This is the second of two blogs aiming to provide a clear biblical perspective on the on-going Covid crisis, particularly as it impacts the New Zealand context. In this last week we have seen a significant development in government response to the current Delta outbreak, as it seeks to transition from a purely elimination strategy towards one that minimises infection spread through high vaccination rates. In this respect it feels like New Zealand is moving to a new phase in the way it navigates the threat of Covid. So it’s a timely moment for us to keep our thinking clear as we journey into this next chapter.
In the first blog I wrote (you can read it here) I focussed on the “big picture”. I used the analogy of doing a jigsaw puzzle. If we hold a single jigsaw piece, we can only make sense of that piece if we are looking at the big picture on the box. When we have the big picture in view, then we can see how the individual piece fits into the puzzle. I reasoned from the Bible that Covid is not a judgement of God against evil, such that God’s people are miraculously protected. And Covid is not a particular prelude that makes the return of Jesus more imminent. Covid is simply another example of sickness which is part and parcel of the fallen world until Jesus returns.
We live in the tension of a world that includes both God’s Kingdom and suffering. Covid is part of the suffering. But despite the troubles of the world, God is still King. Our call is to partner with God in His enterprise to bring healing and restoration into the world. That process will one day be completed when Jesus returns and there will be no more sickness in the New Creation.
Now that we have that big picture in place, we have the correct framework within which to make sense of some of the particular issues relating to the Covid situation. In the last week we have seen an anti-lockdown protest, what should we make of this? In the news, we have heard of numerous examples of rule-breaking, the avoidance of public health measures. What are we to make of those? There are lots of conspiracy theories about Covid and vaccines, leading to people refusing to be vaccinated. Some of these theories can be based on biblical rationale. For example, some Christians are trying to argue that the vaccine is the “mark of the beast”, a phrase with an ominous meaning, in the book of Revelation. So these Christians are saying, “Don’t have the vaccine.” Could the vaccine be the “mark of the beast”? What are we to make of that? How should we respond to conspiracy theories in general?
In order to respond maturely to any of these issues, we must stand on the truth. The first foundation of truth is having a correct big picture. That’s what I have outlined above. But the second layer is to identify biblical truth pertaining to some of the specific issues we’ve just identified. So let’s take a look at these issues.
Responding to public health measures
How should we respond to the various public health measures that are imposed upon us? What about those who participated in the anti-lockdown protest last Saturday? Should we be supporting that, or denouncing that? What about mask-wearing and social distancing? What is there in the Bible to help us approach these matters? What we see in the Bible is a consistent message in both Old and New Testaments about health and healing. There are two strands to this consistent message.
The first strand is God’s ability to heal miraculously. There are examples of miraculous healings in both the Old Testament (see for example 2 Kings 5:1-14) and New Testament (see for example Matthew 4:23-24). The second strand is that a positive response to public health advice is witnessed across the whole Bible. In other words both God's miraculous power and the gift of medicine are both affirmed as ways to experience God's healing.
One of the interesting things we see in the Bible is that priests were the public health officials for the Jewish people in the biblical world. This was a fascinating role because we mostly associate priests with activities relating to worship. But public health was part of their role. Consider the following passage from the book of Leviticus which describes one way in which Jewish priests acted as public health officials. Notice how the details are quite relevant to the Covid situation.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on the skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is a defiling skin disease. When the priest examines that person, he shall pronounce them ceremonially unclean. If the shiny spot on the skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day the priest is to examine them, and if he sees that the sore is unchanged and has not spread in the skin, he is to isolate them for another seven days. On the seventh day the priest is to examine them again, and if the sore has faded and has not spread in the skin, the priest shall pronounce them clean; it is only a rash. They must wash their clothes, and they will be clean. But if the rash does spread in their skin after they have shown themselves to the priest to be pronounced clean, they must appear before the priest again. The priest is to examine that person, and if the rash has spread in the skin, he shall pronounce them unclean; it is a defiling skin disease. (Leviticus 13:1-8)
There isn’t space in this blog to delve into the details of this reading, but you can see the way in which the Jewish priests had detailed instructions for how they assessed the health of people with suspected contagious skin diseases. In particular those they considered contagious had to be socially isolated from the main community of people. It was the priest who made these pronouncements. Only the word of the priest could declare a contagious person healed. Only the priest as public health official could bring a person out of social isolation. And this was not the only aspect of their public health role. Another example was an inspection role ensuring the hygiene of homes (see Leviticus 14:33-53).
