PHIL: Hi, I’m Phil Johnson, and it is my great privilege to be your host each day on Grace to You. And with me in the studio today, as always, is John MacArthur. But today we’re going to keep him in the studio a bit longer than usual to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, and we want to talk about some of the challenges and the opportunities that are facing believers in this time of distress and inconvenience.
John, we’re now several weeks into a long period of international quarantine, and I have to say that for me, as well as for lots of our listeners, I know that your sermons each Sunday have been a lifeline of encouragement and strength; and while it seems we’re swimming in this ocean of dismay and inconvenience and concern about the future, lots of bad news. You’ve sort of given us God’s Word to keep us anchored; and thank you for that. Thanks for keeping us anchored.
JOHN: Well, it’s my joy to do that. I think one of our politicians or one of our philosophers made the comment, “Don’t ever waste a crisis.” Well, from a spiritual standpoint, that’s true as well. This is a global crisis and you’ve got to speak to it.
We’ve always done that. This goes back to, remember 9/11.
JOHN: 9/11 happened on a Tuesday, and by Sunday I had to be prepared to speak, and it wound up being an hour-and-a-half message on “Islam, Jihad and the Bible’ to explain what was going on. I remember before that, there was a national incident over the fall of Jimmy Swaggart, and I gave a message trying to help people understand what can happen to a minster who’s unfaithful. Then the Supreme Court decision to legitimize homosexual marriage, same-sex marriage was another crisis moment to which I spoke.
Through the years of my ministry there have been times when you had to stop whatever you’re doing because the whole world was giving it attention to something and it needed to be explained from a biblical standpoint. And certainly, that was my intention the first couple of Sundays to give a divine perspective on what was going on and comfort God’s people. The third week, however, I wanted to turn and take the opportunity to give the gospel, and that I did last Sunday, and I will do it again this Sunday.
PHIL: Yeah, you know, you mentioned the sermon you gave in the wake of September 11th. That is, I believe, the longest sermon in our catalog; and for years, it was the most distributed sermon, the most requested of all your sermons. Maybe you should start preaching longer sermons.
JOHN: Yeah, I would love to preach longer sermons, but I’d have to lock all the doors to keep everybody in there, and the nursery ladies would be crying blue murder at my back. There was another one that was virtually that long and it was called “A Jet Tour Through Revelations.”
JOHN: And I think trying to do a jet tour through the whole book of Revelation in one run did take an hour-and-a-half as well.
PHIL: Yeah. And for those who may not know, John is preaching every Sunday morning as usual, and the sermons plus some special music are being livestreamed to every corner of the globe. But, John, you’re preaching to a merely empty auditorium. What’s that like?
JOHN: Well, first of all, I want to say thanks to you and Darlene for sitting out there. You are the only person on the left side of a 3,000-seat auditorium.
PHIL: Yeah, we thought you might need somebody that could make eye contact.
JOHN: To focus on, yeah. And some of my kids were scattered on the other side; and, yeah, I think we had about a dozen people. Yeah, preaching to an auditorium that seats 3,000 and there’s only a dozen people there is a little bit different.
People have asked me, “What is it like to do that without an audience?” And to be honest with you, Phil – and you would know this because you’re a preacher – I’m not really that conscious of how many people are in an auditorium anyway.
JOHN: The whole of preaching is basically an exercise going on between my two ears. It’s a mental battle. It’s a mental struggle to capture the essence of biblical truth and convey it to the people. You know, you don’t really interact with people, you don’t really catch the eye of people, you’re not having a conversation, you’re proclaiming the Word of God. And so whether there are 10 people there or 10,000 people there, sometimes you might assume that would change the dynamic of how one preaches. But it’s never done that for me because I’m just trying to struggle to make sure I communicate the best way I can, and I have the same energy for truth. My energy doesn’t come from the audience, it comes from the truth. I’m driven by the love for this truth that I want to communicate.
PHIL: Yeah, and I notice that. As I sit there and watch you preach to this virtually empty auditorium, you’re as focused as ever, you’re as energetic as ever, as lively as ever. It’s like you’re – are you thinking of those thousands of people who are livestreaming?
JOHN: No. No, I’m thinking of this truth which I love and which I’m so passionate about that has to be understood and conveyed. The passion comes from the truth; it rises from this incredible divine revelation that I have the privilege of explaining. No, I am aware.
I think last Sunday, 85 nations were connected, 60,000 separate devices, and if you had somewhere between 5 and 8 people for those you maybe have 300, 400, 500,000 people listening. I’m actually preaching to hundreds of thousands of more people in an empty auditorium. I know that, but I’m not thinking about that, I’m thinking about what it is that I’m trying to draw out of the Word of God and make clear to whoever’s listening.
PHIL: It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the pandemic, though it’s emptied the auditorium has actually increased the size of the audience of people who are listening to you live.
