At the time of writing, the coronavirus has infected over 100 million people and resulted in more than 2 million deaths. And the toll on human life continues to rise. As a community of believers, we have been remarkably blessed by our heavenly Father during this time of social upheaval and disruption. But having said that, it is a good time to undertake a spiritual stocktake of our lives and to ask ourselves if we are stronger in our faith for the experience? Are we more resolute in our service to God and to our brothers and sisters, or have we faltered and lost heart? Have we watched and prayed more fervently, or have our hearts been overcharged with anxiety and care?

The exhortation to “be strong and of a good courage” is as pertinent for us today as it was when it was given first to Joshua and then to Solomon (Josh 1:6-9; 1 Chron 28:20). Both men felt completely inadequate to continue the work that lay ahead, and both lived in times of great transition. Nevertheless, they were both stirred into action by these words and became determined to press on with the work. By faith, Joshua put “to flight the armies of the aliens” (Heb 11:34) and by wisdom, Solomon built a place for God to dwell in. They leave a wonderful example for us to follow—if only we could emulate that same type of courage and persist with the good fight of faith, so that Christ continues to dwell in our hearts by faith.

The hand of God at work

When we step back a moment and look at the magnitude of change that has occurred socially and politically, it must be evident that the hand of God is behind this crisis. No nation has remained untouched. We know from the Scriptures that God has used disease and plague to make man pause and consider His power and purpose (Gen 12:17; Exod 9:14). Plagues were used at critical junctions of history as a means by which God sought mankind’s repentance (Rev 9:20; 16:9). Accordingly, they were an apt way to voice His displeasure against the evil ingratitude of the ungodly (Num 11:33).

And how has society reacted to this pandemic? Instead of humility we see hubris and an unshakeable belief in the power of man to overcome all difficulties. Science, in the manufacture of a vaccine, is seen as a triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Instead of turning to God they have turned to their own ingenuity. Mankind will prevail, they declare; and in all of this God is ignored and sidelined.

In reality, however, God is warning men and women to beware. What we have witnessed in the last 12 months is but a prelude to what is about to be unleashed upon an evil world in the day of judgment. Nations which will soon invade Israel will be met with horrific plagues (Ezek 38:22; Zech 14:12-15); so too will Catholic Europe (Rev 18:4,8; 21:9). It will be an effective means of emptying great cities and turning society on its head. More importantly it will be a driving force to humble men and women before the mighty hand of God.

The current pandemic is fulfilling the Lord’s predictions in Luke 21:25-26 where we see a world beset with anguish and fear with no way of escape. We live in that world and, hence, we are not going to be untouched by the distress it reels under. As such, the pandemic is a wake-up call to the brotherhood. There may have been a tendency to feel secure in employment, to feel comfortable with our standard of living, to have a sense of trust in our financial position. But all that veneer of security has been stripped away. We see how vulnerable society has become. The telling exhortation of James 4:13-15 comes into sharp relief: “ye know not what shall be on the morrow…ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.” How many of our plans have been unexpectedly interrupted? Indeed, “God willing” takes on a more significant meaning than before.

Economic and social effects

With a significant number of countries facing further lockdowns, humanity is staring at further separation from loved ones, loss of freedom, uncertainty about the advancement of the disease, and continuing feelings of helplessness. As a consequence of these factors, parents have reported that their children experienced difficulties in concentration, boredom, restlessness, nervousness and a sense of loneliness and anxiety. It was reported that stop and start education, job uncertainty and sharp economic downturns were leading to increased states of stress, anxiety, and depression. Overworked front-line health care workers were particularly identified as suffering from high levels of psycho-physical stress.

Many countries have reported an increase in domestic violence attributed to lockdowns. Elderly people have felt very vulnerable as the virus swept through a number of nursing homes and retirement complexes. Shortage of vital medical equipment has only served to exacerbate this sense of hopelessness that people feel. Panic buying has promoted a high degree of selfishness within the community and led to shortages of essentials and supply chain chaos.

Millions of enterprises face an existential threat. Nearly half of the world’s 3.3 billion global workforce are at risk of losing their livelihoods. The hospitality, aviation and tourism industries have been decimated. Manufacturing is down substantially, whilst quarantine and self-isolation policies have decreased consumption and lessened utilisation of products and services.

Many governments have announced emergency financial packages to assist the unemployed and this has only served to increase sovereign debt. Thousands of workers around the world have been made redundant or have been placed on temporary, unpaid leave of absence. Inevitably this will have a significant impact on individuals’ abilities to pay rent, mortgages and various household expenditures.

