Christian Responses to Plagues and Threats in the Past

A virus that affects the vulnerable, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, is a threat that we should take seriously.

As we consider how to respond to COVID-19, it is worth considering some of the responses to plagues and threats by Christians in the past.

The Plague in Rome

Jesse Lusko posted recently:

In 250 AD the plague wiped out 1/3 of the population of Rome. There was hysteria and most Romans abandoned the weak and the sickly and fled. Pagan historians record how Christians instead sacrificially cared for the sick and faced death with joy and confidence. Cyprian writes “In contrast to the prevailing despair, the Christians seemed to carry their dead in triumph.”

The Atomic Age

C. S. Lewis wrote these words in 1948 after the dawn of the atomic age:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Luther and the Plague in Wittenberg

The Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, but what many people don’t realize is that it continued to pop up at times afterwards for centuries.

In August 1527 the plague showed up in Wittenberg, leading to the closure of the university and other social institutions. People began fleeing the city in panic, and many people did get sick. In fact, the mortality rate of those who contracted the plague was 70%.

Martin Luther and his wife believed that they were called to serve the sick rather than to flee their city. They opened up their home and treated many sick people.

No one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me …” [Matt. 25:41–46]. According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.

In other words, Martin Luther believed there was an obligation to help those who contracted the plague, but so long as they were helped, it was a matter of conscience if one remained to aide in this great task.

He argued that it would be better for hospitals with trained staff to care for the sick, yet if one were not to be found, “…we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another.

For more on this, see: Martin Luther and His Incredible Response to the Black Plague

Conclusion for Today

As the people of God, it is important that we respond to the current situation in prayer, in faith, in service, and in generosity. We are called to look out for the weak and vulnerable among us, to be the body of Christ in the world, and to speak with a prophetic voice – proclaiming God’s words of life and the message of eternal hope in Jesus.

1 Peter: A Call to Missional Humility

photo of monument during daytime

We are currently studying through 1 Peter at White Fields. You can listen to the studies here: Pilgrim’s Progress: A Study Through 1&2 Peter

I’ve read the letter many times, but it’s my first time preaching through it. Doing so has caused me to see a few things in the letter which I hadn’t noticed before:

Peter Reflects Paul

Many scholars date this letter to 64 AD, the time when the great persecution of Rome began under Caesar Nero in the wake of the great fire of Rome. It was also during this time that Paul the Apostle was put to death.

One theory is that Peter wrote this letter in the wake of Paul’s death, to speak to the church in Asia Minor (see 1 Peter 1:1), the area where Paul did a great deal of his ministry and church planting, and to whom he wrote several letters (Ephesians, Galatians, Colossians). Peter was writing to warn them and prepare them for the flood of persecution that was radiating out from Rome to the rest of the empire, and to fill the gap to some degree since the Apostle Paul was now dead.

Throughout the letter, Peter can be seen reflecting on many of the same topics and themes which were found in Paul’s letters (especially Ephesians) and sometimes uses very similar language, although clearly Peter’s writing follows a different pattern than Paul’s. Interestingly, in 2 Peter, Peter mentions Paul’s writings, even calling them Scripture.

For related topics, check out: When Was the New Testament Recognized as Holy Scripture? & Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?

It seems that Peter was intimately familiar with Paul’s letters, and perhaps those letters influenced him in the writing of his own letter.

A Call to Missional Living

A major theme of 1 Peter is that as Christians we are sojourners and pilgrims, strangers in this world. As Christians, our citizenship is in Heaven, which is also where our ultimate hope lies; not on this Earth.

Considering that this letter was written to people who were suffering greatly, this message is not surprising. Indeed, the promise of the gospel is that one day those who are children of God will be brought home by their Father to be with Him in security and fullness of joy, free from the pain and suffering caused by sin.

However, if we see Peter’s letter as primarily being about the hope of escaping this cruel world and going to Heaven, we’ve missed the main thrust of his letter. The main thrust of the letter is actually about missional living.

The hope of Heaven makes us bold and courageous so that we can live this life on mission with God. Peter wants us to think of ourselves as sojourners on a mission.

There are several ways in which you can be a foreigner in a foreign land:

  1. A Tourist – Puts down no roots. They come to a place to take what they can and enjoy what they can, but they don’t invest deeply in that place or worry much about building relationships with the people there, because they are living out of a suitcase in a rented hotel room, as they await their flight out to go home.
  2. A Prisoner of War – Is in that foreign land against their will, and therefore they bide their time until they can get out.
  3. A Missionary – A missionary is intentional about their time and resources, knowing that they are in that place for a purpose; they are on assignment.

Peter, in this letter, focuses more on living in this world than escaping from this world, and encourages us to take the posture not of a tourist, nor of a prisoner of war, but rather that of a missionary.

Missional Humility

In this letter, Peter has a lot to say about humility. Throughout the gospels, it is apparent that Jesus’ disciples had an issue with being competitive. There are John’s comments about beating Peter in a footrace to Jesus’ grave on Easter Sunday, and the multiple times Jesus caught his disciples debating which of them was the greatest.