So responding to public health measures was embedded within the Old Testament Jewish Law but, more importantly, we see Jesus also upholding the same principles. Consider this short reading of Jesus healing a leper. Take particular note of what Jesus says concerning the priest and their public health role.
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere. (Mark 1:40-45)
Jesus upholds the work of the priest as the public health official. Yes, Jesus gave the leper miraculous healing, but Jesus couldn’t be the one to restore the man back into mainstream society. The leper had been living in isolation. Only the authoritative word of the priest could restore the man back into society. Jesus respected the role of the priest as that public health official.
So we see a consistent voice across the Bible about respecting the role and the word of public health officials. If we want to be biblical we should therefore respect public health advice regarding Covid and follow the rules, as they are set for the well-being of everyone. Covid can affect anyone. The rules that are set for the various Alert Levels are made for our protection and they should be seen as part of God’s plan for healing and restoration. We should follow the rules, however frustrating they can be.
The other element to being protected which links with God’s purpose to bring healing and restoration is be vaccinated. God is at work through the gift of medicine to use the vaccines to protect people from Covid. So let’s take a look at the issue of vaccines in more detail now.
I want to make two points under this heading. First of all we cannot act like God will miraculously protect Christians from Covid. The reality on the ground is that Covid is not a situation where Christians are being miraculously protected by God. Covid has struck indiscriminately and Christians are suffering, too.
It is wrong to argue that you mustn’t take the vaccine because that’s a sign that you don’t have faith in God’s protection. That’s only relevant where God has promised miraculous protection to Christians and where that is clearly happening. But as we’ve seen, that’s not happening. It is not a sign of weakness of faith to take the vaccine. It’s a demonstration of faith that God is able to work through the gift of medicine.
But secondly there’s also an important New Testament principle that we can apply to this issue. At the heart of the Christian faith is the story of Jesus who acted in the service of others. Listen to how the Apostle Paul explains it:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Philippians 2:5-7
The Living Bible paraphrases verse 6 as saying that Jesus “did not demand and cling to his rights as God”. This is a very different attitude to what is being witnessed with anti-lockdown protests and certain reasons for vaccine refusal. People are quick to assert their rights, but I do not hear people speak of responsibilities. The way of Christ is not a ratification of our rights, but a recognition of our responsibilities.
The Apostle Paul develops this in more detail in this letter to the Romans. In chapter 14 Paul engages with a particular situation in the church which has parallels with our current Covid context. In the ancient world, people bought their meat from the local market. And sometimes the meat that came to the market was left over after an animal had been sacrificed at one of the pagan temples. When you bought your meat, you never knew whether the animal had been part of a pagan worship ceremony or not. Some of the early Christians didn’t care where their meat came from. Paul taught them that no pagan god is actually real, so you can buy your meat and eat without having to worry if the meat had been affected in some way. But some of the early Christians really worried about the origin of the meat. This was particularly true of Christians from a Jewish background, who still wanted to observe the Jewish kosher food laws. And they were so worried about eating non-kosher meat that they chose to avoid the problem by becoming vegetarian. But then the meat-eating Christians began to look down on the vegetarian Christians, saying that they had a weak faith. A bit like the situation now, where Christians accuse people who take the vaccine of having a lack of faith in God. So what does Paul say to the Christians about this?
