As Christians around the world mark the final week of Jesus’ life on earth that culminated in his death on a cross, many of us are having to face up to our mortality as never before in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Jesus, every true disciple must face the prospect of martyrdom, thus: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross…” — Mark 8.34.
Indeed, most of the original Twelve were either crucified themselves or faced a similarly agonising end because of their faith in Him. Following Jesus is not for the faint-hearted. Part of the clue to their courage and commitment was the fact that they had been released from the fear of death through their assurance of resurrection after witnessing the risen Christ, the firstfruits of all who have died believing (1 Cor 15.20).
As the writer to the Hebrews put it, Jesus has broken the power of death in order to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” — Hebrews 2.14. The Apostle Paul, when he knew he was facing death, was able to say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” — 2 Tim 4.7.
When I heard the other day that a former work colleague had died of cancer, I was so glad that I had taken the trouble many years ago of leading him to Christ during a pub conversation. The current crisis surely provides us with an ideal opportunity to share the love of Jesus, as Christians did with such dramatic results when two plagues swept through Rome in the second and third centuries. It motivated believers to serve each other and their neighbours rather than flee the cities. All were courageous; some died, and each plague lasted 15 years. By the time they were over, Rome had become Christian. Their hope and loving perseverance changed the hearts and minds of an entire culture about Jesus and his Father.
Meanwhile a new acronym for COVID – Christ Over Viruses and Infectious Diseases – has now been posted on a church website.
A friend working among believers in Israel has just witnessed resurrection on the streets of Tel Aviv where he joined in a project feeding the hungry. He told me: “One of the streets is called Death St because it’s where people go to take the cheapest and worst drugs, and many die there. At the end of the street was a young man called Eli sitting in the dark on a wrecked sofa. He was high on drugs but accepted food, drink and prayer. Then he gave his life to the Lord, after which he was offered a place in a Messianic rehab centre. We also visited Haifa, where we met men and women who were on the streets less than two years ago and are now leading a congregation of believers”. Life from the dead indeed!
There is a growing expectation that the COVID-19 crisis will cause many to call out to God for help, an outcome supported by the late David Wilkerson, who famously led New York gangsters to Christ in the 1960s. Much-respected Messianic Jew Mike Evans was well acquainted with the evangelist and recently came across a handwritten note from him dated 1986 in which he predicted the fall, within twelve months, of a well-known televangelist. The Jim Bakker scandal¹ broke exactly a year later.
Evans had kept the note following a personal meeting in Texas at which Wilkerson also shared the following: “I see a plague coming on the world, and the bars and churches and government will shut down. The plague will hit New York City and shake it like it has never been shaken. It is going to force prayerless believers into radical prayer and into their Bibles, and repentance will be the cry from the man of God in the pulpit. And out of it will come a third Great Awakening that will sweep America and the world”.²
It’s worth pointing out that Wilkerson was not given to prophesying revival. In a message recorded in 2012, he said: “I’m tired of hearing about revival. I’ve heard that rhetoric for 50 years. I see more of the world impacting the church than the church impacting the world”. America was ripe for judgment, he proclaimed. “Don’t tell me you’re concerned (about evangelism) when you spend hours in front of the TV”.
The prophesied plague is here. But will it cause people en-masse to call out to the Lord? Certainly, the prophet Joel spoke of a time in the last days when great upheavals would be accompanied by an outpouring of the Spirit (initially witnessed at Pentecost) when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” — Joel 2.32.
Even more pertinent to our thoughts this week, the death of Christ was followed by his resurrection and new life for millions who would subsequently respond to the gospel that brings hope and peace to all.
²Mike Evans, Jerusalem Prayer Team newsletter, April 2 2020