Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purifying.—John 3.25.

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Pestilence, the World, and the Church:

Some Recollections of Christ’s Bride Concerning the Past,

For a New Time of Distress.

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TrueCovenanter.com Editor’s Introduction.

We are now some weeks into the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak in North America.  A deceitful and agenda-driven media has left the people of the United States in the greatly disadvantaged circumstances of being unable to determine whether statistics about cases of infection, and increasing death counts even mean anything at all.  News Media of this sort is worthless even when well intended.  As the proverb is, A liar will not be believed even when he speaks the truth.  Even those who firmly believe in “Apocalyptic judgments” and are fully persuaded that their country is ripe for destruction, remain doubtful about the significance of this illness.  As the weeks pass, it will become increasingly evident how significant the present epidemic is, how safe Americans are, and whether the noise and excitement around us relates to the Lord’s displeasure with nations who have been making war against his Son.  Below are collected together a few resources that may serve to help us assess the concerns we hear around us, and tune our hearts to a frame that will make us useful in our response.  They include quotations of Christian leaders from the past, representing the Christian Church in her witness to this world, while suffering from pestilence and plague.

Jeremy T. Kerr

South Carolina

2020.03.25

Pestilence.  Is it still real?  Is it real like it used to be?

These questions call for one simple answer: Yes.  But as the topic of Pestilence can never be a mere abstraction, this answer calls for explanation and observation of various sorts.

  1. Perspective: What we can Learn from History.
  2. Reason: Why the Lord sends Pestilence.
  3. Response: How Christians should respond as the Light of the World.
  4. Warning to a Community of Nations: You are not God.
  5. Comfort to Believers: The Lord does have his Eyes on you in Particular.

Perspective: What we can Learn from History.

History shows that the Lord has sent great plagues on the world at different times, much worse than what men presently anticipate; and these have affected cities, nations, and the entire world, bringing affliction and death to both unbelievers and the Lord’s children too.

To illustrate this, the reader may consider the following from the Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius, completed about the end of the 500s.  The excerpt here is book 4, chapter 29, which is entitled, “Pestilence,” and relates to the years A.D. 542 to 594.

I will also describe the circumstances of the pestilence which commenced at that period, and has now prevailed and extended over the whole world for fifty-two years; a circumstance such as has never before been recorded.  Two years after the capture of Antioch by the Persians, a pestilence broke out, in some respects similar to that described by Thucydides, in others widely different.  It took its rise from Ethiopia, as is now reported, and made a circuit of the whole world in succession, leaving, as I suppose, no part of the human race unvisited by the disease.  Some cities were so severely afflicted as to be altogether depopulated, though in other places the visitation was less violent.  It neither commenced according to any fixed period, nor was the time of its cessation uniform; but it seized upon some places at the commencement of winter, others in the course of the spring, others during the summer, and in some cases, when the autumn was advanced.  In some instances, having infected a part of a city, it left the remainder untouched; and frequently in an uninfected city one might remark a few households excessively wasted; and in several places, while one or two households utterly perished, the rest of the city remained unvisited: but, as we have learned {224} from careful observation, the uninfected households alone suffered the succeeding year.  But the most singular circumstance of all was this; that if it happened that any inhabitants of an infected city were living in a place which the calamity had not visited, these alone were seized with the disorder.  This visitation also befell cities and other places in many instances according to the periods called Indictions; and the disease occurred, with the almost utter destruction of human beings, in the second year of each indiction.  Thus it happened in my own case—for I deem it fitting, in due adaptation of circumstances, to insert also in this history matters relating to myself—that at the commencement of this calamity I was seized with what are termed buboes, while still a school-boy, and lost by its recurrence at different times several of my children, my wife, and many of my kin, as well as of my domestic and country servants; the several indictions making, as it were, a distribution of my misfortunes.  Thus, not quite two years before my writing this, being now in the fifty-eighth year of my age, on its fourth visit to Antioch, at the expiration of the fourth indiction from its commencement, I lost a daughter and her son, besides those who had died previously.  The plague was a complication of diseases: for, in some cases, commencing in the head, and rendering the eyes bloody and the face swollen, it descended into the throat, and then destroyed the patient.  In others, {225} there was a flux of the bowels: in others buboes were formed, followed by violent fever; and the sufferers died at the end of two or three days, equally in possession, with the healthy, of their mental and bodily powers.  Others died in a state of delirium, and some by the breaking out of carbuncles.  Cases occurred where persons, who had been attacked once and twice and had recovered, died by a subsequent seizure.

