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Why the Pandemic? Understanding God's Role and Purpose

Tom Pennington


Well good evening and welcome to the first edition of Sunday evening online. So glad that you've chosen to join me tonight. As you can see, I am here in my home office. This is a joy and a privilege for me. I just need to tell you, first of all, because I am in my home and in my office, you just need to be warned. You could hear any number of things. You could hear the floor upstairs creaking. You could hear my neighbor's woodchipper that's been running all afternoon. You could hear my neighbor's kids enjoying each other. So just be aware of that. You are just sort of joining me as part of my life. This is where I, along with my office at the church, spend so much of my life and ministry. I love it here. This is one of my favorite places on the planet because I am surrounded by both my family; it's good to have all my girls here at home for this season and also by a number of my other friends - these good books that are all around me. So, it's a joy. It's, again, a joy to have you with us this evening.

In the future, for Sunday evening online, we may do a number of things. We've talked about possibly some panel discussions; talked about, you know, maybe some interviews with folks on various topics. And we'll see how all that unfolds and how long all of these current circumstances continue. But those are some of the things we're thinking about and talking about.

But tonight, I want to address an issue that I think is on all of our minds. I really just want us to step back and have an informal Bible study together; asking the question why? I'm sure you've asked that question. I've certainly asked that question. Why has God, why has our great and good and all-wise God allowed these circumstances, this worldwide pandemic that is taking lives, that is turning the world on its head? What is God doing? And so that is what we want to consider.

As we get started, why don't you join me for prayer and let's just ask the Lord's blessing on our time together.

"Our Father, it is such a joy to come to Your Word for answers. Lord, thank You that You've not left us alone in the world; that You've given us Your Word. You've given us Your Spirit. And Lord, I pray that now, as we open Your Word and study together, that You would give us real wisdom and insight. Help us to think as Christians about the events that are unfolding around us. And Lord I just ask that through our time together tonight, our brief study together, that You would be pleased to give us understanding. Most of all, give us greater trust, greater confidence in You, in Your plan, in Your goodness, so that as we walk through these days, we can do so with full hearts; even hearts of joy in giving You thanks for all that You will accomplish through this circumstance. So, Lord, bless our time together. Open our minds and hearts to understand Your Word. And we ask in Jesus' name. Amen!"

Well, I hope you have a copy of the Bible handy, God's Word, and we're going to look at several places. So, again, just - not going to be an exhaustive study - but just some hooks on which to hang some of those questions that are in all of our minds.

You know, when you think about the question why, there are a lot of answers being offered. You know, the basic worldview that surrounds us is naturalism. And naturalism's answer is to why is all this unfolding is very much a manner of randomness. It is the random result of the ongoing, evolutionary process and we're just swept along in it. That is a frightening thought. But that is the consistent answer of most of our culture because that's her worldview. You know, environmentalism, those who are on the extremes of that issue, seems to imply that in some strange way, this is almost the Earth's revenge against us for how we have abused the planet. You've read, as I have, several responses by people who really don't know what they're talking about, who don't have definitions for things like Marxism but who are essentially espousing Marxist views and they would say that, in some way, this all related to the, you know, the capitalistic greed that is consumed our world and out of that came this virus and its results. Liberal Christianity doesn't really have an answer and, in fact, their response to why this and other disasters happen in our world is that God has absolutely nothing to do with it. And He is as concerned as we are and wishes that it had never happened. And that's kind of the man-centered, weak God view of liberal Christianity and, sadly, it has influenced some in evangelicalism as well. Maybe my own personal favorite for the recent views that come out, and I don't usually quote Dolly Parton as a theologian, but I thought it was interesting that she weighed in as to why all this is happening and she said it is God but it's just God trying to encourage us all to love one another; that that's really what the pandemic is all about. So those are few of the ideas that are out there but, as you know, there are a bunch of ideas; not all of them helpful. Most of them are, frankly, not helpful about why these things have unfolded.

So, I just want us to ask the question, what does the Bible say? That's always where we as Christians have to go. What does God say about why? And, when you look at the Scripture and you consider whether it's this disaster or whether you're thinking about, you know, about other disasters that happen. Ultimately, what the Bible teaches about these things can be reduced to two sweeping assertions about all of the disasters, of every kind, that happen on this planet. And I want us to think about those two assertions for just a few minutes this evening.

