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God’s Word for You

Numbers 19:17-18 Sprinkled Water and “Holy Water”

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, October 14, 2021

17 For the unclean person, take some of the ashes from the burnt sin offering, put them into a vessel, and add water from a flowing source to the ashes. 18 A ceremonially clean person is to take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle the water on the tent, on all the items, and on the people who were there. He is also to sprinkle it on anyone who has touched someone who was killed or someone who has died and on anyone who has touched a grave or a human bone.

Now that we know who should receive this water and what should happen to those who prepare it, the Lord finally gives the recipe for the water and the manner of its application. It could hardly be simpler: some ashes were placed into a container, and water from “a flowing source” was added. There are no measurements. The ratio of ashes to water might be 1:1000, or 1:10,000. It was just “pour water onto some ashes.” As for “a flowing source,” this would include a spring, a river, a rain-fed stream or gulch (called a wadi in Israel), a stream fed by melting snow, or perhaps even rain that was caught.

The application once more turned to hyssop, a common branchy plant that was also used as a paint brush (Exodus 12:22). This was dipped in the water and then sprinkled or flung onto items or people. The ceremony was one of obedience, since there was a period of waiting that needed to be followed, and there was a curse for anyone who did not follow the prescriptions.

This ceremony is contrasted with the infinitely more effective cleansing power of the blood of Jesus Christ in the New Testament: “The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13-14). Why does the Apostle say “How much more, then…”? It’s because the cleansing water of the red heifer purified a person who had come into contact with a dead body. But the cleansing power of the blood of Christ purifies us from all sins; even the irremovable stain of original sin, and rescues us from the power of death’s iron grip. The cleansing power of Christ’s blood releases us from all sin and guilt, and from the power of the devil, and is the guarantee of the resurrection to eternal life. The water of the red heifer was made with running, living water. The blood of Christ and the gospel of his forgiveness is itself the living water, able to be poured out by Christians whenever it is proclaimed. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scriptures have said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:38). And Isaiah has prophesied: “You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

The water of the red heifer sanctified the people who had come into contact with a dead body so that they would be outwardly clean, in obedience with God’s command.

Since this water from the ashes of the red heifer resembles the use of so-called “holy water,” this is a place where we might comment on that practice.

I will use quotation marks when mentioning “holy water” to remind the reader that the true Lutheran Church does not recognize the use of “holy water.” It has no true basis in Scripture.

“Holy water” was not used or thought of in ancient times or in the ancient Christian Church. It is simply water that has been blessed by a priest for use either in baptism or to be sprinkled as a blessing on people or objects. There is no Scriptural basis or support for “holy water.” Any water can be used for baptism, and the blessing of a Christian needs no additional carrier such as water. The catechism of the Catholic Church has only one reference to holy water that I have found. Certain special signs, “such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls baptism),,, do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit,,, but prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (par. 1668,1670). Notice that there, “holy water” is only said to “recall baptism,” and not to give or confer anything itself. More than that, the terrible doctrine of cooperation is brought in, so that the Christian is made to feel that God’s grace is not a gift but is earned and somehow mutually achieved by the poor human who is dead in his sins, and a furious God of judgment who demands and commands and refuses to give anything at all. This is a terrible doctrine that condemns good Christian folk to wonder whether they are saved! If they had true shepherds, they would be told again and again that they are saved by the blood of Christ, but the message of the gospel is withheld from them, and they starve for forgiveness and die in hopelessness.

I am concerned that “holy water” appeared for the same reason that many Reformed churches have transposed the significance of baptism with that of the Lord’s Supper, either through carelessness, superstition, or false teaching. What I mean is that in Reformed churches, the need for the blood of Christ for forgiveness is downplayed because the sinner is said to have a role in his own salvation. Where the sinner is (falsely) made to contribute to his salvation or cooperate in it, then the role of Christ is done away with, and the Lord’s Supper loses its value, since it no longer seems to have any meaning apart from a memorial of some kind, with no more value than a banner or a stained glass window. Whether it is present or not is of no real importance anymore to them. Where that kind of false doctrine is preached, the people in the pews rise up with the need and even the demand for some way to be comforted about their sins and reassured of forgiveness. Notice how many Reformed churches encourage being baptized over and over again—simply because those good Christians, who have had the comfort of the Lord’s Supper torn away, have run back to the other Sacrament for comfort, even though baptism needs to be performed only once (Ephesians 4:5) and as we confess in the Nicene Creed: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

When a sinner feels the guilt of his sin and wants to be relieved of his burden, he should go to communion. There he can confess his sin, receive forgiveness, and eat the body of Christ and drink the blood of Christ as Jesus taught us to do. He said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Baptism also forgives sins (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38), as does the preaching of the gospel (Acts 13:38).

When the gospel of forgiveness, baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and the Lord’s Supper given for the forgiveness of sins, are all proclaimed and carried out according to God’s holy will and the words of Jesus Christ, there is no need for useless repetition of baptism or the invention of something like “holy water.” There is no need to add or subtract from the Word of God, taken as he has given it to us through Moses and the prophets, the Apostles and evangelists. This is the word that brings us God’s grace. As one of my professors (now also my colleague and friend), Rev. John Schmidt, preached in my last year of college:

“Notice that God’s Word is the power of God for salvation for ‘everyone who believes.’ That’s a reassuring truth for pastors and teachers. They don’t have to come up with different messages for different people. Whether they are working with a preschooler who is struggling with crayons or with an elderly Christian struggling with fear in the face of death, the same gospel message is the power of God for their salvation.”

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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