The ways in which the disease was communicated, were various and unaccountable: for some perished by merely living with the infected, others by only touching them, others by having entered their chamber, others by frequenting public places.  Some, having fled from the infected cities, escaped themselves, but imparted the disease to the healthy.  Some were altogether free from contagion, though they had associated with many who were afflicted, and had touched many not only in their sickness but also when dead.  Some, too, who were desirous of death, on account of the utter loss of their children and friends, and with this view placed themselves as much as possible in contact with the diseased, were nevertheless not infected; as if the pestilence struggled against their purpose.  This calamity has prevailed, as I have already said, to the present time, for two and fifty years, exceeding all that have preceded it.  For Philostratus expresses wonder that the pestilence which happened in his time, lasted for fifteen years.  The sequel is uncertain, since {226} its course will be guided by the good pleasure of God, who knows both the causes of things, and their tendencies.  I shall now return to the point from which I digressed, and relate the remainder of Justinian’s history.

Reason: Why the Lord sends Pestilence.

As indicated above by Evagrius, the Lord sends Pestilence into the world for causes known to him, and with tendencies and effects designed and purposed by himself.  He is a Holy, Wise, and Powerful God.  He is Just, and he is also Merciful.  When he sent his plagues on Egypt in the time of Moses, it was both to make his power and his justice known, and also to bring his people forth from the merciless captivity which obstructed the Lord’s gracious plan for his people.  Sometimes the Lord punishes nations for their wickedness.  Sometimes he sends his prophets like Jonah, with threatenings, because he would have them repent.  Often he chastises his own people for their sins, because he is a loving father.  Some passages worthy to be considered are Jonah 3, Hebrews 12.3-17, and Jeremiah 18.1-12. (If you are not familiar with these passages, you are encouraged to look them up before continuing.)  For the present, considering the subject of disease and pestilence, we should recall a lesson from our predecessors in the faith.  The pastors of the Protestant Reformation lived in a time when the Lord was visiting the greatest civilizations of the world with just judgements for their multiform idolatries, and also displaying wonderful mercy in bringing the word of his Gospel to light after a time of great darkness.  The Gospel proclaimed by these men was one of grace indeed, but without turning the God of grace into a God of indulgence.  In his preaching, John Calvin often spoke of the Lord’s chastening of his own people for their sins, and spared no words in rebuking the sins of the world also, so that they should never seem light or harmless to the Lord’s people.  As he was preaching through his regular Scripture-expositions in March of 1556, he explained Deuteronomy 28.59-61:

Then will the Lord make thy plagues marvellous, and the plagues of thy seed, great plagues and sure: evil and sure diseases. And he shall turn upon thee all the plagues of Egypt, the presence whereof thou didst fear, and they shall cleave unto thee. Also all the diseases and all the plagues which be not written in the book of this Law, the Lord will cause to come upon thee, until thou be destroyed.

His observations are extensive, but the following will suffice to teach us what Protestant Christians were still learning from their Bibles in the days when God’s word was held in respect for its doctrines, and for what it teaches us about real life.

If we had eyes, or rather would open them, we might well see that God doth daily send new kinds of his wrath: and that is to the end which I have touched heretofore, namely to make his plagues wonderful, that men may be enforced to think upon them because they see that God worketh not after the ordinary course of nature: but after a sort that hath not been erst known.  When every one of us hath well studied all the lessons that be declared unto us in the holy Scripture; and made our commodity of the examples & punishments that be there mentioned; let us conclude that God hath yet a great many more means than be expressed, which men never thought upon.  And that thing he hath made manifest ever since that the law was written: and he doth not yet cease to do the same still, that all manner of excuse may be taken from us.  If a man look upon the diseases that be at this day in the world, he shall see that there be many which were not expressed in the law of Moses, or in the days of our fathers.  How hath whoredom been punished by diseases that be come up of late?  Who knew the pocks a hundred years ago? That is one horrible plague which God hath sent upon the world.  And it is as much as if he had stretched his arm out of heaven, and said, No, they know me no more to be their Judge, they harden their hearts against all the plagues that men did know & receive aforetime, they make but a fig at it; but now I will make them to understand, that in my Coffers, and in my Storehouses there are yet other rods that be incomprehensible to them.  God sheweth this: and we perceive that we cannot take a better course to profit by this doctrine, than to fear the rods and punishments, which be not written in the book of the law: otherwise, it is meet that we understand that GOD is still our Judge, howsoever the world go.

