This post is the third in a series. The previous post addressed how to confront rules that are designed to improve your life, but have the effect of making you want to jump off a bridge. It answers the question “Would Jesus Wear a Mask?”
Christ and Caesar and the Church
Not long ago, Pastor John MacAurther of Grace Covenant Church in the Los Angeles area decided to defy local ordinances that have prevented his church for gathering for months. Their position was explained in a letter from the pastor and elders, which you can read at this link. After explaining their theological reasoning, they say the following:
Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.
Is this the “right” decision? I don’t know. As I’ve already covered in this series, there is “legitimate” power of the government, but that isn’t the end of the story. Perhaps the church is right. Perhaps the church’s decision is not. Perhaps the moral decision is right even though the legal power is legitimate. Perhaps the legal rules of Los Angeles have overstepped their constitutional legal limits, but the church is still unwise for opening.
Truth be told, I don’t know. I don’t live in Los Angeles. I don’t know the church’s anti-infection practices. I don’t know how crazy their rules are. I won’t judge.
However, even as I don’t judge, I think it’s clear that this question about “Would Jesus Wear a Mask” is quite relevant to this time.
That is why I hope to add something to the theological issue. Obviously, this “Wear a Mask” thing is obviously a symbol, as the issue is much bigger. It involves masks, social distance, quarantine, church closures, cessation of operations, and other SERIOUS issues. People have even been unable to celebrate weddings or have funerals. It’s a big deal. That’s what the “Mask Question” is.
So, let’s talk about it: Would Jesus Wear a Mask?
Physical Illness, Real Danger, and Orders of Caesar
Since I am me, now I’m going to show how this VERY modern issue actually has some parallels to 2000 year old history. I bring your attention to Pliny the Elder, writing in 70 A.D., who says the following on a “new disease,” which he calls “lichen,” that was afflicting mankind.
The face of man has recently been sensible of new forms of disease, unknown in ancient times, not only to Italy, but to almost the whole of Europe. Still, however, they have not as yet extended to the whole of Italy, nor have they made any very great inroads in Illyricum, Gaul, or Spain, or indeed any other parts, to so great an extent as in Rome and its environs. Though unattended with pain, and not dangerous to life, these diseases are of so loathsome a nature, that any form of death would be preferable to them. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 26.1)
The most insupportable of all these diseases is the one which, after its Greek appellation, is known to us as “lichen.” In consequence, however, of its generally making its first appearance at the chin, the Latin’s, by way of joke, originally—so prone are mankind to make a jest of the misfortunes of others —gave it the name of “mentagra;” an appellation which has since become established in general use. In many cases, however, this disease spreads over the interior of the mouth, and takes possession of the whole face, with the sole exception of the eyes; after which, it passes downwards to the neck, breast, and hands, covering them with foul furfuraceous eruptions. (Natural History, 26.2)
This curse was unknown to the ancients, and in the times of our fathers even, having first entered Italy in the middle of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius Claudius Cæsar; where it was introduced from Asia, in which country it had lately made its appearance, by a member of the equestrian order at Rome, a native of Perusiun, secretary to the quæstor. The disease, however, did not attack either females or slaves, nor yet the lower orders, or, indeed, the middle classes, but only the nobles, being communicated even by the momentary contact requisite for the act of salutation. Many of those who persevered in undergoing a course of remedial treatment, though cured of the disease, retained scars upon the body more hideous even than the malady itself; it being treated with cauteries, as it was certain to break out afresh, unless means were adopted for burning it out of the body by cauterizing to the very bone.
Upon this occasion several physicians repaired to Rome from Egypt, that fruitful parent of maladies of this nature, men who devoted themselves solely to this branch of medical practice; and very considerable were the profits they made. At all events, it is a well-known fact that Manilius Cornutus, a personage of prætorian rank, and legatus of the province of Aquitania, expended no less a sum than two hundred thousand sesterces upon his cure.