The first one, the first assertion that the Bible makes, and we'll look at several where this is true is this - God is ultimately responsible for all of the disasters in our world. God is ultimately responsible for all the disasters in our world. In a nutshell, even as we were studying this morning about God's sovereignty and His providence, the Bible teaches that God directs everything happens in our world, including what we would call disasters. And, so in truly Biblical terms as well as in insurance terms, what happens on this planet can be referred to as acts of God. Now that's an answer that we need to dive into a little bit because you can easily misunderstand. You can come to a wrong conclusion about the character of God. You can come to a number of wrong conclusions if we don't drill into that a little bit. So, think about that with me for a moment.

God does take responsibility for all the disasters that happen on this planet. And when you look through Scripture - and I'm not going to take you through every text, I'll show you some - but the list is exhaustive. I mean, God takes responsibility for floods, storms, lightning, tornados, earthquakes, drought, famines, outbreaks of diseases like our current experience; even the invasion of another country's army. In all those cases, and in many more - those are just, that's just a representative list of examples - God takes the responsibility for those things. For example, in Amos 3:6, the Prophet Amos is talking about those things that are just certain, that are just settled, and he says this, "...If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?" Think about that for a moment. If a calamity occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it? And the implication of the Prophet Amos is, of course He has! Of course, God is the one who has accomplished this. Isaiah 45:7, God says this about Himself. He says, I am "The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity". Listen to that, "causing well-being" - causing peace, causing Shalom - and creating calamity. "I am the LORD who does all these." In Habakkuk 3:3-5, it says, the Holy One comes, "His splendor covers the heavens…the earth is full of His praise. His radiance is like the sunlight; He has rays flashing from His hand, and there is the hiding of His power". And then it adds this, "Before Him goes pestilence, and plague comes after Him." And so, again, God is taking responsibility. But, ultimately, again, if we are not careful, we can misunderstand. It's not that these things are inherently part of the nature and character of God. Instead, we have to understand that all disasters, like we're talking about, are, in the end, a result of the fall. They're a result of man's sin and God's just judgment on our sin.

Now, when we say all of them are the result of the fall, we can still drill down a little more because we can take all of those disasters that are a result of the fall and say that there are three, sort of, nuances that we have to understand in that. First of all, some of the disasters that come are the direct consequence of human sin or, we could say, of man's careless stewardship of the planet. An example that comes immediately to mind is if there's a massive oil spill that is the result of human carelessness and, as a result of that, you know hundreds of square miles of the ocean and countless miles of coastline are terribly affected and destroyed, it's not right to say that God is the immediate cause of those things. He's the ultimate cause but He's not the immediate cause. That is instead, the result of human sin.

We could also say there's another, sort of, variation here. And that is, some of the things, some of the disasters that occur on this planet, are the result of Satanic activity that has been allowed by God but is, at the same time, directed and controlled by God. It's restrained. It's held within limits. You know, as you've heard me say many times, quoting Martin Luther, Satan is God's devil. God has him on a leash and only allows him to go so far. But God does allow Satan to bring certain disasters on this planet. Let me give you an example. Turn to Job 1, and you remember the confrontation back and forth between Job and, or between Satan and God about Job. And in that context, Job 1:9, "...Satan answered the Lord, "Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face." Now, obviously, understand here that Satan is acknowledging that ultimately God has to allow these things. But watch verse 12, "Then the Lord said to Satan, 'Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.' So, Satan departed from the presence of the Lord. And what exactly did Satan do? Well, look at verse 16, "While he was still speaking, another also came and said, 'The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you." Some disaster, probably related to lightning, that brought disaster into the family of Job. Again, God is the ultimate cause but the immediate cause. He's allowing Satan to accomplish these things. Look down at verse 18, verses 18 and 19, "While he was still speaking, another also came and said, 'Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and behold, a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people and they died, and I alone have escaped to tell you.'" Again, here's a natural disaster that, ultimately, comes and traces back to God but the immediate cause of it, under God's allowance was Satan.

So, some of the things that happened are the result of human sin and human carelessness. Some of them are the result of Satanic activity. But some of them are the result of God's direct action. Again, tracing back to the fall, these things wouldn't happen if man hadn't sinned and the fall hadn't come, and God hadn't judged this world with all of these things. But sometimes, in the midst of that, God takes direct action. Of course, the greatest example is the flood. I mean, what is the greatest disaster to ever happen to this planet. Genesis 6:17 says this. God is speaking. He says, "Behold, I, even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall perish." Notice how God puts it. He says, "I, even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life." You see this again in Ezekiel. Turn to Ezekiel, and again, here we have these disasters are a result of the fall. Some of them are human caused. Some of them are Satanically caused. Some of them are directly caused by God. Ezekiel 14:12, "Then the word of the Lord came to me". Ezekiel the prophet is saying, "Son of man, if a country" - now notice it's generic. It's not now specifically about Israel. He's going to do that later in this passage but he says, "Son of man, if a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness, and I stretch out My hand against it, destroy its supply of bread, send famine against it and cut off from it both man and beast". And he goes on to say that it's not going to be delivered if I choose to act in this way. And then go down to verse 19. "...if I should send a plague against that country and pour out My wrath in blood on it to cut off man and beast from it, even though Noah, Daniel and Job were in its midst, as I live," declares the Lord God, "they could not deliver either their son or their daughter. They would deliver only themselves by their righteousness." God is talking about the fact that He's going to judge Jerusalem. He goes to say that verse 21. But, in this context, he's saying I, sometimes, do this. I, sometimes, act directly to bring disaster into the countries of this world."

