Perhaps I should not have been surprised but I saw a number of articles on the web tying together Jesus’ words in Luke 21: 11 concerning pestilence and the coronavirus. But NO!!!
It would be such a stretch to get to the idea that Jesus was prophesying the virus and thus indicating that we are in the ‘end times’. I even saw one post that said these they had expected these events to be in the first 31/2 years of the 7 year period of tribulation, but were happening now. WOW… (Where do these people get the time from to think all of that… read a little, and only a little history to see where these ideas come from.)
Before having a quick look at Luke 21 here is what I consider is the framework we have to be looking at. The Jewish ‘one-horizon’ view shifts to multiple horizons in the New Testament. The Jewish one horizon view was simply that God will through the Messiah intervene, subduing all his (and therefore Israel’s enemies) causing the great reversal to take place. (Some views had two Messiahs, others saw the intervention without a Messiah – the ‘Jewish’ view is really the Jewish views.)
There were inevitable unforeseen events by those who shared that view. We see that reflected in the road to Emmaus discourse. ‘Did you not understand that first the Son of Man must suffer…?’ being Jesus rhetorical question to the married couple. Fresh horizons had appeared and others were yet to appear. The one horizon was proving inaccurate, multiple horizons needed to be seen.
We might separate out the immediate horizons of the Cross, Burial, Resurrection and Pentecost or we can put them together. Together they effectively make the first horizon. Jesus inaugurated a new day post-his forty days in the wilderness, opening up his earthly ministry, and post-cross another 40 day period of transition to the post-Pentecost ministry of the body of Christ. So the first unseen horizon was that of Easter / Pentecost. Not surprising as a common Jewish view was that when the great reversal took place it would be marked by the resurrection of the dead and an outpouring of the Spirit.
(A sidenote the 40 day periods and the 40 year period from Jesus predictions in Luke 21 to the fall of Jerusalem are tied to the Exodus period to the entry to the land. Jesus beginning his 40 days with his baptism, his death being an ‘exodus’ and all paving the way for the entry to the land / lands.)
The second horizon was that of the fall of Jerusalem within a generation, and Jesus clearly prophesied that. (I also consider that Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2 is referring to this event.) Such a dramatic and traumatic end of an era. The religious centre, the hope for the nations destroyed, and it marks a major cutting off between Jewish believers in Jesus and Jewish non-believers in Jesus. The followers of Christ abandoned Jerusalem understanding that was exactly what Jesus instructed them to do, leaving behind many residents to the brutal reprisals of Rome, which included many punished with crucifixion.
The third horizon I consider lies future. The parousia of Jesus, the time of the resurrection, final judgement and such events. For me only the book of Revelation is written post-the Fall of Jerusalem (AD70), and it is not obsessed with prophesying events to come but with unveiling the reality of our warfare, of what we are asking to change every time we pray ‘let your kingdom (basileia) come’. The book and that ongoing disciples’ prayer is set in the context of the Empire (basileia) of Rome.
So to Jesus and his words in Luke 21. The immediate context is of the Temple that Jesus said would be utterly destroyed resulting in the question of ‘when will these things take place?’ (21:7). The time frame was future for them, but past for us. Into that time frame – the next 40 years from the time of speaking – Jesus spoke of great traumas and of famines and pestilences. The decades that followed culminating in the brutal assault of Jerusalem (66-70AD) with mass crucifixions, cannibalism inside the city, the appearance of false Messiahs etc., were horrendous. Horrendous within Israel and with a sharp focus on Jerusalem but also deeply traumatic in the wider Imperial world. 68AD saw the year of the four emperors, as civil war broke out, and there seems to be some allusion to that in Revelation with the mortal wound to the head of the beast, but the wonder from the people that the beast survived. (Babylon’s cry, and the tell-tell sign that any institution is embracing Babylon’s values, are that ‘we will survive’ and at any cost, that ‘we will always have children’ but in the process eats the life of the children.)
In Luke 21 Jesus speaks to ‘you‘, speaks of being brought before synagogues, and decisively about Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, and that they will need to flee from the city and from Judea, and that the wrath will come on ‘these people’. Everything is geo-, ethnic- and temporal related. Josephus and other contemporary writers bear out the horrendous nature of those years.
In that context the sign will be visible that the Son of Man will come in the clouds – words spoken by Jesus already to the High Priest that he would personally see that event. This is not some far off future reference, but takes up the Daniel 7 imagery of one like a son of Man coming to the ancient of Days. The kingdom of God is in his hands. The hope for the future is not in a holy place, nor a holy land but in the hands of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one, is the resurrected vindicated One. To believe that is the continual challenge for us at all times as we now live in the period of time between the second and third horizon, and for us, as for every post-AD70 generation the Revelation 4, 5 challenge remain central, where Jesus came to the One seated on the throne as only the Lamb of God was able to open the seals (human destiny).
So I guess it is no surprise given the above approach that I do not see any reference to the coronavirus in Scripture. Scripture is ever so helpful in not giving us the future, but in giving us a future hope that cannot be shaken.
Is the coronavirus a sign of the end times? For sure. It is a sign that we have been in the end times ever since Jesus poured out from on high the Spirit, that this whole world is groaning waiting for liberation from its bondage to decay. So it is a sign in a very general sense, but not in a specific way. God might well speak through the current events, and I am sure he is. What is he saying? Our God is always speaking, we might hear different things but they must all focus on his love for us and for the world, that he has not abandoned us… and therefore the call is there to love and not to abandon others. Let your kingdom come.