“Set for the Defence of the Gospel”

S H Tow

Text: Philippians 1:12–17

On this day of holy Convocation, the twenty-sixth, convened for the conferment of letters, may all honour, praise, and thanksgiving be unto our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. To our graduating students, during your time at this College, your teachers have equipped you with the necessary tools for the unfinished task, the furtherance and defence of the Gospel. May you go forth into your respective mission fields not by might of man, nor by power of intellect, but by the Spirit of God, to win precious souls for God’s everlasting Kingdom.

For your example and encouragement, I have chosen the writer of the Epistle to the Philippians. From his Roman prison cell he declares his unflinching resolve to press on with the Gospel work, committed to him by the Lord himself on the road to Damascus, to bear His name before Gentiles and kings and to suffer great things for His name’s sake (Acts 9:15–16).

The Apostle was no stranger to suffering and persecution. His arrest and imprisonment was a discouragement to the church, but not to Paul. He reckoned that the things which happened had fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the Gospel (Phil 1:12). To the bondservant of Jesus Christ, only one thing mattered: the Gospel. Recall that Paul had come to Rome by way of Jerusalem, gripped by an unshakeable resolve: “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

Now in prison he wrote, with joyful confidence “… in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:20–21).

From the day that the Lord appeared to him, and called him, he was enrolled in the school of the Holy Spirit to be thoroughly instructed, and equipped for the task ahead. In the Spirit he learnt new truths and eternal values, and to appreciate the everlasting worth of the Gospel, and the inspired, inerrant, invincible Word of God. Henceforth he would serve the ever living Author of that Word for the rest of this earthly life without reserve. Having the Lord, he had found his all in all. Hence he could write: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Phil 3:7–8).

Toward the end of his ministry, he wrote “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim 4:6–8). Death was an ever looming prospect, drawing nearer by the day. But to Paul – and to every fully committed servant of the Gospel – to be “absent from the body,” is to be “present with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8), a glorious and welcome prospect. Shortly after, Paul’s earthly life was snuffed out by Nero’s sword, but his letters remain and the light of the Gospel burnt on. Even through the thousand years of the Dark Ages, it was not altogether extinguished.

John Wycliffe

A thousand and three hundred years after Paul, God raised another man of faith, John Wycliffe of Oxford University, England. He was the Morning Star of the Reformation.

England was in darkness without the Word. People were at the mercy of a corrupt priesthood. John Wycliffe caught the vision: his people needed the light of God’s Word. He set himself to translate the Bible from Latin into English so that ordinary men and women could read God’s Word for themselves. Without the Word of life, souls would forever be lost.

Those were the days before printing was discovered. It took one man 10 months to make a copy of the Bible. Wycliffe gathered young men, fired them with the same zeal for souls. Then he taught them four things:

  1. He taught them how to live honestly, humbly and honourably, to work hard and never to beg or become a parasite.
  2. He taught them the Word, the Gospel message, and how to refute the priests and their false teachings.
  3. He taught them to reproduce, to commit the Word to faithful men who would be able to teach others and to endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ (2 Tim 2:2–3).
  4. Finally, he taught them how to die. Imagine hundreds of young men converted by the preaching of John Wycliffe, who willingly offered themselves for training, being told that the end result of that training was the prospect of death – being bound to the stake and burnt alive, for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.

In the years following, hundreds of Lollard preacher boys endured the flames, with Wycliffe Bibles hung from their necks. But the glory of the Gospel was stronger than the fire of Rome. Wycliffe’s teaching and his English Bible spread throughout England, and even up to Switzerland and Prague, where Lollard preachers became a thorn in the side of Rome. His influence was such that it was felt for over 100 years after his death!

“They loved not their lives unto the death.” (Rev 12:11)

William Tyndale

A hundred and forty years after Wycliffe, God raised William Tyndale of Cambridge and Oxford Universities, a genius of language. With consuming love of the Word, he gave his life to the translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into his native English. By 1525, 18,000 copies of the New Testament had come off the press. England was aflame with the Word of life.

But the long arm of the Church caught up with him and Tyndale was burnt at the stake near Brussels in 1536. But by then he had translated the bulk of the Old Testament. Our King James Bible (1611) is “80 per cent Tyndale.” How great a debt do we owe to Tyndale!

Heroes of the faith like the Apostle Paul, John Wycliffe and William Tyndale (and John Rogers who took up the work after Tyndale, to suffer the same fate at the stake in 1555) leave us a legacy: the Gospel is worth more than life itself. The pain of death by fire did not quench the flame of love of the truth which burnt on in the hearts of God’s people. By the lives and deaths of these and thousands more who willingly went to their deaths, we have an indestructible heritage.

The same Roman power which condemned unnumbered thousands of men and women to “fire, dungeon, and sword” has now extended beyond the boundaries of Europe to the ends of the earth. Its message might send a chill down the spine of those who hold fast to the Word of God. Consider these words from the Pope’s Twelfth Encyclical Letter:

  1. “… the Catholic Church affirms that the office of the Bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ …”
  2. “… leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another keeping before us only the will of Christ …”
  3. “The Catholic Church … holds that the communion of the particular Churches with the Church of Rome … is – in God’s plan – an essential requisite of full and visible communion.”
  4. “… lack of unity among Christians contradicts the truth which Christians have the mission to spread and, consequently, it gravely damages their witness.”
  5. “A Christian Community … full and visible unity … is … an imperative which admits of no exception … Ecumenism is … for all humanity; to stand in the way … is an offence against … his plan to gather all people in Christ.” (Excerpts from Ut Unum Sint, 12thEncyclical Letter by the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II in Catholic International 6/8 [1995]: 394-395. See http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/ hf_jp-ii_enc_25051995_ut-unum-sint_en.html).

The same power which sent preachers of the Gospel to their death – the Apostle Paul, John Wycliffe’s Lollards, William Tyndale, John Rogers, and countless other martyrs of the Reformation and Inquisition has declared: all Churches must return to the Roman fold. Not to do so is to oppose “God’s plan” and the “will of Christ.” The imperative to return to “full and visible unity is an imperative which admits of no exception.

The instruments for judicial enforcement are in place: in the EU Parliament, the UN and the International Court.

Truly the perilous times spoken by Paul (2 Tim 3:1) are upon us. But the Comforter of promise, the One who sustained Paul and enabled him to say, “ … none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself,” and from his prison cell to declare, “I am set for the defence of the gospel” – He is with us and abides in us for ever.

Are we troubled? Alarmed? Dismayed? Can we press on and persevere in the gospel work, to fight the good fight, to finish our course, and to keep the faith, come what may? This question you must ask yourself. God help us.

May the Apostle’s words bolster our spirits: “And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Tim 4:18). Also, the words of John: “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

Finally, may our Lord’s words from heaven allay any anxious thoughts: “Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (Rev 1:17–18). All power is with our Lord Jesus, not with any man. Amen. And we are set for the defence of the gospel till He comes.

Dr S H Tow is senior pastor of Calvary Bible-Presbyterian Church. The above message was delivered at the 26thGraduation Service of the Far Eastern Bible College, May 13, 2001.

Published in The Burning Bush, Volume 7 Number 2, July 2001.