While many are rightly concerned about the spread of the Coronavirus, it is important to highlight three historical events in the church where God turned the tragedy of the spread of plagues to His glory.
First, a plague between 165 AD and 180 AD resulted in a dramatic population decline. Over the course of more than a decade, the Empire’s population was reduced by 25 million people. In the exact same time period, the church grew by nearly half a million.
We do not know exactly why the church grew during this plague. No doubt, these brothers and sisters stood in the gap to care for the sick.
We learn of another plague that impacted the Roman Empire in the third century. Eusebius, the fourth century church historian, recorded how Christ’s followers acted during the spread of illness in 263 AD. Quoting from a letter written by Dionysius of Alexandria, he wrote,
The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death. And the popular saying which always seems a mere expression of courtesy, they then made real in action, taking their departure as the others’ ‘offscouring.’
God works in these tragic situations to cause all things to result in good according to His purposes (Rom 8:28). Even 13 centuries later, during the Bubonic plague in Europe, He was at work. In the midst of that crisis, He used Martin Luther, whose wife was pregnant, to encourage the church:
You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.”
Brothers and sisters, we have nothing to fear. God is still sovereign and He still assures us of a future when there will be no more disease (Rev 21:4, 22:3). God will no doubt work things for good in this present age of the Coronavirus. So, there is still a future and hope for us today as we wait for the future and hope that He has promised.
We are getting closer to those streets of gold as the church continues on her mission. That mission has not changed (Acts 1:8). Today, as near as we can tell, two-thirds of the global population does not know Christ and 2.1 billion people are completely outside the reach of the gospel, a number that is increasing daily as the population continues to swell, for now. Nearly 6 million people representing 269 distinct ethnic groups living in their homelands have never been contacted by a missionary. With the hysteria over the Coronavirus, it seems increasingly less like that they will be reached unless the church stays on her mission.
These people have stories of searching for a God they do not know. The Holy Spirit is at work among them, yet they do not see Him. Now, in this time of crisis, the church must continue to fulfill her responsibility to make God’s story known.
In spite of the Coronavirus, God is still at work in the world. He will accomplish His mission as John prophesied in Rev 5:9. The question for us is, will we demonstrate our love for Christ by joining God in His mission to see every tribe, nation, language, and people worship him? Are we willing to risk our own comfort like the early Christians so that others may hear the good news? God has not changed, neither has His mission changed. Let’s stay on that mission.