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Romans 14:13-15
Can you see what Paul was arguing? It is the principle of being mindful of the needs of others and not doing anything that would offend the conscience of someone you consider is weaker than you. So Paul said to the meat-eating Christians, it’s fine for you to eat meat when you are on your own, but when you are with vegetarian Christians, they will be really troubled to see you eating meat, so don’t eat meat when you are with them. Paul told the meat-eaters to back down from what they thought was their right and act with consideration towards others. In fact Paul is so strong about this issue that in another letter to a different church about the same issue, he writes this:
So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:13)
What does this mean in the context of the Covid vaccines? I think the key verses from Romans 14 are these:
And if another believer is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don’t let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died. Romans 14:15-16
There are many reasons why someone may be choosing not to be vaccinated. Some may be needle-phobic, others may be fearful of side effects. Still others may be confused about conflicting reports in the media. Each reason is different, but St Paul's principle in Romans applies when someone is choosing to assert their rights ahead of consideration of others. In this instance, the general principle is to act in a way that is mindful of others.
The same New Testament principle applies to wearing masks when mandated. I have seen social media posts from Christians saying they don’t agree with wearing masks. If you walk around without a mask, you’ll cause anxiety to those who are wearing them. The New Testament says that’s an unloving gesture.
All this invites reflection on the nature of the decisions we make. It is all too easy to think that a personal decision is totally private, in the sense that no one else is affected by it. But oftentimes this is not the case. In many instances personal decisions have public consequences. And this can be the case over not being vaccinated. Those who are not vaccinated are more vulnerable to infection and therefore spreading infection to others. This then leads to hospitalisations (and statistics indicate that you are twice as likely to be hospitalised with the Delta variant than with previous versions of Covid). This could then lead to the overwhelming of the hospital system with adverse knock-on effects for other patients who require non-Covid treatments. The situation is complex, but we are in a situation where everyone should be mindful of the public health consequences of their personal decisions.
Obviously there are a small proportion of the population who, for various legitimate reasons, are unable to have the vaccination. But the principles of the Bible say that if you are eligible for the vaccination, then there are personal and public health benefits to receiving it. Vaccines are part of the way that God is working to bring health to the world through the gift of medicine.
Conspiracies are often a human response to anxiety over an issue. Theories like this can be used by people to try and help them gain personal control over a situation which feels like it is out of their control. So we do need to have a compassionate response where anxiety lies behind a conspiracy theory.
But our response must be where we are grounded in truth. With conspiracy theories we really are in the midst of a battle for truth. Now the Bible is no stranger to conspiracy theories. Jesus talked about wars and rumours of wars (Matthew 24:6). In other words, Jesus was well-aware of fact and fiction. A war is a definite fact. But a rumour could well be fiction.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty on the first Easter Day, a rumour was spread abroad by the authorities that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body (Matthew 28:11-15). Jesus Himself has been the subject of conspiracy theories from 2,000 years ago.
In the book of Revelation Jesus is depicted a number of times in visions as having a sword coming out of His mouth (Revelation 1:16, 2:12, 2:16, 19:15, 19:21). The sword is a symbol of battle, but because it is pictured coming out of His mouth, it also represents His word, so Jesus is depicted as fighting in a war of words, where His truth will ultimately prevail. As Christians we stand with Jesus in fighting for truth wherever there is a battle of words. And the conspiracy theories of Covid are an example of this kind of battle.
We need to ask basic questions whenever we hear of a particular conspiracy theory. What is the source? What kind of evidence is being offered? Is it really widespread evidence? Is there any way it can be independently verified? Social media is far too easy a way to circulate information quickly and without any accountability. The vaccines that are being used have all gone through rigorous trials by authorised bodies and have been declared safe. There will always be some side effects from a vaccine and there will always be some adverse reactions. It is not an absence of adverse reactions which implies safety, but whether the incidence of those reactions is below a certain threshold. This is the case for the vaccines that are being administered in New Zealand. The process of approving a vaccine can far more be trusted than a set of anecdotal stories circulating on social media.
