God loves the world and his children and will not get angry or punish them easily. However when men repeatedly disobey the biblical teachings, or turn a deaf ear to God’s warnings through happenings around us, God has to let the world suffer so as to wake us up because He loves us.
CS Lewis once said: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Judging from the biblical records and church history, the Covid-19 pandemic which broke out in December 2019 and spread across the world in the short span of three months, can be the “megaphone” of God’s call to man. God is calling out loud, wanting to awaken the world to listen to Him. Though different people may interpret God’s message differently , His only objective is that the world should turn back, receive His blessing, be protected from His anger.
1. You are only mortal, people!
Before God led the Israelites out of Egypt through Moses, He performed ten miracles including the plague on livestock of the Egyptians in the field and plague of boils. God wanted the Pharaoh and the Egyptians to know that He is the almighty God (Exodus 7: 5, 9: 1-12). God expressed His purpose through the psalmist, “Strike them with terror, LORD; let the nations know they are only mortal.” (Psalm 9:20)
A few sub-microscopic infectious agents cause us to keep social distance from each other, cause the collapse of the medical system of some advanced countries and the world economy to dive into recession. Thousands of companies in Malaysia may go bankrupt, and millions of people may lose their jobs. The world almost comes to a standstill! To the growing number of arrogant and ignorant atheists, to the sensualists subverting the biblical marriage system of a man, a woman for a lifetime, to the religious extremists that brutally kill Christians, to the regime that forces the church to take down the cross, God’s words to them in this outbreak is, “the Egyptians (you) are mere mortals and not God.” (Isaiah 31: 3)
To the government and the people of China, Iran, Italy, Malaysia…… that are severely ravaged by COVID-19 pandemic: do understand that Jehovah is the only true God, you must get to know Him!
Stop being arrogant and self-righteous, return to God humbly, you are just human! As a sinner, you need to know Jesus as your personal saviour and that will change your life. As the governing authority, you have to respect God who puts you in authority, act justly, be merciful, and your governing authority will last long. (Romans 13: 1; Micah 6: 8).
2. Turn back, God’s people!
Several major epidemics that broke out among God’s people were recorded in the Old Testaments. They conveyed some important messages to us after more than three thousand years as we face the Covid-19 pandemic today.
The ten spies spreading the bad report about the Promised Land had incited the people to go against Moses and Aaron. Those ten were struck down and died of a plague before the LORD (Num. 14:37).
In another incident Korah blatantly led the people to rebel against Moses and Aaron, causing a crisis of confidence in the leaders. As a result, God killed 14,700 people with a plague (Num. 16: 49), and the plague stopped only after Aaron took a censer to the assembly to make atonement for them.
After the Israelites left Egypt and when they were staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women and worshipped their idols. God’s anger burned against them and punished them with a plague. The plague didn’t stop until the grandson of Aaron, Phinehas, killed the adulterous Israeli man and the Gentile woman with a spear. Those who died in the plague numbered 24,000. (Num. 25: 1-9)
In another incident, David defeated powerful enemies again and again, and he ordered the fighting men to be counted to show his strength. He offended God and a plague fell on the land and lasted until King David repented and built an altar to sacrifice to God. 70,000 people died. (2 Sam. 24: 10-25; 2 Chr. 21:1-27)
What can we learn from the epidemic suffered by the Israelites? The first is faith. For over a hundred years, our ancestors overcame all hardships and some even sacrificed their lives to build churches. God granted them a good life, they built grand churches, blessed their descendants and some of them achieved high social status.
Are a good life, grand buildings, interpersonal relationships and academic status becoming our idols? Are we living a godless Christian life and no longer relying on God (even serving)? The affluent material life we have may have brought physical immorality and even spiritual immorality for some of us! Believers should repent and church leaders ought to be penitent as well. Believers and church leaders are unknowingly living a secular life. This epidemic will continue if God’s people do not repent and turn back to God. (Lev. 26: 23-26; Deu. 28: 15-24)
3. Look at history, IT people!
Plague is an inseparable part of human history. From the occurrence of epidemic during the Roman Empire, we can have a glimpse of its significance to us today. King Nero burned Rome and put the blame on Christians. Many Christian were martyred at the Roman Colosseum, some were tied in straw bundles and were burnt as a night light. The plague broke out in AD 79 and tens of thousands of people died every day. The Roman historian Tacitus recorded in the “Chronicles”: “Roman … The houses were filled with dead bodies, and the streets with funeral processions.” Emperor Titus died because of the plague.
Emperor Antonius brutally persecuted Christians too. There were more deaths in the AD 166 outbreak of plague than in the battlefield. In AD 180 he was infected and suffered a tragic death after being sick for seven days.
Emperor Decius blamed the Christians for the crisis in the empire and he persecuted the Christians. In AD 250 a plague broke out and over 5,000 died everyday for 20 years. AD 270 Claudius II died because of the plague.
The AD 541 Plague of Justinian broke out and the plague returned periodically five times and the population of the capital decreased by 40% while at least 50 million people died in the whole empire. The people believed that it was God’s judgment because the Romans did not treasure life, had low moral value and practised orgies. Emperor Justin also died in AD 565 due to the plague. The Eastern Roman Empire began to collapse and was eventually captured by the Ottoman Empire.
