by Dr. Bill Maynard
Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28)
By mid- March we had three confirmed cases of COVID-19 among my patients. One has died. Another is recovered. The third I am telephoning regularly, and his continued fevers and breathlessness nearly three weeks into the infection are keeping me on edge. Coronavirus can worsen after a week, and many of the infections that prove fatal do not reveal their lethality initially. Sometimes a week into the illness, after a few days of seeming improvement, there is a second sickening – a renewed fever and cough with shortness of breath that can proceed to respiratory failure.
The public debate in the USA (and our whole new cultural glossary of medical terms) centers on life-saving ventilators. While many patients can be preserved by mechanical ventilation, ICU doctors around the country now note that some of their ventilated patients who seem to be turning the corner can die suddenly when the virus unleashes its final, fatal assault: a directly toxic effect on heart muscle that causes cardiac arrest. All the ventilators in the USA won’t stop that.
Recently I worked in a COVID testing site. I could not know which patients had the infection at the time. But without a doubt I saw the effects of the virus. My first patient, a young lady with asthma, was literally quivering with fear. Indeed, our whole world is being shaken.
The writer of Hebrews speaks of the underlying meaning behind earth-shaking events.
[God’s] voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:26-29)
Though we are not likely experiencing the final shaking of heaven and earth described in Hebrews 12, we are witnessing a greater convulsion of our world than most of us have ever seen. Why is this happening and how should we respond?
When a prospector is panning for gold, he scoops up a mixture of dirt, rocks, and water. How can he glean the gold hidden within? He begins to swirl and shake the mixture. The denser gold is unmoved by the shaking and settles out in a layer at the bottom, while the lighter rock and sand are swirled away by the agitation. Only what cannot be shaken – precious gold – remains.
In all things and especially in momentous events, our loving God is sovereignly grasping our world and shaking it in order to remove things that are shakable and retain things that cannot be moved. I am not speaking of those who live and those who die from COVID-19 infections. All lives have immense value. Only God himself can know why some people perish and some remain behind. We are not able and not allowed to connect all the dots behind tragedies. No, the gold that God is seeking is not the lives which are spared or stricken by COVID-19.
The Apostle Peter discloses that faith is the precious treasure that God is uncovering when he allows the world to be agitated. Peter also provides a healthy perspective on trials, such as the current pandemic.
You have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6,7)
Faith in Jesus Christ is a treasure to be cherished more than gold by the believer, as it is by God himself. Trials can reveal and refine faith just as surely as swirling uncovers and concentrates gold.
God is showing us how much we need him. He is demonstrating our fragility as individuals and as a global culture. As we confront resource shortfalls, our overconfidence in modern medicine is whisked away. Crumbling is our expectation that our global order will deliver us from all evil. Fading is our illusion of control. Our world is being shaken so that only what is unshakable may remain.
Many good things will remain in our world after this pandemic is ended. We will likely continue to enjoy the benefits of an effective medical system, a robust economy, a stable political system, and a comfortable civilization. It will be important to rebuild these things and enjoy them in the COVID aftermath. Won’t it be delightful to eat at your favorite restaurant again or watch sporting events, whenever they resume?
But in allowing this global shudder, God is also providing rich opportunities to experience something even better than sports, comfort, health, or even life itself. Through knowing him by faith, all of us, the sick and the spared alike, can stand on solid ground that can never be shaken by such spasms as COVID-19. This pandemic is a call and opportunity to turn to God in faith.
But what would faith actually have us do now in a shaken world? I believe there are three levels, or three worlds, in which we all live and in which we can now act.
The first is the physical planet, the material culture that surrounds us. This is the realm of viruses, ventilators, cancelled concerts, shuttered businesses, and suffering people. We are right to grieve the hurts of this world and to work tirelessly to address them. Many people of faith have great opportunity to do good right now. Others may soon have an opening in the aftermath of the pandemic. Let us plead with God to stop this pandemic and spare human life. Let’s obey and pray for those in authority. Let’s be responsible and wise. Let’s reach out (literally or virtually) to those in need. Let’s give what we can.
What specific actions should we take? There are many wiser Christians with helpful thoughts on that. Here I will simply assert that rich prospects, like seams of gold, lie before us. What a chance we have through faith in Jesus to love our neighbors! You have to decide how you will do that. In fact the Lord would urge us to be very thoughtful and creative about it.
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24)
Let us consider. Let’s put some time and prayer into how we can be a blessing to the material world and our fellow creatures. And then let’s act.
I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up (2 Peter 1:13)
If we are standing on the solid ground of faith in Christ, we do not need to be shaken. But we should be stirred – stirred to pray, love, serve, and proclaim the good news of an unshakable king and his kingdom.
There is a second world that we all live in; it is a microcosm. Recently, as I was evaluating a woman with symptoms of a stroke, her distraught husband cried out plaintively: “Doc, this is my world!” We all live in the interior, tiny world of our own lives and those we love most. This universe may be tiny, but it surely feels immense. Big or small, this world ends many times every day. There is no need for pandemics, wars, or mass disasters – a car wreck, heart attack, single stray bullet, or cancer ends this world. Indeed, for every one of us, our own little world will perish on the day we die.
Here again there is a great opportunity for us to strike it rich. We can grow wealthier in this crisis – not in money, but in something much more valuable: faith. I am certain that God wants to stake new claims to territory in our hearts. He is panning there for gold right now!
Even though we may be fearful, let’s also be faithful. I would very much like for you and me to come through this pandemic unscathed. But let’s not be shaken by the threat of death or loss. Let’s be stirred to “Receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”
Finally, there is the world that I will call the macrocosm. This region encompasses all time, heaven and earth, and all the people who have ever lived. It is a realm divided between two domains – the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness. One is fading, and the other is growing.
Few who currently live on planet earth have seen such sweeping perturbations as this pandemic. But there are many living in the kingdom of God who have witnessed much greater tremors than COVID 19. These women and men have now departed the material planet, but they live on through the power of God in a mysterious communion with us. These saints can encourage us and speak to us of far greater upheavals in which they lived and died. They can point us to the proper object of faith in all ages.
The writer of Hebrews, inspired by God to speak divine words, is still speaking today. In chapter 12 of the book, he encourages us to:
[Look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (verse 2)
Consider Jesus (verse 3)
Do not refuse him who is speaking (verse 25).
Be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe (verse 28)
History books focus on wars and momentous events because this is when the world undergoes sweeping changes. History moves forward in fits and spasms. The kingdom of God moves forward relentlessly, but maybe not necessarily at a constant pace, either. Because God is sovereign, he is always advancing the reign of his son. But with each jolt of the world – especially with each jolt! – God’s kingdom surges forward. Perhaps that is partly why Jesus says in Matthew 11:12: “The kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
We have the privilege, if we pay attention, to see and take part in a great advance of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus in our day. We may fear; we may suffer. Someday, of course, we will inevitably die. But we should be stirred, not shaken. Pray hard; consider how you may do good for the glory of God during this global upheaval. It would be a shame to waste a pandemic just trying to survive.
Dr. Bill Maynard