the Red Heifer. I'm not at all trying to explicate that passage here. But I want to draw attention to two points.
First, it is the ashes of the Red Heifer that cleanse. It's not that the unclean man (or woman) needed to see the blood of the heifer. He (or she) needed to the ashes. This suggests there is a unique and cleansing value to the certainty of the completed sacrifice.
It is our natural tendency to want a new sacrifice whenever we sin. But the testimony of Scripture is, there is no more sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:10, 26). Christ has died once for all, and He cannot die for us again. This doesn't suggest we are without hope, needing another sacrifice; on the contrary, it is God's assertion that no other sacrifice is needed (Hebrews 9:14, 10:14, 18).
Be there is a value to our remembering and recognizing how completely that one sacrifice (never to be repeated) still cleanses us. The worshippers have a conscience once purged (Hebrews 10:2), but as we walk through the wicked world, we are defiled by it. And more to the point, as we live in these yet-unredeemed bodies (Romans 8:23), we find ourselves defiled by the sins the of the flesh. And so the Red Heifer reminds us that there is a cleansing effect as we remember that Christ has by one offering perfected forever the sanctified (Hebrews 10:14). And it reminds us that when we are defiled by the world around us and the flesh within us, it is the once-for-all completed sacrifice that is our peace with God.
Second, we recognize that the ashes of the Red Heifer are applied with water. Water in Scripture reminds us of the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26). Perhaps the Red Heifer might remind us that the ashes--- the proof of an already-completed sacrifice--- are really only brought to our conscience by the Word of God.
This is an important point. J. N. Darby said
faith puts into immediate connection with God; a connection founded on His own testimony, which is received by the operation of divine power in the soul; and hence also has its practical existence in real confidence of God Himself ("Superstition is not Faith")That is, faith is believing God because He is God. One brother I know likes to say, "God said it, that settles it, I better believe it." We don't claim that God has forgiven all our sins because it makes sense, we say it because that's what God said.
The certainty that our sins are covered must come from the Word of God. If it doesn't, it isn't certainty any more.
One problem we get into is, we try and act as appraisers of Christ on God's behalf. So we think to ourselves, "Surely Christ's death has atoned for that sin!" But when we set ourselves up as judge of what Christ has done, we take a position we have no right to. God has already passed judgment on Christ, and He's declared Himself completely satisfied. How dare I, how dare you, give our opinion on the matter? When I find I have defiled myself with the world around me and the flesh inside, it's not my place to assess whether God has forgiven me that sin. It is my place to believe what God has said and that's all.
So the Red Heifer reminds us that the completed sacrifice was enough to remove our defilement. It reminds us too that it's the Word of God that makes that good to our conscience.
I made a comment last week in meeting about praising in the place of the ashes. Really that's a comment a close friend made once, and I just passed it on. When Solomon dedicated his temple, the singers sang "on the east end of the altar" (2 Chronicles 5:12). It's on the east side of the altar where the priest was to put the ashes of the offerings (Leviticus 1:16). So the singers were in the place of the ashes. It's because we stand on the ashes (as it were) that we can praise. Ashes prove the sacrifice is done: God's wrath has burned, and there's none left. So we stand where the sacrifice is over, we stand on the proof there's no more sacrifice for sins, and we praise there.
This is worth remembering.