Whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Ro 14:8b)
In AD 252 there was a mysterious illness that broke out in Carthage, North Africa. It, indeed, swept the entire Roman Empire. Some have likened it to small pox or the measles. It was called the Plague of Cyprian after the North African bishop who had so graphically recounted its effects. (The previous century had also witnessed the Antonine Plague, which equally ravage the Empire.).
Those who contracted the disease were cut off from society, alienated, left to die. Indeed, in Rome 5000 people a day were said to have perished. The population in Alexandria, Egypt, declined some 62%.
Out of compassion for the sick, out of an intense desire to offer a cup of water to those in need, Christians came to help those abandoned by the culture, to care for them, to sit with the dying. As a result many Christians died. This plague also coincided with a renewed persecution of Christians under Decius (Cyprian himself was martyred under the Emperor Valerian in AD 258). Together their simple humble acts and their witness to their faith led to a great revival which saw Christianity further spread to become a major religion in the Empire.
I tell that story to remind us that disease is nothing new to the human existence since the Fall, and as the last enemy to be defeated is physical/bodily death, disease makes no differentiation between Christians and non-Christians. Our response as Christians can also bear witness to our faith. Cyprian reminded his listeners of the first point:
It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains, according to the law of our first birth, common to us with them? So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in spirit. (Cyprian, On Mortality, 8).
Today the number one news item is the Corona Virus, or Covid-19, a respiratory disease initially picked up from animals. Authorities, media and specialists are all noting it is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent times, not since the Spanish Influenza after WWI, have we seen a pandemic quite like this (though it remains to be seen how severe its spread and effect will be). With globalization and modern media we’re witnessing its spread, and this in turn is stoking fear and concern. As such we need to be diligent to know the medical facts.
If public gatherings are suspended we may have to worship at home and I’ll preach through the internet and we’ll encourage one another through email or telephone or text. For now we can thank the Lord that this is not the case. We wait upon the Lord with each new day.
What should the Christian response be?
· respect the communications of the government and medical authorities
· though there were no such authorities in Roman days and so Christians bridged the gap in offering aid; today we must respect the authorities’ public restraints, yet also still find ways in which to minister compassionately in a crisis, perhaps by bringing food to quarantined homes; perhaps by joining Health Unit emergency teams and bringing Christ’s light this way, and certainly through prayer.
o We must not test the Lord by presuming that we, simply because we are Christians, will be exempt from the disease. We must still take reasonable precautions, like washing our hands, etc.
But the biggest way we can make a difference is not to worry, not to fear; it is by setting the example of faith. Fear reigns in the world, it has since the Fall. We are slaves to fear because we are slaves to sin and sin is to distrust God and be under His just sentence.
In his address Cyprian spoke to his congregation many helpful words on the subject of trust and assurance in the face of the plague, yet these words stand out:
Who, in the midst of these things, is trembling and sad, except he who is without hope and faith? For it is for him to fear death who is not willing to go to Christ. (Cyprian, On Mortality, 2).
He recognized the truth of passages like Romans 14:8. That if we are in Christ we have nothing to fear, not even death, because we have a proper biblical perspective of the subject and of the hope of the Gospel. As a result, even in the midst of the Cyprian Plague or Covid-19 we can bear witness to our hope in the Lord Jesus Christ and the assurance that comes through believing in the Gospel and lead others to faith in Him by example of our resolute hope in the face of adversity and worldwide fear.
May the Lord increase our faith, for our good and His glory!
 Cyprian, On Mortality, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5., Treatise 7, p. 469. Online access: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050707.htm
Author: Chris Crocker
Pastor, historian and beekeeper.