What makes a story compelling? Stories are compelling when they connect us to our culture. They are compelling when they provide themes and ideas that add a rich context to our own lives. They are compelling when they resonate with our history. Our current teaching series is entitled “Stories.” The pastors at Northstar will share their stories over the next four weeks. During this series, I will be sharing some compelling stories from history that hopefully will illuminate and illustrate the story of Christianity.
They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. – Hebrews 11:37-38
The Middle Ages was not a great time for humanity. Besides, wars and plagues, most people were uneducated and illiterate. For those few who could read, they did so in Latin, the language of the artistic, social, or political elite and the church. The Bible was also in Latin. All Bibles were hand copied because the printing press did not yet exist. Thus the cost of a Bible made them inaccessible to all but the most wealthy people. Almost no one had considered the idea of an English translation because the penalty for such thinking was being burned at the stake for heresy.
John Wycliffe was frustrated and deeply disappointed with the Church he was a part of. He could not simply walk away from the church that he loved and that loved him but he could not tolerate the fact that the extremes of the church had closed many doors to the very people Jesus had come to save. The church was in need of reformation and revival and Wycliff wanted to be a part of it.
Wycliff was concerned that the church considered themselves elite and rulers instead of servants. John hoped to free the church from the corrupting grip of worldly power and wealth. He believed that only by losing all claims to affluence and influence could the church become a witness for Jesus Christ. He viewed the simplicity and power of the biblical message as the antithesis of the fables, superstitions, and myths taught by the church at that time. The church, however, was not going to give up their wealth and power easily.
With the help of some friends, John Wycliff translated the Bible, all 750,000 words, from Latin into English—an immense undertaking at that time. His revolutionary belief that the average person should be able to read the Bible in the common language threatened the power of the state church. This translation threatened the glue that held medieval civilization together, the church’s power to bind men’s knowledge and beliefs.
He was branded a heretic. But before he could be arrested, tried, and burnt at the stake, he died of a stroke while saying Mass in 1384.
What can we learn from John Wycliff and the medieval times? First, we should be thankful we live in this century rather than the 14th century. We should regularly thank God for religious freedom, the light of the gospel, the rule of law, mass literacy, multiple versions of Bibles available in our homes, and modern medical care to name a few. It begs the question: Have we been good stewards of these immense privileges?
Second, we should emulate John Wycliff’s courage. In an age when heretics were burnt at the stake or slowly tortured to death, he stood valiantly, and almost alone, against the monolithic medieval church and its right to speak solely for God. He was the first medieval man to elevate the authority of the Bible over the authority of the church.
Third, John Wycliff, never got comfortable with his time, preferring to step out ahead of his times. We understand all too well as a church that it is difficult to be effective servants of Jesus Christ by being complacent and accepting things as they are. His perspective was beyond his time. It was eternal, and ours must be also.
Fourth, we must never underestimate the power of the Bible to change lives and shake nations. All effective Christian leaders live and breathe the Bible. Because they feel its power, they preach it. Stories and anecdotes have their place, but they never replace clear, practical, biblical exposition. John Wycliff understood this power, and used it for God’s glory. In later centuries God shook the British Isles, but it all began with John Wycliff and his work.
John Wycliffe left quite an impression on the church: 43 years after his death, officials dug up his body, burned his remains, and threw the ashes into the river Swift. Still, they couldn’t get rid of him. Wycliffe’s teachings, though suppressed, continued to spread across the world.
Next: Hudson Taylor