It is much more frequently, on the other hand, that we hear of new forms of diseases attacking the lower orders; a singular fact, and one quite unequalled for the marvellous phænomena which sometimes attend these outbreaks. Thus, for instance, we find an epidemic suddenly making its appearance in a certain country, and then confining itself, as though it had made its election so to do, to certain parts of the body, certain ages, and even certain pursuits in life. In the same way, too, while one class of diseases attacks the young, another confines itself to adults; while one malady extends itself only to the higher classes, another is felt exclusively by the poor. (Natural History 26.3)
If you read the Bible, and especially the gospels, this is wildly interesting information. What he is describing is a disease that affects the skin. It does not cause serious illness or death, but it is still seen as horrible, causing people to WISH for death instead of live. It starts on the face and moves to the neck, chest, and hands. It is described as “furfuraceous,” which is a word that means “covered with or characterized by scales that resemble bran.”
He is describing a highly-contagious skin disease you have probably seen described in the gospels… …as LEPROSY.
Scales. That’s the clue, along with other information, too. The Greek word for “leprosy” in the New Testament is λέπρα (lepra), which derives from the word λεπίς (lepis), which is the scale of a fish.
The other information matches up, too. Remember that in the gospels, lepers are “unclean” and live outside the city walls. They are avoided as contagious (and they are). But they are not in need of assistance in getting around (as are the lame and blind). Instead, as Pliny the Elder describes, they are quite healthy.
Additionally, we read that this disease came into Italy “from Asia.” To the Romans, “Asia” was both modern Turkey and Palestine, which is where the setting of the gospels. We read that it came during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, which is the SAME emperor at the time of Jesus’s ministry.
This lichen is the same disease as “Leprosy.” Therefore, we have an IN-TIME EXAMPLE of how Jesus deals with very contagious diseases that people are afraid to catch. This is theological-application GOLD!
The Problem with Jesus Being the Example
Let’s see what Jesus does when he encounters the very contagious skin disease.
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)
Nevermind, this is actually not very helpful. Unfortunately, the only guidance we have about what Jesus would do here is something like this:
Jesus of Nazareth: “I am willing! Be healed of coronavirus!”
A Sadducee in the front: “It’s called COVID-19.”
Pharisee in the back: “It’s called SARS-CoV-2!”
Simon the Zealot: “It’s the Wuhan-Kung-flu, suckas! They cooked that crap up in a Roman lab!”
Doubting Thomas: “That thing is a myth, and I’ll believe it when I catch it myself!”
Judas Iscariot: “Hey, everybody! I’m selling one shekel of hand sanitizer or an Ephah of masks for only one talent of silver!”
Jesus of Nazareth: “GUYS! Seriously! Just GIVE ME A MINUTE, will you? Anyway, dude, what was I saying? Oh yeah. See that you post nothing to anyone on social media, because, like, it’ll probably be blocked anyway. But go, show yourself to Dr. Fauci, and serve out the remainder of your quarantine, for a proof to the CDC.”
Anyway, all jokes aside, I’m not so sure that is an effective medical or theological application point. Therefore, I think we need something else.
A Better Example of How Jesus Deals With Contagious Disease
The example of Jesus and leprosy is problematic, because Jesus is way too powerful for his reactions to ordinary diseases. But there is a second lesson from a different contagious condition. The story picks up with John the Baptist:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:1-17)
This is complicated, so let’s break it down.
Explaining the Baptism of John
There is something weird about the baptism of John the Baptist. This idea of “baptizing” is not found anywhere in the Bible. But lo and behold, right at the beginning of the New Testament, this prophet (who all the Jews recognized as a prophet) just starts “baptizing” people in the Jordan river, and this is just seen as NORMAL by the Jews, even though this command to be baptized never appears in the Old Testament.
The answer can be seen in how water was used in the Old Testament.
- In Exodus 30, there is a specific bronze basin that God commands to be built for similar washing of the hands and feet of the priests so that they can approach the presence of God.
