The Plagues of Church History
With all of the media attention and information surrounding the coronavirus, we may sometimes be led to believe that we as Christians are pioneering a new frontier. The church certainly is not in a position of normalcy. You might have thought to yourself before, has the church ever been in a situation quite like this? What would the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, or John Calvin have done in the wake of something like the coronavirus? We may feel at times like we are isolated on an island in history, but we are not.
The church has been called to remain faithful amidst various plagues since its inception. The coronavirus is not the first. From the Plague of Cyprian in 249–270 AD to the London plague of Charles Spurgeon's day, history is replete with sicknesses that have caused the church to arise.¹ While we do not know how the apostle Paul responded to a particular plague outside of the thorn in his flesh, we do know how both Martin Luther and John Calvin did respond. I hope that the lessons from these men’s lives will be an encouragement to you in the Lord amidst the plague that we are being affected by today.
Martin Luther ministered in the days of the bubonic plague which is attributed to the destruction of up to ½ of Europe’s population.² Amid the plague ravaging his home of Wittenburg, Germany, he continued to minister the word of God. He sought to care for the people of the church. Just because an extreme sickness had come along, it did not mean that he was excused from loving the flock of God. On the contrary, it was a motivation for him to shepherd the people all the more. Luther was likely encouraged by passages like 1 Pet 5:2, which Peter wrote to the church while suffering persecution. He says, “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness.” Regardless of Luther’s circumstance, he was called to shepherd by God.
Luther sought to minister to people through prayer and the words of Scripture during the plague. But even he recognized amidst the sickness that was spreading that he ought to be extra careful in his shepherding given the nature of the plague and its ability to infect the flock. This did not remove him from his duty to shepherd, but it did affect how he ministered to people. He wrote to Reverend John Hess, a fellow pastor saying,
"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 inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God."³
Luther wanted to help serve his neighbor. His heartbeat did not change amidst the conditions that occurred in his day.
In fact, it was during this dark time of the plague that Luther wrote arguably his most famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”⁴ The hymn itself comes from Ps 46. The Psalm opens in the first two verses saying, “God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.” Luther knew, as the sons of Korah did, that God amidst whatever circumstance, is “our refuge and strength.” Thus he would write, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” In the middle of the plague abounding, God is our help. He is our fortress. Luther’s heart was to remind the church of these truths. He also desired to point others to the Lord, that they would come to know God as their fortress.⁵
Many people throughout Wittenberg died from the plague. The town was rattled, but it provided an opportunity for the church to care for others and point them to the only true source of hope, Jesus Christ. The church proclaimed the perfect life, sufficient death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ who alone atones for sin and provides eternal life.
In the early 15th century, Luther and Wittenberg dealt primarily with one large sweep of the plague. However, during the ministry of John Calvin, which was primarily in Geneva, Switzerland, he faced the plague on five different occasions.⁶ The church was not just affected once for a sustained period, but five different times during his days of pastoral ministry. While you might think it would be something they got used to, it is not so simple as getting used to seeing friends and loved ones dying.
Calvin, like Luther, sought to care for the people of his city during the days of the bubonic plague. His priority was to make sure that the word of God continued to go forth. The pastors in Geneva preached Christ to those they were around, and Calvin preached many funerals which led to many people being saved.⁷ Though it may have seemed like the numerous plagues would hinder the gospel, in a similar fashion to the first imprisonment of Paul in Rome, the exact opposite was true. Paul wrote in Phil 1:12–14, “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.” Not only were people believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as in Paul’s day, but the saints also were being encouraged in the faith as they held more tightly to the promises of God’s word.
Calvin, through each wave of his life as he was confronted by the plague, he continued to minister. Even his own ministry was affected, not in its aim, in preaching Christ, but in its orchestration.⁸ But Calvin refused to shy away from teaching and caring for his brothers and sisters in the Lord.
There is more that can be said concerning both the ministry of Luther and Calvin during the plague, but suffice it to say, these men sought to honor God through the plague of sickness that swept across Europe. While there may have been some who refused to continue to preach the word, they knew that their mantle was to preach Christ until they went home to be with Him. It was their ambition to please Him. He was their motivation in ministry.
During the plague that surrounds us in our day, it is Grace Community Bible Church’s desire to continue to preach God’s word and make much of Him “who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). We plan to continue to provide teaching from God’s word online, and we also plan to engage with each of you throughout this time of being under the “stay-at-home” order.
Practically, this season is a wonderful time for you to invest in your family. Pastor Michael mentioned recently of his hope that God shifts the values of many in the United States to prioritize the family. That’s a wonderful prayer. For the husbands, this is a wonderful time for you to dive even deeper in devotions with your families. For the wives, this is a perfect opportunity for you to encourage your husband in the Lord as well as your children. For everyone, with life and death on the forefront of people’s minds, it’s a great occasion to preach Christ to friends and family who do not know Him.
While we do not know all of the purposes of these plagues, there are some things we know with certainty. We know that plagues are part of God’s plan, including the bubonic plague and the coronavirus (Is 25:1; Eph 1:11). We know that good will come out of them for believers, even in causing us to look to Christ and the joys of heaven (Rom 8:28–30; 2 Cor 4:16–18). We also know that God’s desire for the ends of the earth to know Him has not changed (Is 45:5–7; Matt 28:18–20; Acts 1:1–8). Our God is in control and through this time He will strengthen His church and save people for His glory.
We are not alone in history with the events we are going through today. We can learn from the saints of the past as we seek to honor God in the here and now. We do not need to be afraid, rather we need to trust in our all sovereign God who is our refuge, as the Psalmist writes, “God is our refuge and strength, and ever-present help in times of trouble. Therefore we will not fear.”
¹ Glen Scrivener, “Responding to Pandemics: 4 Lessons from Church History.” The Gospel Coalition, March 16, 2020, accessed March 25, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-lessons-church-history/.
² Chris Sundheim, “Pastors and Pestilence: Martin Luther's Views on the Church, Christians and the Black Death,” Historia 6 (1997): 20–21.
³ Martin Luther, “Luther’s Works,” vol. 43, 123.
⁴ Sundheim, “Pastors and Pestilence: Martin Luther's Views on the Church, Christians and the Black Death,” 20–21.
⁵ Ibid., 20–21.
⁶ Harry L. Reeder, “The Churchman of the Reformation,” in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2008), 65.
⁷ Ibid., 65.
⁸ Reeder, “The Churchman of the Reformation,” 65.