What does the Bible say about the importance of the red heifer, the Third Temple and the coming of the Messiah?
With the arrival of five red heifers to Israel last week, it’s time to talk about what this might mean and why it could matter
JERUSALEM—Last week, ALL ISRAEL NEWS was one of two outlets that initially covered a story intriguing to religious Jews, Messianic Jews and Evangelical Christians who believe that the Third Temple must be built in Jerusalem before the coming – or Second Coming – of the Messiah.
“Five rabbi-approved red heifers arrived from Texas on Thursday to a ceremonious welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport – and touched off a whirlwind of speculation as to the prophetic significance of their presence in Israel and whether we are barreling toward a Third-Temple period or the ‘last days,’” wrote Nicole Jansezian, our news editor and senior correspondent.
She noted that “the cows have been inspected by rabbis and were found to be red and unblemished, which means they are ritually pure for sacrifice as stipulated under the law of Moses. In order for someone following Mosaic law to become ritually pure, the ashes of a red heifer are required, according to the Book of Numbers.”
Nicole reported that “the farmers, in Texas, knew enough of the requirements and did not tag the ears of these cows, leaving them unblemished,” explaining that “the Christian organization, Boneh Israel, located the cattle and, along with the Temple Institute, was responsible for getting them to Israel. Earlier in the year, rabbis from the Temple Institute went to Texas to inspect the cows.”
At the end of her article, she wrote that ALL ISRAEL NEWS would follow up on these developments specifically exploring two important questions:
“Does the arrival of the heifers in Israel set in motion the coming of the Messiah – or the return of Jesus, as Christians believe?”
“Does it mean we’ve entered the fast track toward the End Times and the Tribulation?”
This week, let’s carefully consider both questions.
WHAT IS THE OLD TESTAMENT SIGNIFICANCE OF THE RED HEIFER?
First, we must better understand the Old Testament significance of the red heifer, and its ashes, to modern-day rabbis and to those who follow the New Testament.
Only then can we properly understand its eschatological significance.
In the Book of Numbers, the God of Israel commanded Moses and Aaron – the first Levitical priest – that the ashes of a perfectly pure and unblemished red heifer would be needed to purify and consecrate the Levitical priests, and thus the holy places where these priests would serve the Lord.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘This is the statute of the law which the Lord has commanded, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel that they bring you an unblemished red heifer in which is no defect and on which a yoke has never been placed. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be brought outside the camp and be slaughtered in his presence. Next Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its hide and its flesh and its blood, with its refuse, shall be burned. The priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet material and cast it into the midst of the burning heifer. The priest shall then wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward come into the camp, but the priest shall be unclean until evening. The one who burns it shall also wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, and shall be unclean until evening. Now a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, and the congregation of the sons of Israel shall keep it as water to remove impurity; it is purification from sin. The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening; and it shall be a perpetual statute to the sons of Israel and to the alien who sojourns among them.” (Numbers 19:1-10)
It would be impossible for the priests to be ritually pure to operate the Tabernacle unless the ashes of a pure red heifer were obtained and handled properly.
Likewise, such ashes were needed to consecrate the priests who would serve in the First Temple, the one that was built under the supervision of Israel’s King Solomon.
Such ashes were also needed to consecrate the priests who would serve in the Second Temple – rebuilt under the efforts of Nehemiah, the governor of Jerusalem, and Ezra the priest and later dramatically expanded by the Roman King Herod some 2,000 years ago.
After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and burned Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jews have not had a holy sanctuary on Mount Moriah, widely known today as the “Temple Mount.”
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the prophets spoke of another Temple – a Third Temple – that would be built in the “last days” of history.
After the prophetic rebirth of Israel in May 1948 – and the subsequent reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish Israeli sovereign control in June 1967 – many religious Jews – as well as Christians – began speculating as to when the Third Temple could be built, and praying for it to happen in their lifetime.
And thus, many have wondered when a ritually pure red heifer would emerge that could be sacrificed in preparation for the building and operation of that Third Temple.
WHAT DO RABBIS TODAY BELIEVE ABOUT THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE RED HEIFER?
Today, most Jews in Israel and worldwide are traditional or even secular.
Most have not carefully studied the Torah or the prophets.
Thus, they are not familiar with Numbers 19.
Nor do they think much about a Third Temple.
Deeply religious Jews, however, know that the Temple is the only place where proper sacrifices can be made to cleanse people from their sins and receive the forgiveness of an Almighty God.
Thus, they believe it is critically important to get a Third Temple up and running as quickly as possible.
The Temple Mount Institute (TMI), mentioned earlier, is an Orthodox Jewish organization based in Jerusalem whose leaders are determined to build the Third Temple.
Not surprisingly, their leaders were eagerly awaiting – even actively seeking – the appearance of pure red heifers.
On their website, the TMI leadership maintains that the Jewish sage Maimonides wrote that the appearance of a “tenth red heifer” – after the nine used to consecrate the priests serving in the earlier Temples – “is associated with the Messianic era.”
“Does this perhaps mean that the appearance of a red heifer in these waning End Times is an indication, a forerunner of the appearance of the Messiah himself, who will officiate at its preparation?” they ask. “If there has been no red heifer for the past 2,000 years, perhaps it is because the time was not right; Israel was far from being ready. But now, what could it mean for the times we live in, to have the means for purification so close at hand? With the words of Maimonides in mind, we cannot help but wonder and pray: If there are now red heifers, is ours the era that will need them?”