- As we see in Exodus 40, this same basin of water is necessary to wash Aaron and the priests before the presence of God comes to Israel.
- In Numbers 8, water of purification was used on the Levites, so that they could approach the tent of meeting and the tabernacle, where they would serve as priests before God.
- In Leviticus 1, we see that all sacrifices before God must be washed with water before they are clean and acceptable.
- In Leviticus 11:31-32, we see that in order to make something “clean” that was “unclean” before, it must be washed with water.
There are many more examples, but that is enough. These practices of “washing” were well known to the Jews. The point of the water is “be clean, you filthy animal!” So while John’s “baptism” was not very common, the idea of washing with water was VERY common.
Other Descriptions of John’s Baptism
Similarly, we have an extra-biblical description of John’s baptism of Josephus. In Antiquities, he describes the following opinion about the leader who killed John the Baptist:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.5.2)
From all this we can see the point of the Baptism of John. It was for “washing” of the body. It was not for the saving of your soul, which was “thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (See Ephesians 1 for an explanation of that.)
Therefore, we can get an idea of John’s message: “Yeah, you may have heard of your duty to be ‘clean.’ You may have had some water sprinkled on your head. You may have washed your hands. You may have washed your feet. But here’s the deal. You’re going to have to wash EVERYTHING.”
The First “Baptism.”
However, there is one place in the Old Testament where “baptism in the Jordan” has a very clear history. It was an unclean Syrian named Naaman. Click here to read that full story in Kings 5:1-14, as it is excellent, even though I don’t have time to cover it here.
The important stuff is this: Naaman was “unclean” because he had leprosy, even though he was a mighty man of valor. He heard that a man of God in Israel could make him clean. So he came, ready to give great gifts and to do mighty works to cure himself of the disfiguring disease. But when he arrived in Israel, the man of God did not even take the time to meet him. He just said. “Dip yourself in the Jordan River seven times, and you’ll be fine.”
The simplicity of the instructions was so insulting, he almost didn’t do it. And yet, it worked. He was the FIRST person in the Bible to be baptized — that is, to be WASHED — in the Jordan.
Jesus and Cleanliness
This is why John (a relative of Jesus who knew him) was so taken aback by him coming to John to be “washed of sin.” Jesus didn’t need it.
But what does this tell us about non-metaphorical issues. What about issues of hygiene? We actually have an example of that. The following story is about the Pharisees’ rules about “handwashing” before eating and Jesus’s reaction:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:1-20)
The funny thing is that no matter what “hygienic” benefits this rule of hand-washing had, there’s a strange fact to notice. Jesus doesn’t care about it. Jesus doesn’t care about hygiene. He cares about righteousness.
Along those lines, my favorite part about this passage is when Peter asks Jesus to “explain the parable” about things that don’t defile a person. And Jesus’s reply is along the lines of “Seriously, bro? It’s not a parable!” He then goes onto describe how people poop to answer Peter’s question. I’m sure this was an awkward moment.
The key is that these issues of hygiene and rules are NOT righteousness. Infection-control is not righteousness. Virtue signaling is NOT actual virtue. Righteousness is a quality of the soul, not the body.
Jesus’s Strange Attitude Towards “The Rules”
This is why Jesus’s attitude towards “the Rules” is so strange. It was the same with what we saw about his baptism:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. (Matthew 23:1-7)
Wow. What’s strange about this is that Jesus notes that the Pharisees do NOT practice what they preach. They LOVE to tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. They were the original virtue signalers.
And yet, he says “Do and observe whatever they tell you.”
Even worse, later in the same chapter, Jesus eviscerates their terrible rules when he says:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)
Despite their hypocrisy, Jesus STILL tells his disciples that they SHOULD be tithing from their spice rack AND being just, merciful and faithful, even though the Pharisees are not. Wow.
The Answer to the Question: Would Jesus Wear a Mask?
