Over the last number of weeks, the Coronavirus has become a global pandemic. Having started in China a few months back, it has spread around the world with alarming speed and results. This week, things have started to reach a fever pitch. Already we have all been impacted to varying degrees, whether through travel plans being put on hold, having our investments shrink, our work-life disrupted, our financial security shaken or simply being unable to find a roll of toilet paper. Without exception, everyone is being forced to pause and consider the transience of our lives and all the things we thought were so secure. This is a unique moment in our generation where the world is united in our common fears and frailties.
While this does seem like a unique event for our recent times, realistically plagues and pandemics are nothing new.
The Great Plague
For completely unrelated reasons, I was recently reading about the Great Plague of London in 1665 to 1666. This was a bubonic plague was spread largely by flea infested rats. The city at the time was home to about 400 000 people, mostly living in rather squalid and unhygienic conditions which undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the disease. It is estimated that during this plague about 100 000 people died. That’s about a quarter of the population of the city. In the whole country of England the total deaths were around 200 000 people.
Many of those who had means were very quick to leave the city. The King at the time (King Charles II) left for Salisbury. Many church of England clergy also closed their church doors and headed for the country which interestingly created an opportunity for many previously ejected Puritan Pastors to come and ‘tend their flocks’.
The ruling authorities took many preventative measure – for example insisting on ships being quarantined for 30 days, and having returning travellers quarantined in their homes – often with guards posted outside to enforce their isolation.
As the number of victims affected mounted up, burial grounds became overfull, and pits had to be dug in order to accommodate the dead. Drivers of dead-carts travelled the streets calling “Bring out your dead” and carted away piles of bodies.
It was a devastating plague that remains the most recent plague of that nature and magnitude in London. Towards the end of 1666, the plague had begun to die down when the great fire of London broke out. Large parts of the city were completely destroyed. While this may or may not have had anything to do with ending the plague, it did ultimately allow the city to be rebuilt in a way that was more hygienic and resilient against potential future plagues.
The Plague of Plagues
A short time after these devastating events in London – while the consequences were still fresh in people’s minds and while, no doubt, people were still mourning their lost loved ones, a Puritan Pastor by the name of Ralph Venning wrote a book entitled “Sin, The Plague of Plagues”. It has been reprinted many times and was at some stage renamed “The Sinfulness of Sin”.
In his book, Venning expounds how sin is the plague of all plagues. He shows how sin is exceedingly sinful and contrary to both God and man. It sows death and enmity with God, and it sows death into our own lives and into our world. Sin is exceedingly harmful and destructive.
“When sin has used man to break the law, it uses the law to break man, to undo him by condemnation and death… Sin is therefore exceedingly sinful and wicked. It is most immeasurably spiteful, poisonous and pernicious, because it kills men. And not only so, but it kills them by that which is good, and was appointed to man for life; it turns food into poison.”
Man’s suffering follows at the heel of sin, indeed, as he suffers by sinning, so in sinning; suffering and sinning involve each other. No sooner did sin enter into the world, but death, which is a privation of good, entered by it, with it, and in it, for sin is the sting of death
In the language of plagues or pandemics, we often talk of “patient zero”. Scientists and Healthcare workers work quickly to trace back the infection to try to find where it originated in the hope that this may give them clues to understand how best to treat the virus or disease.
When it comes to sin, we know who patient zero is. Paul teaches in his letter to the Romans that patient zero is Adam. He writes,
“sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”
This is no surprise really since both Adam and Eve were clearly informed not to eat of that one tree, or else they “would surely die.” (Genesis 2:17). Rebellion against the most Holy God leads to death. Sin, this plague of all plagues, is 100% fatal and it is 100% contagious – it has spread to all people, because all of us have sinned.
Through the Old Testament, God provided a treatment for sin through obedience to the moral and ceremonial law. But this was a treatment for the disease and not a cure. God said to his people,
“See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you…”
God gave us the choice of using the treatment and having life or denying the treatment and sowing death and destruction.
The tragic history of Israel is an often disappointing story of how repeatedly people chose death and destruction over life and prosperity. While there were moments of exaltation, the repeated refrain through the Old Testament is that people failed to love the LORD their God and chose instead to do whatever seemed right in their own eyes.
Our times are little different. When you think of all the problems we face in the world today, there are very few challenges which cannot be linked back to the sinfulness of humanity – our wilful rebellion against the moral law of God either by active disobedience in doing the things that are explicitly prohibited, or by failing to do the things that we are commanded to do. Our world is plagued by all people failing to love God, and failing to love their neighbour. Instead we love ourselves above all else, and exploit people and processes and even nature itself for our own self-interest. As a consequence, not only do we stand condemned before God, but we sow death and destruction into the very fabric of our world. There is not a person who is not affected by the greed and selfishness of others.
“…each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
In the middle of the tragic drama of the Old Testament, with God’s people being seemingly unable to keep the law and enter the life God promised, there is a glimmer of hope. The prophets, speaking on behalf of God, promised a day when God would break into history.
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness.” Ezekiel 36: 25-29
God promised that one day he would do something which would finally provide a cure to the disease. Not just a treatment but a complete, renewing cure. A cure that would enable us to fully and finally escape the curse of sin.
Reflecting on the fulfilment of these promises in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul writes,
“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”
Jesus fulfilled the law completely. He lived a perfect and holy life in complete obedience to his Father. Paul argues that his obedience in dying on the cross and taking the curse of sin on our behalf has made a way whereby we can be made righteous. Through faith in Christ, God sets us free from the curse of sin (which is death and destruction) so that we no longer face any condemnation from God. Because of this, God is able to put his Spirit in us. In his first sermon, Peter said.
God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
Jesus won us the privilege of receiving the Holy Spirit. By his atoning death on our behalf he offers us complete justification through faith – allowing us to become holy vessels which the Holy Spirit can reside in. The Holy Spirit in us is like a cure against the disease of sin – because He moves us to obey God.
Instead of being slaves to sin, we are enabled to be slaves of God – meaning that we obey him as our new Master. Paul says that the benefit of this obedience leads to holiness which in turn results in eternal life. The benefit is the exact opposite of the curse of sin. Instead of death and destruction, God gives us a cure which leads obedience, which leads to holiness which ultimately leads to eternal life in Christ!
Called to Life
In the context of the growing panic around the Coronavirus, it is good to reflect on the fact that, as terrible as this virus is, it pales in comparison to the Plague of Plagues.
We live in a world devastated by sin and its consequences. My sin. Your sin. Corporate sin. The cumulative sin of every man woman and child. Death and destruction is multiplying everywhere as a result. The disease of sin is rampant. The consequences are dire. We all suffer because of it.
But, there is a cure!
The beauty of the Gospel is that it is the complete and only cure to the plague of all plagues. To accept the cure requires repentance and faith. In turning from our sin and turning to God we are justified by God through Christ. He puts a new heart in us and makes us a new creation. He pours His Spirit in us, and forever moves us to keep his commands. This leads us towards a life of holiness which is for the glory of God and for our ultimate good and in turn for the good of the whole world.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light…
“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
1 Peter 2:9ff
Imagine a world where a growing multitude of redeemed people are all living lives of faithful and empowered obedience to God’s moral law. Imagine it as a the inverse of the plague of plagues. Instead of spreading death and destruction through rampant selfish desire leading to rampant and hurtful sin, this people of God is called to spread good deeds of kindness and love for God and others.
During these uncertain and troubling times, turn to Jesus! Lay hold of the cure that God offers us in him! And join God’s holy people in spreading and offering this incredible cure against the plague of plagues.