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When the Pale Horse rides no more

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

Here in Auckland where I live, we have been living through another lockdown because the Delta variant of Covid arrived for the first time on Kiwi soil. I have decided to preach two messages for my church with the aim of helping us to think clearly with a biblical perspective on what is happening. This blog is an adaptation of the first message I preached.

The world has lived with the Covid pandemic for around 20 months now. What should we make of it at this point? With the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant, new challenges now face the world and its response. It certainly looks like the threat of Covid is not disappearing in a hurry. And so it feels a good time to revisit the issue and reflect, both on the bigger picture, and on some of the specific issues that face us right now. Within all the difficulties of the pandemic, can we find hope?

Regarding the pandemic, we seem to be wrestling with a number of issues that were not present last year, at least not to the same extent. There has been a massive rise in conspiracy theories about Covid itself and the vaccines. We’ve seen examples of mass protests against public health measures in various places, including one in our own city of Auckland.

Far from being issues that are affecting other people far away, some of this has come close to home. A number of friendships are being affected because people have found themselves on opposite sides of the debates regarding vaccines or conspiracy theories. It has felt like continued friendship relies on both sides seeing eye-to-eye on these subjects. This is really difficult situation to handle. So, Covid continues to affect us, not just with the kind of lockdown situation we have been facing in Auckland, but it has begun to spill over even to relationships with friends.

So, it seems a very timely moment for some clear thinking about the on-going Covid situation we face. In this blog I want to explore the bigger picture questions because we need to understand these first, in order to make sense of other issues. It’s a bit like doing a jigsaw. If I pick up a single jigsaw piece, it’s really hard to know what to do with it if I am not looking at the picture on the jigsaw box. Only by seeing the big picture can I make sense of the single piece I am holding.

In a similar way, we need to understand the bigger picture of the pandemic, in order to make sense of some of the details.

I write this blog, not wearing the hat of a medic or a research scientist or a statistical modeller of virus outbreaks. The work of these kinds of people are incredibly important, particularly for shaping policies of public health. I am wearing the hat of a pastor and my principal task here is to help us think biblically in a clear way. It is our worldview that determines how we act and respond to situations. The Bible offers one such worldview for our consideration. The Bible claims to offer a perspective on God, the world, its people and where history is heading. In a future blog I will address particular questions like how we respond to public health measures and the conspiracy theory issues. But in this blog I will offer a big picture biblical worldview to help us understand the pandemic. My approach is to answer 3 questions, about which the Bible certainly has something to say.

Is the pandemic some kind of judgement from God upon evil in the world?

When bad things are happening in the world, one possible explanation is to attribute them to the hand of God. People reach for this explanation because there are places in the Bible where in the past it says that God did bring a particular kind of judgement on evil in the world. The best example of this is the plagues in the book of Exodus which God sent upon the Egyptians who had enslaved the Jewish people. Some of those plagues involved physical medical issues like boils and disease in animals. You can read about these in Exodus chapters 7-11. Is that what Covid is, a particular kind of divine judgement?

We can answer this question quite easily from the Bible and the answer is, No, Covid is not something equivalent to the plagues of Egypt. That’s because there was a special characteristic of those Egyptian judgements which is not happening with Covid. When God sent these judgements upon Egypt, the Jewish people were miraculously spared. The region where the Jewish people lived was the only part of the country not to be affected each time. God brought judgement on Egypt, whilst His people were spared.

But that is not what is happening with Covid. Across the world, many Christians have contracted Covid and some have died. This is not a situation where judgement falls on the world, but God’s people are spared. And that means we should not apply to this pandemic any sections of the Bible which draw on the Egyptian type of judgement. One particular example is the way that Christians like to use Psalm 91, which is a psalm calling on God’s protection. Here’s the first two verses:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

At face value, that seems to be a good prayer for protection, but it’s important to look later on in the psalm, because this prayer is clearly drawing on the kind of situation illustrated by the plagues of Egypt.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Psalm 91:7-8

Can you see the context of this prayer? The writer of the psalm is envisaging a situation like the plagues of Egypt, a situation where God’s people are spared, while judgement falls upon the wicked. In other words a context where you can tell who are the godly and who are the wicked by who the judgement falls upon. But with Covid, there has been no distinction between who is affected. Covid has touched lives in quite indiscriminate ways.

