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Stay and Serve: 2 Things Christians can learn from History of Epidemics

As measures to deal with COVID-19 across the world continue to restrict in-person gatherings, many are grappling with what Christian faith looks like right now. This article will consider 2 ways that Christians of the past have dealt with plagues, diseases and epidemics.

First things first. We need to recognize that throughout human history, widespread suffering affecting large parts of a nation or indeed whole nations or numerous nations have been a part of normal life. If you were to ask much older relatives who have grown up in the last eighty years or so, you would hear of nationwide struggles that they and their families experienced at some point. This immediately alerts us to the blessings we have enjoyed in recent decades arising from improved global health, widespread peace and stability and generally good food provision.

Given therefore that ours has generally been a prosperous age, we need to look to those of the past who knew deep and extensive suffering and who yet kept going in their trust and commitment to Jesus Christ.

Lesson 1: Suffering as something that the LORD allows

A careful reading of Scripture reveals that whenever plagues and pestilences occur, these arise because of God’s ordaining (Genesis 12:17; 20:17-18; 41:28-32; 50:20, Exodus 3:16-20; 32:25, Numbers 11:1-3,31-34; 14:26-35; 16; 21:4-9; 25; Deuteronomy 28:15-68; Joshua 7; 1 Samuel 2:27-36, 2 Samuel 24; 1 Kings 17:1-6, 2 Kings 6:24-33). We read in the Gospels that all the hairs on our heads are numbered and that not even a single bird falls to its death apart from the will of the Father (Matthew 10:29-30; Luke 12:6-7).

This therefore means that it is God who permitted the corona pandemic to arise and spread the way it has. The good and sovereign God revealed in Scripture has allowed this moment of trial to overwhelm our world according to His perfect will. How this should affect disciples is that we (of all people) should not fret or panic despite the chaos and confusion that abounds. We know He who is in charge over everything and He does all things well.

The experience of Jonathan Edwards is instructive for us. Although it was not a pandemic in the way the coronavirus is currently affecting the globe, in his time smallpox was rampant. Edwards was concerned for this family’s health and sought to take part in a vaccination trial. This carried some risk but in times of an epidemic, it would markedly improve one’s chances of survival. Sadly, in Edwards’ case, the vaccination brought on the disease and led to his death. Moments before he died, Edwards dictated the following letter:

“Dear Lucy,

it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a Father who will never fail you.”[1]

Notice Edwards’ unwavering conviction that the pain and anguish that was about to ensue were all part of God’s will. Equally surprising to see, is Edwards’ exhortation to the family to “submit cheerfully to the will of God.”

This echoes Job’s response to his immense sufferings (Job 1:20) and also recalls what the Scriptures teach that God works all things for the good of those who love Christ.

This robust view of God’s sovereignty has an evangelistic edge in that the world will always notice and be drawn to those believers who maintain a constant hope and keep rejoicing in the Lord always.

When they ask about such hope, we can then point them to the Saviour who alerted us to the fact that in this world there will be trouble (John 16:33) but who promises that at the end we will be with Him forever in the trouble-free new world. This can be a good moment to call unbelievers to repent and believe and so know that sure hope of everlasting life.

Lesson 2: Our connection to the past, inspiring faithful service to Christ today

When a serious plague in the 1660’s in England that killed hundreds of thousands was at its height, many of the wealthy (including the king) fled the cities where the disease was most rampant.[2] Contrast this with the Puritan ministers of the time who chose to stay behind to care for the sick and dying.[3]

This reminds us of Jesus who challenged His disciples that whoever wants to save His life will lose it and those who lose their lives for Christ will save them (Matthew 16:25).

This is not a call to work righteousness but rather an invitation by Christ to take up our cross daily and follow Him. We are to give ourselves over to service not to earn our salvation but as a mark of our faith in Christ. Martin Luther put it rather provocatively: ‘God does not need your good deeds, but your neighbour does.’[4]

Our deeds have no place in bringing about the transition from condemnation to justification. He justifies us apart from our works when we trust in Christ alone. But once saved, we are called to serve. Since we are no longer focused on doing good works to try and earn justification or quench God’s wrath, we are now set free to serve our neighbours with the love of Christ.

Recall that Christ summarized the life of faith as life marked by 2 loves – the love of God (with all our being) and the love of our neighbours (as we love ourselves). As someone has put it ‘the Christian ethic in a time of plague considers that our own life must always be regarded as less important than that of our neighbour.’[5] Such love is seen in contending and not despairing in the difficult circumstances that God ordains to pass.

