Hello, everyone. This is Tony Reinke with Pastor John Piper in studio for a special episode of Ask Pastor John. As I’m sure you’re aware, the coronavirus continues to grab headlines as it spreads across the globe, now in 53 different countries. Infection numbers globally are over 83,000. Fatalities are nearing 3,000. It’s a multi-national epidemic moving toward a global pandemic.
Wednesday morning, the president tasked the vice president with stopping the virus here in the States. Some are hopeful this can be done. Others claim this is futile. It won’t be stopped, and will continue to spread for months. Some experts are going so far as to say a majority of Americans will be exposed to the virus before this is all said and done. There’s a lot of speculation afoot. Less theoretically, world markets are tumbling. The Dow Jones continues to nosedive this week as international work stoppages interrupt imports, exports, and global trade.
In situations like this, it’s very easy to lose faith and to live in fear of the headlines and the unknowns. And this global uncertainty has now reached into the States. But several days ago we began hearing from podcast listeners around Southeast Asia who offered updates on the situation there. That includes a man in Singapore who wrote us this.
“Dear Pastor John, hello! I’d like to ask you about the unfolding coronavirus outbreak that started in China and has gone on to infect many more around the world. When it reached Singapore, the government and citizens responded well, and our collective efforts won international praise. But church responses are mixed. Several continued with Sunday services, with added precautions. Some suspended church services altogether. Some pastors are promising: ‘If you are a believer, God will not allow the virus to touch you!’ Other pastors are saying: ‘This is God’s judgment on sinful cities and arrogant nations.’ Pastor John, how do Christians, with open Bibles, make sense of a viral epidemic like this one?”
Well, I’m going to try to answer the question that was asked — “How do you make sense of this? How do you get understanding?” — with an open Bible in front of me. But before I do, let me just say I have misgivings, because I make a distinction between helping people get ready to suffer by making sense of biblical teaching about suffering — that’s one thing. And then another thing is physically, emotionally embodying that theology in the moment when somebody is suffering. And we’ve got thousands of people now who are dying, which means hundreds of thousands of people who are grieving. And what I’m about to say might not be well-timed in some of their lives, because if I were on the ground, in a church, I would be discerning whether there’s a time to speak here or not.
None Stronger Than Jesus
With that preface, let me try to own what I’ve been asked to do: make sense of a deadly virus. Let’s start with an empirical, historical fact, and a clear Bible fact. The empirical fact is that on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, December 26, 2004, over 200,000 people were killed by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, including whole churches gathered for worship on the Lord’s Day, swept away in death. That’s the historical fact. That sort of thing has happened to Christians, as long as there have been Christians. Now, the biblical fact is Mark 4:41: “Even the wind and the sea obey [Jesus].” That is as true today as it was then. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
So, put those two facts together — the historical fact and the biblical fact — and you get this truth: Jesus could have stopped the natural disaster, and he did not in 2004. Since he always does what is wise and right and just and good, therefore, he had wise and good purposes in that deadly disaster.
I would say the same thing, therefore, about the coronavirus. Jesus has all knowledge and all authority over the natural and supernatural forces of this world. He knows exactly where the virus started, and where it’s going next. He has complete power to restrain it or not. And that’s what’s happening. Neither sin, nor Satan, nor sickness, nor sabotage is stronger than Jesus. He’s never backed into a corner; he is never forced to tolerate what he does not will. “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11).
“I know that you can do all things,” Job says in his own repentance, “and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). So the question is not whether Jesus is overseeing, limiting, guiding, governing all the disasters and all the diseases of the world, including all their sinful and satanic dimensions. He is. The question is, with our Bibles open, how are we to understand this? Can we make sense out of it?
Here are four biblical realities that we can use as building blocks in our effort to understand and make sense of it.
1. Subjected to Futility
When sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, God ordained that the created order, including our physical bodies, as persons created in his image, would experience corruption and futility, and that all living things would die.