We need to address particular conspiracy theory which tries to interpret the book of Revelation in a certain way. It says we shouldn’t take the vaccine because it’s the “mark of the beast”, a phrase used in Revelation 13:18. The inference is that if you receive the vaccine, you have suddenly been marked in a way which has ominous connotations. Is this a reasonable reading of this passage from Revelation? Let’s look at this now. Here’s the relevant passage:
It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666. (Revelation 13:16-18)
This passage must be understood within the historical context of the first century Roman Empire. In Revelation the term “beast” is a codeword for both the imperial power of Rome and the local systems of power who exercised Rome’s authority in all the various countries that were part of the Empire. A key issue for the Christians at that time was loyalty. If you were loyal to Rome, you had to do an act of worship each year to the Emperor. This conflicted with the loyalty of Christians to only worship Jesus.
So the early Christians had a choice to make – to whom were they going to be loyal? They couldn’t choose both Rome and Jesus. To be loyal to Rome meant rejecting Jesus. In the book of Revelation, these two loyalties are represented in symbolic ways by markings. Those who choose Jesus are marked with a seal from God (Revelation 7:3). The implication is that everyone else receives the mark of the beast. So the mark of the beast is a counterpoint to God’s people being marked with a seal from God. The mark is not a literal mark, it’s not a physical mark. In Revelation it’s simply a symbolic way of saying you are either loyal to Jesus or you’re not.
But what exactly is the meaning of the number which is quoted in the Revelation reading?
“Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”
Notice two important things about this special number 666. We are told it is a number that you arrive at through some kind of calculation. And secondly the number is a number of the beast and the number of a man’s name.
What this refers to is the practice in the ancient world to assign a number to a person’s name (known as geomatria). This could be done because in the ancient world they didn’t have the system of numbers like we do now. They used letters of the alphabet to mean numbers. Think of Roman numerals. The letter C means 100. The letter X means 10 and so on.
The same was done with Greek and Hebrew languages. Let me give a very simple example using English. Let’s suppose we say that in our alphabet, A=1, B=2, C=3, and so on. Let’s use the name Eddie as our example. Eddie has 5 letters as a name. In our proposed numbering system E=5, D=4 and I=9. So if we add up E, D, D, I and E we get the total 27. So we would say the number of Eddie’s name is 27. Try doing that with your own name and see what number you get!
The same kind of thing is going on with the number 666. In this case, the number 666 is achieved when you add together the numerical values of the letters which spell out either the word BEAST or the words NERO CAESAR.
Nero was one of the most brutal of all the Roman Emperor’s. He had died by the time the book of Revelation was written, but his evil was infamous. When Revelation says the mark of the beast is the number 666, it means that if you want to understand the true nature of the beast, namely the Roman Empire, all you need to do is to look at what Emperor Nero was like, because the number of his name is 666, the very same number you get for the numerical value of the word "beast". And the beastly brutality and oppression of Nero’s rule were the general characteristics of the Roman Empire at that time.
So the book of Revelation was saying to Christians, “Look don’t be tempted to be loyal to Rome. Don’t think Rome is going to be kind to you. The fundamental nature of Rome is beastly, evil and opposed to God. Don’t choose loyalty with Rome. Keep loyal to Jesus.”
So the Covid vaccines are absolutely nothing to do with the “mark of the beast”. The mark of the beast is simply a symbolic way in the book of Revelation to describe those who do not choose to place their trust in Jesus.
I want to close with a final image of Jesus from the book of Revelation which is key to all the themes we have covered today. Our current situation involves a war of words, a battle for truth. Here’s how the book of Revelation pictures Jesus:
"I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True." (Revelation 19:11)
Notice that the names of Jesus are Faithful and True. Revelation sets before us the vision that it is the truth of Jesus which will ultimately prevail. Nothing else has a firm foundation. That’s why loyalty to Jesus is so important. Let’s remember Jesus, the one who is Faithful and True, the One whose truth will always prevail, the One who will help us to stand firm and still live with hope when the world is shaking.