JOHN: Yeah. And that, again, is the blessing of technology. This is just an astonishing thing to realize. And you also have a very rapt audience, a very intense audience, because there’s fear and doubts and questions, and people are face-to-face with their mortality, there’s a certain fear of death.
And, you know, I’ve been doing a few things that I have to do. And yesterday as I was moving around, for the first time almost everywhere I went, people were wearing masks. So that’s kind of just new, and it speaks to the issue that people walking all by themselves with no one else on the street are wearing a mask. What do they think is going to happen? But it speaks to the issue of this almost irrational fear that something could strike them; and that sense of mortality and the reality of death and things out of their control makes them more interested in, I think, transcendent, ultimate, spiritual answers and answers about eternity.
PHIL: Yeah. I know there are a lot of people who are also concerned about something striking you because I am getting lots more questions than ever from people who say, “How’s your health holding up?”
JOHN: My health is really wonderful. I, for the last two years I think, or three years, after every Shepherds’ Conference I was sick with the flu. Last year I was very sick with the flu. And by the way, last year the normal flu kill 80,000 Americans. That’s more than will die from this Coronavirus in America. It killed 80,000. So that was last year, and I got that flu, and I took Z-Pack and, you know, chicken soup and went to sleep, and I was fine. So, yeah, the Lord has given me strength and good health. And so this year at the Shepherds’ Conference, purposely they kept me away from the tight crowds that sometimes press in on me typically, because after two or three years of getting a bug after each Shepherds’ Conference, they said, “We don’t want to do that.”
And so since that time, everybody sort of evaporated out of my world, and now I’ve been great. I don’t know how much more time I can spend at home because there are so many house chores that I have now been assigned to do by Patricia: clean the garage and all kinds of other sort of things. Been kind of fun really to have some downtime and do some of those things that you have on your little domestic checklist, but kingdom issue prevent you from getting to them. Now I’m getting to them and getting them done.
PHIL: It’s a little bit like a domestic reboot, you know.
JOHN: Oh, yeah, yeah.
PHIL: I’m doing stuff that I thought for years, “Oh, I’ll do that when I get around to it,” and now I finally can get around to it.
JOHN: Yeah, and the good news is being 24/7 with Patricia, we’ve decided we like each other a lot.
PHIL: That’s good.
JOHN: This is working out really well after all these years.
PHIL: She’s had to sacrifice time with you for years because of your ministry, and hopefully this will make up – help make up for that without making her get tired of you.
JOHN: Yeah. Well, the question went from, “Are you ever going to be home?” to “Are you ever going to leave?” It’s a little bit different.
PHIL: Yeah, I kind of doubt that. Now talk about the rationale of the elders’ decision to suspend our regular church services. I mean, you must have considered, “What about Hebrews 10:25, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” or Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men”? I was there, so I know we discussed those verses. Talk about that.
JOHN: Well, first of all, the clear demand of Scripture is to be subject to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God.
PHIL: Romans 13.
JOHN: Romans 13. And 1 Peter talks about the same thing: “Honor the king and those who are in authority over you.” God has set them in that authority. The apostle Paul tells Timothy that we’re to be good citizens. We’re to live a quiet and peaceable life. We aren’t rebels; we don’t start protests; we don’t defy the government. We conform. We’re submissive to the government as basically ordained by God. So that was an easy call for us.
What would have made a difference would have been if this was persecution of the church, if all of a sudden the government decided to shut down churches as an act of persecution against churches we would defy that because now you’re into Acts 5 where Peter actually says, “Do we obey God or men?” You say we don’t meet, God says we must meet. You say don’t preach the gospel, we say we must preach the gospel. So when the government gets to the point where it basically persecutes the church, the church has to take that persecution and still do what God has commanded the church to do.
The other thing that we talked about with the elders was if we defy this and if we say we’re going to meet anyway, we run the risk of exposing people to this illness needlessly. And why would we want to do that? Because this is a health issue, this is a health crisis. And since like any church, many of the people in our church are older. We wouldn’t want to expose them to that. We’ve only had, as far as I know, and this was up to yesterday, we’ve only had one couple in our church in the Spanish ministry who actually got the coronavirus. But that couple, and not an older couple either, wound up in the hospital because it was such a virulent experience for them.
So we wouldn’t want to say, “Well, let them come to church and mingle with everybody else. Let it be. Whatever is going to be is going to be.” That doesn’t make sense. We wouldn’t purposely expose our people. That’s not caring for your people. We wouldn’t purposely expose them to that. And since we wouldn’t have known, we just said, “Look, we’re not going to do that.”
In Shepherds’ Conference, which was pretty amazing that we actually got it in, because after Shepherds’ Conference, the week after it, every conference was shut down everywhere. But we had Shepherds’ Conference, and post-Shepherds’ Conference there was a 90-year-old pastor, Russian pastor from Washington, who it was discovered was ill and died, and they thought it was the coronavirus, and it turned out to be the coronavirus some days later the report came back. That was after the Shepherds’ Conference. That’s the only person that we know of that came out of the Shepherds’ Conference and had that virus and ultimately died. And the interesting things about that is when he was here, it was his birthday.