Please understand me here. I am not saying we should not be praying for people’s protection. I believe we should be praying that people will be protected from infection. I’m simply saying we should be mindful of which Bible passages we use to explain what we are actually experiencing. Covid is not a particular kind of judgement from God.

If Covid is not a judgement against evil, should we see it as a particular sign that Jesus’ return is more imminent?

There have been a number of attempts to link the pandemic and related events to the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible which seems to describe dramatic events happening on earth. The claim is that current circumstances of Covid are a fulfilment of events detailed in Revelation. And this must imply that the return of Jesus is much more imminent. Some people have tried to link Covid with very particular parts of Revelation. For instance, some people have been asking, Is the vaccine the "mark of the beast", a phrase used in Revelation which seems to carry ominous connotations?

I will address that issue in another blog, but let’s consider a famous passage from Revelation which is often linked with significant current affairs in an attempt to say that we must be in the End Times and much closer to Jesus’ return.

Revelation 6:1-8 is the famous reading of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

As I watched, the Lamb broke the first of the seven seals on the scroll. Then I heard one of the four living beings say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked up and saw a white horse standing there. Its rider carried a bow, and a crown was placed on his head. He rode out to win many battles and gain the victory.

When the Lamb broke the second seal, I heard the second living being say, “Come!” Then another horse appeared, a red one. Its rider was given a mighty sword and the authority to take peace from the earth. And there was war and slaughter everywhere.

When the Lamb broke the third seal, I heard the third living being say, “Come!” I looked up and saw a black horse, and its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice from among the four living beings say, “A loaf of wheat bread or three loaves of barley will cost a day’s pay. And don’t waste the olive oil and wine.” When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the fourth living being say, “Come!” I looked up and saw a horse whose color was pale green. Its rider was named Death, and his companion was the Grave. These two were given authority over one-fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease and wild animals.

It all sounds very dramatic in the reading, so how do we make sense of it and does this kind of passage link with the pandemic?

To read this passage well, we have to start by taking account of the style of writing. It is a very unique style called apocalyptic literature. It is a highly symbolic style. It is not meant to be understood literally. We have to look at what the symbolism evokes.

The second thing is that every passage in Revelation made sense to its first readers in the first century Roman Empire, so we have to find ways in which the symbolism of the imagery would have connected with the world of those first readers. It’s important to understand that most passages in Revelation, apart from the final few chapters, are giving us understanding about the here and now, not about the far future. The Four Horsemen do not represent something to come, but relate both to the world of the first century Roman Empire and the world we ourselves know now. So we cannot take this passage and read into it current events, to try and draw the conclusion that the return of Jesus is somehow more imminent.

The Four Horsemen symbolise ways in which we experience a broken world right now. Let’s take a quick look at these Four Horsemen.

The first horseman is a White Horse with the rider with a bow. In the first century Roman Empire, the rider with the bow would have connected with people in two ways. It symbolises conquest either by foreign religion or foreign power. The pagan god Apollo was commonly depicted with a bow, and the Roman Empire was threatened by the Parthians, who were famed for their skill in archery while riding on white horses. The Parthians were the only archers who rode horses in the first century.

The Red Horse symbolises the means by which conquest often happens – warfare. The rider of this horse has a sword and takes peace from the earth.

The Black Horse symbolises famine as the passage relates to shortages of key foods.

The Pale Horse symbolises disease and death. The paleness of the horse evokes the pallor of someone’s face when they are very ill.

Conquest, warfare, famine and disease and death – these are not special characteristics of the world of the future. They are a very real description of the world of today. We mustn’t jump and think that Covid is such a special global occurrence that it must relate to the imminence of Jesus’ return. 100 years ago, 50 million people died of the Spanish Flu pandemic. Covid is not a unique unprecedented global phenomenon.

