To our dear Strand Baptist Family,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. On the 31st of December 2019 health officials in China alerted the World Health Organization of a pneumonia outbreak that they had never seen before. On the 7th of January 2020 the new virus was identified as Covid-19, a new Coronavirus (which includes the common cold and the SARS virus). To date more than 150 000 people have been infected worldwide, with almost 6 000 deaths. While more than half of these cases are in China, the last few weeks have seen the virus spread rapidly in other parts of the world. Currently 143 territories are affected, including South Africa.
While there are comparatively few confirmed cases of Covid-19 in South Africa, the number is expected to rise rapidly. The infection spreads by being near those who have been infected and inhaling droplets when they cough or sneeze, and through touch (handshakes, hugs and kisses). Our best defence against the virus is to slow its spread. We have already taken precautions at our worship services to protect, as far as we are able, our members and adherents. There are, at present, no confirmed cases of the virus in our church family. We praise the Lord for his mercy.
The response from government
On the 15th of March 2020 President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the Covid-19 virus a national disaster. As part of the measures to control the spread of the virus, President Ramaphosa announced the following: “it is essential that we minimise the risk of the spread of this virus by limiting contact amongst groups of people. While we appreciate the economic, religious, and cultural significance of social and community gatherings, the coronavirus is spread through contact between persons… Gatherings of more than 100 people will be prohibited.” This has serious implications for churches and calls for a prayerful and faithful response.
Lessons from church history
This is not the first time the Lord’s church has had to deal with an epidemic like this. In both the 14th and 15th century the Black Plague devastated Europe. The first outbreak killed nearly a quarter of Europe’s population. When the plague struck Martin Luther’s hometown of Wittenberg in August of 1527 many of his fellow citizens fled for their lives. Luther’s prince, Elector John, ordered Luther to leave as well. Luther stayed and continued to minister to those affected by the disease.
At the time Luther wrote: “You ought to think this way: Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.” Luther encouraged his congregation to spend time in the Word of God and in prayer. He also attended the ill and dying, which he viewed as his duty as their shepherd (Matt. 25:36 and 1 John 3:16).
Another pandemic, the Spanish Flu, wreaked havoc all over the world from 1917 to 1919. It is estimated that more than 500 million people contracted the disease, with mortality rates close to 10%. It is considered one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. To combat the spread of the disease the District of Columbia, USA banned all public gatherings, including church services. How did the church respond?
An emergency meeting of all Protestant ministers was called and they “voted unanimously to accede to the request of the District Commissioners that churches be closed in the city”. They went on record “as cheerfully complying with the request of the Commissioners, which, we understand applies to all churches alike. We furthermore recommend that our people shall conduct in their own homes some form of religious worship remembering in prayer especially the sick”.
A few weeks later, when the spread of the disease began to subside, religious services resumed as normal.
The teaching of Scripture:
We believe that the Lord is sovereign over all his creation and that he does whatever pleases him. Psalm 135:6 declares: “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” Even when Job was sorely afflicted, it was the Lord who allowed Satan to “touch his bone and his flesh” (Job 2:5), but the Lord did not allow Satan to take his life (v. 6). Job responded to this calamity the way he had responded to the others: with faith. “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” The Bible affirms that in “all this Job did not sin with his lips” (v. 10).
When the Lord called Moses, he was reluctant and afraid, because “I am slow of speech and of tongue.” (Ex. 4:10). The Lord reminded Moses: “Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (v. 11). Even here the Lord was sovereign.
Lamentations 3:37-38 helpfully reminds us who is in control: “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” Again, the Lord declares: “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isa. 45:5-7).
When a pandemic strikes, it is a comfort to know that our Lord is in control. We know where to turn: “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:15).
Admittedly it does not give us all the answers. There are still a number of “why” and “what now” questions that need to be answered, but we can proceed knowing that the “LORD is on my side; I will not fear.” (Psalm 118:6). What does God expect of us in the midst of calamity?
The church has weathered worse storms and Christ has carried us through. Let us be an example to our children, our neighbours and the watching world of calm, prudence and compassion.
The response from Strand Baptist Church
In love for our members, adherents and visitors, and in obedience to the government (Romans 13:4; 1 Pet. 2:13-14), we have taken the following steps:
Time for reflection
Calamity has a way of bringing some needed perspective. This pandemic serves as a reminder of our own mortality. We will all die and appear before the judgment seat of God (Heb. 9:27). Let us take comfort in the fact that the Lord has provided for our greatest need. When we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). In doing so Jesus opened the way to the Father (John 14:6), offering forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all those who would repent and trust in him (Acts 10:43; Col. 1:14).
This is our hope. The Heidelberg Catechism offers this comfort: “What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
This pandemic will pass. Let us keep our eyes firmly fixed on our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Because of Christ,
(on behalf of the Executive of Strand Baptist Church)
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