So, here’s the bad news: Do you see the connection to quarantines, mask rules, and other “heavy burdens” that have descended on us these days? Do you see the terribly unfortunate conclusion he draws about those who tie up heavy burdens for us, who virtue-signal about how sanitary and safe they are, and ignore the BASIC and weightier matters like justice, mercy, and faithfulness — or gathering in crowded streets to chant “Defund the Police”?
Would Jesus wear a mask? Would he tell you to wear a mask?
Or let’s ask it another way:
- Should we wear for Caesar the masks that are Caesar’s to require?
- Should we wear the service and glory and kindness and suffering of Christ that is Christ’s to require?
Ugh… I don’t like this answer from Jesus, but there it is. The fact that I don’t like it is probably the best evidence that it is an answer from Jesus.
More Info For the Church and Ancient Infection Controls
But now we need to return to Leprosy. When we left off with Pliny the Elder, we shared that there was a very contagious disease that NO ONE wanted to catch. What we haven’t discussed is the infection controls instituted by Caesar in that time.
And yes. Caesar had infection controls. This is why we read the following about Tiberius Caesar from the Roman Historian Suetonius:
He issued an edict forbidding general kissing. . .
(Suetonius, Life of Tiberias, 34.2)
Really? Yes. Really. Why? The answer is above. Remember the description about this disease which they said always began at the mouth. Remember how they said it spread:
being communicated even by the momentary contact requisite for the act of salutation. (Natural History, 26.3)
As anyone who has seen a mob movie knows, the “Muah! Muah!” kiss on the cheek is the momentary contact requisite for an Italian salutation. It is A KISS! The disease is spread by KISSING!!! And so note what the Emperor does. He outlaws “general kissing.” Of course he doesn’t outlaw “kissing,” but he does outlaw GENERAL kissing.
This is Roman infection control. This is Roman social distancing. This is an order from Caesar about a highly contagious disease. This is basically what it means: “By the order of Caesar, keep that risk in the family.”
Pathology in Paul’s Epistles
We should also note what Pliny the Elder reports about WHO catches this disease. Also note how it is treated, based on what we know. In Rome and Pliny the Elder, we see the treatment (gained from Egypt) was to burn the disease down to the bone. Ouch. In Israel and the Bible, we see the typical practice was setting yourself apart from everybody else, until it suddenly switched to “Jesus.” How’s that choice of treatments for a demonstrative metaphor about sin?
As for the pathology, we see (at least as it was experienced in Rome) that the disease was confined to wealthy classes. But that was during the reign of Tiberias, around the time of Jesus. Pliny the Elder wrote in AD 70, and things had developed. That is where we read the following in the last part of the section:
It is much more frequently, on the other hand, that we hear of new forms of diseases attacking the lower orders; a singular fact, and one quite unequalled for the marvellous phænomena which sometimes attend these outbreaks. Thus, for instance, we find an epidemic suddenly making its appearance in a certain country, and then confining itself, as though it had made its election so to do, to certain parts of the body, certain ages, and even certain pursuits in life. In the same way, too, while one class of diseases attacks the young, another confines itself to adults; while one malady extends itself only to the higher classes, another is felt exclusively by the poor.
In other words, the pathology had CHANGED by the time Paul is writing. No longer was it confined to the upper classes. Instead, it tended to pick certain groups. Maybe it would attack a certain occupation. Maybe it would only attack the young. Maybe the old. Maybe the rich. Maybe the poor. Therefore, we have a very strange instance where certain CLASSES of people are suddenly deemed “contagious.” The risk runs through the basic common decency of giving a salutation.
The Scandalous Command of Paul
This is the connection to the church that I’ve been trying to get to. It is a command of Paul, made over and over again in his letters that is suddenly VERY controversial:
Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
(1 Thessalonians 5:26)
Wait, what? Really?
Yes, really. When you know the history, it’s clear: Because kissing is the “momentary contact requisite for the act of salutation.” It is an act of basic kindness. It is also the way that a TERRIBLE disease is spread.
Do you see the scandal of the order? Do you see the parallel to the orders of Rome? Do you see the application to today?
