Pastor Jon Hobbs (Grace Church, Haywards Heath) reflects on the coronavirus crisis in the light of Holy Week
There can be a degree of spin to Palm Sunday. We rejoice in the humility of the King who brings peace to Judah in Zechariah 9:9-12, but conveniently omit that he will achieve it through the destruction of their enemies (9:1-8, 13-17). We celebrate Jesus’ welcome into Jerusalem, but fail to note his first acts as king were to drive out the money-lenders from the temple and curse the fig tree as an illustration of his curse on the unfruitful nation (Mat 21:1-22). The point is that as King, Jesus brings long-needed judgement as well as much needed mercy. And a question we must face during this time of coronavirus, is whether he continues to do so within history, for on ascending as king: “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (Eph 1:22).
The coronavirus brings home the reality of judgement
Intellectuals love to smugly scoff at any suggestion that such things are a judgement from God. But if they call themselves Christian, one wonders what Bible they are reading. Certainly, Jesus does caution against declaring a specific disaster is because one person or group has sinned more than another (Lk 13:4, Jn 9:1-3). But from beginning to end, scripture urges us to consider the reality of judgement when faced with national or worldwide suffering. Jeremiah implies this when lamenting Judah’s destruction by Babylon: “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (Lam 3:38). Just as God ordains all that comes to pass (Ps 139:16, Eph 1:11), so everything that happens stems either from his undeserved grace or tempered justice. “I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD.” (Jer 9:24).
By only the third chapter of the Bible, we learn that human death and so disease is a consequence of humanity’s rejection of God (Gen 3:22). In that sense we must say that this coronavirus is in some sense an expression of his outrage at sin, as all suffering is: “All our days pass away under your wrath.” (Ps 90:9).
But we can note too, that at times disaster taking the form of war, famine or disease, has been a more specific expression of wrath when sin has increased and God’s patience has given way to long needed justice. God outlines the principle through Jeremiah: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.” (Jer 18:7-10).
So, the Ammonites were destroyed when their sin had “reached its full measure” (Gen 15:16) – sin that included practices very similar to those promoted in society today (Lev 18:21-28). And in terms of disease, consider Habakkuk’s picture of the LORD coming to act for his people: “God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendour was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden. Plague went before him; pestilence followed his steps. He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble.” (Hab 3:3-6).
Particularly striking is Psalm 2, that portrays the relationship between God’s king and human rulers, and is applied to Christ in the New Testament (see Acts 4:23-27, Rev 12:5). It urges rulers to: “Kiss [the LORD’s] son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Ps 2:12). The threat of sudden wrath implies that the king is patiently holding it back, but also that at any time it could rightly be let loose. And because it is specific to certain kings, the suggestion is that this may entail judgments within history rather than just the final judgment.
Here, we should note that plague in particular, is one of the judgments released by King Jesus himself during the church age (Rev 6:7-8). One of the most respected modern commentators on Revelation writes of chapter 6:
“Christ has received all authority from the Father and takes up His rule over the kingdoms of the earth (1:5; 2:26-27; 5:1-14). The first four seals show how this authority extends even over situations of suffering sent from the hand of God to purify saints and punish unbelievers…Some Christians may have wondered if Christ really was sovereign over disastrous circumstances, such as Nero’s mass persecutions on so cruel a scale following the fire of Rome in AD 64. Rev 6:1-8 is intended to show that Christ rules over such an apparently chaotic world and that suffering does not occur indiscriminately or by chance.”
I wouldn’t presume to declare that the coronavirus is a more specific judgment on certain sins in today’s world. But nor do I think we need to. We just need to recognise that it might be. We should not underestimate just how appalling the world’s consumerism and abuse of the environment is, when one considers its impact on the poor and suffering. It’s estimated that over 40 million people today work as slaves, enabling people to enjoy the comfort they do. That’s more than three times the total number of slaves during the 15-19th centuries. It’s deeply convicting, that having done so little to check our economy for the good of others, we have not hesitated to now that our own lives are on the line. Or consider our world’s readiness to kill the unborn. The WHO estimates 40-50 million a year – something unthinkable just a hundred years ago. Again, consider the irony that over 200,000 of abortions each year are carried out by the same NHS that is so striving to save lives today. And what of the destruction to family life and mental health stemming from the undermining of marriage, and the embracing of sexual freedom and pornography? And what of the arrogance displayed in wholly redefining marriage and gender?
Given what the scriptures tell us about God’s holiness and its past expression, should we be surprised when this sort of disease arises? Perhaps the surprise should be that it’s not worse. It’s particularly striking that Revelation tells us the two witnesses (most likely a reference to the church) have power “to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want” (Rev 11:6). In context, this could be describing various judgments on the earth for its persecution of believers. And in recent years the world has persecuted Christians like never before. Open Doors estimates that “over 260 million Christians” live in places where they “experience high levels of persecution.”