Why is the vision of the Four Horsemen important, if it’s just telling us about difficulties in the world that we already know? The most important feature of the visions is that the power of the Horsemen is given to them and is limited. This is the way that the book of Revelation assures us that conquest, war, famine, disease and death do not operate beyond the sovereign permission of God. None of these terrible things implies that God has lost control of the world. He is still in charge. The seeming power of the Four Horsemen are only parodies of the true power of God.

The two chapters in Revelation which precede chapter 6 offer us glorious visions of God on the throne, being worshipped by all of creation. This is not a vision of the future. This is our present reality. Despite the troubles of the world, the Bible depicts God as still being ultimately in charge. The visions in the book of Revelation reflect a mixture of chaos and order. This reflects the messy reality of human existence, lived against the backdrop of God’s ultimate sovereignty.

So, if Covid is not some kind of judgement from God and if it’s not a specific prelude to the more imminent return of Jesus, the third and final question we need to ask is:

Well, how should we understand it?

The big story of God that we see in the Bible can be summarised as a 4-act drama with these headings:

Creation, Fall, Redemption and New Creation.

God first creates a perfect world. But because humanity tries to run the world in their own way, the world has now fallen, it’s a broken place. But God is in the process of restoring the world again. The most important part of that plan was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and now we partner with Him in God’s work of restoration, which will come to completion when Jesus returns and there is a perfect New Creation again.

Romans 8:18-25 gives us the setting in which to understand the pandemic:

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

Covid has indiscriminately affected almost every country on earth. This means it is simply another piece of evidence that the world is a broken place. The Apostle Paul talks in the Romans 8 passage about all creation groaning as it awaits God’s final victory at the end of time.

At the start of the book of Revelation, the writer uses a simple two-fold phrase to describe the tension of the current time we live in. Revelation 1:9 says, “I, John, am your companion in the kingdom and the suffering.” Kingdom and suffering – those are happening simultaneously all the way until Jesus returns. At times we witness the wonderful in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the world. People are healed and set free in amazing ways that can only have come from the hand of God. But at other times, we witness people suffering.

One of the ways in which the world is affected by brokenness is that disease and death are present. As we’ve seen, this is what the Pale Horse from the Revelation 6 reading symbolises. The Pale Horse of disease and death will keep riding across the world right up to the day when Jesus returns. Only in the New Creation will sickness be a thing of the past.

Until then, we must contend with disease, but God calls us to partner with Him in His work of healing in the world. That work is seen both through occasions of God’s miraculous healing and through His gifting of people working in the medical profession. The medical profession is not a lesser grade of healing than the miracles of God. The healing that comes through the medical profession is all part of God’s common grace towards everyone.

Yes, we should certainly pray for the protection of everyone from Covid infection. And yes, we should be active in praying for the healing of anyone with Covid. But also we should support and value the work of everyone in the medical profession who are also working to care and heal. And where we witness suffering, God’s people should be those who offer compassionate support.

This is where we locate ourselves in the big picture of Covid. We are not to think that the Bible offers us a totally unique word for the Covid pandemic. The world has faced many things before which have led to great loss of life. The last century saw two world wars. Pandemics have happened before. Millions of people have died at the hands of despotic rulers like Genghis Kahn, Stalin and Hitler.

What the Bible offers us is a powerful vision. It’s a vision of a sovereign God who continues to rule from His throne, despite the troubles of the world. Though human rebellion against God has broken the world, God has in Jesus kicked-started the ultimate restoration plan and we can choose to partner with God in that project to heal and redeem. And we do that, knowing that every time we help in that way, we are anticipating what the final victory of God will be like. The New Creation will be a place where disease and sickness are no more. As the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8, we are a people heading for hope.

According to biblical imagery, Covid is an example of the Pale Horse of disease and death. That horse will continue to ride across the world until the day Jesus returns. But the Pale Horse is not completed unbridled. It will never usurp the good rule of God. One glorious Day, the true King will return to the earth, a New Creation will be established and the Pale Horse will ride no more.

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