Accepting Hebrews 12 during the Coronavirus Crisis

– By Jonathan Kopke.

Pundits are telling us that the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 may be a major “hinge event” when things that we always thought were unchangeable will be permanently changed.  For one example, now that millions of people have been working from home for a few months, many of them may never be expected to go back to commuting long distances to office towers packed with cubicles.  Along the same lines, the way we do our shopping, the way our young people are educated, and the way we visit our doctors may never be the same again.  What’s more, to some degree, our country’s influence over the rest of the world might never again be what it’s been for the past 75 years.  And by the time this pandemic is over, we may have even lost our age-old custom of shaking hands.  We’re passing through a major hinge event that could bring sudden changes to every facet of our lives.

I wonder if we’re not also passing through a hinge event in our spirituality.  In the news, we’ve all seen Christian preachers boast that they couldn’t be touched by “the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday”[1] — until a week later when they were smothered to death by the coronavirus.  Seeing that story in the news has to have permanently changed some people’s view of God.

I can already name one belief that I’ve had to reconsider because of the coronavirus crisis.  It has to do with the story of Joseph in the Old Testament book of Genesis.  In that story, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt, and after a lifetime of hard knocks and a series of improbable circumstances, Joseph becomes the governor who saves the whole nation of Egypt — and ultimately his own family — from a seven-year famine.  The climax of that story is when Joseph finally reveals himself to the brothers who had sold him into slavery.  At that point, Joseph says to his brothers: “You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good.”[2]  I’ve always taken that to mean that wicked people — or wicked forces — may “plot evil” against us, but ultimately God will contrive a way to “turn it into good.”  But as I’ve been grappling with this coronavirus crisis, I’ve been forced to realize that “turned it into good” may not be the clearest translation of what the Bible really teaches.  I looked it up, and the original Hebrew seems to use the very same verb for what the brothers did and for what God did.  So other English translations say that the brothers intended, planned, or meant evil for Joseph, while God intended, planned, or meant the same events for good.  In other words, from the very beginning of Joseph’s story, God intended, he planned, or he meant for Joseph to go through a lifetime of hardships in order to be shaped into the person God wanted him to be.  And could it be that God has intended, planned, or meant for us to go through this coronavirus pandemic in order to shape us into the people he intends for us to be?

That possibility leads us to another Bible passage that we don’t generally like to think about.  It’s in Hebrews 12:

Have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children?  He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you.  For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.”  As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children.  Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father?  If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all.  Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever?  For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness.  No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening — it’s painful!  But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.[3]

Before we go any farther, we have to at least acknowledge that this comparison of God’s discipline to a human father’s discipline may be distressing for some people because it stirs up old memories of childhood abuse.  That’s certainly not the kind of parenting that the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he made this analogy.

Nevertheless, if our loving Father in heaven has intended the coronavirus crisis to discipline us, there are at least two ways we can react.  We can, like some of our most prominent leaders, lash out with bluster, blather, and blame — and become more self-centered than before.  Or we can “humble ourselves under the mighty power of God”[4] and look for the specific ways in which God is lovingly shaping us “so that we might share in his holiness.”[5]

For one thing, in this crisis, God has dismantled many of our self-important plans.  He’s very graphically demonstrated what the writer of the book of Hebrews had in mind when he said:

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow?  Your life is like the morning fog — it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.  What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.”  Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil.[6] 

In this crisis, God has also turned the tables on our social order.  Our “essential personnel” have turned out to be, not only those who we normally revere, such as doctors and nurses, but also those who we often take for granted, such as trash collectors and grocery clerks.  We’re getting a glimpse into the upside-down social standings that Jesus looked forward to when he said:

I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne … many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.[7]

What’s more, in this crisis, God has squelched our frivolous busyness.  For once in our lives, God has placed us in a situation where we have time to respond to the invitation that Jesus gave to his first disciples:

Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.[8]

Finally, in this crisis, God has stripped away many of our idols — the things other than God that we’ve depended on for comfort and security.  Our health.  Our wealth.  Our productivity.  Even any service that we may have been doing in an attempt to make ourselves “feel good.”  While none of those things is inherently evil, when we look to them for comfort and security, God sees them as rivals.  And the Bible says:    

What union can there be between God’s temple and idols?  For we are the temple of the living God.  As God said: “I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”[9]

These are just four examples of how God seems to be disciplining us through the coronavirus crisis.  They remind me of the recipe I read once for making Holy Water: Start with regular water and boil the hell out of it.  Maybe in this coronavirus crisis, God is making us into holy people by boiling the hell out of us.  Or as I’m sure God would prefer to put it:

I have refined you, but not as silver is refined.  Rather, I have refined you in the furnace of suffering.[10]

At this hinge event in history, we can be sure that God isn’t going to let this pandemic go to waste.  Other forces may have planned it for evil, but from the beginning, God planned it for good.  He’s using it to refine us — to discipline us.  And “God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we can share in his holiness”[11] and be “the temple of the living God,”[12] as we come to him through the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ.


[1] Psalm 91:6 niv
[2] Genesis 50:20 gnt
[3] Hebrews 12:5-11 nlt
[4] 1 Peter 5:6 nlt
[5] Hebrews 12:10 nlt
[6] James 4:14-16 nlt
[7] Matthew 19:28,30 nlt
[8] Mark 6:31 nlt
[9] 2 Corinthians 6:16 nlt
[10] Isaiah 48:10 nlt
[11] Hebrews 12:10 nlt
[12] 2 Corinthians 6:16 nlt

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for another pondering reflection.
    Time to read God’s words and meditate on this ” hinge” is time well spent.

  2. I am in wonder at God’s hand in this virus, even as the mighty declare “We will get the mighty wheels of the economy rolling again” they are silenced by the increase in disease and death; those who throw parties and abandoned masks see their friends and family struck with sickness; those who once had “no time” to sit with neighbors now shop and take them to doctor’s appointments; those who had no time to read scripture and reflect on God’s word now meditate and journal their revelations. Personally, this time has allowed me to recover from physical ailments without any concern for the list of things I could not do if I took time off to recover. How could I not be productive long enough to regain the full measure of life I have been given!??
    We now have weekly Zoom game time with our children on the other side of the country, and our children’s in-laws on the other side of town; neither of whom we ever have time to visit, nor time to witness to them as children of the risen Christ..

    God’s gifts abound in this crisis!!….. With all due concern for those whose loved ones are infected and passing from this existence into heaven itself…….. More than a moment, may this “disaster” not end until we all have recognized the full measure of the blessings of our brothers and sisters around the world; have raised each other up to the full extent of our time and talents; seen creation again through renewed eyes and minds; and, the possibility of God’s Kingdom on earth has been made known to every living thing.

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