Now, as soon as I say that, again, it's important to balance that with a couple of other statements that God makes about Himself. One of those statements is that what God does, even in this way, He's always right and just. God never acts capriciously, on a whim, to get some sort of sadistic pleasure. In fact, Ezekiel says, God takes no delight in the death of the wicked. He finds no joy in that. Instead, He cries out, "Repent and live. Turn to Me and live." That's the heart of God. And so, it's important to understand that when God acts like this, He does so justly. Genesis 18:25 says, "...Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" Psalm 97:2, "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne." And Psalm 145:17 says, "The Lord is righteous in all His ways...". So, God only does what's right. So, you have to make sure, even as we talk about God's involvement in these things, you keep that in mind.

There's a second reality that I think is very important to keep in mind about God. And that is, that in disaster and wrath, God also remembers mercy. God, in this world, balances even His temporal judgments with mercy because He's good and He's kind. And so, you see it, for example, with the Egyptians. You remember, He gave even the Egyptians ways to avoid some of the plagues that He brought on the land of Egypt, if they would hear His voice, if they would obey Him. You see it, another example would be Jeremiah 29:11 where God says to Israel, "For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope." God says, I'm going to bring judgment on you, but I have mercy in mind as well. I have goodness and your welfare in mind. In Habakkuk 3:2, Habakkuk says, "...O Lord, revive Your work in the midst of the years, In the midst of the years make it known". And then he says this as he anticipates Babylon's destruction of his nation, he says, "[Lord] In wrath remember mercy." And God always does. In fact, God often decides to protect His own. We saw that, remember, in Psalm 91 a couple of weeks ago as we studied it together on Sunday morning. And, if He doesn't choose to protect us from the disaster, if He allows us to go through it, then He promises, the end of Psalm 91, to be with is, to strengthen us, to ultimately usher us into His eternal presence.

So, it's very clear that God takes ultimate responsibility for everything that happens in the universe, including the disasters like this pandemic that comes. But that brings us to the question of why. To what end does God direct such events? The second Biblical proposition about God's involvement with disasters...the first is simply that He takes ultimate responsibility for all of them. The second is that, God always uses disasters to accomplish spiritual and eternal goals. God never works, either allowing human sin or Satanic activity or directly acting, except for real, eternal, and spiritual purposes.

And I just want to take a moment and remind you of few of those purposes. Here's some of what God is doing in this worldwide pandemic in which we find ourselves. First of all, I think, it's important to remember that God uses these sorts of things to cause men to fear Him; to cause men to fear Him. Habakkuk 3:2 says, "Lord, I have heard the report about You." Habakkuk says, I know what You're going to do, what you're going to do through the Babylonians to us and I fear. Revelation 11:13 says, "there was a great earthquake", that God will send in the end and a tenth of the city falls, "seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven." In Revelation 14:7, after the seventh trumpet is blown and the judgments begin to unfold, an angel said with a loud voice, "Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters." And so, God acts in these sorts of things to bring men to fear Him, to remind them of the natural revelation that they have. Remember Romans 1. Every man knows there's a God. He knows certain things are true about God - God's power, God's deity, God's eternality. He also knows, according to the end of Romans 1, what God expects of mankind, and of course, Romans 2 makes the same point - it's written on the conscience. He knows all of these things. So, one of the things that disasters like this does, or disasters like this do I should say, is it brings those realities to bear on the human heart. It erases that sort of ignoring of God and reminds man of the fact that there is a God. He knows there's a God. He has to deal with that God, and it brings him again to a, not a saving fear of God, but the kind of fear of God that reminds him that there is a God and he's not Him and that God is in control. And that is a very important thing for man and realize.

