It’s been the story of our lives since 2020—enduring the myriad struggles of a global pandemic. For those of us who turn to the Bible as our source of guidance, authority, comfort, and truth, it’s natural to ask what does the Bible say about plagues and pandemics? Is there a message in this misery? Is there meaning in our suffering? Are pandemics simply one side effect of living in a fallen world or is there more to them than meets the eyes?
What Does the Bible Say about Plagues?
When we encounter plagues in the Old Testament, they certainly seem to be utilized by God to inspire repentance. In Genesis 12, when Pharaoh takes Abram’s wife, Sarai, into his harem, the Lord sends a plague that captures Pharaoh’s attention. Pharaoh returns Sarai to Abram and sends them on their way.
Most famously, 10 plagues revisit Egypt when a later Pharaoh, one who has enslaved the Israelites, hears God’s request through Moses and Aaron to “Let my people go,” but he refuses. God visits him and his people with ten plagues, each designed to discredit one of the gods worshiped by the Egyptians and to convince Pharaoh that the Living God Israel was not someone to cross.
These 10 plagues intensify with each following plague as Pharaoh has the opportunity between them to relent and release the people of God into freedom. From Exodus 7, when Moses used his staff to turn the Nile to blood through Exodus 11, the death of the firstborn of Egypt, we see plagues used as a clear tool to call a leader to choose to do what is right—granting freedom to God’s people. This was such a pivotal event in the life of the Israelites; God instituted Passover as a memorial throughout all generations to commemorate their deliverance. God delivered the Israelites safely from slavery to freedom. He demonstrated that He is capable of punishing the unrighteous while sparing the righteous who shared the same land. This is not to say that God doesn’t also send plagues on His people when they wander to also call them back to repentance.
In Numbers 11, while wandering in the wilderness following their escape from Egypt, the Israelites received daily manna for food. But in this chapter, we read how some began to complain about living on manna and longed for the foods they’d eaten in Egypt. The complaining was reaching a level where some were remembering their tome of enslavement with fondness and were tempted to return. So, the Lord sent quail for the people to eat but as they ate, they were overcome with a plague because of their complaining, and some died there due to that illness. Again, this appears to have been a demonstration to call His people to cultivate contentment and gratitude and not to indulge in the sin of discontent and ingratitude. Though the way was hard, God’s way led them to freedom while going back to Egypt would have returned them to bondage. In Numbers 16, there is a plague that sorts out those who engage in rebellion in the camp, followed by another in Numbers 25.
Later in Israel’s story, when the Philistines held the Ark of the Covenant, they experienced a plague meant to inspire them to repent and return the ark to Israel.1 Samuel 6 tells this story. In 2 Samuel 24, God sends a plague in the judgment of David’s sin of taking a census. Elijah prophesies a plague against King Jehoram in 2 Chronicles 21.
And there are seven plagues prophesied in the New Testament book of Revelation intended to motivate the last holdouts against God to repentance so they may enter the Lord’s salvation and not be separated from Him forever.
What Does the Bible Say about Pandemics?
The Bible doesn’t specifically mention global pandemics, but in speaking about the signs of the end, Jesus mentioned in Luke 21:11 NKJV “And there will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.” The Greek word for pestilence is loimos meaning a pestilence, pest, or plague.
It makes sense that since God often, in the Old Testament, used plagues or locusts to capture people’s attention and motivate them to repentance, that as the time of the final judgment draws closer, He would do the same. While we know from experience there is nothing pleasant or desirable about enduring a pandemic, Mark 8:36 reminds us there is something worse than that, it is losing our souls. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” NKJV.
Just as a parent doesn’t deliver consequences or discipline to a rebellious child out of meanness, but out of love that the child chooses behaviors that lead to right living, so our Father God utilizes hardships to do the same.
Why Should We Know about Biblical Plagues?
Whatever we face in our times, it’s important to trace the history of such occurrences in Scripture and to understand what God explained about those instances. With plagues, it’s very clear that biblically, God sends plagues on nations, leaders, and people groups to get their attention, to strongly urge them to call on His name, and to lead them to repentance. This should embolden believers to remember our role in preparing the way for Jesus. We are to represent Him. We’re to speak the truth in love. We’re to make disciples and always be prepared to give an answer for why we believe—even during a pandemic.
It’s also an important lesson to gain from the global pandemic of COVID-19 that each one of us can impact the lives of many, many others. We are often tempted to imagine that our lives don’t matter. That if we’re not famous or powerful or influential in worldly terms, then our actions don’t make a difference. Contact tracing and the rapid spread of coronavirus put that lie to rest. You and I actually must work NOT to impact other people’s lives. We had to take extreme efforts to refrain from impacting countless others with this virus.
Imagine what this means for the Gospel. You and I have the power to reach countless people for Christ if we simply open our eyes, our mouths, and engage the power of the Holy Spirit to employ our impact potential in the spread of the truth of Jesus Christ. There’s no reason to imagine that our spread of the Gospel cannot act in the same way. Yes, we have an enemy working against us and yes, some people have been “inoculated” against the Gospel by receiving a weakened strain of the truth, but “greater is He that is in me, than he that is in the world” 1 John 4:4b. Our lives matter. Our testimonies matter. How we live for Christ and represent before others has an impact. The pandemic is a strong reminder for believers of this.
Did God Want Us to Suffer?
It’s natural after seeing the devastation of the pandemic, knowing God could have prevented it, to imagine that God wants us to suffer. He certainly does care more about our holiness than our immediate happiness—since He is looking out for our eternal happiness, but remember two important truths.
First, we must remember that God is good. God is love. God is kind and full of mercy. He loves us so much; He sent His only begotten Son, Jesus, to die on the cross in our place and take our sins on His shoulders. “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” Romans 10:9 NKJV. God has given everything to have a relationship with us and this is His goal. He remains with us through every hardship, even pandemics.
Second, we must also remember that our lives on this side of glory are but a short span compared with eternity. What we suffer here will seem like just the memory of labor by a mother, quickly forgotten when she beholds the new life her labor has achieved. Likewise, when we cross from life through death to eternal life, everything we suffered here will fade in light of the glory of eternity with God.
The apostle Paul said it this way in Romans 8:18 NKJV (emphasis mine), “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” The plagues of the Old Testament and the plagues of Revelation are clearly intended to soften hard hearts and move people toward repentance and thus, toward God. They only intensify as people continue to harden their hearts.
God is patient toward us, wanting all to come to repentance. One day, He will destroy pain, suffering, illness, and death. Revelation 21:4 NKJV says, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” He longs for all to know Him in this time when all pain, disease, and death are destroyed.
His desire, and the desire of every believer, is that all should come to salvation through Jesus Christ. This pandemic in our times can serve to revive our hearts for the Gospel and loosen our tongues to testify to the power, love, and redemptive plan of our God through Jesus Christ. May it be so. Amen.
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