When he was at the Shepherds’ Conference it was his birthday. And I have a doctor friend who said, “I hugged him four times because I know him, and I hugged him because it was his birthday; and that’s what Russians do.” And he said, “I could tell you, he was a picture of health and there was no reason to think that he was at all ill.” So it may have been that he contacted that virus when he got back home to Washington, and through that the Lord took him to heaven.
Well, we wouldn’t want to needlessly. Why would we want to expose people to that? So it was a pretty easy thing to think about. And the other side of it was this: if this is happening at this level, this is in the plan of God, this is in His purpose. So what would we do that would maximize the impact that we could have in a different environment? And that’s where we said – it didn’t take me two seconds to immediately say, “Hey, I’m going to preach on Sunday, we’re going to preach on livestream and we’ll just let it go.” And as I just said a few moments ago, it’s covering the globe. So we’re reaching people we never would have reached by not having the service in the normal way.
PHIL: Right. With the prospect of this going longer and longer, do you think the elders will reconsider, “When do we get back together?” or are we just going to wait until the world opens up again?
JOHN: Yeah, I don’t know the answer to that, I don’t know the future. I do know that those people who defy that order in this litigious society are going – this country is going to see lawsuits the likes of which it has never seen. Every person who is at the disposal of an attorney is going to be marching in the direction of suing somebody if they contacted this illness somewhere in a public place, or whether it’s a market or whatever. I mean, it’s already started, there are lawsuits. So you don’t want to expose yourself needlessly to that either.
But how it’s going to end, I don’t know. I think in all honesty, the thing is overexaggerated. I mean, we all know that. The initial reports were that two million to four million Americans could die. Now, as of today, it’s down to 50,000, and that’s less than died of the normal flu last year.
So we’ve been dealing with information and misinformation, and chaos and confusion and messed up models. So I don’t know how they’re going to resolve it. But my assumption would be that this is going to – the quarantine aspect of it, the stay at home aspect of it is going to shut down sooner rather than later. I would like to think that by May things will start to loosen up and we’ll, certainly by the end of May, hopefully get back to meeting together.
In the meantime however, as you know, our church is very active. We even opened up a video studio, and all of our pastors and all of our teachers of all the fellowship groups are teaching video lessons. The seminary, all the courses are in video. The university, all the courses are in video. Yesterday we took groceries – we do every week – to 60 homes of the older people who don’t want to go to the grocery store, and we’re meeting all of their needs: all kinds of ministries going on. Zoom: everybody’s zooming all over the place with these zoom screen conversations. So you can’t keep our people apart.
JOHN: So they’re finding ways to connect by phone and by video.
PHIL: Yeah, in some ways it’s sort of stepped up the amount of hands-on shepherding that some of us are doing. Of course, we’re still preaching, as you say.
JOHN: Yeah, and I’ve even actually been to the hospital where a dear friend’s wife, Lance Quinn, was dying, and now she’s gone to be with the Lord, Beth; and he loved her like I did, and we who knew Lance and Beth. So, yeah, I’m trying to minister to that family in that situation.
So life has gone on as usual. But it is true that the Lord will accomplish His purposes and His will through this. We don’t have to defy the powers that be in order to accomplish the will of God. We can conform to what the Lord is doing in the world and allowing in the world and find ways to – I feel sort of like Paul, that my imprisonment has fallen out for the furtherance of the gospel.
PHIL: Right. Now on the other side of that equation though, does it not concern you that with all the government overreach and exaggerated predictions, and even the mayor of New York said that he was going to permanently close churches if they didn’t strictly adhere to the social distancing things. Does it concern you that this could open the door to future persecution, that this could be a harbinger of bad things to come for the church?
JOHN: From the perspective of the elites in our culture, the educated, the university, the literati, you could say, the elites, they hate Christianity. They hate Christianity because Christianity has morality that they completely reject, so they hate Christianity; so any excuse they could have for attacking us. I don’t think they particularly care about attacking some religions because there are religions that aren’t a threat to them, that don’t throw the Bible in their face and demand that people live according to the Word of God. So, sure. I mean, I think as a nation and as a world we’re headed toward the persecution of the church, we’re headed toward a greater hostility toward Christianity.
The government, we’ve learned one thing for sure in the government’s action: you don’t need an army to conquer a nation, all you need is fear. You don’t need an army, you don’t need a troop, you don’t need to fire a shot; just terrify people that they might die and they’ll all roll over in complete compliance. They’ll give up their freedoms, they’ll put on silly masks, they’ll put gloves on their hands, and they’ll sit in their house for as long as you tell them to sit there. You can conquer an entire nation in fear.