Christians, by being saved through the gospel of God’s grace, do not escape this physical corruption, futility, and death. The basis of this point is Romans 8:20–23:
The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him [God] who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. [And here’s the key verse for Christians.] And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, grown inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
The day is coming when all creation will be set free from its bondage to disease and disaster and death, and inherit the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Until then, Christians — Paul says, “even we who have the Spirit” — groan with all creation, sharing in the corruption and futility and disease and disasters and death, as we wait with groaning for the redemption of our bodies (that happens at the resurrection).
The difference for Christians, who trust Christ, is that our experience of this corruption is not condemnation. Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation.” The pain for us is purifying, not punitive. “God has not destined us for wrath” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). We die of disease like all men, not necessarily because of any particular sin — that’s really important. We die of disease like all people because of the fall. But for those who are in Christ, the sting of death is removed (1 Corinthians 15:55). That’s building block number one for understanding what’s going on.
2. Sickness as Mercy
God sometimes inflicts sickness on his people as a purifying and rescuing judgment, which is not a condemnation, but an act of mercy for his saving purposes. And that point is based on 1 Corinthians 11:29–32. That text deals with misusing the Lord’s Supper, but the principle is broader. Here it is:
Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself [this is referring to Christians at the Lord’s Table]. That is why many of you [you Christians] are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord [with this illness and weakness and death], we are disciplined [disciplined like a child] so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Now, let that sink in. The Lord Jesus takes the life of his loved ones through weakness and illness — the very same words, by the way, used to describe the weaknesses and illnesses that Jesus heals in his earthly life (Matthew 4:23; 8:17; 14:14) — and brings them to heaven. He brings them to heaven because of the trajectory of their sin that he was cutting off and saving them from. Not to punish them, but to save them.
In other words, some of us die of illnesses “so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (verse 32). If he can do that in a few of his loved ones in Corinth, he can do it to many, including by the coronavirus. And not just because of abusing the Lord’s Supper, but also for other kinds of sinful trajectories — though not all death is for a particular sin. That’s building block number two.
3. Sickness as Judgment
God sometimes uses disease to bring particular judgments upon those who reject him and give themselves over to sin. I’ll give two examples. In Acts 12, Herod the king exalted himself in being called a god. “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23). God can do that with all who exalt themselves. Which means we should be amazed that more of our rulers do not drop dead every day because of their arrogance before God and man. Sheer common grace and mercy.
Another example is the sin of homosexual intercourse. In Romans 1:27, it says, “The men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Now, that’s an example of the wrath of God in Romans 1:18, where it says, “The wrath of God is [being now] revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” That’s building block number three, that God can and does use illnesses to bring judgment sometimes upon those who reject him and his way.
4. God’s Thunderclap
All natural disasters — whether floods, famines, locusts, tsunamis, or diseases — are a thunderclap of divine mercy in the midst of judgment, calling all people everywhere to repent and realign their lives, by grace, with the infinite worth of the glory of God. And the basis for that building block is Luke 13:1–5. Pilate had slaughtered worshipers in the temple. And the tower in Siloam had collapsed and killed eighteen bystanders. And the crowds want to know from Jesus, just like I’ve been asked, “Okay, make sense of this, Jesus. Tell us what you think about these natural disasters and this cruelty. These people were just standing there, and now they’re dead.”
Here’s Jesus’s answer in Luke 13:4–5: “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent [he shifts from them to you], you will all likewise perish.”
Now, that’s the message of Jesus to the world at this moment in history, under the coronavirus — a message to every single human being. Me, and you, Tony, and everybody who’s listening, and every ruler on the planet, every person who hears about this, is receiving a thunderclap message of God, saying, “Repent.” (And I think the Chinese authorities should especially pay attention, who have recently — and I just read another article yesterday — become so increasingly harsh and repressive against the followers of Christ.) Repent and seek God’s mercy to bring your lives — our lives — into alignment with his infinite worth.