Do you remember the popular saying, “Elvis has left the building?” For those of you who are members of Generation X and below, you probably recall the announcement quite well. The declaration warned every Elvis fan that he was no longer occupying the same space; therefore, they needn’t remain on the premises. The excitement of communing with Elvis had passed.
In early church history, God used difficult circumstances to push his children toward personal and corporate righteousness. In the book of Acts, for example, readers observe how the Holy Spirit empowered the church to occupy enemy territory amid political and social crises. For some reason, God did not allow the first-century church to become complacent during their unexpected “new normal.” The five Great Commission pronouncements were still relevant no matter how bad the situation (Matt 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46-48; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8).
The church in Jerusalem found themselves in extremely dire straits. In Acts 1:8, Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would empower them to take the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth. As we read the book of Acts, we discover that even though the Jerusalem church received the Spirit’s empowerment (Acts 2) to extend the gospel worldwide; they remained content in Jerusalem. They did not take a step outside their buildings, as it were, until they were forced to leave.
What’s interesting is these gospel globetrotters missed the missional tipoff because they did not have their eyes on the Great Commission ball. God, therefore, used persecution to get them off the bench and into the game.
Sorry, friends, the basketball imagery results from “march sadness.” But I digress.
In Acts 8:1, the persecution of the church followed Stephen’s martyrdom by the hands of his Jewish kinsman. They acted hastily in their unbelief and took this dear servant’s life. Saul, who later became Paul, was an accomplice to this murder. Saul eventually received orders to bring professed believers bound to Jerusalem to face punishment for blaspheming the name of YHWH. As such, the church in Jerusalem was scattered abroad. They no longer had the ability to do things as usual.
In a similar fashion, many Christian churches are facing an unseen foe that is now persecuting the immune systems of image bearers all over the world. We hear rising death toll reports on account of COVID-19. Recently, my wife and I traveled to Cleveland, Ohio. We saw several traffic warnings that read: LIMIT YOUR TRAVEL AND REDUCE THE SPREAD OF COVID-19.
It was surreal.
When we read signs so ominous, it makes us want to lock ourselves in a secure environment until everything blows over. Of course, we should exercise wisdom in how we engage other image bearers, applying social distancing without shaming our neighbors as a potential virus carrier since anyone, including ourselves, could very well be a carrier. Think with me for a moment. If you have not been checked for COVID-19, then you cannot be certain that you are not the infected neighbor since the disease is asymptomatic.
Our propensity toward self-preservation will invariably create an “us versus them” attitude. Listen to the message of these formidable passages—Acts 1:8 and 8:1—before withdrawing from the world.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and the end of the earth” (1:8).
“Saul agreed with putting him [Stephen] to death. On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria” (8:1).
Please don’t stop thinking biblically during this crisis. God loved the early church. Yet, he allowed persecution to scatter many of them abroad. God loves the 21st century church. Yet, God is allowing the coronavirus to remind many American Christians that our faith does not reside in a meeting location. Our faith empowers us to make the most of every opportunity as ambassadors of Christ (2Cor 5:20; Eph 5:15-16). Ask God for greater wisdom on how to share your faith within the prescribed governmental parameters. Prayer is the key to evangelistic creativity.
I am asking God to help me see this moment through the lens of His providence (Ps 115:3). Nothing can touch humanity without God’s permission. If pain touches my life, then it must first pass through the kind fingers of a loving God. Not even the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which can be fatal, can make us fatalistic.
When Elvis left the building, hope of seeing him waned. It might be true that there are fewer souls in our church buildings during this national health crisis, but our joy has not faded because, unlike Elvis, Christ is coming back again. He said, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” before ascending into heaven (Matt 28:20). In Acts, the angels explained to the bewildered disciples, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus left the earth, gave us His Spirit, so the church can courageously leave the building.
Sometimes we might need a little push.
CURTIS WOODS is associate executive director for convention relations.