The World Health Organisation reports that tens of millions of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty, while the number of undernourished people, currently estimated at nearly 690 million, could increase by up to 132 million by the end of the year. World Food Programme chief, David Beasley, said that 2021 would likely be “the worst humanitarian crisis year since the beginning of the United Nations…as I say, the iceberg’s in front of the Titanic.”

How we need the Lord’s return!

Geo-political changes

The pandemic is also re-aligning the political landscape. The Lowy Institute ran a report, entitled, “Global Order in the Shadow of the Coronavirus: China, Russia and the West.” In that report it commented that “US–China relations are toxic. The transatlantic consensus is on life support. Multilateral institutions, from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the European Union (EU), are struggling to prove their worth. Environmental safeguards are being sacrificed in misconceived efforts to revive the global economy. The rules-based international order as we know it is no longer fit for purpose.”

“Liberalism is in retreat around the world. Europe has seen the rise of ‘illiberal democracy’ in EU member states, such as Hungary and Poland. Authoritarian regimes have not only become more numerous, but also more repressive; China under Xi Jinping and Russia under Vladimir Putin are just the most conspicuous examples of a larger trend. The system of international agreements is under enormous pressure as countries abuse or withdraw from them.”

As Britain struggles with its COVID lockdowns and post-Brexit dramas, Europe is consolidating. This is the view of the European Council of Foreign Relations, which stated that “a federalist moment of European integration was coming into being…On the one hand, many nationalists appear to have realised that European cooperation is the only way to preserve the relevance of their nation states. On the other hand, many cosmopolitans have seen that, in a world squeezed between Xi Jinping’s China and Donald Trump’s America, Europe’s best hope for preserving its values lies in strengthening its own “strategic sovereignty” rather than relying on global multilateral institutions. This new mood creates an astonishing amount of space for reviving the European project.”

The ascendancy of an aggressive wolf-warrior stance by China has alienated a number of western countries and as a result traditional allies like Australia, New Zealand, India, Britain, the USA and Canada have drawn closer together. In effect, we see the Tarshish-aligned powers bent on integrating their economies and national interests.

In contrast, the Middle East is being transformed through peace agreements with Israel. We are experiencing the paradox of “peace and safety” merging with “distress of nations, with perplexity.” It is indeed time for us all to be strong and of a good courage.

The ecclesial world

As with many challenges with which society wrestles, we are not immune simply through our association with Christ. We do, however, have the privilege of seeing world events through the eye of Scripture, knowing that the ultimate end is the glorious reign of the Lord Jesus. Once the government is on his shoulders all problems will begin to come to an end.

The world may be ignorant of the work being done by the angels, but brothers and sisters are not. We are blessed to know that signs include “famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matt 24:7) and now all this is happening, we should be stirred and enlivened in our faith. Suffering and distress might bring temporary sadness, but the bright vision ahead and the prospect of future glory should prompt every follower of Christ to “lift up [their] heads” for the day of our salvation is nearer than at any previous time.

The exhortation woven through the Olivet prophecy given by the Lord Jesus is that we should be watchful. That means not just being on the lookout for evidence pointing to his return, but that we should pay careful attention to our lifestyle and behaviour, lest we be found sleeping. Now is not the time for relaxing standards or for giving in to weariness or frustration, either in our personal discipleship or in our ecclesias.

Undoubtedly there have been some positive consequences across the ecclesial world from the pandemic. Ecclesias had to focus quickly on important matters. At a time when physical meetings became difficult or stopped completely, how could the weekly breaking of bread service continue? How could basic fellowship be maintained? How could the care of members, both physical and spiritual, best be done?

Many ecclesias responded magnificently, and the benefits are being enjoyed to this day. Moving online initially, as much of the ecclesial world did, brought new blessings. Higher attendance was seen at Sunday and midweek meetings as hinderances for attending physically disappeared. Informal Bible reading groups were formed and ecclesias found themselves considering the daily readings together every day. Creative approaches to preaching and witnessing became necessary as Bible addresses and seminars became impossible. Bible schools and gatherings, which were not able to function physically soon found alternative ways of holding events online, with the benefit that speakers and attendees from all over the world could contribute or participate, without any travelling whatsoever. Long distance relationships have been renewed and formed and the ties that bind us together into a truly worldwide fellowship have come to the fore. There has been much to unite us over the last few months and indeed we are blessed that this pandemic has occurred at a time when the blessing of technology has been available. Some ecclesias even provided necessary equipment and expertise to members who were thus introduced to the digital age.