So we’ve seen an illustration of that. We love our freedoms in America. We love the idea that we are given freedom in America. We love capitalism in America. We resent, Christians certainly resent, the idea of Communism where you’re not the person who determines your own fate. You don’t work for your own bread. And if you don’t work, you don’t eat, as the Bible says. So we like that as a political system, as a social system. And so we don’t like the government control, and we wonder whether now they’ve got control, are they ever going to let go. But that is purely political, that’s sociological economic stuff; that’s not kingdom stuff, that’s not kingdom matters.
So I think we just – whatever happens in terms of the future of America, we’re going to enjoy probably less and less freedoms anyway. There may be speedups to the robbing us of those freedoms coming through something like this, and maybe things that are even more dramatic in the future that would take away freedoms. But we do learn one thing, that if you can terrify people, if you can make them afraid, you can control them. And that’s how – basically that’s how Hitler operated. I mean, he made people fear Christianity, and then he wiped out the church. Made people fear the Jews, and he massacred the Jews. So there’s a fear factor in all of this. But as Christians, whatever the political structure is, whatever the economics, and whatever the sociology of it all is, it’s all temporary. And the King is coming and He’s going to establish the kingdom of righteousness when He arrives, and we’re going to be a part of that. So you take every opportunity that you’re given in the world and you use it to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And I think as a shepherd and a pastor, I want my people to be joyful, I want them to be encouraged, I want them to be hopeful, because – sometimes the environmentalists make a big issue about what’s going to happen to the earth and global warming and all of that. And if you want to see the real global warming, you go Peter’s epistle where he says, “The elements are going to melt with fervent heat and the whole heavens and earth is going to go out of existence,” and that’s not going to happen because you use hairspray, by the way. That reality is coming. So we look at everything that happens in the world from a divine perspective. This is a disposable planet. The Lord is going to do what He’s going to do in His time in His plan.
One of the questions that came up recently was, “Is this coronavirus a fulfillment of eschatological prophecy?” and the answer is, “Of course not.” We have the flu every year. The flu is just – this is life. And 100,000 people die every day. So there’s always a pandemic of death going on all the time, that’s the way it is in the world. And so whatever may be forms that these things take, we need to keep the gospel focus and proclaim the truth.
PHIL: Right. All right, so now we’ve curtailed our fellowship, and yet, as you’ve mentioned, you’re still preaching. We’ve stepped up our shepherding and compassion ministries and all of that. One question that people frequently ask – and I’ve gotten this by email, phone calls, people asking: “How are we going to do the Lord’s Table?” And there are churches that are trying to devise means of doing virtual communion. What are your thoughts about that?
JOHN: There’s a phrase used in 1 Corinthians and it’s this phrase: “When you come together,” and it’s used four times: “When you come together, when you come together, when you come together.” That’s a simple phrase. But I think the Lord’s Table is an experience for the church that is gathered. I wouldn’t do a – look, there’s no prohibition against a family doing the Lord’s Table led by the father. I don’t think that’s the plan. The plan is for the gathered church to come around the Lord’s Table. It’s a collective, it’s a collective experience that where we consider our sin and the greatness of the sacrifice of Christ to provide for our sin. It’s a time of self-examination, heart examination, all that. But I think it’s for the gathered church. And so as a church, we have just said when this is all over, we’re going to have a gathering and we’re going to have a great celebration and we’re going to come to the Lord’s Table. But in the meantime, a virtual Lord’s Table is a poor excuse for the reality. It reminds me of a – I was in Colorado and I visited a megachurch, a kind of charismatic megachurch, and I was with Patricia and some of my grandkids. And the guy preached, and they had the typical megachurch music and lights and show and all that, and then this guy preached, and at the end he said, “Oh, by the way, this is Christmas Sunday. I mean, this is,” – and he said, “By the way, this is Communion Sunday, and there’s a table by the exit door, and when you go out, grab some crackers and juice.”
JOHN: And my grandson looked at me and said, “Did I just hear what I heard, ‘Grab some crackers and juice’? Gramps, let’s get out of this place.” So I’m not much for the grabbing crackers and juice approach to the Lord’s Table, and I think it’s better to do it right and wait till we do it right; and that’s what we decided to do.
PHIL: Good, yeah. And, in fact, there’s something valuable, I think, in letting people wait, and maybe for the first time in a lot of cases, appreciate the significance of this ordinance.
JOHN: Yeah, because for half a century at Grace Church it’s been a regular part of our life as a church. And now this is the longest we have gone without having the Lord’s Table. Yeah, it’ll be a couple of months by the time we get back together.
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, in that vein, this is an extraordinary thing, this quarantine. As you said, there have been worse pestilences, you know, that have gone global and all that. But in the long history of humanity, there’s never been a crisis that’s been dealt with quite like this one, where the entire economy of the world instantly shuts down. And it’s one of those seismic, world-changing crises where I think even after this is over, the world will never be the same. Do you foresee any major changes that are going to affect the church even after we do come back together?
JOHN: Well, human hearts aren’t going to change. People in power aren’t going to change, they’re still going to try to keep their power. They may have ratcheted up their controls to some degree because they’ve power where they never had it before.
