Message 19, OPTIONAL SESSION: The Daring Mission of William Tyndale:
In this session, Dr. Steven J. Lawson traces the daring mission of William Tyndale, who was used by God to ignite the English Reformation, which ultimately cost Tyndale his life.
Well, thank you, Stephen. That’s very gracious of you to say; because Stephen is a real church historian, and I am so, I’m really an expositor and a preacher of the Word of God, and yet over the last 40 years of my Christian life and of my ministry, I have been so greatly helped by reading church history.
The lives of men whom God has used greatly down through the centuries has greatly inspired me, so much so that I’ve started a series with Ligonier, the Reformation Trust Imprint, that I call ‘A Long Line of Godly Men,’ that down through the centuries, there has been like a relay race, men whom God has raised up in every era and in every generation, who in their day has been faithful to the Word of God and who have paid an enormous price for the Word of God to go forth in their day.
I’ve written books, small books, with Reformation Trust on John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, and Charles Spurgeon, and as you hear those five names, in many ways, they’re the Mount Rushmore of preachers, and they are all five, preachers. One thing I learned in preparing those books is that first and foremost, they were preachers of the Word of God.
As I’ve come to William Tyndale, it’s the first time I’ve written a book on someone who is not a preacher, and yet the example of his life brings me to tears.
If you could come into my study at home and go up the stairwell, as you go up the stairwell, there are pictures that hang in the stairwell. There is a picture of James Montgomery Boice, picture of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, picture of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, picture of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in which he preached.
I have a picture of Saint Andrew’s Church, where Dr. Sproul preaches. You go into my study and there is another panoply of pictures that hang there that inspire me as I walk in to sit down at my desk and to write my sermon, study the Bible, write books.
John Calvin, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Martin Luther, many other paintings. There are statues, there are busts of great figures. But the largest painting in my study is from the London National Portrait Gallery in which hangs many if not most of the most famous Englishmen down through the centuries.
And this portrait is of William Tyndale. It is framed in a period piece, and every time I walk up into my study, it actually says something to me. It encourages me. It’s painted like an old Dutch master’s painting. And, by the way, what’s interesting is Tyndale never sat for a painting because he was a fugitive from Henry VIII.
He was in exile and did his work underground, and he could not be recognized. And so the last thing someone like that would do who went underground for 12 years would be to pose for a portrait so that his likeness could be recognized elsewhere which would lead to his capture which would lead to his martyrdom. It was painted posthumously.
But it is a Dutch master’s painting of Tyndale, and he is simply pointing with this hand, and in the other hand, he has a Bible, and the inscription is on a banner under it, and it says, “Scattering a thousand years of darkness.” That is the legacy and that is the ministry of William Tyndale.
I knew very little about William Tyndale until the last several years, and as I began to read about William Tyndale, my heart was strangely moved and greatly motivated, such that in writing this book, I simply want you to know about William Tyndale, because he is one of the greatest believers that has ever been raised up by God in the history of the church. He is the father of the English Bible.
He is the first man to translate the Bible from the original languages into the English language. That is a staggering claim. He is the Father of the English Bible, and in so doing, he coined many words that are now in our English vocabulary that found their way into Scripture that had never been used before: atonement, scapegoat, Jehovah, passover. These are all words, and there are scores and scores of other words that he is coining that find their way into the English Bible and therefore find their way into the English language.
But not only the Father of the English Bible, he was the father of the English Reformation. For those of us who are Reformed people, we love reading the story of Martin Luther and John Calvin, and the birth of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, and how it shook Europe, and how it made its way all the way to the colonies.
But the man who led the English Reformation, that group with which most of us in this room can most identify because of English background is William Tyndale. Father of the English Bible, Father of the English Reformation. Let me give you one more: Father of the modern English language.
At the time John — William, at the time William Tyndale translated the Bible into the English language, there was no standardizing of the English language. Tyndale’s own last name was spelled some six or seven different ways. There was no English dictionary. There would not be an English dictionary until 1703. He was martyred in 1536.
So it would be more than a 100 years, it would be over a 150 years until there would even be an English dictionary. In fact, the first time there is an English glossary with words and definitions after those words, was William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into the English language in which he realized he needed to begin to define some of these words because the average person would not even understand what these words meant.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls him the first Puritan. For those of us who love the Puritans, for those of us who love to read Puritan literature and who have been greatly helped by these giants who once walked the land, it is of great interest and note that it can be argued that William Tyndale was the first Puritan ahead of his time. John Foxe, who wrote Fox’s Book of Martyrs, calls him the apostle of England. And Bryan Edwards has said that he was the heart of the Reformation in England. He says, no, he was the Reformation in England.