A second purpose, not only to cause us to fear Him, but secondly, and we have to acknowledge this, is to execute temporal judgment on sin; not eternal judgment, but temporal judgment on sin. You know those who've gone before us have acknowledged this. The Puritans talked a lot about this. Thomas Vincent preached a sermon and the result was a book that came out of the fires and the plagues that struck 17th century London and he called it, "God's Terrible Voice in the City". And I think we have to acknowledge that there is a temporal judgment involved in these things. That's what the Scriptures teach. Let me just remind you of that.

First of all, I mean and this is obvious, I'm not going to belabor this - when it came to God's chosen people, Israel, God promised them in Deuteronomy 28 that if they broke the covenant, if they disobeyed, then God would bring temporal judgment into their nation including, you can read it for yourself. Deuteronomy 28:15-26, He says, I will bring temporal judgments of various kinds, including plague and pestilence into the nation. So that was true of Israel but, I don't know if you realize this or not, but God also said the same thing was true about other nations. He's done that with other nations in the past. Look, for example, in Jeremiah 28:8. It says, "The prophets who were before me and before you from ancient times" - listen to this - "[they] prophesied against many lands and against great kingdoms, of war and of calamity and of pestilence." And he goes on to say that when those things come to pass, then you know that's a true prophet. But I want you to see the point he's making, that he's underscoring, that God's prophets not only prophesied temporal judgments against the people of Israel, because they've broken the covenant they've made with God (Mount Sinai in Exodus 19), but also against the other nations surrounding them. So, the nations of our world are not exempt from God's temporal judgment. You can see it, and I won't have you turn there, but Ezekiel 28:22-23 as well. You see this same reality throughout the church age. In fact, you remember in the Olivet Discourse, at the end of Jesus' ministry on Tuesday of the Passion Week, He talks about the future and all that's going to unfold. And He talks about what's going to happen during the church age and, of course, that's recorded in three of the Gospels. But in Luke 21, He describes the time period in which we live in this way. This is Luke 21:10, He says, "...He continued by saying to them, 'Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom". In other words, there's going to be wars, rumors of wars, this isn't the end yet. That's just going to keep coming. In fact, He calls them birth pangs in the other gospel account. Like Braxton Hicks - they're not the real contractions that are going to happen in the tribulation before Christ returns, they're like Braxton Hicks' contractions that are sort of the precursors of what are coming. And then He adds this (in the church age), "there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven." So, these things are going to happen and they're going to be part of the world we live in throughout the church age.

And then God will bring judgment of this kind on the world in the future tribulation period. In Revelation 6:8 (speaking of the fourth seal of the title deed of the earth that's broken as Jesus pours out His judgment on this world and begins to take it back from the usurper), says, "I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades (or the grave) was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth." So, understand that God often uses the disasters of our world, including plague, pestilence, the outbreaks of disease, to bring temporal judgment on this world.

There's a third reason He allows these things and that is to sanctify His own. And, I don't need to belabor this, we've been through this so much in the book of Romans. But you remember that was true with Job, right? He used what He brought into Job's life so then in the end Job says, "I repent in sackcloth and ashes. You know, I heard of you with the hearing of the ear and now my eyes have seen". And Job comes to a place of acknowledging and recognizing who God is. And so, God does the same thing in our lives. You remember. Look at Romans, just to remind you, Romans 8. I'm sorry go to Romans 5. He says, as a result of our justification, there's some immediate benefits of that. In verse 3, "we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope". He says, "Look, I, we actually, we boast in the troubles of this life that we encounter". Why? Because they build endurance. And as we endure, as we continue to believe in Christ, through the troubles of this life, as you have continued to hold your faith in Christ through this disaster, through this trouble, then it produces proven character. Proven character not to God - God already knows your His - but to you! It shows you that you're really His. And, as a result, it gives you hope. It gives you hope for your future. So, this how God uses it to sanctify us and, of course, we looked Romans 8:18, what we're suffering in this life isn't "worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us." Verse 28 of Romans 8, God is using all these things, He's causing all these things to work together for our spiritual good, to make us like Christ. And so, God is using this in your life for your spiritual good, just like He's using it in mine. Now, there are lessons we are learning in this time that we would never have learned if God hadn't brought this worldwide pandemic onto this planet.

