Hebrews 11, 12. Part 30. Pandemic.

In the good and gracious providence of God, he has allowed a pandemic to sweep the earth. As with all things, he will use this for our good, no matter how grim it looks today and no matter the tragedy of our losses.

“This suffering is all part of what God has called you to. Christ, who suffered for you, is your example. Follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

According to Johns Hopkins, SARS-CoV-2 has infected 2,731,939 Americans. Additionally, many more people have it, but are asymptomatic and infectious, but will probably never be discovered. COVID-19 has killed 128,643 of our people as of today. That’s 4.708% of those known to be infected. By comparison, the 2019-2020 influenza season infected an estimated 45,000,000 Americans and killed 46,000, just 0.102% of the sick.

We must act with caution, curtailing our freedoms to save lives and to keep our hospital ICUs from overfilling. This requires selflessness. With the Lord’s help, we can arrive at herd immunity gradually, so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system. A pandemic changes our lives.

I’ve been pondering the opening paragraphs of Hebrews 12. For “a great cloud of witnesses” to exist, those believers had to die, some under grim circumstances. They headed toward our God and Savior, the Light at the end of the tunnel, and now, they find themselves blessed to be with him.

Hebrews 11 details more than twenty such people of faith and their stories. Some died of old age; some died while under persecution. Many of the letter’s recipients probably died in the arena. Their stories encourage us, because this pandemic makes death a closer reality.

Death feels near.

“…LOOKING TO JESUS, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. CONSIDER HIM who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:2-4).

That cloud of witnesses arrived there in the Lord’s presence by attesting to their faith by their words and their faithful lives. The word “witnesses” here is martys, a word translated as “martyr” or “witness.”

The ESV Study Bible states: “(1) These Old Testament heroes witnessed to their faith by their words and their faithful lives. (2) Like spectators watching an athletic contest in an arena, they may now be watching or ‘witnessing’ believers’ lives. The first sense is a common meaning for the word, but in this verse the imagery of being surrounded by these witnesses gives the sense that they are eagerly watching from heaven” as if we’re participating in an athletic event in a sports arena and they are our cheering crowd.

As we run our race, The Witness I’m drawn to embrace is the Savior sitting at our Father’s right hand. The One who died for me, who pleads for me. He is the most important Witness of my life and of yours. The welcoming presence of this most precious Witness beckons us homeward, inspiring us to lay aside the burdens and the sins that ensnare us, and to align ourselves with his plan.

As Paul stated, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11 ESV). To become like Jesus, we must take the same journey. Therefore, death is dear, so very, very dear, for in that moment he pulls us close and takes us into his arms.

When we consider our own deaths, we must consider our eternity and lay aside everything that weighs us down, our selfishness, our petty squabbles, our hatreds, our prejudices, our bitterness. Let it all go. And yet, sin ensnares us so easily, it hovers nearby, clinging close, besetting us.

We look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who endured the cross for the joy of gaining us. He’s now advocating for us, interceding, pleading our cases before the Father, empowering us. We keep our eyes on him, lest we grow weary or fainthearted.

These uplifting words we find in Hebrews 12 are all wrapped around instructions about the discipline of the Lord. We are God’s children, his offspring, his heirs. We know that children must be trained, including God’s children. He is the most patient and loving Father.

The original word used for discipline here is paideia (noun)/ paideuo (verb), which means all that is involved in the training of small children, toddlers — dusting them off when they fall down, kissing them, setting them back on their feet, chastening them when they do wrong, teaching them, correcting their course, and exhorting them to do well.

Discipline also involves reproving (elegcho), meaning to emphasize why an action was wrong and shouldn’t be repeated, for the good of the child. Parents train their children to prepare them for life. In the same way, God trains us through these life experiences. We are greatly in need of training.

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
     and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:5-11 ESV).

The Lord orchestrated circumstances that sent his Old Testament heroes in a new direction, thus bringing his training discipline and instruction into their lives through twists and turns they never would have chosen.

“By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future” (Hebrews 11:20 NIV).

Jacob’s faith was established during his arduous journey to his mother’s homeland, running from Esau after stealing his birthright and blessing, followed by trials provoked by a father-in-law as crafty as he, and then the return trip home. All of this training brought Jacob to true belief and the fathering of a multitude. When he met his brother Esau, both had grown.

“By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21).

In naming both of Joseph’s sons as fathers of tribes, Jacob bestowed firstborn honor upon Joseph, who lived out the faith of his forefathers, even in Egypt, a destination that was not of his choosing.

However, Jacob foretold that Judah’s lineage would provide Messiah, which it did. These inherited the Promised Land, though during a famine, they journeyed to Egypt. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, they never guessed that he was the vanguard of their future enslavement.

After their father’s death, Joseph tested his brothers’ character and forgave them for selling him into slavery. He provided a picture of the coming Messiah, who would also be betrayed unto death by his own brothers — his fellow Jews, and yet he would save us all.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19-21 NIV).

Joseph trusted that God would keep his promise to return his people to the Promised Land in four hundred years, and so “by faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones” (Hebrews 11:22 NIV). When they left Egypt, the Israelites carried Joseph’s bones with them.

In hard times, the things that feel as if they will work evil in our lives are actually used by God to bring good. Not only are we trained and prepared for life as followers of Christ, but our faith is proven. The Lord makes a way, he answers our prayers, he causes us to grow. Discipline and hardship are for this purpose.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2 ESV).

God’s tests are always intended to bring about good in our lives, to produce the peaceful fruit of love and kindness, coupled with selfless character and actions that befit followers of Christ.

God's tests are always intended to bring about good in our lives, to produce the peaceful fruit of love and kindness, coupled with selfless character and actions that befit followers of Christ. #KindnessMatters Click To Tweet

Will we grow? Will we live with our eyes on Jesus, ready to meet him face to face at whatever time he ordains? We are headed toward Mount Zion, toward the City of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. We live for him.

How do you see this working out in your own life? In what ways has this pandemic, your health, or these racial conflicts worked as discipline for growth in your life?