What a remarkable man. Just to give you a little perspective on who he was, and you need to know who William Tyndale was. If you’re saved and if you’re breathing — that covers most of us in this room — you need to know who William Tyndale is. And I have pored through weighty books published by Oxford and Yale, and distilled it down into a simple little book that is accessible and easy for you to read. The first chapter is his life story. If you’ve seen the book, it’s — the pages are only like this size, and I think it’s a 180 pages.
Chapter one is the story of his life. If you’re not familiar with the life story of William Tyndale, it is the most extraordinary story that has never been told, how he was born in Western England. Landowners, was sent to Oxford where he went to school beginning at age 12, for the next 10 years, was brilliant, became proficient in eight languages.
It was said that he could speak in any of these eight languages, and if someone was from that native country, they could not detect that he was actually an Englishman. They would think that that was his native tongue with which he was speaking.
After his years there in Oxford, he was still unconverted. He was not even exposed to the Bible until at the very end. He said, “After they had thoroughly brainwashed us in humanism for eight to nine years, only then at the Bible — only then at the end was the Bible brought out to us.”
After his stay in Oxford — and by the way, these Reformers were all some of the most well-educated men in all of Europe who attended the greatest universities and received the greatest education that a person could possibly have at that time. He then went to Cambridge, and it was there at Cambridge that he became a part of a small group Bible study, that met at a place called the White Horse Inn.
And there at the White Horse Inn, we believe that Tyndale was a part of that, from that would come the leaders of the English Reformation. There would be two archbishops of the Church of England that would come out of this small group Bible study. There would be nine — or excuse me, seven bishops. There would be nine martyrs out of this one Bible study.
Picture that, nine martyrs out of one Bible study, and William Tyndale would be one of those men. It’s probably during that time that he came to a saving knowledge of Christ. He had grown up in the Catholic Church and while they’re at Oxford, was probably ordained into the Catholic Church to be a priest. And there at the White Horse Inn and at Cambridge, he came to a saving knowledge of Christ. They were reading the works of Luther.
Luther had just earlier been brought to faith in Christ. His books were coming across the English Channel, and they were reading them on college campuses, and in England, the English Reformation was at first a college movement of young people who were turned on to the doctrines of grace, and who were turned on to the truth of the Gospel of Christ, and it rocked their world, and it revolutionized their lives, and they were ready now, literally, if need be, to die for their convictions and their faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. William Tyndale was one of these.
He needed to think through, once he had committed his life to Christ, all the implications of what it is now to be a follower of Christ. He withdrew from Cambridge and came back near where he was born in Western England, near the Wales border and became a tutor for a large family that had an estate.
And as a tutor and instructor to the children in that home, he also preached in their chapel and preached in little surrounding areas. And he came to an awareness that no one around him knew the Lord Jesus Christ, that he was living in a dark nation of spiritual ignorance. And he came to the understanding that England could never be saved until they had a Bible in their own language, that the people would always be living in darkness.
There’s a very famous encounter that he had on this estate where Catholic priest came to have a meal with the family and Tyndale was a part of this family, and this priest made a disparaging comment about the Bible and elevated what the Pope had to say to be more important than what the Bible had to say. And William Tyndale responded and said that, “I will give my life to the cause of the Word of God being made ready in the English language such that a plowboy will know more of the Bible than the Pope in Rome.”
These were strong men that God was raising up in this generation of the Reformation. These weren’t touchy-feely little men doing chest bumps and Bible study. These were true men. And so William Tyndale, not commissioned by a church, not set out by a ministry, took it upon himself independently that he will produce an English Bible for the nation. Without any support, he launched out on this mission. He went to London because there were laws in the land of England. It was a crime punishable by death to translate the Bible into the English language.
William Tyndale went to London to receive permission from the Bishop of London to translate the Bible into the English language, and he was denied permission because Martin Luther had just done the same thing in 1522 in England and it created an uproar in Germany. Luther had done the same in Germany and it led to the Peasants’ Revolt that socially turned Germany upside down, because the people now, were given a Bible in their own language and they would no longer be under the thumb of those over them.
And so the Bishop of London was terrified at the thought of the common man having a Bible in their own language. In other words, we need to keep people stupid so that they will stay under our tyranny.
Well, Tyndale realized that there was no place in England for him to remain and translate the Bible into the English language. The King of England was Henry VIII, the king who had all the wives. So William Tyndale launched on the journey to leave England and to go to the European continent and independently carry out this mission as a fugitive, as an outlaw, as an exile.
And he would live the next 12 years of his life underground. He would never marry, and his entire life, with myopic vision, was given to providing this book in the English language that most of you here tonight have in your lap.
He went to Hamburg, Germany, went underground, then made his way to Wittenberg, Germany, to meet Luther who has just translated the Bible after being captured after the Diet of Worms and taken to the Wartburg Castle, you recall, for almost a year, and he translated the New Testament in the German language.
