In 1899, two prominent men died. The first was Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, for whom the Ingersoll lectures on immortality at Harvard University are named, and who gave his brilliant mind to the refutation of Christianity. Ingersoll died suddenly that year, leaving his unprepared family utterly devastated. So grief-stricken was his wife that she would not allow his body to be taken from their home until the health of the family required its removal. His remains were cremated, and his funeral service was such a scene of dismay and despair that even the newspapers of the day commented on it.
The other man who died that year was Dwight L. Moody, the great Christian evangelist. He had been declining for some time, and his family had gathered around his bed. On his last morning, his son heard him exclaim, “Earth is receding; heaven is opening; God is calling.” “You are dreaming, Father,” said his son. But Moody replied, “No, Will, this is no dream. I have been within the gates. I have seen the children’s faces.” Moody seemed to revive but then started to slip away again. “Is this death?” he was heard to say. “This is not bad; there is no valley. This is bliss. This is glorious.” By now his daughter had come, and she began to pray for him to recover. “No, no, Emma,” he said. “Don’t pray for that. God is calling. This is my coronation day. I have been looking forward to it.” After Moody died, his funeral was a scene of triumph and joy. Those in attendance sang hymns of praise to God. “Where, O death, is your victory,” they exclaimed through faith in Jesus Christ. “Where, O death, is your sting” (1 Cor. 15:55).1
In writing to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul expressed concern that they did not possess full confidence in victory over death. He therefore wrote to them: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).
I think it is fair to express that most Christians today feel frightened along with the rest of the world. We all want to avoid the contagion of this virus. Most of the people I have been speaking with fear for our country financially. Things look very uncertain. Our life plans—graduations, weddings—may very well be interrupted.
But in the midst of all of this, we have an incredible opportunity to walk with God as children walk with their Father—in simple, childlike trust. Because of God as our Father, we can genuinely rest. We don’t have to be paralyzed by fear because the King of the universe has promised to care for His children. We are free to think of others and to go about our tasks in a way that points to the beauty of Christ.
Christians have always had such opportunities. A pandemic similar to smallpox or ebola broke out in Rome, A.D. 250-271, claiming about 5,000 lives a day. As a result the Decian persecution came to all Christians in the Roman Empire. The people believed the Roman gods were punishing them since the Christians refused to worship the Roman gods. While death ran rampant, anger toward and persecution of the Christians only increased.
During this "Plague of Cyprian", the Roman Empire was crumbling and the people were fleeing the city. But one group rose above the turmoil. It was the very ones who had been accused of starting it, the Christians! It was the Christians who stayed and tended to the sick. Many Christians gave their lives to serve those with the disease. Many were heard saying, “Behold, how these Christians love.” It was shocking to others.
During this time of plague, there was no "germ" understanding, no real awareness of hygiene. So, naturally, these plagues spread very quickly through the population. They suspected "bad blood", so they called for blood letting from leeches. They thought it was "bad air" that spread the sickness, so they encouraged even children to smoke.
History is such an important teacher. Today, it is too easy to respond to these old plagues with basic arrogance. We know better than to encourage our children to smoke to avoid sickness, and we certainly know better than to let the doctor throw some leaches on me!! But truth is, we are still as morally ignorant as ever. In the Covid-19 pandemic of our day, we’re just as concerned about our physical health. But are we taking the same concern with our spiritual health?
In the mid-17th century, England experienced the worst outbreak of plague since the Black Death of 1348. London lost roughly 15% of its population, about 1 out of 6 people died. It is estimated over 100,000 died in London alone. During the plague, the rich (royalty, noblemen, pastors) left the city and fled to Oxford. The Puritans, who were persecuted and had been ejected from England, went back into London at the height of the outbreak and ministered to the empty churches. They chose self-sacrifice over self-protection.
God kept His word with Abraham and delivered his people out of Egypt. Three days in, the people are in the wilderness and already complaining. God hears them and gives them water. He says to them, “I am the Lord who heals.” This seems strange as the people were thirsty, not sick! But this word is better translated: “I am the One who makes you whole.”
In Isaiah 53:4, we read that Jesus was pierced, crushed, bruised, scourged, so that we may be healed. There is a cure to the sin-sickness of humanity... which is the ultimate culprit as to why we have physical diseases and viruses. The only cure is hope in the suffering Christ chose for all of us who are sin infected.
William Bridge wrote during the plague in London. In light of this physical suffering, what spiritual advice can be given? When a time where physical illness is frightening, what do you need to do spiritually?
"What is my work this day? Now the work of this day is to trust the Lord. This is the work that protection and deliverance in the time of a plague calls for. Who is there that does not desire to be protected and delivered from this plague? Trust in the Lord. As ever you and your family may be protected now in this evil day, trust in the Lord, and call upon yours to trust in the Lord.”
Bridge is not saying if you trust in the Lord, you’ll never get sick! But he is saying that we can be kept by God in the midst of sickness, even if we contract a virus.
What do you do in a time where you’re fearful of sickness, you’re in social isolation, and you may have extra time on our hands? Take that time to come clean with God. "Social distancing" might work for not spreading a virus but it will kill you spiritually if we "social-distance" with our Heavenly Father! Ask yourself: Have I been living for God, or for myself? Who would have thought two months ago, hearing about a virus on the other side of the world, that it would shut your office down and change your life? Two months ago we were more upset about a baskeball players death than a virus about ready to ravage the globe.
Let's focus on the things that truly matter and stay in daily contact with the Good Physician.
(Partially adapted from the good resources at Media Gratiae.)
1 Quoted in Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 467.
Phillips, R. D. (2015). 1 & 2 Thessalonians. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 159–160). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.