I don’t know, but that’s sort of irrelevant to me. I don’t really care what the form of the government is. I mean, I prefer certain things obviously. But we are kingdom people. And, “My kingdom is not of this world,” is exactly what our Lord said. “And if My kingdom was of this world, My servants would fight,” right? But we don’t fight, we say, “Okay, this is what God is doing in the world and He’s in charge; this is within His framework and His plan.”
How can we live as lights in the world and make the gospel the issue? Again, that 9/11 experience was dramatic because all of a sudden people saw a vulnerability and the reality of their mortality and the imminence of death being beyond their control, and there was a new openness to, “Am I ready to die?”
You remember, I think it was in the ‘90s, an earthquake. We had a massive earthquake.
JOHN: And within the next week or two the church was packed with all these people who, “This is completely out of my control,” and there was terror in people. We haven’t had an earthquake in California in quite a few years now. But the Northridge earthquake and a previous earthquake back in 1972 affected people because it frightened them.
I remember saying to Larry King when he said, “What’s the lesson of 9/11?” when I was on that Larry King Show. I said, “The lesson is, you’re going to die and you’re not in control of when; that’s the lesson.” I mean, people in a tower, and all of a sudden they’re dead, that’s what frightens people. So I think these kinds of things the Lord can use to awaken people.
You know what Jesus said in Matthew 11? He said, “Come unto Me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I’ll give you rest.” It’s the people who can’t carry the burden. It’s the people who can’t find rest who come to the Lord.
PHIL: Yeah, so this is a good thing actually. Well, in fact, in that same vein, talk about some of the spiritual lessons that we can learn from this pandemic. It certainly reminds us, for example, that life is tenuous, not only, like you say, we don’t have control over it, but it’s short. James 4:14, “You’re just a vapor that appears for a little while then vanishes away.” What other spiritual reminders would you see in this current crisis?
JOHN: Well, I think just touching base with what you said in the thought from James that life is a vapor. We don’t know how many millions of babies are aborted. And then you add all the illnesses and all the diseases and all the natural causes, and as I said, death is all around us. Death is all around us, and it’s not just death that’s all around us, but this is a very despairing culture we live in today. And what makes not death fearful, but life so vapid and empty is the inability to make meaningful relationships.
Marriages are disasters. In any kind of relationship between men and women, basically it’s assumed to be temporary, short-lived, and even a marriage. So people say, “Why do I get married? I don’t want to get a divorce. I don’t want all the hassles that go with divorce.” Kids don’t get along with their parents, parents don’t know how to train their children; they don’t want to discipline them. They’ve been taught for generations now that spanking is a crime against your child, it’s child abuse. And the Bible’s really clear that if you don’t do that you’re going to get a rebel; and so we have all that rebellion.
Marriages are in disastrous condition. Families are shattered. And we’re starting to see that even in this COVID-19 thing, that what’s escalating is violence in the home: home violence, violence between husband and wife, and parents and children. Abusive parents now aren’t leaving home, and the kids don’t get any relief, they don’t get any protection. So what is happening is it isn’t just that we might die, it’s that life just is not fulfilling. There’s no joy, there’s no happiness. And then you add another factor to it, which I think is quite interesting: there’s no sports.
JOHN: So you’ve got the usual escapes aren’t there. And the bars aren’t open, and that’s another escape that’s not there. And I don’t know, maybe even getting drugs is more difficult than it normally would be because they can’t get out on the streets and do that. I don’t know to what degree, but the normal devices that people use to take them away – and they can’t go to the movies. Television looks like a pile of reruns all the time. Nothing, nothing that they usually fill their void with is the way it used to be. And I think in all this emptiness we just need to take every opportunity we can to proclaim the gospel.
PHIL: This is a prime opportunity for Christians to be bold evangelists, isn’t it, because people are facing their mortality with an unusual sense of immediacy. The threat of disaster hangs over the whole world and our economy, hearts are full of fear, and the only real solution to what is humanity’s biggest problem is the gospel. People are, I think, ready to hear it.
JOHN: Yeah. And there’s another thing as well. You remember the final message I gave at the Shepherds’ Conference was “A Call for Unity in the Church.”
PHIL: Yes. Great message.
JOHN: And I talked about how all these identity groups: the racist issues, the feminist issues, the homosexual issues that have now come into the church, and you’ve got all these identity groups and all these victim groups – everybody needs to be a victim. We’ve talked a lot about that, that you don’t have any leverage in the culture unless you’re a victim. Then the more victim categories you fit into, the more power you have because you’re a victim.
JOHN: We’ve talked about that. That’s called intersectionality, where this category of victim and that category of victim intersect with each other, and you’re double, triple victims. That was dominating the dialog in evangelicalism, you know, “We’ve got to do reparations for this, and we’ve got to let women be what they should be, and we’ve got to pay back people who were abused in the past, and we’ve got to have a space for people who are celibate homosexuals because that’s normal for them,” and all this identity; and it was caustic, it was mean, it was divisive. And I made the statement in that message at Shepherds’ Conference that when people don’t have the real enemy in view, they fight each other.
