In Numbers 25 we find a singularly disturbing individual. We know the story: just prior to Israel's crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land, some Moabite women seduced Israelite men to take part in their pagan love-feasts. As a result, God's anger burned against Israel. Moses commanded the leaders who allowed such sin to be slain and hung in the sun.
With the Israelites weeping in response to God's judgment for their egregious sin, a Simeonite named Zimri brought a Moabite woman named Cozbi into the Israelite camp in broad daylight and into his tent. Zimri's sin could not have been more high-handed.
Still, Zimri's not the man in the story I find singularly disturbing. The truly disturbing one is Phineas, the son of Eleazer the high priest, who - out of zeal for the Lord and the holiness of His people - pursues the unequally yoked couple and runs them through with his spear. God adds to our disturbance by commending Phineas' zeal by saying in v. 11, "Phineas...has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy."
Too often our temptation is to read a story like Numbers 25, commend Phineas' spiritual zeal and apply it rather lamely to ourselves in terms of more zeal for reading our Bibles or taking a stand for Jesus in the marketplace. But the context demands that we apply Phineas' zeal in terms of our relationships with one another in the church - taking bold risks for the sake of holiness as we make war against idolatry in one another's lives.
This is where Phineas becomes truly disturbing. We like him as a model of zeal, but we want the right to pick and choose in which realms we express our holy zeal. Zeal for God which boldly challenges sin in one another's lives? We're rarely willing to go there. Challenging our Christian friends for whom church attendance is an optional extra in the summer? Challenging that person in your small group who cracks disrespectful jokes about her husband? Challenging that teen who dresses immodestly or that church member who has sat on the margins of church life for years without deeply investing in the lives of other believers toward mutual sanctification? When it comes to zeal in our relationships in the church toward greater holiness, we find the example of Phineas deeply disturbing.
And, yet, Numbers 25 commends Phineas as 'jealous for his God.' Could you or I be so labeled? Are we willing to take bold risks to make it so? If not, perhaps that is the fact, more than any other, we should find most disturbing.