Never giving up
The year was 1523, and the Protestant Reformation was well underway. Martin Luther, recognizing the importance of people having the Scriptures in their native tongue, published a German translation of the New Testament in 1522, and would publish the entire Bible in 1534.
William Tyndale, an English scholar proficient in multiple languages, longed to do the same for English speakers.¹ More than a century earlier, in 1382, John Wycliffe translated the Bible into Middle English from the Latin Vulgate. The translation made such an impact that in 1408 a law passed, requiring permission from church authorities to translate, or even read, the Bible in English.
But by the early sixteenth century, Middle English was difficult for the common person to understand. Furthermore, Tyndale desired to translate from the original Hebrew and Greek. Because of the 1408 law, however, he was required to receive permission from an ecclesiastical authority. Tyndale approached Cuthbert Tunstall, the bishop of London, for support. Arriving at the bishop’s palace in July 1523, he was disappointed. Permission was denied.
“FOR YOUR SPIRITUAL EDIFYING”
Driven by the desire to provide English speakers with a Bible they could read, Tyndale pressed on. Going to Germany in the spring of 1524, he met William Roye, a recent graduate of Wittenberg University and a competent linguist who supported Tyndale’s vision. Using a newly available Greek New Testament² as their primary source, the two worked tirelessly, producing the first translation of the New Testament into common English. They went to Cologne and presented the manuscript to Peter Quentel, a renowned German printer, for publication.
In the prologue to the first printed English New Testament, William Tyndale explained (using the spelling of the time): “I haue here translated (brethern and sisters moost dere and tenderly beloued in Christ) the newe Testa- ment for youre spirituall edyfyinge, consolacion, and solas.”³
Word of the new translation quickly spread, and authorities arrested Quentel. Miraculously, Tyndale and Roye rescued their New Testament manuscript and fled to Worms, a city sympathetic to the Reformation. There, numerous copies of Tyndale’s New Testament were published. This edition was much smaller than what had been produced in Cologne, making it easier for merchants to hide copies of the precious book in goods they shipped to England.
The common people were delighted, but church officials were furious! Cardinal Wolsey, the powerful overseer of the Catholic Church in England, gathered all of the bishops together, declaring “untrue translations” should be burned and translators punished. Stacks of Tyndale’s New Testament were confiscated and burned near St. Paul’s Cathedral by Bishop Tunstall.
But that didn’t stop William Tyndale, nor did it stop the spread of God’s Word, fueled on by the very ones trying to arrest it!
Determined to wipe out all traces of this “troublesome book,” Tunstall traveled to the city of Antwerp, where Tyndale’s Bible was readily available. Paying a large sum of money to obtain all known copies, Tunstall returned to London for another book burning. But unbeknownst to him, his money paid Tyndale’s debts and financed the revision of the 1526 New Testament! When the 1534 revised translations began showing up all over England, Tunstall was shocked, not realizing he had financed the project!
William Tyndale persevered, not only providing a readable English translation of the New Testament, but also translating much of the Old Testament, even though he knew it could cost him his life.
While in Antwerp, Tyndale was befriended by Henry Phillips, an Englishman hired to betray him. The faithful Bible translator was thrust into a damp, dark prison, where he suffered for one year and 135 days.⁴ In August 1536 he was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to death. On October 6, 1536, this faithful Christian was tied to the stake. He was first strangled to death; then his body was burned. His last words were “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”
Just four years later that prayer was answered, when, at the king’s request, four English Bible translations were made available to the people, all based on Tyndale’s work.
What makes one persevere with such determination? To push ahead despite obstacles, threatenings, betrayal, and even death?
We see this type of perseverance in the lives of God’s faithful ones, recorded in the very Scriptures that Tyndale, Luther, and others were so determined to place in the hands of the people.
Consider the life of Paul, persecutor turned gospel promoter, determined to know “anything. . . except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul’s perseverance to follow his God-given mission is outlined vividly in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28:
“Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing. Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches” (NET).⁵
What was Paul’s motivation to “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14)? Near the end of his life he wrote: “For I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Tim. 1:12).
Paul was sure of his calling, sure of his purpose, and sure of His Savior. And with this assurance he was able to persevere.
Down the ages we see God’s people persevering. Hebrews 11 lists many of these faithful witnesses, and chapter 12 encourages us to carry forward the torch.
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-3, KJV).
Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and many others sacrificed so that millions of people could read God’s Word in their own languages and be encouraged to persevere until the end. Let’s take the time to read and treasure these precious Scriptures, keeping our eyes upon Jesus and persevering until the end.
¹ Much of the historical information for this article comes from Ray L. Huntington and W. Jeffrey Marsh, “Revisiting William Tyndale, Father of the English Bible,” Religious Educator 12, no, 2 (2011): 13-33, https://rsc.byu.edu/vol-12-no-2-2011/revisiting-william-tyndale-father-english-bible#_edn23.
² The Textus Receptus (1516), a Greek New Testament based on original manuscripts, compiled by Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher and Christian scholar.
³ William Tyndale, prologue to the 1525 Cologne New Testament, in The First Printed English New Testament, ed. Edward Arber (London: Bloomsbury, 1871), p. 1, cited in Huntington and Marsh.
⁴ Robert Demaus, William Tindale: A Biography; Being a Contribution to the Early History of the English Bible, popular edition, rev. Richard Lovett (London: Religious Tract Society, 1904), p. 483, cited in Huntington and Marsh.
⁵ Scripture quotations credited to NET are from the New English Translation Bible, copyright © 1996-2021 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.