There are many heroes throughout human history that we laud for their great accomplishments. Whether we are referring to scientific discovery (Sir Isaac Newton, for example), political conquests (Alexander the Great), social justice reform (Martin Luther King), or religious expression (Moses), there are so many more names that have played an integral part in human achievements whose names we may never know. Throughout the development and maturation of Christianity over the last two millennia, there have been many who have contributed immeasurably to the revelation of Jesus Christ throughout the church age, yet those accomplishments may never be remembered. They are the unsung heroes of our faith. Without them, Christianity would be far less than it is today. Just read a few pages of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to get a flavor of what I mean. God uses many without fanfare and they may be as important as or even more important than the ones we know.
I recently read a great book about William Tyndale, one of the incredible Protestant reformers of the 16th century, entitled “The Daring Mission of William Tyndale” by Steven Lawson. When you think of the Protestant Reformation, the names that first come to mind are Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox, etc. Those responsible for translating the Bible into English, including John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, seem to be considered of lesser importance. Yet both of these men had a deep conviction to provide the average person with the truth of God’s Word in his own English language and both were willing to pay the ultimate price. This was during times when the Roman Catholic Church exercised great authority over society and wished to keep the people in spiritual darkness.
Who is William Tyndale?
I am particularly impressed by Tyndale’s scholarship, a graduate of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, and the master of eight languages, including Greek and Hebrew. This gift was used by God to not only translate Scripture, but just as important, to help refine the English language from its Anglo-Saxon roots. According to David Rolph Seely, “His English translations of the Bible provided the basis for the King James Translation, and through his translations, Tyndale became one of the founders of the modern English language. In the process of translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English, Tyndale coined several new English words—transforming older English words or in some cases inventing unique and striking new English words—that have since become central terms in religious discourse. From a study of just a few of these words, we can better understand Tyndale’s genius for language, his methodology, and his theology, and we can gain insight into the complexity of translation. Most importantly, we can better appreciate the gift Tyndale gave to English speakers: the word of God in our own language.”
In 1523, Tyndale pursued getting approval from an English Bishop to translate the Scriptures into English and was summarily turned down. He had been inspired by Martin Luther’s 1522 New Testament translation into German. Knowing that he could not continue his passion in England, Tyndale traveled to Europe, most likely stopping in Wittenberg early on to meet with Luther, himself. Clearly, Tyndale had been bitten by the reformation bug and committed himself to his translating work at all cost. He spent the last 11 years of his life remaining incommunicado so his enemies would not derail the divine work. He traveled from city to city throughout Germany and Belgium, not allowing any pictures created of his likeness, and using pseudonyms instead of his real name. He was finally arrested in Belgium in 1535 and was executed in the same location in 1536 by strangulation and burning. William Tyndale is a quintessential unsung hero of the Protestant Reformation.
Integral in the Protestant reformation
During those years, Tyndale translated into English the New Testament (and revised editions) as well as large portions of the Old Testament that were published posthumously by others. The impact that his work had on the movement of God to bring the Scriptures to the people at large cannot be understated. King Henry VIII authorized that English translations of the Bible written by Tyndale and others be published within 10 years of Tyndale’s death. The King James (Authorized) Version was published in 1611 and it is estimated that 84% of the New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament can be attributable to Tyndale’s work. These translations were integral in the spread of the gospel to America and other parts of the British Empire. Tyndale was not seeking any glory for himself and understood early that it would cost him his life, but he accepted the divine call without reservation.
In Tyndale’s day, the Roman Catholic Church and the various monarchies ruled with iron fists, not allowing free expression of ideas, particularly ones that would stand in opposition to the authorities. Anyone standing against those authorities risked everything. We find that throughout church history, the times of greatest spiritual growth were the result of strong persecution and the first half of the sixteenth century represented a period of great spiritual awakening. In the 21st century, we find increasing public opposition to our Christian heritage and therefore believers require a deeper commitment to walk in and “publish” the truth. The stronger the opposition, faith in God and His plan is deepened in the one who is willing to risk it all. Consider the words of the song, “The River” written and performed by Steve Green:
There’s a river ever flowing, widening, never slowing
And all who wade out in are swept away
When it ends, where it’s going, like the wind no way of knowing
Until we answer the call to risk it all and enter in
The river calls, we can’t deny, a step of faith is our reply
We feel the spirit draw us in, the water’s swift, we’re forced to swim
We’re out of control and we go where he flows
The river that Steve Green speaks of is found in Ezekiel 47, the river that flows out from underneath the Temple, getting deeper and deeper as one is further away from the Temple. In verse 9, “It will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes will live. And there will be very many fish, for these waters go there and the others become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes.” This is a picture of the spiritual life the believer experiences when he chooses to follow the Holy Spirit at any cost. Not knowing where the Spirit takes him is not an issue; he has chosen this course out of a devotion to a higher purpose. New life experiences are around every bend, as Steve Green continues,
Danger awaits at every turn, we choose a course, we live and learn
As we surrender to His will, we’re at peace but we’re seldom still
He is in control and we go where he flows
The Apostle Paul understood the principle of being an unsung hero. In Galatians 6:14, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which has been crucified to me and I to the world.” The spiritual life is not concerned about personal recognition or accolades, but exalts the purposes of God without regret. Paul acknowledged his own spiritual bankruptcy, recognizing that the life of Christ was his highest priority, not earned, but received by His grace. In 1Corinthians 15:9-10, he said, “For I am the least of the apostles and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” Although we get to read about Paul and his life in the Bible, after his conversion in Acts 9, he did nothing to gain any personal recognition. In fact, he called all those individual gifts and accomplishments as rubbish (Philippians 3:8).
Publishing the truth
God is looking for more William Tyndales, ones who are ready to step up to the unique call of God, believing that God will empower them to fulfill each call through His divine ability. In 2Chronicles 16:9, “For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” This call includes “publishing” (heralding, declaring) the gospel to a lost and dying world no matter what. We may not be tasked with the challenge of translating Scripture as Tyndale was, but we can be God’s communicators of the truth as the church anticipates the return of Christ at any moment.