Peter himself, as a younger man, had pridefully told Jesus that even if everyone else fell away, he would remain faithful to the end. Jesus then informed Peter that before that very night was over, Peter would deny him three times.

Jesus graciously restored him, but Peter was unquestionably humbled by that experience. Furthermore, some 30 years had passed by this time since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Peter is older, and his word for younger people is: humble yourself, so that God doesn’t have to do it for you – because God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

For Peter, humility is not only a way of relating to God, it’s also an important aspect of what it means to live missionally. Peter talks about living humbly in this world, and treating unbelievers with respect and gentleness (see 1 Peter 3:15). In order to engage in God’s mission effectively in this world, it’s not just what you say that matters, but how you say it, and how you live.

May we be those who hear the message of Peter:

  • May we love the Word of God, so that it sinks into us, and permeates our thoughts and speech.
  • May the promise of Heaven cause us to engage rather than disengage with the world around us in a missional way,
  • and may we take a posture of humility towards others and before God as we do so.

The Gospel of Caesar Augustus, & What It Tells Us About the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Image result for caesar augustusMaybe you’ve heard of “the gospel of Jesus Christ”, but have you ever heard of “the gospel of Caesar Augustus”?

An ancient inscription which bears that phrase gives us understanding into what exactly the gospel of Jesus Christ is, and sheds light on the structure and content of the biblical “Gospels”, i.e. the books which tell the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

What is a “gospel”?

In English vernacular, we have terms like “gospel-truth”, which means that something is absolutely true. However, in the Bible, the word “gospel” doesn’t mean truth.

“Gospel” is the English translation of the Greek word “euangelion” which means “news that brings great joy.”

When we hear this word today, our minds immediately tend to associate it with spirituality in general, or Christianity in particular, but originally, this word was political in nature.

In the Greco-Roman world, from the time of Alexander the Great and on into the Roman Empire, this word was used to refer to history-making, world-shaping reports of political, military, or societal victories.

Example 1: The Battle of Marathon

I am considering running a marathon this year, and one of the things that I always keep in the back of my mind is that the person who ran the first marathon ran 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles) to deliver a message, and upon completing this run, he DIED!

I feel like I still have a lot to live for, hence my hesitation… I have run a few half marathons, and after those I felt half-dead, so we’ll see…

The setting of that first marathon was a battle in 490 B.C. when Greece was invaded by Persia. Despite all odds, Greece managed to defeat Persia, and after the battle, Greece sent heralds to take the euangelion (proclamation of good news) out into every town and village in the country, to tell the people what had happened, and declare to them that they were free! Those heralds were “evangelists”.

Example 2: The Emancipation Proclamation

In the United States, when Abraham Lincoln signed the document which set the slaves in the southern states free, that news had to be taken and proclaimed in every city, town and farm in the South. Heralds were sent out who proclaimed to those slaves that something had happened, which would change their lives forever. They declared to them that because of what someone else had done, they were set free!

The Gospel of Caesar Augustus

An inscription found in Priene, in modern-day Turkey, referring to Caesar Augustus says:  “the birthday of [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euangelion) concerning him.” (Priene 150.40-41)

This inscription is found on a government building dating from 6 B.C. Here is more of what it says, which gives us insight into how they understood the “gospel” concerning Caesar Augustus:

The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things . . . for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura;  Caesar . . . the common good Fortune of all . . . The beginning of life and vitality . . . All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year . . . Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence . . . has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (the emperor) Augustus . . .who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order;  and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest /PHANEIS/, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times.

The “gospel” of Caesar Augustus was what we call today the Pax Romana, the age of peace in the Roman Empire which came about during this time, into which Jesus was born.

Caesar Augustus in this inscription is declared to be: divine, savior, and the beginning of the good news for all people on Earth.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ: a Direct Challenge to the Gospel of Rome

When we understand this term “gospel” (euangelion), and how it was used in the ancient Greco-Roman world, we can begin to better understand the specific way in which the Christian gospels of Jesus Christ were written. They were written in such a way as to present Jesus as the true divine King, who had come to bring true salvation to the whole world, and they were written as a direct challenge to the so-called “gospel” of Rome and its peace which was enforced through brutality, and which did not provide any actual salvation.

“The beginning of the gospel (euangelion) about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1)

“Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel (euangelion) of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel! (euangelion)” (Mark 1:14-15)

And this gospel (euangelion) of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel (euangelion), for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

The gospel is a message of a victory which has taken place, from which we benefit. We receive salvation, freedom and peace as a result of it.

The gospel, therefore, is good news, not good advice! It’s not about what you have to do for God, but it’s the news of what God has done for you in Christ to set you free.

Further Resources:

Check out this article from Marianne Bonz of Harvard University called: The Gospel of Rome vs. the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Check out this video Mike and I filmed about whether the gospel is political (hint: it is), and what that means for us as Christians today: