(Lev 19:18; Matt 5:43–48; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:25-37; John 13:34; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8; 1 John 3:14)
HYPER POLITICIZATION of America’s polarized citizens has all too commonly dictated the behavior of even church people. Many respond according to the tropes of their political self-identity rather than through their identity in Christ. This must stop, or we’ll fatally damage the church’s witness as a people who love God, our neighbors—and truth.
Bad arguments for Christians—or even decent folk
Throughout the months of the COVID pandemic, one argument against taking scientifically advised health and safety precautions has been, “It should be a matter of personal choice!” But that kind of rebellious autonomy falls outside the bounds of human decency during a public health crisis. You don’t get to make up your own public health practices if doing it puts the public (i.e., your “neighbor”) at risk.
Some even insist that doing this is tantamount to taking the mark of the beast. Of course, that’s a ridiculous leap from the book of Revelation’s sign (Rev 16:2; 19:20; Rev 13:16) marking those who worship the beast “of the sea” (Rev 13:1). Nobody’s getting the shot in the middle of their forehead, or getting tattooed anywhere. Nobody’s asking anybody to worship a seven-headed Dr. Fauci, a ten-horned personal physician, or a ten-crowned President Biden—or the Antichrist himself—to get that shot.
An argument that’s a bit of a stretch
On the other side of the divide, those who support health and safety measures have lately offered an argument for masking drawn from the leprosy regulations in Leviticus: “Those who suffer from a serious skin disease must tear their clothing and leave their hair uncombed. They must cover their mouth and call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’” (Lev 13:45, NLT).1All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015); and unless otherwise labeled, pop-up Scripture references are from The Lexham English Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012. Of course, covering the moustache (שָׂפָם/safam, i.e., “lip”) isn’t necessarily pointing to a mask. And we certainly don’t require messy hair, shouting “COVID! COVID!” or declaring the infected to be “ceremonially unclean” and isolating them outside the city limits, or “camp” (Lev 13:46).
A better argument
In principle, there may be a bit of a connection between Leviticus 13 and masking up and getting the shot; however, it’s not through disease theme but through the lens of the second great commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves (Lev 19:18)—even our enemies (Matt 5:43–48).
Twofold summary of the Decalogue
When a Pharisee who fancied himself a legal hotshot baited Jesus by asking what law was most important, Jesus replied, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matt 22:37–40).
It’s an interesting exercise to apply that two-commandment summary to the Ten Commandments. When we do, we see that commandments 1–4 expand upon the implications of the first great commandment (Deut 6:4–5), and commandments 5–10 expand upon the implications of the second great commandment (Lev 19:18). Exodus 20:2–17 or Deuteronomy 5:6–21 gives us that tenfold list:
- You must not have any god but me.
- You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind to bow down to them or worship them.
- You must not misuse the name of the LORD your God.
- Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Love your neighbors
- Honor your father and mother.
- You must not murder.
- You must not commit adultery.
- You must not steal.
- You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.
- You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
Love your neighbor enough to avoid murder
Although it would be an exhausting effort to do, one could similarly classify the purported 613 commandments in the Law of Moses; it’s totally doable one at a time. Indeed, a couple of steps are useful as starting points for interpreting any particular commandment as we come across it:
- Read the law, and identify which of the two great commandments it embodies: Loving God (Deut 6:5) or loving your neighbor (Lev 19:18)—or even your enemy (Matt 5:43–48).
- And one step for doing that might be to identify which of the Ten Commandments it embodies.
When I think of the Christian’s duty to follow good health and safety practices—wearing a mask, social distancing, getting the shot—I think first of this text: “When you build a new house, you must build a railing2Hebrew מַעֲקֶה (mǎʿǎqěh): “≡ Str 4624; TWOT 1679a—LN 7.59–7.62 parapet wall, i.e., a barrier such as a railing or low wall to protect the edge of an elevated platform or roof” (James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew [Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997]). around the edge of its flat roof. That way you will not be considered guilty of murder if someone falls from the roof.” (Deut 22:8).3“Protective barrier around the circumference of house roofs. The parapet was required by the Law (Dt 22:8) since flat roofs were widely used (Jos 2:6; Jgs 16:27; 1 Sm 9:25; Is 22:1). Construction of a parapet would relieve the dweller from liability should a person fall from the roof” (Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Parapet,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988], 1616). This command clearly expands upon the second great commandment (Lev 19:18), and the text itself clues us in that it’s expanding upon the sixth commandment. Violation of this law demonstrates potentially murderous disregard for other’s safety.
Building a safety barrier for your busy rooftop in Israel protected the homeowner from blood-guilt that could have resulted from a toddler or elderly visitor stumbling off the edge—or a guest wandering off the edge while heading to the toilet in the middle of the night. Building a fence around your backyard pool and keeping its gate locked when unattended might be the closest parallel today. Or on a construction site, maintaining proper barriers on unfinished floors of a skyscraper or shoring up a trench for the safety of workers up there or down there.
And the principle behind that is a God-given obligation to be accountable for any behavior that might put others at risk. Of course, that’s where I move to a divine order to follow the best practices for public health during the COVID pandemic. The health care community in general, public health experts, and communicable disease experts combine to advise wearing masks, social distancing, and vaccination. What level of personal expertise in all these areas would lead you to do otherwise, knowing the public consequences? What level of disregard for God’s commandments would lead you to disdain that loving step of public care for the community where you move around?
- Christians, of all people, should follow the second great commandment—and even extend it to loving our enemies as ourselves.
- Christians, of all people, should see all of the Law of Moses as useful for Christian discipleship (2 Tim 3:16). That means, when we come to Deuteronomy 22:8, we should ask ourselves, “How well do I embody the principle behind this commandment in my own life—during this season of COVID?”
- If you’re doing well, great—and don’t be weary in well-doing, as variants of the original virus march along behind COVID-19.
- If you’re following the anti-vaxxer and anti-mask crowd, you should correct your attitudes and behavior in the direction of obedience to the law of God rather than the ranting crowds who treasure sinful autonomy more than love.
- And if you or like-minded family is now sick with COVID and perhaps transmitting the virus to others around you, whom you love:
- Repent of your sin and, with confidence, ask for God’s forgiveness.
- Do your best to begin what it takes to implement the second great commandment (e.g., self-quarantine, following doctor’s guidance).
- Pray for your recovery and for the safety of those around you.
A prayer for our times
Lord Jesus, you have set your church in the world as salt to hinder its decay, and light to illumine its darkness. Forgive us for our failures to be the new society you intend, and renew us by your Holy Spirit.
Grant that in a world of alienation your people may offer reconciliation; in a world of oppression, righteousness; and in a world of competition and greed—the freedom of unselfish service.
Help us to bring friendship to the lonely, support to the weak, deliverance to the slaves of passion and fear; and to all those despised and rejected by men the steadfast love of God.
For then the people who walk in darkness will see a great light, even yourself, Lord Jesus, the light of this dark world, for your name’s sake.
The Preacher’s Notebook: The Collected Quotes, Illustrations, and Prayers of John Stott, ed. Mark Meynell (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).