Listen to these phrases: “And it came to pass, the signs of the times, judge not that ye be not judged, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, gave up the ghost.” It is intriguing that each one of those phrases entered the English language from the work and mind of one individual, William Tyndale.
Tyndale was born around 1490 in Gloucestershire, England. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford and after years of commitment to his studies, he became a gifted linguist. One of the great needs that Tyndale saw in his day was for the translation of the Bible into the common language of the English people. Tyndale wanted people to be able to read the word of God in their own mother tongue. Most understood nothing of the Latin mass and Bible and this included not only the ordinary men and women but also many of the English clergy, whom Tyndale found to be largely biblically illiterate. At one juncture he was working as a tutor to the children of a man named Sir John Walsh. Walsh often entertained the local clergy at his table and at one point Tyndale was so flabbergasted by a priest’s ignorance of the Scripture that he reportedly said, “If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”
The problem for Tyndale was that in the early 16th century it was illegal to translate the Bible into the common tongue. The “powers that be” considered the English language too uncouth, too common, not elevated enough for the purity of the Word of God. The Church was against it, Henry VIII was against it, but Tyndale felt that God had given him a task. If it was the last thing he would do, he would translate the Bible into English.
And so, using the best Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available to him, Tyndale worked tirelessly. When he finished the New Testament he tried to have it published but was thwarted. He was judged to be a heretic and had to flee to continental Europe. There again Tyndale attempted publication but had only moderate success because everywhere he published, the printing was shut down and many of the translations that actually did make it to England were burned. He himself had to live on the run but God had called him to this task and he was committed to it. He continued with a translation of the OT but eventually Tyndale was betrayed. He was seized by the authorities in Antwerp in 1535, held in the castle of Vilvoorde near Brussels, and in 1536, he was tried on a charge of heresy and condemned to the stake. But while Tyndale may have passed on to the next world, his words have lived on. A number of copies of his translation survived and when, finally, the authorities allowed the Bible to be translated into English, Tyndale’s translation was used as a guide. It is said that some 84% of the words of the KJV NT derived from Tyndale’s translation and 75% of the OT. Many of these words and phrases live on in modern translations and our day-to-day speech because William Tyndale was committed to God and he gave his life to the task he was given.
The apostle Paul was likewise someone who was committed to God and gave his life to the task God had given him. In the letter we know as 2Timothy, we again find that Paul was in prison. Unlike the hopeful situation and words that we encounter in the letter to the Philippians, Paul senses that this is the end. In chapter 4 his words to Timothy are, “I am already at the point of being poured out like a libation; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” This time Paul is expecting his own demise and here in 2 Timothy he gives us interesting insight into his circumstances.
He was, for instance, lonely. In v.9 he mentions that Demas had deserted him and gone to Thessalonica. Another man named Alexander had fiercely opposed him, and at his first trial everyone had deserted him. Only Luke was with him and he implores Timothy in his letter, “Come soon, bring Mark with you to encourage my spirit.”
Loneliness can be a dreadful thing. I remember going back to Northern Ireland one time and visiting my uncle David. He had been widowed for a number of years and had lost a leg in a terrible accident some twenty years previous. The accident had reduced his ability to get around and meet others and he had to rely largely on others coming to him. As he aged, the numbers grew less and less. As we sat together one evening, he told me that loneliness was the most difficult thing he had to deal with. Forget the lost limb, loneliness was the most difficult. There were few friends left to drop over and night after night, he just sat in his house alone.
When we think of the apostle Paul, this great man of God sometimes seems larger than life, but Paul was a human being, in a foreign city, with death lying before him. Only Luke was nearby and I’m sure Luke helped as much as he could. Other friends were needed. Paul needed the encouragement, the interaction that only human friendship can bring. Paul was lonely.
Another thing that we do not always pay close attention to when we read Paul (these things are of no great theological import and we tend to look beyond them yet, they help reveal Paul’s context and situation) is that Paul was cold in prison. He asks Timothy to bring his cloak from Troas (v.13). It is sometimes difficult for us to imagine what life would have been like without central heating and air conditioning. I have some idea because I grew up in a country with a cool climate at a time when few houses had central heating. I recall, however, a more recent visit to Australia that reminded me of those days. It was August, winter in Australia, and I travelled with a friend about an hour and a half north of Sydney. It was a cool day and a cooler night. When we arrived, our friends were all sitting around in their winter coats. They welcomed us warmly but as we sat in their living room the cold began to get to me, I only had a light coat and a sweater with me. It went down to two degrees Celsius that night and we drank a lot of hot tea to try and keep warm. Every so often the conversation would come around to the cold. I looked around and could see open windows in the kitchen and living room. Using my Canadian ingenuity, I suggested that it might perhaps be warmer if we closed the windows. “No, no, no!” they said, “we like the fresh air.”
