Last weekend, together with my friends Greg Cahalan and Steve Keels, pastors at my home church, Good Shepherd Community Church, we recorded two messages for our church body. In our first video, which was part of Wednesday’s blog, we talked about the need for God’s people to have an eternal perspective by focusing on and studying Scripture. In this second video, we tackled some of the difficult theological and practical questions Christians may have related to the coronavirus crisis.
I hope you find the following, as well as our video discussion, helpful.
Some readers expressed concern that we were being unwise and setting a bad example by sitting together at the same table. These videos were filmed last Saturday, when the latest information we had here in Oregon was that the governor had cancelled meetings of groups over 250. Meetings over 20 were strongly discouraged, so only a few people were involved with this filming. As this last week has gone on, many families here in Oregon are now practicing social distancing and staying at least six feet apart from others. As I watched the first video, I realized I was praying with my face in or on my hands, which many of us did and by instinct will still tend to do. All the new recommendations make sense; it just takes time to retrain myself. I’m sure the new habits will sink in, probably about when this is over! But please have understanding and realize that in the past week there has been more change in interpersonal social norms than in the past 50 years! Don’t disregard this, or any message, just because brand new guidelines weren’t fully in place a week ago when we were filming.
When we study history, we learn past epidemics were way more severe than anything we’ve faced. That’s not to minimize the coronavirus, because in in my lifetime, nothing like this has happened, at least here where I live. But there are, presently, terrible epidemics in other countries, including malaria and tuberculosis, that have largely not touched those of us in the modern-day U.S.
I’ve done some reading about the Plague of Cyprian, which happened in AD 249 to 262. At its peak, five thousand people died every day in Rome alone. Christians were blamed for the plague, but it became apparent that wasn’t true since Christians died long with everyone else. In fact, Christians were actually caring for those who were sick, including their pagan neighbors. Some of them died as a direct result.
Certainly we shouldn’t take unnecessary risks today. But sometimes risks are necessary for us to be obedient to Jesus. There are things worse than death, and disobedience for the believer is worse than death. Paul reminds us that “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). We don’t seek to die, of course, but we are willing to die if that’s what’s necessary to love our neighbors and serve the Lord.
Are we willing to pray, “Lord, if you’re given me a needy neighbor and it involves some risk for me to help them, then that risk is right”? That’s what God’s people have done throughout the ages with far fewer resources than we have available today. Let’s look at this as an opportunity to help others, pray for them, and bring the gospel of Jesus to them.
I am struck by how timely Martin Luther’s nearly 500 year old advice to believers is, when they were facing the Plague of 1527:
You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent a pestilence… I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall… administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others… If people in a city were to show themselves bold in faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as to not take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.” —Martin Luther on "Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague"
We need to remind ourselves not only of church history, but also of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world today who are still risking themselves for the good of the gospel and the glory of God.
For example, Samaritan’s Purse just sent a group of medical personal over to Italy to set up an emergency field hospital. Some of them could die in the process. This is what it looks like sometimes to follow Jesus. I am proud of them. Today our ministry is sending $10,000 to them, and we will be sending more to them or other ministries. (On this subject, I highly recommend John Piper’s small book Risk Is Right: Better to Lose Your Life Than to Waste It, available online for free.)
Romans 13 makes clear that God’s people should submit to the authorities God has appointed. Is there a time when Christians are compelled not to submit to the government, or even mandated not to? Yes, there are clear biblical examples of when that is necessary. Peter and the Apostles told the Sanhedrin: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Could there come a time in our culture when gathering together is illegal? That’s already true in other places around the world, such as Iran. If the time ever came in America when we were not allowed to have religious gatherings, then I would be the first to call for civil disobedience.
But now is not that time. In the video, we’re certainly not saying that we should always unconditionally obey the government, but unless there’s a compelling reason to disobey, we obey. As Greg points out, right now as churches, we just need to gather differently, through online means. The right thing to do, out of love, is to work together to try to contain this virus. (If you’re interested for more biblical perspectives on the topic of civil disobedience, see this article I wrote years ago when I was involved in civil disobedience to save the unborn.)
Could this virus be a judgment of God? Yes.
Could it be the grace of God extended to save unbelievers from the fire of hell, and to save believers from a life that’s wasted? Yes.
God is getting our attention through this crisis. Could that be His purpose? Yes.
God is disciplining us as His children to get our eyes on Him. Hebrews 12 says He disciplines us for our good.
The purpose behind this crisis is probably all of those things in one way or another, but it’s not up for us to say, “Oh, I know why that person got the Coronavirus. It’s because he’s an unbeliever.” Believers have gotten sick, too, just as they have during other plagues throughout world history.
Unless God clearly reveals it, we should never assume that an epidemic or natural disaster or moral atrocity comes upon this earth as His specific judgment on specific people. Jesus made this clear by saying that some people murdered by Pilate and those crushed by a falling tower were no worse sinners than others (see Luke 13:2–5).
It’s easy to say, whenever we see a crisis, “This must be the end times!” But we’ve been living in the “end times” for 2,000 years, since Jesus’ ascension. This era, in Scripture, is called the end times.
Now is this the “real” end? Christ certainly could return today, or any moment. His return has always been imminent. We need to be ready, but we also shouldn’t think, “I don’t need to plan for the future because obviously Jesus is coming very soon.” Let’s be ready for His coming, but let’s not presume we know exactly when it’s going to happen.
What if all the people throughout history who thought Jesus would return in their lifetime had been right? You and I wouldn’t have been born. So look for His coming, pray for His coming, but also look for what you can do to facilitate it. He’ll return after the last martyr is killed (Revelation 6:11) and after the last convert is converted, but meanwhile we’re to serve Him faithfully, not knowing the hour of His return, but knowing He knows and has a perfect plan. (See What Do You Think About Linking Current Events to the End Times?)
In Matthew 6, Jesus talks about storing up treasures in Heaven, not on earth. When we consider the massive amounts of money being lost in investments right now (maybe they will be restored and maybe they won’t), we should ask ourselves, “What if we hadn’t stored so much wealth on earth but had given it to God’s kingdom instead? Could we have already reached all the tribes and nations of the earth?” That’s not meant to be negative, but to make us realize the importance of a giving mentality instead of storing up so much for ourselves.
It all comes back to seeking wisdom from the Lord. He tells us that if we lack wisdom, we can ask Him and He “will give it generously without finding fault” (James 1:5). Let’s find a balance. When it comes to getting groceries and supplies, take a reasonable amount. Now, to some people “reasonable” means storing up a large amount, but we must remember that affects other people. The elderly and the needy are not fighting the lines at Costco. They’re not able to do that! If you do have extra, and even if you don’t, take what you have and share it.
Is there a time for planning? Sure. It can be wise to store up some extra food, all the while trusting God, and remembering that what you have is not just for you, but so that you might help others and be generous and willing to share (1 Timothy 6:18). (For more perspectives, see my book Giving Is the Good Life: The Unexpected Path to Purpose and Joy.)
To access many other biblical perspectives on the coronavirus crisis, visit epm.org/coronavirus, which EPM staff member Stephanie Anderson compiled and which we’ll be updating as we see great new resources. You’ll find articles, videos, and audios that relate to the major themes we discussed in the video. Please let us know as you see other resources we might share. We are all in this together.