Most readers will very easily think of the diseases which have prevailed within their own lifetime, or appeared for the first time in only the past few decades, having a nature particularly aimed at the offense mentioned above by Mr. Calvin.  But as our Lord Jesus warned his disciples and the people of Capernaum, there are sins and sinful dispositions more subject to God’s wrath than those. Matthew 10.13-15, Matthew 11.20-24.

Response: How Christians should respond as the Light of the World.

It is the custom of Christians and most religious people to approve our Lord Jesus’ threatenings in the above-cited texts of Holy Scripture.  They are understood to flow both from a perfect respect for the honor and justice of God, and also from a wonderful compassion for sinners, that takes no delight even in their just destruction. (Ezekiel 18.32.)  When the Lord sends his plagues, it is the part of his people to bear them in the measure in which he puts this yoke upon them; and also to bring a combined message of warning and of mercy to those around them.  The plague from the 500s mentioned by Evagrius, hints at this perspective, but it omits one key element of the duty and excellence of the followers of the suffering Savior, which is more clearly observed in the history of an earlier pestilence.

More famous than Evagrius, and perhaps more famous than Calvin, was the ancient writer Eusebius Pamphili, (also known as Eusebius of Cæsarea, and not to be confused with several others of his time bearing the same given name.)  In book 4 and in book 9 of his History, he describes two plagues of earlier times.  The second is described briefly, and occurred about the year A.D. 312.  The first however, began around the year A.D. 250, and gets a more lengthy treatment, including narrative from letters written by Dionysius, Pastor of the church of Alexandria at the time of the Pestilence.

It is important to recall that this was during the time when the Lord’s people were, at intervals, enduring the 10 Roman persecutions which did not cease until the reign of Constantine in the next century.  Pagans and Atheists hated Christianity then, as many hate it now; and as our Lord warned in Matthew 10 and Matthew 24, times came when this hatred was manifested in judicial accusations and murderous executions.  But, no wonder, seeing the Gospel brings a spiritual assault against the false religions and philosophies of men wherever it comes in earnest.  And the Christians of this time period were remarkable for their readiness to suffer for the name of Jesus Christ.  Numbers of names are recorded of those who, longing to testify and suffer on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ, who had suffered to take away their sins, first endured torture themselves, and then endured death on his behalf.

It should not surprise us then, that many were also ready to endure famine and pestilence with patience, when the Lord brought his judgments on the Roman Empire for her bloody rejection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This readiness and willingness made them fit to show mercy and love to those around them in a way that did not usually find the same manifestation among the heathen.  Remarkable too, was their resolution to continue their fellowship with one another, and to keep up the public worship of God in the times of distress, notwithstanding the fearful consequences which drove others into corners.  Eusebius reports, in book 4, chapter 21, how Dionysius describes the terrible effects of the warfare of his time, and how he was persuaded it tended to promote the “continual pestilences,” “severe sicknesses,” and “deadly diseases,” then experienced.  Chapter 22 continues to describe the circumstances as they initially developed in Alexandria, Egypt, and is entitled, “The Pestilence which came upon them.”

The description of the “pestilential disease [which] followed the war” is first presented in Dionysius’ account of how the Christians continued to gather in celebration of our Lord Jesus Christ, while others could only mourn in perplexity and saw no reason to gather in celebration of anything.  And no wonder those who “have no hope” (1 Thess. 4.13,) could not do so: “Now, indeed, everything is tears and every one is mourning, and wailings resound daily through the city because of the multitude of the dead and dying.  For as it was written of the firstborn of the Egyptians, so now ‘there has arisen a great cry, for there is not a house where there is not one dead.’ [Exod. 12.30.]  And would that this were all! For many terrible things have happened already.” He then recounts how the Christians alone bore the double-weight of persecution added to the sufferings of famine and pestilence, and yet still gathered in every place: “field, desert, ship, inn, prison.”  Dionysius relates how one of the heathen writers explicitly called the Pestilence, “the only thing which prevails over all hope.” — “But to us this was not so, but no less than the other things was it an exercise and probation.  For it did not keep aloof even from us, but the heathen it assailed more severely.”  Then, describing the active mercy and compassion of the Christians, he adds:

“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.’ [Alternately translated as ‘their devoted servants.’]  “Truly the best of our brethren departed from life in this manner, including some presbyters and deacons and those of the people who had the highest reputation; so that this form of death, through the great piety and strong faith it exhibited, seemed to lack nothing of martyrdom.  And they took the bodies of the saints in their open hands and in their bosoms, and closed their eyes and their mouths; and they bore them away on their shoulders and laid them out; and they clung to them and embraced them; and they prepared them suitably with washings and garments.  And after a little they received like treatment themselves, for the survivors were continually following those who had gone before them.