It came to bedtime and I went to my room. I looked at my suitcase and pondered my pyjamas for a moment, but not for long. For the first time in recent memory I got into bed fully clothed. I pulled the blankets over my head and eventually the heavy covers began to do their work and warm me up. I was thankful for those blankets.
Whatever must it have been like in a Roman prison in winter without blankets or a cloak? I don’t know about you but I begin to feel the cold when sitting in a room with a temperature under 60/16. Slowly the cold affects the extremities, the fingers and the toes go first. Then it works its way into the hands and the feet. What must it have been like to stay in that cold for hours, overnight, then for days?
William Tyndale when he languished in that Belgian prison some 14 3/4 centuries later. He wrote in a letter to the Marquis of Bergen, "I entreat your lordship, and that by the Lord Jesus Christ, that if I am to remain here for the winter you would beg the Commissary to be so kind as to send me, from the things of mine which he has, a warmer cap; I feel the cold painfully in my head. Also a warmer cloak, for the cloak I have is very thin. He has a woollen shirt of mine, if he will send it." Paul, like Tyndale, was feeling the cold and needed the cloak he had left behind in Troas. In Paul’s day prison life was not easy and this was another way that Paul suffered for the gospel that he was committed to.
One further problem that Paul alludes to is that he had little to do. Unlike prisoners today who can pass the time watching television or shooting pool and who may engage in some form of work or training, the prisons of the ancient world were places where an individual was left to rot, as it were. Four gray walls, a few chains to stare at. What must it be like to have little to do day upon day upon day? Years later, William Tyndale in the Belgian prison would not only ask for his hat and clothes, "Most of all, “ he wrote, “let me have my Hebrew Bible, and Grammar and Vocabulary that I may spend my time in that pursuit." Likewise, Paul asks Timothy to bring his "books, and above all the parchments." Paul needed something to use up the endless hours. He wanted to spend time with the Word of God and perhaps writing his own letters.
So here was Paul. We might think that a man facing death, a man suffering from loneliness, battling the elements of a Roman winter, a man with nowt to do, a man who had been let down by his friends and fiercely opposed by others; we might think that such a man would begin to take pity on himself. But not Paul! Paul reveals here that his first concern was for the gospel, this thing that he was committed to. He states “the Lord has stood by me and given me strength (through all these things), so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it (v.17).” In spite of all that he was facing, perhaps at the trial or in the odd conversation with the guards, he was still telling others about what had happened with Jesus. Paul was a man with a purpose, a man with a mission, a man so totally committed to God that no amount of hardship or toil was going to stop him from talking about how a living Jesus encountered him. Now that, my friends, is commitment. That is commitment! And that is the job that the church has been given in each generation. Like Paul, or Tyndale, we are called in our day to that same level of commitment. We must ask ourselves, “Who and what are we truly committed to? Jesus has asked us to be committed to God. Are we? He has asked us to go forth and make disciples. Do we?
Now all of us, like those whom Paul spoke to, have commitments. We have the various commitments of living in community, marrying, raising children, being involved in gainful employment, but God has asked us, beyond all these things to be committed to him and to the gospel of his son Jesus Christ. Are we? Could we endure the kind of hardship that Paul endured for our faith? Could we endure loneliness, bitter cold, opposition if called upon? Could we face our own demise and still keep believing and conveying the message to others?
Some fifteen years ago, my friend Ernie was struck by leukaemia. It was difficult to watch this big, strong, six foot-four individual slowly losing his health and strength. We had lunch every so often in the early days of his battle, later I would pop down to Princess Margaret to see him. In the latter weeks of his struggle, I found he was the one doing the encouraging. Each time I saw him I was disheartened but he would lift me up with his faith. I was supposed to be the one doing that but sometimes I was left shaking my head at how strong Ernie’s faith was.
He was in hospital for several months. On one visit I noticed that he had no television and I asked if he wanted one. Ernie opened a bedside cupboard and pulled out his Bible and hymn book and said, “I’ve no time for that rubbish when I’ve got these.” He spent his time with God and his demeanour encouraged both of us. I will always remember one of the last times I visited him. Ernie took out his hymnbook and read me the lines of a hymn I had never heard of but soon got to know, “Day by day, and with each passing moment.” The first verse begins,
Day by day, and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here;
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He read the whole thing to me. The hymn ends with the following:
Help me, Lord, when toil and trouble meeting,
E’er to take, as from a father’s hand,
One by one, the days, the moments fleeting,
Till with Christ the Lord I stand.
Those words encapsulated Ernie’s faith and commitment to God no matter what was thrown at him. Would we have that faith? Would we have that commitment in the midst of trial? May the Lord work in our hearts that our faith is full.