The above brief history of the Roman Empire seems to indicate that plague is one of the ways of God’s judgment on the sinful world. This is not necessarily the opinion of Christian apologists but can also be the common understanding of the social consciousness. So are we too extreme to say that this epidemic is God’s warning or even judgment on us? Comparing the moral and spiritual value of this information age with that of the Roman Empire, are we better off? Perhaps we should listen to what Spurgeon taught us, God uses suffering to save us as He knew that our apostasy would lead us to destruction, and so He allows the sceptre of punishment to come upon us out of His loving mercy.
4. Look at our home, caretakers of the Earth!
Because of this pandemic, major countries around the world have adopted isolation measures for epidemic prevention and thus human activities have greatly reduced. On March, 18 NASA announced that this has given our planet an unexpected breathing space.
Lauri Myllyvirta, the lead analyst at Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, University of Helsinki, said that in the four weeks from late January, epidemic control lockdowns in China had caused the reduction of carbon emission by 25%. The nitrogen dioxide cloud that stayed over China in January seemed to have evaporated in February. The concentration of nitrogen dioxide (nitrogen dioxide can cause asthma and pneumonia) dropped sharply in Italy too. The long lost clear skies are back to many cities and the canals of Venice are now crystal clear. These are some of the results of reduction in the running or closure of automobiles, power plants and industrial facilities.
The epidemic prevention and control measures have almost brought the whole world to a standstill. Is this a bad thing despite the inevitable severe economic recession? We need to reflect upon our modern lifestyle. Under the MCO our daily activities and programs are greatly reduced; we eat a simpler meal and our pace of life slows down too. We have more time to quieten ourselves and to spend with our families. We have so much more time to pray, to read the Bible and to get closer to God. Our life is becoming simpler. We are getting back many blessings we have missed.
After the MCO is lifted, in what way can we live a not-so-busy and not-so-materialistic life? So that our relationship with God, with ourselves, with our family, with the church, with our subordinates will be more blessed, and we can lead an abundant life? In order to sustain a green and healthy home, let us live a simple life and be responsible caretakers of the Earth.
5. Start anew, Church!
Our church life has also come to a standstill after the MCO was enforced. Without physical fellowship gatherings, church worship services, visitations, on top of the difficulties we are forced to put on hold the implementation of ministry plans and other projects. Many look for alternatives to do pastoring online. Sunday worship is now streaming live online, meeting and classes are carried out using “Zoom”. Hard copies of “Daily Living Water” are replaced by soft copies. Our co-workers are all so creative in preparing devotionals and family altars materials. Unexpectedly we see an extension of the gospel and discipleship ministries. It is now easier to provide pastoral care for those believers whose hearts are turning cold or even unbelievers. We also find that God has prepared abundant resources and materials that we can use through many churches or institutions.
What lessons can we learn through the implementation of the MCO? Let us reflect and ask our great shepherd – Jesus and our Father in heaven who loves us.
On the existing system: For many years we have been blessed by our existing pastoral model or method but it may not necessarily be the only effective or immutable way. The pastoral strategy has to be adjusted according to the recent development and change in our life style in order to yield the most.
On the true meaning of worship: Worshipping in the church premises is important, good facilities and worship liturgy is also necessary. Online worship reminds us to look into our own relationship with the Holy Spirit, to have an undivided heart and reverent attitude in preparing ourselves to learn God’s words. Worship is all about one’s life and living and not about better facilities or ceremonies.
On simpler church life: Today’s ministries and courses when compared to those of our grandparents are a lot more complex and diverse. Are we more pious than them? I really don’t know how to answer this question. In fact many of our church leaders and even believers often feel they are snowed under with work, family life and on top of that church ministries.
On simplified organization structure: Our experience of church life during the MCO shows that life-related ministry can go on without so many meetings or complex administrative structure.
On family discipleship: We have been pushing the family altar for some years without much effect. During the MCO family members are getting closer and have more time for conversation, devotion and worship together. In future we need to find ways to reduce church-centred ministry so that members have more time for family life.
On utilizing the internet: Because of the movement restrictions we are literally leading an e-life relying much on internet access for ministries such as caring, worship, learning, meetings, ministering. We find a new dimension for church life and the results are comparable to that of church-centred pastoral care.
On refocus on God’s love: The churches are often tied up with a lot of activities until we are moving away from our objectives: worship God and preach the gospel. Prayer, worship of God and preaching the gospel are the fundamental reasons for the existence of the church. Too many church programs and chores often divert our attention and we work hard but to little avail. So the key message for this pandemic is to do basic discipleship: back to the Bible and to the Great Commission.
Conclusion: The call of a village
In the middle of the 14th century, the outbreak of the Black Death that spread from Mongolia to other parts of the world killed 75 million people. According to legend, in 1633 a man travelling back from certain plague-infested area to the village, Oberammergau, south of Munich by the Italy border allegedly brought *the plague with him. The man purportedly died from the plague and it spread throughout Oberammergau.
The residents of the village prayed to God in repentance, calling on God to save them and promised to perform “Jesus’ Passion” once every ten years. After the vow was made, according to tradition, not another inhabitant of the village died from the plague, and the infected villagers also recovered. The play representing their repentance was first performed in 1634 and till today the play is still performed every ten years. The five-hour long drama plays for five days. The town of 5,500 people has become a tourist destination in Germany. The play attracts over 500,000 tourists each time it is performed.
What message is the story of Oberammergau conveying to us, pandemic hit modern day Christians, 400 years after the Black Death in the village? Theologically COVID-19 epidemic carries certain eschatological significance. To the end-day church God is calling you and I to “Repent!” (Revelation 2: 5, 16, 21; 3: 3, 19)