As a result, we have all become more computer literate and can cope with Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and suchlike. And ecclesias that could not previously live-stream services and Bible talks now have that facility, opening up outreach and welfare possibilities for the future, should the Lord delay.

In regions where restrictions have been eased sufficiently to allow physical meetings, brothers and sisters express a great appreciation for the blessing of meeting together. Perhaps we were guilty of taking our meetings for granted and only appreciated their true value when it was taken away. In returning to our meeting rooms let us not forget the privilege and blessing of meeting together and not forsake the table of the Lord for insignificant reasons.

Challenges remain

The blessings of better digital communication should not be forgotten if our meetings and the ecclesial world return to the activities and routines enjoyed before the virus. We need to be mindful, however, that these new working arrangements bring dangers as well as blessings. Our return to ecclesial halls needs careful thought and consideration if the spiritual health and wellbeing of our ecclesias is not to be damaged. Already we hear people saying that meeting together online is just as satisfactory as meeting together in person, and much more convenient.

It may be that, in the long run, the ease by which we can meet together will prove to be a game-changer. Committee meetings which have hitherto required people to travel long distances may be replaced by conference calls. Speakers may be invited to give talks remotely in ecclesial halls or Bible schools, allowing much more national and international participation. Conferences, AGMs and News updates that have previously required a physical presence might turn out to be much better attended when people can participate from their own homes.

But the danger is that in some cases this new way of meeting together is all too easy. Joining an online meeting to worship for an hour or so hardly requires any commitment or effort, and once the meeting is over, we are free to get on with other things. Some services are not interactive but are just ‘viewed’ in the same way one might watch a TV programme or film. No engagement or preparation is required, standards of dress become irrelevant, coffee can be served… This is hardly an environment conducive to remembering the one who “hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice” (Eph 5:2). Surely we can do better than that.

Perhaps this convenient and easy way of meeting together has become a barrier to restoring our physical meetings—there is a danger that we have grown to like it and prefer it to the discipline of travelling to our place of worship. At the first Passover the smaller Hebrew households were encouraged to meet together to share the lamb, not least because this was an event of great fellowship for the nation. There was no instruction to roast the lamb and send some next door to the neighbours, but an instruction to gather together for the meal (Exod 12:4).

Let us be quite clear. Meeting together online is a useful expedient whilst we cannot meet in person, and we are thankful for the facility. It is better than nothing. But it is NOT the same as meeting together in person and spending time in one another’s company; sharing a meal together; holding a Bible Talk to witness together, and talking together about the things of God, with our Bibles open. As soon as we can get together in person, we should do so to resume our communal worship and to fellowship with our brothers and sisters. That is what an ecclesia does, to the glory of God. That is how a lightstand operates, to shine brightly to those around us.

It is true that our worship may become more accessible to people who lack the confidence to cross the threshold of the hall, if we live-stream our services. That will be a good thing, but it is not a substitute for communal worship—merely an expedient for the time being.

Hidden dangers

There are other dangers too. Our children are missing out. Sunday school lessons may be zoomed in to them, in much the same way that they are receiving material from their schools or colleges. But they are not getting the chance to meet their friends, attend youth activities, or go to camps or gatherings as hitherto. With lots of other activities available this is a big drawback and one that parents will be very aware of.

And what will our young people make of their parents’ priorities and weekly disciplines? Will our worship practices show how important the meeting is to children if it only consists of a laptop and sofa? The care of our children and young people, for whom interactions in an ecclesial setting are so important, needs very careful thought.

The preservation of our unique fellowship and standards must not be lost. Principles of head coverings, for example, still need to be observed even when people cannot be seen online. Records of ‘attendance’ need maintaining in the event they are needed for the authorities. Perhaps most important of all—our fellowship boundaries must not become blurred. Principles regarding who can meet with us physically to share bread and wine do not lose their relevance or importance just because the memorial service is taking place online. These issues must be guarded with care.

As restrictions ease and opportunities arise for meeting together, let us not forget the value of the blessings we have enjoyed. Some might be worth maintaining—online arrangements might continue for the benefit of those who are genuinely housebound, for example, and sharing the day’s readings together is not something to give up quickly. But let us not pretend that online fellowship is anything more than a rather inadequate substitute for the real thing. The shared sense of unity in Christ, enjoyed at moments of bread-breaking, is precious indeed when experienced in our halls and impossible to replicate online.

In all this we should take heart. These difficulties are mere inconveniences compared to those faced by earlier generations, and certainly by those who embraced Christ in the first century. This time is passing and the signs portend the age for which we all pray, “the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21). With great joy we look forward to meeting physically with our Lord at that time.