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What’s the Zeal?

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Click here to read Numbers 25 on BibleGateway.com

Ninjago-Green-Ninja-with-Spear-Coloring-PageNumbers 25:11 – “Phineas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am.”

Words are funny – not as funny as the original Three Stooges, but definitely funnier than Shemp. Take the word “strike” for example. If you ask a professional bowler, they’ll likely experience a slightly giddy feeling regarding the word “strike.” But if you ask a member of the 103rd Street Union, there may be many feelings that go along with “strike,” but I’d wager “giddy” isn’t one of them. Or if you ask a baseball player, they may enjoy or hate strikes, depending on if they have a bat or a glove in their hands. Weird.

Sometimes we have words we use in our little cultural group, but make no sense outside of that context.  Zeal is one of those words. Have you ever heard anyone say “man, I’m feeling pretty zealous for these nachos today”; “wow, that running back was really zealous for the end zone”; “well, I was going to mow the lawn today, but I’m just not feeling zealous enough.” The only time you’ve probably heard the word “zealous” is when you’re sitting in a church. So, what does it mean?  In simple terms: passion.


“Zeal” is used several times through the Bible (depending on your translation), and two of them involve somewhat violent acts. The most famous is when Jesus clears the temple. He comes into the temple in Jerusalem, sees a bunch of dudes making sweet cash off the worshippers, and fashions himself an old fashioned Rebukifier. I imagine that was somewhat surprising for those business folks; they may expect to get beat down once in a while, but I’m sure the wandering rabbi was probably not the top of their Most-Dangerous list.

Lest you think beating down the unrighteous is restricted to the New Testament, let’s turn to our reading for today – Numbers 25 wherein we meet the somewhat Ferb-less man known as Phineas. Phineas is the grandson of Aaron, the high priest, and apparently takes the responsibility seriously. The people of Israel are losing their way at the time; getting caught up with the immoral nations around them, worshipping idols, and getting their carnal on with the foreign ladies.

God is understandably angry, and He sends a plague to discipline the Israelites, and orders Moses to get rid of the offenders. Right in the middle of Moses and others begging God for mercy, an Israelite walks by on his way home with one of these ladies. Phineas follows, and with eye-popping  savagery, puts a spear through both people at once.

Here’s the kicker: God rewards this act. Phineas and his family are given positions of honor in the priesthood. Why? Shouldn’t he have been reprimanded, or even killed for taking a life. The key lies in why Phineas acted. He wasn’t standing up for his rights; he wasn’t defending himself or taking vengeance for a slight against himself. He was defending God’s holiness. His love for God and His presence drove him to act with an overwhelming passion. That’s Zeal.


Similar to how the New Testament says Jesus was filled with zeal, the Old Testament is full of examples of people that did violent acts when they were overwhelmed with a true passion for God. When David killed Goliath, he wasn’t worried about his own life (or really, even the nation); he is driven to action by Goliath’s mockery of Israel’s God. Phineas doesn’t kill to glorify himself; he does it because God’s Glory is central to his life.

Sometimes people will ask when it’s ok to be angry; there’s a simple answer. If you are angry because you feel violated, because your rights have been trampled, because someone did something or took something from you, then you’re probably sinning when you’re angry. If you’re angry because someone is insulting God, because someone is keeping another from worshipping Christ, or because the holiness of God is being challenged, then your anger maybe allowable.

Our passion for God’s holiness is key to understanding Biblical zeal. Anything less is our own sin.

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