When an army doesn’t have a real enemy to fight, they fight each other. When a team doesn’t have a real opponent to fight they fight each other. And all of a sudden that has completely disappeared, you just don’t hear anything about it anymore. Where did all those people go? Where are all the people who were saying, “The most important thing in the world is to give women their place, and let women be preachers, and make sure we do reparations for anybody that suffered in the past”?
PHIL: Some of them still are on Twitter.
JOHN: Yeah, but their tweets are oblivious to reality.
PHIL: It sort of shows the pettiness of it, doesn’t it, when people are really dying and you’re claiming to be a victim because someone holds a different opinion than you.
JOHN: And by the way, Twitter is an appropriate term to describe all that stuff, it doesn’t ascend beyond that. But it is – it fades when there’s a greater enemy. And what happens all of a sudden is people aren’t concerned about who they are and about their group identity. Honestly, this is a good thing. They’re trying to help each other, they’re trying to survive. They’re getting groceries for each other, they’re taking care of older people. They’re complying, they’re serving people they can. People are coming up with all kinds of ways to help people; and all of a sudden that stuff that occupied them is gone because they have a real enemy that they’re fighting and they can’t see the importance of the pettiness for at least a little while. I think when it fades away, the pettiness may come back. But maybe in the meantime, they’ll cross some lines and make some relationships that’ll moderate that in the future.
PHIL: Right. And you would agree, right, that the gospel ultimately is the only real solution to all of these problems.
JOHN: Well, of course, it’s only when your heart and life is transformed that you love. You know, the world knows us by our love. Jesus said, “They’ll know you by your love, how you love one for another.” So only the gospel transforms the heart into a heart of love.
PHIL: So with that in mind, let me ask you about an article that appeared in Time magazine just a few days ago. Many of our listeners –
JOHN: That magazine still exists?
PHIL: It does. I don’t know if they only publish online, but I saw this article online. And many of our listeners will know the name of the author N. T. Wright. He’s an Anglican bishop and academic, formerly, I think the Bishop of Durham; and now he’s a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. And so Time magazine asked him to give a churchmen’s view on the pandemic, and he wrote an article with this title. This is his title: “Christianity Offers No Answers to the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” It’s rare to see someone get so much wrong even before he gets past the title, don’t you think?
JOHN: Yeah. I know you could take that title a lot of ways. Christianity is not a drug; Christianity is not a vaccination; Christianity is not going to save you from the virus. By the way, just thinking about that, Phil, isn’t it amazing how little the healers, the supposed healers have to say in the middle of the coronavirus. Where did they all go?
JOHN: Wait a minute; where are they when we need them most? In fact, I think it’s Bethel Church that stopped all their healing meetings during the coronavirus. What kind of a crazy oxymoron is that?
JOHN: But I think maybe – I didn’t read the article by N. T. Wright, who is not trustworthy, by the way, and who does really –
PHIL: Yeah, let me summarize his point for you. I’ll read you part of what he says. This is his basis thesis. He says that instead of trying to understand why there is suffering in the world, what we need, he says – and this is an exact quote – he says, quote: “What we need is to recover the biblical tradition of lament.” He says, “Lament is what happens when people ask why and don’t get an answer. It’s where we go when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.” And further he says, “The point of lament is that God also laments.”
So he’s basically saying the right way to look at this is that these things are beyond anyone’s control, including God. He’s lamenting. There is no answer to the question of why. And I know you’ve given whole sermons taking the opposite perspective.
JOHN: Yeah, that is a very irresponsible way to look at anything, because essentially what he is saying is, “I don’t see God active in this situation, I see God outside of it lamenting over the fact that it’s even happening.”
PHIL: Yeah, in fact –
JOHN: This is a bizarre view of God.
PHIL: There was another well-known Christian leader, I won’t name him, but he was interviewed and asked, “Why would God allow this to happen?” This was his answer; and again I’m quoting his exact words. He said, “Well, I don’t think that God planned for this to happen.” That wouldn’t be your answer, would it?
JOHN: Well, look, no. In fact, not this Sunday, but the next Sunday I’m going to give a message on livestream on “The Role that God Plays in Suffering.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this. If God didn’t know about this, if God didn’t plan this, if God isn’t in every single aspect of this, then God’s not God, somebody else is god. The coronavirus is god, or the devil is god.
But God, by definition, is the Sovereign over everything. And if you deny the true God of Scripture who claims over and over and over and over to be sovereign over everything, and do good and to allow evil in the world, if you believe that the Bible takes everything back to God, everything, then you know God is in this. If you deny that God is in this and you see God outside weeping about it, then you have denied the God that is revealed in Scripture, you’ve denied the true God.