Now, Tyndale has an example in front of him of what a Bible looks like that is not in Latin, and he meets with Luther, discusses the project with Luther, and he begins this translation of the Bible into the English language there in Wittenberg, and he begins the study of Hebrew.
In all of England, the Old Testament is written in Hebrew. And in order to translate the Bible in the Old Testament, you have to know Hebrew. Here’s what you need to know. There is not one single Hebrew instructor in the entire nation of England, and there are only a handful of people in Europe who even know Hebrew.
Later, John Calvin would become one of the few men in all of Europe who would know Hebrew. So Tyndale has to begin the process not only of translating the Bible out of the New Testament, out of Greek into English, but he would have to teach himself Hebrew, which is a very difficult language.
In the Greek New Testament, there are approximately 2,000 vocabulary words. In the Old Testament Hebrew Bible, I think there’s somewhere, eight to 9,000 vocabulary words, and it reads not left to right, but it reads right to left, and it’s all consonants, and the vowels are just little points on top or beneath the consonants. It’s a very difficult language to learn. William Tyndale gives himself to this.
He will have to have several things. He will have to find — first of all, he will have to find a city large enough that he can lose himself in the city. In other words, be able to walk occasionally on the streets and mix in with a large mass of people so that he will be undetected.
It will have to be a city on a river because after he translates the Bible, it will have to be printed and it will have to be put on ships to be taken up the river into what would be like the North Sea or the English Channel, so it’d have to be a city on a river but there will also have to be a paper mill nearby, and that paper mill will have to have access to a supply of rags to make paper. And the printer will have to be willing to risk his own life and his own neck because it is also a crime worthy of death for you to publish a Bible in the English language.
So, all these factors had to come together into one place. And so he goes to Cologne, Germany, and Tyndale begins this process, and in the middle of the printing, he has now finished the New Testament, in the middle of the printing, it got to Matthew 22:12, there is a raid on the printing press, and Tyndale has to just gather up everything in his arms as quickly as he can in the middle of the night and escape down a dark alley, get on a ship, go down the Rhine River, and he comes to all — of all cities, Worms, Germany.
Have you ever heard of the Diet of Worms? That’s where Martin Luther, on April 18th, 1521, stood trial and said, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” Worms had become friendly to the Protestant cause because of the heroic stand of Martin Luther.
And so Tyndale now goes to Worms knowing Luther had gone to Worms, and there he finds a printer and there he was able to have, the very first time in the history of the English language, a Bible translated out of the original Greek into English, typeset, into a New Testament. It is accomplished there in Worms.
Tyndale takes the Bibles, has them hidden into cotton bales, bales put onto ships, goes up the Rhine River, put onto other ships that will then take them to England and to Scotland where people friendly to Luther-like ideas receive the cotton bales, pull the Bibles out, and begin to sell them on a blacklist market, secretly, underground, and the Word of God is now spreading throughout England.
And wherever the Word of God goes, the Reformation goes because sola scriptura is the cornerstone for any Reformation.
Well, the Church in England now becomes aware of what’s going on and they put a — they make every effort to stop Tyndale and they make every effort to have Tyndale arrested. Time does not permit me. You’ll just have to go buy the book; and you really do need to go buy the book.
It’s one of the greatest books in the history of the world, not because I wrote it but because of the substance of what’s in that book. If you love your English Bible and if you love the Reformation, and if you love the English language, then you have to go buy this book and read it. You really do. I mean, you just can’t continue in darkness any longer. You have to know this story.
And so, Tyndale, there are multiple attempts to have him arrested, and he evades every one of them. And I’m going to have to fast-forward this thing because I’m looking at my enemy called the clock right there. But he then does the Pentateuch, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
Listen to this. He gathers up the Pentateuch in order to have it published. He gets on a ship. He’s out in the North Sea. He suffers a shipwreck. The entire Pentateuch is lost. He has to come down the river into Germany and start all over again with the Old Testament. It took him almost an entire year to do Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This time he writes what we call a prologue to each of those books.
What is happening here is the first time there is a study Bible as well that is forming. He puts cross-references in the margin. He puts introductions to each of the books. He then does Joshua through 2 Chronicles, and he also does the prophet Joel.
Out of the 17 prophetic books in the Old Testament, he chooses the Book of Jonah to translate first, because this, he believed, was the message of the hour for England. He believed that England was like Nineveh and Jonah went and said, “40 days, and Nineveh will be destroyed.” And he wanted men throughout England to take the Book of Jonah and be just like Jonah and to preach the Word of God to the nation of England and to say, “40 days, and England will be destroyed.”