To be sure, there are many obstacles to building the Third Temple.
One is the fact the Temple Mount is today the site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, two of the most sacred buildings in the world for 1.8 billion Muslims.
Any effort to remove those Islamic buildings – or even to build the Third Temple next to those buildings without the broad and deep consent of Muslims – could trigger an apocalyptic war against Israel.
But as we have seen, another critical obstacle has been the long absence of a pure and unblemished red heifer that could be ritually and properly sacrificed by trained Levitical priests able to obtain the required ashes.
That’s why our story last week was noteworthy.
Religious Jews, like those who work for and support the Temple Mount Institute, are beginning to wonder if the Messianic age is about to dawn.
WHAT IS THE NEW TESTAMENT SIGNIFICANCE OF THE RED HEIFER?
Many Messianic Jews and Evangelical Christians also believe in the biblical prophecies that a Third Temple will be built in Jerusalem, exactly where the First and Second Temples once stood on Mount Moriah.
Thus, some believe the ashes of a red heifer are important to get that Temple built.
However, neither Messianic Jews nor Evangelicals believe that blood sacrifices in any future Temple can provide forgiveness of sins – atonement – to any man, woman or child.
The New Testament is crystal clear that only the shed blood of the Messiah – Jesus of Nazareth – who sacrificed on the cross can atone for sins, and only if a person truly repents of his or her sins, accepts the death of Jesus as payment for his sins, believes in the literal and bodily resurrection of Jesus and by faith receives Him as Messiah, Savior and Lord.
The approach of Moses – written in the “Mosaic Covenant” of the Torah – to atonement ended 2,000 years ago with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the subsequent destruction of the Temple as judgment against those Jewish leaders who unjustly condemned Jesus to death and persuaded the Roman government to crucify Jesus on Calvary.
The New Covenant – foretold by the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah – is now in effect.
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
Thus, the sacrifice of a red heifer is no longer needed, nor useful.
Nor are the sacrifices of any other animals.
God doesn’t accept the sacrifices of animals anymore, because we are not in the Mosaic Covenant era; we are in the New Covenant era.
Our perfect, sinless Messiah has been sacrificed, and also has been raised from the dead.
According to the scriptures, this is the only sacrifice God will accept as payment for our sins.
Indeed, this is precisely what the writer of Hebrews explained – specifically noting that Christ’s sacrifice is better than the blood of heifers, red or otherwise.
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ [the Greek word for Messiah], who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” (Hebrews 9:11-15)
SO, DOES THE ARRIVAL OF THE RED HEIFERS IN ISRAEL MEAN THE MESSIAH IS COMING BACK SOON?
Now that we understand this important differences between modern Orthodox rabbis and the teachings of the New Testament, let’s address the question of whether the arrival of the red heifers into Israel is a sign that the Messiah is coming back soon.
Here we have to make a critical distinction.
The Bible teaches that in the “last days” Christ will come to get His true followers to protect them from Satan’s wrath in the days of judgment known as the Tribulation.
At that moment, Christ will snatch away all true born again followers of Jesus away from the earth – away from their friends and neighbors and classmates and co-workers who don’t know Christ personally – and all this will happen in the blink of an eye, in a millisecond of time.
This event is widely known by Bible scholars and lay people as the “Rapture” of the Church.
The Apostle John speaks of this in John 14:1-3.
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”
The Apostle Paul writes of this in I Corinthians 15:51-52.
“Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
The Apostle Paul provides more detail in I Thessalonians 4:13-18.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive [l]and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive [n]and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
Of this event, we have no idea when it will happen.
The Lord Jesus Himself discusses the Rapture and the prospect that it could happen at any time – without warning – in Matthew 24:36-41.
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.”
Now, in Matthew 24 (and Mark 13 and Luke 21) Jesus does tell us that in the “last days” before the Rapture happens there will be various signs that won’t provide precise timing but will indicate that the season of His coming is approaching.
Among these: false messiahs, false teachers, false prophets, wars and rumors of war, earthquake, famine, natural disasters, pandemics (“pestilence”) and other terrible events.
Another key sign: the rebirth of the State of Israel (i.e., “the parable of the fig tree” found Matthew 24:32-33)
While Christ – and the Apostle Paul, and the Apostle John – spoke of the Third Temple being not only built but fully operational in the last days, none of them spoke specifically of red heifers.
So, let’s say for the moment that any one of these five red heifers – or all of them – are ritually pure and could be sacrificed soon.
This in and of itself would not be a certain sign that the Rapture is more imminent than it already is.
That said, there is another prophetic event that is coming.
The Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
This is when Christ will literally, bodily, physically descend from heaven, touch down on the Mount of Olives, destroy the anti-Christ and his forces, and set up his global Kingdom on earth – headquartered in Jerusalem – for a thousand years.
The Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah speak to these matters.
So did Jesus Himself.
So did the apostles, particularly John in the Book of Revelation.
I’ll write about this in more detail in a future column.
The point here is that while the arrival of the red heifers in Israel do not accelerate God’s sovereign timing for the Rapture, if their presence here convinces Israeli Jews to start building the Temple in our lifetime, that would be very significant.
The building of the Third Temple is a part of End Times Bible prophecy.
It won’t provide atonement for sins, but it will be built in the “last days” of history before the Second Coming of Christ.
Will it be built in our lifetime?
I don’t know, but wouldn’t that be fascinating?
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.