The Black Death was caused by bacterium and was initially spread by fleas. Starting in Asia (most likely), it spread to Eurasia and North Africa in the mid-1300s, and eventually the plague killed up to one-quarter of the world’s population in about four years. At least 100 million people died. And to think, it was spread by a pest barely visible to the eye.
I will spare you the details, but the symptoms of this virus were devastating, and death usually occurred only weeks, sometimes days, after the first symptoms. It was not uncommon for the ill to be left to die by the side of the road. Mothers deserted their children, and family members abandoned the sick. But some people—the Christians—stayed and died trying to help those who were infected.
Today, the world navigates a new pandemic. While it’s unlikely the death toll will remotely approach the number who perished of the Black Death in the 14th century, the idea of loving others more than yourself remains spiritually vital. Christians have a significant opportunity today to apply five lessons from history to help strengthen the church.
1. Whether the Church Grows or Declines, We Must Remain Faithful
During the bubonic plague, which I’ve just described, church attendance saw a substantial drop. Aside from the obvious, there were two main reasons for this: (1) people were frustrated that prayer did not heal the way they thought it should, and (2) many of the clerics and ministers died of infection. These reasons shed light on why biblical literacy is critical today. God always answers our prayers, but not always the way we want. COVID-19 might cause an irreparable decline in in-person church attendance. People may grow comfortable in their new routine and choose not to return, or they may stay away because they are scared. But remember, numbers do not determine success. We need to continue hosting Bible studies, preaching the gospel, and mentoring and teaching others.
2. We Must Put the Needs of Others Before Our Own, but Let’s Not Neglect Our Health
The sick cannot heal the sick. Make sure you are resting, eating healthy, exercising, and talking to friends or family. Maintaining your physical health is an important first step to serving others. Are you physically prepared? Call individuals in your Sunday school class or small group and invite them to walk around the high school track with you (while maintaining six feet of separation, of course). Focus on others, and your troubles will diminish. It’s interesting: trusting God at his word allows us to experience the peace he promises.
3. All Christians Are Not on the Same Level of Maturity . . . and That’s OK
When Wittenberg found itself in the midst of a plague, Martin Luther was asked by a clergyman if he had biblical grounds to leave the infected area. Luther responded, “It takes more than a milk faith to await a death before which most of the saints themselves have been and still are in dread. . . . Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone.”
4. The Church Is Better Together
During a second-century plague in Rome, Christians experienced significantly lower death rates than everyone else despite the fact Christians were the ones caring for the contagious. Christians were placing themselves in danger of being infected, but in doing this, they were saving the lives of the sick. When Christians made themselves vulnerable, the church grew like wildfire. Their courage was recognized and even desired by others. Christian communities formed a tighter bond as they worked together as the hands and feet of Jesus.
5. Quarantine Does Not Mean We Take a Break from the Gospel
We have been told to social distance and stay home as much as possible, but God has given us the technology to continue carrying out the Great Commission. God will never forget us, nor will he place us in a situation where we can’t share his gospel message. If we do not give hope to the dying world by promoting God’s message, then we are no better than the lost.
Charles Spurgeon said, “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”
Use this time as an opportunity to change the world through the work of the Holy Spirit.