Another reason, a fourth reason that God has allowed this, is to drive sinners to repentance. Look at Luke 13. I just have a couple more. I'd plan to take 30 minutes; might just be a hair longer. Those of you who know me, you know you're laughing at me. I understand that. I laugh at myself. I really thought that I was going to make it by 30 minutes. But just a couple more minutes. Look at Luke 13. Jesus, here, talks about a couple of disasters that had happened. One of them was an accident. The other was human caused by Pilate. And I won't go through the specifics, but Jesus basically says, verse 2, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate [at the hand of Pilate]? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." What's Jesus saying? He's saying, "Look, understand that disasters are actually God's wakeup call for all of us, for everyone on this planet to repent because if we don't, we're going to suffer a worse fate than merely physical death." That's His point and He's not being cruel. He's not being heartless. He's being gracious. He's being loving. And so, understand that what we're experiencing in this pandemic is more mercy and grace than it is judgment. You know, when God acts in judgment, I mean look at the flood - He wipes out the entire world. Look at Sodom and Gomorrah. The cities are gone except for a handful of people. And, of course, in the book of Revelation, the earth is decimated. No, what God is doing through this epidemic is actually remembering mercy. He is extending the invitation of the gospel. He's pleading with men to respond to the gospel of His Son. Those who have heard it and been exposed to it - this is His way to say, "Death is a reality, judgment is coming. You need to repent and believe." And I would say that to you. If you're listening to this study and you're not in Christ, listen, this is God's wakeup call. This is God's grace. Like Romans 2 says, you know, don't you know that God's goodness in letting you live is calling you to repentance, calling you to respond to His Son, to respond to the gospel. And this happens, doesn't it? This is happening now. We need to pray that it happens. Pray that it happens in the lives of our family and friends. Pray that it happens in the life of people all around this world who've heard the gospel. And may God give us a chance to share the gospel with others. So that God can use even this worldwide pandemic as a gracious summons to mercy; that cry of the prophet, "Turn to me all the ends of the earth and be saved." That is, in a real sense, what God is saying. Repent! Find forgiveness in my Son! And so, understand, God is doing that through this disaster. The real question to ask when disaster like this strikes is not, "Why did those people have to die?". As tragic as that is, the real question is, "Why does God let anyone live?" It's His mercy. It's His grace. And in it, in allowing us to live, those who don't know His Son, He is extending His mercy and grace.

One last reason to keep in mind as to why God is doing this. And this is the ultimate reason of all. And that is to display His name and His glory; his name and His glory. Look back at Exodus 9. You remember in the middle of the plagues of Egypt, God makes this statement, Exodus 9:13, "...the Lord said to Moses, 'Rise up early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh and say to him, 'Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, 'Let My people go, that they may serve Me. For this time, I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, (here it is) so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth." God said, "Listen, if I wanted to truly judge you there'd be no man standing". "But, indeed, (verse 16) for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth." And, of course, the reason God proclaims His name throughout all the earth is so that men would turn to Him. So that men would turn from their sin and repent and find the forgiveness that He so freely offers. And the New Testament makes it clear is accomplished through His Son.

So those are some of the things God is doing through this pandemic. Are those all that God's doing? Of course not. Romans 11, remember, says "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?" We can't know all that God is doing. But these are just a few of the things that God is accomplishing.

How should you respond? Well, you should exalt God's glory by praising, pointing others to His sovereignty. You should urge unbelievers to repent and believe the gospel of His Son; the Good News of forgiveness in Christ. You should confess and turn from your own sins. This is a reminder of that importance. We should allow these circumstances to have their sanctifying affect in our lives; to make us more like Christ. We should find our confidence in God's unfailing love. This isn't going to separate us from God's love, like all the other things listed in Romans 8. And we should put our full trust in God and in God alone. I wish I had the time to take you to Habakkuk 3. But read the last four verses of Habakkuk 3 where Habakkuk says, "Listen if the world, as I know it, is turned on its head, I will trust and delight in God my Savior." That's how you and I have to respond. Whatever happens, God is on His throne. He's still our God. He's still our rescuer. He may rescue us from the temporal issues in this life, but He will rescue us from the wrath to come and He will usher us into His eternal presence.

I hope that helps you think about these biblically and rightly. And, again, there's so much more that could be said about it, but I have already used more than my time so let me pray and thanks for joining me tonight.

"Father thank You for these great truths about You. Lord help us to find our joy, our delight in You. Even as Habakkuk said, if everything around us, if our world as we know it is completely turned on its head - and in many ways it has been - yet our hearts find their joy in You, our Savior, our Rescuer, our Redeemer. Lord help us to live like that and to put the gospel on display both in what we say - may we share the gospel with others - and in how we face this trial. Lord, may we evidence that the temporal stuff of this life - even our routines, even the things that bring temporal joys - they don't matter to us as much as you do. Lord help us think rightly and to exalt You, our great and good and all-wise God. We pray in the name of Your Son, Amen!"


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