In 1666 the English Puritan Thomas Brooks wrote, “The soul being so precious, and salvation so glorious, it is the highest point of prudence to make preparations for another world.” 1Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Banner of Truth: 2009, 1666), 7. In our pandemic age, as in every age, it is essential to ask, are we preparing?
As I write, it has been about a month since the coronavirus began to radically alter life as we know it in the United States. Our mortality is constantly before us as the headlines each day consist of “death tallies” from around the world. With terms like “social distancing,” “mitigation,” and “quarantine” the year 2020 will be remembered as a time when the world waged war against an invisible enemy.
The church has responded to the pandemic with an embrace of technology like never before. Small and large churches alike are moving services to an online format with pastors engaging in virtual shepherding. Even as we are grateful for technology and the way it allows us to “gather,” we know it is not the way it’s supposed to be. Human beings were created to be together—to live in community not mediated through Zoom, Facebook Live, or YouTube. Life together is God’s purpose for his people. It’s been interesting to watch various industries successfully transition to business during a pandemic. 2See, for example, “Coronavirus Sparks Hiring Spree for Nearly 500,000 Jobs at Biggest Retailers,” The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2020. Not so the church. More than any other organism in the world, the church struggles to translate itself into an age of isolation.
PUTTING AWAY CHILDISH WAYS
But there are potential benefits that can come to the church through this present trial. For example, this pandemic has the potential to bring needed seriousness over the church in the present so that we are more eager to prepare for the future world to come. The global suffering that is going on is, hopefully, making nonsensical (and even offensive) the ministry paradigms that see Christianity as all fun and games—churches that have baptized worldliness in the name of religion. David Wells diagnosed American evangelicalism accurately in 1994 with a diagnosis that still holds today:
The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common. 3David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 30.
The slapstick comedy, vaudeville acts, and Disney-like productions that mark so much of evangelicalism may not find such a welcome audience on the other side of COVID-19. There is nothing chipper about death. And death in our day is ubiquitous. The time is long overdue for evangelicals to put away “childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). There is the potential for this pandemic to have a maturing effect on evangelicalism such that God no longer rests inconsequentially upon the church.
COVID-19 AND THE APOCALYPSE
There was a recent article in The New York Times with the headline, “13 Deaths in a Day: An ‘Apocalyptic’ Coronavirus Surge at a N.Y.C. Hospital.” My first thought upon reading the headline was that the authors clearly haven’t read the Bible because 13 deaths in a day (as tragic as that is) is nothing compared to a third of mankind being destroyed (Revelation 9:18). But I also felt pity for people who do not have a biblical understanding of what will truly be apocalyptic. Consider these words by Jesus as he described the end times: “For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days” (Mark 13:19-20).
Jesus warns of a “tribulation” before his second coming that is so great, so terrible that if not for the merciful shortening of its duration by God, all humanity would perish. Jesus continued to raise the level of concern as he made his way to be crucified:
And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26-31)
How horrible must things be for people to cry out for the mountains to fall on them and the hills to cover them? Apocalyptic.
With this end in view and the great judgment that will accompany the return of the King, the Apostle James exhorts the church to live accordingly: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:8-9).
COVID-19 is a foretaste of a far more severe future judgment. Knowing this, the church cannot be content to trifle with God and neglect making every effort to live a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Jesus wasn’t kidding when he cautioned, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
SERIOUS MINISTRY FOR SERIOUS TIMES
The world is a serious place. Since the fall of mankind into sin, moral and natural evil marks every generation in ways too numerous to count. The suffering of the human race as a result of sin is at times unbearable to consider. Therefore, we need leaders who minister accordingly. One such leader was D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. In his classic work on preaching he described why preachers of all men should be the most serious:
The preacher must be a serious man; he must never give the impression that preaching is something light or superficial or trivial . . . . What is happening is that he is speaking to them from God, he is speaking to them about God, he is speaking about their condition, the state of their souls. He is telling them that they are, by nature, under the wrath of God — ‘the children of wrath even as others’ — that the character of the life they are living is offensive to God and under the judgment of God, and warning them of the dread eternal possibility that lies ahead of them. In any case, the preacher, of all men, should realize the fleeting nature of life in this world. The men of the world are so immersed in its business and affairs, its pleasures and all its vain show, that the one thing they never stop to consider is the fleeting character of life. All this means that the preacher should always create and convey the impression of the seriousness of what is happening the moment he even appears in the pulpit. 4Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan: 1972), 85-86.
What should be true of preachers should be true of Christians generally. We know too much.
Our pandemic age has taken many things from us. Mitigation strategies including social distancing, self-quarantines, lockdowns, and the closing of non-essential businesses/activities have made much of life feel “on hold.” But what can’t be put on hold is preparing for the world to come. Especially in our day, let us make every effort to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). After all, Thomas Brooks was right: “The soul being so precious, and salvation so glorious, it is the highest point of prudence to make preparations for another world.”
References [ + ]
|1.||￪||Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Banner of Truth: 2009, 1666), 7.|
|2.||￪||See, for example, “Coronavirus Sparks Hiring Spree for Nearly 500,000 Jobs at Biggest Retailers,” The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2020.|
|3.||￪||David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 30.|
|4.||￪||Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan: 1972), 85-86.|