Like with the previous point, this too has an evangelistic edge. When nonbelievers see the love that we have for the world, when pagans encounter a deep compassion expressed in serving others with no obvious benefit to ourselves, hearts will be drawn to Christ. This in fact is one of the main ways that Christianity grew during the first few centuries after Christ.

When for example plagues afflicted the Roman empire, Christians made a name for themselves by staying (rather than fleeing) and by serving the needy (by for example caring for the sick and looking after orphans) rather than abandoning those afflicted. It is not a surprise therefore to read of pagan rulers who were deeply opposed to the Christian faith openly acknowledging the compassion shown by the disciples. Emperor Julian bitterly complained that

“…the Galileans [meaning Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”[6]

This was an acknowledgement by someone hostile to Christianity that believers loved others in a sacrificial way. Perhaps this is why Julian is reputed to have admitted defeat to Jesus as he lay dying.[7]

And rather than fear death which could result from caring for the sick, church leaders then, often reminded Christians of the glorious hope of eternity. In other words, this life was not deemed to be the ultimate. Death – though a horrible thing – is not the believer’s final destiny but merely a doorway to the perfect new world where we will enjoy God and glorify Him forever. An early church Bishop known as Cyprian claimed that it was only non-Christians who had anything to fear from the plague. He said that although:

The just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both evil and good. The just are called to refreshment [in heaven], the unjust are carried off to torture [in hell].[8]

If indeed our final destiny is eternal torment, then plagues and death are rightly to be feared. However, for the believer we know that our lot is joy and pleasure in the new creation.

This echoes what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:

For I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present  nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything in all creation [Coronavirus included], will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:18, 38-39)

Practically, this means that when loved ones (who are in Christ) die we do not grieve as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We will see them again one day and be with them forever in eternity. With this in mind, we are thus called to redouble our efforts to care for those living aware that such sacrificial service might even yield death. Knowing Christ and trusting in Him makes life truly meaningful no matter the depth of suffering endured.

Another bishop from the early Church, Dionysius, described Christians like this “Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ.”[9]

Such selfless care results from the promise of God to bring us to His eternal kingdom.

Applying this to today, churches should endeavour and seek to be known for their service and sacrifice to their neighbours. This has been the way of the Church from its earliest days. Practically, this would mean churches working hard to meet the hunger needs of the desperate (in their neighbourhoods!) and even paying for rent or providing accommodation. It is rather unfortunate that many a time, we wait for the government/ politicians or for prominent NGO’s to offer handouts and basic necessities to those in need. The first to offer care and compassion when pestilences strike should be the church led by her pastors, elders and deacons.

Ultimately the lessons from the past teach us that Christians and the Church should respond to times like we’re in with the coronavirus by staying and by serving. This is to embody the way of the gospel and to imitate Christ who rather than flee, stuck on the path to the cross. And who came into our world not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. May the Church in our day rise up to this sacrificial but noble task aware that our labour in the LORD is never in vain. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Cited by George Marsden in Jonathan Edwards: A Life, p494

[2] See this article for more https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/education/plague.pdf

[3] For more see various articles at http://www.joelbeeke.org/2020/03/puritan-related-material-on-plagues-and-pestilences/

[4] Cited from https://medium.com/tabletalk/god-doesnt-need-your-good-works-d6b18c01e579

[5] Lyman Stone, [n.p.] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/christianity-epidemics-2000-years-should-i-still-go-to-church-coronavirus/

[6] Quoted by John Piper [n.p] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/342592-the-roman-emperor-julian-writing-in-the-fourth-century-regretted

[7] As Emperor Julian bled dying (from a spear wound), it is said he groaned these words: Thou hast conquered, O Galilean” – referring to Jesus Christ.

[8] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 81

[9] St Dionysius on the Epidemic of Alexandria [n.p] cited from https://www.jordanville.org/news_200328_4 


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Article by Rev. Kip Chelashaw. Kip is married to Rachel and they have 4 children (Elijah, 7; Ezra, 6; Susanna, 4 and Bethany, 2). They recently moved from the UK to Nairobi with the desire to establish a church plant in the Loresho area. Kip says he is a Baptist by birth, Anglican by temperament, Biblical by conviction and saved by grace.

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