It isn’t that God finds pleasure in punishment and all consequence to sin in some form of punishment in directly. We see Jeremiah weeping, you know. In a sense, those are the tears of God. But to think of God as someone like us who just sits in a corner and feels bad because stuff’s happening that He can’t control –
PHIL: Yeah, there’s no comfort in that.
JOHN: Well, yeah. The only comfort we all have is because God is sovereign and because He transcends everything, and in everything He has His purpose.
PHIL: And His purpose is good, for our good.
JOHN: Yeah, good for us and glory for Him.
PHIL: Right. Right. Now you touched on this earlier. You mentioned it in passing, but I want to come back to it. A few of our listeners have written or called to ask if you think this current plague is one of those end-time pestilences that is described in Matthew 24 or the book of Revelation. You said earlier, no. I mean, we have the flu every year; this is a similar manifestation of that. Could it be a harbinger of worse things to come?
JOHN: No, I think biblically this doesn’t connect with anything in the Bible. I’m hearing people say, “This is the judgment of God on homosexuality or abortion or, you know, our failure to put God in the right place.” Listen, when that judgment comes, it’s not going to be the flu, it’s not going to be the flu. Last time that judgment came, He drowned the entire world, the whole human race, except for eight people in Genesis 6.
There is coming the judgment of God when the whole world is burned up. Prior to that, there’s a series of judgments that occur. They’re described in Revelation, from chapter 6 through 19 in the return of Jesus Christ. But those are things that are also described by our Lord in Matthew 24 and 25 that happened in the time of tribulation, but that’s after the rapture of the church. And the rapture of the church, the catching away of the church, which is the next event, is a signless event.
So this is just life. So if 50,000 Americans die of the flu, is that apocalyptic? No, no. I mean, people are dying all the time. You would have to go back to 1918 said, “Well, what about 100 million people died of the Spanish flu back in 1918, was that apocalyptic?” or you go back to the Bubonic plague when millions across Europe died. And you could go back to – well, go back to wars: World War I, World War II, millions died. Does that mean that because millions died in World War II that was the wars and rumors of wars of Matthew? No. That’s just life. That is life.
Life involves death and it involves death by many, many means. And part of the fall is bacteria and virus and corruption and all of that. So I don’t see this in any sense being apocalyptic or dealing with the last days just before Christ establishes His kingdom. Far more horrifying realities will come then. Then you have a fourth of the earth dying and the third of the earth dying in the book of Revelation, and you have the heavens collapsing, and darkness coming, and great balls of fire out of the sky hitting the earth and the waters being corrupted. Those are massively different than the flu.
PHIL: Right. I have a shelf full of books that I’ve collected that go back to the 19th century, the middle of the 1800s really, where people have been trying to shoehorn what were then current events into biblical timelines of future events; and it’s interesting to read. I mean, pretty much every world crisis, every war, every disease, every major ruler in the history of the past 200 years has been identified by somebody as possibly the Antichrist.
JOHN: Yeah, right.
PHIL: So far, all of those predictions have proved wrong. So, clearly, there’s a danger in that kind of speculation. We’re not entitled to read meaning into divine providence that isn’t clearly there in Scripture. On the other hand, there’s a danger of becoming so apathetic about the return of the Lord that we’re not ready for it when it happens. It is getting closer.
JOHN: Well, yeah, every day is closer, of course. But let me reconstruct the way to look at this virus, okay. Some bats in China had this coronavirus. They’re in a lab, some guy’s working in a lab, he gets it, a few other people get it; they go to town, they spread it around. If they had better controls in the lab, we don’t have it. If the Chinese government told the truth about what was going on, we don’t have it. If the models were different that were assumed that millions of people all over the earth were going to die, we’re not going to have this. If we had stopped people coming from China from spreading around the world at the first, this isn’t going to happen. So you cannot attribute all of those things to God.
And we heard this, too. Some years ago, people were warned, even American previous presidents were warned that we needed to get more ventilators. If we’d had more ventilators, fewer people would have died. This is not how the divine judgment of God works. You can’t stop the judgment of God, the eschatological, apocalyptic judgment of God by having more ventilators. So this is just life. This is life. “It’s appointed unto man once to die.” You don’t know when it’s going to happen. It could be a car accident. It could be an illness. It could be the flu, and maybe it complicates itself and it attaches to something, some other weakness and so forth.
But when the judgment of God is described in the Bible, if it’s a plague, it is a plague like in Egypt, it is a plague that basically has no explanation but a divine one. This could have been prevented by better preparation. And, in fact, the outcome of this is probably going to be that we’ll be better prepared in the future for this. So that would mean if it was a judgment of God, we figured out ways to hedge against the judgment of God. So this is just life. This is the flu. This is life in a fallen world, and we have to deal with virus.
PHIL: One of the obvious effects has been widespread fear. You see that in believers and unbelievers alike. And I know you’ve dealt with that a lot recently. Fear, we’re told in Scripture not to fear. Is it a sin to fear in a situation like this?