Caesar gave an order. His order outlawed “general” kissing. In other words, “Keep that risk in the family!” Paul gave an order. His order is directed to the church. In other words, “Look at everyone here. This is your family.”
“Greet All The Brothers With a Holy Kiss”
Let’s break down this command word by word, because every word is important.
The command is to GREET the brothers. This is the basic kindness owed to people. The church MUST do this. We MUST be kind to one another, even when there is risk.
The command is to greet ALL the brothers. Remember that this disease was believed to confine itself to certain groups, classes, ages, regions, or occupations. In light of this fact, who should we be greeting? ALL of the brothers. Do not play favorites.
The command of Caesar is against “general kissing.” What do we do with that? Well, Caesar has authority, and he is an agent of God, whose laws are instituted for our good. He has declared that we keep this risk inside the family. Therefore, greet all the BROTHERS with a holy kiss. Who is a “brother”? Everyone in the church. This is your family.
Additionally, the command is that the kiss should be HOLY. More on that below.
Finally, it is A KISS. Meaning, it is kind.
What it Means to Be “Holy”
We’ve lost some of the connotations of this word. So let’s explain. This is not a word signaling angelic voices. It is not some super-special idea. It’s not a word that signifies an imaginary or “spiritual” kiss. The Greek word is ἁγίῳ (hagiō). It has connotations of purity and cleanliness and righteousness and justice and goodness and ALL of that:
- It is not “rule-following,” as Jesus made clear with the Pharisees, even though rules ARE involved.
- It is not “separation,” as Jesus made clear when he preached among sinners, even though a certain separation from sin IS involved.
- It is not “quarantine,” as Jesus made clear by the way he touched and spoke to lepers, even though these lepers WERE unclean.
- It is not “risk free,” as Jesus made clear by the “trouble” he promised to his disciples, even though they were COMMANDED not to fear.
- It is also not “free from pain,” as Jesus made clear by the way he suffered, even though there IS greater joy to come.
To get this idea in your head, remember that holy and sin have nothing in common just as holy and impure have nothing in common. Holy and unrighteousness has nothing in common, just as holy unclean have nothing in common.
Remember that those who were baptized by John “washed” their sins to purify their bodies. Remember that Jesus had no need to do this, but did it anyway so that his righteousness would be complete. Remember that Jesus did not see hand-washing as “righteous,” but following the directions from authorities (even stupid and hypocritical authorities) is what Jesus commanded. Strange, but there it is.
And finally, remember that “holy” is the same word used when Paul commands the following:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
So would Jesus wear a mask? Of course. But would he also willingly die of COVID? Of course. Regardless of what he did, he would not fear.
He would not fear because he was holy, and death had nothing on him.
So in the midst of COVID-19, we have a good biblical picture of our responsibility to “wash” and be “clean.” We have a good example of following rules that are dumb. We have a good example of self-sacrifice. We have a good example of laying down our lives for others. We have a good example of purity and cleanliness. We have a good, good father, and we are his children. We should obey him.
Therefore, in light of rules about masks and the commands of Jesus: Wear a mask when required, but don’t put your faith in masks. Recognize the law, but do not tie up heavy burdens for others to bear. Be kind to one another, and don’t be a jerk based on whether or not someone wears a mask.
And if Caesar outlaws “general kissing,” then Greet All the Brothers with a Holy Kiss, without fear, without shame, without self-righteousness, with eyes wide open, and ready to suffer for the sake of righteousness. If kindness and love and service involves risk, then TAKE THE RISK.
Regarding the law: Be kind, not demanding. It is not works of the law that make someone clean and pure. It is not what goes into the mouth (or lungs) that makes someone clean. It is what comes out of the mouth that makes someone clean. Never fear, and love one another.
Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)
So if you (based on your job or the law), must require someone to wear a mask, still be kind (and always have a mask on hand to give). Serve one another through mask wearing, do not wear masks out of fear.
…and wash your hands, too. There is a pandemic, you know.