Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Deeply disturbed

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.


Bill Weber said...

Well, Andy, I will think about your application, even though I'm not sure I think it is correct. It might be, I'm just not sure.

It seems like the application first must be vertical, not horizontal. Are we jealous for God's glory and honor? Do we live for His glory?

Paul applies the whole incident as a warning not to indulge in sexual immorality or desire evil things. Possibly we are meant to connect God's glory and sexual chastity. Our greatest motivation for sexual purity being the glory of God. Note, also how severely Jesus says we should deal with lust in the sermon on the mount (but this severity is with ourselves, not others).

Also, in what sense is Phineas a type of Christ, whose death was a propitiation?

You might be right about challenging one another, but that gets tricky sometimes. Phineas had a clear command from the Lord, but often we deal with gray areas. For example, a joke about a spouse or family member could be quite innocent.

I'm not saying your application is wrong, but obviously we are not supposed to send a spear through our fellow believers! It seems hard to equate or compare "killing" and "challenging," therefore, your application makes me nervous!

Hope you don't mind the feedback or think it too challenging!


Andy said...

I appreciate your thoughts, Bill. Certainly, the main application with every text is vertical. God's glory is supreme.

At the same time, the principle of communal holiness and accountability among the people of God out of zeal for God's glory seems a clear application as well. Too often we shake our heads about egregious sin in the lives of other believers without the honesty and courage to confront them for the sake of their good, God's glory and the purity of Christ's church. Certainly, this needs to be done in a biblical, compassionate and orderly way. Nevertheless, it needs to be done. God-centered courage is a rare trait in modern Christians in the West. With or without his spear, I fear zealous Phineas would have a hard time fitting into most of our licentious churches.

Bill Weber said...

Yes, I agree there is a communal holiness to consider. Isn't that what Paul's warning about coming to the supper unrepentant and not discerning the body is all about in 1 Corinthians 11? So I think we are in basic agreement that this passage could be applied communally.

However, I think what troubles me about your application is not its communal nature, but making the move from "killing" to "challenging" and the move from sexual immorality to the examples you gave which were far less serious. You have lessened the severity of both the remedy and the sin, and I am wondering if that makes the move illegitimate.

Thanks for considering these thoughts. Hopefully, iron will sharpen iron.

Andy said...

Clearly, the salvation-historical context requires our censure of sin to be less severe than in the Old Covenant camp where civil punishment was mandated. Censure for sin today requires the implementation of Mt. 18 and such passages. Nevertheless, the application must be made.

I am not so sure that the examples I give are less serious, for at their core, bringing a Moabitess into the camp and the many egregious sins Christians commit today all boil down to idolatry.