In Numbers 25 Israel is in the land of Shittim. They've just been protected by God from Balak's attempts to convince Balaam to curse Israel (chps 22-24). Rather than curse Israel, the prophet is forced to speak only what the Lord says, and the Lord blesses His people repeatedly in these three chapters.
But in Num. 25, Israel is found committing sexual immorality with Moabite women and sacrificing to their gods. The contrast is stunning. God is faithful to preserve His people from their enemies, and His people go whoring after false gods, including sexual immorality.
For their sin, the Lord's anger burns and He commands Moses to have the leaders of this idolatry killed and exposed in broad daylight. While Moses is instructing the judges of Israel to carry out God's judgment, an Israelite brings a Midianite woman into his tent, "right before the eyes of Moses and whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Another striking contrast. The Israel of God is gathered together weeping over their sins before the Tent of Meeting. And this man, brazen and indifferent, brings a woman into his family tent for all to see through weeping eyes.
Then the jarring part. "When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them--through the Israelite and into the woman's body" (25:7-8). Following Phinehas' action, the plague that killed 24,000 was stopped.
Now the more jarring part. Verse 10: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them...."
How zealous are we for the honor of our God?
Would we have done what Phinehas does?
When was the last time we gathered as God's people and wept before God over the sins of His people as Moses and Israel did here?
Does Phinehas appear to us a wild-eyed religious radical?
Does his action seem extreme, impulsive, perhaps self-righteous?
Do we think that Phinehas' action here is unloving, perhaps cruel?
Does it seem to us that length of human life is more important than the honor due to God?
Have we been thinking that anyone who calls her or himself a "Christian," who is pleased to attend our churches, has a right to our unending patience even when in clear, unrepentant sin?
Who do we identify with most in the account: the Midianite woman and Israelite man committing adultery, Phinehas with spear in hand, or Moses interceding in prayer?
Christ Jesus our Savior has, in His body on the tree, been pierced for our transgressions. He has bore the spear thrust due to us for our adulteries, physical and spiritual. By His wounds we have been healed.
But are we zealous for His honor? Does knowledge of our sin that placed Christ on that tree work in us a righteous indignation toward sin?
We are not Phinehas; we are not gathered together before the Tent of Meeting in a developing theocracy. But are we to be more or less zealous than Phinehas for God's honor? And if we are zealous, what is the appropriate standard against which to measure our zeal?
Verse 10 commends Phinehas for being as zealous for the honor of God as God himself is. That's our standard. How zealous was God for His honor? Enough to pierce His own Son to satisfy His wrath against the sins of His people. It's in the broken body and shed blood of the Perfectly Righteous Christ that we get an estimation of the honor due to God. The blood of bulls and goats will not do. Though Phinehas is said to have made atonement for the Israelites (v. 13), neither will the blood of offending people do. Only the blood of Christ--sinless, powerful, cleansing--will honor God the way He deserves. And in the shedding of the blood of Christ, we have answers to our questions.
How zealous are we for the honor of our God? We should be so zealous as to proclaim and live by the fact that the sinless Son of God came into the world to take the "spear" of nails on Calvary's cross. We should be so zealous as to make the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ our constant and passionate vocation. We must mortify the deeds of the flesh--not by javelin--but by turning again and again to those nails and those boards and that Savior who died on them.
When was the last time we gathered as God's people and wept before God over the sins of His people as Moses and Israel did here? Should this not be weekly? Should we not daily even cry over the sins of our brethren in our midst, and intercede for each other more often than we do? Our coming to the Lord's Table should, in part, be a time of weeping for those who knew our fellowship and are now lost to us. Our hearing of the gospel should bring to mind those deceived by sin, who have tasted the glories of heaven but are not entangled with the world and the enemy. We should be zealous enough for the honor of God to weep for the lost and the apostate and those held by sin's grip.
Does Phinehas appear to us a wild-eyed religious radical? Does his action seem extreme, impulsive, perhaps self-righteous? Do we think that Phinehas' action here is unloving, perhaps cruel? If this is the case with us, perhaps we've not been thinking clearly enough about the fact that God will finally declare an end to rebellion. He will finally crush the serpent's head and call the birds to feed on the carcasses of the enemy's army. It is the most loving thing in the world to call people to stop their abuses of God's patience and to turn from sin. It is good for us to deny people even the opportunity to sin if it's within our ability. And certainly, it's loving for us to leave our knees weeping before God to stop the self-destructing sin in our midst that dishonors God to pierce through with the gospel and the demands of the gospel those who come into the camp committed to sin.
Does it seem to us that length of human life is more important than the honor due to God? If so, we will be more zealous for "life," which is really spiritual death, than we will for the honor of God. I once heard someone say "God cares more about the quality of your life than the length of your life." I think that's true; it's at least implicit in the judgment "the day you eat of this fruit you shall surely die." Is it not our tendency at times to "prolong a life," to in effect coddle a sin, by failing to swiftly and decisively and lovingly confront an erring brother, to pass over the Midianite in the tent by saying something like "I'll pray for you" rather than open the word of God which pierces and divides.
Have we been thinking that anyone who calls her or himself a "Christian," who is pleased to attend our churches, has a right to our unending patience even when in clear, unrepentant sin? If we do not lovingly confront those in sin or error, if we do not disciple others, if we do not attempt to restore our brothers, if we fail to see our responsibility to participate in the corrective discipline of our churches... we have perhaps valued "patience" more than the honor of God.
Oh for more zeal for the honor of Christ our God, to be as zealous for God's honor as God himself is!