“But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise.  They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends.  And they cast them out into the streets when they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied.  They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape.”

Such an account is given of this pestilence, of shorter endurance than that described by Evagrius, but clearly of great proportions, and known to have afflicted the Roman empire for 15 to 20 years.  It is this Pestilence, and the attending wars and afflictions, which is understood by a number of Christian authors, to be prophetically represented in the book of Revelation by the rider of the “Pale Horse” in chapter 6, verses 7 & 8.  Endured by both Heathens and Christians, the historic “Plague of Cyprian” is described as having been the occasion for 5,000 deaths per day in the city of Rome.  It was the last of the preparatory afflictions, represented as the “opening of the seals of the book” by which the Lord assaulted the Pagan Roman empire and hastened his answers to the prayers of those “souls under the altar” longing for the end of Roman persecution. (See Revelation 5 & 6.)

Warning to a Community of Nations: You are not God.

Above, we asked the question, is Pestilence real? and is it real like it used to be?  Whether you or I see a plague like that of the late 200s, or 500s, the answer remains affirmative for both of these.  But why do we doubt?

Many things have ceased to be real to the modern man.  For example, a Written Word of God, is not real to most men, and not even most “religious” men.  A God who judges nations and entire civilizations, for sins against his standards of right and wrong, is rather a myth than a reality to most people, including nominal Christians of the 21st century.  A Savior who came to earth as the only way to peace between fallen men and the Almighty, is essentially discredited, though lip-service is paid to him, since, given his good character, people generally think he was loving enough to want to save people, if it had depended on him.

As for pestilence and plague, these are things we know to have plagued other people: people we have been taught to look down upon as being entirely ignorant of the importance of being sanitary.  So disasters of this sort happened in “Bible-times” and in the Middle-Ages, and third-world countries still have to struggle with these things until they become more like the elite nations of the West: nations who have “democracy,” “freedom,” and “health-care,” and consequently feel like they don’t need God any more.  Certainly, they don’t need that scary powerful God of the Bible who had his own standards to impose on everyone — literally everyone, even people who had their own gods.  And the reason many now feel this way is simple: ours is a generation a little more advanced than previous generations in devising its own standards, and justifying the efforts to displace the Law of God with the law of man.  We hated when monarchs did this.  But we are past all shame when the collective democracy does it.  Simply put, the present generation thinks that it is god.  For decades and longer we have enjoyed blessings and prosperity to be thankful for, but as long as we place ourselves in the seat of the Almighty, we will not be thankful to him, but to ourselves.

So a generation of ignorance and moral barbarity has come to think about the world in which they live, in ways that are very off-the-mark.  But Pestilence and Plague are things which remain as real as ever, though we grow comfortable with their presence after a time: immune to their effects, and much more immune to their message.

What is their message?  It is simple.  Whether these things come to us large or small, we should hear the same message.  As the book of Revelation presents to New Testament Christians the fact that the Lord’s judgments will come to nations and peoples in New Testament times, it also tells us why, by way of necessary inference.  Revelation 9.20 tells us that after one series of the Lord’s plagues, the remarkable offence of man was this:

And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk: Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.

The purpose of these plagues is to call and direct men to repentance: to put away their idolatry, their superstition, their false religion, their murder, their witchcraft, their unclean relations with one another, and their gain-seeking dishonest practices of every sort.  The Lord Jesus came to this world and spoke “Repent” in the context of a few communities of the middle-east.  Today, he speaks to this entire world by his Scriptures, and his mighty providences as King of kings.  He speaks to China, to America, to Britain, etc.

What is America’s sin that brings this judgment to her, and makes its severity equitable?  Is it the murdering of multitudes of babies?  Is it the perverse life-styles of those creative souls devising “non-traditional” families?  Or the non-family relations sanctioned for decades?  Is it the pornography that can be purchased in stores?  Or the twisted pornography thrust on the unwary by America’s News websites?  To be sure, the Lord hates these things, but it is also something much worse which hastens our plagues.  The passage above from Revelation reminds us that though we feel comfortable sanctioning “freedom of religion” yet the Lord hates idolatry, superstition, and false religion.  When our laws and constitutions override his law with respect to these things, he is by no means pleased.  Worse yet, there are the sins our Lord Jesus mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, that would make the judgment of the cities where his ministry came, even worse than that of Sodom.  What were those?

