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Phinehas a Type of Christ?
In Numbers 25, the Israelites sin egregiously against the Lord, and a judgment by plague breaks out among the people, killing twenty-four thousand Israelites. The reason for the judgment was the provocation of the Lord’s anger. The Israelites had yoked themselves with the worship of Baal and committed sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab (25:1-3).
The reason the plague stops is the zeal of a man named Phinehas. He was the high priest’s son, and he had special duty at the tabernacle. According to 1 Chronicles 9:20, he was a chief gatekeeper for the tabernacle. Like his father before him (Num. 3:32), he had a guarding responsibility at the tabernacle.
Therefore, the actions of Phinehas in Numbers 25 were not the acts of a vigilante. Amid the sinning Israelites, a Midianite woman and an Israelite man walked toward a tent to engage in immorality together (25:6). Phinehas knew what the couple planned to do, so he pursued them with the zeal of righteous indignation and judgment. They were defiling the region with their abominable act.
Phinehas took a spear and “went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped” (Num. 25:8).
The zeal of Phinehas turned aside Yahweh’s anger. The Lord told Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, 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. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel’” (Num. 25:10-13).
The Lord approved of Phinehas’s action. It was atoning and righteous. Phinehas possessed an appropriate jealousy, a zeal, for the glory and righteousness of God. Phinehas had a zeal for his heavenly Father’s house and camp. The Lord promises him that priests—and perhaps high priests in particular—will come from his line, a promise made with covenantal language (“I give to him my covenant of peace”).
I say yes, Phinehas is a type of Christ. In Numbers 25, readers see a priest who is zealous for God’s glory. In John 2:13-16, Jesus drove out buyers and sellers and money-changers from the temple, and the disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (2:17; see Ps. 69:9). The priestly office already foreshadows Christ, and now we read in Numbers 25 about a particular priest—the grandson of Aaron—who acts with holy zeal in a way that honors God.
Furthermore, consider that the actions of Phinehas stop the judgment of God that was breaking out in the Israelite camp. God himself said, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel” (25:11). In a greater way, the Lord Jesus has turned away God’s wrath by propitiating it. Phinehas administered judgment, but Jesus took the judgment upon himself.
In addition to the above observations, note that God promises Phinehas “the covenant of a perpetual priesthood” (Num. 25:13). But this promise of a perpetual priesthood would be surpassed by the promise of a perpetual priest. In Psalm 110, we learn that a priest would arise after the order of Melchizedek, and this future priest would hold his position forever (110:4). A perpetual priesthood would ultimately be fulfilled by Jesus, the perpetual priest. Jesus would fulfill this priestly pattern through the New Covenant sealed on the cross, a cross by which he would propitiate the judgment of God.
As Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham wonderfully put it, “Whereas it was Phinehas’ spear that pierced the sinners that made atonement for Israel, it was the nails and spear that pierced Jesus that made atonement for the sins of the whole world.”
Gordon Wenham, Numbers, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (IVP: 1981), 189.