What a remarkable time it is in which to live! Entire nations have been brought to a standstill by an unseen enemy that is no respecter of persons, nationalities, or social status. Standard operating procedures are being thrown out the window. Improvisation is the new normal.
As I was editing this article for publication the following secular article landed in the inbox of my email: “Covid-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reshape a basic human behavior.” Quite an intriguing title, is it not? I plan to scan through it after I finish my edits. I can guarantee you one thing: the article will not offer anything that will radically transform a human being at his/her core. (OK, I peeked after finishing my edits. The article is about mobility and transportation. Now you won’t have to search for it. Take the time you would have read it to go for a walk!)
The uniqueness of this season is framed by the introduction of new concepts and their corresponding catch phrases, such as “social distancing,” “stop the spread,” and “shelter in place.” These new terms have joined the famously old admonition used by mothers for centuries, “wash your hands.” As is almost always the case, your mom is right. Thanks, mom!
Indeed, a common commentary during this fight to stop the spread of Coronavirus is that much of this could and can be avoided by the simple exercise of hand washing. Every medical doctor dogmatically proclaims that it is the most significant way in which people can protect themselves and others. They are adamant in this conviction.
Amazingly, and unknown to many in the current day, the adamance by physicians to “wash your hands” comes two centuries after their predecessors learned this lesson the hard way. They reluctantly learned it through the fervent advocacy of a physician who fought to end of his life the ignorance of his colleagues in the medical profession.
This bizarre story has been reintroduced during the current day Coronavirus pandemic scenario by columnist Lindsey Fitzharris. Her article in the Wall Street Journal article is titled, “The Unsung Pioneer of Handwashing,” and was published on March 19, 2020. Dr. Al Mohler referenced this article in “The Briefing with Albert Mohler” on Tuesday, April 7.
Years ago, I wrote about this same frustrated pioneer of medicine in a Baptist Testimony column in April 2008. Here is an edited portion of what I shared in the Baptist Testimony article titled, “Wash!”
Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis was born into a world of dying women in 1818. The finest hospitals lost one out of six young mothers to the scourge of what was labeled as “Childbed Fever.” One out of every six – a percentage that far exceeds the impact of this current world pandemic! In Semmelweis’ day, every doctor’s daily routine typically began in the dissecting room where he performed autopsies. This procedure helped to train and educate these practicing physicians.
The doctor would make his way from the dissecting room to the hospital to examine expectant mothers. However, in that transition, a common yet critically important step was omitted by every practicing physician. It was an omission that in today’s medical world would lead to physicians losing their license to practice medicine. The doctor would move into the examinations without ever pausing for hand washing.
Dr. Semmelweis was the first man in history to associate these two routine aspects of doctors’ daily rounds with the resultant infection and death. His personal practice was transformed by this knowledge. His regular routine was to wash with a chlorine solution after each individual procedure. After eleven years and the delivery of 8,537 babies, he lost only 184 mothers — about one in fifty. This was a staggering ratio in contrast to the rest of his cohorts.
Dr. Semmelweis vigorously spent the rest of his life lecturing and debating with his colleagues. Once he argued, “Puerperal fever is caused by decomposed material conveyed to a wound. I have shown how it can be prevented. I have proved all that I have said. But while we talk, talk, talk, gentlemen – women are dying. I am not asking anything world shaking. I am asking you only to wash . . . For God’s sake, wash your hands.”
But virtually no one believed him or followed his example. Doctors and midwives had been delivering babies for thousands of years without washing, and no outspoken Hungarian was going to change them now! Sadly, Semmelweis died insane at the age of 47, his washbasins discarded, his colleagues laughing in his face, and the death rattle of a thousand women ringing in his ears.
The word “wash” also carries spiritual implications. This is especially important to consider as the Christians remember Christ’s cross work at Calvary and celebrating the empty tomb. Reading the Gospel narratives, one can only begin to imagine the angst experienced by the Roman governor of Judea named Pontius Pilate as he crossed paths with a king unlike any Caesar (cf. Matthew 27; John 18-19).
Pilate’s encounter with divinity over a few hours of time finds him peppering everyone around him with questions. “What accusation do you bring against this man?” “Are you a king?” “Am I a Jew?” “What is truth?” “Where are you from?” “Do you not know that I have authority?” “Whom do you want me to release for you?” “Shall I crucify your King?” “Why?” “What evil has he done?” Questions of bewilderment and frustration posed by a man who was supposed to be in control of the situation.
Finally, and in frustration, when “Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves’” (Matthew 27:24). Yet no amount of water, holy or otherwise, could cleanse this man or the mob before him and wash away the guilt. Ultimately, Caesar’s governor delivered the King of Kings to be crucified.
Nothing ever devised by even the most ingenious individual or group can wash or cleanse away sin and guilt. Each and every person will die and be eternally separated from God as a result of their total contamination by sin. The urgent spiritual burden borne by every person is summarized in the anguished repentant cry of another king, named David, who cried out to God, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2).
God makes it clear that cleansing is an absolute necessity for the forgiveness of sins, a right relationship with God, and the holiness necessary to enjoy personal fellowship with Him. However, this cleansing cannot be not done on our terms, but only God’s. Nor is it accomplished through individual effort, no matter how meritorious those efforts may seem to us. Only Christ can make it possible for a person to be spiritually cleansed.
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
Today any person can have the same spiritual assurance and confidence that King David did when he prayed with humble repentance, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” (Psalm 51:7) and, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).
Dr. Semmelweis suffered great anguish as he recognized the need for physical cleanliness on the part of his colleagues and all of society. Similarly, churches and Christians must urgently recognize their commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and loving responsibility (2 Corinthians 5:14-21) to proclaim the need of spiritual cleansing to those hopelessly contaminated by sin. The ramifications of this appeal carry a far greater eternal significance than mere medical wellness. A physical cure, while certainly worthy of pursuit, will last only temporarily (James 4:14). Spiritual cleansing is eternally redemptive through the Lord Jesus Christ (Titus 3:6-7).
I believe that this period of time, when lives are in a state of upheaval while sheltering in place, has given the church and Christians a captive audience with whom to share “the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). Church buildings being empty this Resurrection Sunday is a sad news item. However, the Tomb being empty forever is the eternally Good News!
Churches are reporting large numbers of online guests as worship services are streamed. Pray that this will lead to many being introduced to and embracing the gospel. Proclaim the Good News gladly, regularly, and broadly. Oh Church, Arise! The wonderful truth is that the Lord Jesus Christ “loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Revelation 1:5). As a result, “it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).
You have His word on it!