Non-Repentance and Unbelief.  Whether your sins consist of unrighteousness, or self-righteousness, you must turn from these to the Lord in repentance.  Whether your unbelief consists of Atheism, Anti-Scriptural Spirituality, a Cocky Red-Letter-Only Attitude, or belief of an Arminian Sound-alike Gospel, you must turn from your unbelief of the Scriptures and their Gospel, to true Faith in Christ.  And as the Lord Jesus expected this of cities in the time of his walk here on earth, so now he expects this of the nations of the world in which you and I live.  If their legislation sanctions otherwise, it does not change who he is, what he prescribes, or what we need.  We need to repent.  We need to believe.

Comfort to Believers: The Lord does have his eyes on you in particular.

Finally, we come to the theme to which we are all invited to come, casting our idols, our unbelief, and our earthly fears behind us.  We have seen above that the Lord does sometimes lay pestilence, famine, and also persecution upon his own people.  We’ve observed the examples of those who nearly shame us all out of the very name of Christianity, while we feel in ourselves such an unreadiness to either endure affliction, or be the heroic Christian soldiers who sacrifice their own lives and interests on behalf of others who are suffering.  In reality, the Lord does not call every Christian to the same works of mercy, or identical demonstration of works which move men “to glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matth. 5.16.)  But he does call us all to believing patience, a constant waiting upon him, and a confidence in his fatherly care.  And there will be work to do for each of us in the exercise of this faith.  He also calls us to confess this faith, and to call one another to exercise it from our hearts.  In Psalm 91, He puts the words in our mouths, in the sweetness of song and praise.  In the present time, there is special reason to lift up our voices in this psalm, commanded to be sung (Eph. 5.19, Col. 3.16,) and to meditate on its message.  We may wonder what we are supposed to tell one another, or what we are supposed to expect for ourselves and our little ones.  We should not lose sight of reality, past or present, but whatever these speak to us for our instruction, this is the word the Lord gives to his children for their support.

However the Lord manifests his faithfulness to you in the present season of distress and affliction, be sure he is looking upon you in particular.  All the hairs of your head are numbered by him, and your soul is more valued by him than the many creatures which daily find his care, and remind us of his goodness. (Matth. 10.29-31.)  And these are the promises by which he is pleased to guide and support all his children through these distresses.

Psalm 91

1    He that doth in the secret place
          of the most High reside,
     Under the shade of him that is
          th’ Almighty shall abide.

2    I of the Lord my God will say,
          He is my refuge still,
     He is my fortress, and my God,
          and in him trust I will.

3    Assuredly he shall thee save,
          and give deliverance
     From subtile fowler’s snare, and from
          the noisome pestilence.

4    His feathers shall thee hide; thy trust
          under his wings shall be:
     His faithfulness shall be a shield
          and buckler unto thee.

5    Thou shalt not need to be afraid
          for terrors of the night;
     Nor for the arrow that doth fly
          by day, while it is light;

6    Nor for the pestilence, that walks
          in darkness secretly;
     Nor for destruction, that doth waste
          at noon-day openly.

7    A thousand at thy side shall fall,
          on thy right hand shall lie
     Ten thousand dead; yet unto thee
          it shall not once come nigh.

8    Only thou with thine eyes shalt look,
          and a beholder be;
     And thou therein the just reward
          of wicked men shalt see.

MP3 Recording of
Psalm 91.1-8.

9    Because the Lord, who constantly
          my refuge is alone,
     Ev’n the most High, is made by thee
          thy habitation;

10   No plague shall near thy dwelling come;
          no ill shall thee befall:
11   For thee to keep in all thy ways
          his angels charge he shall.

12   They in their hands shall bear thee up,
          still waiting thee upon;
     Lest thou at any time should’st dash
          thy foot against a stone.

13   Upon the adder thou shalt tread,
          and on the lion strong;
     Thy feet on dragons trample shall,
          and on the lions young.

14   Because on me he set his love,
          I’ll save and set him free;
     Because my great name he hath known,
          I will him set on high.

15   He’ll call on me, I’ll answer him;
          I will be with him still
     In trouble, to deliver him,
          and honour him I will.

16   With length of days unto his mind
          I will him satisfy;
     I also my salvation
          will cause his eyes to see.

MP3 Recording of
Psalm 91.9-16.