Note: The following article was written by the Rev. Warren Peel and published on Gentle Reformation under the title “Christians and Coronavirus” (28 FEB 2020). Rev. Peel serves as minister of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland, as well as professor of Biblical Greek and New Testament Studies at the Reformed Theological College in Belfast. Used by permission.
Self-isolation; pandemic; super spreader; coronavirus; covid-19. Just a few of the words and phrases that have become part of everyday conversation in the weeks since the first outbreak of a novel coronavirus was reported in Wuhan, China on 31 December 2019. As of today there are 83,650 confirmed cases and have been 2,858 deaths worldwide, although those statistics are changing constantly and the cases of infection are thought by experts to be much higher than have been reported. Of course there is reason for concern, but how should we as Christians respond to an event like this? How can we be salt and light?
1. We should bear witness to the peace of God
A national tabloid newspaper today bore the sensationalist, panic-inducing headline, ‘Killer Virus Comes Here’. By contrast, Christians are to be characterised by peace in the face of anxious circumstances. Isaiah 26:3 says, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord for ever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” Where does the Christian’s peace come from? From staying our minds on God and trusting him. Whenever trouble threatens we need to stay our minds on the Lord. We need to remind ourselves of the many great truths about him that we have learnt through countless sermons and hours of Bible studies and reading.
We believe, for example, in the sovereignty of God. That’s something we need to stay our mind on as this virus spreads to every country and comes closer to our doors. We believe that the Lord is King over all the forces of nature. Psalm 29 tells us that the Lord sends forth his voice (as he did in the beginning at Creation) and nature obeys. Verse 10 says “He sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.” The word for flood is the word used of the great flood in Noah’s day – a fearful disaster that engulfed every nation and every creature with the breath of life in its nostrils. Yet the Lord was in control of that, bringing his good and righteous purposes to pass. As the Lord asked Job in Job 38:8-11 “…who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?” God sets limits not just for the waves but for everything in the universe. The waters of the flood are often a symbol in Scripture for evil – but they are not outside of the Lord’s will. Viruses, no less than the waters, are subject to his mighty will. As R. C. Sproul used to say, there cannot be a single maverick molecule – or virus – anywhere in the universe that is outside of God’s sovereignty.
Not only is the Lord sovereign, but he is infinitely wise. Rom 11:33: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” That means not only that he knows what is best, but that he knows the best way of bringing about what is best.
The Lord is also gracious. He is sovereignly working all things for the good of his people. Rom 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That’s something we need to stay our minds on, if we want to know perfect peace. God knows what he is doing – and what he is doing is working all things for his people’s good. We may not always understand the details of God’s plan, but we know that it is perfect. Who knows how the Lord will use this disease in China, for example, where the Christians of Wuhan and many other places have put themselves in harm’s way to show practical love and help to the people of their city. This comes at just the time when the Chinese authorities are cracking down on Christians; new regulations came into force on 1 February which ‘will require religious leaders and organisations to display complete devotion to the Chinese Communist Party.’
We know too that the Lord has ordained the exact number of our days. Ps 139:16: “…in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Nothing in all creation can alter the time and the manner of our death—it will be whatever the Lord in his sovereign, wise and gracious will has ordained. It cannot be brought by ‘bad luck’ causing us to get infected and die ‘before our time’. We are immortal until our work is done. So Jesus tells us not to worry, because it will not add a single hour to our lifespan (Mt 6:27).
2. We should bear witness to the coming judgment of God
Pestilences are one of the ‘signs of the times’ Jesus mentions in Luke 21:10-11: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” These things will characterise the approach of the return of Christ. Of course these things have always been true of human history, but in the parallel passage in Matthew 24:8, Jesus describes these things as the beginning of the birth pains. As a birth approaches the contractions are closer together, more intense, more painful. Isn’t that the point about the signs of the times? As we draw closer to the Lord’s return, these things become more frequent, more intense, more painful? So we are kept alert, in a constant state of readiness for the Lord’s return, without ever being able to predict a specific date. It is always imminent, but never predictable. Every generation will think, with genuine cause, ‘It could happen in my lifetime’.
Every outbreak of pestilence, whether a localised epidemic or a global pandemic, should remind us of the Lord’s words, and force the question upon us, ‘Am I ready for Christ’s return? Have I bowed the knee to Jesus as Lord? Am I living the faithful, godly life he has called me to? Will I be put to shame at his appearing?’ The coronavirus should impress upon us afresh that this world is passing away, that history is not going round in circles but heading towards a great and terrible Day of judgment. It should drive us to pray and to witness to the lost around us with ever greater urgency.
And yet there is a vaccine for God’s judgment. There is a cure. But it is only found in Jesus Christ, who bore the full effects of the virus of our sin to deliver that cure.