JOHN: Yeah, it’s a sin to fear if you mean by fear, the sense that everything’s out of control. It’s sensible to say, “Drive carefully,” because you fear that if you’re irresponsible or you don’t drive carefully you could get in an accident. It’s sensible to fear texting when you’re driving, right? You don’t want to do that. It’s sensible not to get in an airplane with a guy who just got his license and wants to fly you over the Rockies; that’s a normal fear. Yeah, I think there are fears that we would put in the category of sensible protections. You want to be careful about certain things; that’s normal. But the fear you’re talking about, the sinful fear is that the world is not in the control of God. If you divest God of His sovereignty over everything, that’s a sin.
So whatever comes into your life, your response as a Christian is, “God has this. It’s in the plan, it’s in His purpose, it fits what He’s doing. All things will work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” This is for our good. “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, because they have a perfecting work.” God is using everything in this world to fulfill His will, fulfill His purpose, and conform us to Christ. That takes the fear out.
I don’t have any fear of dying because I’m going to be with the Lord. I don’t have any fear of what would cause me to die because that’s the way I’m going to go to be with the Lord. I don’t have a fear of anything else that would alter my life in some permanent way because that, too, would be the purpose of the Lord.
Look, I wouldn’t want to be – I would like to be able to live the way I’m living now with strength and energy and able to do everything I’ve always done. But that may not be the Lord’s plan for me. He might extend my life beyond my ability to do anything. And nobody wants a lingering life where you’re just – somebody, everybody has to take care of. But if God has a purpose in that, that’s His purpose, that’s His will.
So I think what takes the fear away is that God is your protector. God is the one who has your life in His hands, and He knows every single thing that goes on in your life, and He has a purpose and a plan, and He will bring that to its fruition, and it’s inevitable. He’s in control. That is the ultimate confidence that removes all fear. And if you are afraid, it’s because you don’t trust God and that process of accomplishing His will.
PHIL: That’s a great encouragement. And, you know, as we’re talking about these things, I’m realizing there are undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands of our listeners who are going to be affected in devastating ways by the shutdown of the economy. People will lose their jobs, their businesses, people who we love and know and listen to. Speak to those people, and if you would, close in a prayer for them.
JOHN: Sure. And again, it’s what I said the first Sunday that I did the livestream in Matthew: “If the Lord takes care of the grass of the field which flourishes today and tomorrow is burned up, will He not take care of you? If He feeds the birds, will He not feed you? O you of little faith!” I think it was David who said in the Bible, “I’ve not seen the Lord’s people begging bread. My God shall supply all your needs.” So everything that happens in our lives is in His control. I can’t say that about unbelievers who aren’t His children. But those of us who are His children are in His care. He will supply all our needs. He will never leave us, He will never forsake us.
Now your life may change, you know. You may have to live in a different place. You could end up in a bankruptcy situation that would cause you to restructure your life. But the way you want to respond to that is that this is meant for my good and God’s glory, and I’ve got to find the pathway to the next phase of His will in my life. Nothing is forever anyway.
I remember a friends who’s a builder in Colorado, a home builder, and there was a huge fire and burned up hundreds and hundreds of homes. And he was involved in the rebuilding, and he said, “The most interesting thing about that whole process was I never met a single person for whom I was building a home who was sorry the other one burnt down.” And I said, “Really? And why?” He said, “Because it ended the necessity to make so many decisions about stuff.”
JOHN: I understand that.
PHIL: I get that, too. Yeah.
JOHN: So life can get unnecessarily complicated, and it may be that the Lord is putting you through something that will simplify your life. And here’s the bottom line. Life consists not in the things we possess. Right?
JOHN: It consists in the relationships we enjoy. I don’t care what kind of car I drive, I really don’t care what kind of house I live in, but I do care about the people that enrich and fulfill my life. So let your life be defined by the relationships that are most precious to you, and don’t worry about the other things, the Lord will take care of them.
Maybe this is a good time to have a word of prayer.
JOHN: Father, we thank You again for the confidence we have in You. You are our God. You are sovereign over everything. You hold us in Your hands. Our life is hid with Christ in God says Scripture. Though we know that You will meet all our needs, that we will never go begging, that You care for the grass and the flowers and the birds; and You care for us far more than that. We thank You that everything You do in our lives is to conform us to Christlikeness. We thank You that we learn the most from what we lose, and where we fail, far more than what we gain and where we succeed.
Help us to trust Your providence and Your purpose and the end, that we might be more like Christ, so in the times when we maybe even lose the things that are an important part of our lives, may we let them go readily. May we hold everything that we have in the world of possessions as a very light thing. May we hold everything with loose grip so that You take it away and bring us to even a better place. May we not be concerned about things in this life, temporal things, but rather be concerned about that eternal weight of glory. May we set our affections on things above and not on things in the earth, because it’s above in heaven where our Father is, our Savior is, and where our reward awaits. So give us heavenly perspective and bring us joy in that hope, we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
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