But, we should not for a moment consider all this implies our world is without hope or abandoned by God. We struggle with these ideas because we think they imply the Lord is somehow uncaring, and that the indiscriminate nature of the suffering they entail means he is callous. No doubt this will always test our faith. But when it does, we can remember that at the very moment Jesus predicted a judgment on Jerusalem that would lead to its destruction in AD70, he wept (Lk 19:41-44). We might say, figuratively speaking, that God executes his justice through tears. And so, Palm Sunday moves towards Good Friday, when in the greatest love, King Jesus bore the curse sin deserves so that we might be freed from it.
The coronavirus brings home the wonders of God’s mercy
Given Jesus governs all things, we can say that signs of his grace are everywhere. Consider how this crisis is bringing communities together, drawing out acts of great self-sacrifice – especially from our medics, and reminding people of the importance of family. Even the spring should be seen as a means by which he is tempering his justice with mercy. But three particular mercies can be noted.
1) The coronavirus is displaying the impotence of our gods: It is hard to deny that the gods worshipped in the UK are those of money, success, healthcare and sexual licence. How easily they are shown to be subject to the Lord. The economy is in crisis, jobs are threatened, the NHS is on its knees, and people are forced to retreat into families – the very institution our society has so undermined. Ecclesiastes 3:14 tells us that God ensures we feel a sense of impotence before his providence so that people will “fear him.” Given that, could it be that in all this, King Jesus is pointing out that the branches we assume can take our weight, really can’t?
2) The coronavirus is highlighting our need of Jesus: This follows. The disease is forcing us to see just how much our lives are dependent on the Lord. Many are facing their own mortality in a way they never have previously. Surely King Jesus is showing us just how much we need him, and at the very time we celebrate his victory over death at Easter? Surely, he is reminding us that there is only one person who has ever healed the sick and raised the dead with a word; and that he is the hope for our nation and world. This is the good news it so needs at this time.
3) The coronavirus is urging us to repentance: This is inescapable given the above. There’s no easy way to say it. The coronavirus is a wake-up call – a reminder that we are a world under judgement, that our sin is an affront to God, that all of us will die, and that all of us need salvation. Repentance is the very thing Jesus put his finger on when faced with disaster in his day: “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’” (Lk 13:4-5). Or consider the repeated refrain of those facing God’s judgments on the earth in the book of Revelation: Still “they refused to repent” (Rev 9:20, 21, 16:9, 16:11). The Lord’s will for people when facing the sufferings of life outside Eden is that they would be called to turn from sin, to Christ, for salvation.
The coronavirus brings home the failings of the Church
Here’s the rub, and I am speaking to myself here too. It is striking how the Church has responded so far. We are caught up in our discussions on how best to do services online, whether we can celebrate communion remotely, and how not to get infected. But where is the discussion on how to communicate the gospel courageously and winsomely in calling our nation or communities to repentance? Like Nero, we are playing the fiddle whilst Rome burns. Some high-profile leaders have spoken more publicly. But generally, these are words carefully chosen to offer something meaningful without the danger of offence. We are urged to abide by governmental advice, care for our neighbours, and combat fear with faith. That’s good. But isn’t there more we must say, somehow – and with fervent prayer for opportunity and response?
No doubt, the church’s failure to speak boldly results from decades in which it has tried to offer just a gentle something to elicit interest with little challenge to the nation’s practices – nor to the brazen affirmation of them within its own ranks. But the coronavirus shows just how ineffectual that is. How does that help a nation that may have to face even more disasters if its spiritual makeup doesn’t change? How does that help the neighbour who is about to pass into a lost eternity because they’ve never heard the gospel? Surely, then, the first place for repentance in this crisis is within the church: “For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household.” (1 Pet 4v17).
Hard truths are like embarrassing family members. We should be unashamed of them. But we keep them hidden for fear of losing friends. However, this Friday we remember the cross which, though “the wisdom of God”, is “foolishness” to the world” (1 Cor 1:20-25) because it declares that we can be saved only by the apparent weakness of a crucified Messiah, who “took our pain and bore our suffering.” (Is 53:4). Let’s proclaim the reassuring truth, that this means that the Son of God sympathises with us in our sufferings, that he is the greatest model of forgiveness, love and self-sacrifice. But let’s not leave it there, for we’re told he suffered so that “the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Is 53:5). That’s his glory. And so we must also find a way to proclaim that he died because we are “by nature deserving of wrath” (Eph 2:3) – because the God who is there remains supremely holy, and is outraged at even our sins, and the present crisis is in some way a taste of the final judgment that he would have us wake up to so that we might kiss his Son, for “blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Ps 2:12).
“Surely your wrath against mankind brings you praise, and the survivors of your wrath are restrained. Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfil them; let all the neighbouring lands bring gifts to the One to be feared. He breaks the spirit of rulers; he is feared by the kings of the earth.” (Ps 76:10-12)
 Beale, G K. Revelation: A shorter commentary. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015), p.123