I’m going to have to fast-forward. He is an obsessive perfectionist and he comes out with the second edition of his New Testament. He makes 4,000 changes to the first edition, and he makes — some estimate, as many as 5,000 changes. His work is so perfect that later in 1611, when the King James Version of the Bible is done, there is a committee of 50 scholars — they cannot improve upon Tyndale’s work. And it has been estimated that as much as 90% of the King James New Testament is simply the work of William Tyndale.
Listen to some of the phrases that Tyndale works with the language that are now commonplace expressions for us that have come to us in the English Bible that he translated. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” “Knock and it shall be opened unto you.” “The twinkling of an eye.” “A moment in time.” “Let there be light.” “My brother’s keeper.” “Signs of the times.”
I could go on for the next 20 minutes just reading a list of phrases on how he is putting it into the English language. He would choose rather than to say, “God’s Word” — “The Word of God.” Where he would use the adjective — definite article, noun, and then the prepositional phrase. The beauty of the language, he was so concerned with.
Let me tell you how they finally caught him. There was a man in England who had a very wealthy and had a huge estate. He gave a massive portion of his estate to his son to take to London in order to have it placed in a bank. The son squandered the money along the way by gambling. He shows up in London, and the church in England catches word.
They know they have a desperate man. So they came to him. His name was Henry Phillips. And the church in England said, “We will restore the entirety of your father’s lost estate if you will go find William Tyndale and have him hung by the neck.”
So Henry Phillips, the second coming of Judas, left England on the mission to go find William Tyndale and have him arrested and put to death. He went to English merchants in different cities until he had so befriended himself to different English merchants who were friendly to the Protestant cause of the Reformation that he was able to detect where William Tyndale is. It’s been 12 years since he left England, or at that point, 10 years since he left England.
He actually worked his way into the inner circle of William Tyndale who was being housed in a house of British merchants who were now born again and turned on by the gospel of grace. Henry Phillips lured Tyndale out of the house. His friends said, “We don’t feel right about this man.” Tyndale, a certain naiveté about him accepting people, was lured out. He had soldiers ready for him. He let him down through a narrow passageway. There was an arch. And as soon as Henry Phillips passed through, he gave the signal, and the soldiers apprehended and arrested William Tyndale.
John Rogers, in my preaching Bible, I have a picture of John Rogers. He is the first Marian martyr, the first martyr burned at the stake by Bloody Mary. He was actually in this house. He had been led to Christ by Tyndale. Gathered up Tyndale’s work and escaped into the night. Tyndale was taken to a castle just north of Brussels, what is today Belgium. There he was kept for 18 months. His crime was translating the Bible into the English language.
Did you hear that? At the end of the 18 months, he was brought out for an official trial. Priestly garments were put on him and he was stripped publicly of those garments, showing that he was excommunicated and put out of the Catholic Church. He was then handed over to the civil authorities who alone had the power of life and death.
There was a heresy trial and the charges brought against him were that — was that he believed in justification by faith alone. He believed there is no such thing as purgatory. He believed that the human will is bound by sin. He believed that Mary offers no prayers for the saints, and no other saints can pray for the saints.
He was condemned as a heretic, and on October the 6th, 1536, he was brought out for his execution. He was strangled to death by being hung. They then dropped his body into a fire. They wrapped gunpowder around him and blew him up.
And right before the execution, as he is standing there, he gave his last prayer. “Oh, God, open the eyes of the King of England.” God answered that prayer, and Tyndale’s work found its way into the Bible that you hold in there — in your hand. Whatever your translation is, it stands on the shoulders of the work of one man, one individual. His name was William Tyndale.
And I believe that when we get to heaven, he will be one of those who’ll be closest to the throne of God, as those who are martyrs for the Christian faith will be uniquely recognized in heaven. But he will be recognized also as the man who spread the Word of God to the English language, and that language would become the language that would be taken around the world and spoken in the new colonies, in this land in which we live, be spoken in Canada, will be spoken in Australia, New Zealand, will be spoken in South Africa, will become the universal language of business around the world.
And the man who was shaping that language and putting the Bible into your hands and in my hand was William Tyndale. You have got to know the story of the commitment, the heroic, bold, courageous, daring faith of William Tyndale. He is the only man in my whole series who was not a preacher that I’ve written, but he’s the one who put the Bible into the hands of the preachers. And he himself was a preacher of the Word of God, as God gave him opportunity.
And now we have the evening session coming up here in just a moment, and I need to close this. But I say, unashamedly, you need to know the story of Tyndale, and I think this book, ‘The Daring Mission of William Tyndale,’ needs to be in your library. More than that, it needs to be in your heart, and it needs to be written in your mind. It will elicit, motivate, and inspire something in you to do, I think, something great for God with the time that remains in your life. Thank you for this opportunity to be able to share this with you.