The day had arrived. October 6, 1536.
Over a year earlier, William Tyndale had been betrayed Judas-style by a dinner guest, arrested by Church authorities, and imprisoned for over 500 days in the damp, secluded dungeon of Vilvoorde Castle just outside Brussels.
His crimes? Illegally translating the New Testament into the English language and teaching from this Bible the heretical doctrine of justification by faith alone- “that to believe in the forgiveness of sins, and to embrace the mercy offered from the gospel, was enough for salvation.” Heresy according to the Church authorities, but for Tyndale the gospel truth that fueled his passion to put the Scriptures into the hands of the English-speaking people, no matter the cost.
And there would be a cost. In August 1536, Tyndale was tried and sentenced to death for heresy and treason. Two months later, on a brisk early-October morning, Tyndale’s tired and weakened body would be led out of Vilvoorde Castle to the place of his execution- a circle of stakes surrounding a wooden cross the size of a man.
Tyndale was given a chance to recant. He would not, but with his final words cried out, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!” Bound and chained to the stake, Tyndale was spared the plight of Anabaptists (being burned alive) and was strangled to death by an executioner who then, with a lighted torch, set the wood below Tyndale’s feet ablaze.
Just two years later, in what many consider to be an answer to Tyndale’s dying prayer, the king of England would authorize the first English Bible.
Don’t Waste Your Bible
In a country that’s now saturated with a seemingly endless number of English Bibles, it can be hard to imagine the world in which Tyndale lived- a world where reading the Bible for yourself was an act of rebellion.
Unless you’re from North Korea or some places in the Middle East, it can be difficult to feel the hushed awe a family might have felt as it huddled around a smuggled-in copy of Tyndale’s English New Testament, laying their eyes on God’s word in their own language for the very first time. Surely, they cherished, treasured, and thanked God for the blessing of a Bible in their hands.
Here in America we’ve grown accustomed to our Bible abundance. If you’re anything like me, you might have three or four bibles on your desk and another couple on the shelf- not to mention the Bible apps on our phones. We take our Bibles for granted and open them without much thought to the blessing of being able to read God’s word in our own tongue- a blessing for which Tyndale paid dearly.
As a consequence, we come to our bibles with little sense of the wonder and weight of holding God’s very word before our eyes. The staggering reality of opening a book through which God speaks ceases to thrill us and our bible reading becomes merely a casual activity. No amazement. No awe. No humble gratitude for such a glorious gift.
But Tyndale did not go courageously to his death so that there would be casual readers of the English Bible. He did not spend his life in constant danger and ultimately die a martyr so that the Bible would be just another book on our shelves, to be read at our leisure and convenience. No, his aim was far greater.
Tyndale’s great passion behind translating the Bible into English was to see the people of England eagerly mine the Scriptures for themselves and find there the priceless treasure of God’s free grace in Christ. Not half-heartedely, but with full abandon and attention, humbly expecting God to speak through his Word. He longed for others to join him in seeing the glory of God’s grace that he had found so sweet in the gospel. And he desired that all who read God’s Word in their own tongue might say with the Psalmist, “My heart stands in awe of your words.” For this, Tyndale lived and labored to the end.
We can’t go back to Tyndale’s time, and neither should we want to. Indeed, we should joyfully thank God that the Bible is so accessible and abundant in our day. But we should not let our sense of familiarity with the Bible rob us of the wonder that when we open our Bibles, we are opening a book through which the God who spoke the galaxies into existence now speaks to us. Such a stunning reality ought to produce in us a humble awe every time we come to this Word that is “alive and active” and “enduring forever.”
So next time you pick up your bible, think of Tyndale. Think of his passion for the Bible and thank God for his sacrifice that put it into your hands. Open the Word with a renewed sense of amazement that the God of the universe speaks to you through this book. Let this Word be precious to you, never taking it for granted. Refuse to be a casual reader but, with great passion and expectancy, dig deep that you may discover the priceless treasure of God’s riches in Christ. And until your final hour may your prayer always be, “Lord, open my eyes!”